British adventurer Percy Fawcett (1867–1925) is famous for his disappearance while exploring the Amazonian jungle in search of an ancient “lost city” he named “Z.” A soldier and surveyor by training, Fawcett had visited the Amazon previously, first as a surveyor for the Royal Geographic Society and later as an explorer. His early exploits inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's professor character in the classic fantasy novel The Lost World, and he is also said to have been a model for Stephen Spielberg's adventurous film hero Indiana Jones.
After several trips to the Brazilian Amazon, English explorer Percy Fawcett became convinced that a yet-undiscovered but inhabited city existed there. This jungle city, which Fawcett dubbed “Z” (pronounced as the European “zed”), was inhabited, he believed, by an ancient, advanced society of light-skinned people who were possibly linked to the mythical continent of Atlantis. Fawcett arrived at this conclusion by his travels: the discovery of intriguing ruins and intricate carvings, the stories of indigenous people who described a city ablaze with gold, and his study of documents ranging from the historical to the occult. His dream of finding such a city became an obsession with Fawcett, a tall, muscular Englishman who undertook his most famous adventure in his late 50s. Funded by international newspapers and geographical societies eager to share in what could become the most publicized adventure of its time, the veteran explorer embarked from Hoboken, New Jersey to major fanfare in January of 1925. Joined by his son and his son's best friend, Fawcett was last seen deep in the Brazilian jungle on May 29 of that year.
Percival Harrison Fawcett was born to aristocratic parents Edward Boyd and Myra Elizabeth Fawcett in Torquay, Devon, England, on August 18, 1867. Edward Fawcett was a graduate of Trinity College Cambridge, a friend of the future King Edward of England, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a top-ranked cricket player. Scion of a wealthy family and married into another, he ultimately squandered two fortunes by drinking, gambling, and womanizing. When he died of alcoholism at age 44, he left behind a widow and five children, of whom Percy Fawcett was the second oldest son. When the two oldest boys finished college, oldest brother Douglas made a name for himself as a mountain climber, an early traveler in automobiles, a writer of adventure and science fiction, and a Theosophist, a student of spiritual and occult sciences. Percy Fawcett enrolled at the Royal Military Academy and was commissioned as a lieutenant of the Royal Artillery in 1886.
By the mid-1800s, the British Empire was at its zenith: a global power, it ruled over vast dominions on every continent. Its colonies and protectorates covered nearly a quarter of the earth's land area, and it was said that the sun never set on the British Empire. Most of these conquests occurred between the 16th and the 18th century, and by the Victorian era (1837–1901) Great Britain's attention had shifted to exploration and exploitation of the people and resources in its dominions. In fact, Fawcett is often viewed as one of the last of the Victorian adventurers, and he was described by biographer David Grann as one who “ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose.”
That call came in 1907, when the Royal Geographical Society received a commission to act as a disinterested third party during a border dispute among Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Borders between these three nations were poorly marked, inexact, and a frequent source of conflict. The president of the Society proposed the project to Fawcett, who had by now shown himself to be a talented surveyor, mapmaker, and artist. Fawcett's task would be to survey the border in question, and in the process add as much detail as possible to the map of the region. The 39-year-old was overjoyed to accept what seemed to him a dream job. It was before the era of airplanes, radios, and big, expensive, modern expeditions, and Fawcett was outfitted with survey and survival gear, a few helpers, and money for local transport and help. Bidding farewell to his wife and three-year-old son, Jack, he boarded an ocean steamer and embarked on the first of many journeys he would take into the Amazon.
Fawcett's trip to Brazil lay a practical foundation for his future. He and his crew traversed hundreds of miles and encountered challenging terrain that included mountains, dense and tangled forests, and wetlands. They were accosted by indigenous tribes in many localities, tribes badly treated by earlier European visitors in search of gold and rubber. Fawcett took care to be courteous to all locals they met, even when facing hostility. In one incident, he countered an ambush of his party by stopping and leading his crew in a familiar marching song, hands raised to show that they held no weapons. Their attackers let them pass.
With his Amazon expedition concluding successfully, Fawcett returned to England, maps in hand and with many tales to tell. Some of his stories, such as his claim to have shot a 62-foot-long Anaconda snake, were greeted with skepticism. However, he had indeed encountered animals and insects that were as yet unknown to science, and his path led through truly wild lands. Back in England, Fawcett knew that there was much left for him to discover in the Amazon.
More surveying trips followed, beginning with a 1908 expedition to map the source of the Rio Verde, a river in Brazil. During this journey, Fawcett's group nearly starved after running out of food, but he saw them through. In addition to being determined, he was an extraordinarily fit man, with knotted muscles and endurance beyond most of his comrades. Although crew members perished of various sicknesses on some of his trips, Fawcett persevered and was able to gain help from some native people during dire times. Despite his general courtesy and his interest in tribal legends, he held the racist views toward the native Amazonian tribes that were typical for the time. Indigenous jungle people were usually either “docile and miserable” or repulsive cannibals, but there was also a third, fairer-skinned group that Fawcett determined was perhaps of European origin. They could also be Atlantean, however. Fawcett held the occult notion that the sunken continent of Atlantis—the subject of an ancient Greek myth—may have been close enough to South America to cause migration and a new line of descendants.
The reports Fawcett submitted to the Royal Geographical Society did not reveal his occult beliefs; instead, they shared the wealth of geographical and anthropological information he had gained in his travels. His presentations, documentation, maps, and drawings were so much appreciated that the society awarded him its coveted gold medal in 1916.
Like his brother, Fawcett was influenced by a remarkable spiritual teacher of the time, Madame Blavatsky, who coined the term “theosophy” to describe her blend of theology and philosophy. Her followers tended to believe in psychic and occult phenomena such as reincarnation, the spiritual world, and the existence of higher civilizations that had become lost to the modern world but which might be rediscovered in such remote reaches as the Amazonian jungle. Increasingly, and with his wife's full support, Fawcett became obsessed with finding a civilization he called “Z,” a lost city, possibly a remnant of Atlantis, that was hidden deep in the Brazilian jungle.
In fact, Fawcett's obsession was shared by others and had some basis in the historical record. Centuries earlier, Spanish conquistadors reported arriving in South America and seeing large, inhabited settlements with roads, agriculture, and centralized religious structures. These reports had yet to be corroborated by modern eyes, however, as no ancient cities had recently been sighted. A discovery in the government archives in Rio de Janeiro convinced Fawcett that he was on the right track. Dated 1753, the worm-eaten document contained a personal account by a Portuguese soldier of fortune. He and his band of gold seekers had wandered deep into the Brazilian jungle during a long and fruitless quest. Climbing a mountainside to get their bearings, they were startled to spot the ruins of an old city. When they went to look, they found the remains of a temple as well as roads, arches, and carvings. Fawcett, who had also heard natives tell of a golden city in the far off jungles, viewed this account as an affirmation and set about planning a route to get there.
Eager to resume his quest to locate the City of Z, Fawcett also struggled to get support for another expedition. A new generation of professional archeologists was replacing solo adventurers and explorers, and some rebuffed his ideas of a lost civilization, arguing that a jungle environment could not sustain a city's population. Amazonian soils were poor in nutrients, poisonous creatures were everywhere, and the humidity and heat were intense. Defiant, Fawcett funded a solo trip that left him gravely ill and forced to shoot his worse-off pack animal. He returned to England and tried to drum up interest in a new expedition, to no avail.
Over the next several years, Fawcett regrouped and developed a new strategy for funding his trip. Making new contacts in the United States, he excited interest from the American Geographical Society as well as other institutions. He also contacted newspapers in both England and North America, receiving backing from each in return for a promise to transmit reports of his exploits in the form of periodic dispatches. On this trip, he would be accompanied by his now 21-year-old son Jack as well as Jack's best friend, Raleigh Rimell. Thoughts of these handsome and athletic young men heading off on a jungle adventure expanded the appeal of Fawcett's expedition. The public was charmed, financial backers were found, and by January of 1925 the group was provisioned and ready to depart for South America, following several publicity events in New York City.
Fawcett's final, ill-fated journey began in Cuiabá, Brazil, and found them traveling on horseback, with three Brazilian guides and several pack animals. Long miles of grassy terrain lay immediately before them, providing the inexperienced younger men the chance to become acclimated to the heat and learn to cope with biting insects and covering long distances. Fawcett charged ahead, and the young men had all they could do to keep up. Raleigh received a nasty tick bite on his foot, which refused to heal. During rest stops, Fawcett wrote his dispatches, and all three men penned letters home.
Weeks later and deep into the jungle, the trio stopped at a frontier ranch to rest for several days and give Raleigh a chance to recuperate. Their next planned stop was a distant Brazilian military outpost called Baikirí Post, which required several more months of travel. The native residents of Baikirí Post wore surplus military clothes and answered to government-issued names. Also visiting were independent tribal people from the forest. Jack's interest in arranging photo sessions resulted in several pictures depicting three tall, blond men with long beards standing next to dark-skinned, naked forest dwellers. One night, Fawcett and Jack brought out their musical instruments—a ukelele and a piccolo—and played for the group while gathered around a fire.
By late May, they arrived at Dead Horse Camp, so called because it was the the camp where Fawcett had shot his horse and abandoned his previous journey. This was as far as he had ever explored; unfamiliar mountains lay ahead. At this point, Fawcett instructed his Brazilian guides to return to civilization along with the pack train and a batch of dispatches and letters informing the recipients that this would be the last communication for a long while. Included was Fawcett's letter to his wife Nina, assuring her that she “need feel no fear of failure.” Should anything happen to them, he added, no search party should come after them. It was too dangerous and few had the endurance required to surmount the difficulties along the way. Fawcett also tried to persuade Raleigh, with his badly infected foot, to return with the guides, to no avail.
Once the guides led the pack train out of Dead Horse Camp, the three shouldered their backpacks and threaded their way through the underbrush into the unknown. The date was May 29, 1925. Their journey would end soon, and very badly.
Back home in England, two years had passed without word from the Fawcett party and when the Royal Geographical Society asked volunteers to form a search party, hundreds applied. The first group to set out left in 1928. It was large and well-armed and returned with the news that the three adventurers had been killed by tribal people. Upon investigation, their story turned out to be largely conjecture, based on misreading and misunderstandings. Other individuals and groups undertook a search, without success, and some never returned. In 1934, the Brazilian government finally rescinded permission for expeditions to find Fawcett and his party.
Over the years, Fawcett's wife Nina held the conviction that her husband and son were alive and might return at any moment. The lack of conclusive evidence of the expedition's fate, along with psychic readings claiming contact with Fawcett, fed the flame of hope. Theories proliferated, some positing that they had found the City of Z, which was underground, and had abandoned the surface world forever. Another theory held that Fawcett had never intended to return, but had gone into the Jungle to form a cult and hide from the greater world. In another, Fawcett had become the chief of a tribe, fathering children and leading a cult of worship on around Jack, who was very good looking.
In 1951, a credible source, Brazilian government official and devoted advocate for indigenous people Orlando Villas-Bôas reported that a certain tribe, the Kalapalo, had confessed to killing the three explorers. He even presented human bones, which he claimed had been given to him as those of Colonel Fawcett. The bones were eventually shown to be those of an Amazonian native, however, and the mysterious disappearance of the Fawcett party remained unsolved.
As Grann later learned, this oral history was told to the current chief of the Kalapalo from his parents. He also learned that an anthropologist had heard the exact same story in 1931, although it had been lost amid the hubbub then surrounding the case. In the 1980s, however, an anthropologist recorded the same story from an eye witness, a Kalapalo man who had been a boy when Fawcett passed by. She recorded and translated his account, which he told in the rhythm of the tribe's oral history. The story ended with the tribe looking for smoke on the final morning: “It looked as if the Englishmen's fire was no longer alive, as if it had been put out. ‘What a shame! Why did he keep insisting they go away?’”
Fawcett, Brian, Lost Trails, Lost Cities, Funk & Wagnalls, 1953.
Fawcett, Brian, Ruins in the Sky, Hutchinson, 1957.
Grann, David, The Lost City of Z, Doubleday, 2009.
New Yorker, September 19, 2005, David Grann, “The Lost City of Z.”
History Extra online, http://www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/percy-fawcett-lost-city-z-history-film (March 22, 2017), Elinor Evans, “Percy Fawcett and the Lost City of Z: The History behind the Film.”
KeverelChess.com , http://www.keverelchess.com/e-douglas-fawcett-1866-1960/ (August 10, 2011), Robert H. Jones “E. Douglas Fawcett (1866–1960).”□