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Property fraud ... one of the oldest tricks in the book

By Tim Mitchell on 28 Oct, 2013

I found this story on The Guardian website, reproduced from the newspaper's archive from 25 October 1823. The 190 year-old story ably demonstrates that there have always been scammers and unfortunate victims. The one in question here had actually published a book entitled 'Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais' the previous year to promote his scheme. Today, of course, our villain would have built a website and carried out an email campaign.

Some months ago Sir Gregor MacGregor, a person of whom we do not choose to say all that we think, induced a number of persons, chiefly Scotch, to emigrate to a settlement which he gave them to understand was formed, and in a flourishing condition, on the Mosquito coast near Honduras. The most deceptive statements were published respecting the country for which these poor people were thus induced to relinquish their homes: it was described as a land flowing with milk and honey, abounding with all the good things of life to such a degree that a man was sure to make his fortune in a very short time.

The following details of the fate of the deluded emigrants were given at one of the police offices in London by two or three who have been fortunate enough to get back to this country:

When the emigrants arrived at San Josef, nothing could exceed their anguish on finding, where they expected a fine flourishing town with nearly 2,000 inhabitants, only two or three ruined huts. The party exerted themselves vigorously, clearing away some stunted mahogany trees from about 600 yards of sandy ground and erecting a number of little huts and tents, with blankets, to protect them from the weather. Nearly all their provisions, however, had been wet in landing, as they had been compelled to roll all their barrels, for a considerable distance, through salt water. The sun in the day-time was intolerably hot, and the nights were cold, with heavy rain. The ground about was sandy, and the sand so hot as to bring turtle eggs rapidly to maturity at some depth.

The climate soon began to affect the whole, and numbers daily became sick. Their water was brackish, and the deaths increased. Twenty died in less than a fortnight, and at length all were ill. Such as could move about had to attend their sick brethren. The condition of the females was dreadful; some gave themselves up to despair. Hellie, a shoemaker, who had obtained the appointment of shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais, shot himself as he lay sick in his hammock.

They had not landed many days when the Cacique, King of the Mosquito Indians, visited them to reconnoitre. He afterwards sent a letter, stating that he had made a grant of 30 miles of land on the Poyais shore, to Sir Gregor MacGregor, three years ago, but that "Sir" Gregor having until that time neglected to take possession, he considered the grant as void; and that had he then known Sir Gregor as he did now, he would never have made the grant. He would oppose the settlement of anyone belonging to Sir Gregor within his territory; and prescribed, as the condition of their remaining in peace, that they should abjure Sir Gregor, and swear allegiance to him.

The Cacique came afterwards to expostulate and treat. He made large statements, and said he could muster upwards of seven thousand natives, and at a blow cut off the whole community; but the settlers were then, to use the expression of one of the survivors, "past fear." Death was daily carrying off the objects of the chief's jealousy, and a few weeks would have swept off the whole of them.

At this time six men endeavoured to get to Honduras in a canoe, but were cast away; they were picked up by a vessel belonging to Mr. Bennet, a respectable mahogany merchant. That gentleman, learning the dreadful condition of the settlers, sent a vessel, and took the greater part of them to the hospital of Honduras. The remainder were fetched soon after. The mortality amongst the sufferers, however, continued. Colonel Hall died broken hearted.

From a separate source, I found the levels of investment that were required - a massive sum of money in 1823, and indeed still a large amount to be scammed out of today.