In the early 1820s, a Scottish swindler named Gregor MacGregor devised one of history’s most outlandish moneymaking schemes: he invented his own country. After surfacing in London, the former military officer claimed he had been made the ruler of an idyllic Central American nation called Poyais. Nearly everything about the tropical paradise was fictional—MacGregor had forged a collection of official documents and a full-length guidebook—but that didn’t stop him from making a fortune promoting phony Poyais bonds, land certificates and even a disastrous settlement scheme.
Beginning in 1821, the city of London was overrun with reports of a previously unknown nation nestled on the Caribbean coastline of what is now Honduras. Called Poyais, it was supposedly a lush and untapped paradise of fertile farmland, rolling hills and gold-rich streams. Its native “Poyers” were described as a friendly and hardworking people, and its capital, St. Joseph, was a European-style settlement dotted with public buildings and even an opera house. Poyais boasted a deep-water port and a pleasant climate that made it immune to the scourge of tropical disease. It was, a guidebook claimed, “one of the most healthy and beautiful spots in the world.” It was also a complete and total fraud. By the time it finally ran its course several years later, it had duped scores of unsuspecting investors and led to the deaths of over 150 people.
The mastermind behind the Poyais fairy tale was Gregor MacGregor, a Scottish adventurer with a colorful past. Born in 1786, he had spent his youth in the British army before heading to South America in the 1810s to fight as a soldier of fortune in the Venezuelan War of Independence against Spain. MacGregor served as a general under the legendary Simón Bolivar—whose cousin he married—and later led a series of independent military campaigns in the Caribbean. One of his notorious actions came in 1817, when he raised a small army of freebooters and briefly captured Florida’s Amelia Island from the Spanish.
MacGregor was not a particularly brilliant military commander—he had a tendency to desert his men whenever defeat looked imminent—but he did have a knack for self-promotion and deception. His greatest swindle seems to have materialized in 1820, when he convinced a native Indian king to grant him some 8 million acres of territory along Central America’s Mosquito Coast. The plot was little more than an undeveloped jungle, yet by the time he returned to London the following year, MacGregor had reinvented it as the obscure but prosperous nation of Poyais. He claimed he was the country’s “Cazique,” or prince, and announced that he had returned to Europe on a mission to solicit investments and recruit prospective settlers.
It didn’t take long for “His Highness Gregor” to become a fixture in London’s high society. A wealthy aristocrat set him and his wife up in a country estate, and the city’s Lord Mayor held a banquet in his honor. MacGregor inspired trust by using charm and citing his past military achievements—which he greatly exaggerated—but he also came armed with a series of official documents, nearly all of which were fabricated. He produced a handwritten land grant from the Mosquito King, a national flag, charts and maps showing Poyais’ borders, and even a copy of a proclamation he had made to the country’s natives before taking off for Europe. Combined with the slow speed of news and the unstable political situation in South America, the documents were enough to convince most people of Poyais’ existence.
After drumming up interest in his country, MacGregor cashed in by floating a 200,000 pounds sterling Poyais bond in the London money market. He also started peddling land and titles to would-be colonists. The recruitment blitz was largely centered in MacGregor’s native Scotland, where enterprising settlers were told they could purchase 100 acres of pristine Poyais farmland for just £11, The more well-to-do bought officers’ posts in the Poyais military, while other investors were lured with the promise of posts as merchants, government employees and bankers. In his role as the venerable “Cazique,” MacGregor may have raked in several hundred thousand pounds in profits.
The con reached its high-water mark in September 1822, when a ship called the Honduras Packet set sail from London with several dozen Poyais-bound pilgrims. Four months later, a second ship carried nearly 200 more settlers out of Leith, Scotland. Most of the aspiring “Poyers” had invested their entire life savings in the journey. Some had even converted all of their cash to Poyais dollars, which MacGregor had begun printing in Scotland. Yet after being deposited on the coast of Central America, the passengers made a startling discovery: not only was there no capital of St. Joseph, there seemed to be no Poyais at all. Instead of the settlement they’d been promised, they found only mile after mile of dense, insect-infested jungle.
The confused settlers built ramshackle huts and tried to survive while they waited for help, but it wasn’t long before malaria and other diseases spread through their ranks. “Sickness and despondency was so general, that few were able or willing to make any exertion,” a Scottish pilgrim named James Hastie wrote. Help finally arrived in May 1823 in the form of a British ship from a nearby colony in Belize. The surviving Poyers
were evacuated, but the misadventure had taken its toll. Of the roughly 250 emigrants that had left England and Scotland, two-thirds eventually died from tropical diseases.
Even after the first Poyais survivors returned home, MacGregor still wasn’t brought to justice. His supporters—including some of the unfortunate pilgrims—even defended him in the press and argued that the colony’s failure must have been the fault of his agents and collaborators. In the autumn of 1823, the “Cazique” quietly fled England and set up shop in Paris, where he attempted to repeat the Poyais con all over again. He published a Poyais constitution, secured a bank loan and once again began recruiting settlers. This time, however, his phantom country attracted suspicion from the French authorities. MacGregor was thrown in jail in December 1825 and tried for fraud and conspiracy, but was acquitted due to lack of evidence and released eight months later.
Despite his brush with law, McGregor continued promoting his Poyais schemes—and continued getting away with it—for another decade. In 1827, he resurfaced in London and issued a new £800,000-bond; the following year, he once again started selling bogus Poyais land certificates. McGregor finally retired his mythical country in the late 1830s and took off for Venezuela, which had awarded him a full military pension for his participation in its wars of independence. The “Cazique of Poyais” died there in 1845, having never been found guilty of a single crime.