THE VANISHING OF PERCY FAWCETT
On May 29, 1925, one of the greatest explorers of the early twentieth century, Percy Fawcett, vanished without a trace into the jungles of the Amazon basin in South America. In search of a lost city that was believed to be hidden in the depths of the rain forest, Fawcett, his son, Jack, and a friend left a final written letter – and were never heard from again.
In the first quarter of the twentieth century, before air travel was commonplace, the faraway jungles of the Amazon basin were largely unknown to civilized man. Although much of Brazil had been mapped and explored by that time, the Amazon region and the Matto Grosso lay undisturbed, shrouded in mystery and legend.
And they were strange legends indeed. They were tales of ancient stone towers with lights that never went out and stories of barbaric white Indians with blue eyes and blond hair called the “Bat People,” who lived in caves during the daylight and went out at night and attacked the nearby tribes while they slept. And, of course, the legend of the fabulous lost city that was built in Greco-Roman style, half buried in the sands of centuries, yet glittering like gold in the equatorial sun.
The lost lands of the Matto Grasso haunted writers and explorers for decades. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote one of his famous novels, The Lost World, about an expedition to the unknown lands and adventurers dreamed of venturing into the dark Brazilian jungles.
One such adventurer was Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, who dreamed of the uncharted region for nearly twenty years before he vanished without a trace, lured to his death by visions of riches and a fabulous lost city. The story of Colonel Fawcett is a tale of one of the last great explorers in history and it remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of all time.
Percy Fawcett was no wide-eyed treasure hunter, motivated by greed. He was a cautious, deliberate explorer whose goal was cultural discovery. Exploration and adventure was literally in his blood.
Fawcett was born in 1867 in Torquay, Devon, England, to Edward and Myra Fawcett. His father had been born to colonist parents in India and was a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society, gentleman explorers of the day. Percy’s older brother, Edward, was a mountain climber, Eastern Occultist, and popular writer of adventure novels. In 1886, Percy received a commission in the Royal Artillery and served in Trincomalee, Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka) where he also met his wife. While in Ceylon, he spent much of his free time searching for tombs and hidden treasure. Later, he worked for the British secret service in North Africa and learned the surveyor's craft. He was a friend of authors H. Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, who used Fawcett's Amazonian field reports as an inspiration for The Lost World.
Adventurer Colonel Percy Fawcett
Fawcett's first expedition to South America was in 1906 when he travelled to Brazil to map a jungle area at the border of Brazil and Bolivia at the behest of the Royal Geographic Society. The society had been commissioned to map the area as a third party, unbiased by local or national interests.
During the expedition, an arduous journey that dragged on for three years, Fawcett claimed to have seen a giant anaconda, for which he was widely ridiculed by the scientific community. It would be a number of years later that science would finally concede that such animals did exist.
Fawcett made seven expeditions between 1906 and 1924. He mostly got along with the locals through gifts, patience and courteous behavior. During these years, he became fascinated by the mysterious secrets of the Brazilian interior, especially the seemingly endless and unknown jungle plateau known as the Matto Grosso. Somewhere in that forbidding jungle, he believed, was a great and ancient city whose artifacts and treasure would prove it to be the true cradle of civilization, pre-dating the cities of Egypt by thousands of years.
Fawcett was convinced the city existed and he referred to it as “Z,” thanks to a rare document that he unearthed in 1901 in Rio de Janeiro. The incredible lost city, which purportedly rested on the side of a cliff, was discovered by a Portuguese expedition that went into the Matto Grosso in 1743. The expedition had been in search of the gold, silver and diamond mines of adventurer Melchior Dias-Moreya, a half-Indian, half-Portuguese soldier of fortune who was known to the natives as “Moribeca.” He had allegedly discovered the mines in 1610. Moribeca was imprisoned when he would not reveal the location of the mines and he died in 1622, his secret intact. The Portuguese expedition of 1743 in search of the fabulous mines went off course and ended up wandering through the Matto Grosso. By accident, they stumbled into a steep crevice and then climbed through an artificial breach in the cliff wall, following ancient paved steps.
Once they entered the passageway, the explorers walked into a giant city in ruins – wide streets, huge temples, and elaborate courtyards surrounded by massive buildings. Mysterious inscriptions, which were copied down by the amazed adventurers and that remain undeciphered to this day, decorated the temples, walls and buildings. In addition to a wealth of archaeological treasure, a nearby river was said to actually glitter with massive gold deposits.
The Portuguese were stunned and overwhelmed by their accidental discovery, but lack of food and depleted supplies forced them to abandon the city and search for a way to get home. Only three members of the expedition survived and stumbled, lost and bedraggled, to the coastal state of Bahia, where they told their weird tale in 1754. The eleven-year journey was soon forgotten, except for a detailed report that was filed away in the Biblioteca Nacional in Rio. Colonel Fawcett found the report there and became determined to find the city himself.
The Great War interrupted Fawcett’s plans and he returned to Britain for active service in the Army. After the war ended, he returned to Brazil and launched his first expedition to look for the “Lost City of Z” in 1920. The exploration ended when one of the colonel’s companions suffered a nervous collapse. Fawcett had to all but drag his men back to civilization, complaining that the explorer of the modern day was soft in comparison to the Portuguese adventurers who had none of the luxuries of the 1920s. It was Fawcett’s habit to travel fast and with little equipment, living off the land and getting assistance from what friendly natives could be found. Unfortunately, the native population of central Brazil was sparse. The Indians that did live in the Matto Grosso were hostile and superstitious and were more apt to kill intruders than to accept their gifts and trinkets.
Colonel Fawcett on one of his expeditions into the jungle.
Fawcett refused to give up his dream of finding the lost city and, in 1924, submitted a new plan to the Royal Geographical Society. On this new expedition, he would be accompanied by his son, Jack, and another young Englishman, Raleigh Rimmel. The expedition would leave civilization at Cuyaba and travel north to the Paranatinga, moving downriver by canoe and then moving east on foot, crossing the Xingu River, then the Araguaya River, making for Port Imperial on the Tocantins and then emerging from the Matto Grosso at Barra de Rio Grande on the Sao Francisco.
The three men would travel light, which most explorers thought was a terrible mistake. Fawcett was mad, they said, to enter the area without heavy supplies; one earlier expedition had entered the Matto Grosso with fourteen hundred men, a large amount of food and equipment and all but three of the men had starved to death. Fawcett explained to the society, which would fund the exploration, that “no expedition could carry food for more than three weeks, for animal transport is impossible owing to lack of pasture and blood-sucking bats.” Porters were out of the question because most of the tribes hated and feared their neighbors and would rarely accompany anyone beyond the limits of their own territory. Food was also a problem for a large group. Wild game was not plentiful and while there was enough to feed a small party, a larger one would starve.
Some members of the society questioned the reason for the expedition. Fawcett could not be sure of the exact location of “Z,” or if he knew, he wasn’t telling anyone. They also knew that Fawcett faced unknown jungle trails, vicious attacks by swarms of lethal insects, snakes and other dangerous animals, jungle sicknesses, the fear of falling asleep in the wrong spot where swarms of vampire bats might attack – and worse. Fawcett was, as usual, undaunted and only looked at the positive side of the near-impossible journey, “Science will, I hope, be greatly benefitted, geography can scarcely fail to gain a good deal, and I am confident that we shall find the key to much lost history.”
Colonel Fawcett speaking with one of the expedition’s guides shortly before he disappeared.
The three explorers walked into the wilderness at Cuyaba on April 20, 1925. By May 29, they reached the point where Fawcett had turned back in 1920 – Dead Horse Camp, now called Camp Fawcett. It was from this point, at the dark edge of the Matto Grosso, that Colonel Fawcett’s last words were recorded:
Here we are at Dead Horse Camp, the spot where my horse died in 1920. Only his white bones remain. My calculations anticipate contact with the Indians in about a week or ten days, when we should be able to reach the waterfall so much talked about… our journey has been no bed of roses. We have cut our way through miles of cerraba, a forest of dry scrub; we have crossed innumerable small streams by swimming and fording; we have climbed rocky hills of forbidding aspect; we have been eaten by bugs… Our two guides go back from here. They are more and more nervous as we push further into Indian country… We shall not get into interesting country for another two weeks. I shall continue to prepare dispatches from time to time, in hopes of being able to get them out eventually through some friendly tribe of Indians. But I doubt if this will be possible.
Fawcett, his son, Jack, and their friend, Raleigh Rimmel, entered the jungle and were never heard from again. The Royal Geographical Society held out hope for two years, the length of time that it was estimated it would take for Fawcett’s party to reach “Z,” but by 1927, things were looking grim. Even the most stalwart believers, with the exception of Fawcett’s wife, who never gave up hope of seeing her husband and son again, were resigned to the fact that they would never return.
Dr. Hogarth of the Royal Geographical Society released a public statement: “We hold ourselves in readiness to help any competent and well-accredited volunteer party, which may propose to proceed on a reasonable plan to the interior of Brazil in order to try for news of Colonel P.H. Fawcett… I am forecasting a mission of inquiry alone, not one of relief. The latter is out of the question, as Colonel Fawcett himself stated emphatically, when he proposed to go where none but he could hope to penetrate and pass.”
Hogath’s announcement was interpreted as an appeal for a search party and thousands of adventurers, from experts to crackpots, immediately volunteered to cut their way through the jungle in search of Fawcett and his companions. The Brazilian government believed that the Fawcett party, exhausted and starving, was killed by one of the various tribes that lived along the Xingu River.
But reports from the Brazilian jungle claimed that Fawcett still lived. A Sergeant Roger Couturon, retired from the French Army, reported in the pages of a Rio newspaper in November 1927 that he had been hunting alligators near Cuyaba and had met a white man in the jungle. Couturon said, “He was a man of fifty to sixty years old with luxuriant grayish hair and a pepper and salt beard. He was wearing khaki shorts, like those worn by scouts with a wide-brimmed hat.” Couturon approached the man and saw that his bare legs were covered with mosquito bites, although the old man seemed not to care. He was standing silently, watching as the insects continued to devour his legs. He assumed the old man was a foreigner and addressed him in English.
“I say, man, the mosquitoes seem to be taking care of you,” the Frenchman said.
The old man looked up at him. His face showed obvious signs of fatigue and the general weakness brought on by fever. But his eyes were straight and forceful and Couturon got the impression that the man had been a soldier. Finally, he replied, “Those poor animals are hungry, too.”
Couturon went on his way that day, but he told several stories about the old man, whom he believed to be Fawcett. He said the explorer was living in a luxurious ranch in Brazil’s interior and that he had given up on the civilized world and had become a jungle recluse. He also claimed that he had gone mad in the jungle and that some Indians that found him had made a white god of him. In Peru, some months later, the inventive Couturon insisted that he had met Jack Fawcett, who was living a life of ease and begged him not to inform the British government. Since the Fawcett party had been declared dead, Couturon said, Mrs. Fawcett was receiving a handsome pension and Jack didn’t want her to lose this. (Mrs. Fawcett never received a pension) Such fanciful reports further confused the Fawcett disappearance.
The first official expedition in search of Colonel Fawcett was led by Commander George Dyott, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He led a party into the Matto Grosso in May 1928. Dyott’s party was large and well-equipped and carefully followed Fawcett’s three-year-old trail from Dead Horse Camp down the Rio Kuliseu. Along the river, Dyott questioned the chief of the Anauqua Indians, who told him that Fawcett had reached the dangerous Kuluene River sometime in 1925. Both Jack Fawcett and Rimmel were physical wrecks by that time and almost unable to speak. Fawcett, obsessed with finding the lost city, practically carried the younger men across the river and into the unknown jungles to the east. For five days, the Anauqua and Kalapolo Indians, who inhabited both sides of the river, watched the camp fires of the white men. On the sixth day, Fawcett’s fires went out and the Anauqua believed that they had been murdered by a fierce inland tribe called the Suya. A short time later, Dyott spoke with a chief of the Kalapolo, who told him that the Anauqua were lying and that they had killed Fawcett and his companions.
Dyott never found the Fawcett party’s remains and after spending more time with the Anauqua, he became suspicious of them and his expedition slipped away under the cover of darkness, abandoning much of their equipment. Upon his return to civilization, he announced that Fawcett was, in all probability, dead.
But was he really? Not everyone believed this to be the case.
In 1931, a Swiss trapper named Stephen Rattin was in the Matto Grosso and reported seeing a “tall man, advanced in years, with blue eyes and a long beard” living with an unknown tribe north-northwest of Cuyaba, along the Iguassu Ximary, a tributary of the Sao Manuel River. Rattin spoke with the white man, who was dressed in animal skins, in English while the Indians occupied themselves with getting drunk. The man did not identify himself as Colonel Fawcett but explained that he was a captive and had formerly held the rank of colonel in the British Army. He asked that Rattin contact Major T.B. Paget, a friend of his who lived in Sao Paolo, and inform him that he was alive but his son was “asleep.” Paget had been the man who had helped to fund Fawcett’s last expedition. Before being taken away by the Indians, the white man showed Rattin a signet ring that Mrs. Fawcett later identified as belonging to her husband.
When he returned to civilization, Rattin, whose story sounded authentic to many, mounted his own expedition to search for the captive man when he was told that it may have been Colonel Fawcett. The expedition, however, ended in failure.
Other expeditions followed, including one led by Vincenzo Petrullo, who, like Dyott, believed that Fawcett’s party had been murdered. In 1932, another expedition was led by Robert Churchward. Peter Fleming, a member of the Churchward party (which was actually more of a hunting trip than a search party), later wrote about the expedition, which reached the conclusion that Fawcett’s party, near death from fatigue and starvation, was murdered by the Kalapolo Indians as an act of mercy. Fleming added, however, “there still remains an infinitesimal, a million to one, chance that Fawcett is still alive. If he is, we must assume that he is in some way mentally deranged.”
Throughout the 1930s, Fawcett legends multiplied. He was reportedly seen all over the Matto Grosso and it seemed that almost every adventurer who traveled north of Cuyaba returned with a story about having seen Fawcett alive. No less than fifty depositions were recorded by a Cuyaba notary public, all attesting to Fawcett’s whereabouts. Many of the stories were contradictory: one gold miner saw three skeletons in a cave and believed they were the Fawcett party. A trapper said that he had run across the colonel alive and urged him to return to civilization but he had refused to face public admission of his failure to find the lost city. One man saw him on the Tocantins River married to four native women and worshipped as a god. Another swore that he had seen his dried and shrunken head hanging from a string in an Indian’s hut.
In 1934, an American newspaper reporter, Albert de Winton, went to find Fawcett and he too disappeared in the Matto Grosso. In 1937, a missionary, Martha L. Moennich, came out of the Brazilian interior with a story about a half-breed “white” Indian boy called Dulipe. Found in 1926 at an Indian village by Reverend Emilio Halverson, Dulipe was believed to be the son of jack Fawcett and a local Indian woman. Moennich had seen Dulipe in 1926 and again in 1937. The Fawcett family refused to accept this story. If Dulipe had a white father, they said, it was not Jack Fawcett.
In 1943, a Brazilian newspaper organized a research expedition that was headed by a reporter named Edmar Morel. It concluded that the explorers had been killed by Indians.
Orlando Villas Bôas with the bones he said were those of Colonel Percy Fawcett
In April 1951, Orlando Vilas-Bôas of the Central Brazil Foundation said that he had discovered the bleached bones of Colonel Fawcett after traveling into Kalapolo country. The bones were sent to England, where they were tested and it was discovered that they did not belong to Fawcett. The teeth, as well as the dead man’s stature, were not correct. Even as late as 1955, Edward Weyer, Jr., a writer and adventurer, claimed that he met an aged white man in the Matto Grosso who might have been Fawcett.
In January 1952, the last formal expedition was launched in search of clues of the fate of the Fawcett party. Members of the expedition included Orlando Vilas-Bôas and Brian Fawcett, the colonel’s youngest son. They talked to many Indians and visited a site that was purported to be the Fawcett party’s grave – but Brian was not convinced that it belonged to his father and brother.
Strange stories still come from Brazil about this famous missing explorer, but Colonel Percy Fawcett’s disappearance still remains a mystery. We will never know what really happened to him, but one can dream that this real-life “Indiana Jones” really did find the lost city of his quest. Perhaps he remained there, never to return to civilization. The mystery will never be solved and Colonel Fawcett remains as lost today in the wilds of the Matto Grosso as the legendary city that he so diligently sought.