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.

In his historical studies of the Amazon, Die If You Must and Tree of Rivers, John Hemming dismisses Fawcett as a ‘Nietzschean explorer’ whose theories are nothing more than ‘eugenic gibberish’. At the other end of the spectrum there are doubtless some who still think that Fawcett was a visionary, that he found the ancient capital he sought, and that mysterious forces there account for his disappearance. One heard this sort of view on the Gringo Trail in the early 1970s, when it was still possible for a super-charged, centenarian Fawcett to be alive; those who held it tended also to believe that the Nazca Lines in Peru were UFO landing-strips, as posited by Erich von Däniken in his then current Chariots of the Gods? Fawcett’s own writings, unpublished till the 1950s, lead into this sort of terrain. Though originally he described Z in ‘strictly scientific terms’, Grann writes, ‘by 1924 Fawcett had filled his papers with reams of delirious writings’ about a ‘mystical Atlantean kingdom which resembled the Garden of Eden’, and might also be one of the primal ‘White Lodges’ of which Madame Blavatsky spoke. Thus Fawcett becomes annexed to the otherworldly side of South American exploration, as typified by the searchers after El Dorado, the fabled ‘city of gold’ of which Fawcett’s Z is a notional suburb or satellite. He crosses that line where the dangerous realities of the jungle merge with the yet more dangerous chimera of the imagination.

Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett – he is always styled ‘Colonel’: a piece of discreet self-promotion – was born in Torquay in 1867. His father was a blue-blooded spendthrift and crony of the Prince of Wales, who died young of alcohol and consumption when Fawcett was 17, and is chiefly remembered as a brilliant batsman for Cambridge University and Sussex. Fawcett too was a fine cricketer, following his father in that, though diametrically opposed to him on matters of drink and loose-living. His childhood, as he recalls in writings edited by his son Brian in Exploration Fawcett (1953), was ‘devoid of parental affection’ but full of ‘grand times’ with his brother and sisters. At the age of 19 he was a commissioned officer in the Royal Artillery, handsome in a lanky, buttoned-up sort of way, and was stationed out in Trincomalee, in Ceylon, where he met a spirited and beautiful young widow, Nina Prichard, who became his wife in 1901.

Fawcett made his first entrada into the South American wilderness in 1906, as a qualified military surveyor working for the Bolivian boundary commission, and made dozens more over the next two decades. The Great War was a hiatus: he emerged from the jungle in 1914, after a year-long expedition, and promptly returned home to join the fight, it being ‘the patriotic desire of all able-bodied men to squash the Teuton’. He spent three years in the hell of the trenches, including the Somme, and was awarded the DSO for valour. In early 1919 he returned to the family home in Devon, where he brooded on the traumas of war and became involved in spiritualism. The following year he returned to South America. When asked about the Amazonian practice of cannibalism, he would drily observe that it ‘at least provides a reasonable motive for killing a man, which is more than you can say for civilised warfare’.

Now the practical purposes of his expeditions – cartographic, ethnographic, botanical – began to be supplanted by the glimmering obsession with lost cities. The first impetus was based on genuine observation. He saw archaeological remains – pottery, petrographs, the vestiges of ancient engineering – which made him question the received wisdom that Amazonia had always been a habitat too hostile to favour advanced social development. He noted the admirable organisational skills of certain Indian groups – stockpilers, engineers, healers like the Echojas and the Guarayos, the ‘brave and intelligent’ Maxubis, the Yurucares and Yanomami – though already there creeps in a jarring racial note, for some of these were the fairer-skinned tribes then called ‘white Indians’.

Grann is even-handed in his assessment of Fawcett. He stresses that in ethnographic terms he was far in advance of his time; today there is growing evidence, pushing ever further back into the past, of advanced early cultures in the Amazon. This in turn is an aspect of Fawcett’s empathy with the Indians. More orthodox minds at the Royal Geographical Society accused him of ‘going native’ on his expeditions. His habit of painting his face with bright colours from berries like an Indian warrior was noted in particular. There is ‘no disgrace’ in living like the Indians, he said. Rather, ‘it shows a creditable regard for the real things of life at the expense of the artificial.’ These were valuable attitudes, in an era of exploration not noted for its tactful contact with indigenous people. Only later were they muddied by master-race theories and Blavatskian hocus-pocus. These eccentricities caused a cooling off in support from the RGS, which contributed a modest $5000 to Fawcett’s 1925 expedition – less than the cost of one of Dr Rice’s radios.

Grann gives a vivid account of life on a Fawcett expedition. These forays into what he called the ‘deep interior’ were through dense, pathless regions where pack animals could not survive. Everything had to be carried by the expeditioners and their local porters. Though he was praised for travelling light, this is decidedly relative. By his last expeditions Fawcett had refined his requirements down to a 60lb pack – four pounds heavier than a truss of old hay. One tries to imagine it, toiling forward with this great canvas beast dragging at one’s shoulders, adding its weight to the sapping onslaught of heat, mud, humidity, biting insects and parasitic infestations. One would also be constantly hungry, given the typical fare en route: breakfast at 6.30 a.m., ‘one plate of porridge, two cups of tea and one third of a cup of condensed milk’; supper at 5.30 p.m, ‘two cups of tea, two biscuits, goiabada or sardines, or one plate of charque and rice’, and no mention of any sustenance in the 11 hours between. Among the contents of Fawcett’s pack were the usual impedimenta: guns, machetes, flares; a sextant and a precision chronometer for determining latitude and longitude; a small glycerine compass; an aneroid for measuring atmospheric pressure; a pan for sifting gold dust – and, rather less predictably, a ukelele. In one of the last descriptions of Fawcett before his disappearance, he is giving an impromptu recital on this instrument to a group of bemused Xingu Indians. ‘Music,’ he told his wife, ‘is a great comfort in the wilds, and might even save a solitary man from insanity.’ He also carried handwritten copies of poems, including an extract from ‘Solitude’ by Ella Wheeler Wilcox:

There is room in the halls of pleasure
For a long and lordly train,
But one by one we must all file on
Through the narrow aisles of pain.

The lines seem appropriate in their mix of grit and sentimentality.

‘Sentimentality’ was not a word that would leap to the minds of those who travelled with him. Fawcett was an exacting leader – he had, he said, ‘no mercy for incompetence’ – and those under him were closely scrutinised for any tremulousness of the upper lip. James Murray, an eminent Scottish biologist who accompanied Fawcett’s 1911 expedition along the upper Heath River, was tested particularly harshly, being an interloper from the more showily dramatic – and better-funded – world of polar exploration. Exhausted, disorientated, and devoured by a legion of insects and parasites, including some inch-long maggots nesting in his arm, Murray was castigated for slowing the party down. ‘You have no right to be tired!’ snapped the colonel, who had suspected him all along for a ‘pink-eyed weakling’. Grann brings out the black comedy of these scenes, where amid harrowing tropical hardships Murray is scolded for having scoffed some communal caramels. Fawcett’s preferred sidekick was Henry Costin, a trusty batman figure who called him ‘chief’. A former corporal and gym instructor in the British Army, and a crack shot, he was summed up by his son as a ‘tough bugger who hated bullshit’. Joining up for another Fawcett adventure, after months of recuperation from a near fatal fever picked up on the previous one, Costin struck the right note of subaltern stoicism. ‘It’s hell all right,’ he said, ‘but one kind of likes it.’

On the doomed expedition of 1925 Fawcett was accompanied only by his son Jack, and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell. Jack Fawcett was a handsome 21-year-old with a pencil moustache who had spent time in Hollywood and aspired to movie stardom (another Fawcett cricketing fact: the bat seen in the film Little Lord Fauntleroy was lent by Jack to the film’s star, Mary Pickford). Though untried in the rigours of Amazon exploration, or any exploration at all, the two young men were approvingly described by Fawcett as ‘strong as horses and keen as mustard’. One discerns the defiant – or fatal – note of amateurism. This was the team that set out to find the mysterious city of Z: three toffs from the English shires, a few native porters, some mules (for the early stages) and a pair of dogs, Pastor and Chulim. Dogs were also among Fawcett’s preferred travelling companions, invaluable as hunters and retrievers, and loyal to the end.

Their journey led them up into the headwaters of the Xingu River, one of the great southern tributaries of the Amazon. Fawcett had reconnoitred the first stages back in 1920, but the region they were heading for was completely unmapped. It was as he liked it – a place where even the rivers are ‘guesswork’. We can trace the itinerary up to the expedition’s vanishing point. They arrived at the Brazilian frontier town of Cuiabá, the capital of Mato Grosso, on about 3 March 1925, and began assembling porters, provisions and animals. This small circus moved out from Cuiabá on 20 April, arriving four weeks later at the last white settlement on their route, a tiny upriver trading depot called Bakairí Post. Here they rested up – it had been a ‘rather strenuous journey’ – and sent despatches home. Jack talks breezily about the thrill of seeing his first ‘naked savages’, and retails news of his father: ‘Daddy had gone on ahead at such a speed that we lost sight of him,’ ‘Daddy is in first rate condition’ and so on. His letters are full of public school innocence and Wodehousian jollity – ‘bugs galore’. Fawcett, meanwhile, confers with a local chief, who ‘under the expanding influence of wine’ corroborates the story of ‘old cities’ in the region. It seems his goal is at last in sight, and on 20 May, as they prepare to leave Bakairí, he writes to Nina that he expects ‘to be in touch with the old civilisation within a month’, and to be at the ‘main object’ – in other words, Z – by August.

Fawcett’s last despatch, written on 29 May 1925, was carried back to Bakairí by the Indian porters, who were unwilling to venture further into another tribe’s territories. It begins, in concise but ominous tones: ‘Here we are at Dead Horse Camp, Lat. 11° 43’ S. and 54° 35’ W., the spot where my horse died in 1920. Only his white bones remain.’ He briefly describes the conditions: ‘The season is good. It is very cold at night, and fresh in the morning; but insects and heat come by mid-day.’ He might be talking of the minor inconveniences of a camping trip. And then the last sign-off, upbeat, almost headmasterly in tone: ‘you need have no fear of any failure.’

The rest is silence, though given that Fawcett had warned they might be out of contact for up to two years, it did not at first seem a worrying silence. What happened to the three Englishmen after they left Dead Horse Camp has never been established with certainty, though some answers to the puzzle were provided by later expeditions in search of them. The first of these, still optimistic enough to be styled a ‘rescue mission’, was led by Commander George Dyott in 1928. He traced Fawcett’s trail to a village of the Nahukwá tribe, where the chief’s son had hanging round his neck a small brass plate marked ‘W.S. Silver and Company’ – a London firm which had supplied Fawcett with some airtight metal cases. From there, Dyott learned, they had traversed across to the upper Kuluene River, the domain of Kalapalo Indians. This should have been a three-day journey, but they were going slowly because one of the younger men, probably Rimell, was lame and exhausted. After resting a few days they set off eastwards, into difficult and unknown country. The Kalapalos reported seeing smoke from their camp fires for five days, and then nothing on the sixth day. They indicated to Dyott, in sign language, their belief that the party had been massacred. Dyott considered it the most likely explanation, and it remains so. He thought the culprits were the Nahukwá, but they said it was a notoriously fierce group called the Suyá.

The story ran and ran. ‘Hardly a week passes in which some English newspaper does not make an apocryphal reference to the lost explorer,’ Peter Fleming (brother of Ian) wrote in the early 1930s. ‘Fresh rumours are always coming in, fresh expeditions are always on the point of starting.’ Fleming was himself part of one, and wrote about it in Brazilian Adventure (1933). One of Grann’s interviewees estimates that a hundred people have lost their lives in the search for Fawcett, or for clues about what happened to him. In 1951 Orlando Villas Boas, the famous champion of Indian rights, announced that he had found Fawcett’s remains in a shallow grave in Kalapalo territory. But the bones, examined by the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, were not Fawcett’s: the jawbone did not match a spare denture he had left in England, and the shinbone suggested a man some six inches shorter than him. As late as 1979 Fawcett’s gold signet ring was discovered in the backroom of a shop in Cuiabá. It is engraved with the family motto, one which Fawcett exemplified to the full: ‘Nec aspera terrent’ – hardships hold no fear. Despite the staring-eyed fantasies of his last years, he was in many ways an admirable Englishman, austere, laconic, honourable and incredibly tough, playing with a straight bat on some of the stickiest wickets the planet could provide. He called himself a ‘lone wolf’, determined to ‘seek paths of my own rather than take the well-trodden ways’. The path led him, both physically and psychologically, into very wild country, and so to that point of no return where a few distant wisps of smoke above the canopy marked the end of the line.