Selling pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge or advertising swamp land in Florida as prime real estate are cons so familiar that they have become clichés in our language. But those scams are small potatoes compared to this one. You could argue whether it is, as the author claims, “the most audacious fraud in history,” but it is certainly one of the most remarkable, and the story deserves to be better known.
Sinclair’s telling of the tale, while it takes time to unfold, will leave you marveling at both the gullibility and the treachery of the human race. Poyais, the land referred to in the title, was a promising, undeveloped region separated from Honduras and Nicaragua by impassable mountains. With its friendly natives, fertile soil, temperate climate, and resources of timber, minerals, and fish, Poyais seemed the perfect place for newly unemployed Scottish immigrants. And it would have been, except for one problem—it didn’t exist.
The publication of a guidebook extolling the virtues of this Shangri-La was a complete fabrication, but the 250 settlers who purchased land did not find this out until they had crossed the Atlantic. They embarked from their ship onto the uninhabited shore of the Mosquito Coast, to find nothing of what they had been promised. More than one half of their number died from exposure and disease, while fewer than one fifth ever returned to their homes.This synopsis does not spoil any surprises for the reader, because the first part of the book clearly lays out the nature of the fraud. Sinclair is not interested in presenting a mystery or in creating suspense, but rather in examining the character and history of Sir Gregor MacGregor.
“Audacious” describes both the fraud and the man himself. A flamboyant bon vivant, he began his quest for wealth and glory in the military, first with the British Army, then with the freedom fighters in South America. He used his military service to create a mythical version of himself, more decorated, more heroic, more glorious than the real man. This façade he maintained and embellished to the point where he had proclaimed himself the Cazique, or Prince, of the Central American province of Poyais, and conceived the idea of making a fortune out of “the land that never was.” The recreation of MacGregor’s life is a delicate task, since some of the fictions that he spread about himself were convincing enough to be accepted by his biographers. Painstakingly, Sinclair has researched his subject, relying heavily on the accounts of MacGregor’s contemporaries. He readily admits when the truth is unclear, often presenting various sides of a story and leaving the conclusions to the readers.
He also provides the historical context one must be familiar with in order to understand how MacGregor managed to pull off his fraud. One entire chapter is devoted to explaining how South American countries financed their fights for independence by selling bonds on the London Stock Exchange, a practice which MacGregor successfully imitated. These details, as well as the history of the freedom fighters in South America and the story of how the Scottish emigrants survived their rude homecoming, make this book more than the story of one man. It also presents a picture of the economic, political, and social life of the early 1800’s. Ending up at well over three hundred pages, Sir Gregor MacGregor
requires some commitment and more than a passing interest in history. But those who are intrigued by the title and who find the time to follow Sinclair’s narrative will meet a character who is larger than life and stranger than fiction.