Excerpt from The Land That Never Was by David Sinclair, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Land That Never Was

Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History

by David Sinclair

The Land That Never Was
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2004, 384 pages
    Jan 2005, 384 pages

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Then there was cotton, one of the mainstays of the industrial revolution that was gathering pace back in Britain. The mechanization of the production process during the past thirty years had led to the establishment of vast mills in Derbyshire, Lancashire and western Scotland, and their owners scoured the world for supplies of the raw material they needed to meet the rapidly growing demand for cotton clothing. The cotton plant grew wild in Poyais, one of the 'most valuable gifts of a bountiful Creator, superintending and providing for the necessities of man', as Captain Strangeways put it. That being so, it represented the most promising source of revenue for settlers with limited means. A single acre, properly planted, would yield about 250 lbs of cotton which could be sold to merchants for £6, and one man could easily manage three acres by himself, as well as cultivating enough land to provide food for his family. It was estimated that an 'active, industrious emigrant' arriving in Poyais with £150 in his purse could establish a cotton plantation which, in the first year, would bring him a profit of £100, 'with the certain prospect of every year being able to extend it, and so in proportion to augment his capital and income'.

Even the poorer settlers could, quite literally, sow the seeds of a future commercial empire, because cotton merchants were only too happy to extend loans that would be paid off in cotton at market prices. With such a loan, an investment of only £30 would produce a net income of £40 a year. Reinvest £30 of that income, take out another loan, and the following year you would clear £80. It did not take a mathematician to work out that untold riches would eventually follow. Why, there were plantations in the United States, built on just such modest capital, that were now earning their owners hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.

Day after day, under the grey Atlantic skies, these sorts of discussions went on, the natural anxieties diminished, and the sense of excitement grew. The more people thought about it, the wiser seemed their decision to emigrate. Obviously, Poyais was genuinely a land of opportunity where only idleness could lead to failure. Everyone shared the optimism of Captain Strangeways, expressed in the closing paragraph of his useful little book:

Enough has been said to prove the great encouragement, and manifold advantages, which must be derived from commercial establishments in the Territory of Poyais: and now that the well known political circumstances are removed, which have hitherto retarded the advancement of this fine country, in civilization and in the scale of independent states, there seems no reason whatever to doubt, that, protected by the wise and vigorous administration, sound policy, and comprehensive view of His Highness the Cazique of Poyais, this beautiful country will rapidly advance in prosperity and civilization, and will become, in every point of view, and within a very short period, not the least considerable of those 'radiant realms beyond the Atlantic wave'.

The radiant realms, celebrated in prose by a leading West Indies merchant of the eighteenth century, came rather closer during the early days of March 1823, when the Kennersley Castle crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, and the weather began to grow warmer and brighter. Less than a week later, Captain Crouch was guiding the ship through the shallow waters of the Guadeloupe Passage, between the Leeward and the Windward Islands, and into the Caribbean Sea. The passengers crowded to the rails for a view of Antigua, on the starboard side, and Guadeloupe, to port. They had their first close encounter with the tropics on 8 March, when the vessel put into Plymouth harbour, in the little island of Montserrat, to take on fresh water and supplies. Some of the gentlemen went ashore, but most of the colonists remained aboard ship, marvelling at the blueness of the ocean, the sandy beaches, and the deep green foliage of the forests spreading as far as they could see over the volcanic lower slopes of the Souffriere mountains.

Copyright 2003 by David Sinclair. All rights reserved.

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