The Conman Cazique of Poyais

14 October 2016

One of the greatest and most brazen of swindles known to man is in fact not very well known by many. Born in 1786, Gregor MacGregor was the author of this dastardly duping, and lived a colourful life in which he exhibited all the oleaginous qualities needed to enable a man to put his greed before all else.


 

 

Gregor MacGregor around the year 1804, his youthful countenance belying his true nature. Image via Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.

Having served a short-lived career in the army, MacGregor seized upon the optimism of opportunity felt towards settlements in South America. He came up with his Poyais scheme after being granted an area of land bigger than Wales in the Mosquito territory near Belize, by the king of the Mosquito Coast in 1820. This served as the germ of his idea: what was in fact a fairly arid land which was not suitable for either crop cultivation or livestock was lauded as a land of milk and honey back in his native Scotland. The idea was simple: he would latch upon the dreams of his fellow Scotsmen (whom he claimed to target specifically because he wanted to share his land of plenty with his own people in particular) and convince them to invest in non-existent government bonds in a land he dubbed Poyais, claiming he had been made Cazique there, a title akin to a local ruler but which he used in the same way as ‘prince’.

But the crux of this confidence trick came in MacGregor’s ability to convince these hapless investors that Poyais would also be a wonderful place for them to migrate to; with friendly natives and fertile soil, the potential for a booming timber trade, and riverbeds lined with gold, Poyais sounded like the settlement of dreams, particularly in a time when migration to new settlements was by no means unheard of. And so in 1823, 250 settlers sailed out on the first two of a total of seven potential ships.

 

The fake Poyaisian dollar created by MacGregor to give in exchange for his investors' genuine money. Image via Wikimedia Commons, Â© the National Numismatic Collection, National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution.

News about the failure of the settlement reached home later that year, so MacGregor fled to France and duly tried to repeat his dangerous scheme, but to no avail. As to those who had the misfortune of sailing to MacGregor’s make-believe kingdom, deaths were high, including suicide and infant mortality, and disease was rife. Eventually the leader of the emigration party, Hector Hall, travelled to speak to the Mosquito King who confirmed that his granting of the land to MacGregor was now void and that he had never styled him as Cazique. 40 settlers remained in Poyais, too weakened by disease to journey back with those who finally left on a schooner with the Chief Magistrate of Belize, Marshal Bennett.

A pamphlet entitled The Belise Merchants Unmasked; A Review of their Late Proceedings against Poyais by one Colonel G. A. Low, in which he claims he is completely unbiased, points the finger at the neighbouring Mosquito King and the merchants who worked there, who apparently sabotaged the settlers and refused to aid them in any way, due to jealousy over their wanting to settle the bountiful lands of Poyais and not his own.

Image © Cambridge University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Low claims that the preparations and provisions themselves had been perfect, and the land was just as MacGregor had described. Low was, of course, an associate of MacGregor’s, and played upon the foggy nature of communications at the time to gloss over facts and protect the reputation of their supposedly good names in British society.

Image © Cambridge University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. Click the image to see this document in the collection.

Frontier Life contains a wide array of material on the experience of settlers and the varying success of settlements, but none leave you feeling quite so sorry for a group of hopefuls as those embroiled in MacGregor’s Poyais fiasco. For an interesting insight into the complexities of settlement, the life of Sir George Arthur, who served as the lead British official in British Honduras, Van Diemen’s Land, and Upper Canada, is a good place to start, and is covered in detail in the resource.

 

Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement and Colonial Encounters is now available. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Open access to the clickable documents featured in this blog will be available for 30 days.


About the Author

Sara Hussain

Sara Hussain

Since joining Adam Matthew in January 2015 I have worked across a variety of projects, including World's Fairs and African American Communities. I enjoy studying all types of history and dabbling in languages, and travelling in my spare time, a combination which is perfectly complemented by my day-to-day work.

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