941: The Land That Never Was by David Sinclair

by Gerard


941.1074092: Sinclair, David. The Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo 2004. 350 pp. ISBN 0-306-81411-0.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 900: History and Geography
  • 940: History of Europe
  • 941: History of the British Isles
  • 941.1: History of Scotland
  • 941.1074: During the reign of George IV, 1820-1830
  • +092: Biography

I have the flu today. As the virus passes through my body, making everything hurt, issuing forth all sorts of coughing fits, I have to pause for a moment and gain a bit of perspective. As wretched as I may feel, there is no chance that I have it worse off than the people in David Sinclair’s The Land That Never Was. In 1822 and 1823, two groups of Scottish immigrants departed across the Atlantic to start a new life in Central America. The land of Poyais, as it was called, was to be a bounteous landscape, with opportunities for farmers to grow and sell many new European staples. They sold their entire livelihoods for the chance to strike out into the great unknown. There was just one catch—the nation of Poyais did not exist.

Sir Gregor MacGregor was a con man of the most sordid degree. When we wasn’t hawking his latest scheme, he spent a fair amount of time primping, preening, and punching up his own resume. There wasn’t any small event he couldn’t punch up to grandiose proportions. The sad part is, the early part of his life is regular tale of a smart man who decided to join the British army, marry a beautiful woman, and help out his nation. But his demons kept shouting down the better angels in his brain. And so, MacGregor’s impetuousness left him out of the British army and back home, sulking. When his wife died, he decided to light for South America to redefine himself. It was there that the greatest scheme of his life was launched: he would invent a country and style himself a prince.

He went back to Great Britain and convinced both the general public to buy into a bond issue for the new nation of Poyais and two groups of able-bodied citizens to help bolster the already existing colony there. When they arrived, however, there was no one around—no capital, no farms, no government, and no money. They had already exchanged all of their British currency for Poyaisian bank notes, which were now worthless. While I won’t spoil the ending, it is just and fitting. Sinclair’s telling of the MacGregor Poyais scheme is duly competent. He tries desperately to find the good in MacGregor, but early on we already know where his schemes are heading. The financial aspects of the book can be a little boring, as he describes all the bond issues and how stock trading of the day went, but they are easily balanced out by the story. An interesting and sad tale.