- The Land that Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History
What is it about Scots and Central America? First there was Darien; then, as this book explains, there was Poyais on the Mosquito Coast. Two hundred and fifty settlers, most of them Scots, left Britain to start new lives in the Republic of Poyais in 1823. Fewer than fifty survived to report that the bustling, elegant city of St. Joseph did not exist, that the friendly and helpful local Poyais Indians were nowhere to seen, and that the rich farmland was just a jungle. These settlers, along with a host of investors, had been the victims in what David Sinclair describes as 'the most audacious fraud in history', perpetrated by Gregor MacGregor, the so-called Cazique of Poyais.
After a curious and inconsequential foreword by Desmond FitzGerald, Knight of Glin, the book is divided into three sections. In the first, Sinclair outlines the scale of the fraud, and recounts the experiences of those who arrived in Poyais only to find their dreams shattered. The second part concentrates on MacGregor's colourful career before he styled himself the Cazique of Poyais. Here we rather lose sight of the fraud and its victims. Instead, Sinclair settles down into a biography of MacGregor, outlining his exploits in the armies of Britain, Portugal and Venezuela. At times, the narrative is obscured by long discussions of South American leaders like Miranda or Bolivar that lend bulk rather than illumination to the story. Ultimately what emerges is an image of MacGregor as a man who revelled in leading glorious invasions (often from a safe distance) and then fleeing when danger closed in. The man who would be Cazique is portrayed as a fantasist and a coward who left soldiers to die while he saved his own skin. The final section describes MacGregor's efforts to sustain his fraud, even after it became clear that Poyais was no El Dorado. In part he was able to do this because it was not entirely clear at the time that it was he who had been responsible for the disaster at Poyais. He was never prosecuted in Britain, but was less fortunate in France, whose citizens he also tried to con. He was held on remand in Paris for several months, but was ultimately acquitted on appeal. British satirists lampooned him in the 1830s, but he passed the final years of his life in Venezuela, lauded as a hero of the independence movement.
Sinclair's tale is unashamedly a work of popular history. It sweeps us across the Atlantic, through the jungles of South America and into the financial centres of European capitals. There is plenty of derring-do in exotic locations, but at times the book feels like a triumph of imagination over evidence. The book lacks footnotes of any kind, so the reader is left wondering precisely how Sinclair knows how any of the characters 'must have felt'. Sinclair's sources, judging by his select bibliography, appear extremely limited and there are some curious omissions. Articles have been written on MacGregor, but they are missing here. Even more surprisingly, MacGregor's autobiography, housed in the National Archives of Scotland, merits no mention.
Perhaps the clearest insight into the past from this book is the potential disparity between expectation and reality for migrants. The tragedy at Poyais brings home how vulnerable emigrants could be to the designs of unscrupulous emigration agents and organisers. The author, however, tends not to allow analysis to interrupt his narrative. When he does try to analyse his story more closely, and to situate it within broader historical contexts, he runs into difficulties. Towards the end, the author suggests that MacGregor might have believed he was creating a viable colony, perhaps to right the wrongs of Darien (p. 325). [End Page 371]
Sinclair goes on to say that with 'a serious programme of British emigration' MacGregor might 'have helped to create a thriving little...