Percy Fawcett and the lost city of Z: The history behind the film
In 1925, famed Victorian explorer Percy Fawcett (1867–c1925) disappeared during his quest to find an ancient civilisation in the Amazon jungle. Here David Grann, author of the book that inspired 2017 film The Lost City of Z, talks to History Extra about the British explorer's obsession with the place he called the 'city of Z' and his mysterious disappearance
In 1925, at the age of 57, British explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett embarked on an expedition into the Bolivian Amazon. He was accompanied on the journey by his 21-year-old son Jack and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimmell, and their departure was reported in newspapers all over the world.
Fawcett had first ventured into the Amazon in 1906 to survey the border between Brazil and Bolivia, and travelled repeatedly to the region over the next two decades, mapping out huge areas of the Amazon’s interior. During these expeditions, Fawcett interacted peacefully with the indigenous American people who lived in the jungle, a practice that was not common at the time due to western prejudices. While surveying the region he came across intricately designed pottery fragments and ancient paintings. From these findings and other clues, Fawcett slowly began to develop a theory of an ancient Amazonian civilisation – a settlement he called the ‘city of Z’.
Despite ridicule from the establishment of the time, the search for this civilisation became an obsession for Fawcett and, even after a number of failed attempts to find ‘Z’, it was this search that continued to drive him on the expedition in 1925. In February Fawcett, his son Jack, and Rimmell left Rio de Janiero in Brazil to travel more than 1,000 miles into the interior. On 29 May, before descending into unexplored wilderness, Fawcett sent a telegraph to his wife, Nina, which read: “I expect to be in touch with the old civilisation within a month ... You need not have any fear of failure.” Shortly afterwards, Fawcett and his party disappeared. They were never seen or heard from again.
The enigma of Fawcett’s disappearance was one of the biggest stories of its time. The explorer had been extremely famous; his adventures were followed by thousands of newspaper readers, and his exploits had formed part of the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel The Lost World. Though hundreds of people have followed Fawcett’s route since, no evidence of the party’s fate has been found.
Ahead of the release of 2017 film The Lost City of Z, we spoke to David Grann, author of the nonfiction book of the same name, about Fawcett’s ‘lost city’ theory, the explorer’s disappearance, and how modern archaeological discoveries are changing the way we remember Fawcett…
Q: How did Percy Fawcett come to explore the Amazon and what do you believe drove his preoccupation with the region?
David: The Amazon back then was really the last large blank space on the map. Just to give you some sense, it’s about the size of the continental United States. In the early 1900s, it really was – at least to outsiders – like going to the moon.
Fawcett was originally called in to map the interior because countries such as Brazil, Bolivia and Peru didn’t even know where their borders were in the jungle; there were just speculative lines sketched on the map. It was during these surveying expeditions that Fawcett began to gather what he believed was evidence of ancient settlements and find what he believed was ancient pottery. One day in the Bolivian floodplains he was on an enormous earth mound and, when he looked out between other earth mounds, he was convinced that he could see the outlines of causeways underneath the jungle floor, so he began to develop this theory.
More like this
It’s important to understand that in that day and age, his theory was considered kind of bonkers. Nobody had found any El Dorado or any great ancient settlement and there was a great deal of prejudice. The assumption was that the native Americans were not capable of building a complex, sophisticated society in the jungle. Fawcett became obsessed with disproving these people and showing that he was right.
Q: What did the search for the ‘city of Z’ represent for Percy Fawcett?
I would say that for him, this lost city that he called the ‘lost city of Z’ underwent a kind of metamorphosis.
Early in his career, it was a very scientific endeavour in which he was trying to find a very ‘grounded’ place. However, during the First World War he fought in the battle of the Somme and witnessed what I believe he regarded as the collapse of western civilisation. He watched tens of thousands of boys and young men get out of the trenches and march to their deaths. I think at that point the lost city became something more in his mind; it became some kind of antidote, almost mystical.
Fawcett was a brave and obsessive man. This had become an obsession that had burned within him for well over a decade and had grown and deepened and driven him. He was, in many ways, tragic figure because he disappeared looking for this place with his older son. His expedition had consequences. I think all these are part of him; he was a complicated, fascinating, larger-than-life character.
Q: You mentioned that Fawcett believed that these civilisations were capable of much more than some contemporaries thought at the time. How else was his approach different when encountering indigenous American people?
Fawcett believed in only taking very small parties, which went against the grain; most people went in with large expeditions. He believed that going in with a smaller party would indicate to the native peoples of the area that they weren’t some hostile menacing group. He also refused to let his men or himself fire upon indigenous communities.
There’s a very famous moment in which his men describe encountering an Amazonian tribe and they were being shot at. Fawcett made them all drop their weapons and he raised his hands in the air. He had a handkerchief around his neck, he took that off and he lifted it up. Fawcett was fearless to the point of almost being mad and he had his men sing ‘God Save the Queen’ and march forward. That was emblematic of his approach.
Q: How was Fawcett viewed by the public at the time?
Fawcett was incredibly famous, which is sometimes hard to believe because he’s not so well-known today. He helped inspire the novel The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle; this was before he even disappeared. He was a colossal figure; he was seen as indestructible. He was seen as incredibly brave and daring, but his theories were in many cases viewed with ridicule.
Q: How then was he viewed by the scientific establishment?
Because of prejudices at the time, few people believed that there really could be an ancient settlement. One archaeologist later famously dubbed the Amazon a “counterfeit paradise” – the belief was that, despite the flora and fauna, it was inimical to human life. These views were coloured by the prejudices of the time and Fawcett’s views were often a subject of ridicule.
I would say that he was greatly revered by the general public, however. When he disappeared, it became one of the biggest stories of its day; there were radio plays, he was a character in a Tin Tin cartoon, and there’s a character based on him in an Evelyn Waugh novel. He was a widely known and in many ways, deeply admired figure among the public, but his theories were often a source of ridicule among the scientific establishment. He was seen as kind of a crazy amateur – and he was in some ways. But in other ways, he knew more than the establishment.
Q: You decided in 2005, 80 years after Fawcett’s disappearance, to retrace Fawcett’s route into the Mato Grosso region in Brazil, a journey that you also chronicled in your book The Lost City of Z. What spurred you to follow in Fawcett’s footsteps?
I am a writer, not an explorer. I don’t hunt, I don’t camp; in fact, I hate those things. When I began my project, I thought it would be more of a traditional biography and I would do it in a way that was suitable to my attributes, which would be in archives and libraries around the world. But there came a point when I became more and more consumed by the story.
I eventually tracked down Fawcett’s granddaughter and she invited me to her house. At one point, she said to me, “You really want to know what happened to my grandfather?” and I said “Of course”. She led me into this back room with this chest and she opened it up and inside were these old books covered in dust. They had little ribbons holding them together. She said: “Those are my grandfather’s – those are Fawcett’s secret diaries and logbooks”.
She let me look through them and I found that they held enormous clues both to his life but also to his death. Fawcett had always been very secretive about his route and where he was looking, because he was always afraid that someone would beat him to the spot. [Looking through those documents] was when I kind of thought: “Huh, maybe I should try to trace his footsteps now that I know where he went.” That’s what began my foolish decision to head into the jungle.
Q: When you made your own trip tracing Fawcett’s route into the Amazon, you met archaeologists who are still working to uncover evidence from the region. What do we now know about these regions?
What’s amazing is that archaeologists working in the Amazon, including in the very area where Fawcett believed he would find his city, have found remarkable evidence of ancient ruins.
In the area where Fawcett disappeared and was looking for Z, they found 20 pre-Colombian settlements, connected by causeways, that had evidence of bridges, moats and elaborate irrigation systems. They would have had populations that would have certainly been comparable to European cities of that time. There have been a series of other discoveries, including satellite imagery findings that show these massive earthworks that are laid out in geometric form.
I described earlier that Fawcett had climbed those large earth mounds in the Bolivian floodplains and he believed they were evidence of ruins. Archaeologists have now looked at that and have in fact determined that these mounds were manmade and those really were causeways.
All these discoveries are changing not only the way we view Fawcett, who was one of the greatest explorers of his time, but they are transforming our view of what the Americas looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
The Lost City of Z was released in UK cinemas in March 2017 and you can view the trailer here.
David Grann is the author of the book which inspired the film The Lost City of Z: A Legendary British Explorer's Deadly Quest to Uncover the Secrets of the Amazon (Simon and Schuster, 2010) and Killers of the Flower Moon (Simon and Schuster, April 2017)
Enhance the festive season with a subscription to BBC History Magazine + David Mitchell's latest masterpiece UNRULY - signed and hardback!
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99