Truth is stranger than fiction, they say, which I’ve never believed. After all, liars—or fiction authors—are unconstrained by the impossible. We can make up anything we want and get away with it (especially science fiction authors). In the real world, however, there are limits that liars—or authors—must adhere to should they want a story to seem believable.
While researching and planning the book I’m writing, I wondered how far I could stretch the believable and worried that I’d gone too far, but recently I discovered that what I’d imagined was still a pale imitation of what another liar had imagined.
I’ve just read The Land That Never Was by David Sinclair about the exploits of General “Sir” Gregor McGregor, Cazique of Poyais. This self-titled potentate perpetrated a massive and puzzling fraud a little after the time of Jane Austen (beginning in 1822) that led to the deaths of hundreds and bankrupted thousands, and yet he was never convicted of any crime and was actually exonerated both by a French court and even by the people he swindled.
(Although MacGregor perpetrated his most outrageous con after Jane Austen’s death, it’s possible she would have know of his much inflated exploits during the Napoleonic Wars, or his later efforts on behalf of Venezuelan independence. Her survivors probably would have heard of the wonderful investment opportunities in Poyais, especially when consols, a government bond issued by the Bank of England, dropped from a five percent return to four percent.)
McGregor’s scheme coincided with the South American bubble, when various countries in South America were attempting independence from Spain. Investors were hoping to make good with these new governments, but successful independence movements were either too few or took too long to come to fruition. McGregor, however, claimed to be the leader or Cazique of Poyais, a country on the Bay of Honduras along the Mosquito Shore, and he offered investors and potential settlers an inviting opportunity. Poyais, he said, had never been a Spanish territory and in fact its earliest foreign settlement had been by the British. Moreover, the citizens of Poyais greatly admired the British and hoped to attract British money and settlers.
McGregor also claimed that the capital of Poyais, St. Joseph, was in every respect a model European community with an already established infrastructure of roads, mining, farming and even bureaucracy. It only needed British expertise to prosper further. Of course most British subjects had never heard of Poyais, so it’s hard to imagine why someone would pull up stakes and move to a country in a region of the world notable for hot, humid weather and malaria. (Incidentally the Mosquito Shore or Coast was named not for the insect but for the indigenous Miskito people.)
By coincidence, however, about this time a very popular guidebook—Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, Including the Territory of Poyais—purportedly written by Captain Thomas Strangeways, appeared in Edinburgh and London, extolling the virtues of the country, from its moderate climate and the good harbor to its fertile soil and even its opera house.
This alone might not have convinced hard-headed Scots to leave their homeland, but there were other reasons McGregor’s pitch was attractive. McGregor was, after all, a general in the republican army of Venezuela (true); a hero of the Peninsular Campaign (false; he was there but managed to avoid most fighting); had established a Republic of Florida (by capturing for a short time the lightly defended Amelia Island); and he was head of the Clan Gregor (false, he was not and had no right to call himself a baronet).
MacGregor also was a genius at creating the trappings of a functioning country. He even created an embassy of sorts for Poyais at the home of a gullible and wealthy backer. MacGregor rewarded his dupes with fake military honors like the Order of the Green Cross. He also registered his spurious deed to Poyaisan territory at the High Court of Chancery and issued elaborate land grants and stock certificates and was fond of penning grandiloquent proclamations.
MacGregor’s pitch also had a resonance at a time when all things Scottish were en vogue, thanks to Sir Walter Scott’s tireless efforts to promote the visit of George IV to Scotland. It also helped that Rob Roy was an ancestor. And in another outrageous display of hubris, MacGregor said he hoped his promised land of Poyais would erase the stain of the disastrous Darien Scheme at the end of the seventeenth century, when Scottish investors tried to create a colony in Panama.
Thus it was that most of the settlers to Poyais were Scots. MacGregor sold these settler land grants to Poyaisan territory and equipped two ships to take settlers there with all the necessary tools, supplies and food to support them while building their new homes. Of course not everyone who went planned to settle. Some hoped to work in the Poyaisan bureaucracy or in even in the Poyaisan theater world. After all, they expected to find a fully developed European city.
What they found upon arrival, however, was nothing: no city, no friendly natives, just two men who lived nearby indulging in the British indulgence of going native (somewhat difficult to do admittedly because of the lack of natives). Unfortunately the ships that landed the settlers departed without them for various reasons. Some tried to build homes but disease, bad water and ruined supplies finally led to the survivors being taken to Belize. Fortunately additional ships carrying settlers to Poyais were turned back.
By some miracle, MacGregor largely avoided fault for the failed expeditions to Poyais. One survivor even went so far as to write a book exonerating MacGregor. What MacGregor couldn’t escape, however, was a growing mistrust of South American speculations. He did try to revive his scheme in France by selling land rights to a French company that would then resell them, but that landed him in jail. Not because he was selling land in a country that didn’t exist, however, but because of irregularities in the transactions. And he was later exonerated.
Over decades he kept trying to reinvent the scheme but he knew the game was up when he faced competition from other speculators also trying to sell stock in fictional Poyaisan land. He eventually ended up back in Venezuela where he was awarded a pension for one of the very few actual military exploits he’d accomplished.
In this case, the truth of MacGregor’s fiction is far more daring than what I envisioned for my own book. Even though I had the liberty of concocting in my fiction anything I could imagine, I was still far more timid than what someone else concocted in real life. Then again, what he concocted was a fiction as well, all of which goes back to my suspicion that the old aphorism truth is stranger than fiction is a lie in and of itself.
One of the things that I enjoy about writing historical fiction is that past ages are imbued with an inherent magical realism. With so much of the world yet to be discovered, you could claim just about anything to be true and get away with it. Which makes one wonder what future ages will think of our mistaken beliefs. And the story of Gregor MacGregor also shows how resilient mistaken beliefs can be. According to David Sinclair, the author of the The Land That Never Was, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography in its entry for MacGregor still makes no mention of MacGregor’s fraud nor does it question the validity of his knighthood. (Sinclair’s book was published in 2003 and the last edition of the ODNB was published in 2004, so it’s possible that error was corrected. Access to the ODNB requires a subscription, but is available through most UK libraries, so if anyone would care to check for me?)