Lost city of fantasy

A new Hollywood film portrays Percy Fawcett as our greatest explorer. It’s pernicious nonsense

1 April 2017

9:00 AM

1 April 2017

9:00 AM

The new film The Lost City of Z is being advertised as based on the true story of one of Britain’s greatest explorers. It is about Lt-Col Percy Fawcett. Greatest explorer? Fawcett? He was a surveyor who never discovered anything, a nutter, a racist, and so incompetent that the only expedition he organised was a five-week disaster. Calling him one of our greatest explorers is like calling Eddie the Eagle one of our greatest sportsmen. It is an insult to the huge roster of true explorers. Had the advertisement been about a soap powder, it would fall foul of the Trade Descriptions Act.

Percy Fawcett joined the army immediately after school, with a commission in the artillery in 1886. The next 20 years involved garrison duty in Ceylon and postings in Malta and England. The only significant events were getting married and becoming a devotee (like many others) of the charlatan psychic Madame Blavatsky. Fawcett’s game-changer came in 1906, when he was 40. The army let him take the Royal Geographical Society’s course on frontier surveying. Far away in South America, Bolivia had just sold its rubber-rich province of Acre to Brazil, so it needed its new north-western boundary mapped. The Bolivians approached the RGS for a mature surveyor to do this. The society’s secretary asked the newly qualified Fawcett whether he wanted to go; he accepted, reported for duty in La Paz and was at work on the new Amazonian frontier by the end of the year. This survey was the best thing Fawcett did. But he described it as boring, because the new frontier was all along rivers. This was the height of the great Amazon rubber boom, so he and his team cruised from one comfortable rubber barraca to the next, taking their regular measurements.

John Hemming corrects the Fawcett record on our podcast:

Fawcett’s only publications were a series of papers in the Geographical Journal about his mapping work. But he kept a journal, and in 1953 his son Brian edited this and other papers into a book called Exploration Fawcett. He emerges from it as a typical Edwardian colonial officer — friendly with South Americans but looking down on them, appalled by the cruelty at some rubber stations, full of gossip about life on this remote but boom-rich backwater, and uninterested in nature apart from banalities about dangerous snakes and irritating insects.

In 1908, the Bolivians asked Fawcett to survey another of their frontiers with Brazil: a small river called Verde, far away at the north-eastern corner of the large landlocked country. The preparations were appalling. Fawcett took minimal supplies, since he was accustomed to being fed by rubber stations. This was the end of the dry season with the river at its lowest. So they soon had to abandon their boat and continue on foot. After only a week, all food was exhausted and they were really starving. Fawcett casually remarked that five out of his six peons died from the effects of this five-week disaster. This was the only expedition he led into unexplored territory.

The Bolivians invited Fawcett back in 1910, this time to map part of their boundary with Peru. It involved paddling up a frontier river called Heath and two meetings with indigenous peoples on the banks. The first group fired arrows and guns over their heads. But Fawcett waded ashore with presents and shouting a few words of ‘Chuncho’ (the Peruvian word for all forest peoples) that he had memorised but did not understand. That was the only time that Fawcett attempted any language other than Spanish. Further up the Heath river, Fawcett met a tribe he called Ecocha (now Ese Eja) whom he really liked. They were ‘embarrassingly hospitable’ with their food, so Fawcett spent a few days with them and recorded something of their ethnography. He returned for a second visit in 1911.

After a final survey for the Bolivian government in 1913, of the upper Beni river in the Andes, Fawcett went sightseeing in central Bolivia. He and two companions were paddled down the big Guaporé river. They stopped at Mequens on its Brazilian bank to visit the Swedish anthropologist Baron Erland Nordenskiöld and his attractive wife, who provided guides to take them on a walk inland to visit a people they called Maxubi (now Makurap). The Maxubi were friendly and hospitable, but continuing on a forest trail Fawcett met another tribe (probably Sakurabiat) to whom he took a violent dislike. When one aimed a drawn bow at him, Fawcett shot the man with a Mauser revolver — absolutely forbidden by Brazil’s Indian Service. He described them as he imagined Neanderthals or Piltdown Man to have looked: ‘large hairy men, with exceptionally long arms, and foreheads sloping back from pronounced eye ridges… villainous savages, hideous ape men with pig-like eyes.’ No Amazonian Indian has body hair or looks remotely like this — I know, because I have spent time with over 40 different peoples. These two groups, and the two on the Heath, were the only tribal people seen by Fawcett. He liked two of them. So it was strange that he wrote racist gibberish that ‘there are three kinds of Indians. The first are docile and miserable people, easily tamed; the second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third, a robust and fair people, who must have a civilised origin.’

When Fawcett was in the cattle country of central Bolivia in September 1914, news came of the outbreak of war. So he hurried home and by January 1915 was back in the artillery. In his late forties, he was too old for frontline service; but he fought a good war, ending as Lieutenant-Colonel.

In one of his pre-war lectures to the RGS, Fawcett had spoken of possible ancient ruins in the Amazon forests. He was now told about a scrap of paper dated 1743 in which bandeirantes imagined that they had seen a deserted city in the jungles. (The bandeirantes were slavers who scoured the interior of Brazil for Indians to capture. Although most of these thugs were illiterate, others did write reports about their travels — none of which said a word about seeing ruins.) Fawcett gave this imaginary ‘lost city’ the codename Z, and finding it became an obsession.

The easiest forest tribes to visit in Brazil were on the headwaters of one of the Amazon’s southern tributaries, the Xingu. A German anthropologist had contacted a dozen amiable peoples there in 1884; and since then they had been visited by seven groups of anthropologists or Indian Service officials. All had walked in by the same trail. So in 1920 Fawcett tried to follow this route — even though it was nowhere near where the chimera city might have been. His plans went wrong, so he got no further than a ranch halfway along the trail. In 1921 he searched for the mythical city down on the Atlantic coast, by train inland from Salvador da Bahia; but, hardly surprisingly, the miners there knew nothing.

In 1925, by now penniless but desperate, Fawcett tried again to reach the upper Xingu tribes. He now took two inexperienced ex-public schoolboys, his son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmel. The old surveyor made two suicidal pronouncements. One was that the trio should travel light, with nothing more than small packs. Everyone in Amazonia knew that you could not cut trails and keep your team fed with fewer than eight men. (I can confirm this, having done months of such cutting and carrying.) But Fawcett sent their pack animals and porters back, and continued with only his two novices. His other dictum was that Indians would look after them. This was equally dangerous. The Xingu tribes pride themselves on generosity; but they expect visitors to reciprocate. All expeditions in the past four decades had brought plenty of presents such as machetes, knives and beads. Fawcett had none. He committed other blunders that antagonised their hosts. So it was only a matter of days before they were all dead.

Twenty years later, Chief Comatsi of the Kalapalo tribe gave a very detailed account of Fawcett’s visit, reminding his assembled people of exactly how they had killed the unwelcome strangers. But the German anthropologist Max Schmidt, who was there in 1926, thought that they had plunged into the forests, got lost and starved to death; this was also the view of a missionary couple called Young who were on another Xingu headwater. The Brazilian Indian Service regretted that Fawcett, who was obsessively secretive, had not asked for their help in dealing with the Indians. They felt he was killed because of the harshness and lack of tact that all recognised in him.

Such was the sad tale of this incompetent, whose only skill was in surveying. But the disappearance of an English colonel while searching for a mythical ancient city in tropical rain forests was a media sensation. Two expeditions went to try to learn more. There was revived interest in the 1950s with the publication of Exploration Fawcett and the Kalapalo chief’s account of how they killed the Englishmen. Then it was forgotten until 2009 when David Grann, a talented writer, published The Lost City of Z. Unfortunately, Grann hyped the story out of all proportion and wrongly depicted Fawcett as a great explorer.

As he cheerfully admitted, Grann had no experience of rainforests. But he let his imagination run riot, with pages about ferocious piranhas, huge anacondas, electric eels (actually a fish that has never killed a man), frogs ‘with enough toxins to kill 100 people’, ‘predator’ pig-like peccary, ‘sauba ants that could reduce the men’s clothes to threads in a single night, ticks that attached like leeches (another scourge) and the red hairy chiggers that consumed human tissue. The cyanide-squirting millipedes. The parasitic worms that caused blindness…’ and so on. Everyone who know tropical forests, including me, knows that almost every word of this is nonsense.

Fawcett himself gave a simple account of his four surveying journeys for the Bolivian government. But for Grann, ‘in expedition after expedition… he explored thousands of square miles of the Amazon and helped redraw the map of South America’. Fawcett admitted that he was ‘a greenhorn in the jungle’ and knew nothing about nature. But Grann wrote that he moved ‘inch by inch through the jungle, tracing rivers and mountains, cataloguing exotic species… [until] he had explored as much of the region as anyone’.

For Grann, Fawcett was competing against other explorers ‘who were racing into the interior of South America’. The only study that Fawcett made after leaving school in 1886 was his RGS surveying course. He never mentioned any library research. But for Grann he was ‘almost unique’ in viewing 16th- and 17th-century chronicles ignored by other scholars; he re–evaluated El Dorado chronicles and consulted ‘archival records’ and ‘tribesmen’ in ‘piecing together his theory of Z’. Not a word of this was true, either.

Grann wrote that, as an author, he would have been lost without my three-volume, 2,100-page history of Brazilian Indians and five centuries of exploration. He quotes quite often from my books. So he had no excuse for describing Fawcett’s brief visits to three indigenous villages as the ‘discovery of so many previously unknown Indians’, from whom ‘he learned to speak myriad indigenous languages’, and adopted ‘herbal medicines and native methods of hunting [so that he] was better able to survive off the land’. Equally absurd was his rubbish about cannibalistic tribes, blow guns with poisoned darts, or Kuikuro menacing him with ‘gleaming spears flickering’ from the undergrowth (they never used spears, or had metal even, before their contact 130 years ago).

When the colonel vanished, Grann writes that ‘scores’ of explorers tried to find him, and that ‘one recent estimate put the death toll from these expeditions as high as 100.’ Actually, only one search expedition reached the Xingu, led by George Dyott in 1928. (It found that the three Englishmen had been killed by Indians.) The only other expedition was in 1932, but it got only as far as the Araguaia river far to the east. The death toll from these two attempts was zero. In 1935 a ridiculous actor called Albert de Winton went by himself to the Xingu and was killed by Indians who wanted his gun. So if we count him, the death toll is one — well short of Grann’s 100.

These and a great many other passages are artistic licence and hype of an absurd order. Hollywood believed everything Grann wrote, and then hyped it up more. People wishing to learn about the maverick colonel should consult his own fairly modest memoir — not the recent fantasy book and film about him. But I could recommend scores of writings by real explorers.

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