Gregor MacGregor and the Greatest Scam in History

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Podcast Transcript

One of the most audacious scams in history took place in the early 19th century in Britain. 

A man sold thousands of people a dream of land in the New World. His claims attracted large investments, encouraged hundreds of people to sail across the ocean, and even suckered the ki. 

However, his promises were empty, and in the end, shiploads of people were stranded in the middle of nowhere, and many people lost their life savings. 

Learn more about Gregor MacGregor and one of the biggest scams in history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 


The focus of this story is a man named Gregor MacGregor. If you are wondering, yes, that was his actual birth name. Such names are known as reduplicated names, and Gregor MacGregor joins the list of notables such as Kelli Kelly, William Williams, Tommy Thompson, Robert Roberts, Edward Edwards, and Chris Christensen. 

Gregor was born on Christmas Eve, 1786, at his family’s home on the shore of Loch Katrine in Stirlingshire, Scotland. 

He was born into the noble Clan Gregor, a Scottish highlands clan that can date its ancestry back to the 9th century. 

His father was Daniel MacGregor, a ship captain for the British East India Company, and his mother was Ann Austin.

His family was Roman Catholic and were part of the MacGregor clan that had been placed on a proscription list by King James VI of Scotland. He decreed that anyone using the surname MacGregor had to change it or would be executed. The law was technically on the books until 1774.

The MacGregors were mostly Jacobites who supported the Catholic British King James II, who was exiled, rather than the Protestant William and Mary. 

Gregor MacGregor’s great-great-uncle was the Scottish outlaw and folk hero Rob Roy MacGregor. 

Despite the history of his clan and family fighting the British monarchy, his recent ancestors, including his grandfather, served with distinction in the British army.

Gregor’s father died when he was eight, and it is believed that he probably spoke Gaelic as his first language, not English. 

Like his grandfather, Gregor sought a career in the military and joined the army at the age of 16 in 1803. He initially served with the 57th West Middlesex Regiment of Foot.

His family purchased him a commission to become an officer, which is how the British military worked at the time. He enlisted as an ensign and was quickly promoted on his own merits to the rank of lieutenant.

He was assigned to the British garrison in Gibraltar where he met Maria Bowater, the daughter of an admiral and who was related to several members of parliament.

With her substantial dowry, he purchased the rank of captain for £900 in 1805, which would be about £65,000 or about $82,000 today.

He served in Gibraltar until 1809 when he was sent to Portugal to fight in the Peninsular War against Napoleonic France. He participated in several key battles. After a disagreement with another officer, he resigned from the army in 1810.

He was only 23 years old when he retired, but he had begun regularly lying to people about his military record.

He continued to use his association with the 57th Regiment his entire life, even though much of the prestige the unit earned at the Battle of Albuera came after he left the unit.

He called himself a colonel, which he never was, and started calling himself Sir Gregor MacGregor, claiming to be a baronet and the chief of clan MacGregor, which he also wasn’t.

In 1811, his wife Maria died, and he suddenly found himself without his primary source of income. His options were limited as he couldn’t quickly marry again, lest he anger his in-laws. He didn’t want to become a farmer, and he left the British Army on bad terms, which was all he really knew.

MacGregor traveled to Venezuela, drawn by the revolutionary movements seeking independence from Spanish colonial rule.

He landed in Caracas just weeks after a major earthquake had devastated the city. The revolution which had been led by General Francisco de Miranda was starting to fall apart as royalist forces were making headway against the revolutionary government. 

Macgregor arrived and offered his services to the Republican government, which was happy to have him. They immediately promoted him to an actual colonel leading a cavalry unit.

He scored an important victory right away and used that to get married to the niece of the Latin American revolutionary Simone Bolivar. He was soon promoted to brigadier-general, but the royalist forces eventually took Caracas, capturing Miranda. 

Bolivar became the leader of the revolution and established a close relationship with MacGregor. He promoted him to general, and MacGregor engaged in a series of failures over the next several years, which included being charged with piracy by the British, incredible military defeats, and being accused of treason by Bolivar, who ordered his execution.

All of this resulted in him fleeing to the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua in 1820. The Mosquito Coast was on the Caribbean side of the country, and it wasn’t very populated, for good reason. The soil was poor for farming, and the only people who lived there were the Miskito people, who were the descendants of shipwrecked African slaves and indigenous people. 

The British actually controlled the territory, but it was technically ruled by kings who had little to no power. One of them was King George Frederic Augustus. 

MacGregor became friends with the king, who eventually gave MacGregor a tract of land that was 12,500 square miles or 32,375 square kilometers in area. To put this into perspective, it was an area larger than Belgium. 

Up until this point, Gregor MacGregor was an interesting person, but probably not someone worthy of their own podcast episode. What happened next is what made him a person that we are still talking about today. 

In 1821, he arrived back in London, and his penchant for lying and self-aggrandizing took over.

MacGregor started calling his land Poyais and claimed that he was the Cazique of Poyais. Cazique is a Spanish term that was used for native chieftains, but MacGregor made it sound like he was a prince, given the title by the King. 

He began spreading stories about Poyais. He told people that it was some of the most productive farmland in the world and that it was able to produce three crops per year. 

MacGregor became a hit amongst the London elite. He was invited to dinner parties by people who had no clue what had happened to him since he left Britain and all his failures. They knew he was part of the  57th Regiment, but few people knew the circumstances under which he resigned from the Army. 

The people in London had no clue if a place called Poyais existed or not. The Spanish colonies were in revolt and there were new countries popping up all the time. The idea of a country called Poyais didn’t sound ridiculous. 

MacGregor’s lies about his fictitious country became more intricate. He claimed that Poyais had a tricameral legislature and was a natural democracy. He spent a lot of time creating supporting documentation, including a coat of arms for the country, military uniforms, banking regulations, laws, and even a flag, which was a green cross on a white background. 

One person, Major William John Richardson, really bought into the Poyais story. MacGregor appointed Richardson into the fictitious Order of the Green Cross and even appointed him as a diplomat to represent Poyais in the British Court.  MacGregor created a document with fake credentials that Richardson gave to King George IV. 

MacGregor really cranked up the hype machine for Poyais. He hired people to sing songs about the country in the streets and distributed handbills and leaflets. He wrote a guidebook for the region titled: Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais.

He opened an office in London, which began selling deeds to land in Poyais. The cost was ??two shillings and threepence per acre, which was approximately a day’s wage for a working man in London at the time. Many people invest their life savings in Poyais real estate. 

He then stepped up his efforts and raised money for the Poyais government through bonds. Again, this was not unusual in London at the time. Several South American countries raised money in London by selling bonds because they offered a higher interest rate than other investments at the time. 

A notable bank in London secured a loan for MacGregor of £200,000, which was backed by “all the revenues of the Government of Poyais.” The loan was worth about £18 million or $22.75 million today. 

This wasn’t the worst thing he did. He began to target his fellow Scotsmen to encourage them to immigrate to Poyais. 


…and quite a few people wanted to move to Poyais. There were seven ships filled with people who were prepared to leave their lives behind to move to this magical utopia that MacGregor promised.  When the first 70 people sailed off on a ship called the Honduras Packet, MacGregor met them at the docks, exchanging fake Poyais currency with them for their real British pounds. 

The first group of immigrants landed on the Mosquito Coast in November 1822. They didn’t find the land that had been promised. The capital city of St Joseph, which supposedly had a population of 20,000 people, didn’t exist. 

The duped settlers set up camp on the coast but were abandoned by their ship after a storm. 

A second group arrived in March 1823 and found the same thing. The settlers began to despair as they lacked food, and no one knew where they were. Disease began to set in, and there were deaths. 

King George Frederic Augustus eventually found out about the settlers, but he didn’t know anything about Poyais. When he learned what happened, he revoked MacGregor’s land grant and told everyone involved that he had never been granted the title of Cazique nor the right to sell land or raise money for it. 

The king felt sorry for the settlers but told them they were there illegally. All but 40 sick settlers found passage to British Honduras, which is today known as Belize. Many of the settlers who arrived there ended up dying from disease. 

The governor there opened up an inquiry into the scam and sent word back to Great Britain. 

By the time word had gotten back that there was no Poyais, five more ships of settlers had left. Some were intercepted en route and turned back but some made it all the way to the Mosquito Coast only to find the same thing the first ships did.

Of the 250 people on the first two ships that made it there, only about 50 ever returned to Britain. The rest either died of disease or settled in British Honduras, or left for the United States. 

Just before the first small group of survivors arrived back in October 1823, MacGregor fled to France. The press back in London had a field day reporting on the scam, but given the slow speed of information at the time, MacGregor managed to deflect much of the criticism, either claiming to have been the victim himself, or denying the allogations. 

He actually got another London bank to offer him a £300,000 loan. However, the French government soon caught wind of what was happening and put a stop to everything, including another boatload of settlers. The French government tried to arrest him, but he evaded capture for four months. 

When caught, he tried to claim diplomatic immunity, but that fell on deaf ears. 

He was tried and shockingly acquitted on all charges.

He went back to London in 1827 and managed to get another bank to sponsor an £800,000 loan. Few people purchased the bonds, not because Poyais didn’t exist, but because the previous ones hadn’t performed well. 

In 1829, he was back to selling deeds to land in Poyais to people who were totally unaware of everything that had happened beforehand.

He continued to conduct lower-level Poyais schemes until 1837. 

When his wife died in 1838, MacGregor immediately went back to Venezuela where many friends he had made before his falling out with Bolivar were now in power. His military rank of general was restored, he was given a pension and back pay, and was made a citizen. 

He died on December 4, 1845, in Caracas at the age of 58. He was buried with full military honors. 

Despite his continued fraud spanning almost two decades, which he kept doing over and over, and despite all of the people who lost everything they had, including dozens of people who died, Gregor MacGregor was never really punished for what he did. 

It was an era where information traveled slowly, and as such, Gregor MacGregor used that to his advantage. Creating an entirely fictitious country with all the corresponding documentation and convincing hundreds of settlers to cross the ocean, and getting investors to put up the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars, puts Gregor MacGregor and the Poyais scam near the top of the greatest frauds in history.


The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

I’ve gotten way behind on my reviews, so I’m going to read a couple of them today, all of Apple Podcasts in the United States.

The first comes from *>____, who writes

Perfect

It was a good day when I discovered this pod. Shared an episode with my son that I thought he’d enjoy and now he asks for it every day on the drive home from school. We’re big fans!

The next comes from DPK1267, who writes:

Best podcast ever

I love this podcast. I listen to it every day. Also how many languages can you hold a conversation in? Just curious. Also, do you just take vacations every once in a while, or are you always traveling? 5 stars

Thanks, to both of you. To answer your quest DPK, I have gone to some conferences and I’ve taken some time off, but I haven’t been on a real vacation or traveled anywhere since I started the podcast in July of 2020. That might change eventually as I can record the show from anywhere. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.