Truth stranger than fiction? Nah! Well, maybe

Truth stranger than fiction? Nah! Well, maybe

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 settlers to Poyais hoped to find upon their arrival

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?)

11 Responses to Truth stranger than fiction? Nah! Well, maybe

  1. Jennifer, Thank you for a fascinating bit of history. It is amazing what people can and do get away with. It is easier to understand how evil sorts could perpetrate crimes in the days when they left no “foot or finger” prints and records were difficult to obtain, but to think they still find ways to commit Ponzi schemes today is amazing.

  2. Fascinating look at a fraud, Jennifer. I, too, am amazed that he was exonerated. How odd is that! This made me think of the saying “there is a sucker born every minute” which was attributed to P. T. Barnum but was actually said by his rival David Hannum. At least I believe our Mr. Darcy would have been too smart to fall for such a scheme. 😉

    • Well I’d like to think that as well. It would be fun to explore the Wickhams being suckered into such a scheme and Darcy and Elizabeth having to bail them out.

  3. This reminds me of the Ponzi scheme of our decade. There will always be those like MacGregor and his ilk, out to make money at the expense of others. They have no conscious, no feelings for the hurt they have caused or created. In your account of him…he continued his ruse throughout his life. It was almost like a compulsion or obsession.

    As for society, the desire for wealth, fame, and the willingness to believe the lie from the glib tongue of strangers…still boggles the mind. So many lives lost, people hurt and destroyed emotionally and financially…it hurts my heart and soul to think of it.

    • What’s really surprising is that he waived the fee for some of the settlers, so that he could act magnanimous. It’s like those Wall Street con artists who give to charities.

  4. Hi Jennifer. My UK library card allows me access to the ODNB website so I’ve just checked up on Gregor MacGregor.

    The fraud is mentioned now and it also says his knighthood was from Portugal. Extracts follow.

    “Back in London MacGregor persuaded the respectable bankers Perring & Co. to manage a major loan for his new nation. In 1823 a £200,000 Poyais bond issue yielding five per cent per annum and authorized by ‘Gregor I, sovereign prince of the independent state of Poyais’ was offered at the stock exchange. The general climate of the time favoured MacGregor—after Waterloo the English government’s borrowing requirements fell and therefore high-yielding foreign securities seemed particularly attractive, especially those of the newly independent Latin American nations. Given the public’s hazy knowledge of geography, Poyais seemed a plausible investment. MacGregor grossed over £50,000 before his fraud was discovered.”

    “MacGregor served briefly with his regiment in the Iberian peninsula but sold up his captaincy in 1810 following a disagreement with a superior officer. He joined the Portuguese service and received a Portuguese order of knighthood after a few months”

    • Thanks very much, Anji. I’m glad the ODNB gives a full picture of the man.

      Of course, the fraud still has currency, so to speak. I did a Google search of “Poyais land grants” and found a website that sells one for $495. It’s really very elaborate and you can see why it fooled people into thinking they had something legitimate.

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