Percy Fawcett and the search for the ‘Lost City Of Z’

When a gentleman explorer set off to find El Dorado under the media spotlight, he wasn't to know that his expedition would conclude with a very unexpected headline, writes Pat Kinsella

Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett

In April 1925, veteran English explorer Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett hacked his way into the near-impenetrable jungle of Mato Grosso, deep in the sweaty unmapped mess of the Amazon, accompanied by his son Jack and young Raleigh Rimmell. Armed with custom-made machetes, rifles and a ukulele, the intrepid trio hoped to discover a long-lost city that Fawcett was convinced lay deep in the wilderness, beyond the Brazilian Pale: an Atlantis of the jungle, the shell of an ancient and highly developed civilization.

It was Fawcett’s eighth foray into the ferociously fecund forest. His 58-year-old body had thus far withstood everything the Amazon had thrown at him, including encounters with anacondas, vampire bats and piranhas, infestation by flesh-eating maggots, relentless clouds of blood-sucking mosquitoes, poison-arrow attacks by tribespeople and weeks-long periods of near-starvation. But this was his last chance. And he knew it.

In April 1925, veteran English explorer Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett hacked his way into the near-impenetrable jungle of Mato Grosso, deep in the sweaty unmapped mess of the Amazon, accompanied by his son Jack and young Raleigh Rimmell. Armed with custom-made machetes, rifles and a ukulele, the intrepid trio hoped to discover a long-lost city that Fawcett was convinced lay deep in the wilderness, beyond the Brazilian Pale: an Atlantis of the jungle, the shell of an ancient and highly developed civilization.

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It was Fawcett’s eighth foray into the ferociously fecund forest. His 58-year-old body had thus far withstood everything the Amazon had thrown at him, including encounters with anacondas, vampire bats and piranhas, infestation by flesh-eating maggots, relentless clouds of blood-sucking mosquitoes, poison-arrow attacks by tribespeople and weeks-long periods of near-starvation. But this was his last chance. And he knew it.

The difficulties are great and the tale of disasters a long one, for the few remaining unknown corners of the world exact a price for their secrets
Percy Fawcett

One last time he would follow the jealously guarded handful of hints, hunches and half-clues he’d amassed during a colourful career, to risk life and loved ones on a quixotic quest for the elusive citadel he referred to only as ‘Z’.

Who were the main players?

PERCY HARRISON FAWCETT

Fawcett was a polarising character, either revered or reviled by those who followed him into hell, both in the Amazon and in Flanders. A recipient of the RGS Founders Medal, Fawcett is often called Colonel, but his correct rank was actually Lieutenant Colonel.

JACK FAWCETT

The eldest son of Fawcett and his long-suffering wife Nina, Jack was cut from the same cloth as his father, taking a very serious approach to the business of discovery, forgoing meat and alcohol and maintaining good physical fitness. He’d just turned 22 when they disappeared.

RALEIGH RIMMELL

Son of a doctor in the sleepy seaside town of Seaton, Devon, Rimmell was more flamboyant and emotional than his best friend Jack. He almost bailed from the expedition before it started, after falling madly in love with a girl aboard the boat taking them from New York to Rio.

NINA FAWCETT

Percy’s wife remained a staunch defender of his expeditions (and later his reputation), despite various forced moves around England and the US and extended periods on the brink of destitution. She remained convinced her husband and son were alive for many years after their disappearance.

A ‘classic gentleman explorer’

Schooled as a classic gentleman explorer by the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London, former military man Fawcett briefly worked as a spy in Morocco before accepting his first Amazon assignment in 1906: to survey the vague and violent border between Bolivia and Brazil. Despite atrocious conditions and ever-present mortal danger, he completed his mission in a year (half the expected time).

During the following two decades he survived six equally horror-ridden expeditions into the Amazon – tracing the Rio Verde to its source, exploring the Peruvian borderland and making contact with numerous tribes – and three years active service on the Western Front during the worst of World War I.

Aerial view of the Amazon
Fawcett survived six expeditions into the Amazon, tracing the Rio Verde to its source, exploring the Peruvian borderland and making contact with numerous tribes. (Image by Getty Images)

While his expedition partners – who variously included experienced outdoorsmen such as polar explorer James Murray, and tough guys like towering Australian boxer Lewis Brown – withered in the woeful conditions, Fawcett powered on, seemingly immune to the myriad ailments that beset the body in the Amazon.

The dogs and pack animals he took with him invariably died, as did several of his human colleagues, but he never sugarcoated the dangers. Party members who couldn’t keep pace would be abandoned, he explained, before the rest of the expedition was put at risk.

Although often accused of lacking empathy for companions, Fawcett demonstrated a level of compassion, understanding and respect for the Amazon’s indigenous peoples that was well ahead of his time. He attempted to learn local languages and risked his life numerous times to avoid bloodshed.

If with all my experience we can't make it, there's not much hope for others
Percy Fawcett to his son Brian before departing

After his initial achievements as an extreme surveyor, Fawcett’s post-war, anthropologically orientated expeditions were less successful, and by the time he returned from an ill-advised solo attempt to find Z in 1921, he was bankrupt, struggling even to pay the £3 RGS annual membership fee.

His endeavours hadn’t earned him money, but they had won the respect of fellow explorers and those who live vicariously through them. Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired to write The Lost World after reading Fawcett’s field notes detailing his Amazonian exploits, and adventure writer H Rider Haggard was a personal friend.

Colonel T E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) even asked to join his next expedition. Wary of what Lawrence would cost, however, doubtful about the desert man’s adaptability to jungle exploration, and possibly concerned that the celebrity of such a companion would eclipse his own role in any discoveries made, Fawcett preferred the thought of taking his eldest son on a mission that would make a man of him.

Jack jumped at the chance to accompany his father on one of the adventures he’d heard so much about, so long as his best mate Raleigh Rimmell came too. Here were two strapping lads, “both strong as horses and keen as mustard” as Fawcett enthused, whose services were essentially free – their only fee a share of the spoils should they actually discover a city of gold at the end of the rainforest. But, even with such budget-friendly companions, the expedition needed backers, and the RGS was reluctant to splash the cash.

Savvy media man George Lynch came to the rescue, garnering sponsorship through an American press consortium by promising updates would be provided to their papers (including the New York World and Los Angeles Times) via a system of ‘Indian’ runners relaying reports from the explorers as they advanced through the jungle.

People were used to farewelling major expeditions and then hearing nothing for years, but this quest would be broadcast to the world in near-live fashion, and it generated much excitement. Fawcett’s eccentricity and colourful history, combined with his young companions’ Hollywood looks, made them perfect reality media stars, and the public was seduced by this modern search for El Dorado.

The Lost City of Z: in numbers

100 Estimated number of people who died looking for Fawcett after his disappearance.

20,000 The number of applicants to a newspaper ad seeking volunteers to join a rescue expedition into the jungle to look for Fawcett

Cities of gold

Explorers and treasure hunters had been searching South America for El Dorado for centuries. From their earliest rapacious advances into the New World, Iberian conquistadors had removed hoards of gold from Mexico and the southern continent, but their thirst was insatiable and they continued to salivate over a mythical metropolis so rich the king was ritually covered in suits of powdered gold (El Dorado means ‘gilded man’).

Later, bandeirantes (Portuguese-Brazilian fortune hunters) continued the search, followed by modern explorers of Fawcett’s ilk – the real-life inspiration for popular fictional figures including Indiana Jones. And not all of these escapades were fruitless. In 1911, American academic and explorer Hiram Bingham captured the world’s attention with his sensational rediscovery (aided by locals) of the lost Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, high in the Peruvian Andes. There was no gold, but it was an archeological treasure trove that electrified interest in the region’s people and past.

Fawcett’s theories about an ancient settlement hidden in the Brazilian Amazon formed over years, as he chanced upon unexplainable pottery shards in the darkest depths of the jungle and gained an appreciation of the complexity and size of the indigenous cultures he encountered.

While scouring forgotten documents in the recesses of Rio de Janeiro’s National Library, he discovered a manuscript written by a bandeirante – possibly João da Silva Guimarães – describing the ruins of a once-great city, which the author had found in 1753. This tattered piece of paper stoked his lethal obsession and ultimately sealed his fate.

Percy Fawcett’s search: a timeline

Fawcett believed other Amazonian citadel seekers were looking in the wrong places – too close to major rivers – and instead planned to explore inland between the Xingu and Tapajós tributaries, where he was convinced Z lay. Many tribes that had tasted contact with the so-called civilised world were profoundly opposed to repeating the experience – having suffered slavery, torture, murder, rape, abuse and exploitation at the hands of the rubber barons who controlled the ‘black gold’ trade – and often met white intruders with lethal violence.

1 DECEMBER 1924 England – Rio de Janeiro

Percy and Jack Fawcett leave from Liverpool on 3 December, bound for New York aboard the Aquitania. Raleigh Rimmell is in America already, as is Fawcett’s business partner, Lynch, who is busy boozing through the expedition kitty. After a brief NYC stop they continue together (minus Lynch) to Rio de Janeiro.

2 FEBRUARY 1925 Rio de Janeiro – Corumbá

Travelling by train, the Fawcetts and Rimmell leave Rio on 11 February. They first visit São Paulo for anti-venom supplies, before going west, into the enormous country’s interior towards the Paraguay River, skirting along the Brazil-Bolivia border and arriving in Corumbá a week later.

4 APRIL 1925 Cuiabá – Rio Novo

Having waited out the end of the wet season, the expedition begins in earnest on 20 April, with the party trekking across the hot cerrado. After an incident in which Fawcett senior becomes separated from the party while looking for rock art, he allows a pit stop at a remote Rio Novo ranch, home to Hermenegildo Galvão.

5 MAY 1925, Bakairi Post

After a tough month of travel through rough terrain, the party reaches the very last outpost on the edge of the virgin Amazon jungle, a tiny government garrison.

6 29 MAY Dead Horse Camp

Setting off from Bakairi Post on 20 May, it takes the party nine days to reach the spot where Fawcett was forced to turn around on a previous expedition. The bleached bare bones of his old horse still mark the spot. From here, the native guides return to Cuiabá with written dispatches for publication and letters for the explorers’ families, while Percy and Jack Fawcett and Raleigh Rimmell press on, into the hostile territories of the Kayapo, Suyá and Xavante people. They are never seen again.

Off the chart

Sailing from England to America with Jack in late 1924, Fawcett exuded confidence, yet inwardly he was wracked by paranoia. What if his rivals beat him to Z? The rich American explorer Dr Alexander Hamilton Rice, with a light aircraft at his disposal, and the native Brazilian Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, who worked for government and had guided Theodore Roosevelt along the Amazonian River of Doubt, both had ambitions in the area. To muddy his tracks and conceal clues, the cagey colonel concocted a code for writing down grid references and kept his exact route top secret.

The Fawcetts met Rimmell in New York, where they discovered Lynch had blown a fifth of their expedition fund on illegal booze and prostitutes in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Fortunately, millionaire oil magnet JD Rockefeller Jr had read about their quest, and replenished the kitty. Lynch was dispatched to London in disgrace, and the explorers continued by boat to Rio de Janeiro.

By February 1925, the party was in São Paulo, visiting a snakefarm to pick up a load of anti-venom serum. From here they travelled by train, heading west towards the Paraguay River along the Brazil-Bolivia border, to Corumbá. Aboard the Iguatemi, the party then cruised the Paraguay, São Lourenço and Cuiabá rivers to reach the outpost of Cuiabá, which Rimmell described as a “God forsaken hole… best seen with eyes closed”. Here, they bought provisions and pack animals, and impatiently waited for the dry season.

When Fawcett judged the time was right, they set off. Several native guides acted as porters for the first, easiest section of the expedition, before returning to Cuiabá with the promised dispatches for the newspapers.

Jack Fawcett and Rimmell’s first taste of the jungle was crossing the cerrado, dry and comparatively easy terrain, but it brought home how tough the trip was going to be. Fawcett senior drove them through savage heat at an unforgiving pace, covering up to 15 miles a day, and the young men had a brutal introduction to the Amazon’s insects.

Rimmell’s foot became infected from bites, he rapidly lost weight and his ardour for the adventure began cooling. Jack, however, demonstrated a similar constitution to his father, almost reveling in the adversity.

By the banks of the Manso River, Fawcett forged ahead and the party was separated overnight, leaving the boys fearful that their leader had been captured or killed by Kayapo Indians. They were reunited the next morning, however, and Fawcett subsequently consented to several days rest at the super-remote Rio Novo ranch of Hermenegildo Galvão, an infamously brutal cattle farmer who lived deep in the forest.

Kayapo people photographed in 2002
Kayapo people photographed in 2002. At the time of Fawcett’s expedition, the Kayapo people were believed to have a hatred of white men, following their own mistreatment at the hands of the rubber barons. (Photo by Scott Wallace/Getty Images)

A month after leaving Cuiabá, they reached Bakairi Post, a tiny government garrison on the very edge of the known map. Here, the excited younger men met their first true tribespeople, even engaging in a singing session with them using a ukulele they’d brought along.

On 20 May, the day after Jack turned 22, the men left the last hint of civilization. Nine grueling days later, they reached Dead Horse Camp, where Fawcett had been forced to shoot his ailing pack animal and retreat on a previous expedition. From here they entered utterly unexplored territory, heading towards the River of Death. This region was home to tribes such as the Kayapo, Suyá and Xavante, who harboured a violent hatred of intruding white men after their murderous mistreatment at the hands of rubber barons and soldiers, and the suffering they’d endured as epidemics of disease devastated their societies following first contact.

The guides would go no further, and they began heading back to Cuiabá with expedition reports and letters for loved ones. Percy Fawcett wrote to his wife, and Jack’s mother, Nina: “You need have no fear of failure.” The three men were never seen again.

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?

In the 90 years since they disappeared, dozens of expeditions have ventured into the jungle attempting to discover the fate of the Fawcetts and Rimmell. Many went missing themselves. Various gory stories and far-fetched survival yarns have emerged, including claims that the explorers found Z and disappeared through a portal into another dimension. In life, Fawcett experimented with mysticism, and in absentia he has acquired a cult-like following. Years after they vanished, an indigenous fair-skinned boy was presented and paraded as Jack’s son, before Nina pointed out he was simply an albino. In all probability, the men were killed by a hostile tribe or simply succumbed to one of the Amazon’s innumerable dangers. In an ironic twist, though, it now appears that Fawcett had already found his lost city without realising it. Unearthed by anthropologist Michael Heckenberger, Kuhikugu is a sprawling archaeological site in remote Mato Grosso, near the Xingu River, which evidence (including the pottery Fawcett puzzled over) suggests once played home to an enormous and sophisticated civilisation. It’s no Machu Picchu–style citadel, but around 50,000 people lived here, before the arrival of Europeans heralded a disease apocalypse.

The Lost City of Z by David Grann is a lively read detailing the backstory to the 1925 expedition, and subsequent attempts to locate the explorers. There’s also a film version of David Grann’s The Lost City of Z, starring Charlie Hunnam, Sienna Miller and Tom Holland.

Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor.

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This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of BBC History Revealed