Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Percy Fawcett: Zed or dead


Col Percy Harrison Fawcett
“That the cities exist, I know…” – Colonel P H Fawcett

PERCY FAWCETT WAS A TOUGH, hard-headed, practical man, there’s no doubt of that. He was a soldier and surveyor; a fearless explorer; a first-rate sportsman who played cricket for his county. But this man of action was also an oddball, a dreamer, a mystic of the kookiest kind. He believed in ghosts. He dabbled in the occult. And he was convinced that a Lost World lay undiscovered in the heart of the South American jungle.

Percy called this mysterious place “Z”, and finding it was an obsession. He imagined it as a string of exotic tumble-down cities, older than the pyramids of Egypt, buried deep in the Amazon Basin. He believed an advanced people once lived there, set apart from the rest of mankind for millennia, with their own unique arts and sciences and culture.  Whoever discovered Z would unlock the door to a pre-historic civilization. He’d turn history on its head. He’d change our understanding of the world forever.

If anyone could find a Lost World in virgin rainforest, it was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. A powerfully built man, well over six foot, with an impressive military moustache and steely blue eyes, Percy had earned a reputation in the army as a gritty, courageous eccentric. Born in Devon in 1867, he’d joined the Royal Artillery at nineteen, serving in Ireland, Malta and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). He worked for the British secret service in North Africa. And in 1906, at the age of thirty-seven, he went to South America for the first time, hired out to the government of Bolivia to survey an area of wild forest on its disputed frontier with Brazil – the job that would change his life.

The Amazon can be a terrifying and remote place, even today. Ten times the size of France, there are Indians living there still who’ve never clapped eyes on a white man. As recently as 2008, uncontacted people were spotted from a surveillance plane flying low over unexplored territory. The painted tribesmen were photographed raising longbows to defend themselves against the aircraft. Back in Percy’s day, things were much tougher and far scarier. If a poison-tipped arrow or a dart from a blowpipe didn’t kill you, a wild animal probably would. Unless, of course, some obscure tropical disease hadn’t finished you off first.

But Percy loved jungle life. And after completing that first surveying job, he plunged back in again and again, in thrall to the rainforest’s savage beauty and fascinated by the strange stories of buried treasure and fabulous ruins that he heard from Indians in the interior. Between 1906 and 1925, he led eight epic expeditions to the very wildest parts of Bolivia and Brazil. He always traveled light with scant supplies. He rarely took more than a handful of companions with him. And every one of those mad trips was nothing less than a journey to the depths of hell.

Percy would spend weeks paddling doggedly up uncharted rivers in a leaky canoe, or trudging for days through tangled undergrowth or fetid, stinking swamps. Death stalked him: he saw companions drown and succumb to fever; some died of plain exhaustion; one bloke wandered off into the bush alone and wound up full of arrows. But always Percy pressed on, undaunted and unscathed, British to his bootstraps, apparently impervious to the suffering and fear around him.

Indeed judging by his letters and journals, the kooky colonel viewed the whole tropical horror show as a bit of a lark. The vampire bats that bit his feet while he slept were “a nuisance”. The razor-toothed piranhas that seemed to infest every river he crossed made his “toes tingle”. Nothing fazed him: not rattlesnakes or vipers, crocodiles or jaguars, man-eating ants or spiders the size of tea plates. When Percy shot a giant anaconda, he claimed to have measured its length at an incredible sixty-two feet. That’s almost as long as a bendy bus, twice the size of any other snake ever recorded – and almost certainly a whopping, cheeky lie.

Percy take on South America’s native people was also contrary. Many Europeans of his time regarded Indians as little more than blood-thirsty barbarians, barely humans at all. Not Percy. “I had no apprehensions on this score,” he writes, “as past experience had shown that the savage was invariably painted blacker than he deserved.” He believed Indians were an essentially kind and welcoming bunch who wanted only to be treated fairly by whites. And in 1910 he went out of his way to prove it with a daring trip up the Heath River.

Everyone gave the same warning before he set off: don’t go. The Heath Indians, they said, were the most vicious of all the warring tribes. The journey was unthinkable, an act of madness, a suicide mission. “All the same, we’ll have a shot at it,” was Percy’s cheery reply. And then away he went, barrelling off into the steaming jungle with a battered old Stetson on his head and a pistol tucked into his belt - Indiana Jones on a mission of doom.

Percy took half a dozen men with him, including three English soldiers. His small party poled their boats slowly upstream for a week, slogging deeper and deeper into forbidden territory. And on day seven they rounded a bend, ran aground on a sandbar – and found themselves bang in the middle of an Indian camp. It was a nasty surprise all round. The Heath Indians, expecting attack, started yelling and screaming and fled in their canoes to the opposite riverbank, where they dived behind bushes. “You have nothing to fear,” Percy cried after them. There was a silence, brief and ominous. Then a shower of poisonous arrows came whizzing back over the water by way of response.

What happened next is bizarre. The Europeans had rifles and could have started blazing away. But Percy, preferring diplomacy, instead tried calling out a few Indian words of greeting – despite not being entirely clear off their meaning. “The arrows,” he reports excitedly, “flew thicker than ever!” He tried raising his arms in what he hoped would be seen as a “peace overture”. It wasn’t: the onslaught continued. Then inspiration struck. Percy ordered one of his English soldiers – a musical fellow named Gunner Todd – to unpack his accordion. And to a man the explorers launched into a tub-thumping, spirit-rousing, foot-stomping sing-along.

“The scene must have been ludicrous,” Percy writes. “Here we were dodging arrows and singing at the tops of our voices, while Todd played away and stamped the time with both feet. Anyone coming on this scene would have said we were all roaring drunk.” There’s no record of what the Indians made of it. But after hearty renditions of “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “A Bicycle Made for Two” the arrows stopped. Puzzled native faces began to peep out from the foliage. And Percy seized the moment, bravely paddling across the river to introduce himself and establish friendly relations. “Soon”, he writes triumphantly, Todd was explaining the accordion to the Indians “and calling them ‘Bill’ and ‘Joe’… in broadest Cockney.”

Percy tested his “friendly Indians” theory again three years later when he headed off into another no-go area of central Brazil, homeland to the feared Maricoxis tribe. The Maricoxis were cannibals. They were said to spit their victims on bamboo polls before cooking them over fires, like human kebabs. Once more people advised Percy to rethink his travel plans. “You will be food for the pot,” they warned. Percy listened patiently, politely – and then off he went to meet the man-eaters.

After five days of hacking through dense, trackless forest, he found them. Stumbling into a clearing, he came face to face with a group of the most “villainous savages” he’d ever seen - “great ape-like brutes who looked as if they had scarcely evolved”. The Maricoxis didn’t think much of Percy either and one of their number – enormous, stark naked and “hairy as a dog” – leapt to his feet and confronted the pale-faced intruder. More “hideous apemen” quickly gathered - all armed, “all grunting ‘Eugh! Eugh! Eugh!’” And even the unflappable Percy was forced to admit it: he’d got himself into what he could only describe as “a very delicate situation”.

The naked bushman began an alarming little war dance. He hopped from foot to foot, made weird barking sounds and raised and lowered his bow several times in a threatening fashion. Percy remained calm and looked the fellow steadily in the eye. Then the bruiser stopped abruptly, pulled back his bowstring and pointed the tip of his arrow directly at Percy’s chest. It didn’t look good. The guy meant business. He was clearly thinking about dinner.

Percy reached for the Mauser handgun at his hip. “I never raised it,” he writes, “I just pulled the trigger and banged it off into the ground at the ape-man’s feet.” The explosion sent the startled warrior running off into the forest, his grunting Maricoxis mates not far behind. Percy shot a few rounds into the bushes after them – just to make sure they all kept going. Then he put back his weapon, dusted himself off and carried on with his exploring.

Percy was still wandering around the wildest reaches of the Amazon when World War I broke out in 1914. He went back to Europe to fight of course, serving with distinction on the Western Front. But right after the Armistice he returned to his beloved jungle. And from that point, things changed. Percy was past fifty now, and he started acting like a man with no time to lose. He quit the army. He jacked in his surveying work. He began funding his own expeditions through newspaper deals. And for the first time he concentrated all his energies on what had begun only as an eccentric hobby, a quirky side-project – the quest to find Z.

By now Percy believed he had a clear idea where he’d find his Lost World. Years of information-gathering had convinced him that it lay deep within the Mato Grosso, then an almost entirely uncharted area of wilderness in the exact centre of South America. He kept the precise location to himself. But he had a definite spot in mind. And despite the extreme dangers of the region, he felt confident that – “given normal luck” – he could get there. Percy had also concocted a remarkable theory to explain Z’s spectacular rise and fall. It had been destroyed, he concluded, by the same mysterious catastrophe which sank the legendary island of Atlantis. This great cataclysm had scattered its people. But ever the optimist, he hoped – indeed expected - to find a few descendants of the survivors residing still among the fabulous ruins.

Percy made his first all-out bid to find his vanished cities in 1920, heading into the Mato Grosso with an enormous Australian named “Butch” Reilly and a young adventure-seeker called Felipe. The trio went north from the region’s capital, Cuiaba, directly into swamplands. And they immediately found themselves battered by rainstorms, tortured by biting flies and subjected to kamikaze attacks by monster-sized bees which targeted their faces and necks. The men brought two oxen and two horses to carry their gear. All four animals either drowned or collapsed and died from the strain.

Despite being “six feet five and broad as a barn door”, Butch Reilly broke first and turned back. Percy and Felipe ploughed on manfully, heavy loads hanging off their backs, sodden boots tearing agonizingly at their feet. But it was a losing battle. Less than two months into the expedition, Felipe developed “a sort of got-it-all-over disease”. A broken man, he begged to be left by the trail to die. Percy wanted to go on but had no choice: he sounded the retreat and the pair trudged despondently back to civilisation, slipping and stumbling in the slime.

That abortive trip proved one thing to Percy beyond all doubt: if he was going to reach Z at all he needed to find a travelling companion who could match his own extraordinary powers of endurance. Time and again, he’d outlasted his men on the trail. He needed someone special at his side – someone who, like him, was capable of driving themselves beyond normal limits; someone whose courage would never falter, whose strength would never break. In 1925, finally, Percy believed he’d found that man. It was his son, Jack Fawcett.

Jack was a big, strong, serious-minded lad who, like dad, neither drank nor smoked. At school he’d distinguished himself in sports, in fights, and by standing up to severe canings from his headmaster. Twenty-one now, he was old enough to join his dad in the jungle and itching to do so. Jack’s best mate – a young man called Raleigh Rimmell – was also up for it. And Percy was delighted to have them on board. It didn’t bother him that both were young and neither had any experience of exploring the tropics. “Jack and Raleigh will have to learn to swim…” he writes, “by being flung into the deep water.”

By early March 1925 the boys were in deep all right. They’d crossed the Atlantic to Brazil’s east coast and spent eight monotonous days on a crowded riverboat with Percy, chugging inland through dull swampy country. They’d already been stung by horseflies, attacked by flying termites and devoured by great clouds of mosquitoes. It was very hot, it was very rainy. And there was only one thing of which they could be sure: their lives were going to get a whole lot tougher before they could expect to find Z, hopefully sometime in August.

The three Englishmen left Cuiaba on 20 April and travelled along the same torturous route that Percy had taken five years earlier. They took with them two Indian guides and a dozen cargo animals - and they made steady progress. On 16 May the travellers were in good spirits when eight curious Indians joined them in camp. Father and son performed a little concert for the naked guests – Jack on his piccolo, Percy playing the banjo he carried with him always. Three days later there were more celebrations as Jack turned twenty-two. It was, he said, the most interesting birthday he’d ever had.

On 29 May, they reached Dead Horse Camp, the spot where one of Percy’s pack-animals had died on his previous expedition with Felipe. Their Indian helpers turned back at this point, too frightened to go on. “We have reached here after rather unusual difficulties,” Percy writes to his wife, Nina, in a letter sent back with the guides. He tells her of “bugs galore” and millions of “stinging horrors”. He says he’s worried about Raleigh, whose foot has become swollen and ulcerous from a tick bite. But otherwise Percy’s upbeat, hopeful. He signs off in bullish fashion: “You need have no fear of any failure”.

Percy, Jack and Raleigh marched out confidently from Dead Horse Camp the next day with their rifles over their shoulders and their food packs on their backs. And that’s it. That’s all we know. None of them was ever heard from again.

At first, no one was bothered by the silence. People were used to Percy vanishing for months, even years, at a stretch. But by 1928 it was clear something was wrong. And soon the speculation began. Were they dead? Had they reached Z? Perhaps they’d gone mad and were wandering in the forest still, befuddled and lost. Some of Percy’s more crackpot supporters suggested he’d set up a commune in the jungle. Others became convinced he was being held prisoner by an isolated tribe who revered him as a god.

A Royal Navy man, Commander George Dyott, was the first to try to solve the mystery. Supported by twenty-six men and seventy-four mules and bullocks, he followed Percy, Jack and Raleigh’s trail to a remote village beyond Dead Horse Camp. There he was told – in sign language – that a vicious neighbouring tribe had massacred the English travellers three years earlier. In 1930 a reporter called Albert de Winton set off into the forest to try to stand up Dyott’s story – he never returned. Scores of journalists, scientists, mavericks and adventurers have been seeking to do the same ever since. None have succeeded. Many disappeared in the process.

There’s been the occasional intriguing report of a sighting. In 1927, a French engineer emerged from the jungle claiming he’d met an old white man there who’d introduced himself as “Fawcett”. In 1932, a Swiss hunter said he’d spoken to a ragged European fellow in the bush who wore animal skins and had wept over his lost son. But the descriptions provided were never quite right. Percy’s family was never convinced. And besides, Nina Fawcett, as kooky as her husband, said she was in telepathic communication with her man and he’d assured her that all was well, Jack and Raleigh were fine, and the search for Z was continuing apace.

So who knows, maybe Percy and the boys did find their Lost World. Perhaps the colonel’s unshakeable faith was finally rewarded, his fantastic dream brilliantly fulfilled. “Whether we get through, and emerge again, or leave our bones to rot in there, one thing’s certain,” Percy said before setting out on his last great climactic journey, “the answer to the enigma of Ancient South America – and perhaps of the prehistoric world – may be found when those old cities are located and opened up to scientific research. That the cities exist, I know…”

* Thanks for visiting Great British Nutters. I hope you have enjoyed what you've read. I no longer post here but have started a new blog called History Nuts. It's along similar lines but with much shorter posts. Please take a look. You can also follow @historynuts on Twitter or via my facebook.com/historynuts. Thanks again!

SOURCES
Fawcett, Percy, Exploration Fawcett (London, 1988)
Fleming, Peter, Brazilian Adventure (London, 1933)
Churchward, Robert, Wilderness of Fools (London, 1936)
Dyott, G M, Man Hunting in the Jungle (London, 1930)
Mair, George, Doctor Goes West (1958)
Cummins, Geraldine, The Fate of Colonel Fawcett (London, 1955)
Williams, Harry, With Colonel Fawcett in the Amazon Basin (London, 1960)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Exploration Fawcett was a very interesting book that made me want to read more about Colonel Fawcett and his ill fated expedition into the Amazon jungle. A well researched dramatization of Fawcett's last expedition and what may have happened to him can be found in this book: "AN UNEXPECTED ADVENTURE - Journey to the Lost City: The Search for Colonel Fawcett's Lost City" available on Amazon.(ASIN:B00C4QX1UE) More info here:http://www.benhammottbooks.com
An excellent website about Fawcett,that includes old newspaper reports about Fawcett's disappearance and an English translation of manuscript 512, an ancient document that led Fawcett to believe in a lost city, is here: http://www.fawcettadventure.com

Simon Bendle said...

Very belated thanks for the info, Anon - for some reason I have only just stumbled on your comment. All the best, Simon

Stephen McDonald said...

The Lost City of Z by David Grann is also a good account of Fawcett. The author followed in his footsteps through that area of South America. Another good book about exploring South America in the early 1900s is River of Doubt by Candice Millard. A good account of the Roosevelt expedition.