Friday, January 2, 2015

The Great Poyais Scheme-- The Land that Never Was

We've all heard of schemes like the ponzi scheme, pyramid scheme, along with other plots to rid good people of their money, but did you know the 19th century was not immune to these same type of false investments where the only one who got rich was the inventor?

By Robert Ronald McIan (1803-1856). - The Clans of the Scottish Highlands., Public Domain, PUblic Domain

1820 saw the Great Poyais Scheme, its mastermind was a Scottish soldier named Gregor McGregor. McGregor, thirty-four years old when he came up with his easy money-making scheme was an adventurer, land speculator, and colonizer. He also fought in the South American struggle for independence.

When Gregor McGregor returned to Britain, he came back with the claim that he was the cacique (a type of leader) of Poyais. According to McGregor, Poyais was located in Central America and had a remarkably healthy climate that agreed with Europeans. He claimed that it restored health to people who had been debilitated from continued living in the West Indies. 

By Sam Fentress, CC BY-SA 2.0,
He went on to tell of amazing soil that yielded three crops of Indian corn in one year. He bragged how the land was well adapted for cultivation of the valuable commercial commodities (coffee, cocoa, sugar, cotton, tobacco) that had made the West Indies so important. The land sounded like a virtual paradise. But like most things that sound to good to be true, so was Poyais.

By Marcelo CorrĂȘa - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
cocoa pods
By Photo by Medicaster. - en:Image:Cocoa Pods.JPG, Public Domain,
A ship, Honduras Packet was chartered with 70 eager settlers, including a doctor, banker, and men who had purchased commissions for the Poyaisian army in November of 1822. MacGregor even sent a chest full of Poyaisian currency that he had printed in Scotland.

Two months later in January of 1823 a second ship took off for the non-existent Poyais with 200 settlers looking to change their fortune. After arriving at the Bay of Honduras they eventually found the settlers from the Honduras Packet. 

The anxious would-be-settlers only found an untouched jungle, a handful of Americans who chose to be hermits, and the capitol, St. Joseph which turned out to be the ruins of a deserted 18th century attempted settlement.

To add to their problems, Honduras Packet was swept away by a storm.

The settlers made makeshift dwellings, while Hector Hall, the would-be-governor of Poyais went to find another ship to take them back to Britian. The settlers got into a dispute and their other ship, Kennersley Castle sailed away. Disease began taking its toll on the settlers and when they did find a ship to take them to Belize many didn't survive the voyage. 

When it was all said and done only fifty of the near 270 people who had left for their paradise made it back alive. One man even committed suicide having used all his funds for the voyage.

What is so surprising is that many of the survivors defended MacGregor and put the blame on others. MacGregor was arrested but released after his attorney pointed the finger at everyone but MacGregor. 

Gregor MacGregor went on to sell more watered down versions of his scheme. 

If you'd like to read more about MacGregor and his deadly scheme you can check it out in google books here.

Debbie Lynne Costello is represented by Tamela Hancock Murray of the Steve
Laube Agency. She attended Heritage University, where she studied Journalism and worked in the editing department.

She has a short story coming out in Guideposts 2014, Christmas Cup of Cheer on October 20th. She has completed five full length novels set in Charleston and Savannah areas in the late 19th century along with one Medieval, and is now seeking homes for them.

She and her husband have four children and two grandbabies. They live in upstate South Carolina with their family. Debbie Lynne has been raising Shetland Sheepdogs for 18 years and her and her husband enjoy their Tennessee Walkers and Arabian horses. 

Pictures are courtesy of Wikipedia.


  1. It so sad that people get away with schemes like this. And just think how many people died because of that man and others whose lives were financially ruined. So sad. On a positive note, Marylu Tyndall has a great series about a ship of Confederate refugees who travel to Brazil in hopes of a new and better life. It's called The Escape to Paradise series.

    1. Yes, she does! And it is an awesome series. I loved it! But it is so sad. What got me is he not only sold them land that wasn't but then he sold them military commissions to an army that didn't exist!

  2. Oh, my goodness ... the more things change, the more they stay the same. That's a fascinating bit of history.This reminds me of something I tell people when they ask where I get my ideas. "What really happened is far more interesting than anything I could dream up." Which is why I love historical fiction so much. Thanks for a fascinating peek into the real past!

    1. Hey Stephanie. If one ever has a writer's block they need only to dive into history to get some great idea!

  3. Hi Debbie, it's bad enough that people suffered financial ruin from this scheme, but how sad that so many lost their lives. I hope McGregor got his comeuppance somewhere along the line.

  4. It is crazy but he didn't here on earth. Other than he died at 58 years old. I couldn't believe that people actually defended him! He was a con-artist to the fullest extent if he could make them believe that after they lost everything including 4/5 of the people who went on the journey that he was as much a victim as them. And then to go on and sell a watered down version. Wow! That's all I can say.

  5. I see that the Pyramid schemes have been around for awhile. I wonder where he went to get the beautiful food pictures? We know it wasn't the Internet! Sm. wileygreen1(at)yahoo(dot)com

  6. LOL! Very true. I think he probably just told of how good the food was and the people believed him. I used the internet to show the food. ;o)