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Gregor MacGregor

For the Scottish rugby player and cricketer, see Gregor MacGregor (sportsman)

For the Australian politician with a similar name, see Gregor McGregor

Gregor MacGregor was a Scottish soldier, adventurer and colonizer who fought in the South American struggle for independence. Upon his return to England in 1820, he claimed to be cacique of Poyais . Poyais was a fictional Central American country that MacGregor had invented which, with his help, drew investors and eventually colonists.

Early life

MacGregor was born in Edinburgh, Scotland on Christmas Eve 1786. His parents were Captain Daniel MacGregor and Ann Austin.

In 1803, he joined the Royal Navy. He married Marie Bowater in 1805, who died soon after that. He then served in the Spanish and Portuguese armies, after which he returned to Edinburgh.

By this time, MacGregor heard about the independence movements in South America and in the Captaincy General of Venezuela in particular, where he arrived in 1811 with the rank of Colonel.

Green Cross of Florida

In 1817, MacGregor led a group of 55 men to capture San Fernandina on Amelia Island, Florida from the Spanish. The Spanish were surprised and MacGregor's men overran the island on June 29, and MacGregor raised a flag with a green cross on it. He left a few months later to fight the Spanish.

Cacique of Poyais

Gregor MacGregor went from Latin America to London, England, in 1820 and pronounced that he had been created cacique (highest authority or prince) of the Principality of Poyais, an independent nation on the Bay of Honduras. Native chief King George Frederic Augustus I of the Mosquito Shore and Nation had given him the territory of Poyais, 12,500 mile of fertile land with untapped resources, a small number of settlers of British origin, and cooperative natives eager to please. He had created the beginnings of a country with civil service, army and democratic government. Now he needed settlers and investment and had come back to the United Kingdom to give people the opportunity.

At the time, British merchants were all too eager to enter the South American market that Spain had denied to them. The region had already become more promising in the wake of wars of South American independence, when the new governments of Colombia, Chile and Peru had issued bonds in London Royal Exchange to raise money.

London high society welcomed the colourful figure of MacGregor, and he and his Spanish American wife Josefa Andrea Lovera received many invitations. The Lord Mayor of London Christopher Magnay even organized an official reception in London Guildhall. MacGregor claimed descent of clan MacGregor and that Rob Roy MacGregor had been his direct ancestor. He enhanced his allure by telling about his exploits in the Peninsular War and later in the service of Francisco de Miranda, Simon Bolivar and South American independence tales which were rather embellished.

MacGregor was also introduced to Major William John Richardson and by the winter of 1821 he had made Richardson legate of Poyais. He had also moved to Oak Hall in Richardson's estate in Essex, England, as befit his station as a prince. An office for the Legation of the Territory of Poyais was opened at Dowgate Hill in the City of London. MacGregor enhanced his popularity with elaborate banquets in Oak Hall and invited dignitaries like foreign ambassadors, government ministers and senior military officers.

MacGregor also claimed that one of his ancestors was a rare survivor of the Darien Scheme, a failed Scottish attempt of colonization in Panama in 1690s. In order to compensate for this, he said, he had decided to draw most of the settlers from Scotland. For this purpose, he established offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow.

In Edinburgh, MacGregor began to sell land rights for 3 shillings and 3 pence per acre (0.16/acre or 40.15/km). Note that the worker's weekly wage at the time was about 1, which meant that the price was very generous. The price steadily rose to 4 shillings (0.20). Many people willing to have a new start in the new land signed on with their families. On October 23, 1822 MacGregor raised a loan with the total of 200,000 on behalf of the Poyais government. It was in the form of 2,000 bearer bonds worth 100 each.

Also in 1822 MacGregor published a 350-page guidebook entitled Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais, descriptive of the country, supposedly written by one Captain Thomas Strangeways. It described the Poyais with glowing terms and mainly concentrated on how much profit one could get from the country's ample resources. Poyais was said to be a very anglophilic region with already existing infrastructure, untapped gold and silver mines and large amounts of fertile soil ready to be settled. The region was even free of tropical diseases. The book also claimed that British settlers had founded the capital of Poyais, St Joseph, in the 1730s.

Eager settlers

The Legation of Poyais chartered a ship called Honduras Packet, whose crew MacGregor already knew, and five London merchants received contracts to provision the ship with food and ammunition. Its cargo also included a chest full of "Poyais Dollars", Poyaisian currency MacGregor had printed in Scotland. Many of the settlers had changed their pounds to Poyais dollars.

On September 10, 1822 the Honduras Packet departed from the Port of London with 70 would-be-settlers aboard. They included doctors, lawyers and a banker who had been promised appropriate positions in the Poyais civil service. Some had also purchased officer commissions in the Poyaisian army.

On January 22, 1823 another ship, the Kennersley Castle, left Leith Harbour in Scotland for Poyais with 200 would-be-settlers. The ship also carried enough provisions for a year. It arrived in the appropriate place March 20 and spent two days looking for a port. Eventually the newcomers found the settlers who had sailed on the Honduras Packet.

What the settlers had found was an untouched jungle, some and a couple of American hermits who had made their homes there. "St Joseph" consisted of only a couple of ruins of a previous attempt at settlement abandoned in the previous century. There was no settlement of any kind. The Honduras Packet had been swept away by a storm.

When some of the labourers began to build rudimentary shelter for themselves, the officers and civil servants decided to try to find a way out. Lieutenant-Colonel Hector Hall, would-be-governor of Poyais, had left to look for the Honduras Packet or another ship to take them back to Britain.

The would-be-settlers began to argue with each other and some of them, who had expected better accommodation, refused to do anything. The Kennersley Castle sailed away. Tropical diseases also began to take their toll. One settler, having used his life savings to gain passage, committed suicide.

In April, the Mexican Eagle, an official ship from British Honduras with the chief magistrate on board, accidentally found the settlers. Chief magistrate Bennet listened to their story and told them that there was no such place as Poyais. He agreed to take them to British Honduras. A couple of days later Colonel Hall returned with King George Frederic and announced that the King had effectively revoked the land grant because MacGregor had assumed sovereignty. The Mexican Eagle took sixty settlers to British Honduras. The other settlers were rescued later.

Many settlers were weakened on their short sea voyage and many of them later died in hospitals in British Honduras. 180 of the 240 would-be settlers had perished during the ordeal.

Edward Codd, Superintendent for Belize, sent a warning to London where naval vessels were sent to call back five ships of would-be-settlers that had departed after the Kennersley Castle. Those survivors who did not decide to settle on the British Honduras or move elsewhere in the Americas sailed on the Ocean on August 1, 1823 to London. More people died during that journey, and fewer than 50 came back alive to Britain.

72 days later the Ocean docked in London. The next day, city papers published the whole story.

However, regardless of the experiences of the survivors, some of them refused to believe that MacGregor would have been the main culprit. One of them, James Hastie, who had lost two of his children to tropical diseases, wrote and published a book Narrative of a Voyage in the Ship Kennersley Castle from Leith Roads to Poyais. He blamed Sir Gregor's advisers and publicists for spreading the false information. A group of survivors signed a declaration of their belief that had Sir Gregor gone with them, things would have turned out differently. Major Richardson sued the papers for libel and defended MacGregor against the charges of fraud.

MacGregor himself, however, had already left for Paris, France, in October.

Poyaisian scheme in France

MacGregor had already contacted the trading organization "Compagnie de la Nouvelle Neustrie" and commissioned it to further the affairs of Poyais in France.

In March 1825 MacGregor summoned from London Gustavus Butler Hippisley, an acquaintance from the army, on the pretext of discussing his appointment as a representative of Poyais in Colombia. Hippisley was to write about the Poyais affair in France in Acts of Oppression Committed under the Administration of m. de Villele, Prime minister of Charles X, in the years 1825-6.

MacGregor claimed to Hippisley that he needed the help of the French government to obtain a formal renunciation of any (in reality nonexistent) claims Spain might have to Poyais and that he had met with French Prime Minister Jean-Baptiste de Villele. MacGregor and la Nouvelle Noustrie already had plans to send French emigrants to Poyais. Hippisley wrote back to London, castigating the journalists who had called MacGregor a "penniless adventurer".

In August, MacGregor published a new constitution of Poyais; he had changed it into a republic with himself as the head of state. On August 18, 1825 he issued a 300.000 loan with 2.5% interest through the London bank of Thomas Jenkins & Company. The bond was probably never issued. At the same time, la Nouvelle Noustrie recruited settlers with the requirement that they buy FFr100 worth of the company shares.

When French officials noticed that a number of people had obtained passports in order to voyage to a country they had never heard of, they seized the la Nouvelle Neustrie vessel in Le Havre. Some of the would-be-emigrants realized that something was not right and demanded investigation of the affairs of the la Nouvelle Neustrie and Sir Gregor. Hippisley was arrested but MacGregor was nowhere to be found.

Hippisley and MacGregor's secretary Thomas Irving were held in custody in La Force prison when the police investigation was going on. Lehuby, one of the directors of La Nouvelle Noustrie fled to Belgium. MacGregor went into hiding until he was brought into the prison December 7, two months after the first arrests. He proceeded to comfort his associates and in January 1826 made a proclamation to Central American states it was written in French and primarily meant to affect French opinion. The accused were later moved to Bicetre prison.

The trial began on April 6, 1826. MacGregor, Hippisley, Irving and Lehuby (in absentia) were accused of fraud by means of the Poyais emigration program. Their lawyer, Merilhou, put the blame on Lehuby and the prosecutor was ready to withdraw the charges if the men were deported from France. Initially the court agreed but judges changed their minds when Belgium agreed to extradite Lehuby. Lawyer Merilhou was later summoned as a witness for the prosecution.

The new trial began on July 10, 1826, and lasted for four days. Merilhou's replacement, Berville, eloquently put the blame on anybody else but MacGregor. MacGregor was acquitted and Hippisley and Irving were released. Lehuby was convicted for 13 months for making false promises.

Lesser Poyais schemes

In 1826 MacGregor returned to London, where the furor over his affairs had died down. Shortly after his arrival he was arrested and taken to Tothill Fields Bridewell prison in Westminster on charges now unknown. He was released in less than a week.

MacGregor proceeded with the modified schemes. This time he claimed that natives had elected him as the head of state and became just "Cacigue of the Republic of Poyais" and opened a new office at 23 Threadneedle Street in the City, without any diplomatic trappings and in much a smaller scale than before. He issued a loan worth 800.000 as 20-year bonds with Thomas Jenkins & Company as brokers. The scheme was announced in the summer 1827.

However, investors were now more careful and somebody circulated a handbill that warned against investing in "Poyais humbug". MacGregor had to pass the most of the unsold certificates to a consortium of speculators for an undisclosed sum. He made only a little money.

Further Poyais schemes were equally successful. In 1828 MacGregor tried to sell land from Poyais at the price of 5 shillings per acre. In 1830 Robert Charles Frederic, brother and successor of King George Frederic, began to offer for sale the same territories to lumber companies. These certificates competed with those of MacGregor. When older investors demanded their interest, he could only pay with more certificates to the value of the interest payments he owed. Others began to use the same trick too - two men named Upton opened a rival "Poyaisian office" and offered land debentures for sale.

In 1831 MacGregor promoted a "Poyaisian New Three per cent Consolidated Stock" as "the President of the Poyaisian Republic". In 1834 he was living in Scotland and had to issue a new series of land certificates as payment for unredeemed securities. In 1836 he wrote a new constitution for the Poyaisian Republic. The last record of any Poyais scheme is in 1837, when he tried to sell some land certificates.

In 1839 Gregor MacGregor moved to Venezuela where he had requested and received a pension as a general who had fought for independence. He died on December 4, 1845.

Online references

"Another View of Gregor MacGregor" in Amelia Now On Line, Winter 2001.

"Gregor MacGregor" in Biografias de Venezuela, Venezuela Tuya. (Spanish)

The Scottish Government. "Document of the Month January 2005" .


Tulio Arends. Sir Gregor MacGregor: Un escoses tras la aventura de America. Caracas, Monte Avila Editores, 1991. ISBN 980-01-0265-5 (Spanish)

Matthew Brown. Adventuring through Spanish Colonies: Simon Bolivar, Foreign Mercenaries and the Birth of New Nations. Liverpool University Press, 2006. ISBN 1-84631-044-X

Alfred Hasbrouck. Foreign Legionnaires in the Liberation of Spanish South America Columbia University Press, New York, 1928 and New York, Octagon Books, 1969.

Moises Enrique Rodriguez. ''Freedom's Mercenaries: British Volunteers in the Wars of Independence of Latin America, 2 vols. Lanham, Hamilton Books, University Press of America, 2006. ISBN 978-0-7618-3438-0

Thomas Strangeways, Knight of the Green Cross (Pseudonym for Gregor MacGregor?). Sketch of the Mosquito Shore. Edinburgh, W. Reid, 1822.

David Sinclair. The Land that Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History''. Cambridge, Da Capo Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0-306-81411-2. London, Review, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7553-1079-1

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