Among the many people commemorated in the National Pantheon of Venezuela is a man known as General Gregorio MacGregor. He is remembered as a man who fought beside Simon Bolivar for the independence of Venezuela and he even eventually married a niece of Bolivar, further cementing his link to the cause.
Below is a painting of MacGregor as he is remembered, by the artist Martín Tovar y Tovar:
Gregor MacGregor (as he was originally known) was born in Edinburgh in 1786. At the age of 17 he followed his father into the Royal Navy, married soon after and seemed to be settling down. Perhaps because of the death of his wife soon after the wedding, or other reasons, he started serving in both the Portuguese and Spanish navies. By 1811, aged 25, he had joined the war of independence in Venezuela as a Colonel, where he seemed to have equipped himself quite well.
MacGregor then turned to piracy and in 1817 and captured Amelia Island off the coast of Florida (then in the hands of Spain), hoping to sell it to the United States and perhaps capture more of Florida with the money, but his plans fell through and he sold it on to other pirates for less than he hoped for.
In 1820 he sailed to the Mosquito Coast where me met the Miskito King, George Frederic Augustus I, got him drunk and claimed the King signed over 8 million acres of land.
When he returned to London with his family he claimed he was now Gregor I, Cazique (or Chief) of Poyais, the country he claimed to have created with this land. He described Poyais as a land of cathedrals, public buildings and banks, with all the other trappings of a civilised nation. The capital, St Joseph, was said to boast an opera house among its fine buildings. To add to this, the land itself was described as having unimaginable fertility and beauty, a land where gold nuggets and diamonds and pearls were as “plentiful as pebbles” and where grain could grow without the need for sowing.
MacGregor sold plots of land and issued bonds in order to raise capital for this fabulous country, and by 1822 he had raised over £200k (about £18m in today’s value).
Two ships laden with would be settlers, mostly Scottish, sailed to their new country and found that it had all been a scam, but because of tropical diseases, infighting, and various events, less than 50 survived to make it back to Britain from the 240 who sailed out. Five more ships that had departed to Poyais were chased down by the navy and turned back before a greater disaster occurred.
Despite the loss of life and money from many investors, and the fact that MacGregor had then fled to Paris, some of the people he’d cheated still believed in him and claimed the two ships had either landed in the wrong place, or were advised wrongly, and some even wrote publicly to defend MacGregor. Buoyed by his success, MacGregor just started the whole thing again in Paris. He tried to raise even more money (£300k), but only succeeded in raising some of it before he was rumbled and arrested together with a number of conspirators.
Amazingly, MacGregor not only got himself acquitted, but managed to get one of his conspirators blamed for the whole affair and jailed for 13 months.
Not chancing his luck in Paris any further, he returned to London, where he was promptly thrown into prison, only to be released within a week. Now believing himself to be invincible, he carried on trying to raise more money through his Poyais schemes over the next few years, including trying to issue bonds to the value of £800k, but he had little success.
In 1838 his wife died, and a year later he left Scotland and settled in Venezuela, where he received a military pension until his death in 1845.