Looking for lost explorers

By Nicholas Asheshov

In 1925 Col. Percy Fawcett, an English artillery officer, disappeared while searching for a lost civilization in the Amazon and people have, in turn, been looking for him ever since.

One early hope in the years immediately following Fawcett’s disappearance was that he had found the lost city and that he and his son Jack, who had accompanied him, were living it up as honoured guests of the inhabitants: they were, after all, English.

One of those who went to look for him was Peter Fleming, brother of Ian, creator of 007 James Bond. Fleming’s book about his expedition, “Brazilian Adventure” (1933) was a best-seller.

Fawcett went into the Mato Grosso and the Xingu only a few years after Arthur Conan Doyle, inventor of Sherlock Holmes, had published ‘The Lost World”, the best-seller where dinosaurs, warring Indians, vicious man-like apes and intrepid English explorers were stirred into the heart of the Amazon.

Hiram Bingham, also, had just discovered Machu Picchu and his photographs had stunned the world.

Col. Fawcett and the whacko world of lost cities is the subject of a new book out just this month in New York, “The Lost City of Z. A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Grann, a journalist on The New Yorker.

‘The Lost City of Z’ was the description that Col. Fawcett gave to the object of his obsession. The reviews in The New York Times and elsewhere speak well of the new book but in fact others know much more about Fawcett and the Amazon. These are led by a couple of friends of mine; John Hemming, author of the classic “La Conquista de los Incas” and, out just last year, “Tree of Rivers; The Story of the Amazon”. Hemming is also the leading international authority on the wild tribes in the forest.

The other is William Lowther who has spent many years on the Fawcett story. Both Hemming and Lowther tell me that Fawcett was “nasty.” Lowther recalls how Fawcett simply left one of his English team members on the Peru-Bolivia frontier to die alone in the jungle after being badly bitten by a poisonous insect. The man by a miracle lived to tell the story.

This had happened in 1906 when Fawcett, who was born in 1867, had been hired to survey the Bolivia-Peru frontier which still stands as he defined it. Lowther tells me that “Fawcett was tough and energetic. He worked so fast that the Bolivians paid him a bonus.” They went on to hire him to do their frontier with Brazil, too.

It was during this time that Fawcett collected stories of lost cities and lost tribes. As a surveyor, he was also drawing up maps and from my own experience maps quickly acquire their own reality.

Fawcett fought through World War 1 on the Western Front in the Royal Artillery and Lowther tells me that he was almost promoted to General. By one of those coincidences Hemming’s father, a mathematician, was one of Fawcett’s junior officers and accused Fawcett later of basing his targeting on an Ouija board. “Untrue!” Lowther says.

But these were the great days of Spiritualism and cranky, high-handed Colonel Fawcett believed that you could indeed have contact with the other world. On top of that, like most English people in those days, he was a racist who thought poorly of the forest Indians.

He believed that a lost civilization in the Amazon was still peopled by a superior race of which his son Jack was also a member. So all he and Jack had to do, was to get to the right area and the inhabitants would spot Jack as one of their own and welcome him, and of course his father, in!

They were certainly killed by Indians. Some of their belongings were to turn up in the market some time later at a town in the area.

From my account it may seem as though Fawcett was a basket case who dragged his son to a certain death.

Maybe. But Hemming, a great scholar, Secretary for many years of the Royal Geographical Society, has told me how in 1961 he carried out the arrow-filled and battered body of his friend Richard Mason, both recently graduated from Oxford.

Nine years later, in 1970, I myself spent months searching for Robert Nichols, a friend, a Peruvian Times reporter who had disappeared while looking for Paititi in the Pantiacolla hills of the Alto Madre de Dios.

A year later we found that Nichols, relaxed and amiable but as tough and experienced as Col. Fawcett, had been stoned to death by renegade Machiguengas.

As a footnote, the leader of the main ground search party, Elvin Berg, who avoided getting attacked by the Machiguengas by reading the signs correctly, was himself caught a dozen years later in a remote corner of the Apurimac by a gang of Shining Path thugs who strung him up and burned him to death. FIN

Published in Caretas Magazine the week of March 13, 2009

 

One comment on “Looking for lost explorers

  1. What a great blog – thank you!

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