Gregor MacGregor (24 December 1786 – 4 December 1845) was a Scottish soldier, adventurer, land speculator, and colonizer who fought in the South American struggle for independence. Upon his return to England in 1820, he claimed to be cacique of Poyais (also known as Principality of Poyais, Territory of Poyais, Republic of Poyais), a fictional Central American country that MacGregor had invented which, with his help, drew investors and eventually colonists.
MacGregor was born in the family house of Glengyle in Stirlingshire, Scotland on Christmas Eve 1786 to Daniel MacGregor, a sea captain with the East India Company, and Ann Austin, a doctor’s daughter. Little is known of MacGregor’s early life, but apparently he had at least one sister.
In 1803, at the age of 16, he joined the British Army and served in an infantry regiment, the 57th Foot. By 1804, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant, an unusually rapid progression in the ranks. He married Maria Bowater, an admiral’s daughter, in June 1805, and they set up house in London while MacGregor spent much of his time in Gibraltar, where the 57th Foot was in training.
In July 1809, MacGregor’s regiment was sent to Portugal, as reinforcements for the Duke of Wellington’s second peninsular campaign to drive the French out of Spain. Accounts of MacGregor’s service in this campaign vary, but it is known that for a time he was seconded to the Portuguese army with the rank of major, and that he sold out of the British Army in May 1810, possibly because of disagreements with his superior officers. MacGregor and his wife then went to Edinburgh, where he assumed the title of “Colonel,” but by 1811, they were in London, and MacGregor was styling himself Sir Gregor MacGregor, while claiming falsely to have succeeded to the chieftainship of the clan MacGregor.
Venezuela and New Granada
In December 1811, his wife Maria died. By this time, MacGregor had heard about the independence movements in South America and the Captaincy General of Venezuela in particular. He sold his small Scottish estate and sailed for South America, arriving in Caracas in the spring of 1812. There he met Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, the daughter of a prominent local family and a cousin of Simon Bolívar. They were married on 10 June 1812. They eventually had three children, Gregorio (b. ca. 1817), Constantino, (b. ca. 1819) and Josefa Anna Gregoria (b. ca. 1821).
Upon his arrival in Caracas, MacGregor talked General Francisco de Miranda, the Commander in Chief of the new Venezuelan Republic’s army, into appointing him a colonel, and almost immediately became involved in a series of skirmishes that resulted in his promotion to brigadier-general. A month or so later, when General Miranda was captured and handed over to the royalist forces by Simon Bolívar, MacGregor and his wife fled to Curaçao on a British brig.
From Curaçao, MacGregor decided to go to New Granada (present-day Colombia) and join the liberation forces of General Antonio Nariño. For Josefa’s safety, he first took her to the British island of Jamaica and then sailed for Cartagena on the northern coast of New Granada. From there he made his way south to Tunja, where General Nariño put him in command of the military district of Socorro, near the Venezuelan border. During the year or so he spent here, he earned what became a lifelong reputation as an unreliable braggart. One local official wrote of him: “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what. This man can hardly serve us in New Granada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us.”
In 1814, the Spanish royalist forces routed General Nariño’s army and MacGregor took refuge in Cartagena de Indias, where he played a role in organizing the city’s defenses. In August 1815, the Spanish troops of General Pablo Morillo attacked the city and began a siege that lasted until December, when disease and starvation forced the city to surrender. On the night of 5 December, MacGregor helped to organize a mass escape aboard gunboats that blasted their way through the Spanish blockade and sailed for Jamaica.
In Jamaica, MacGregor was treated as a hero, but by the spring of 1816 he had moved on with Josefa to the neighboring island of Haiti, where Simon Bolívar was raising a new army. In April, MacGregor sailed with Bolívar’s fleet as a brigadier-general to Venezuela, landing on the island of Margarita before crossing to Carupano on the mainland. Both Bolívar and MacGregor ran into trouble after their forces split up, and MacGregor’s troops were eventually forced to retreat towards the town of Barcelona, fighting all the way. This difficult, month-long campaign earned MacGregor deserved acclaim and is probably the high point of his military adventures, which were otherwise marred by varying amounts of error, incompetency, and exaggeration on his part.
Green Cross Flag of Republic of the Floridas
MacGregor claimed to be commissioned by representatives of the revolting South American countries to liberate Florida from Spanish rule. Financed by American backers, he led an army of only 150 men, including recruits from Charleston and Savannah, some War of 1812 veterans, and 55 musketeers in an assault on Fort San Carlos at Fernandina on Amelia Island. Through spies within the Spanish garrison, MacGregor had learned that the force there consisted of only 55 regulars and 50 militia men. He spread rumors in the town, which eventually reached the ear of the garrison commander that an army of more than 1,000 men was about to attack.
On 29 June 1817, he advanced on the fort, deploying his men in small groups coming from various directions to give the impression of a larger force. The commander, Francisco Morales, struck the Spanish flag and fled. MacGregor raised his flag, the “Green Cross of Florida”, a green cross on a white ground, over the fort and proclaimed the “Republic of the Floridas.”
Now in possession of the town, and seeing the need to make the appearance of a legitimate government, MacGregor quickly formed a committee to draft a constitution, and appointed Ruggles Hubbard, the former high sheriff of New York City, as unofficial civil governor, and Jared Irwin, an adventurer and former Pennsylvania Congressman, as his treasurer. MacGregor then opened a post office, ordered a printing press to publish a newspaper, and issued currency to pay his troops and to settle government debts. Expecting reinforcements for a raid against the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine, MacGregor intended to subdue all of Spanish East Florida.
His plan was doomed to fail, however, as President James Monroe was in sensitive negotiations with Spain to acquire all of Florida.
Soon MacGregor’s reserves were depleted, and the Republic needed revenue. He commissioned privateers to seize Spanish ships and set up an admiralty court, which levied a customs duty on their sales. They began selling captured prizes and their cargoes, which often included slaves.
When about 28 August fellow conspirator Ruggles Hubbard sailed into the harbor aboard his own brig Morgiana, flying the flag of Buenos Ayres, but without the needed men, guns, and money, MacGregor announced his departure. On 4 September, faced with the threat of a Spanish reprisal, and still lacking money and adequate reinforcements, he abandoned his plans to conquer Florida and departed Fernandina with most of his officers, leaving a small detachment of men at Fort San Carlos to defend the island.
After his withdrawal, these and a force of American irregulars organized by Hubbard and Irwin repelled the Spanish attempt to reassert authority. The French privateer Luis Aury sailed into the port of Fernandina on 17 September 1817. Following negotiations with Hubbard and Irwin, Amelia Island was dubiously annexed to the Republic of Mexico on 21 September 1817, and its flag raised over Fort San Carlos. Aury surrendered the island to U.S. forces on 23 December 1817.
Cacique of Poyais
MacGregor returned to London in 1820, where he announced that he had been created cacique (highest authority or prince) of the Principality of Poyais, an independent nation on the Bay of Honduras. He claimed that native chieftain King George Frederic Augustus I of the Mosquito Shore and Nation had given him the territory of Poyais, 12,500 miles² (32,400 km²) of fertile land with untapped resources, a small number of settlers of British origin, and cooperative natives eager to please. He painted the picture of a country with a civil service, an army and a democratic government, which needed English settlers and investors.
At the time, British merchants were all too eager to enter the South American market that Spain had denied to them. In the wake of wars for South American independence, the new governments of Colombia, Chile, and Peru had issued bonds in the London Royal Exchange to raise money.
London high society welcomed MacGregor’s colourful figure, and he and his Spanish-American wife received many invitations. The Lord Mayor of London Christopher Magnay even organized an official reception in London Guildhall.
MacGregor claimed descent of clan MacGregor and that Rob Roy MacGregor had been his direct ancestor. MacGregor also claimed that one of his ancestors was a rare survivor of the Darien Scheme, a failed Scottish attempt of colonization in Panama in 1690s. In order to compensate for this, he said, he had decided to draw most of the settlers from Scotland. For this purpose, he established offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow. He also enhanced his allure by embellishing his exploits in the Peninsular War in the service of Francisco de Miranda and Simon Bolivar.
MacGregor was also introduced to Major William John Richardson and by the winter of 1821, he had made Richardson legate of Poyais. He moved to Oak Hall in Richardson’s estate in Essex, as befitted his station as a prince.
An office for the Legation of the Territory of Poyais was opened at Dowgate Hill in London. MacGregor threw elaborate banquets in Oak Hall and invited dignitaries, foreign ambassadors, government ministers and senior military officers.
In Edinburgh in 1822, MacGregor began to sell land rights for 3 shillings and 3 pence per acre (a worker’s weekly wage at the time was about 1 shilling). The price steadily rose to 4 shillings. Many people willing to help colonize the new land signed on with their families. By October 23, 1822, MacGregor had secured a £200,000 loan on behalf of the Poyais government, in the form of 2,000 bearer bonds worth £100 each.
That same year, “Sketch of the Mosquito Shore,” including the Territory of Poyais, supposedly written by Captain Thomas Strangeways, was published. It described the Poyais in glowing terms and boasted of the profit one could gain from the country’s ample resources. Poyais was described as a very anglophilic region with existing infrastructure, untapped gold and silver mines, and large amounts of fertile soil ready to be settled. The region was even free of tropical diseases. The book also claimed that British settlers had founded “St. Joseph,” the capital of Poyais, in the 1730s.
The Legation of Poyais chartered a ship called the Honduras Packet, and London merchants provisioned the ship with food and ammunition. Its cargo also included a chest full of Poyaisian currency that MacGregor had printed in Scotland. Many of the settlers changed their pounds to Poyais dollars.
On 10 September 1822, the Honduras Packet departed from the Port of London with 70 would-be-settlers, including doctors, lawyers, and bankers who had been promised positions in the Poyais civil service. Some had also purchased officer commissions in the Poyaisian army.
On 22 January 1823 another ship, the Kennersley Castle, similarly left Scotland for Poyais with 200 would-be-settlers and enough provisions for a year. When it arrived in the Bay of Honduras on March 20, it spent two days looking for a port. Eventually the Scottish newcomers encountered the settlers on the Honduras Packet.
The settlers found only an untouched jungle, and a few American hermits who had made their homes there. The capital of “St. Joseph” consisted only of ruins of a previous attempt at settlements abandoned in the previous century. The Honduras Packet was eventually swept away by a storm.
While some of the labourers began to build rudimentary shelter for themselves, the officers and civil servants decided to try to find a way out. Lieutenant-Colonel Hector Hall, would-be-governor of Poyais, left to look for another ship to take them back to Britain. The would-be-settlers began to argue, and the Kennersley Castle sailed away. Tropical diseases also began to take their toll. One settler, having used his life savings to gain passage, committed suicide.
In April, the Mexican Eagle, an official ship from British Honduras with the chief magistrate on board, accidentally found the settlers. Chief Magistrate Bennet told them that there was no such place as Poyais, and agreed to take them to British Honduras. By the time they arrived in British Honduras, the settlers were weakened, and many later died. All told, 180 of the 240 would-be settlers eventually perished during the ordeal.
Edward Codd, Superintendent for Belize, sent a warning to London, sending back any ships of would-be-settlers that were headed for Poyais. Those survivors who did not decide to remain in the Americas departed for London on August 1, 1823. More people died during that journey, and fewer than 50 came back alive to Britain. When they returned, city papers published the whole story.
Astonishingly, some survivors refused to label MacGregor as a culprit. One of them, James Hastie, who had lost two of his children to tropical diseases, published a book, Narrative of a Voyage in the Ship Kennersley Castle from Leith Roads to Poyais, in which he blamed Sir Gregor’s advisers and publicists for spreading false information. A group of survivors signed a declaration of their belief that had Sir Gregor gone with them, things would have turned out differently. Major Richardson sued the papers for libel and defended MacGregor against the charges of fraud. MacGregor, however, had left for Paris in October 1823.
Poyaisian Scheme in France
In France, MacGregor contacted the trading organization “Compagnie de la Nouvelle Neustrie” and commissioned it to solicit more Poyaisian settlers and investors in France.
In March 1825, MacGregor summoned Gustavus Butler Hippisley, an acquaintance from the army, and appointed him a representative of Poyais in Colombia. Hippisley was asked to write about the Poyais affair in France in “Acts of Oppression Committed under the Administration of m. de Villele, Prime minister of Charles X,” from 1825 to 1826. MacGregor told Hippisley that he needed the help of the French government to obtain a formal renunciation of any (in reality nonexistent) claims Spain might have to Poyais and that he had met with French Prime Minister Jean-Baptiste de Villele. MacGregor and la Nouvelle Noustrie already had plans to send French emigrants to Poyais. Hippisley wrote back to London, castigating the journalists who had called MacGregor a “penniless adventurer.”
In August, MacGregor published a new constitution of Poyais; he had changed it into a republic with himself as the head of state. On August 18, 1825, he issued a 300,000 loan with 2.5% interest, through the London bank of Thomas Jenkins & Company. The bond was probably never issued. At the same time, la Nouvelle Noustrie recruited settlers to buy FFr100 worth of shares each.
When French officials noticed that a number of people had obtained passports in order to voyage to a country they had never heard of, they seized the la Nouvelle Noustrie vessel in Le Havre. The would-be-emigrants demanded an investigation; Hippisley was arrested, but MacGregor was nowhere to be found.
Hippisley and MacGregor’s secretary Thomas Irving were held in custody in La Force prison pending an investigation. Lehuby, one of the directors of la Nouvelle Neustrie, fled to Belgium. MacGregor went into hiding until he was apprehended on December 7, 1825. In January 1826, he made a proclamation to Central American states, written in French. The accused were later moved to Bicetre prison.
The trial began on 6 April 1826. MacGregor, Hippisley, Irving and Lehuby (in absentia) were accused of fraud based on the Poyais emigration program. The prosecutor was willing to drop the charges if the men were deported from France. Initially the court agreed, but changed its mind when Belgium agreed to extradite Lehuby.
The new trial began on July 10, 1826, and lasted for four days. MacGregor’s lawyer eloquently put the blame on anybody else but MacGregor. MacGregor was acquitted, and Hippisley and Irving were released. Lehuby was sentenced to 13 months for making false promises.
Lesser Poyais Schemes
In 1826, MacGregor returned to London, where the furor over his affairs had died down. He continued peddling modified, watered-down versions of his old schemes: this time he claimed that natives had elected him as the head of state and became just “Cacigue of the Republic of Poyais” and opened an office at 23 Threadneedle Street, without any diplomatic trappings. In the summer of 1827, he issued a loan worth £800,000 as 20-year bonds with Thomas Jenkins & Company as brokers. However, an anonymous handbill was circulated that warned against investing in “Poyais humbug.” MacGregor had to pass most of the unsold certificates to a consortium of speculators for a small sum.
Other Poyais schemes were equally unsuccessful. In 1828, MacGregor tried to sell Poyaisian land for 5 shillings per acre, but Robert Charles Frederic, the brother of King George Frederic, began to sell those same territories to lumber companies, with certificates that competed with MacGregor’s. When original investors demanded their long-overdue interest, he could only pay with more certificates. Soon other charlatans began to use the same trick – opening rival “Poyaisian offices,” which offered land debentures for sale.
By 1834, MacGregor was living in Scotland and had to issue a new series of land certificates as payment for unredeemed securities. In 1836 he wrote a new constitution for the Poyaisian Republic. The last record of any Poyais scheme is in 1837, when he tried to sell some land certificates.
In 1839, Gregor MacGregor moved to Venezuela where he received Venezuelan citizenship, and a pension as a general who had fought for independence. He died in Caracas on 4 December 1845.