Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud In History

Book Reviews | Mar 4th, 2007

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Author: David Sinclair
Publisher: Da Capo Press
Genre: History
Pages: 358
Retail Price: 9.99
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Poyais was a lush Caribbean paradise + perfect climate for comfortable living and fertile agriculture, peaceful natives, and beautiful scenery. It was the perfect place to start a new living or simply invest in. The only problem? It didn’t actually exist.

The Land That Never Was chronicles the life and times of Gregor MacGregor + one of the most outrageous, balls-out con artists of all time + who, in the early 1800s, tricked the world into believing he was an aristocrat, a knight, a hero of countless South American military campaigns, and the cazique (king) of an untouched, beautiful land. His powers of charm and manipulation were so great that even as his fraud was unraveled, he still managed to escape unscathed, legally and reputation-wise. Even the settlers of this new land + that is, those who survived the barren, disease-ridden nightmare of a place where they were dumped and abandoned + never blamed MacGregor, but the various intermediaries MacGregor had put in place.

The swindle was so well thought out and detailed that the fake land of Poyais had its own 300-page guidebook, Constitution, purchase orders for tracts of land, various other forged documents, and travel agencies throughout England and Scotland, that helped recruit hundreds of new settlers. The book begins with the predicament that these settlers found themselves in after arriving in “Poyais”; namely, having given up everything they had to die in a horrible place + and spending their life savings for the opportunity!

The book then looks at MacGregor’s colorful past prior to the Poyais scheme, spending much time on his cowardly misadventures as a soldier for fortune in South America. The narrative then focuses on the second half of his life, as he sought every which way to make money off of a complete fantasy, even bankrupting and killing hundreds of innocents in the process, and always staying one step ahead of the law.

This is a fascinating story of chutzpah and creative swindling, and of a delusional man who may have even began believing his own tall tales. The only drawback to the book is the lack of broader research during MacGregor’s wartime years, of which a good portion of the book is spent: most of the research is from the memoirs of a disillusioned colonel that served with MacGregor (though his version of events are likely more accurate than MacGregor’s, who would have you believe he single-handedly liberated South America!). All other aspects of the book are great: it is richly detailed and engaging, and a must-read for anyone interested in the lesser-known annals of history.

Bottom Line: Fascinating tale of history’s tallest tale.
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