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General Sir Gregor MacGregor of Inverarnan and Venezuela, Cacique of Poyais

By Peter Lawrie, ©2012
General Sir Gregor MacGregor rose to prominence in Bolivia and Venezuela as the right-hand man of Simon Bolivar (1783-1830) the great liberator in independence struggles against the Spanish and Portuguese in South and Central America.

In 1821 Gregor proposed, in effect, a second Darien Scheme. In the prospectus he described himself as: "His Majesty Gregor, Chief of the Poyais Indians in Mosquitia. He proclaimed that he could trace his descent faithfully back to Kenneth MacAlpin, King of the Scots, and so has full claim to the throne of Great Britain".

Inverarnan House, today the Drovers Inn. Thanks to Drovers Inn website for this image This Gregor, and his sister Jane Isabella, were grandchildren of Gregor boidheach, Captain Gregor MacGregor of Inverarnan, who was instrumental in launching the successful petition of 1774 which obtained repeal of the Acts of Parliament against Clan Gregor, securing them the right to once again use their name. Gregor boidheach was a soldier in the Black Watch regiment reviewed by King George II at the Court of St. James. The King was so impressed by Gregor's bearing that he awarded him with a guinea. Gregor, gave the King's guinea (which would have kept him for a year at home) to the porter on leaving. While in the army, Gregor used the surname Drummond. Gregor boidheach (the name means handsome or beautiful) descended from Malcolm, a younger brother of the Gregor dubh who was the fourth Chief of the Glengyle MacGregors and, grandfather of Colonel Donald glas, the father of Rob Roy. Donald glas had a sister who married the grandfather of Gregor boidheach. The son of Gregor boidheach and father of General MacGregor was Donald or Daniel of Inverarnan a captain in the East India Company.

John of Glengyle, 11th Chief of the Glengyle MacGregors, whom Gregor's sister Jane Isabella married in 1816, and who was born in 1795, was the great-grandson of Gregor glun dubh.

Gregor sold Inverarnan to Alexander MacNicholl Esq of Succoch on 15 Dec.1828 (see genealogical table at foot of article)

Inverarnan House, originally built in 1705 is today a quirky and popular hotel on the West Highland Way
In 1803, at the age of 16, Gregor joined the British Army as Ensign and served in an infantry regiment, the 57th Foot. By 1804 he had risen to the rank of lieutenant, an unusually rapid progression. He married Maria Bowater, an admiral's daughter, in June 1805, and Maria MacGregor then set up house in London while MacGregor spent much of his time in Gibraltar, where the 57th Foot was in training.

Not until July 1809 was MacGregor's regiment sent to Portugal, as reinforcements for the Duke of Wellington's second peninsular campaign to drive the French out of Spain. Accounts of MacGregor's service in this campaign vary, but it is known that for a time he was seconded to the Portuguese army with the rank of major, and that he sold out of the British Army in May 1810, possibly because of disagreements with his superior officers. MacGregor and his wife then went to Edinburgh, where he assumed the title of "Colonel", but by 1811 they were in London and MacGregor was styling himself Sir Gregor MacGregor, while claiming falsely to have succeeded to the chieftainship of the clan MacGregor.

Gregorio Macgregor When Sir Evan Murray Macgregor led his rehabilitated Clan at the ceremonies for the visit of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822, its most bizarre member had already met the King. Gregor MacGregorhad presented his credentials at the Court of St James in 1820, calling himself His Serene Highness Gregor I, Prince of Poyais. His Serene Highness had also served in the British Army as a young Ensign in the 57th Regiment of Foot, but in 1811 he had sailed to Venezuela in the very year that country led the other colonies of Latin America in proclaiming their independence. Gregor received a commission from Simon Bolivar himself, and found a Colonel Campbell commanding a corps of riflemen. But Gregor became a General of Division, married Bolivar's niece, and was invested by him with the Order of Liberators. Then Gregor took to the sea and captured one of the great fortresses of the Spanish Main with two small boats and 150 men. This led him to the Mosquito Coast of what is now Nicaragua, where he created his imaginary kingdom of Poyais. There follows an account of his apparently fraudulent attempts at raising money from investors for colonisation in Scotland and France. He finally returned to Venezuela to spend the rest of his days living on a hero's pension.
Gregor's first marriage was to Maria Bowater from Woolwich, and his second to Josepha Maria de Lupera. ..

According to Simon Bolivar by Thomas Rourke (1940), Simon Bolivar won fame as the great liberator of most of South and Central America from the Spaniards and Portuguese. He was born and his ashes are held at Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. He was from a very wealthy family. Bolivar is still revered there and in several parts of South America. It seems that Gregor MacGregor from 1811 was his right-hand man and married Bolivar's niece. Bolivar had two older sisters, Maria Antonia born 1777/8 and Juana Maria born 1779, as well as a brother Juan Vincente born 1781. Their parents died when they were young and both sisters married at early ages - 15 and about 14. Bolivar was reared with his brother in a handsome house on the Plaza de San Jacinto under the care of his maternal uncle, Don Carlos Palacio. Bolivar was descended from Spanish nobility which moved to Caracas in 1589. Many city points of interest are named after Bolivar.

In December 1811, Maria MacGregor died. Gregor went to Caracas ariving in the spring of 1812. He talked General Francisco de Miranda, the Commander in Chief of the new Venezuelan Republic's army, into appointing him a colonel, and almost immediately he was involved in a series of skirmishes that resulted in his promotion to brigadier-general. A month or so later, when General Miranda was captured and handed over to the royalist forces by Simon Bolívar, MacGregor fled to Curaçao on a British brig with his new wife.

During his brief stay in Caracas, MacGregor had met Josefa Antonia Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera, the daughter of a prominent local family and a cousin of Simon Bolívar. They were married on 10 June 1812 and their marriage endured twenty-six years, until Josefa's death in 1838. They eventually had three children, Gregor (Gregorio), born. Nassau 9 Nov 1817, d.s.p.;, Constantine (Constantino), born. Paris 1 Nov 1824 and Josefa Anna Gregoria, born at Donaghadee, Co. Down, Ireland 5/8/1821, and died.27/1/1872 at Cauldhame near Kippen, s.p. The birth was in the house of Gregor's sister Anne Sempill MacGregor and her husband Dr William Pinkston O'Reilly.,

From Curaçao, MacGregor decided to go to New Granada (present-day Colombia) and join the liberation forces of General Antonio Nariño. For Josefa's safety, he first took her to the British island of Jamaica and then sailed for Cartagena on the northern coast of New Granada. From there he made his way south to Tunja, where General Nariño put him in command of the military district of Socorro, near the Venezuelan border.

In 1814, the Spanish royalist forces routed General Nariño's army and MacGregor took refuge in Cartagena de Indias, where he played a role in organizing the city's defenses. In August 1815, the Spanish troops of General Pablo Morillo attacked the city and began a siege that lasted until December, when disease and starvation forced the city to surrender. On the night of 5 December, MacGregor helped to organize a mass escape aboard gunboats that blasted their way through the Spanish blockade and sailed for Jamaica.

In Jamaica, MacGregor was treated as a hero, but by the spring of 1816 he had moved on with Josefa to the neighboring island of Haiti, where Simon Bolívar was raising a new army. In April, MacGregor sailed with Bolívar's fleet as a brigadier-general to Venezuela, landing on the island of Margarita before crossing to Carupano on the mainland. Both Bolívar and MacGregor ran into trouble after their forces split up, and MacGregor's troops were eventually forced to retreat towards the town of Barcelona, fighting all the way. This difficult, month-long campaign earned MacGregor deserved acclaim.

MacGregor claimed to be commissioned by representatives of the revolting South American countries to liberate Florida from Spanish rule.Financed by American backers, he led an army of only 150 men including recruits from Charleston and Savannah, some War of 1812 veterans, and 55 musketeers in an assault on Fort San Carlos at Fernandina on Amelia Island. Through spies within the Spanish garrison, MacGregor had learned that the force there consisted of only 55 regulars and 50 militia men. He spread rumors in the town which eventually reached the ear of the garrison commander that an army of more than 1,000 men was about to attack. On 29 June 1817, he advanced on the fort, deploying his men in small groups coming from various directions to give the impression of a larger force.The commander, Francisco Morales, struck the Spanish flag and fled. MacGregor raised his flag, the “Green Cross of Florida", a green cross on a white ground, over the fort and proclaimed the “Republic of the Floridas”.

Now in possession of the town, and seeing the need to make the appearance of a legitimate government, MacGregor quickly got a committee together to draft a constitution,and appointed Ruggles Hubbard, the former high sheriff of New York City, as unofficial civil governor, and Jared Irwin, an adventurer and former Pennsylvania Congressman, as his treasurer. MacGregor then opened a post office, started a newspaper and issued currency to pay his troops and to settle government debts.Expecting reinforcements for a raid against the Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine,MacGregor intended to subdue all of Spanish East Florida. His plan was doomed to fail, however, as President James Monroe was in sensitive negotiations with Spain to acquire all of Florida.

Soon MacGregor's reserves were depleted, and the Republic needed revenue. He commissioned privateers to seize Spanish ships and set up an admiralty court which levied a customs duty on their sales. They began selling captured prizes and their cargoes, which often included slaves. On 4 September, faced with the threat of a Spanish reprisal, and still lacking money and adequate reinforcements, he abandoned his plans to conquer Florida and departed Fernandina with most of his officers, leaving a small detachment of men at Fort San Carlos to defend the island.

Gregor MacGregor went from Latin America to London, in 1820 and announced that he had been created cacique (highest authority or prince) of the Principality of Poyais, an independent nation on the Bay of Honduras. He claimed that native chieftain King George Frederic Augustus I of the Mosquito Shore and Nation had given him the territory of Poyais, 12,500 mile² (32,400km²) of fertile land with untapped resources, a small number of settlers of British origin, and cooperative natives eager to please. He had created the beginnings of a country with civil srvice, army and democratic government. Now he needed settlers and investment and had come back to the United Kingdom to give people the opportunity. At the time, British merchants were all too eager to enter the South American market that Spain had denied to them. The region had already become more promising in the wake of wars of South American independence, when the new governments of Colombia, Chile and Peru had issued bonds in the London Royal Exchange to raise money.

London high society welcomed the colourful figure of MacGregor, and he and his Spanish American wife Josefa Andrea Aristeguieta y Lovera received many invitations. MacGregor claimed descent of clan MacGregor and that Rob Roy MacGregor had been his direct ancestor. He enhanced his allure by telling about his exploits in the Peninsular War and later in the service of Francisco de Miranda, Simón Bolívar and South American independence.

MacGregor was also introduced to Major William John Richardson and by the winter of 1821 he had made Richardson legate of Poyais. He had also moved to Oak Hall in Richardson's estate in Essex, England, as befit his station as a prince. An office for the Legation of the Territory of Poyais was opened at Dowgate Hill in the City of London. MacGregor enhanced his popularity with elaborate banquets in Oak Hall and invited dignitaries like foreign ambassadors, government ministers and senior military officers.

MacGregor also claimed that one of his ancestors was a rare survivor of the Darien Scheme, a failed Scottish attempt of colonization in Panama in 1690s. In order to compensate for this, he said, he had decided to draw most of the settlers from Scotland. For this purpose, he established offices in Edinburgh and Glsgow.

In Edinburgh, MacGregor began to sell land rights for 3 shillings and 3 pence per acre (£0.16/acre or £40.15/km²). The average worker's weekly wage at the time was about £1, which meant that the price was very generous. The price steadily rose to 4 shillings (£0.20). Many people hoping to make a new start in the new country signed on with their families. On 23 October 1822 MacGregor raised a £200,000 loan on behalf of the Poyais government, in the form of 2,000 bearer bonds worth £100 each.

Also in 1822 MacGregor published a 350-page guidebook entitled Sketch of the Mosquito Shore, including the Territory of Poyais, descriptive of the country, supposedly written by one Captain Thomas Strangeways. It described the Poyais in glowing terms and mainly concentrated on how much profit one could get from the country's ample resources. Poyais was said to be a very anglophilic region with already existing infrastructure, untapped gold and silver mines and large amounts of fertile soil ready to be settled. The region was even free of tropical diseases. The book also claimed that British settlers had founded the capital of Poyais, St Joseph, in the 1730s.

The Legation of Poyais chartered a ship called Honduras Packet, whose crew MacGregor already knew, and five London merchants received contracts to provision the ship with food and ammunition. Its cargo also included a chest full of "Poyais Dollars", Poyaisian currency MacGregor had printed in Scotland. Many of the settlers had changed their pounds to Poyais dollars.

On 10 September 1822 the Honduras Packet departed from the Port of London with 70 would-be-settlers aboard. They included doctors, lawyers and a banker who had been promised appropriate positions in the Poyais civil service. Some had also purchased officer commissions in the Poyaisian army.

On 22 January 1823 another ship, the Kennersley Castle, left Leith Harbour in Scotland for Poyais with 200 would-be-settlers. The ship also carried enough provisions for a year. It arrived in the appropriate place 20 March and spent two days looking for a port. Eventually the newcomers found the settlers who had sailed on the Honduras Packet.

What the settlers had found was an untouched jungle, some natives and a couple of American hermits who had made their homes there. "St Joseph" consisted of only a couple of ruins of a previous attempt at settlement abandoned in the previous century. There was no settlement of any kind. The Honduras Packet had been swept away by a storm.

When some of the labourers began to build rudimentary shelter for themselves, the officers and civil servants decided to try to find a way out. Lieutenant-Colonel Hector Hall, would-be-governor of Poyais, had left to look for the Honduras Packet or another ship to take them back to Britain.

The would-be-settlers began to argue with each other and some of them, who had expected better accommodation, refused to do anything. The Kennersley Castle sailed away. Tropical diseases also began to take their toll. One settler, having used his life savings to gain passage, committed suicide.

In April, the Mexican Eagle, an official ship from British Honduras with the chief magistrate on board, accidentally found the settlers. Chief magistrate Bennet listened to their story and told them that there was no such place as Poyais. He agreed to take them to British Honduras. A couple of days later Colonel Hall returned with King George Frederic and announced that the King had effectively revoked the land grant because MacGregor had assumed sovereignty. The Mexican Eagle took sixty settlers to British Honduras. The other settlers were rescued later.

Many settlers were weakened on their short sea voyage and many of them later died in hospitals in British Honduras; 180 of the 270 would-be settlers had perished during the ordeal.

Edward Codd, Superintendent for Belize, sent a warning to London where naval vessels were sent to call back five ships of would-be-settlers that had departed after the Kennersley Castle. Those survivors who did not decide to settle on the British Honduras or move elsewhere in the Americas sailed on the Ocean on 1 August 1823 to London. More people died during that journey, and fewer than 50 came back alive to Britain. 72 days later the Ocean docked in London. The next day, city papers published the whole story.

However, regardless of the experiences of the survivors, some of them refused to believe that MacGregor would have been the main culprit. One of them, James Hastie, who had lost two of his children to tropical diseases, wrote and published a book Narrative of a Voyage in the Ship Kennersley Castle from Leith Roads to Poyais. He blamed Sir Gregor's advisers and publicists for spreading the false information. A group of survivors signed a declaration of their belief that had Sir Gregor gone with them, things would have turned out differently. Major Richardson sued the papers for libel and defended MacGregor against the charges of fraud.

MacGregor himself, however, had already left for Paris, in October.

MacGregor had already contacted the trading organization "Compagnie de la Nouvelle Neustrie" and commissioned it to further the affairs of Poyais in France.

In March 1825 MacGregor summoned from London Gustavus Butler Hippisley, an acquaintance from the army, on the pretext of discussing his appointment as a representative of Poyais in Colombia. Hippisley was to write about the Poyais affair in France in Acts of Oppression Committed under the Administration of m. de Villele, Prime minister of Charles X, in the years 1825-6.

MacGregor claimed to Hippisley that he needed the help of the French government to obtain a formal renunciation of any (in reality nonexistent) claims Spain might have to Poyais and that he had met with French Prime Minister Jean-Baptiste de Villèle. MacGregor and la Nouvelle Noustrie already had plans to send French emigrants to Poyais. Hippisley wrote back to London, castigating the journalists who had called MacGregor a "penniless adventurer".

In August, MacGregor published a new constitution of Poyais; he had changed it into a republic with himself as the head of state. On 18 August 1825 he issued a £300.000 loan with 2.5% interest through the London bank of Thomas Jenkins & Company. The bond was probably never issued. At the same time, la Nouvelle Noustrie recruited settlers with the requirement that they buy FFr100 worth of the company shares.

When French officials noticed that a number of people had obtained passports in order to voyage to a country they had never heard of, they seized the la Nouvelle Neustrie vessel in Le Havre. Some of the would-be-emigrants realized that something was not right and demanded investigation of the affairs of the la Nouvelle Neustrie and Sir Gregor. Hippisley was arrested but MacGregor was nowhere to be found.

Hippisley and MacGregor's secretary Thomas Irving were held in custody in La Force prison when the police investigation was going on. Lehuby, one of the directors of La Nouvelle Noustrie, fled to Belgium. MacGregor went into hiding until he was brought into the prison 7 December, two months after the first arrests. He proceeded to comfort his associates and in January 1826 made a proclamation to Central American states – it was written in French and primarily meant to affect French opinion. The accused were later moved to Bicetre prison.

The trial began on 6 April 1826. MacGregor, Hippisley, Irving and Lehuby (in absentia) were accused of fraud by means of the Poyais emigration program. Their lawyer, Merilhou, put the blame on Lehuby and the prosecutor was ready to withdraw the charges if the men were deported from France. Initially the court agreed but judges changed their minds when Belgium agreed to extradite Lehuby. Lawyer Merilhou was later summoned as a witness for the prosecution.

The new trial began on 10 July 1826, and lasted for four days. Merilhou's replacement, Berville, eloquently put the blame on anybody else but MacGregor. MacGregor was acquitted and Hippisley and Irving were released. Lehuby was convicted for 13 months for making false promises.

In 1826 MacGregor returned to London, where the furore over his affairs had died down. Shortly after his arrival he was arrested and taken to Tothill Fields Bridewell prison in Westminster on charges now unknown. He was released in less than a week.

MacGregor proceeded with the modified schemes. This time he claimed that (again, nonexistent) natives had elected him as the head of state and became just "Cacigue of the Republic of Poyais" and opened a new office at 23 Threadneedle Street in the City, without any diplomatic trappings and in much a smaller scale than before. He issued a loan worth £800.000 as 20-year bonds with Thomas Jenkins & Company as brokers. The scheme was announced in the summer 1827.

However, investors were now more careful and somebody circulated a handbill that warned against investing in "Poyais humbug". MacGregor had to pass the most of the unsold certificates to a consortium of speculators for an undisclosed sum. He made only a little money.

Further Poyais schemes were equally successful. In 1828 MacGregor tried to sell land from Poyais at the price of 5 shillings per acre. In 1830 Robert Charles Frederic, brother and successor of King George Frederic, began to offer for sale the same territories to lumber companies. These certificates competed with those of MacGregor. When older investors demanded their interest, he could only pay with more certificates to the value of the interest payments he owed. Others began to use the same trick too – two men named Upton opened a rival "Poyaisian office" and offered land debentures for sale.

In 1831 MacGregor promoted a "Poyaisian New Three per cent Consolidated Stock" as "the President of the Poyaisian Republic". In 1834 he was living in Scotland and had to issue a new series of land certificates as payment for unredeemed securities. In 1836 he wrote a new constitution for the Poyaisian Republic. The last record of any Poyais scheme is in 1837, when he tried to sell some land certificates.

In 1839 Gregor MacGregor moved to Venezuela where he had requested and received Venezuelan citizenship, and a pension as a general who had fought for independence. He died in Caracas on 4 December 1845.

Gregor was buried with full military honours in Caracas Cathedral. Cabinet ministers with the military chiefs of Venezuela marching behind his coffin. Obituaries in the Caracas press extolled General MacGregor's "heroic and triumphant retreat" to Barcelona in 1816 and described him as "a valiant champion of independence". ​ Gregor, along with the British Legions (largely Scottish and Irish), were called by Simon Bolivar - " The saviours of my country ". Gregor was the most notable Scottish soldier under the Simon Bolivar when he defeated the Spanish Royalist in the Battle of Carabobo. Gregor's wife, Josefa MacGregor, died in Edinburgh.

Some place-names commemorating Bolivar include the famed Avenida Bolivar, with two traffic levels, 110 feet wide, in the centre of the city, Bolivar Museum, Plaza Boliva and others. The birthplace of Bolivar was the Casa Natal, which Rourke in 1940 believed to still belong to his mother's family. Bolivar's ashes are housed in the triple domed National Pantheon.

See here for further detail on the descent of the MacGregors of Glengyle and of Marchfield / Inverarnan

some descendants of Malcolm of Glengyle born 1505, showing chiefs of Glengyle on left and descent of the "cacique of Poyais" on right
Gregor dubh (Glengyle) Malcolm og (Inverlochlarig) 1540-1604
Malcolm og (Glengyle) died 1656 Dougal McOlchallum in Coilleitir
Colonel Donald glas (Glengyle) died 1693 Gregor dubh (Inverarnan & Marchfield) died 1708 - married to sister of Donald glas
John of Glengyle, brother to Rob Roy Malcolm of Marchfield died 1734
Colonel Gregor glun dubh of Glengyle, 1689-1777 Gregor boidheach (alias Drummond) of Inverarnan 1716-1779
John of Glengyle (1708-1774) Captain Daniel MacGregor (alias Murray) of Inverarnan HEICS
James of Glengyle (died 1798) General Gregor MacGregor, "cacique of Poyais" 1786-1845, buried Caracas Cathedral
John of Glengyle (1795-1897) married Jane Isabella, sister of Gregor (the cacique)

Bolivar (A Continent and its Destiny) by J.L.Salcedo-Bastardo, 1977: is an in-depth study of the character of the Liberator, but has little about Bolivar's immediate family or Macgregor. It does reveal that during 1817-18 idealistic Venezuelans and others tried to free New Granada (Colombia) and the West Indies from the Spanish. At the end of June 1817 they proclaimed the "Republic of Florida" which lasted seven months. Soldiers like MacGregor, Aury and Codazzi and civilians like Roscio and Gual came together in this. Their intention was to establish a bridgehead in the north to help the revolution, especially their colleagues in Mexico and Central America. The author gives the location as the port of Fernandina, on the Island of Amelia, just off the Florida Peninsula. The map shows both places as just south of the present border between Florida and Georgia, and just north of Nassau Sound. General Gregor's son Gregor or Gregorio was born at the better known Nassau in the Bahamas on 9 Nov 1817, during the period of the "Republic". The book also discusses Daniel F. O'Leary, saying he went from Cork to South America in 1818 as a member of a cavalry corps recruited in Great Britain. This must be MacGregor's Irish Legion. O'Leary was Bolivar's personal envoy during the wars. He compiled a 32 volume "Memorias del General O'Leary" published in Caracas 1879/1881.