Right: Lieutenant Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett in 1911
Percy HarrisonFawcett W ith the new action adventure film The Lost City of Z recently released (2017), now is In 1925 renowned British explorer Lieutenant Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett headed into the Amazon jungle. Searching for a lost city, he was never heard from again. Travel writer Duncan J.D. Smith picks up the trail of one of the 20th century’s greatest adventure mysteries he embarked on no less than seven South American mapping commissions contributing much to the Society’s ongoing mission to map the world.
no idle dreamer, Fawcett was still a man bound by his times. His writings show that despite being relatively enlightened, he could never quite escape what has been called “the mental maze of race”. Additionally during the 1890s, like many of his intellectual contemporaries, he fell under the spell of Helena Blavatsky, the Russian aristocratic mystic and founder of the so-called Theosophical Society. Blavatsky’s belief that the world was ruled by mysterious white-skinned Elders from secret locations fuelled Fawcett’s own growing interest in a lost Amazonian civilisation, one once peopled by an Atlantean super-race from the Mediterranean. In turn Fawcett influenced others, most notably the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fawcett maintained that Doyle’s popular book The Lost World was conjured up after the author attended one of his lectures in 1911. During the lecture Fawcett recounted seeing the abrupt precipices of the Ricardo Franco Hills, a part of the Huanchaca Plateau in northeast Bolivia. Such a remote high plateau lies at the heart of Doyle’s book (although others have claimed that Doyle was inspired by the equally impressive Mount Roraima in the Pacaraima Mountains of Guyana). During this gruelling foray into uncharted wilderness Fawcett survived on palm tops and hard chonta nuts, and was repeatedly ravaged by inch-long poisonous ants. With all this in mind it is perhaps no surprise that Fawcett was encouraged in his work when the adventure story writer Sir H. Rider Haggard presented him with a curious black basalt idol. Reputed to have come from a lost city in Brazil, Fawcett took it to be incontrovertible proof of his belief “that amazing ruins of ancient cities – ruins incomparably older than those in Egypt – exist in the far interior of the Mato Grosso.” He went on
Later in 1901, whilst working for the British Secret Service in Morocco, Fawcett brushed up on his surveying, a skill he had first taken up at the Royal Geographical Society on London’s Savile Row. This was to prove invaluable when in 1906 he travelled to Amazonia at the A fearless geographer and rogue archaeologist, his daredevil exploits inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and more recently the adventures of Indiana
the time to celebrate its enigmatic and reluctant hero, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. A fearless geographer and rogue archaeologist, his daredevil exploits inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and more recently the adventures of Indiana Jones. His unexplained disappearance in the Amazon Jungle has become the stuff of Boy’s Own legend. The making of an adventurer Percival Harrison Fawcett was born in 1867 in Torquay in the English county of Devon. His Indian-born father, Edward, was something of a rake, an equerry to the Prince of Wales, and a drinker. Young Percy undoubtedly inherited his father’s sense of adventure but from an early age he disproved of his racy lifestyle. Instead he became a serious and academic loner. Aged nineteen, and against his will, he took up a commission in the Royal Artillery and was posted to Trincomalee in Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka). He served brilliantly and it was there that he met his future wife, Nina. But it was how he filled his leisure time that was to really set the tone for the rest of his life. Leaving his fellow officers to their drinking, gambling, and fraternising with the locals, he would wander off into the jungle interior of the island, seeking out ancient ruins and recording mysterious inscriptions.
Fawcett was appalled, however, by the way in which some plantation owners treated the Indians of Amazonia. By contrast he appears to have got along well with them, using his patience, courteousness, and, of course, gifts to good effect. During one survey exploring the Heath River in Bolivia, for example, his expedition was attacked by Indians of the Guarayos tribe firing 7-foot-long arrows. Rather than returning fire one of Fawcett’s men played an accordion and, when the attack was halted, Fawcett addressed the Indians in their native tongue. The Indians were so impressed that they helped the party set up camp and even sent word up river to safeguard their passage. The herculean efforts Fawcett made in mapping the region in the years before World War I, however, have all too often been overshadowed by his eventual disappearance. It therefore should not be forgotten that he received the Royal Geographical Society’s Founder’s Gold Medal in 1916 and the Society also saw fit to publish several of his articles. Both were considerable accolades.
Jones. His unexplained disappearance in the
Amazon Jungle has become the stuff of Boy’s Own legend
conclusions he drew from them were sometimes based on ill-founded, dogged belief – and they would cost him dearly. That the idol came from one of these lost South American cities Fawcett was in no doubt. Indeed, it could have hailed from one whose existence he had already read about. The evidence for it lay in the log of a Portuguese gold mining expedition from 1753 (Manuscript No. 512 in the Rio de Janeiro National Library). The expedition’s report sent by Indian runner to the Viceroy in Bahía told of an abrupt range of mountains in the
to assert that “the connection of Atlantis with parts of what is now Brazil is not to be dismissed contemptuously, and belief in it – with or without scientific corroboration – affords explanations for many problems which otherwise are unsolved mysteries.” Whilst Fawcett would indeed go on to find evidence for lost and hitherto unrecorded pre- Columbian societies in Amazonia in the form of causeways, canals and pottery, all lost beneath rampant vegetation after their inhabitants had succumbed either to conquest or disease, the sweeping
Society’s behest to map the jungle border between the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso and Bolivia. The area was rich in rubber plantations and without accurate borders it was feared dangerous disputes would result over their exploitation. With the mass production of automobiles in full swing, the demand for rubber was enormous. Renowned for his remarkable stamina and resistance to disease, Fawcett was in his element. Between 1906 and 1921
Lost worlds Very much his own man and certainly
Timeless Travels • Autumn 2017
Timeless Travels • Autumn 2017
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