On the 22nd of January, 1823, over two hundred would-be settlers set sail for Poyais.
Here’s the story of the real Never-never Land, in which there was no Peter Pan or Tinkerbell, but there were alligators, albeit most likely sans timepieces. There’s a book about this place, the title of which is ‘The Land That Never Was’ and which was written by David Sinclair. Despite the title, it was a land that was – and still is for that matter – only it wasn’t what it was supposed to have been. Incidentally, we know there were alligators in that land, because on the 26th of April, 1823, a Scotsman was seized by an alligator whilst attempting to swim across the lagoon – maybe he was wearing a watch?
The central character was a cross between Harry Flashman and Richard Sharpe, except the real name of this real person was Gregor MacGregor. He was a Scot who was born on the 24th of December, 1786, or as the legend on his portrait tells us, ‘General Gregorio MacGregor’. The fact that he became a General is the least amazing thing about MacGregor. He often referred to himself as Sir Gregor, though he was never knighted, and at one point, he styled himself ‘Gregor Mac Gregor, Brigadier General of the armies of the United Provinces of New Grenada and Venezuela, and General in Chief of the armies for the two Floridas, commissioned by the Supreme Director of Mexico, South America, &c.’ A soldier of fortune, this son of an Edinburgh merchant was also a fraud.
In 1803, MacGregor began his career as a sailor in the Royal Navy. Then, sometime after 1805, he served in the Spanish and Portuguese armies during the Peninsular War, but he didn’t hang around on the battlefields of Europe to see off Napoleon. Instead, by 1811, he was causing grief for the Spanish in South America. MacGregor had become Colonel of a British Foreign Legion in the army of the Captaincy General of Venezuela, which was fighting for its independence from Spain. MacGregor was vainglorious and wished to be seen as a celebrated military tactician, but his exploits tended towards the inglorious.
Notwithstanding his reputation, MacGregor did have some success. On the 29th of June, 1817, General MacGregor (he was promoted by Simon Bolivar, the Liberator of Latin America) led a small army to a victory over the Spanish at San Fernandina, on Amelia Island – the Island of Eight Flags. After marching ten miles through swamps, breast deep in water, MacGregor’s fifty-five strong ‘army’ surprised, stormed and captured the seventy strong garrison of Fort San Carlos, whereupon he proclaimed an independent East Florida, under the grandiose title of General in Chief aforementioned. His island rule didn’t last long as his intended assault on the heavily garrisoned St. Augustine was abandoned without any fighting when MacGregor “capitulated and got very good terms.”
MacGregor’s next campaign was in Panama, in 1819, where he had further success in capturing Portobello, the stronghold that guarded the isthmus. However, when the Spanish counterattacked, MacGregor showed his true colours by fleeing to a ship offshore. Unsurprisingly the fort fell to the Spaniards and MacGregor’s mercenaries were taken prisoner – while he sailed to safety. In April 1820, he pitched up at Cape Gracias a Dios, where lived the anglophile native chief, King George Frederic Augustus I of the Mosquito Shore and Nation. MacGregor plied the King with whisky and rum, of which he was inordinately fond, and ended up being the beneficiary of an extraordinary deal.
MacGregor was granted perpetual ownership of a huge tract of land – 12,500 square miles – in the area of Black River (‘Río Sico Tinto Negro’) on the Mosquito Coast. So there it was and there it still is, in what is now present day Honduras; the land that never was, was. But the twist in the story comes from MacGregor’s almighty ambitions. It’s reasonable to assume that the King had appointed MacGregor as Cacique (Lord) of his new Territory of Poyais, but that wasn’t enough for MacGregor, who had a far more grandiose scheme in mind. He saw Poyais as an independent Principality – a new Darian – with himself as ruler. The trouble was, Poyais never was a bona fide country, far less a recognised independent state. In fact, it was an entirely fictitious state, which never was.
By the time he arrived in London, MacGregor had developed his fantasy of the Republic of Poyais. He announced himself in London as Gregor I, Cacique of Poyais and opened the Poyaisian Legate in Dowgate Hill. In October, 1822, MacGregor raised £200 000 for his Poyais Scheme, by issuing 2,000 bearer bonds and opened land offices in Scotland. In Edinburgh, he sold land rights for 3/- 3d per acre and printed Poyais banknotes. He also published a 350 page guidebook, which described his “unsurpassed Utopia”. The book was complete with an engraving of the country’s main port at Black River and descriptions of an “already existing infrastructure.” Poyais’ capital of St Joseph was said to have all the trappings of a civilised nation and the land; “large amounts of fertile soil.”
The truth was that Poyais was a completely undeveloped colony. It was basically a mosquito infested swamp, surrounded by scrub and dense undergrowth. In raising the bond capital and selling land rights, MacGregor and his cronies perpetrated a scam, which reeled in two shiploads of settlers – a theatre manager, cobblers, farmers, sawyers, jewellers, teachers, merchants, bankers, doctors, lawyers, soldiers, clerks and craftsmen – to develop his new state. On the 22nd of January, 1823, a second ship, the ‘Kennersley Castle’, set sail from Leith, bound for Poyais. MacGregor stayed in Britain.
When the ‘Kennersley Castle’ anchored off Black River on the 20th of March, it was to find that there was no port, nor any magnificent capital city. Apart from the wretched unfortunates in their rundown shacks, those who had preceded them in the ‘Honduras Packet’, all the would-be settlers found was virgin jungle and the ruins of a doomed British settlement abandoned in the previous Century. It was all too much for the immigrants, many of whom perished from yellow fever, malaria or exhaustion. One committed suicide and the alligator got another. Others migrated to Belize. Of the three hundred and twenty voyagers to Poyais, barely fifty made it back to Britain. Poyais was, but it wasn’t what it was supposed to have been. It was a combination of fantastic imagination, elaborate hoax, mythical reality and hopeful expectation.
Amazingly, although MacGregor tried the same trick in France, where he was acquitted in a trial, he escaped prosecution and punishment in Britain. Between 1826 and 1837, he continued to act as if Poyais was a genuine Republic, issuing bonds and land certificates, promoting stocks and even writing a new constitution. Eventually, he ran out of steam and, in 1839, returned to Venezuela where he lived comfortably on a General’s pension until his death in Caracas on the 3rd or 4th of December, 1845. Today, General Gregor MacGregor’s name can be seen on a giant monument in Caracas, built to honour Venezuela’s heroes of the struggle for independence.