At times I had to remind myself that everything in this story is true: a movie star really was abducted by Indians, there were cannibals, ruins, secret maps and spies; explorers died from starvation, disease, attacks by wild animals and poisonous arrows; and at stake amid the adventure and death was the very understanding of the Americas before Christopher Columbus came ashore in the New World.
David Grann, The Lost City of Z
Percy Fawcett was a unique and intrepid individual who achieved some degree of fame during his life, and for a while caught the imagination of the public after disappearing in mysterious circumstances in the Amazon. His remains have never been found, and his disappearance remains unresolved.
Aside from his notoriety as an explorer who preferred to travel with a small group of colleagues, rather than a train of dozens of native bearers, Fawcett was an artist whose inks had been displayed at the Royal Academy, and a nautical engineer who patented a hull design called the ichthyoid curve that improved the speed of ships. On top of that, he was from all accounts a mean cricketer and a religious non-conformist.
Fawcett's Formative Years - Love and Buried Treasure
Percy Harrison Fawcett was born in 1867 in Torquay, Devon, and was known to all as PHF. His father, Captain Edward Boyd Fawcett, was a member of the Royal Geographical Society and equerry to the future Edward VII. He was also a raging alcoholic, who drank his way through the family fortune, a series of women and, ultimately, his own life at the age of 45.
Fawcett the younger could not have been more different. Abstemious of alcohol and nervous around women, he was dedicated to whatever he turned his hand to. Surviving photos, mostly from his later years, show a long-necked, pipe-smoking man in a battered jacket and shapeless hat, with fiercely determined eyes peering out from some impressive facial hair. Without a family fortune to rely on, Fawcett junior trained as a surveyor in the Royal Artillery, serving for several years in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and working his way up to the rank of Major. During this time, Fawcett's brother Edward became involved in the Spiritualist movement and in Buddhism, helping Madame Blavatsky to write The Secret Doctrine and taking the Buddhist vows known as the Pansil. It is likely that PHF too became a Buddhist at this time.
It was also in Ceylon that he first came across both the loves of his life.
Nina Agnes Patterson was a guest at a ball held in honour of Archduke Franz Ferdinand when she met Fawcett, then a lieutenant. They fell in love immediately, and became engaged. Fawcett's mother, however, always a controlling (not to say abusive) figure, disapproved of the match and told Fawcett that Nina had been unfaithful to him. In a rage, he broke off the engagement and Nina returned to England to avoid the scandal. While there, Nina met another man, a Captain Prichard. Two years later they were married, only for Prichard to collapse within months from an embolism. With his dying words, he urged Nina to return to Fawcett; she found that her former fiancé had discovered his mothers' deception and was now willing to take her back.
In the meantime, Fawcett had come into possession of a treasure-map. Passing through a series of hands before it reached him, the scrap of parchment bore instructions in Sinhalese on reaching a cave called Galla-pita-Galla, where a great treasure was to be found. Unable to resist either the lure of the treasure or the thrill of the unknown, Fawcett set out single-handed into the forested interior of the island on his first amateur archaeological trip.
Naturally, Fawcett did not make his fortune on this trip - it is almost certain the map was a fake - but he did discover something within himself that would change his life just as radically. Fawcett was born to explore.
The Early Expeditions
Fawcett underwent a formal training programme at the Royal Geographical Society in London, learning about navigation, survival and anthropology, among other things. He impressed his supervisors, and was promptly dispatched to Morocco to spy on the court of the Sultan.
His next mission was to South America in 1906 to survey the border between Brazil and Bolivia.
Ever since the Spanish and Portuguese empires had divided South America up between them, the bulk of the interior of the continent had been assigned to Brazilian administration. Since few Europeans had ever penetrated into the 'Green Hell' of the Amazon, and none far from the main rivers, this had been a fairly academic matter. But now things had changed. The Rubber Boom had made the Amazon as desirable a territory as any Arabian oilfield today. Rubber barons - slavers in all but name - were earning vast sums while their workers died rapidly and in appalling conditions. Nor were the workers the only ones to suffer; the Peruvian Amazon Company alone killed over 30,000 native Indians. Where such riches were to be had, wars were quick to follow, and the borders of several nations rapidly became flashpoints for bloody - and unprofitable - wars. Settling whose bit of jungle was whose was now urgent and imperative.
It took Fawcett, along with his second-in-command Arthur Chivers and 20 native bearers, 18 months to map their allotted section of the border. Already, he was showing some of the traits that would mark him out as the greatest explorer of the region. He seemed immune to the deadly and debilitating diseases that decimated those around him. Being so resilient himself, he was utterly intolerant of any weakness in others, reacting to it as though it were a deliberate betrayal. He refused to engage violently with the local tribes, striding forth to meet them peacefully even - on more than one occasion - into the face of a fusillade of six-foot, poison-tipped arrows that had killed one of his colleagues. And he was also given to tall tales, claiming to have seen a 60-foot anaconda (more than twice the length of any specimen found before or since) and a species of dog with two noses1.
By the time of his second Amazon expedition, it was clear that Fawcett had found his calling. He took a detour to map the Rio Verde simply because it had not been done before - not a decision most people would make casually while making average progress of half a mile per day and carrying a 30-kilo pack in the sweltering Amazon heat. Five of his nine-man expedition starved to death.
By 1911 and his fourth expedition, he had teamed up with two men who he felt could live up to his demanding physical standards, Henry Costin and Henry Manly. He believed he had found a third in polar explorer James Murray, but this was to prove a mistake. Murray struggled to cope in the humid heat of the jungle, and Fawcett showed not the least compassion for his weakness. As Murray found the skin on his heels peeling away and maggots infesting his knee, he begged Fawcett to allow him to rest. Instead, Fawcett called the team together to discuss whether they should abandon Murray to save the rest of the expedition. In the end, Fawcett did something he had never done before and would never do again; he turned back. Murray was dumped unceremoniously on a donkey at the nearest settlement and left to ride back to civilisation if he could make it. Costin nearly lost his face - and did temporarily lose his sanity - to a parasitic infection called espundia. Fawcett, shrugging off the same burrowing worms that nearly cost Murray his leg, strode on through the rainforest without any apparent discomfort. Murray, by contrast, was so ill that he did not arrive back in La Paz until months after Fawcett, having spent the intervening time recuperating at a remote outpost.
Interlude: The Great War
By now, Fawcett was widely recognised as the greatest explorer operating in the Amazon region. Unlike any of his rivals, he was prepared to make arduous treks overland through the forest, rather than sticking to the easily-navigable but restrictive rivers.
Not even South America escaped the First World War, though, and Fawcett dutifully volunteered for military service. He rose in rank from Major to Lieutenant Colonel and - aside from being gassed once and nearly mistakenly arresting Winston Churchill as a spy on another occasion - survived the war without a scratch. To add to his prestige, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order by the military and a gold medal - the Founder's Medal - by the Royal Geographical Society.
This apparent meteoric rise did not translate well into increased success after the war. The RGS was struggling for funds, and could not finance any further expeditions by Fawcett. The Rubber Boom was over, and attempts to raise funding in South America were further hampered by his new rank, which translated as Comandante, a title frequently given to inept but politically important officers. (As a consequence, Fawcett lobbied for but was denied the rank of full Colonel; he nevertheless took to calling himself Colonel Fawcett, and that is how he is remembered.) His loyal and trusted lieutenants were gone: Manley to a heart attack and Costin to a woman.
Like many in the aftermath of the global bloodbath of the Great War, Fawcett turned to spiritualism and the works of Madame Blavatsky. He became convinced he had reconciled with his long-deceased mother. He also found supernatural support for another theory that had been growing in his mind for a while: the Lost City of Z.
It was the received wisdom that the Amazon was not only thinly inhabited, it was virtually uninhabitable. Those tribes that were known were sparse. What food there was was rarely found at ground level but in the inaccessible canopy. Disease and predators were a constant threat. Agriculture was not only unknown, it was impractical in the infertile soil. There was no stone or metal. In other words, it was simply not possible for an advanced civilisation to survive, much less arise, in such a place.
It was in the face of this evidence that Fawcett began to persuade himself that exactly that had happened. A fragmentary, anonymous document, known as Manuscript 512, written by an early Portuguese explorer, spoke of a magnificent inland city. Fawcett's overland treks convinced him that the native tribes had been denuded by contact with Europeans along the rivers, but that they had once been far more numerous. His first-hand experience of their survival techniques told him that food sources might be well hidden, but they were not altogether absent even in the deepest jungle. And finally, he knew that wherever the ground rose up and became dark, pottery was so thickly scattered that almost any handful of earth would contain some shards - and those raised areas were often linked by causeways. Even in Fawcett's day, tribes such as the Maxubis could routinely build huts of thatch 70 feet tall and lived in villages with a population of thousands. Could it be, he wondered, that there really had been a great Amazonian civilisation before Columbus came to the Americas?
Although Fawcett had great admiration for the Amazonian natives and repeatedly refused to use force against them, even when attacked himself, he was not immune to the endemic racism of his time. He did not believe that the native Indians themselves had created this great city; no doubt some lost European tribe, the Phoenicians or the Lost Tribes of Israel, had built the city before intermarrying with the Indians.
Always given to secrecy and cryptic notes, Fawcett called this city simply Z. It was, he theorised, located in the Mato Grosso region of the Brazilian Amazon, between the Upper Xingu and Tapajó rivers.
As time passed, his theories were increasingly supported by evidence from the spirit world. By 1921, this idea was firmly planted in his mind, and he was writing articles for the esoteric press about it. His home life had become peripatetic, moving from Sussex to Jamaica to Los Angeles, with his family in tow, mostly to reduce living costs. Finally, with no way of raising funds for a proper expedition, he sold half of his military pension to buy equipment and walked into the jungle alone. Still he found nothing, and by 1923 even the £3 annual membership of the RGS was a struggle.
To make matters worse, as Fawcett stood still many of his rivals pushed forward with renewed vigour. In particular, Dr Alexander Hamilton Rice was revolutionising Amazon exploration. Massively wealthy, and another winner of an RGS Gold Medal (the Patron's Medal, just as prestigious as Fawcett's), he was an associate of Hiram Bingham, discoverer of Machu Picchu. He was also independently wealthy, so rich that the post-war slump in funding meant nothing to him. He was taking close to a hundred people into the Amazon with him at a time, and with two-way radios - each costing several times more than Fawcett could raise for an entire expedition - Rice was in constant contact with civilisation2. Film cameras gave him a permanent record of his finds. He could afford to take a group of specialists with him, rather than relying on his own dilettante knowledge and a few portable textbooks. And he had one more advantage too - air superiority. By bringing a flying boat along, Rice could map in hours what might take Fawcett months. And Rice, like Fawcett, was looking for Z.
As yet, Fawcett thought that Rice was searching too far north, and doubted that proper exploration could be done from the air. But time was running out, and it was starting to look as though Fawcett would be scooped to the crowning triumph of his career.
The Final Expedition
With the aid of a George Lynch, Fawcett was finally able to raise a few thousand dollars from the United States. Once the sensation-hungry North American Newspaper Association was on board, the American Geographical Society and the Museum of the American Indian followed suit. With the dominoes falling, even the Royal Geographical Society finally coughed up a little cash - it was barely enough, but Fawcett could stretch it to cover what he needed. Just as everything looked set, Fawcett arrived in South America to find that Lynch had blown over a thousand dollars on booze and whores. The expedition hung in the balance, but at the last minute Rockefeller stepped in to nearly double Fawcett's coffers at a stroke. Fawcett's ninth Amazon expedition was on.
Unable to pay salaries, Fawcett was accompanied by just two others, neither of whom had been into the rainforest before. The first was Fawcett's eldest son, Jack Fawcett. Like his father, he was an abstemious and intense young man, with aspirations of becoming a movie star. By contrast, Raleigh Rimell, Jack's childhood best friend, was a joker with an eye for the ladies, and who nearly got engaged on the eve of their departure.
The little expedition was accompanied by a group of bearers as far as the last settlement - itself no mean journey. With the press now picking up a sizeable chunk of the tab for his meanderings, Fawcett could no longer simply record his findings in diaries with a view to publishing a report for the RGS on his return. He was now required to send back Indian runners with messages as often as possible. It is from these messages that we know that Jack was just as resilient as his father, but Raleigh fell out with both of them and was regarded as a liability. From this final settlement, Baikirí Camp, the trio headed further into the jungle, accompanied by guides as far as Dead Horse Camp, where Fawcett had been forced to shoot his mount on the previous expedition.
It was at Dead Horse Camp that the last of Fawcett's bearers would turn back, so this was his last chance to communicate before setting off with just his two companions. In words that would tantalise those who followed him, he gave the coordinates of Dead Horse Camp and told his wife that 'you need have no fear of failure'.
Neither he nor his two companions was ever seen again.
The Fawcett Freaks
It was always expected that Fawcett would spend a long time incommunicado in the jungle. But after two years had passed, even Nina was starting to worry. Rumours began to circulate - Fawcett had been seen by the French engineer Roger Courteville and was living as a hermit. A mysterious Bernardino claimed to have guided Fawcett to the Nahukuá tribe, who murdered him. Fawcett was alive and being held captive by 'a tribe' over 500 miles from where he was last seen.
None of these rumours came to anything, and Nina in particular refused to believe that her invulnerable husband was dead - although he would now be 60.
As time passed, both Fawcett and the City of Z began to exert a strange fascination on travellers to the region. The first attempt at a rescue mission was mounted by George Miller Dyott of the RGS. He turned up an inscribed scrap of metal and a chest in the possession of the Nahukuá Indians, and suspicion fell on their chief Aloique. Aloique tried to blame his neighbours the Suya. Tribes converged on the area and eventually Dyott fled, fearing for his life.
On his return to civilisation, however, his story came under fire. He claimed to have followed marks on trees to track Fawcett's route - although the secretive Colonel never left such marks. His main guide, Bernardino, claimed to have been Fawcett's guide, yet Fawcett's dispatches never mentioned him. And there was nothing to indicate that the trinkets were from Fawcett's final mission.
In the early 1930s, a small-time movie star called Albert de Winton made two expeditions in search of Fawcett, only to be found naked and raving in a canoe by the Kamayurá tribe, who promptly staved his head in.
As the death toll mounted, so too did the mystery. Fawcett had left explicit instructions that no rescue attempt was to be made - 'If with all my experience we can't make it, there's not much hope for others' - yet at times it seemed that the Amazon was awash with rescuers. Ian Fleming's brother Peter had a go, but ended up with nothing to show for his efforts. Nina Fawcett even asked Rice to mount an expedition, only to hear that he had retired from exploring.
Over a hundred lives have been lost in the Amazon in search of Fawcett. The rewards have been negligible by most standards, yet just enough to keep people coming back; a trunk, a name-tag, a compass and a ring inscribed with the Fawcett family motto, Nec Aspera Terrent3 - even a dog that wandered out of the jungle and was said to be Fawcett's.
As the years went by, and people (but never Nina) started to accept that Fawcett was dead, the stories became wilder and began to focus more on the younger members of the expedition. In 1943, Edmar Morel produced a white Indian boy called Dulipé who he claimed was the son of Jack Fawcett. Touring for years as a carnival sideshow exhibit - 'The White God of the Xingu' - Dulipé became another victim of Fawcettmania, dying in a gutter of alcohol poisoning. An autopsy confirmed what many suspected - he was an albino, and not of mixed-race parentage.
In 1951, a Brazilian environmentalist and native rights activist called Orlando Villas Boas claimed to have found Fawcett's bones. In fact this was probably a deliberate deception on Boas' part to discourage further intrusion by whites into the diminishing tribal territories. The bones actually belonged to a tall Indian man called Mugika of the Kalapalo tribe. Even a cursory examination showed that the bones were too small to be Fawcett and lacked his dentures, but by the time this was firmly established Nina Fawcett had died.
There was one final member of the Fawcett family to venture into the Green Hell. Brian Fawcett, PHF's younger son, snubbed on the fateful expedition because of his age, chartered a plane to drop leaflets into the jungle in the hopes that his brother might still be alive and a captive of a tribe. With his publication of Exploration Fawcett, an edited set of his father's journals, the family's active involvement in the saga came to a close. When going through his father's papers to research the book, Brian found, carefully preserved, the Galla-pita-Galla treasure map that had been PHF's original inspiration over half a century previously.
By the 1960s, both Z and Fawcett had become part of the mystical counter-culture. Udo Lucknor, the self-appointed 'High Priest of the Roncador' started a cult called the Magical Nucleus based around Z, teaching that Z was an entirely spiritual location and that Fawcett had reached it by achieving enlightenment through his arduous quest. The cult fell apart with the failure of Lucknor's prophecy that the world would end in 1982.
As late as 1996, Brazilian James Lynch and his son, James Lynch Jr, were captured by hostile tribes while hunting for Fawcett. And more recently still, American reporter David Grann ventured into the Amazon, producing an article for The New Yorker and a book, both called The Lost City of Z. Part of his thesis was that Fawcett deliberately falsified the coordinates of Dead Horse Camp and his route plan, and that previous expeditions had therefore been looking in the wrong place.
The Final Legacy
Fawcett left his mark on literature as well as geography. Among works inspired by him are Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, an encounter in a Tintin book (The Broken Ear), The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a personal friend of Fawcett's and a fellow Spiritualist) and the Crosby and Hope movie Road to Zanzibar. He was at least part of the inspiration for Indiana Jones, and will be played by Brad Pitt in the forthcoming Lost City of Z.
As the hype has died down, serious archaeologists have provided a fitting finale to the affair. Michael Heckenberger has shown that the causeways Fawcett thought he had found do indeed exist. Ditches and traces of palisades surround mounds a mile across containing pottery that can be carbon-dated to between 800 and 1600 AD. Towns and villages appear to have been laid out in grids based on the compass points throughout the Amazon, and soil fertility is improved by mixing ashes into the earth. There is no single great city, but rather evidence that the whole region was once civilised - and by natives, not mysterious European émigrés.
The magnificent city that Fawcett was searching for may have been a phantom - David Grann maintains that the author of Manuscript 512 probably saw nothing but weathered rocks - but the civilisation he believed in was real. South American history may never be the same again.