Sticky Wicket

Charles Nicholl

  • The Lost City of Z by David Grann
    Simon and Schuster, 339 pp, £16.99, February 2009, ISBN 978 1 84737 436 3

It is more than eighty years since he disappeared, deep in the Mato Grosso of Brazil, but the name of Colonel Fawcett still resonates. He was the last of the old-style Amazonian explorers, on the cusp of a new age of light aircraft and two-way radio, time-saving and sometimes life-saving conveniences which he disdained. In the words of David Grann, whose compelling new book, The Lost City of Z, tries to make sense of the man and his last mission, Fawcett ‘ventured into blank spots on the map with little more than a machete, a compass and an almost divine sense of purpose’. He was an imposing figure, tall, lean tending to cadaverous, with steely grey eyes and a fierce-looking beard. Photographs from his expeditions show him in jungle clearings, hollow-eyed with heat and hunger, wearing a stetson, jodhpur-like trousers and tall leather boots. He looks like an Edwardian Indiana Jones, or some strange dystopian scoutmaster living half-wild in the woods.

Fellow explorers described him as having an ‘indomitable will’ and ‘infinite resource’, a man ‘in hand to hand combat with the wilderness’. In Conan Doyle’s South American fantasia, The Lost World (1912), the explorer John Roxton is recognisably based on Fawcett, whose lectures in London Doyle had attended. He had ‘something of Don Quixote’, Doyle wrote, ‘and yet again something which was the essence of the English country gentleman’, and though his eyes twinkled there lurked in them a ‘capacity for furious wrath and implacable resolution, the more dangerous because they are held in leash’. In the more tight-lipped terms favoured by the Royal Geographical Society of the 1920s, Fawcett was a model of physical efficiency, who was ‘prepared to travel lighter and fare harder than most people would consider either possible or proper’. That last word strikes a curious note – the idea that matters of propriety were involved in the business of jungle survival – but it has a sociological point. Whatever their ostensible purpose, his arduous expeditions were also seen as a proving-ground for the strength, resolve and all-round superiority of the English gentleman. Colonel Fawcett was, as the American newspapers liked to put it, a ‘ramrod Englishman’. His chief rival in Amazonia was a publicity-hungry American millionaire, Dr Alexander Hamilton Rice, whose state of the art radio had an aerial the size of a hang-glider. When Rice turned back after a hostile encounter with the Yanomami, Fawcett reported in characteristically clipped style that he had ‘skedaddled’ because he was ‘rather too soft for the real game’.

But then there is the other side of the Fawcett story, which makes it much more than a Boy’s Own tale of derring-do in deep jungle. His last expeditions were increasingly quests, with all of that word’s obsessive and quasi-mystical overtones. For various reasons, some better than others, he believed that there lay concealed in the jungle – in those blank spaces on the map – the remains of a lost city, formerly inhabited by what he called a ‘robust and fair people’, a proto-Indian race which ‘must have a civilised origin’. He argued that the ‘ethnology of the continent has been built on a misconception’, because it was based on observations of assimilated Indians, degraded by colonisation and much inferior to these ‘fair’ or ‘copper-skinned’ forerunners. In his notebooks, ever wary of the possibility of competitors, he referred to this lost city only as ‘Z’, and when he set off on his last expedition, in the spring of 1925, it was in the belief that he would finally locate this phantom metropolis.

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