"You need have no fear of any failure" -- the life and explorations of Percy Fawcett
December 29, 2011 10:51 PM   Subscribe

The London Geographical Journal, the preeminent publication in its field, observed in 1953 that “Fawcett marked the end of an age. One might almost call him the last of the individualist explorers. The day of the aeroplane, the radio, the organized and heavily financed modern expedition had not arrived. With him, it was the heroic story of a man against the forest.” Fawcett was none other than Percival "Percy" Harrison Fawcett, British soldier, trained as a surveyor of unknown lands, doubling as a British spy. But his true love was exploration, and not simply to mark boundaries on a map. His final goal was the same that had been the demise of many explorers: a mighty lost civilization in South America.

Percival Fawcett was the son of Edward Boyd Fawcett, a Victorian aristocrat born who in India, and was a first-class cricket player for a time. Percy's mother, Myra Elizabeth MacDougall, was also born in India, and the couple married in England. Edward was a member of the Royal Geographical Society of London (Google books). Though Percy followed his father in this aspect, he looked up to his older brother, Edward Douglas Fawcett, who had a colorful life of his own.

Edward the younger, at 17 years old, wrote Hartmann the Anarchist; or, The Doom of the Great City, a forward-looking adventure novel in the vein of a "more realistic" Jules Verne (Gb), foreseeing aerial battles like those in World War II. He wrote two more adventure novels, Swallowed by an Earthquake, and The Secret of the Desert (Gb). The younger Edward went on to become a key staff member of The Theosophical Society, formed by influential spiritualist Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Colonel Henry Steel Olcott (previously). Edward helped to research and write The Secret Doctrine, the Synthesis of Science, Religion and Philosophy, a major document for the society that was formed to "study and elucidation of Occultism, the Cabala etc." Edward also wrote a number of philosophical works on his own. (Percy joined his brother's path of thoughts and actions, and pledged the Five Buddhist Precepts as part of a ceremony held in a Theosophical Hall (Gb) by the society.) Percy's older brother was also made some advances in color photography, and was one of the founding fathers of the Devon County Chess Association in 1901. Edward, along with his mental undertakings, was quite physically fit, as he was also a skilled mountain-climber, skier and motorcycle racer. He was fit throughout his life, as climbed to the top of the Matterhorn at age 66, though en route, had a heart attack. To live a more calm life, he took up flying, which he continued until his death in 1950. He was 84.

Given such a brother, you might guess that Percival Harrison Fawcett lived in the shadow of greatness, but it is largely the other way around. Percy Fawcett was commissioned in the Royal Artillery, serving in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), where he was given a map to the treasure cave(s) of Galla-pita-Galla. He failed to find treasure, but did meet Nina Agnes Paterson, his future wife. They were married and lived in Ceylon for a period. Percy and Nina Fawcett had two sons, Jack and Brian. Jack was the favored son, was born in Ceylon, on Buddha's birthday and with certain "marks of the Buddha," supposedly as foretold by Buddhist monks. Jack grew up to be like his father, while his brother Brian, born in Ireland, is largely overlooked in early records. While the Fawcetts lived in Ceylon, Percy came across the ruins of Anuradhapura, then hidden in the jungle. This was the beginning to Colonel Percy Fawcett's life as a world-renowned explorer.

In order to become an explorer, one must learn how to explore. At that time, the Royal Geographic Society was the premiere professional body for geography, which included at that time charting the blank places on maps. One studied Hints to Travellers (4th edition, 1878, 5th edition, 1883, 9th edition, 1906) and Art of Travel (4th edition, 1867), learning how to navigate and survive in unknown lands, and interact with native people. Then one could not only survey, but observe and record everything.

Percy Fawcett went first to Morocco, not solely for the Royal Geographic Society, but as an intelligence-gathering member of the Survey of India Department. Fawcett presented some of his findings to the Society in 1902 (Gb). Fawcett's next expedition was more exploratory, surveying the disputed border of Brazil and Bolivia. He completed the two-year trek in one year, surviving the man-eating anaconda, the jaguar, Brazilian cirminals, the whole list of tropical fevers and beri-beri (Gb). Then he returned to South America, to survey the boundary of Paraguay and find the true source of the Verde River, and later the borders of Peru and Brazil.

The ideas of the Theosophical Society, and Madame Blavatsky, stuck with Fawcett. The idea that enlightened Master Priests delivered psychic messages from various hidden cities around the world, including South America, meshed with stories of giant stone cities in the jungles, tribes of white-skinned people, and a black basalt stone idol given to Fawcett by Sir H. Rider Haggard, English writer of adventure novels in the Lost World literary genre. Fawcett had the stone idol inspected by a practicer of Psychometry, "a method that may evoke scorn by many people but is widely accepted by others who have managed to keep their minds free from prejudice," as told by Fawcett himself. This reading brought up ties to Atlantis, which Fawcett did not completely disregard. In fact, the idea of advanced civilizations in the jungle matched with the stories told to Fawcett by the Maxubis, themselves a civilization that Fawcett considered well advanced beyond the tribes he had previously met.

Fawcett put together clues to a mysterious city he simply called "Z," in an attempt to hide his knowledge and theories of the lost city. He feared competitors, such as: Arnold Henry Savage Landor, who survived a trip into Brazil in 1912 and wrote about his experience; Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, who helped build the first telegraph line across the state of Mato Grosso (Google preview; PDF), and accompanied former US president Theodore Roosevelt down Brazil's River of Doubt in 1914 (it was this adventure that found Teddy in a fever state (Gb), repeating lines from Kubla Khan); and foremost Alexander Hamilton Rice, Jr., M.D., who had begun to survey a similar area (Gb) as Fawcett, but his wealth gave him access to new technologies that Fawcett could not afford.

Fawcett intended to venture back to Brazil in 1914, but World War I changed the focus of the world. Exploration was not in the forefront, and Percy Fawcett voluntarily rejoined the military. He was then 47, a major in the Royal Field Artillery, and in charge of more than 100 men. He was appointed Lieutenant Colonel in command of 158th Brigade one day after orders had been received to embark for overseas, and allegedly relied on a ouiji board to determine the location of enemy gun batteries. Fawcett kept abreast of new explorations into Brazil as best he could. As the United States were not yet involved in the war, some Americans were still venturing into South American forests. Fawcett re-retired from the service in 1919, and resumed plans to return to South America for the seventh time.

By this time, there were a number of factors making a return trip harder to fund. The jungles of South America were considered a a "green hell,", a land that is deceptively lush yet inhospitable to any but small bands of people. And gone were the days of general explorers, replaced now by anthropologists and archaeologists who would study the native people and past cultures with a more critical eye. So Fawcett turned to the Brazilian government (with an inflated title of Colonel instead of Lt Colonel), appealing to the importance of an archaeological expedition. In the end, his 1920-21 expedition was supported, but as a joint British-Brazilian effort. This was a failure, and there was one brief, solo effort in August of 1921, which was also fruitless.

Percy Fawcett was now in his 50s, but his son, Jack, was in his 20s. Jack was ever the supporter of his father. Jack and his boyhood friend, Raleigh Rimell, were both in fine shape, and they became the next (last) hope for Percy. In order to gain additional funds for this trip, Fawcett turned to the press. His story would be told in the first person, sent out as he progressed by runners who would take his letters from the jungle to the closest thing to a city in that time, Cuiabá. In total, Fawcett raised $5,000. His current competitor, Alexander Hamilton Rice, spent more than that on his new radio, the first attempt at radio communications in the tropics. Rice's journey was publicized, trumpeting the use of technology. In comparison, Fawcett was considered the last great Victorian explorer, using basic technologies, wits and personal fortitude to persevere. Regardless (or because of these less technological methods), news coverage and launching parties were in full regale. The trio left New York for Rio de Janeiro, traveling from the end of 1924 through the beginning of 1925. They made way from Rio in February, heading 1,000 miles inland. Letters departed from their trail, making news around the world. Their last letter was sent from Dead Horse Camp. The last letter was dated 29th May 1925, to his wife Nina Fawcett. The trip was supposed to continue through 1927, so the lack of information was of concern until a few years passed.

But years did pass, and there was no word from the three explorers. In 1927, Raleigh Rimell's younger brother, Roger, went along (Google news) with Commander George M. Dyott, an exploration largely financed by the American Newspaper Syndicate. Dyott came to the conclusion that the group was massacred by natives. In 1928, a missionary, Leonard Livingston Legters, agreed with Dyott's statements (Gn) that Fawcett's small group perished by the hands of indigenous people, but these proclamations did nothing to quell the curiosity. The search for and saga of Fawcett was so popular that it was worked into advertisements (Gn) and book pitches (Gn; preview on Google books), and imposters came forth, claiming to be the missing explorer (Gn). Explorations for Fawcett and crew continued for decades, by technologically savvy explorers (Gn) equipped with radar, the latest kinds of underwater apparatus, bulldozers and cranes, autogyros and flying boats, and Brian Fawcett himself went in search for his father and brother (Gn). Some groups returned empty handed, while others never returned (Gb), disappearing into the same unknown where Fawcett, son, and friend had gone. People have evaluated the clues and elements that lead Fawcett into the unkown, down to the idol that H. Rider Haggard gave to Fawcett (reviewed therein from a modern archaeological view). Percy's younger son, Brian, wrote a book purporting to tell the truth of his father's final ill-fated journey, though others believe that Brian hid and obscured facts, and that Fawcett's true goal was to "set up a colony of spiritually-inclined settlers in Amazonia," of which his son Jack would be the leader.

Whatever it was that Percy Fawcett sought, alongside so many other explorers of the Amazon, modern technology has started to expose. Far from hostile to large settlements, an advanced, even spectacular civilization that managed the forest and enriched infertile soil to feed thousands, based on recent findings, including those of giant avenues, ditches and enclosures that have been spotted from the air (prev., with paywalled link; alternative story source).

If you're looking for more:
* Secrets of the Dead | Lost in the Amazon - PBS documentary, 54 minutes; director's interview/documentary preview (Vimeo, 3:59)
* Colonel Percy Fawcett blog, collecting a wide variety of odd posts and internet ephemera
* The Great Web of Percy Harrison Fawcett, the mother lode of Fawcett trivia, facts, and wild ideas - tread carefully, it's a timesink (previously)

Books and related websites
* Fawcett's Amazon Adventure, with lots of additional information online
* Fawcett's AmaZonia, a play, featuring a lot of original research (download the 140 page script, including a lot of background information -- it's only 552 KB)
* The Lost City of Z, with some information online, but a lot in the book (Google books preview); Walrus Magazine interview with author David Grann, Part I and Part II

* The allure of the Amazon in history and the repeated attempts made to domesticate, colonize, control, or explore it (previously, though the link should now point here)
posted by filthy light thief (6 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

Lost City of Z is thoroughly recommended, BTW.
posted by Artw at 11:11 PM on December 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seconding Lost City of Z. Fantastic book. And, of course, anything else by David Grann.
posted by vidur at 11:35 PM on December 29, 2011

I would have liked to have stumbled across a hitherto unknown city or civilization. I can see its mindbending allure to all the previous generations of explorers and adventurers.
posted by infini at 11:53 PM on December 29, 2011

Holy schnickles, Thief! The word 'epic' is often overused, but man, this post is truly... and verifiably-- EPIC! *slow applause*
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 5:43 AM on December 30, 2011

I liked Lost City of Z, so I read one of Fawcett's books, written by him (Lost trails, Lost Cities ), and found him to be an insufferable racist ahole (like many but not all of his generation) and that was then end of my interest in Fawcett. At least he didn't do a Henry Morton Stanley and help enslave and kill a few million people. Fawcett did have a remarkable constitution. BTW epic post, you should adapt this to Wikipedia, which is in need of references, it will get a lot more views there.
posted by stbalbach at 11:18 AM on December 30, 2011

Amazing Post - Thanks!
posted by Staggering Jack at 4:00 PM on December 30, 2011

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