History

The story of Gregor MacGregor’s wild climb as a fake prince

Jessica Evans Avatar
gregor macgregor
Part of the fort at Porto Bello, Panama, where MacGregor abandoned his troops led by Colonel William Rafter in April 1819.

If you’ve never heard of fake prince Gregor MacGregor, buckle up because this is a wild tale. Decorated Peninsula War veteran, MacGregor earned notoriety while fighting to save Spain from that tiny rascal Napoleon. But apparently, beating the snot out the French wasn’t enough for this Scottish soldier.

So, like all veterans on search of a quest, MacGregor decided to get out of Dodge. He needed some alone time to think and process and plan. In 1812, MacGregor sailed to South America, where he fought in the Venezuelan War of Independence. Not only did he change wars, but he changed sides entirely, fighting against Spain – the country he had defended just two years before.

Think that’s shady? Just wait.

In 1819, during a war campaign in New Grenada, Gregor MacGregor abandoned his troops. Then, in 1821, the scoundrel came home to Great Britain and started telling tall tales.

MacGregor claimed that King George Frederick Augustus of the Mosquito Coast had given him a special title—Cazique of Poyais. What of where? A Cazique was a type of political leader in the native tribes of the Spanish colonies. As for the Poyais part, well, MacGregor made that up.

Then he told everyone back home that Poyais was a colony established by British settlers. MacGregor even showed them pictures and maps of the place. Legend has it he used his time on his ship ride home to draw them all. In fact, MacGregor claimed that Poyais was a utopian society on the tropical coast of Honduras. This fictitious paradise had a cathedral, an opera house, and tree-lined streets leading to mountains of gold. Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? Well, the Brits bought the whole story.

Gregor MacGregor.

Okay, but London was ready for MacGregor

To be fair, Britain was no picnic back then. London itself was a filthy, crime-ridden place. Not to mention, the British had been engaged in war for two decades, and morale was low across the country.

When Gregor MacGregor showed up with his fantastic maps and pictures of the fabled Poyais, people were giddy. Many purchased Poyaisian land and set sail for the alleged settlement only to find murky swamps and dense jungles when they arrived.

While these unsuspecting settlers were catching malaria and yellow fever in the region dubbed Poyais, MacGregor was in Britain getting a loan of 200,000 British pounds to sponsor his made-up country. He then left for France, where he continued his little scheme, and the French bought it too.

Eventually, MacGregor returned to Britain. By then, most of the settlers (or victims, I should say) had died in the swamps of Central America, searching for this Poyais. Word got back to Jolly old England that MacGregor was an officer but not a gentleman, and he was arrested.

Here come the lawsuits

Over the course of a decade, he was tried and acquitted in both British and French courts. My guess is that the nobles were ashamed to admit how stupid they had been to believe him in the first place. MacGregor eventually retired to Venezuela where he was, for some reason, respected as a war hero. Apparently, there’s no accounting for taste.

Remember that time that Nixon almost sparked an invasion of Venezuela?

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