Gregor MacGregor, Prince of Poyais
by Jessica Brain
The Prince of Poyais, the Cazique, His Serene Highness Gregor, ‘El General Mac Gregor’, are just some of the names belonging to a Scottish soldier who became one of the most infamous confidence tricksters of his time.
He was born on 24th December 1786 to the Clan MacGregor who possessed a strong family tradition of fighting. His father was Daniel MacGregor, an East India Company sea captain, whilst his grandfather, who had been nicknamed “the beautiful”, had served with distinction in the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland.
Gregor MacGregor in the British Army, by George Watson, 1804
Gregor MacGregor, upon reaching the tender age of sixteen, joined the British Army just as the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars loomed on the horizon. Serving in the 57th Foot Regiment, the young MacGregor took all this in his stride; after only a year he was promoted to lieutenant.
In June 1805 he married Maria Bowater, a well-connected wealthy woman who just also happened to be the daughter of a Royal Navy admiral. Together they set up home and he subsequently re-joined his regiment in Gibraltar.
Now with his wealth secured, he bought the rank of captain (which would have cost him around £900) instead of following the procedure of promotion which would have amounted to seven years of hard-work and graft.
For the next four years he remained stationed at Gibraltar until 1809 when his regiment was sent to Portugal to support the forces under the Duke of Wellington.
The regiment disembarked at Lisbon in July and MacGregor, now a major, served for six months with the 8th Line Battalion of the Portuguese Army. His secondment had originated from a disagreement MacGregor had had with a senior officer. The antagonism grew and MacGregor subsequently requested a discharge and retired from the army in May 1810, returning home to his wife and moving to Edinburgh.
Now back on British soil, MacGregor continued to aspire to greater things, attempting to portray himself with important family connections. Sadly, his attempts to impress were not well-received and he promptly returned to London with his wife in 1811 where he began to refer to himself as “Sir Gregor MacGregor”.
Unfortunately, his plans were scuppered when his wife died shortly after their return, leaving MacGregor in the lurch financially. Weighing up his options, he knew it would be difficult for him to find another wealthy heiress without arousing too much suspicion and unwanted attention. His options in the British Army were also severely hampered, considering the manner in which he left.
It was at this critical moment that MacGregor’s interests turned to Latin America. Always one for seizing an opportunity, MacGregor recalled the trip to London by General Francisco de Miranda, one of the revolutionaries of Venezuela. He had been mixing in high circles and made quite an impression.
MacGregor believed this would present the perfect opportunity for some exotic escapades which would enthral audiences back home in London society. Selling his Scottish estate, he sailed to Venezuela, where he arrived in April 1812.
Upon his arrival he chose to present himself as “Sir Gregor” and offered his services to General Miranda. With the knowledge that this newly-arrived foreigner came from the British Army and had served in a famous fighting regiment of the 57th Foot (after his departure it became known as the “Die Hards” for their bravery), Miranda eagerly accepted his offer. MacGregor thus received the rank of colonel and was put in charge of a cavalry battalion.
His first mission in charge of the cavalry proved successful against royalist forces near Maracay and despite following expeditions proving less triumphant, the republicans were still content with the kudos this Scottish soldier had to offer.
MacGregor climbed his way up the greasy pole to become Commandant-General of Cavalry, then General of the Brigade and finally, General of Division in the Army of Venezuela and New Granada at the age of just thirty.
General Gregor MacGregor
It was at the height of his epic rise to fame in Venezuela that he married Doña Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, who was the cousin of the famous revolutionary Simón Bolívar and heiress to an important Caracas family. MacGregor had done it again; in a matter of just a few years after his fall from grace in the British Army, he had re-established himself and accomplished great things in South America.
In the coming months and years, the fight between republicans and royalists would continue with both sides experiencing gains and losses. General Miranda was set to be the next casualty of war, ending his days in a jail in Cádiz. Meanwhile, MacGregor and his wife, along with Bolívar, had been evacuated to Curaçao, an island belonging to the Dutch.
MacGregor offered his services in New Granada and took part in the siege of Cartagena in 1815. In 1816, forced to retreat after defeat by the royalists at La Cabrera, MacGregor, now a Brigadier-General in the Venezuelan army, successfully led his retreating army through the jungle for 34 days, fighting a heroic rearguard action. Bolívar wrote to him: “The retreat which you had the honour to conduct is in my opinion superior to the conquest of an empire… Please accept my congratulations for the prodigious services you have rendered my country”.
Gregor MacGregor had distinguished himself again and again by his courage and leadership. However the Spanish were now largely defeated and MacGregor was on the lookout for more adventures. He organised and led several bold expeditions against remaining Spanish strongholds, including Porto Bello, Panama.
On another particular mission, he served under a mandate from revolutionaries to conquer Florida and take the territory from the clutches of the Spanish. To do so, he led a small force and launched a surprise attack with only one hundred and fifty men and two small vessels. He managed to capture the fortress Amelia Island and announce the “Republic of the Florida’s”. This was a significant coup as it held a strong position along important shipping routes.
Then in 1820 MacGregor came across the swampy, inhospitable coast of Nicaragua, known as the Mosquito Coast. Here he persuaded the leader of the indigenous people to give him land to create a colony. A dream of empire began to take shape.
In 1821, MacGregor and his wife arrived back on British soil, with a surprisingly interesting story to tell. Upon their arrival in London, MacGregor made the rather extraordinary claim of being the Cazique/ Prince of Poyais, an independent nation in the Bay of Honduras. This prestigious honour had been bestowed to him by none other than King George Frederic Augustus of the Mosquito Coast.
An engraving apparently depicting the ‘port of Black River in the Territory of Poyais’.
MacGregor embarked on an extensive infrastructure project but was needing new settlers and investors. He tempted stakeholders and prospective colonisers from London, Edinburgh and Glasgow, selling shares and in one year raising £200,000. In order to accompany his sales pitch, he published an extensive guidebook, enticing those who were showing interest in a new life in Poyais.
He also went as far as to appoint a Legate of Poyais, recruiting around seventy people to embark on the Honduras Packet in the autumn of 1822. To make the scheme even more legitimate, his unsuspecting victims, including many esteemed professionals, were given the option of changing their pound sterling into Poyais dollars, of course printed by MacGregor himself.
A Poyais dollar
A second ship followed with another two hundred settlers, who were dismayed to discover on their arrival, a vast jungle with only natives for company and the poor and bedraggled passengers of the previous voyage.
The duped settlers tried in vain to establish a colony and set up basic provisions to survive, however many were in a poor condition. Some of the survivors were evacuated to Honduras and chose to settle elsewhere, whilst around fifty returned to London in October 1823 with a story for the press which was even more astounding than anyone back home could have believed.
Rather peculiarly, still in a state of shock perhaps, some of the disenchanted settlers did not blame MacGregor, but in no time at all the Poyais story dominated all the headlines. MacGregor did a hasty disappearing act.
Hiding across the English Channel in France, the unrepentant MacGregor repeated his scheme on an unsuspecting French population, managing this time to raise almost £300,000 thanks to enthusiastic investors. He was however destined to be foiled as the French authorities caught wind of a voyage destined to sail to a non-existent location and immediately seized the ship. The scheme flopped and MacGregor was briefly detained and tried for fraud in a French court in 1826.
Fortunately for the deceptive and beguiling conman, MacGregor was acquitted and one of his “associates” was found guilty instead.
In the coming decade he carried on setting up schemes in London, although not on such a grand scale, until eventually in 1838 he retired to Venezuela to a rapturous hero’s welcome.
In 1845 the audacious trickster passed away peacefully in Caracas at the age of fifty-eight, and was buried with military honours in Caracas Cathedral, a hero to some and a villain to many.
Jessica Brain is a freelance writer specialising in history. Based in Kent and a lover of all things historical.