The History of Leith

November 2, 2007

The land that never was

LIKE many men suddenly released from military service, James Hastie did not find it easy to settle into civilian life. Returning to his home in Edinburgh, some time after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, he was just one of thousands of men throughout Britain competing for work in a market ravaged by years of war and shaken by the gathering pace of the industrial revolution.

Hastie was one of the lucky ones. He eventually secured a job as a sawyer with an Edinburgh timber merchant, which gave him the means to support a wife and three small children. He was a hard worker and he had a good employer, but the future held little promise for a man who had seen something of the world with the 71st Regiment of Foot.

His wages were less than �20 a year, and the rented accommodation in which he had to bring up his family was cramped, dismal and unhealthy. Nor was there much prospect of improvement in these uncertain times. In fact, as urban populations grew rapidly throughout the United Kingdom, the chances were that things could only get worse.

So when, in the summer of 1822, Hastie saw a handbill offering a better life in a new South American colony, it seemed like just the opportunity of which he had dreamed.

The place was called Poyais, and, according to advertisements authorised by its government, it was “a free and independent state situated on the mountainous side of the Bay of Honduras; three or four days’ sail from Jamaica; 30 hours from the British Settlement of Belize… and about eight days from New Orleans”.

Poyais was apparently blessed with fertile land, abundant timber and other natural resources, a mild and healthy climate, and friendly natives with a high regard for the British, who had once maintained a small, unofficial colony there. Now, the Poyaisian government was selling land to attract British immigrants who would develop this virgin territory, and grow wealthy in the process. The government was also recruiting workmen, to whom it would pay up to �25 a year and give land for the building of homes.

Hastie excitedly discussed this offer with his old comrade Malcolm McDougal, and together they decided to find out more, from the official Poyaisian Land Office in Edinburgh. They were shown maps, an engraving of the country’s main port at Black River, and a guide book for immigrants detailing all the crops that might be grown and the timber that might be exploited.

Best of all, they learned that Poyais was actually ruled by a Scotsman, General Sir Gregor MacGregor, who, after service in the British army against France, had gone on to become a hero of the Latin American revolutionary wars to drive out the Spaniards, and had ultimately been made Cazique – or Prince – of Poyais.

Hastie and McDougal made up their minds to emigrate to Poyais. The only problem was that they had families. That was all right, the land agent told them: if they signed up, their families could go with them at a cost of �30, which would be deducted in small amounts over a period of time from their wages. And, just to make things easier, they would receive a month’s pay in advance, to help with preparations for the voyage.

On January 22, 1823, Hastie and McDougal, with their families, joined more than 200 other emigrants aboard the ship Kennersley Castle, in the port of Leith, for the journey to Poyais. Sir Gregor MacGregor himself came to see them off, and delighted all the men with families by announcing that the fee for transporting women and children was to be waived.

When they arrived at Black River, the Cazique said, the settlers would find an advance party which had left London the previous September to establish, with the Poyaisian government, an administration for the new colony. The emigrants cheered the great man as he was rowed away from their ship.

The voyage took some two months, but the time passed pleasantly enough in excited discussion about the new life that was waiting. Among the party were doctors, lawyers, newly commissioned officers in the Poyaisian army, and many Scots farmers who had sold everything to buy land in the colony.

One young man, Andrew Picken, had been hired as manager of the national theatre of Poyais, and he regaled his fellow passengers with what he had been told about the capital, St Joseph, a few miles from Black River. It was a European-style city with grand boulevards, classical buildings, a great cathedral and an opera house as well as a theatre. Many rich merchants already lived there, on the profits from cotton, coffee, tobacco, timber and so on.

Another traveller, who had been in business as a cobbler in Edinburgh, revealed that he was to become Official Shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais, Sir Gregor’s wife. He had left his family behind until such time as he could build a suitable house and send for them.

The Kennersley Castle reached the port of Black River on March 20 and anchored for the night at the entrance of the lagoon across which small boats would have to carry the passengers and the 12 months’ provisions and supplies they had brought with them. The scene was much as had been depicted in the engraving they had been shown – except that there seemed to be no sign of a town. Presumably, it was too far away to be seen.

Next morning, James Hastie was aboard the first boat across the lagoon. “We were,” he wrote later, “very much disappointed to find no town, houses, nor people, except a part of the former settlers, some of them still in tents, and some in houses, or huts, made of bamboo, and thatched with a kind of reeds.”

The new colony was nothing more than a fetid, mosquito-infested swamp, surrounded by scrub and undergrowth so dense that paths had to be cut through it before any movement was possible. There was no port of Black River, and, the previous arrivals confirmed, neither was there any elegant capital city. They had trekked to where St Joseph was supposed to be, guided by some natives, but all they had seen were the foundations of some ruined huts, the remnants of a British settlement abandoned more than half a century earlier.

Since there was no St Joseph, it was evident that there would be no Poyaisian government, either. The only ‘official’ presence was in the shape of one member of the original party, Lieutenant-Colonel Hector Hall, who bore the grandiose title of Baron Tinto, Lieutenant Governor of the Town and District of St Joseph, accorded to him by Sir Gregor MacGregor. Of course, that title now meant nothing, except that the settlers looked to Hall to take responsibility in the extreme conditions in which they found themselves.

The colonel had gone in search of help from the local native ruler, following the abandonment of his party by their ship some months earlier. While they waited for his return, the new arrivals laboriously unloaded the Kennersley Castle – which then also sailed away, its captain having completed the task he had been paid for. The settlers’ one chance of rescue was thus lost.

They did not know that at the time, because they could not know that MacGregor was a fake and a confidence trickster with a history of deception, cowardice and complete disregard for the people who fell victim to his schemes. His name was, indeed, Gregor MacGregor, he was a Scot, and he had been a general in the mercenary armies of Venezuela and Colombia. The rest was fiction.

MacGregor had no right to the title ‘Sir’ and, far from being a hero of the Napoleonic wars, he had been cashiered out of the British army without ever seeing a shot fired in anger. He had posed as a Portuguese aristocrat, a Scottish baronet, a celebrated military tactician, a Spanish knight and the head of a government of independent Florida. Hundreds of British mercenary soldiers had died as a result of his vainglorious schemes during the South American wars.

Now he had decided to make himself rich by painstakingly developing the fantasy of Poyais, a completely undeveloped territory that was actually ruled over – somewhat uncertainly and chaotically – by a native king. Not only had he persuaded hundreds of people to buy land he had no right to sell, but he had also floated a ‘government’ loan of �200,000 on the London capital market. It was one of the most daring frauds in history.

Like all the Poyais settlers, Colonel Hall had been duped by MacGregor, and when he returned to Black River – having failed to obtain help – he made it clear to his companions in misfortune that they were on their own. All they could do was build the best possible shelters for themselves, before the rainy season began, while he did his best to ensure their survival and eventual escape from this benighted place.

James Hastie and Malcolm McDougal were not the sort of men to be defeated by their circumstances. They and several other men had been used to roughing it in the army, and they set to work to make the best of their situation, building huts in which they and their families would be protected against the coming bad weather.

Others were less resilient, Hastie noted: “Many, from the very first, were both lazy and regardless… doing nothing during the day but wandering in the woods, throwing themselves down and sleeping in the open air on the damp ground, the effects of which they soon felt.”

Still others were too aged for the hard work of building huts, in addition to which they easily fell prey to the tropical fevers and other diseases spread by the mosquitoes and the brackish water that was the settlers’ only supply.

By the end of April, reported Hastie, “sickness and despondency were so general, that few were able or willing to make any exertion; and I am sorry to have to add, that many of those who were still well, plundered instead of assisted their sick brethren, and likewise plundered the public stores of anything they could conveniently lay their hands upon”.

He blamed Hall and the other gentlemen of the party for lack of leadership and failure to accept the responsibilities natural to their social status. He was used to being ordered about, and found it difficult to make decisions for himself, as did the other working men. It was not part of their experience.

Meanwhile, one of the doctors among the settlers recorded in his diary on April 25: “Of 200 individuals, all were sick, with the exception of nine. One family of seven persons – father, mother and five sons – were all ill: they lay on the ground on cane leaves.”

The following day, one of the remaining healthy men died when he was seized by an alligator while attempting to swim across the lagoon, and on the 27th: “Today, a highly respectable and very worthy man committed suicide. He had been ill, but was recovering, though still unable to rise. He insisted that he was going to die, and wished me to take charge of his little property, and of a letter to his wife. Last evening, I had given him a little wine; this morning, when on my way to visit him, I heard a shot fired, and on entering his hut, found that he had loaded a horse-pistol to the muzzle, and had literally blown himself to pieces. Not being able to get anyone to dig a grave, I collected some brushwood, which I piled in his hut, and set fire to it.”

The dead man was the Edinburgh cobbler who had been designated Official Shoemaker to the Princess of Poyais.

At the end of May, Colonel Hall’s effort to arrange a rescue finally bore fruit. A ship arrived from the British settlement at Belize, and began to evacuate the sick and exhausted settlers. Hastie and his family were among the first to go, leaving behind the grave of one of their children, struck down by fever. But, as he observed later, Belize did not mean the end of their troubles: “The unhealthiness of the place… the crowded state of the hospitals… so much increased our complaints, as to baffle in many instances the power of medicine; and many were weekly carried off to their graves… Among the first who died in the hospital was another of my poor children…”

Another was McDougal, along with, presumably, his family.

By the time the authorities in Belize had organised passage home for the immigrants, two-thirds of them were dead. Of those who had survived, some – including Colonel Hall – decided either to stay where they were, or to make another attempt to start a new life in America. Some 320 people in all had made the ill-fated trip to Poyais, but only 50 of them made it back to Britain.

And what of ‘Sir’ Gregor MacGregor, the man who had caused such death and misfortune? Amazingly, he was cleared of responsibility for the Poyais disaster in an official report by the Superintendent of Belize. Nor was he ever prosecuted for the fraudulent loan issue he had floated in the City. The only punishment he suffered was several months on remand in a French jail, while he awaited trial after attempting to repeat the Poyais fraud in Paris. He was eventually acquitted, though with the recommendation that he leave the country immediately.

But his career as a con man was not quite over. Returning to South America, he persuaded the Venezuelan government to award him his general’s back pay and pension – on the basis of his “heroic contribution” to the struggle for independence.

As for Hastie, he, with his wife and remaining child, arrived in London on October 13, 1823, and the family were nursed back to health at St Thomas’s hospital. The Scottish Society held a collection for them, which yielded �15, and paid for their journey home to Edinburgh, where Hastie was grateful to be taken back into “the service of my old master” as a sawyer.

“I will not again,” he wrote, “be among the first to venture to a new colony, unless I know better who is to have the charge.”

Sir Gregor MacGregor and The Land That Never Was is published by Review on February 10, �16.99

David Sinclair

Scotland on Sunday

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