Fyre Festival (2017)
Well, like everyone else in the western world, it seems, I duly watched the Netflix documentary on the absurd act of hubris that was the Fyre Festival. And like everyone else, I felt disgusted and sickened by the sheer grovelling stupidity of the whole saga: above all, by what it said about our celebrity-dominated culture - more so, surely, than any polity since Ancient Rome?
There was a strange familiarity about the whole thing, though. I began to realise that I'd heard this story before:
David Sinclair: The Land That Never Was (2003)
Sinclair, David. The Land That Never Was: Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History. 2003. London: Headline Book Publishing, 2004.
General Gregor MacGregor (1786-1845)
The perpetrator of that earlier fraud, Sir Gregor MacGregor, was apparently every bit as charismatic as more recent conman Billy McFarland:
Billy McFarland (1991- )
True, the two events were two hundred years apart, but maybe that just goes to prove that there's nothing new under the sun. And don't you think that the two of them look very similar? Maybe there's a family connection - though the MacGregors hail mostly from Argyll, as I understand it, and the MacFarlands from the headwaters of Loch Lomond ...
Egregious though Billy MacFarland's crimes may appear at present, though, they don't really compare to Gregor MacGregor's. Billy invented a spurious island in the Bahamas, and alleged that he was able to mount a music festival there. Sir Gregor MacGregor invented an imaginary country out of whole cloth. He called it "Poyais," and alleged that it could be found in the Gulf of Honduras. More than 250 prospective settlers set sail for his chimerical kingdom in 1822. More than half of them died there.
Perhaps the most disconcerting moment in the netflix documentary came when one of the chuckleheads being interviewed revealed that he and his group of friends, after claiming one of the tents which were the only accommodation available onsite, proceeded to rampage around ripping and destroying all the other tents in their immediate vicinity so "they wouldn't have to put up with any close neighbours."
The grinning face of this creature, as he skited about how he'd personally pissed on as many mattresses as possible so they couln't be slept on, had to be seen to be believed. Along with the infamous shot of the cheese sandwich - the sole survivor of so many fake promises of luxury food and accommodation - this revelation of just how close we are to the skull beneath the skin was certainly arresting.
Things in Poyais were not much better, I'm afraid, when the first settlers arrived there in the early 1820s. MacGregor didn't own any of the land, for a start, but even if he had, the verdant acres and thriving towns he'd spoken of so eloquently were really tiny villages on the edge of a mosquito-infested swamp. And yet, after all, surely the author of this lovely Poyaisian vista had actually been there. Hadn't he? I mean, what more evidence could you need?
The most convincing thing of all, of course, was the Poyaisian currency and documentation MacGregor was so eager to hand out to his investors. So rich was the land, it was almost as if money grew on trees!
Today we're so much wiser, of course. Our currency of choice is frolicking models in bikinis:
Perhaps the saddest thing of all about the Poyais debacle was the fact that it constituted a kind of ghastly parody of a much sadder and infinitely more destructive event 130-odd years before: the Scottish Darien scheme of the late 1690s.
John Prebble: The Darien Disaster (1968)
The whole thing is too sad to joke about. I'll content myself with quoting the dignified simplicity of the Wikipedia summary, instead:
The Darien scheme was an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading nation by establishing a colony called "Caledonia" on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s. The aim was for the colony to have an overland route that connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. From its contemporary time to the present day, claims have been made that the undertaking was beset by poor planning and provisioning, divided leadership, a lack of demand for trade goods particularly caused by an English trade blockade, devastating epidemics of disease, collusion between the English East India Company and the English government to frustrate it, as well as a failure to anticipate the Spanish Empire's military response. It was finally abandoned in March 1700 after a siege by Spanish forces, which also blockaded the harbour.All of this took place just a bit down the coast from the eventual site of 'Poyais', in fact. But why was it so devastating to the Sottish economy?
As the Company of Scotland was backed by approximately 20% of all the money circulating in Scotland, its failure left the entire Lowlands in substantial financial ruin and was an important factor in weakening their resistance to the Act of Union (completed in 1707). The land where the Darien colony was built, in the modern province of Guna Yala, is virtually uninhabited today.In other words, whether by accident or (more probably) by design, William III and his ministers orchestrated the failure of the scheme in order to weaken the independent kingdom of Scotland to the point where virtually its only chance of survival was to surrender sovereignty in the 'Act of Union' (so-called). Ever wondered why the Scots feel so bitter towards those oh-so-friendly southern neighbours of theirs?
Mind you, the plan was pretty mad to start with, and it didn't take much to put a spanner in the works. The sheer petty spite with which the English sabotaged it doesn't make pretty reading, though, even three centuries later. So you can see that the prospect of another bunch of poor Scots travelling off to the fever-ridden swamps of Central America in the 1820s wasn't really seen as a subject for mirth at the time.
Why were they so dumb? Not from choice, that's for sure. The Celtic diaspora was well underway by this time, propelled in Scotland by a lovely thing called the Highland Clearances, subject of another heartbreaking book by John Prebble.
John Prebble: The Highland Clearances (1963)
It was, I think, Karl Marx who remarked that history does indeed repeat itself: "first as tragedy, then as farce." I don't know if there's really a precedent for this degree of repetition, though an old term from Star Trek does come to mind: "replicant fadeout" - the tendency of copies to become less and less successful over innumerable generations.
One thing's for certain, though, there will be more of this sort of thing. "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," as George Santayana somewhat sententiously observed. Maybe if a few of those queuing up to disburse their riches on luxury cabanas and private yacht parties at the Fyre Festival had been in the habit of cracking a book from time to time, the whole thing might have come as less of a surprise to them.
Enough negativity for a while, though. After all, there's always part two. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
Fyre Festival 2 (2019)