The bizarre tale of a Central American land swindle that rivals for implausibility those country song lyrics about “ocean-front property in Arizona.”
Yet folks in England and Scotland queued up, ponied up their pounds, and set sail for Poyais, a country that didn’t exist. Gregor MacGregor, creator of the swindle, rivals in undiluted chutzpah that fictional rogue Flashman, except there is little humor to be found in MacGregor’s cruel cupidity. British journalist Sinclair (The Pound: A Biography, 2000, not reviewed) explores this truly odd case with the imagination and diligence it requires, since MacGregor covered his tracks well with outrageous lies and bogus documents. Early in 1823, a ship from Scotland dropped anchor near the Mosquito Coast between Nicaragua and Honduras and began scanning the shore for signs of life. The vessel’s occupants expected to find a thriving settlement. After all, they had read the exciting literature about opportunities in Poyais and had left their shops and professional positions to profit in the New World. But these settlers found only unfriendly jungle, puzzled aboriginal people, and some English survivors from a group that had arrived a bit earlier who told them the grim news: It was all a lie. Before it was over, a couple of hundred unfortunates had died from yellow fever and malaria, while hundreds more were ruined financially. MacGregor spent only eight months incarcerated in France before being acquitted of his crimes. The author follows the swindler from his early failures in the British military to his creation of a false lineage and a false identity. MacGregor somehow managed to endear himself to the Venezuelans; he served in their army for a bit, and they later buried him with full military honors. Sinclair does a masterful job explaining the intricacies of the swindle, though the absence of maps is regrettable.
A top-notch survey of the vast dimensions of human greed. (11 b&w photos)