(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE NEW YORK POST)
In September 1822, about 250 largely impoverished Scots uprooted their lives to embark on what appeared to be the journey of a lifetime, sailing to a prosperous Central American country called Poyais to start anew.
But rather than finding a land overflowing with vegetation, livestock, workable soil and opportunities galore as they were promised, “Poyais” was a barren nightmare of unfarmable land and hostile natives. Expecting to build new and better lives, they had instead fallen victim to one of the most audacious and deadly swindles in history, one that most didn’t survive.
The new book “Hoax: A History of Deception” by Ian Tattersall and Peter Nevraumont (Black Dog & Leventhal), out now, features 50 tales of frauds and cons from throughout history. Perhaps none, though, was more brazen than Gregor MacGregor’s Poyais scam.
MacGregor, a descendant of famed Scottish hero Rob Roy, was a warrior who had fought on Venezuela’s behalf during their war for independence.
“He had a very high public profile,” Tattersall says. “He had great military credentials stemming from his time as a mercenary in South America. He was a person of impeccable credentials . . . with an aura of authority about him.”
In the early 1820s, upon returning from battle, MacGregor claimed he had been made prince of a territory called Poyais, near the Honduran coast, and that it was perfect for new settlers. He began selling bonds to help develop the area, as well as plots of Poyaisian land and packages that included promises of employment there. While he had been there and did own the land in question, “Poyais” and his title were fictions he invented.
Between hard economic times in Scotland and MacGregor’s sterling reputation, Poyais could not have sounded more inviting to impoverished Scots.
“He told them it was a land of milk and honey where you could get several harvests of crops a year, and there were gold nuggets in the river and game abounding on the landscape,” says Tattersall. “He really made it sound like a nirvana.”
MacGregor convinced seven shiploads of Scots to tear up their lives and relocate, raising around 200,000 pounds in the process, the equivalent of around $25 million in current US dollars.
The first two ships departed for Poyais in September 1822, carrying around 250 passengers total on a two-month journey. The Guardian newspaper reported the following in October 1823: “When the emigrants arrived at [Honduras], nothing could exceed their anguish at finding, where they expected a fine flourishing town with nearly 2,000 inhabitants, only two or three ruined huts.”
Despondent but trapped, the settlers tried to build a town and plant crops, but they had no resources. The soil was unsuitable and there was scant livestock, leaving them little access to food.
Over the next two years, most of the 250 residents died.
“[One of the] particularly heart-wrenching things was an account in the newspaper of a shoemaker called Hellie who shot himself, having been promised the position of shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais, and then finding nothing when he got there,” Tattersall says. “That sort of experience was repeated over and over again with, like, 200 people.”
Why he took these people’s lives and transported them to this insect-infested hell, nobody really understands
A small group of survivors (there is no record of how many — Tattersall guesses “a couple dozen at most”) were eventually rescued by a passing timber trading boat and brought to Belize. By this point, five more Scottish ships filled with people had embarked toward Poyais. Word of the catastrophe got back to Scotland, and the Royal Navy was sent to recall the ships.
Making the tragedy especially senseless was that MacGregor sold his scam bonds and plots in several stages, and had already brought in a fortune before the first ships sailed. He could have easily absconded with his ill-gotten gains and not destroyed all those lives.
“He did this bond scam, then organized the expedition. Why he took these people’s lives and transported them to this insect-infested hell, nobody really understands,” Tattersall says.
When word of the hoax spread throughout Scotland, MacGregor fled to France, where he immediately attempted a similar scam. He was arrested but eventually acquitted. He tried other cons over the next decade, then relocated to Venezuela, where he was regarded a returning hero. He lived there until his death in 1845 at age 58.
Even after profiling 50 fraudsters in his book, Tattersall says he can’t begin to comprehend what might have driven MacGregor to such behavior, especially given that the Scot could have become extremely wealthy from his crime without causing so much tragedy.
“The only suggestion that makes any sense is that he came to believe his own propaganda [about Poyais],” Tattersall says. “It seems unbelievable that [he] could do something so cynical, heartless and unfeeling. It is not a dynamic I could possibly understand.”