- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 7, 2004

It takes some chutzpah to subtitle one’s book “The Most Audacious Fraud in History,” especially in these days of ubiquitous corporate scandal. And as it turns out, the story that British journalist David Sinclair tells in “The Land That Never Was” doesn’t quite live up to that billing. The scam perpetrated by Gregor MacGregor was certainly not the most breathtaking fraud in human history, and probably not even very exceptional in its own time.

What makes the story compelling, rather, is how it unites and crystallizes two major currents in early-19th-century British culture: on one hand, frenzied stock-market speculation (sound familiar?), and on the other, the drive to colonize exotic lands.

Gregor MacGregor was born in 1786 in Glengyle, near Loch Lomond in west-central Scotland. The MacGregors of Glengyle had once been prominent within the larger MacGregor clan — the hero Rob Roy had belonged to this branch of the family — but they seem to have lost station by the time of Gregor’s birth. His father was a sea captain, his mother was a doctor’s daughter.

Little is known of Gregor’s youth, though he probably spoke Scottish Gaelic at home and had a secondary-school education. At the age of 16 he joined the British army. He showed promise as a soldier, but also intemperance in his pleasures and an unusually strong interest in the outward distinctions of rank — “an overpowering fondness for … the imposing spectacle of honorary badges and tangible tokens of merit,” as one contemporary put it.

In 1810, a row with a senior officer in Portugal ended MacGregor’s stint in the British army. But it launched him on a new, more enduring career — that of fantasist and confidence-trickster. Upon his return to Britain MacGregor promptly awarded himself a Portugese knighthood, and soon followed it up with a fraudulent baronetcy.

The self-styled “Sir” Gregor then set off for Venezuela, where he offered his services to the revolutionary general Francisco de Miranda in hopes of achieving personal glory and (of course) his fortune.

Mr. Sinclair is scrupulous in his efforts to get at the truth behind MacGregor’s Venezuelan exploits, and his account of MacGregor’s shameful conduct in various battles is riveting. Readers can only marvel, not just at MacGregor’s cowardice, but at his brazen attempts to capitalize on glory he never earned, on heroism he almost always failed to exhibit.

Perhaps the most intriguing episode in “The Land That Never Was” concerns MacGregor’s takeover of Amelia Island, off Florida’s northeastern coast. Excited at the prospect of becoming the governor of his own province, MacGregor rounded up an army in the United States and set sail for Amelia, which he “liberated” from Spanish rule in a bloodless battle (the island’s small Spanish garrison simply threw up their arms on his approach).

Once in command, MacGregor set about designing special insignia and a commemorative medallion bearing the Latin words “Duce Mac Gregorio Libertas Floridarium” (“Liberty for the Floridas under the leader MacGregor”).

Predictably, however, he did nothing to advance his ostensible aim — to invade the Spanish-controlled Florida mainland. When it appeared that Spain was poised to reconquer Amelia, he quietly fled to the Bahamas with his Venezuelan wife, Josefa, and their baby son Gregorio.

Amelia taught him a crucial lesson: Deceit is practicable, if you stay on the move. To raise money for his invasion of the island, MacGregor had sold “scripts” entitling the bearer to 2,000 acres of fertile land. Needless to say, these proved worthless. He had paid his army in self-issued “Amelia dollars.” This dirty but successful ploy must have been the inspiration for his ultimate scam: Poyais.

Poyais, MacGregor informed the receptive British public in 1821, was a small country in the region of the Mosquito Coast in Central America. It had a European-style capital city, St. Joseph, an enlightened government headed by MacGregor himself (“His Highness Gregor, Cazique of Poyais”), a hard-working and friendly native population and abundant natural resources.

Anyone considering settling in this utopia could buy land at one of the Poyais Land Offices in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, or could learn more about the country by reading a comprehensive 350-page guidebook, “A Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, Including the Territory of Poyais.” Poyais had its own flag and currency, and its “Cazique” was accorded in Britain the respect due a visiting head of state.

In short, obscure little Poyais appeared to have great potential. By the end of the following year, MacGregor had raised a 200,000-pound loan on the London Stock Exchange, and two ships had set sail for St. Joseph, carrying hundreds of intrepid emigrants.

Poyais didn’t exist, of course. But is this really so shocking as the author implies? After all, the case of Amelia Island shows just how fluid nationhood was in the Americas during this period.

Nor was this kind of fraud unprecedented. As Mr. Sinclair himself notes, 1720 had been the year of the South Sea Bubble in Britain. Then, in the mistaken belief that Chile and Peru would soon yield up to British traders unimaginable piles of gold, investors speculated on any and all Latin American business ventures, however ludicrous they sounded (schemes “for trading in hair” and “for improving the art of making soap” were two examples). An entire generation was ruined when the bubble popped.

Fraudulent land sales like MacGregor’s were common enough throughout the New World by the 1840s for Charles Dickens to satirize them in his novel “Martin Chuzzlewit.” In that book the eponymous hero, a young Englishman and aspiring architect trying to make his way in America, calls at the land-sales office of an agent named Scadder. His eye lights on a large and elaborate map:

“‘Heyday!’ cried Martin, as his eye rested on a great plan which occupied one whole side of the office … ‘Heyday! what’s that?’

‘That’s Eden,’ said Scadder, picking his teeth with a sort of young bayonet that flew out of his knife when he touched a spring.

‘Why, I had no idea it was a city.’

‘Hadn’t you? Oh, it’s a city.’

A flourishing city, too! An architectural city! There were banks, churches, cathedrals, market-places, factories, hotels, stores, mansions, wharves …”

Martin jumps at the chance to help develop this beautiful city, and immediately buys a home site there. But when he and his loyal companion Mark Tapley finally reach Eden after a long journey down the Mississippi, all they find is a wretched group of log houses in a vile swamp. “The waters of the Deluge might have left it but a week before: so choked with slime and matted growth was the hideous swamp that bore that name [Eden].”

Despite its fascinating (if despicable) subject, “The Land That Never Was” has several major flaws. The foreword by Desmond FitzGerald is leaden. Mr. Sinclair’s grasp of Latin America’s colonial history seems shaky, and he provides little in the way of context about Latin American society during Gregor MacGregor’s lifetime.

Most egregiously, the book does not include maps; it is simply assumed that readers will be familiar with the precise location of the Mosquito Coast and the boundaries of the former Spanish colony of New Granada. Nevertheless, this tale of an overreacher and shape-shifter, who was absurd, repugnant and impressive by turns, has an undeniable appeal.


By David Sinclair

Da Capo Press, $26, 358 pages

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