The Historical Figure Who Invented A Country (And Got Away With It)
Gregor MacGregor has gone by many names throughout his life: El General MacGregor, the Prince of Poyais, the Cazique, His Serene Highness Gregor. But we prefer to refer to him as the luckiest and most ambitious conman in history, mainly because he claimed that he was the sovereign of a Central American paradise nation and somehow hundreds of people straight-up believed him.
Settle in, as we're about to meet one of history's all-time griftlords ...
Not So Humble Origins
Gregor MacGregor was born in 1786 but his life doesn't start getting interesting until the 1800s. Besides being lucky, MacGregor was just unbelievably Scottish. His name makes him sound like a parody character who constantly plays bagpipes made from haggis. MacGregor was the grandson of Gregor the Beautiful, a Scottish lord and clansman of renown. His father was an East India Company sea captain. His great-great-uncle was Rob Roy, the famous outlaw folk hero.
With this storied pedigree, MacGregor joined the British Army in 1803 and advanced/bought his way up the ranks until he became a major. He could afford it all by marrying the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral, which came with a massive dowry. Things could not have been looking better for MacGregor... until he apparently had a minor disagreement with a superior officer and asked to be discharged from the Army.
(To this day, no one is totally sure what exactly happened there, but MacGregor was by then known to be kind of snobbish and deeply unlikable, so maybe his superior officer kept greeting him every morning with an ol' "Hey Gregor MacGregor! You want some advice? Don't name your kid twice!" until Greg^2 quit the army.)
Upon his discharge, MacGregor's wife died, and it was at this point that Greg Son-of-Greg decided to completely reinvent himself. Dead spouses are usually pretty solid origin stories, and this one basically gave the world Con Man, the ballsiest fraudster in history.
Much like Batman, who in the early stages of his career had to make do with a cape made from his drapes and "BAT-MAN" written on an old sweatshirt, MacGregor had to start out small. He began by calling himself "Sir Gregor" and traveling to Venezuela to join their war for independence. A veteran of the British Army and a knight to boot? He was given the rank of colonel on the spot by General Miranda, the principal commander of Simon Bolivar who fought against the Spanish Empire.
Whether through actual skill or luck, by the time he was 30, MacGregor became General of Division in the Army of Venezuela and New Granada. Then, he got to marry another rich heiress, this one a cousin to Simon Bolivar himself. If we managed to bullshit our way through life as much as MacGregor at this point, we too would start to suspect that maybe, just maybe, we were invincible. McG sure did, because once the fighting in Venezuela was over, he gathered up some troops and continued attacking surviving Spanish outposts.
In 1820, he landed in Nicaragua on the Mosquito Coast, named so for the Miskito people. (Although, yes, it incidentally had a bunch of mosquitos.) The Mosquito Coast was a generally unwelcoming piece of land. Swampy, flat, and warring tribal factions. It probably didn't take a lot for MacGregor to convince the local king, George Frederic Augustus I, to sign over the land to him to set up a colony. Although some sources say that Con Man wanted to be extra sure he got the rights to where Shrek would flee if he'd been a Nazi scientist, so he got George drunk before having him sign the land over. This is where MacGregor's legend truly begins.
The Legend of Poyais
Upon his return to Britain, MacGregor graduated from pretending he was a knight to pretending he was a Prince, or "the Cazique" as the locals called him, of the incredibly beautiful land of Poyais. What, you never heard of Poyais? Well, pull up a chair, and MacGregor will tell you all about it.
So you know the Mosquito Coast? It's located in this part of Central America where the best cartographers just make a bunch of wild guesses (and the worst ones start drawing dragons). That's where you will find Poyais.
Oh, you've never seen anything like it! (Mainly because it didn't exist, but MacGregor didn't let that ruin his stories.) It's simply paradise on Earth. It's located right by the coast. but it has easy access to mountains covered by all sorts of trees perfect for building literally everything. The weather was a form of mild endless summer. The ground was so fertile you could throw away an apple core and come back to it one week later to find out that it's started growing into a tree. Vast plantations of sugar, coffee, and cotton! Also, there was gold and precious stones in the mountains, because why the hell not?
Just before a reasonable person would ask sarcastically about the unicorns safaris, MacGregor kept talking, and he was just so sure of himself, so charming, so... believable, that people kind of got caught up in his story. It also didn't hurt that MacGregor didn't just rely on his silver tongue -- he came prepared.
You see, MacGregor wrote a goddamn guide to Poyais, detailing its geography and topography. He designed his own national flag and anthem. There was also the undisputed fact that the guy was a war hero, a veteran who served in South America. Why would he make up a whole country? If some weirdo asked for more proof that Poyais was real, they could just go to the official Poyais embassy in London which, fun fact, was a thing that existed. Or they could pick up one of the many Poyais pamphlets that were circulating around the city. Or, hell, they could go talk to Thomas Strangeways, who MacGregor appointed Captain in the Native Poyer Regiment and Aide-de-Camp to His Highness. It's a miracle that Poyais didn't magically come into existence given how hard everyone believed in it.
So when Two-Gregs himself started recruiting colonists to tend Poyais' fields, expand the opera house, and sweep all those pesky gold nuggets from the streets, people jumped at the opportunity. Land in Poyais was sold at four shillings an acre (about $14). Oh and, MacGregor probably mentioned in passing, you won't be able to use all those British pound notes once you get there. So why not exchange them for Bank of Poyais notes? Of which MacGregor had ~70,000 printed.
And so, with nothing but their belongings and pockets full of Monopoly money, on September 10, 1822, 50 settlers set off for the Mosquito Coast on the Honduras Packet. Two-thirds of them would never return.
Voyage of the Damned
The Atlantic crossing itself went off without a hitch and even when the ship started to approach the Mosquito Coast and people noticed how spectacularly Poyais just was not there, spirits were still high.
Everyone just assumed they went off course. Maps back then were so unreliable, they'd tell themselves, still not seeing the connection. They had no real reason to worry. This was the time when a lot of people made fortunes for themselves in Latin America. New colonies popped up all over the place all the time. So the settlers started to unpack while some people went looking for directions to Poyais. Then a bunch of things happened that make us think that MacGregor was some kind of luck vampire who somehow extracted good fortune from other people, dropping them headfirst into fate's concrete wading pool.
First, a hurricane hit the settlers, scattering and destroying their belongings and stranding them due to the ship being blown out to sea. The heat was sweltering and the rainy season was now approaching. Without shelter, literally every settler eventually came down with malaria or yellow fever. News of this thankfully reached British Honduras and Belize and a rescue operation was quickly organized. But they were too late. Two-thirds of the original settlers died. But British colonies in Latin America didn't have much time to mourn them because more Poyais-bound ships were on their way. They then spent the next YEAR turning away ships full of swindled settlers.
As for MacGregor, while innocent people were dying a slow, undignified death, babbling something about the golden domes of the Poyaisian capital, MacGregor was back in Britain securing himself a loan leveraged against all the gold he had. Back in Poyais. Which totally existed. If it didn't, where would MacGregor get this hat saying "Poyais" that he most probably had. The bank lent him 200,000 pounds, or the modern equivalent of $14 million. Part of that money went to setting up MacGregor's new base of operation in France. For some bizarre reason, he felt that staying in Britain for too long might be bad for his health. So he moved. And then, from his Paris office, he contacted another British bank and secured himself a loan of $22.5 million in today's money. Like we said: luck vampire.
No Lesson, Just Suffering
In 1827, after sending at least one ship to Poyais from France, MultiGreg, for reasons unknown, returned to Britain and was immediately arrested. He was almost as quickly released and charges against him were dropped. Chances are that MacGregor had friends in high places ... or perhaps even enemies. Think about it: if it turned out that he'd swindled some Lord into investing his fortune into a made-up country, the last thing that guy would want is for this information to be made public. So MacGregor went free. Then he went to France where similarly he was arrested and released. Seriously, did this guy scam God or something?
Now, we know that a lot of you are waiting for some good news like "MacGregor had his dick smashed between two bars of gold" or something. Well, the only thing we have is that around 1839 his money ran out ... so he sailed to Venezuela, reminded them that he fought for their independence, and was welcomed with opened arms. His General of Division rank was reinstated and he was awarded a pension, spending the rest of his life living in relative comfort and reminiscing with his old war buddies about their glory days.
So there you have it -- the life of a total dipshit unencumbered by any karmic repercussions. History does not promise us happy endings or morals. For all we know, Gregor MacGregor didn't actually die in 1845 and still walks among us today.
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Top image: Samuel Reynolds/Wikimedia Commons