The Prince of Poyais – settling in the country that never was

 

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In 1822, Gregor MacGregor committed what The Economist newspaper has called the ‘biggest fraud in history’ and ‘the greatest confidence trick of all time’.

Investors, many of them Scottish, put forward vast sums towards creating a colony in central America. They were told it was a sure bet, a land of milk and honey – another paradise on the isthmus.

Sounds familiar? If you listened last week, you might think that once bitten, Scots would be twice shy.

Instead, bonds for Gregor MacGregor’s Principality of Poyais were oversubscribed and colonists easy to find. They would all profit from this rich and fertile land that was larger than Wales and ripe for settlement.

The only problem was that Poyais didn’t exist.

A sure fire bet
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By the 1820s, many people in Britain were ready to dream of a better life.

They had lived through the turbulent decades of European revolution and war.

Now, with the British economy expanding and the cost of living falling, those with spare cash were looking to bet on the next sure thing.

Three things combined to make the next sure thing an imaginary principality on the Atlantic coast of central America.

First, London displaced Amsterdam and Paris to emerge as the world’s dominant financial centre. The London Stock Exchange was instrumental in matching investors with borrowers. Countries from Prussia to Peru issued bonds to raise much-needed capital.

Secondly, the British government had taken advantage of peace to lower the interest offered on its own sovereign debt. Investors seeking a more attractive return had piled into bonds offered by other countries. If Peru was raising money, why not Poyais?

Finally, Latin America had become a fascinating and fashionable investment. Prospectuses for loans raised by Colombia, Chile and Peru had highlighted the economic resources of these countries.

Did it matter that these newly independent lands hadn’t even been officially recognised by the British? For many investors, it did not matter. In this climate, who would question the claims made for another new country?

His Highness Gregor, the Cazique of Poyais

At exactly this most propitious moment, a man named Gregor MacGregor stepped forward with his compelling offer.

He claimed to be the ruler of Poyais. This was, he declared, a free and independent state on the Atlantic coast of the bay of Honduras. His country was just three or four days sail from the thriving British colony of Jamaica. The United States could be reached in about eight days.

Historian Victor Allen describes MacGregor as a:

‘debonair and imperious young man, he possessed a winning personality, a boundless West Highland imagination and a fiery daring that could hardly have been excelled by any of his turbulent clan.’

MacGregor had fought for Britain in the Napoleonic wars.

He had then gone over to South America to take part in that continent’s wars of liberation.

His rise was meteoric, the Scottish ‘staff colonel became Commandant-General of Cavalry, then General of Brigade and, finally, when he was no more than thirty, General of Division in the Army of Venezuela and New Granada’.

MacGregor was a man of boundless vision and very few scruples. He claimed to be the Cazique of Poyais. As such, he was the ruler of over eight million acres centred on the Black River on the Atlantic coast of central America.

And who was to say otherwise? Latin America was throwing off Spanish control. New and exotic sounding countries were created. Was Poyais really any less believable than Panama or Paraguay?

MacGregor claimed to have been granted dominion over Poyais in 1819 by the King of the Mosquito Nation.

MacGregor went on to sell land, state jobs and titles. He targeted Scotland, claiming to be motivated by a desire to compensate the country for its sufferings over Darien.

Once again, Scots flocked to the banner of colonisation, with thousands investing in the scheme and hundreds signing up to be amongst the first colonists.

Once again, Scots were beguiled by promises of rich returns and the trading prospects of a canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

To back his claims, a 350-page guidebook was produced. This claimed to be intended for the use of settlers. In reality, it provided a fertile space for the imagination.

As The Economist noted, the promises were extravagant to the point of being suspiciously too good to be true:

‘the natives were not only friendly, but loved the British. The soil was not just fertile, but capable of sustaining three maize harvests per year (elsewhere, two would be good going). The water supply was not just clean, clear and abundant, but in the streams of Poyais there were chunks of gold.’

There was also a bounty of native livestock, commercially desirable timber, rivers teeming with fish and a coastline favoured by the hawksbill sea turtle with its valuable shell.

An obvious question was why this bountiful paradise had been overlooked by the Spanish. MacGregor had a ready answer to this. Poyais was separated from Honduras and Nicaragua by a chain of mountains that made the country immune to hostile attack.

It wasn’t only the prospects for Poyais that generated excitement. There were long-standing plans to build the canal through the narrow isthmus that connected north and south America. The canal would join the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and revolutionise world trade.

By October 1822, MacGregor and his backers were ready to offer a Poyais bond yielding 6%. This was double the prevailing rate being offered by the British Government for its bonds.

Eventually, his frauds would run to £1.3m. As a share of Britain’s economy, this is equivalent to around £3.6 billion today. And, at the heart of this gigantic confidence trick was a colonial vision not entirely dissimilar to Scotland’s disastrous venture in Darien.

If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. But MacGregor managed to convince bankers, doctors and military men along with farm hands and labourers.

The Honduras Packet

The first ship, the Honduras Packet, left London in September 1822. It was followed on 22 January 1823 by the Kennersley Castle sailing from Leith. Between them, they carried around 250 settlers.

David Sinclair conveys some of the incredulous optimism that infected those first pioneers:

‘One of the cabin passengers, Andrew Picken, the young man who had been appointed to manage the national theatre of Poyais, spoke about what he had learned of the capital city, St Joseph, just a few miles from the Black River settlement, on the western side of the bay. It was a place of broad boulevards and collonaded buildings in the classical European style, with a splendid domed cathedral, an Opera House as well as the theatre, a royal palace, the headquarters of the Bank of Poyais and, of course, the seat of the Parliament.’

Once again, Scotland loaded her hopes, dreams and colonists on board ships and sent them across the Atlantic to central America.

What would they find on the other side?

Poyaisian paradise

What if … Poyais had been the paradise described in MacGregor’s publicity? This section imagines this future that never was.

Poyais had been good to him.

Poyais had been good to all of them.

He remembered the day that they arrived in their new home.

Their ship had sailed to the mouth of the Black River, where that stately river spilled into the Caribbean.

They were met by a flotilla of smaller vessels, the lighters that would take them to the docks of Saint Joseph. The rigging was decked with the green cross flag of Poyais. From the boats, Poyer men and women smiled and waved at them. It was their first welcome to the promised land.

Their second taste of a golden future came when the capital city of the Poyaisian State came into view. Saint Joseph was a handsome and prosperous city. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place even in the richer parts of England.

The Black River was wide at this point, but spanned by majestic bridges. Saint Joseph straddled the river, stretching along the Atlantic coast, facing the old world with the energy of the new.

The locals on their boats delighted in serving as guides, pointing out the great buildings in their city.

Over there was the Royal Palace, white stucco punctuated by elegant colonnades topped with a vast pediment depicting the founding the colony.

Then came the Opera House, as majestic as Covent Garden albeit just a fraction smaller. The national theatre was next, with as fine a stage as any in Europe.

There were the churches with spires inspired by the great Wren buildings of London. And then the cathedral, a heady mix of gothic with byzantine flourishes.

As they drew closer, they marvelled at the broad, tree lined avenues. Near the port, these were lined with richly decorated warehouses that could be mistaken for mansions, but for the actual mansions nearby belonging to a higher order of grandeur.

Right next to the port, the offices of the great trading companies rivalled in creating the most magnificent statements of their wealth and power. House flags fluttered next to the Green Cross of Poyais and the Union Flag, colourful symbols of pride and patriotism.

They had drawn up to the quay and looked around at the busy docks. Goods were being loaded and unloaded from an uncountable array of ships. The wharves were alive with the cacophony of trade.

Saint Joseph had been a memorable introduction to Poyais.

But, when his mind wandered back to those first days, he didn’t think about the city. He thought about the countryside where he had staked his claim and built his farm.

This was the time of plenty in the perpetual Poyais summer.
His corner of paradise produced abundant harvests of cotton and sugar along with more food than his family could eat.

In some ways, it seemed like a part of England’s pleasant pastures had been transplanted to the tropics. There were shady, tree-lined lanes that ran between farms and plantations. Herds of fat, content cows gorged on a rich pasture to produce butter and cheese for the empire.

But, look a bit more closely, and the wonder of this equatorial paradise was revealed. From the tree tops, a bright flash of blue, red and orange would reveal macaws. A surge of pink would betray a watering pool favoured by flamingos. Even the hedgerows were alive with the lustrous greens and blues of hummingbirds and the Honduran emerald.

A glance into the distance would also give away the true nature of Poyais. The colony was ringed with majestic mountains. England’s oaks and elms were replaced with mighty redwoods, rich cedar and mahogany. Rivers cascaded from the peaks, watering the fertile plains before rolling down to the ocean.

In idle moments, his mind always went back to those golden days.

A swampy, pest-ridden littoral

Where was the splendid city on the Atlantic coast?

Where was the bustling port with its ships from every nation?

Where was the promised land?

According to a contemporary report in The Times, the colonists: ‘expected to find a country already populous and cultivated, and where they would obtain abundance of employment in their respective avocations’.

Instead, they landed on the Mosquito Coast, evocatively described as ‘a swampy, pest-ridden littoral inhabited only by wandering tribes of Mosquito Indians.’

The Times continued its report noting that the colonists’:

‘disappointment was, therefore, proportionally aggravated, when they found themselves landed on the margin of a wilderness, and were set to work in clearing ground for erecting habitations, exposed by day to the scorching rigours of a climate to which they were altogether unaccustomed, and unsheltered from the dews of night in their hours of repose’.

A similar bleak picture of that ill-fated landing was painted in The Observer:

‘When the emigrants arrived at San Josef, on the Black River, nothing could exceed their anguish, on finding, where they expected a fine flourishing town, with nearly 2,000 inhabitants, there were only two or three ruined huts, where two Americans had once resided, for the purpose of trade with the natives during the favourable season.’

Crumbled like powder in his fingers

Perhaps there was a simple explanation. This place was so far from being the bountiful and abundant Poyais that they must be in the wrong place. So, the settlors from the Honduras Packet simply decided to wait for the other ships. In the meantime, they set up a temporary camp.

Things went from bad to worse. One settlor built a canoe and set off to get help. Unfortunately, he drowned shortly after setting off.

An Edinburgh cobbler had been promised the title of Official Shoemaker in Poyais. The jarring reality was too much and he shot himself.

The Kennersley Castle’s arrival in March 1823 prompted far more questions than it answered. As Sinclair write:

‘The sense of disappointment was acute. As their boats were rowed back to the ship to collect more men, they stood at the edge of the swamp and stared at each other in disbelief, struggling to come to terms with the loneliness and desolation of their surroundings.’

The survivors from the Honduras Packet soon disabused the new arrivals of any joy at having arrived on dry land. They were stuck in a dangerous and barren land.

One of the colonists summed up the apocalyptic sense of mounting despair when he wrote that: ‘it seems to be the will of Providence that every Circumstance should combined for our destruction’.

After a hellish few months during which the settlers were ravaged by tropical disease, hunger and death, a passing ship unexpectedly came to the rescue.

Survivors were ferried to the British colony of Belize and then on to London. The ravages of those first months of colonial life had already taken their toll – two thirds of the original settlers died.

Fortunately, word was sent back to London and the Royal Navy was able to turn back the five other boats that had set sail.

News of the scandal soon reached Britain. By the autumn of 1823, newspapers were printing excoriating reports and warnings to their readers. The grim realities of life at Poyais were revealed.

Soon, complaints reached the corridors of power. One was raised in front of the Lord Mayor of London. As part of the proceedings, the Lord Mayor asked one of the survivors, James Hastie, how he found the soil to be:

‘Hastie replied that he was a curious man for raising potherbs, and he purchased twenty-four shillings worth of seeds, which he sowed in the place called the Settlement, where he also sowed potatoes, but nothing was produced; and when any thing came to the surface it was burnt like snuff, by the sun. He meant that it crumbled like powder in his fingers.’

In case the point had been lost on the audience, Mr Hastie continued to note that: ‘It is such a soil that if he were to put a turtle’s egg into the sand, in ten minutes it would be as well boiled as if it had been put into a kettle’.

MacGregor realised the game was up and moved to France. He set about looking for investors and new settlers. He was disturbingly successful, persuading 60 people to emigrate.

Fortunately for those 60, French authorities were more suspicious than their British counterparts. When the would-be Poyers applied for passports, the authorities couldn’t find any proof that Poyais existed. This triggered an inquiry, the truth was revealed and MacGregor was imprisoned.

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