Poyais: a country that never existed

In 1821 Gregor MacGregor took the city of London by surprise when he announced that he was the Cazique of the country of “Poyais”. A title which he alleged was given to him by the king of the Mosquito Empire (present day Nicaragua and Honduras).

Gregor MacGregor with the help of a 360 page guide full of illustrations presented Poyais as a utopia. According to MacGregor Poyais was a paradise free of disease and suffering it had rivers of gold, fertile land, a thriving port, and a modern capital called St Joseph which had public buildings and even an opera house. Poyais sounded too good to be true and in the end, it was all just a fraud. The scam was so successful that Macgregor ended up with quite a fortune.

How did MacGregor pull off such an elaborate scheme?

Gregor Macgregor was born in Scotland and he spent his youth in the royal army. In the early 1810s, Macgregor sailed to Venezuela to participate in the Venezuelan war of independence against Spain. Macgregor had a short and glorious career in Venezuela and after defeating the Spanish Macgregor went to Nicaragua hungry for a new conquest. In Nicaragua, he allegedly convinced a local king to give him a large chunk of his territory which was mostly tropical rainforest.

MacGregor returned to London and presented his newly acquired territory as a modern utopia and started convincing investors. It was common for new governments to raise funds in London as the Spanish empire in South America was crumbling and new nations were emerging. To make his plan work Macgregor made a fake government, printed fake currency, wrote fake documents, offered cheap land, and even offered fake government jobs to his investors. Investors were told to hurry up as MacGregor presented it as a grab it while you can deal. MacGregor’s plan worked to perfection as to people it was an opportunity of a lifetime. He was able to convince seven ships worth of eager settlers to sail for Poyais

MacGregor raised 200,000 pounds for his operation and in total, he was able to raise 1.3 million pounds over his lifetime. In September 1821 and January 1822 the first two ships left for Poyais with nearly 250 passengers. When they arrived at the location which MacGregor alleged was “Poyais” they found an uninhabited coast and a tropical forest. Two- third of the 250 settlers succumbed to tropical diseases such as malaria and the remaining were rescued by the British from the nearby colony of Belize. The remaining ships of settlers that were soon to arrive were recalled before any further loss of life.

In 1823 MacGregor fled to France where he once again started his scam. France wasn’t as easy to fool as England for MacGregor. He was arrested in 1825 but was somehow acquitted and released. In 1827 he again returned to England and once again started his schemes though this time around he wasn’t as successful as the first time as the police were onto him. MacGregor finally stopped his scams in the late 1830s when he left for Venezuela where he was awarded a pension for serving in the military. He eventually died in 1845 in Caracas, Venezuela.

Image: An engraving from Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, purporting to depict the “port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais”
(Credit: Wikipedia)

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