The Lost City of Z by David Grann
By the time he disappeared, in 1925, Percy Fawcett was likly the best-known explorer on the planet – and his name’s been kept alive by authors such as David Grann, whose new book –The Lost City of Z has been a surprise bestseller in America –and a movie in theaters. Grann’s book tackles not only the British artillery colonel’s final journey, but also his obsession with finding traces of civilization deep in the Brazilian interior: El Dorado; a settlement Fawcett named, for obscure reasons, The Lost City of Z.
Reader, don’t grow faint or fear we’ve lost our way. Stay with our party, and you’ll find some surprise twists this week, including some authors and characters from our past.
Let’s go along with reporter David Grann as he enters the Amazon and tries to solve the mystery of what happened to the lost explorer, Percy Fawcett.
Lieutenant Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett DSO (18 August 1867 – 1925?) was a British geographer, artillery officer, cartographer, archaeologist and explorer of South America. Along with his eldest son, Fawcett disappeared in 1925 during an expedition to find “Z” – Fawcett’s name for an ancient lost city, which he and others believed to exist and to be the remains of El Dorado, in the jungles of Brazil.
Here is an except from Grann’s book, Chapter One, “We Shall Return”:
WE SHALL RETURN
On a cold January day in 1925, a tall, distinguished gentleman hurried across the docks in Hoboken, New Jersey, toward the S.S. Vauban, a five-hundred-and-eleven-foot ocean liner bound for Rio de Janeiro. He was fifty-seven years old, and stood over six feet, his long arms corded with muscles.
Although his hair was thinning and his mustache was flecked with white, he was so fit that he could walk for days with little, if any, rest or nourishment. His nose was crooked like a boxer’s, and there was something ferocious about his appearance, especially his eyes. They were set close together and peered out from under thick tufts of hair. No one, not even his family, seemed to agree on their color-some thought they were blue, others gray. Yet virtually everyone who encountered him was struck by their intensity: some called them “the eyes of a visionary.” He had frequently been photographed in riding boots and wearing a Stetson, with a rifle slung over his shoulder, but even in a suit and a tie, and without his customary wild beard, he could be recognized by the crowds on the pier. He was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, and his name was known throughout the world.
He was the last of the great Victorian explorers who ventured into uncharted realms with little more than a machete, a compass, and an almost divine sense of purpose. For nearly two decades, stories of his adventures had captivated the public’s imagination: how he had survived in the South American wilderness without contact with the outside world; how he was ambushed by hostile tribesmen, many of whom had never before seen a white man; how he battled piranha, electric eels, jaguars, crocodiles, vampire bats, and anacondas, including one that almost crushed him; and how he emerged with maps of regions from which no previous expedition had returned. He was renowned as the “David Livingstone of the Amazon,” and was believed to have such unrivaled powers of endurance that a few colleagues even claimed he was immune to death. An American explorer described him as “a man of indomitable will, infinite resource, fearless”; another said that he could “outwalk and outhike and outexplore anybody else.” The London Geographical Journal, the pre-eminent 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.”
In 1916, the Royal Geographical Society had awarded him, with the blessing of King George V, a gold medal “for his contributions to the mapping of South America.” And every few years, when he emerged from the jungle, spidery thin and bedraggled, dozens of scientists and luminaries would pack into the Society’s hall to hear him speak. Among them was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was said to have drawn on Fawcett’s experiences for his 1912 book The Lost World, in which explorers “disappear into the unknown” of South America and find, on a remote plateau, a land where dinosaurs have escaped extinction.
As Fawcett made his way to the gangplank that day in January, he eerily resembled one of the book’s protagonists, Lord John Roxton:
Something there was of Napoleon III, something of Don Quixote, and yet again something which was the essence of the English country gentleman._._._._He has a gentle voice and a quiet manner, but behind his twinkling blue eyes there lurks a capacity for furious wrath and implacable resolution, the more dangerous because they are held in leash.
None of Fawcett’s previous expeditions compared with what he was about to do, and he could barely conceal his impatience, as he fell into line with the other passengers boarding the S.S. Vauban. The ship, advertised as “the finest in the world,” was part of the Lamport & Holt elite “V” class. The Germans had sunk several of the company’s ocean liners during the First World War, but this one had survived, with its black, salt-streaked hull and elegant white decks and striped funnel billowing smoke into the sky. Model T Fords shepherded passengers to the dock, where longshoremen helped cart luggage into the ship’s hold. Many of the male passengers wore silk ties and bowler hats; women had on fur coats and feathered caps, as if they were attending a society event, which, in some ways, they were-the passenger lists of luxury ocean liners were chronicled in gossip columns and scoured by young girls searching for eligible bachelors.
Fawcett pushed forward with his gear. His trunks were loaded with guns, canned food, powdered milk, flares, and handcrafted machetes. He also carried a kit of surveying instruments: a sextant and a chronometer for determining latitude and longitude, an aneroid for measuring atmospheric pressure, and a glycerin compass that could fit in his pocket. Fawcett had chosen each item based on years of experience; even the clothes he had packed were made of lightweight, tear-proof gabardine. He had seen men die from the most innocuous seeming oversight-a torn net, a boot that was too tight.
Fawcett was setting out into the Amazon, a wilderness nearly the size of the continental United States, to make what he called “the great discovery of the century”-a lost civilization. By then, most of the world had been explored, its veil of enchantment lifted, but the Amazon remained as mysterious as the dark side of the moon. As Sir John Scott Keltie, the former secretary of the Royal Geographical Society and one of the world’s most acclaimed geographers at the time, noted, “What is there no one knows.”
Ever since Francisco de Orellana and his army of Spanish conquistadores descended the Amazon River, in 1542, perhaps no place on the planet had so ignited the imagination-or lured men to their death. Gaspar de Carvajal, a Dominican friar who accompanied Orellana, described woman warriors in the jungle who resembled the mythical Greek Amazons. Half a century later, Sir Walter Raleigh spoke of Indians with “their eyes in their shoulders, and their mouths in the middle of their breasts”-a legend that Shakespeare wove into Othello:
Of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The Anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.
What was true about the region-serpents as long as trees, rodents the size of pigs-was sufficiently beyond belief that no embellishment seemed too fanciful. And the most entrancing vision of all was of El Dorado. Raleigh claimed that the kingdom, which the conquistadores had heard about from Indians, was so plentiful in gold that its inhabitants ground the metal into powder and blew it “thorow hollow canes upon their naked bodies untill they be al shining from the foote to the head.”¹
Fawcett’s fate may never be discovered, but in recent years, evidence has shown that his theory about a sophisticated jungle city was not invented. As Grann points out in his book “The Lost City of Z,” many archeologists now believe the Amazon was home to sophisticated settlements in the centuries before the arrival of Europeans. Excavations have revealed the ruins of garden cities with earthen defensive walls, complex road networks and space for thousands of inhabitants. Some of these sites are deep in the modern day state of Mato Grosso—the very region where Percy Fawcett hoped to find his mythical city of Z.
Fawcett’s Last Letter (primary source):
Colonel Fawcett’s final written words, dated 29th May 1925, were to his wife Nina Fawcett:
“My dear Nina,
The attempt to write is fraught with much difficulty, thanks to the legions of flies that pester one from dawn till dusk – and sometimes all through the night! The worst are the tiny ones that are smaller than a pinhead, almost invisible, but sting like a mosquito. Clouds of them are always present. Millions of bees add to the plague, and other bugs galore, stinging horrors that get all over ones hands. Even the head nets won’t keep them out, and as for mosquito nets, the pests fly through them! It is quite maddening.
We hope to get through this region in a few days, and are camped here for a while to arrange for the return of the peons, who are anxious to get back, having had enough of it – and I don’t blame them. We go on with eight animals – three saddle mules, four cargo mules, and a madrinha, a leading animal which keeps the others together. Jack is well and fit and getting stronger every day, even though he suffers a bit from insects.
I myself am bitten or stung by ticks, and these piums, as they call the tiny ones, all over the body. It is Raleigh I am anxious about. He still has one leg in a bandage but won’t go back. So far we have plenty of food and no need to walk, but I am not sure how long this will last. There may be little for the animals to eat as we head further in. I cannot hope to stand up on this journey better than Jack or Raleigh – my extra years tell, though I do my best to make up for it with enthusiasm – but I had to do this.
I calculate that I shall contact the Indians in about a week, perhaps ten days, when we should be able to reach the much talked-about waterfall.
Here we are at Dead Horse Camp, Lat. 110 43’ S and 540 35’ W, the spot where my horse died in 1920. Only his white bones remain. We can bathe ourselves here, but the insects make it a matter of great haste. Nevertheless, the season is good. It is very cold at night and fresh in the morning, but the insects and heat are out in full force come mid-day, and from then until evening it is sheer misery in camp.
You need have no fear of any failure ….”
Did you know . . .Literary Connections and Legacy
Fawcett was friend to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as well as H. Rider Haggard.
‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his Professor Challenger character partly on Percy Fawcett, and stories of the “Lost City of Z” became material for his novel The Lost World?
Just as Sherlock Holmes was loosely based on Dr. Bell, one of his professors at the Medical School of the University of Edinburgh, Professor Challenger was inspired by real individuals. One of them was a professor of physiology named William Rutherford, who had lectured at the University of Edinburgh while Conan Doyle studied medicine there. The other, was the explorer Percy Fawcett.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Percy Fawcett were good friends and Fawcett told stories about his incredible exploits in the Amazon Jungle. Conan Doyle used lots of them in his novels. The most significant of is the description of the famous “Table Top Mountain” in The Lost World.’
Lost Cities as Genre
“The Lost City” and “The Lost World” are sub-genre categories of science fiction and fantasy literature?
From the tombs of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings and the semi-mythical stronghold of Troy to the jungle-shrouded pyramids of the Maya, “Lost Cities” have captured the imaginations of the Victorian and Edwardian ethos and continue to capture our imaginations today. Check out this Wiki piece which discusses Doyle, H. Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines) and many others. Clearly, Steven Spielberg and other creators owe a great debt to actual explorers such as Fawcett.
Want more? Here’s an entire PBS episode about the Fawcett expedition!
An episode from PBS’s “Secrets of the Dead” about Fawcett
A bit about David Grann . . .
David Grann is a #1 New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning staff writer at The New Yorker magazine.
Grann’s other book, The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, contains many of his New Yorker stories, and was named by Men’s Journal one of the best true crime books ever written. The stories in the collection focus on everything from the mysterious death of the world’s greatest Sherlock Holmes expert to a Polish writer who might have left clues to a real murder in his postmodern novel. Another piece, “Trial by Fire,” exposed how junk science led to the execution of a likely innocent man in Texas.
His latest book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, will be released in April. Based on years of research, it explores one of the most sinister crimes and racial injustices in American history.
About El Dorado: “The Gilded Man”
Based on documentary research, Fawcett had by 1914 formulated ideas about a “lost city” he named “Z” somewhere in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He theorized that a complex civilization once existed in the Amazon region and that isolated ruins may have survived. Did he believe that this was El Dorado? Or that El Dorado was nearby?
The conquistadores were convinced that El Dorado, which they had heard about from the Indians, was so plentiful in gold that the inhabitants ground the metal into dust and blew it through hollow canes about their bodies. “El Dorado” means “The Gilded Man.”
Yet El Dorado, at least in the Western imagination, has always seemed to represent something more than a golden kingdom—it is a lost world, even a paradise. Many have died seeking such a place, but that, at least in its more mystical incarnation, such a place will always lie beyond the horizon.
By Edgar Allan Poe
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
But he grew old—
This knight so bold—
And o’er his heart a shadow—
Fell as he found
No spot of ground
That looked like Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
‘Shadow,’ said he,
‘Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?’
‘Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,’
The shade replied,—
‘If you seek for Eldorado!’
- bedight: arrayed; dressed
- spot: perhaps a gold nugget, gem, or another sign of Eldorado
- pilgrim shadow: shadow of a traveler. Thus, the pilgrim shadow may be the knight’s own inner self (ambition, motivation) in the form of an apparition driving him on in spite of his weariness. One may also interpret it as death overtaking the knight.
- Valley . . . Shadow: These words echo the phrase valley of the shadow of death in Chapter 23:1 of the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament of the Bible.
- shade: reference to the pilgrim shadow. Shade is another word for apparition or ghost. But unlike ghost, wraith, phantom, spirit, or another word for apparition, shade maintains the ‘sh’ sound of shadow, thus keeping up the rhythm and musicality of the poem.
“The Man Who Liked Dickens” by Evelyn Waugh
“The Man Who Liked Dickens” by Evelyn Waugh is a fascinating piece which eventually became a chapter in Waugh’s novel, A Handful of Dust.
The protagonist, Mr. Henty, is a contented but shallow English country squire.
Yet the Camelot of old British landed aristocracy has faded away from society. Country estates are now something which must be kept up or rented to vacationers to produce income. Mr. Henty, who has seen his illusions of genteel country manor life shattered one by one, joins an expedition to the Brazilian jungle.
Unfortunately, sometimes there is no city of gold in the jungle, dear Wonderlings. Sometimes what we find is far stranger . . .
Here is “The Man Who Liked Dickens” the short story which Waugh eventually included as a chapter in his novel. Enjoy!
A bit about Evelyn Waugh . . .
Waugh incorporated several autobiographical elements into the plot, including his own recent desertion by his wife. In 1933–34 he travelled into the South American interior, and a number of incidents from the voyage are incorporated into the novel.
For more on lost worlds and cities . . .
Several of these lost cities/ruins have been virtually destroyed in recent years due to war, bombings and terrorism . . .Petra, Palmyra; the list goes on. But the fragments are beautiful:
¹ The Lost City of Z-A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, By David Grann, Penguin Random House, 2010. From the Penguin Random House website “free” excerpt.