It’s one of the great mysteries of 20th century exploration: what happened to Percy Fawcett?
The British military officer, surveyer, and explorer was one of the key figures in mapping and exploring the Amazon. He had become obsessed with the belief that, contrary to what other experts claimed, a large, sophisticated civilization had once existed in the dense jungle. He named that mysterious place “Z,” and he very badly wanted to find it.
In his late 50s, the undaunted Fawcett, his eldest son, and his son’s best friend plunged into Amazonia in 1925, determined to prove the world wrong. They were never seen again.
Much as how centuries before Fawcett conquistadors disappeared looking for the city of El Dorado, dozens of adventurers have also disappeared trying to locate Fawcett and/or “Z.”
After reading and enjoying David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon earlier this month, I decided to give his first book about Fawcett and his disappearance, which was recently adapted into a film, a try.
Beware, there be some mild spoilers ahead.
Thoughts on the Book:
As with Grann’s other book I read, I really enjoyed this one. Grann interweaves accounts of his own trip to Brazil investigating the story.
Grann traces Fawcett from his early life to his disappearance. Fawcett came from a prominent family, though his father had squandered the family inheritance partying with the future king of England. Notwithstanding his family’s resulting genteel poverty, Fawcett ended up at the military academy at Woolwich. Afterward, he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and spent many years stationed in modern-day Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon.
Finding himself bored with his fellow officers, who didn’t share his intellectual interests, he eventually pursued training in surveying and mapmaking from the Royal Geographical Society, where he impressed his instructors with his immediate grasp of the material. After a short mission as a spy in Morocco, the Royal Geographical Society reached out to him and asked him if he was interested in doing survey work in South America. A boundary dispute between countries had led to the Society being called in as a referee, and Fawcett was their choice for the job.
He completed the job one year ahead of schedule and spent the next 20 years always either on an expedition to the continent or preparing for one. The only real interruption was the outbreak of World War I, for which Fawcett took a break to serve with distinction on the Western Front as an artillery officer.
Grann is even-handed in his depiction of Fawcett. Though Fawcett was well respected by his peers and had enlightened views about the native population, he was also a difficult man to get along with. He had an unusual ability to withstand the tropical diseases that decimated other members of his expedition but also no patience or tolerance for those more susceptible to the conditions. The men who served under him in both expeditions and the military were equally divided between those who idolized him and those who despised him, with nobody in between.
He also became convinced of his own immortality and increasingly obsessed with his quest. In fact, in his later years, those who had once praised his knowledge and competence were increasingly worried about his mental stability. One of his close friends and most trusted expedition members who had traveled with him numerous times had privately feared that his 1920s expedition was doomed because there would be nobody present to restrain Fawcett from pushing the expedition beyond reasonable limits. In writing about Fawcett, Grann balances the good with the bad and never vilifies him nor exaggerates his good qualities.
Interspersed with Fawcett’s life are Grann’s tales of his own experiences researching the book, from traveling to England to talk to Fawcett’s descendents to perusing the Royal Geographical Society’s archives to trekking through Amazonia on Fawcett’s trail. As most of you know, I am not a fan of nonfiction where authors needlessly insert themselves into the narrative to talk about their own experiences in research. I don’t mind when Grann does it, though, because he knows how to do it without being insufferable.
Namely, he knows to limit his own autobiographical moments to things of legitimate interest, and like with Killers of the Flower Moon, his own research unveiled unknown aspects of the case, including the fact that Fawcett had lied about the actual coordinates of his last known location, throwing off subsequent searches, and that the local Indian tribes where Fawcett was last known to be have their oral history about the Englishmen who once arrived in their village.
By the end, Grann has offered a plausible explanation for Fawcett’s disappearance and also, with the advent of new scientific and archaeological discoveries, shed new light on whether or not Z existed.
Overall, I thought this was an excellent, very readable book about a fascinating topic.
Follow the link below to the next page to read my thoughts about the movie.