three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
user_rating: 
0

Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History

A-LandNeverWasIn the 1820s, Sir Gregor MacGregor, a soldier who fought in the South American wars of liberation, returned to Britain to advertise his amazing discovery: the South American nation of Poyais. This utopian colonial community possessed everything that such a settlement ought: a warm climate, gold-filled rivers, friendly natives, rich forests, and a European-like city. His "High Highness Gregor, Cazique of Poyais" promoted this paradise, opened a London office, and received a bank loan, all on his word alone. When 250 would-be settlers arrived at Poyais, they found no such colony, but a lawless, swampy jungle instead. Poyais simply didn't exist. Some settlers committed suicide; others died of yellow fever. And 19th-century conquest marched on.
De Capo. 384 pages. $26.

Boston Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"With the precision of a historian and the pacing of a dramatist, British journalist David Sinclair tells an appalling, stranger-than-fiction tale of the cruel and elaborate swindle perpetrated by Sir Gregor MacGregor." Rob Mitchell

SF Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Sinclair enticingly plays out the story, like a hand of seven-card draw, a step-by-step unfolding of MacGregor's shameless career." Peter Lewis

Plain Dealer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sinclair writes with brio and with the confidence born of intimate knowledge of his subject. Only when he attempts to display all the myriad and sometimes twisted threads of MacGregor's financial machinations does his prose become an attractive but confusing cat's cradle." Daniel Dyer

St. Petersburg Times 3 of 5 Stars
"It is impossible to be certain, since sources are not always directly documented, but much of the book seems to rest on the testimony of an avowed MacGregor detractor of the time. ... The subtitle may overstate things in labeling it 'the most audacious fraud in history', some might look to a more recent century for that, but in a way it has lasted long past MacGregor's death in Caracas in 1845." Roger K. Miller

Seattle Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The book's pages flip quickly as the reader plunges ahead to find out what became of the stranded settlers. ... Now that the events he instigated are tucked safely into the annals of history, one feels a certain hankering for his times: an era when America may as well have been on the other side of the moon from Europe, when one really could raise an army and invade an island, when all one needed to create an entire country was a healthy imagination and access to a printing press." D.J. Morel

Critical Summary

Sinclair opens his book with the moment that settlers realize they've been bamboozled and abandoned. He then backtracks to MacGregor's murky pre-Poyais history, where he fabricated military successes, an aristocratic past, and his great land fraud. In retelling this colorful history, Sinclair relies primarily on the records of one of MacGregor's enemies and the swindler's own pompous lies, but documents contemporary sources as well. Critics cite the story's structure, not its writing, as its strength; the morass of details might detract readers. Still, Sinclair offers remarkable insight into one of the great, if not the greatest, land scheme in history. It is, the San Francisco Chronicle notes, "a tale as pungent as the spices of Poyais, if only there was a Poyais."