Gregor MacGregor was a Scottish soldier, adventurer, and coloniser who, in 1820, claimed to be ’prince’ of Poyais, a fictional Central American country. He claimed the native chieftain had given him 12,500 mile² of fertile land with untapped resources and cooperative natives eager to please. He had created a civil service, army and democratic government. Now he needed settlers and investment. He sold land for 3 shillings and 3 pence per acre, a very generous price, and also raised a £200,000 loan on behalf of the Poyais government.
He published a guidebook entitled Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais, descriptive of the country, supposedly written by one Captain Thomas Strangeways. It described Poyais in glowing terms, concentrating on how much profit one could get from the country’s ample resources. The region was even free of tropical diseases.
In 1822 a ship called Honduras Packet set sail to Poyais with 70 settlers aboard. Its cargo included a chest full of “Poyais Dollars”, fictional currency which many of the settlers had converted their pounds sterling to. Another ship later left for Poyais with 200 settlers.
What the settlers found was an untouched jungle; there was no settlement of any kind. They built rudimentary shelters, however, tensions began to build and tropical disease began to take its tole – one man who had spent his life savings on the trip committed suicide. A passing ship, upon hearing the settlers’ story, took them to British Honduras but 180 of the 270 settlers perished during the ordeal.
Officials in the UK were quickly notified (naval ships had to be sent out to tell five other ships that had set out for Poyais to turn back) and the whole story was published in the newspapers. McGregor, however, was already in France, trying to accumulate more investors. In fact, apparently undeterred by having caused the deaths of hundreds of people, McGregor continued the scheme until 1837. He was jailed for a week in 1826 but otherwise went unpunished. He died in 1845.