'King' Gregor McGregor

Latin America was not short of colourful military adventurers in the first half of the 19th Century. But one of the most extraordinary eccentrics of the period was General Gregor MacGregor, a red-headed Scottish Highlander and member of the warlike family of the chiefs of clan Gregor. MacGregor was a natural soldier and as a military leader he was outstanding, but it is the baffling contradictions in his character that make him truly remarkable: generous and courageous in his youth he ended his career in jail as a swindler.

He always wanted to be a soldier, and the Napoleonic Wars gave him his chance. He was promoted to the rank of captain while still in his twenties, but was drawn to South America at the time when Simon Bolivar was fighting against the Spanish for Venezuelan independence. MacGregor landed there in his tartan kilt in 1813, accompanied by his personal piper and his secretary, and offered to fight for Bolivar and the Patriots. His offer, generously reinforced by his refusal to accept payment, was accepted and he was given a small force of 400 lancers and 200 infantry which became the nucleus of a powerful army. Having personally trained and disciplined his men, MacGregor - his kilt swinging and his piper's tunes skirling above the cries of battle-led them against the Royalists in the north.

Having inflicted several severe defeats on the Royalists, MacGregor was made Commander of the North Frontier by Bolivar. For good measure, the Scotsman promptly married Bolivar's niece, the beautiful Dofia Josefa Govera. That year, 1815, the Royalists put down the Patriot rising with savage terror. Only MacGregor and his army, joined by guerrillas, held out.

In 1816, he emerged as the most skilled of the Patriot commanders. He defeated the Royalists time after time and strengthened his army by attracting more guerrilla groups. Finally, still clad in his worn tartan plaid, and aided by Creole troops, MacGregor led a bayonet charge which scattered the defences of the town of Juncal and brought the Patriots 16,000 silver dollars-worth of treasure.

MacGregor was now master of a large part of the Venezuelan plains. Bolivar awarded him the coveted Insignia of the Liberators and made him a general.

Characteristically, at this moment of triumph, MacGregor quarrelled violently with his Creole colleague, General Piar, resigned his command and sailed for England.

He returned to Venezuela in 1819, with his own army of 900 soldiers of fortune and, in ships provided by Bolivar, launched independent expeditions against Spanish possessions. His first target was the rich coastal settlement of Portobello, in Panama. But Royalist forces there rallied and drove him out. The Venezuelan coastal town of Rio Hacha then fell to him, but the violent behaviour of his men so incensed the Patriot citizens that, after three weeks, they rose up and scattered MacGregor's forces.

It was the last of MacGregor's military exploits, and a hitherto unseen side to his character now emerged. In 1820, his military career ended and, perhaps seeking an equally dramatic outlet for his grandiose ambitions, he sailed to the Mosquito Shore, between Honduras and Nicaragua, declared himself king of the Poyais Indians and founded the Poyais State in 10,000 square miles of their territory.

MacGregor now seemed to have slipped from reality into a world of fantasy. He had sailed from London as plain General Gregor MacGregor, but now returned there as "His Serene Highness Gregor the First, Sovereign Prince of the State of Poyais and Its Dependencies, and Cacique of the Poyer Nation." On landing, the new potentate sent greetings to George IV and set up a legation in London, from which the Green Cross and Golden Eagle of the Poyaisian flag hung proudly. He sold commissions in the non-existent Poyaisian Army and offered phoney titles to gullible citizens. He then descended on the City of London, arranged a loan of 200,000 pounds in his name with a firm of prominent bankers and issued Poyaisian banknotes. He opened emigration offices in England and Scotland and published a pamphlet for would-be colonists depicting Poyais as an earthly paradise, with a wonderful climate, fertile land, fruit-laden trees, cheap cattle and a gracious, towered city. He then sold estates in this land of milk and honey, for a shilling an acre. At this price, it must have been hard for a hopeful colonist to say no to such an offer.

In September, 1822, seven vessels disembarked the first eager emigrants on to a wild, uninhabited shore fronted by swamp and jungle. Their settlement of St. Joseph became a grave for two-thirds of them, who either died of malaria and yellow fever or were slain by Indians. The survivors were rescued and taken to Belize, British Honduras.

When the news of the disaster finally reached a shocked London, MacGregor was arrested, tried for fraud and imprisoned. On his release he moved to Paris and, undeterred by his previous failure, tried to pull the same trick again. The French were not so gullible and threw him into prison at once. When he was released, almost destitute, he made a simple plea for help to Venezuela. Generously, the government invited him back - with a pension for his services in the war of independence. And there the self-styled King of the Poyais died in 1845. It was a peaceful end to a turbulent career.

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by Stephen Luscombe