A nineteenth century swindler invented his own country

Poyais would have sounded dreamlike to those on the foggy shores of Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Prospective investors and settlers were told of a new South American country filled with fertile soil, verdant scenery, a temperate climate, and considerable amenities, including a majestic port. Gregor MacGregor, a native of Scotland who had long since moved to South America and served as a military general under Simon Bolivar, was the man who spread the word of this distant land.

MacGregor lured investment and settlers in part by pronouncing himself the Prince of Poyais, and by promise of titles and positions of authority to interested settlers. Furthermore, MacGregor pitched the new country as a potential Scottish colony that would bring glory to the country. Recruits were so excited by MacGregor’s salesmanship that he raised £200,000 for the venture, an enormous sum at the time. Seven ships carrying 250 passengers headed for the purportedly beautiful shores of Poyais.

Unfortunately for these unsuspecting investors and settlers, Poyais didn’t exist. MacGregor was running a scam of immense proportions. In 1820, Gregor MacGregor had convinced an Indian king to grant him roughly 8 million acres of jungle in Central America, corresponding to modern-day Honduras. This desolate land was unsuited for agriculture, and was teeming with mosquitos. To this day, it remains uncultivated.

As the first group of settlers disembarked upon the barren wilderness, they soon began to succumb to tropical disease. Many settlers began dying, and the British Navy ordered five of the seven ships to turn back towards Scotland before touching shore. Other settlers managed to escape death by boarding a passing ship to Belize. In total, over two hundred settlers died.

Gregor MacGregor avoided prosecution by fleeing to France. After waiting only a matter of months, MacGregor had revived his scheme, this time enticing French investors and settlers. However, French authorities recognized the scheme and imprisoned MacGregor. However, McGregor was soon acquitted of all charges. Though he returned to Scotland, and even resumed his Poyais scheme on occasion, angry bondholders eventually forced Gregor MacGregor to cross the Atlantic once more, and he died in Caracas in 1845.


Andrews, Evan. “The Con Man Who Invented His Own Country.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 12, 2016. https://www.history.com/news/the-con-man-who-invented-his-own-country?fbclid=IwAR2vEqrT4NRjarL3WyK_HU4iwcG_xH2dAgJYl0uWeO_y6STbWmUaaW85Uec.

Wang, Jeffrey. “How Conman Gregor Macgregor Sold a Fake Colony to European Elites in 1821.” All That’s Interesting. All That’s Interesting, December 1, 2020. https://allthatsinteresting.com/gregor-macgregor?fbclid=IwAR1J9-AQnkhfimW8NBA4Ut_8rMvyBSkJBom-zg4YwF6gqqLcxBItcEbM1Z0.