A Talk with David Sinclair, author of The Land That Never Was
How did you first hear about Sir Gregor MacGregor, and what made you decide to write a book about him?
When I first heard the outline of the MacGregor story, I found it so hard to believe that I felt it must be worth further investigation--and that if it did turn out to be absolutely true, it would definitely deserve a book. It came about at a New Year party, when I was living in Ireland. A friend of mine, Desmond FitzGerald, who holds the ancient Irish title of The Knight of Glin, told me that he had found among the family archives at Glin Castle, in County Limerick, material relating to the involvement of two of his ancestors with a certain General Sir Gregor MacGregor in a sensational 19th century fraud. MacGregor had invented an entire country in Central America. Not only had he sold land there to hundreds of people in Scotland, and persuaded them to emigrate, but he had also floated a £200,000 loan on the London capital market for the "government" of this fictitious country. How had he gotten away with it? Desmond did not know. What concerned him was whether his forebears had been part of the plot, or simply among MacGregor's dupes. What struck me, however, was that this sounded like the best story I had come across in more than 20 years of historical and biographical writing. And so it proved--a story of war, politics, love, vanity, betrayal and an utterly amazing crime. Incidentally, Desmond's ancestors turned out to be guilty of nothing but astonishing naivety.
How has your long career as a journalist prepared you to write this book?
I'm not the first author to suggest that journalism is the best preparation you can have for the writing trade. That is particularly the case with non-fiction. A journalist learns how to identify a good story, and how to tell it in a way people will enjoy reading. Every story has elements that are essential, and others that serve to decorate and illuminate it. A good journalist develops the skills to get the balance right, to inform, entertain--and perhaps to educate a little at the same time, often without the reader noticing. What that means for me is that history can always fascinate, and need never be boring. I'm interested to see that many academic historians nowadays are trying hard to write their books in a way that owes much to an intelligent journalistic approach.
Tell us about your research process for this book. Did it require an archival dig? Did you have to go to Scotland?
Research, of course, is another thing for which the journalist is professionally equipped. First, ask the right questions, then identify what you have to do to obtain the right answers. MacGregor, as a fraudster and lifelong impostor, did not leave much in the way of documentary evidence of his extraordinary life. I started researching with one 50-year-old magazine article, giving the bare bones of the story. Then it was a question of covering as many sources as might throw light on the story. Some information could only be obtained by examining archives in libraries and museums in Edinburgh and London, but much material on South America, and the real inhabitants of Poyais, I found as a result of patient examination of university and government sites on the Internet. Then the breakthrough: not only did I turn up three books by people who had been intimately involved with MacGregor, but I also managed to acquire, through a British bookseller, the only copy in circulation of a "guidebook" to Poyais, produced in 1822 with the intention of enticing people to buy land in the non-existent country. That was incredibly exciting, to hold in my hands one of the most important elements in the fraud.
Why were the people who set out for Poyais so gullible?
The Poyais settlers were no more gullible than any other people, before or since. Think of the South Sea Bubble, in the 18th century, or the Tulip Mania long before that, or the dot-com hysteria of our own times. Gullibility is the flip side of the creative human capacity to dream, without which the species would never have achieved dominance in the natural order. People are programmed to believe, to have faith, and to take huge risks on the basis of that faith: I think it's part of our natural survival mechanisms. The Poyais deception, and the many other frauds and confidence tricks we can think of, illustrate both how easy it is to exploit that faith and the dangers of people believing what they want to believe, rather than considering what might or might not be true, in pursuit of their dreams. That's partly what makes it such a great story--its universality in terms of time and human experience.
Could a similar fraud be perpetrated today, or was it unique to the period?
Similar frauds are being perpetrated today, though not on the same scale. In Europe, many people in recent years have been robbed of their life savings by crooked property companies offering homes in the sun that do not actually exist. The unique feature of MacGregor's scam was that it involved an entire country, something that could not happen today because of the easy availability of information. What places Poyais firmly in its period is the fact that large parts of the world remained unexplored or little known, and it was not unusual for "new" territories suddenly to be brought to the attention of people living thousands of miles away. In the case of Poyais, it did correspond to a particular area that could be identified on a map of South America, and a small part of that area had once been settled by the British. There was no reason for people to question the picture of the country carefully painted by MacGregor, especially given his supposed status as a hero of the South American wars of independence. Verifying his assertions, in an age of still primitive communications, would have required significant effort, expense and time.
Had you been around in 1823--and had you been a Scottish immigrant--do you think you'd have set out for Poyais?
I'd like to think I would have been more skeptical than the thousands of people who, either as immigrants or investors, fell for the Poyais hoax. On the other hand, MacGregor's preparations were so meticulous and convincing--the maps, the guidebook, the impressive land certificates, the engravings of the countryside, the currency--that I can see it might have been difficult to resist. And if I had been an impecunious younger son of the gentry, or a farmer struggling to survive an agricultural depression, or a soldier discharged from the army with little prospect of finding a good job, or a poorly paid artisan in a grimy and unsanitary city, I might well have decided to take the risk and opt for the bright, prosperous future and healthful climate that Poyais appeared to offer the adventurous.
You seem to have an affection for MacGregor, even though he defrauded many, many people. How come? What were his redeeming qualities?
Like so many of Gregor MacGregor's contemporaries, I find it hard not to be impressed by a man of such vision, energy and determination. You can see from his story that he was intelligent, charming, and with something of a capacity for greatness. His great flaw was an almost pathological self-regard, which blinded him to the needs, feelings and qualities of other people and turned them, so far as he was concerned, into fodder for his vanity and ambition. His great tragedy was that his inability to recognize the truth prevented him from realizing what could otherwise have been a visionary dream in creating a new country. No, I wouldn't say I have any affection for MacGregor: he was an unprincipled and sometimes cowardly rogue who, in the end, bears the responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of men, women and children who trusted him. But I do see him as being another victim of his warped personality, so I have tried to be even-handed in the book by revealing those qualities that attracted people to him and, in some cases, inspired loyalty beyond reason.
Can you think of any present-day rogues as scurrilous as MacGregor? Or have there been any others in history who stand out?
MacGregor is unique. There has never been a fraud as bold and all-embracing as his. Others have come close, though, in terms of boldness and methodical planning. One such, in our own times, is Konrad Kujau, who so nearly succeeded with his forgery of Adolf Hitler's diaries, as did Clifford Irving with his fake biography of Howard Hughes. The London toy dealer Jeffrey Levitt lived a millionaire's life on the basis of huge, well-organized frauds that included the sale of a toy train he claimed had belonged to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. Earlier, the hoaxer--one of several plausible suspects--who claimed in 1913 to have unearthed the early humanoid known as Piltdown Man had archaeologists fooled for 40 years. But the longest-running fraud in history dates back to 765 AD, when a document purportedly signed by the Roman Emperor Constantine was "discovered." This ceded Rome and large parts of western Italy to the Catholic Church, and although it was revealed as a fake in 1440, the Church did not hand over the so-called Papal States to the Italian government until 1929.
As you say in your Author's Note, "Money plays a central role in this story." Do you think there's a business lesson in The Land That Never Was?
As onetime editor of a financial newspaper, I think The Land That Never Was is a great example of what I call the "principle of perversity." In broad terms, this states that, the more outlandish and unlikely the business proposition, the more excitement it will generate in financial markets. Poyais was a country no one had heard of, with no economic history, and yet, according to MacGregor, it was home to rich merchants, a sophisticated banking and monetary system, and a capital city whose architecture might rival Paris or London. How come? Nobody asked the question. Instead, the market went into a frenzy of buying when Poyais government bonds were offered, and the price soared. I think of the 18th century London company that raised hundreds of thousands of pounds in capital on a prospectus that consisted largely of a plan to sell handkerchiefs to South American natives; the railway companies of the 19th century that grew fat on projects in places that could never have supported railways; the dot-com bubble, when companies that never had the slightest prospect of making profits attracted millions of dollars in venture capital. Much has been written about the behavioral psychology of markets--what about their tendency to utter irrationality?
What's your personal Poyais? Does everybody need one?
A personal Poyais? I don't think so. Forty years in the newspaper business have made me wary of chimeras. Except, I suppose, that the background to much of my life is France, a country that is not my own. But that is a choice I've made not on the basis of a dream, rather for a series of practical and philosophical reasons. France suits my pocket and my style, and I find it reassuring to be at the heart of the broadest kind of European culture. Nothing to do with the European Union, which does little to help my personal circumstances (or those of anyone else for that matter); more to do with feeling for a shared European history that is often denied in England--though not in Scotland and Ireland. I doubt whether a personal Poyais is necessary, but what is essential, for me, is a willingness to take the plunge if a genuine Poyais appears on the horizon.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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