The Man Who Invented an Island and Sold It

In the 1820s there were no online maps, GPS devices or location trackers, but there were good printed maps.

So,how did a Scots guy convince lots of people to part with their hard earned cash to buy a share in or even to visit the imaginary island of Poyai, off the coast of central America, which was never on any maps?

Gregor MacGregor convinced people to invest and even buy land on this small Latin American island. He even printed a guide to the island documenting its rich natural resources and geography.

In 1821, the city of London heard reports of a previously unknown nation nestled on the Caribbean coastline of what is now Honduras. Called Poyais, it was supposedly a lush and untapped paradise of fertile farmland, rolling hills and gold-rich streams. Its native “Poyers” were described as a friendly and hardworking people, and its capital, St. Joseph, was a European-style settlement dotted with public buildings and even an opera house.

Poyais boasted a deep-water port and a pleasant climate that made it immune to the scourge of tropical disease. It was, a guidebook claimed, “one of the most healthy and beautiful spots in the world.”

MacGregor inspired trust by using charm and citing his past military achievements—which he greatly exaggerated—but he also came armed with a series of fake official documents. He produced a handwritten land grant from the Mosquito King, a national flag, charts and maps showing Poyais’ borders, and even a copy of a proclamation he had made to the country’s natives before taking off for Europe.

MacGregor cashed in by floating a 200,000 pounds sterling Poyais bond in the London money market. He also started peddling land and titles to would-be colonists.  Enterprising settlers were told they could purchase 100 acres of pristine Poyais farmland for just £11, The more well-to-do bought officers’ posts in the Poyais military, while other investors were lured with the promise of posts as merchants, government employees and bankers.

In September 1822, when a ship called the Honduras Packet set sail from London with several dozen Poyais-bound pilgrims. Four months later, a second ship carried nearly 200 more settlers out of Leith, Scotland. Some had even converted all of their cash to Poyais dollars, which MacGregor had begun printing in Scotland. Yet after being deposited on the coast of Central America, the passengers made a startling discovery: not only was there no capital of St. Joseph, there seemed to be no Poyais at all. Instead of the settlement they’d been promised, they found only mile after mile of dense, insect-infested jungle.

The confused settlers built ramshackle huts and tried to survive while they waited for help, but it wasn’t long before malaria and other diseases spread through their ranks.  Help finally arrived in May 1823 and the surviving Poyers were evacuated, but the misadventure had taken its toll. Of the roughly 250 emigrants that had left England and Scotland, two-thirds eventually died from tropical diseases.

Even after the first Poyais survivors returned home, MacGregor still wasn’t brought to justice. His supporters—including some of the unfortunate pilgrims—even defended him in the press and argued that the colony’s failure must have been the fault of his agents and collaborators. In 1823, he fled England and set up shop in Paris, where he attempted to repeat the Poyais con all over again. He published a Poyais constitution, secured a bank loan and once again began recruiting settlers. This time, however, his phantom country attracted suspicion from the French authorities. MacGregor was thrown in jail in December 1825 and tried for fraud and conspiracy, but was acquitted due to lack of evidence and released eight months later.

Despite his brush with law, MacGregor continued promoting his Poyais schemes for another decade. In 1827.  MacGregor left for Venezuela, which had awarded him a full military pension for his participation in its wars of independence. He died there in 1845, having never been found guilty of a single crime.

This story reads like an April Fool but it is genuine – including that more than 150 people died because of this scam.

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