The Prince of Poyais

Stories
Content Writer
Stories December 26, 2018 Featured Image

It’s hard not to be cynical in the 21st century. If you have a phone or an online presence, then chances are a handful of people (or bots, or whatever) try to scam you multiple times, every single day.

Most of them, we don’t even notice anymore—they get caught in the spam folder. Others, you just phase out, like all those ads for male virility pills, promising to make aging Baby Boomers dumb and reckless again with anachronistic testosterone production. Acting like a teenager ain’t gonna save your marriage, buddy! But I digress.

The most ubiquitous scam today, I think, is the “Nigerian prince” con. I doubt I even need to explain it, but it involves a wealthy prince who promises to share with you his good fortune, following a small down payment on your part. It is, in fact, wildly similar to a 19th-century fake-prince scam.

In the 1820s, a Scottish Highlander named Gregor MacGregor convinced the people of England, Scotland, and, later, France, that he was the prince of a new Latin American paradise, and they could join him, for a nominal fee. Not to spoil the ending, but: it was total bullshit.

Gregor MacGregor: A Man of Such Ill Device, They Named Him Twice, Kinda

Gregor MacGregor was fortunate enough to have a good reputation with many admirable qualities: a charismatic, winning personality; bravery and fiery daring. He was also the grandson of the famous Scottish clansman Gregor the Beautiful, who earned plenty of his own glory in military campaigns.

There was one other thing about the young MacGregor, however, that seems both at odds with those other qualities, but which perhaps enabled them: MacGregor lacked moral scruples.

In 1811, much of Latin America was embroiled in battles for independence from the Spanish Empire. MacGregor, being a daring, unprincipled, and charismatic young fella, sought the adventure and fortune that might come with jumping into a warzone and killing people for money and fame.  1

Through some combination of his personality, his bravery, and perhaps a budding sociopathy, MacGregor rose high, and fast. Soon enough, he became Simón Bolívar’s number one field commander. Bolívar, if you’re not familiar, was known as “El Libertador”—famous for ultimately winning independence for Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. 2

Once these wars ended, MacGregor launched his own personal war, leading further Latin America expeditions against remaining Spanish outposts. The dude liked to fight. 3

Drinking a King Under the Table, for Profit

In 1820, MacGregor made his way to the Mosquito Coast—modern-day eastern Nicaragua, and a little bit of southern Honduras, so named for the Miskito people of the region. This little piece of paradise was owned by King Frederic Augustus. Also, it was, in fact, a swampy shithole, best used for spawning mosquitoes and catching malaria.

Augustus was only a king in title—truly, he was just a puppet of the British Crown, an administrator who followed orders from across the pond.

Here, something apparently clicked for MacGregor. Most who were familiar with it saw the Mosquito Coast as hell for humans. But MacGregor saw potential. With so many people back home suffering from the impoverishing effects of the recent cessation of the Napoleonic Wars, there was great market potential for unrealistic hopes. Sure, the Mosquito Coast was a dire piece of purgatory (just look at the name). But, with a little marketing, it could be sold as a true tropical paradise for the people suffering back home in Europe.

So MacGregor did what a Scotsman does when he wants something without fighting: he got King Frederic so drunk he signed over the land—12,500 square miles of diseased-fomenting spawning pools (and I’m sure there were some nice spots, too). 4

A Man, A Plan, A Scam: Poyais

With that, step one: acquire unappealing parcel of land, was complete. Step two: find enough rubes to fill a ship with hopes and his bank account with notes. For that, he would need to return to London.

To the English and Scots back home, MacGregor wasn’t just the landowner. Nay, he had been dubbed by King Augustus himself as the “Prince of Poyais.” Oh, yeah—he also called the Mosquito Coast “Poyais,” since that has a better ring to it.

This land . . . oh man, where do I start? Poyais was the most beautiful land you’d ever seen. Poyais sat upon the Bay of Honduras, and was replete with sweet, exotic fruits; sparkling water bubbling from the ground; fertile soil for farming; and—f**k it, why not?—gold mines. Gold mines everywhere.

That’s the kind of bullshit MacGregor—sorry, the “Prince of Poyais”—sold to all the optimistic morons in his land of origin. The motherf**ker even printed up a book of pictures called “Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais.” The book was written by a man named Captain Thomas Strangeways, who presumably had no author headshot on the book sleeve, since he was, in fact, Gregor MacGregor.

MacGregor didn’t just print a book, he also printed money. Fake, Poyain money. His investors—rich and poor alike—would pony up whatever real currency they could, in exchange for these sheets of Poyain toilet paper.

Here, you may be asking: why would one need regional currency to settle on undeveloped land? Did these people plan to buy stuff from the Miskito natives? No, of course not.

The prospective settlers would need Poyain money to spend in MacGregor’s principality. Not only was Poyain rich in natural resources like good dirt and gold mines everywhere—it was well established with civil services, a bank, a standing army, a democratically elected government, and even a Whole Foods. Settlers would need a lot of Poyain cash for that Whole Foods. 5

Crime Pays if You Just Know When to Quit

This all went real ace for MacGregor, who became the back-then equivalent of a multimillionaire by fleecing his countrymen (and the English) of their rainy day funds. But MacGregor was apparently so convincing that he ended up taking a pull from his own Kool-Aid. Rather than keeping Poyais forever out of arm’s reach and maintaining the mystery, MacGregor chartered up some ships and sent around 240 invested settlers out to “Poyais” in 1822.

When they arrived at Poyais, what they found was, well, the Mosquito Coast. Not as MacGregor had described it, but rather as it was: garbage for people, and heaven for amphibious insect larvae. “Bummer city,” these settlers likely thought, as three-quarters of them succumbed to malaria, yellow fever, or both, and died. Fifty survivors returned to London, and MacGregor’s fraudulent real estate scam was dessicated by daylight. 6

Crime and Punishment

I know what you’re thinking, and don’t worry—MacGregor got what he deserved: a light slap on the wrists. Eventually. First, though, he got out ahead of the fallout in London by skittering off to France, where nobody cares what you did in England.

They should have, though. MacGregor continued his scamming on the French. Fortunately, the French are immune to things like hope and optimism, and authorities there grew suspicious of his too-good-to-be-true offers of a faraway paradise.

He was jailed, first in France, then back in England. For some reason, despite defrauding hundreds of people, leading to the death of some 190 hapless investors, MacGregor was imprisoned just briefly by the French and the British, before being released.

He did lose his fortune, however. In 1839, he moved back to Venezuela, totally broke and with every bridge burned. But there was one thing they could never take away from MacGregor: his ability to bullshit people into giving him money, using the weight of his inherent charisma. With that, he convinced the local authorities to pay him a pension, as a reward for his previous work as a general during the Venezuelan War of Independence. He would die six years later, in 1845, at the age of 59.

Today, Poyais stands as Gregor MacGregor’s legacy, just as he left it: an undeveloped, swampy petri dish of bloodsucking insects, not unlike the man himself. 7

Notes 📌

  1. Allan, Victor. (2018, July 11). Gregor MacGregor, the Prince of Poyais. Retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/victor-allan/gregor-macgregor-prince-poyais
  2. Masur, Gerhard Straussman. (2018, November 8). Simón Bolívar: Venezuelan Soldier and Statesman. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Simon-Bolivar
  3. Allan, Victor. (2018, July 11). Gregor MacGregor, the Prince of Poyais. Retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/victor-allan/gregor-macgregor-prince-poyais
  4. McManus, Melanie Radzicki. (2018, September 13). Gregor MacGregor’s Swindle: The Country That Never Existed. Retrieved from https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/gregor-macgregors-swindle-country-never-existed.htm
  5. McManus, Melanie Radzicki. (2018, September 13). Gregor MacGregor’s Swindle: The Country That Never Existed. Retrieved from https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/gregor-macgregors-swindle-country-never-existed.htm
  6. McManus, Melanie Radzicki. (2018, September 13). Gregor MacGregor’s Swindle: The Country That Never Existed. Retrieved from https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/gregor-macgregors-swindle-country-never-existed.htm
  7. McManus, Melanie Radzicki. (2018, September 13). Gregor MacGregor’s Swindle: The Country That Never Existed. Retrieved from https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/gregor-macgregors-swindle-country-never-existed.htm

Notes & Citations 📌

  • Allan, Victor. (2018, July 11). Gregor MacGregor, the Prince of Poyais. Retrieved from https://www.historytoday.com/victor-allan/gregor-macgregor-prince-poyais
  • Masur, Gerhard Straussman. (2018, November 8). Simón Bolívar: Venezuelan Soldier and Statesman. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Simon-Bolivar
  • McManus, Melanie Radzicki. (2018, September 13). Gregor MacGregor’s Swindle: The Country That Never Existed. Retrieved from https://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/gregor-macgregors-swindle-country-never-existed.htm
written with 💖 by Alex Johnson

Share this article... your friends will love it too!

  • 10
    Shares
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Want to come on tour with us?