This May will mark 92 years since Colonel Percy Fawcett disappeared without a trace, along with eldest son Jack, 22, and his teenage friend Raleigh Rimell, deep in the Brazilian jungle, while questing after an ancient lost civilisation hidden in the Amazon which he called ‘the City of Z’. And yet what has been labelled “the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century” continues to captivate and endure.
Even before the 57-year-old British explorer’s communiqués stopped while he was battling through the terra incognita of Mato Grosso (literally ‘thick bushes’) wielding his trusty 18-inch machete, the voyage into the unknown had captured the imagination of the world’s media. The Los Angeles Times, for example, named it “the most hazardous and certainly the most spectacular adventure of the kind ever undertaken”.
And when the bearded, blue-eyed and Stetson-wearing Fawcett, who is often described as a real-life Indiana Jones and may well have been the inspiration behind Harrison Ford’s intrepid filmic hero, went missing interest only increased. In January 1927, after close to two years without a word from the Fawcett trio, the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) – one of the many organisations who had part-funded their trip – declared: “We hold ourselves in readiness to help any competent, well accredited [search] party.”
A welter of pleading letters from volunteers followed, yet in the decades since no one has found the remains of Fawcett and it is estimated that up to a hundred explorers have themselves disappeared on his trail. (Even James Bond author Ian Fleming’s brother, Peter, went on one failed expedition, though lived to tell the tale.)
The Lost City of Z, which premiered at the New York Film Festival last October, will be shown at UK cinemas later this year and is based on David Grann’s 2009 novel of the same name. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, Grann himself had tracked Fawcett’s final steps, venturing through mud-slicked gorges and across rock-strewn rapids, and discovered that a monumental civilisation known as Kuhikugu may have in fact existed near where the missing explorer was looking, intriguingly. How close was Fawcett to reaching his El Dorado?
Percy Harrison Fawcett was born on August 18, 1867, in Torquay on the Devonian coast, to Edward Boyd Fawcett and Myra Elizabeth. His India-born father was a British aristocrat and a fellow of the RGS, though he had managed to squander two family fortunes and besmirch the Fawcett name, much to Percy’s embarrassment and disgust. In his diaries, he recalled a childhood “devoid of parental affection”.
Following an education at Newton Abbot Proprietary College, he received his commission as an officer of the Royal Artillery in 1886, aged 19. Happy to leave his parents in the UK, Fawcett served in the British colony of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and met his future wife, Nina Agnes Paterson, the daughter of a colonial judge. They wed in 1901 – and later he sired two boys, Jack (born 1903) and Brian (1906-1984) – though Fawcett remained, as he described it, a “lone wolf”, exploring Ceylon, which entranced him, and even seeking buried treasure and investigating archaeological ruins.
Fawcett grew up in a time, at the peak of the British Empire, when swashbuckling explorers were continually looking to expand their horizons for monarch and country, and his childhood was fuelled by tales of derring-do. These pioneers sought to confront and colonise new civilisations in far-flung destinations.
For instance, a century before Fawcett was born, one such luminary was Captain James Cook, who from the late 1750 until his death in 1779 – at the hands of Hawaiian natives during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific Ocean – sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe and produced detailed maps of Newfoundland and Polynesia, as well as recording the first circumnavigation of New Zealand.
Further, between 1831 and 1836 young graduate Charles Darwin took a voyage on HMS Beagle, with the primary aim being to produce a hydrographic survey of the coasts of South America using calibrated chronometers and astronomical observations. It led, of course, to his theory of evolution by natural selection. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859.
And in 1883, when Fawcett was five, Scot David Livingstone died in modern-day Zambia of malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery while attempting to map Africa, the so-called “dark continent”. Unsurprisingly, in popular culture the intrepid explorer featured prominently, and the first of the Allan Quatermain novels, penned by H. Rider Haggard (who became a friend of Fawcett’s), was published in 1885 and chronicled the discoveries of King Solomon’s Mines and ancient civilisations in Africa by the ‘Great White Hunter’.
Fawcett, an accomplished artist whose pen-and-ink sketches were exhibited at the Royal Academy, joined the RGS in the same year he was married in order to learn about surveying and mapmaking, powered by a desire to become a famous explorer himself. And in the first couple of decades of the 20th century he was held up as one of the last great amateur archeologists and cartographers – that is adventurers who stepped deep into uncharted lands armed with only a compass, a machete, and as David Grann noted in a 2005 article for The New Yorker “an almost divine sense of purpose”.
He was employed in the British Secret Service – mapmakers were often recruited as spies, as their vocation provided perfect cover – and was an agent in Morocco before, in 1906, the RGS offered him a different kind of mission.
In Exploration Fawcett – an account of the seven expeditions in search of a lost city until his last one in 1925 which was published in 1953 by his youngest son, Brian, who had compiled his father’s manuscripts, letters and logbooks – the RGS president pointed at an atlas of South America and exclaimed to Fawcett: “Look at this area! It’s full of blank spaces.”
The boundaries between Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil were poorly defined, he went on, and asked Fawcett to survey the area before warning: “What it really amounts to is exploration. It may be difficult and even dangerous.” Fawcett later wrote: “Here was the chance I had been waiting for. Destiny intended me to go!”
Without hesitation he set sail, leaving behind his wife and three-year-old son Jack, with a 60lbs pack, a clutch of willing recruits, and a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s 1898 poem The Explorer, which urges the reader to “Go and find it. Go and look behind the ranges.”
On Fawcett’s first of many expeditions to South America he was understandably wary of the indigenous tribes, who were known to kill trespassers and thought to practice cannibalism. He was convinced that by establishing friendly contact survival was possible, and as such, he ordered his men to never open fire. On one occasion, as his group were ambushed and arrows were fired at them, he and his men stood and played musical instruments. And, during other episodes, to display his peaceful intentions he would stride towards the Indians with his hands in the air. These actions worked, and he returned to England with his meticulous maps.
Despite his growing fame at home, the lure of South America became irresistible. He wrote: “Deep down inside me a tiny voice was calling. At first scarcely audible, it persisted until I could no longer ignore it. It was the voice of the wild places, and I knew that it was now part of me for ever … Inexplicably – amazingly – I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again.”
Through studying the early histories of South America, Fawcett became captivated by the rich legends and artistic traditions of local tribes – he even learnt dialects – and was sure that there had once been a large, developed civilisation living deep in the Amazon.
In 1920, after World War I – in which he fought on the front line in Flanders – Fawcett set out to find his ‘City of Z’, but had to end the expedition at Dead Horse Camp. While gripped with fever he shot and killed his poorly pack animal, and retreated to England.
Five years later, nearly destitute and with his reputation dented, he had managed to gain funding for what would be his final trip in search of the ancient lost civilisation. Fawcett, his eldest son Jack, and Raleigh Rimell, departed from Cuiabá, the capital of the central Brazilian state Mato Grosso, on April 20, and were assisted by two local labourers, eight mules, a pair of horses, and two dogs.
A month later, following what Fawcett described as a “shockingly difficult passage”, the group arrived at Bakairí Post, a small settlement of a couple of dozen huts. There, in the oppressive heat, and with jungle beasts – including vampire bats, scorpions and anaconda – lurking, the leader ordered his Brazilian helpers to head back to Cuiabá with the animals and his last letters. “By the time this dispatch is printed, we shall have long since disappeared into the unknown,” he wrote in one of his final articles. Fawcett’s words proved scarily prescient.
In David Grann’s 2009 book, The Lost City of Z, the author suggests the trio reached Dead Horse Camp and rested at the village of the Kalapalo tribe. Despite the Kalapalos warning that they would be killed by the “fierce Indians” who occupied the territory to the east, Fawcett and his two companions, who were apparently lame, headed further into the unknown. For the following five evenings the tribe watched the smoke curl from the expedition’s camp fire before, on the sixth night, it disappeared, never to return.
Exploring South America
While the midpoints of the Americas had been reached by explorers in the 16th century there were still large patches of unexplored and uncharted territories in 1906 – the year Colonel Percy Fawcett was tasked by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) to map the many “black spaces” in South America.
The boundaries between Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil were poorly defined, according to the president of the RGS, who told Fawcett: “What it really amounts to is exploration. It may be difficult and even dangerous.” So it proved on the 1925 trip, his eighth to South America.
That continent had beguiled Fawcett and his contemporary adventurers from all over the globe for some time, and especially after Charles Darwin’s 1831-36 voyage on HMS Beadle – which set out produce a hydrographic survey of the coasts of South America using calibrated chronometers and astronomical observations but which led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. His masterpiece, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859.
Britain’s Age of Exploration
The Age of Discovery, or Age of Exploration, is the loosely defined period, from the end of the 15th century to the 18th century, when Europeans set sail for distant lands and sparked the start of globalisation. In truth, the period stretched to the 20th century, with wild regions of exotic countries still not mapped.
Indeed, Colonel Percy Fawcett grew up in a time, at the peak of the British Empire, when swashbuckling explorers were continually looking to expand their horizons for monarch and country.
One such luminary was Captain James Cook, who from late 1750 until his death in 1779 – at the hands of Hawaiian natives during his third exploratory voyage in the Pacific Ocean – sailed thousands of miles across largely uncharted areas of the globe.
And in 1883, when Fawcett was five, Scot David Livingstone died in modern-day Zambia of malaria and internal bleeding due to dysentery while attempting to map Africa, the so-called “dark continent”.
Unsurprisingly, in popular culture the intrepid explorer featured prominently. The first of the Allan Quatermain novels, penned by H. Rider Haggard, was published in 1885 and chronicled the discoveries of King Solomon’s Mines and ancient civilisations in Africa by the ‘Great White Hunter’.
Fathers and sons
Percy Fawcett was born, in 1867, to Edward Fawcett – an India-born British aristocrat – and Myra Elizabeth. His father had managed to squander two family fortunes and besmirch the Fawcett name, much to Percy’s embarrassment and disgust.
Ironically, after complaining In his diaries of a childhood “devoid of parental affection” he himself was absent for long periods of his own two sons’ formative years. In 1906, when he embarked on his first South American expedition, his eldest son, Jack, was three, with Brian born later that year.
Less than two decades later, on his eighth and final trip to South America, Fawcett took Jack, who turned 22 while in the Brazilian jungle, with him. One of Jack’s best friends, 19-year-old Raleigh Rimell, made up the trio of adventurers who went missing without a trace in 1925.
Few would call Fawcett’s habit of marching far ahead, and out of sight – as detailed in Jack’s diaries (the young pair had to camp alone on one occasion) – good parenting. And that he led Jack and his companion to their death – presumably – only serves to highlight his selfish, goal-driven attitude.
The Lost City of Kuhikugu
There is evidence to suggest that Colonel Percy Fawcett’s ‘City of Z’ did exist, after all. The explorer had visited a colonial archive in Rio de Janeiro and read a worm-eaten document which was entitled Historical account of a large, hidden, and very ancient city, without inhabitants, discovered in the year 1753.
In it, a Portuguese ‘bandeirante’ (mercenary), described how he had climbed a mountain path and uncovered the remnants of an ancient lost city. “The ruins well showed the size and grandeur which must have been there, and how populous and opulent it had been in the age when it flourished,” he had written. This, along with similar accounts, spurred Fawcett on through the Amazon rainforest.
Michael Heckenberger, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Florida, has spent more than a decade researching the possibility that Fawcett’s ‘City of Z’ was, in fact, Kuhikugu, an archaeological site located at the headwaters of the Xingu River, in the Amazon Rainforest.
According to Heckenberger’s findings, Kuhikugu was most likely to have been inhabited between 500AD until as recently as 1615, when diseases brought over by Europeans may have killed off the indigenous denizens.
This article was first published in The Telegraph in 2017