Monday, 9 July 2012

Book Review - Colonel Fawcett and South American Exploration Special

The lost city of Z : a legendary British explorer's deadly quest to uncover the secrets of the Amazon by David Grann

London : Pocket Books, 2010     ISBN 9781847394439

Exploration Fawcett by P.H. Fawcett, arranged from his manuscripts, letters, log-books, and records by Brian Fawcett.

London : Hutchinson, 1953

You may not have heard of Lieutenant-Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, but you know him - his story forms the basis of so much of the popular culture of explorers that we have today - Indiana Jones, Charles F. Muntz (the explorer in the animated film Up); Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World was said to be based on Fawcett's explorations in the wilds of South America.

So who was the real Fawcett? An English soldier, with service throughout the Empire, he wanted to escape the army life, and a request from the Bolivian government to the Royal Geographical Society for a man to lead an expedition to fix the border (which was in then unexplored country), gave him the excuse he needed to leave the army and start his new life.

Fawcett was a man of his time - he had strong views on the hierarchy of races (he barely mentions the native bearers that died on his expeditions), he was an ascetic, and a hard driver of men - he was frequently disappointed in the calibre of his companions.

Most of his initial expeditions were to survey as yet unfixed points on the map, especially the border areas delimiting Bolivia, Peru and Brazil. In doing so he went places no white man had been before, and soon realised that the indigenous population of South America was once much larger than that which existed in his time - he was an observant chronicler of the outrages committed against the local Indians by the Rubber tappers and other "civilized" people of the area - while at the same time dismissing most Indians as inferior beings to whites.

Then WWI intervened, a hiatus of over five years where Fawcett was in Europe fighting for King and Country. Soon after the war, out of the army for good, he began a process of finding supporters for further ventures into the forests of South America. His early explorations and discoveries led him to believe that the remains of a very ancient and wealthy civilization lay lost somewhere in the wilds of Brazil's great jungles. This lost city (which he called "Z"), became the object of his later ventures - his treasure hoard. He was seeking it not so much for gold and silver, but for the validation it would give him as a "worthy" explorer, and the confirmation of his theories.

IN 1925 he set off on the expedition during which he hoped to find "Z", taking along his eldest son and his son's best friend. They headed into the jungle, and were never seen again.

The mystery surrounding their disappearance has fascinated many - both armchair theorists, and adventurers who have themselves tried to follow in his footsteps to discover Fawcett, the lost city, or both. Many of them too, never returned. The fascination with the story of Fawcett, and the unexplored jungles of South America continue to this day. The fascination has spawned a mini-industry of publishing.

Ironically, the words of the man himself, P.H. Fawcett, were by no means the first to be heard - Exploration Fawcett did not appear until 1953, well after many books about the search for him had been published. Exploration Fawcett is the unfinished work of Percy, a work that he no doubt hoped to complete with the triumphal discovery of "Z". The manuscript has been edited by his younger son Brian, who provides a postscript with some of the rumours of the continued survival of Percy, which Brian tries to treat objectively. Given the nature of the work, the quality varies - the description of his early journeys being the highlight, and his ethnographic musings being fairly crudely thought out.

Brian Fawcett himself wrote a book about a search for his father - Ruins in the sky - where, by means of flying over areas his father was to explore, definitively killed of the theory of a large ruined city...but more of that later on.

Several expeditions to search for Fawcett occurred in the late 20s and early 30s. George Dyott, already an experienced South America hand, went looking for him and produced Man hunting in the jungle. Peter Fleming (brother of James Bond creator Ian), wrote in 1933 what has become the best known of the Fawcett literature, Brazilian Adventure, a rather light-hearted account of what he saw as a half-hearted attempt to find out what had happened to Fawcett and his party, to which Robert Churchwood responded with Wilderness of Fools.....and so on up to the 21st century.

David Grann is a journalist who is the latest to see that the hidden treasure of Fawcett is in fact the story of his life, and The Lost City of Z is the result. This is an engaging read, and runs over the life of Fawcett quite well. In the nature of the current age of "me too", we get accounts of David (who is a middle-aged New Yorker, bald and overweight) re-tracing Fawcett's last steps as best he could, which don't really add anything to the telling, in my view. He makes it to the last Indian village that Fawcett was known to have reached, and breathlessly relates how the Indians saw Fawcett's campfires for five nights after he left them, only for them to stop thereafter - the Indians in no doubt the party had been killed by other tribes known to be hostile. The only issue I have with this is that it doesn't add anything to what we already know, and in fact seems remarkably similar to the account Brian Fawcett writes in his Epilogue to Exploration Fawcett. What would have "added value" to this account would have been a trip to the area of the last known campfire to try and find any remains or clues as to what happened.

Grann does bring something new to the story in his relation of the latest archaeological research being undertaken in the area in which Fawcett disappeared. It seems he is vindicated after all - there were great cities in the jungle, in fact possibly even an empire, with settlements connected by good roads and widespread farming undertaken to feed the populace. Unfortunately for Fawcett, this empire was constructed of wood, and so there were never going to be the huge stone ruins that Fawcett was sure he would find.

If you love a good exploration story, I can highly recommend both Exploration Fawcett and The Lost City of Z, good books to read by the fire and think of far horizons.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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