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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Land That Never Was


Having just read David Sinclair's biography of The Pound, I was drawn to his book The Land That Never Was, a 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 humour to be found in MacGregor’s cruel cupidity.

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.

MacGregor's grand swindle predates the Marquis de Rays' La Nouvelle France by a full fifty years. This particular scheme vanished as completely as MacGregor's with the exception of a mill's grindstone still mounted as a memorial in Rabaul when I lived there in 1970.