A corking good read, is what The Land That Never Was is. If you like erudition in your mystery and humor in your history, if you enjoy Hercule Poirot with a touch of strange, this is your book. David Sinclair is a British journalist who likes to take serious subjects and give them a dash of intrigue. In this case he has taken a comedic subject and made it just serious enough to satisfy the detail-minded history buff.
The book reads like a novel at first - the saga of a group of excited Scots who have bought land or received commissions in exchange for money and embarked on a sea voyage to their new adopted home, Poyais, somewhere on the Mosquito Coast. Some will be officers of state, bankers and governors, some will be shoemakers and smithies. All have invested considerable funds in this venture, aided by a guide book which extols the virtues of their new home. The year is 1823, the times redolent of ripping yarns of piracy, fortunes made in foreign gold, a new aristocracy growing out of foreign, more egalitarian soil. The voyage is fraught with pleasant speculative chatter, and all goes well.
The band reaches its destination -- to find that there is nothing there. Nothing at all. No small colonial city peopled with helpful British settlers just longing for the company of the new arrivals, no friendly natives anxious to work for a few coppers to plough and tend the huge plantations designed to yield thousands per year, according to the guidebook's optimistic estimates. Nothing but a few shattered huts, some surly natives scarcely willing to work at all, and heat, disease, brackish water, and the jungle.
Echoing perhaps The Lord of the Flies, the scenario that unfolded was cheerless - there was less leadership than could have been expected and only a handful survived, ultimately saved by their government, their compatriots, and their remaining good sense. Older people and children fell quickly to disease, one man drowned trying to assay a boat trip the hell away, and one depressed and now destitute shoemaker, thinking of his hopeful family back in Scotland, lay down in his hammock and shot himself in the head.
All this chaos was to be laid at the feet of one man, and one man only - Sir Gregor MacGregor, a confidence trickster whose skills in the fine art of hocus-pocus had been honed as he cut a wide swathe in the army, often brave but more often cleverly avoiding real combat in favor of commandeering supplies and sitting around the officer's barracks gambling, drinking and womanizing.
Gregor obviously had a flair for deceiving the willingly deceived, so much of a flair that even after the tragic debacle at "Poyais" there were few who assigned blame directly to him. He seemed so kind, so grand, so plausible. He had dined and traded with the greats, the upper classes, and taken advantage of the expansion of trade and of merchant banking that was the hallmark of the times. Having actually fought and somewhat distinguished himself in South American campaigns, he was riding on the wave of interest that the British, dumped out of northern America, now concentrated on the southerly climes, thirsting for empire and a restoration of national pride. Gregor was there to accept their loans and their kudos, their sumptuous meals and their offers of grand country homes.
But Poyais was way past a joke.
Sinclair's book explores MacGregor's character, going into thorough detail concerning his military service and the revolutions in South America that gave him a deserved reputation as a fighting man (if highly embellished in the retelling). Ironically, Gregor could have rested on his laurels and carved out a future for himself in the hot and glorious enterprises of war. In fact, he could have made a go of his colony - "had MacGregor been able to set aside his fantasies and the prospect of acquiring great riches very quickly by means of deception, he might easily have helped to create a thriving little territory as productive and wealthy as the West Indies."
Instead he became, and would have remained but for Sinclair's delightful book, "an exotic footnote in the long and sorry saga of fools and their money."