Would you buy a second-hand country from this man?

I’m always astonished by the things people believe, seemingly purely because they want to. Scientologists, for instance, will never admit that their religion is anything other than perfect, despite the fact that everyone except the Church of Scientology thinks it’s nutty at best and psychotically criminal at worst. Young Earth Creationists will come up with all sorts of bizarre and convoluted rebuttals to the incontrovertible amount of evidence against a 6000-year-old Earth, none of which serve any purpose but to highlight their own ignorance of anything remotely scientific. There are people who fall for those scam emails over and over again, bankrupting themselves with no return, still convinced even years later that a much bigger return is just around the corner if they just make one more payment…

Such a case, in the early 19th century, was that of Gregor MacGregor. The unimaginatively-named MacGregor was born in Scotland enjoyed a distinguished military career fighting in South America in the wars of independence, capturing San Fernandina, off the coast of Florida, in 1817. This remarkable conquest was carried out with only one shot being fired, and that was an accidental discharge. In 1820 he returned to Britain covered in glory, and was well received in society. The Lord Mayor even held a reception in MacGregor’s honour.

And what was more, MacGregor had an unbeatable investment opportunity. You see, he said, he had been declared Cacique of the small Central American country of Poyais. Poyais was a country of great mineral wealth and excellent farmland with an established British settlement and no hostile natives or tropical diseases. The Spanish had been keeping it all to themselves, but thanks to MacGregor, it was open for British business.

The following year, the Cacique opened the Office for the Legation of the Territory of Poyais in the City and spent a great deal of time and money schmoozing with the rich and powerful. On the business side, he began selling land in this new world for a mere four shillings an acre, as well as in the form of loans.

For anyone who had their doubts, Captain Thomas Strangeways published a guide to the territory in 1822, which described a Paradise on Earth. The Spanish, he said, had left the country in perfect working order and, for some reason, everyone there simply loved the British. It would be like the Home Counties, except with everyone incredibly rich and as many native skivvies as you could fit in the coal cellar.

These opportunities were snapped up. Two ships, one from Leith (where the police releaseth us) and one from London, sailed for Poyais with 240 settlers. Now, as you’ve probably already worked out, it transpired that MacGregor had lied. Poyais was pretty much exactly the opposite of what MacGregor had promised. It was, in fact, a disease-ridden untamed jungle hellhole, worse than Slough. There were no British settlers or Man Friday-style natives – the only civilisation they encountered consisted of a couple of nutty American hermits. Thomas Strangeways had never existed. The ships abandoned the settlers, and here their troubles began.

The party included some labourers, who tried to make the best of a bad situation, but the majority were simply not prepared for the wilderness in which they found themselves. Why would they be? They had been promised five-star accommodation in a bustling town. That would probably have been the end of them, were it not for the chance arrival of a diplomatic ship, the Mexican Eagle, from British Honduras. The Chief Magistrate was surprised to meet the citizens of Poyais, explaining to them that there was no such country and they had in fact been severely bilked.

The settlers were rescued, and by the time the Chief Magistrate’s warning had reached London, only sixty survivors remained. The British Navy chased after the rest of the ships that had headed out and the story was exposed in the press. It transpired that King George Fredric of the Mosquito Shore and Nation actually had given MacGregor the territory, but had taken it back as soon as MacGregor started acting like, well, a monarch. Making things worse was that, of the other ships, only fifty survivors returned to Britain.

MacGregor fled to Paris and enlisted the help of a friend, Gustavus Hippisley, who wrote to the London press telling them that they were a bunch of rotters and how dare they besmirch the good name of this man who had conned hundreds of people out of everything they owned as well as killing hundreds of would-be settlers. MacGregor lost no time in starting up the same scheme again, and came very close to once again succeeding. Fortunately, the Parisians were a little less gullible. Most obviously, the fact that the diplomatic service of France, one of the most powerful countries in the world at the time, had never heard of this amazing country. The settlers, too, smelt a rat and the first ship was seized before it could leave France. Unfortunately, the rat himself had fled once more. He was eventually captured, put on trial and – thanks to some pretty top-flight legal representation – acquitted.

In 1826 he returned to London and again convinced people to invest in Poyais, which had apparently become a republic in the meantime. There were even rival Poyaisian investment schemes set up by other conmen. Fortunately, there were those who remembered MacGregor and his magical country, and word spread that this might, just possibly, be a bit of a swindle. When angry investors demanded their interest payments, he managed to pay them off… with Poyaisian stocks. He kept scamming people with various schemes through the 1830s, and though none of them were as successful as the first, people kept investing.

While I’d love to say that MacGregor got what he deserved in the end, he didn’t. He retired to Caracas in Venezuela on a military pension and died in 1845.

How did MacGregor do it? No matter what he did, people kept coming back for more. He never received any kind of justice for his actions, winning people over through a combination of personal charm and outright lies and getting away with everything. There were even survivors of the first colony who maintained that he was blameless for the terrible misfortunes they had suffered. And these weren’t yokels. In many cases these were lawyers, doctors, military men and civil servants.

In part, we might blame the fact that media and communication were not what they are today, so word spread much more slowly. But at the same time, as I said at the start of this entry, similar cons exist even today. It seems that sometimes, when people have made a massive emotional and financial investment in something, they want it to be true so badly that they’re willing to suspend all common sense. And, quite frankly, sometimes people are blinded by greed.

They've clearly just photoshopped part of Italy into Eastern Europe.

I suppose the message is, be careful out there. Failing that, check that a country actually exists before you invest in it. Do you know, the other day someone tried to convince me to invest in somewhere called “Moldova?” They must take me for a fool.

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, Crime, Disasters, Geography, History, Lies, London, Notable Londoners, Politics, tourism

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