A day before Christmas in 1786, Gregor MacGregor was born to Daniel MacGregor and Ann Austin, a Scottish family living in Stirlingshire, Scotland. Not much is known of Gregor’s early life, but it is known that at the age of 16, in 1803, he joined the British Army and served as an infantryman in the 57th Foot regiment. The next two years saw Gregor rising to the rank of lieutenant and marrying an admiral’s daughter by the name of Mary Bowater.
Less than 10 years later his wife Mary was dead and MacGregor had assumed the title of Colonel, calling himself Sir Gregor MacGregor, and falsely claiming to have succeeded to the chieftainship of the clan Gregor. Thus began a lifetime of exaggerations, schemes, and claiming to be something he wasn’t.
After selling his small Scottish estate, MacGregor sailed for South America and wasted no time in becoming involved in local affairs. Upon his arrival in Caracas, MacGregor talked General Francisco de Miranda, the Commander in Chief of the new Venezuelan Republic’s army, into appointing him to colonel. Quickly after, MacGregor became a brigadier-general, thanks to a series of skirmishes that saw him the victor. Next he traveled south to New Granada, now present-day Columbia, where he joined the liberation forces of General Antonio Nariño.
It was during this time that MacGregor became known as a braggart, with one local official writing of him, “I am sick and tired of this bluffer, or Quixote, or the devil knows what. This man can hardly serve us in New Grenada without heaping ten thousand embarrassments upon us.”
By the Spring of 1816 he had moved on to the neighboring island of Haiti with his new wife, Josefa, where Simon Bolivar was raising a new army. In April, MacGregor sailed with Bolivar back to Venezuela. Their forces were ultimately split up, with MacGregor’s forces being forced to retreat, fighting all the way. MacGregor earned deserved acclaim during this difficult, month-long campaign, making this likely the high point of his military adventures, which were otherwise clouded with varying amounts of error, incompetency, and great exaggeration on his part.
In 1820 MacGregor returned to London and announced that he had been created Cacique, highest authority or prince, of the Principality of Poyais, an independent nation located on the Bay of Honduras. MacGregor spoke of the native Chieftain King George Frederic Augustus I granting him the territory of Poyais, a 76,000 mile area of fertile land and untapped resources. The picture he painted has of a vast, beautiful land filled to the brim with opportunity and in need of English settlers and investors.
London’s high society welcomed MacGregor into their numbers as if he was one of their own, none too shocking though, considering MacGregor painted himself with many lies. By 1822 MacGregor was selling land rights for the Principality of Poyais for 3 shillings and up to 4 shillings per acre (a worker’s weekly wage during this time was roughly 1 shilling). By October of that year, MacGregor secured a £200,000, on behalf of the Poyais government, in the form of 2,000 bearer bonds worth £100 each; however, no dividend was ever paid and the bonds became unsaleable. Though the “Republic of Poyais” offered the bondholders land in exchange for these obligations, the offer was accepted by none of them.
That same year, the Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais, a pamphlet supposedly written by Captain Thomas Strangeways, was published. Describing Poyais in beautiful terms, it spoke of immense profits one could gain from the country’s great resources. Existing infrastructure, untapped gold and silver mines, and large areas of land with fertile soil was also part of the offering that Poyais gave those who were lucky enough to invest in it.
By January of 1823, two ships had left for the Poyais, each carrying 120 would-be-settlers as well as enough provisions for a year. Little to anyone’s knowledge at the time, they were sailing not to riches, but to jungles. The settlers of both ships, who ultimately found each other, only encountered untouched jungles, American hermits, and the ruins of a previous attempt at settlement more than a century old.
After several efforts to locate Poyais, and finally seek help, 180 of the 240 would-be-settlers died during the ordeal. The survivors who did not remain in the Americas (specifically, in Belize where many were rescued) began their journey back to London on August 1, 1823. Fewer than 50 made it back. Upon their arrival, city papers published their story.
Shockingly, though, some survivors failed to label MacGregor as the culprit. One survivor, James Hastie, published a book labeling Gregor’s advisers and publicists as having spread false information. Another survivor, Major Richardson, also an old comrade of MacGregor, sued the papers for libel. Despite the attention though, MacGregor had already left for Paris by October of 1823.
In Paris, France, MacGregor was back to his shady dealings and contacted a trading organization, commissioning it to solicit more Poyasian settlers and investors, this time from France. By August, after having conducted similar attempts at generating interest in Poyais, MacGregor published a new constitution of Poyais, changing it into a republic and with himself as the head of state. On August 18, 1825 Gregor issued a £300,000 loan with 2.5% interest, through the London bank of Thomas Jenkins & Company – the bond was in reality, probably never issued. At the same time, settlers were recruited to by the shares of the company and sail there aboard la Nouvelle Nuestrie.
French officials began noticing that a large number of their people were obtaining passports in order to travel to a country that they had never heard of, and seized la Nouvelle Neustrie vessel located in Le Havre. The would-be immigrants to the “beautiful land filled with opportunity” demanded an investigation, and
MacGregor was finally found and apprehended on December 7th, 1825. MacGregor as well as two others were accused of fraud. Unbelievably though, after two trials, MacGregor was acquitted in 1826. He then returned to London and continued selling watered-down versions of his old schemes. These schemes and various ones like them lasted until 1839, when MacGregor moved to Venezuela, received that country’s citizenship, and a pension as a general who fought for its independence.
MacGregor died in Caracas on December 4, 1845. Today, according to The Economist, the area that MacGregor spoke of as being a land of opportunity, is an undeveloped strip of land – essentially, valueless.
During his lifetime, MacGregor left in his wake scores of people who believed his many schemes, believed his many false stories, believed what he was selling; but they ended up with nothing to show for their belief.
Every great idea comes with a great story, but from that point onward great ideas either develop into successes or are found to have the facade of greatness but with nothing of value behind them.
Ambition can either see you selling an undeveloped strip of land or offering something of value up to the world. You can be successful at both, but only one has the longevity and worth that will pay for itself eventually. A glider can only take you so far until you run out of thermals to carry you forward, but taking the time to build an engine takes you much farther. Are you after the fish, or the method of catching them?
There are no shortcuts. Muhammad Ali once said, “I hated every minute of training, but I said, ‘don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your live as a champion.'” You can either spend your life searching for junk to sell or pay the brain bill, develop your brand, and live your life as a champion.