Oh, the “glorious prospect of home,” Fawcett wrote in his diary. Streets paved and neatly aligned, thatched cottages covered in ivy, pastures filled with sheep, church bells tolling in the rain, stores crammed with jellies and soups and lemonades and tarts and Neapolitan ices and wines, pedestrians jostling in the streets with buses and trams and taxis. Home was all Fawcett could think about on the boat ride back to England at the end of 1907. And now he was back in Devon with Nina and Jack, Jack as big as could be, running and talking, already four years old, and little Brian staring at the man in the doorway as if he were a stranger, which he was. “I wanted to forget atrocities, to put slavery, murder and horrible disease behind me, and to look again at respectable old ladies whose ideas of vice ended with the indiscretions of so-and-so’s housemaid,” Fawcett wrote in
But before long he found himself unable to sit still. “Deep down inside me a tiny voice was calling,” Fawcett said. “At first scarcely audible, it persisted until I could no longer ignore it. It was the voice of the wild places, and I knew that it was now part of me for ever.” He added, “Inexplicably-amazingly-I knew I loved that hell. Its fiendish grasp had captured me, and I wanted to see it again.”
So, after only a few months, Fawcett packed up his things again and fled what he called the “prison gate slowly but surely shutting me in.” Over the next decade and a half, he conducted one expedition after another in which he explored thousands of square miles of the Amazon and helped to redraw the map of South America. During that time, he was often as neglectful of his wife and children as his parents had been of him. Nina compared her life to that of a sailor’s wife: “a very uncertain and lonely” existence “without private means, miserably poor, especially with children.” In a letter to the Royal Geographical Society in 1911, Fawcett professed that he would not “subject my wife to the perpetual anxiety of these risky journeys.” (He had once shown her the lines on the palm of his hand and said, “Note this well!”-someday, she might have to “identify my dead body.”) Yet he continued to subject her to his dangerous compulsions. In some ways, it must have been easier for his family when he was gone, for the longer he remained at home, the more his mood soured. Brian later confessed in his diary, “I felt relieved when he was out of the way.”
Nina, for her part, subsumed her ambitions in her husband’s. Fawcett’s annual salary of about six hundred pounds from the boundary commission provided little for her and the children, and she was forced to shuttle the family from one rental house to the next, living in genteel poverty. Still, she made sure that Fawcett had little to worry about, performing the kinds of chores-cooking and cleaning and washing-to which she was unaccustomed and raising the children in what Brian called a “riotous democracy.” Nina also acted as her husband’s chief advocate, doing everything in her power to burnish his reputation. When she learned that a member of Fawcett’s 1910 expedition was trying to publish an unauthorized account, she quickly alerted her husband so that he could put a stop to it. And when Fawcett wrote to her about his exploits, she immediately tried to publicize them by funneling the information to the Royal Geographical Society and, in particular, to Keltie, the institution’s longtime secretary, who was one of Fawcett’s biggest boosters. (Keltie had agreed to be the godfather of Fawcett’s daughter, Joan, who was born in 1910.) In a typical communiqu?, Nina wrote of Fawcett and his men, “They have had some miraculous escapes from death-once they were shipwrecked-twice attacked by huge snakes.” Fawcett dedicated
Yet at times Nina longed to be not the person at home but the one in the wild. “I, personally, am quite ready now for accompanying P.H.F. on a Brazilian journey,” she once told a friend. She learned how to read the stars, like a geographer, and kept herself in “splendid health;” in 1910, while visiting Fawcett in South America, she wrote an unpublished dispatch for the RGS about her journey by train from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Valparaiso, Chile, which she thought might be “interesting to those who are fond of travel.” At one point, she could see “the snowcapped peaks of the Cordillera flushed with the rosy light of the rising sun”-a vista so “beautiful and grand as to stamp itself on the memory forever.”
Fawcett never consented to take her with him into the jungle. But Nina confided to a friend that she believed staunchly in the “equality… between man and woman.” She encouraged Joan to build her stamina and take physical risks, including swimming for miles in rough seas. Writing to Keltie about his goddaughter, Nina said, “Some day perhaps she may win the laurels of the Royal Geographical Society as a lady-geographer, and so fulfill the ambition that her mother has striven for in vain-so far!” (Fawcett also spurred Joan, like all his children, to take extreme risks. “Daddy gave us a tremendous amount of fun, because he didn’t realize the danger,” Joan later recalled. “But he should have realized. He was always encouraging us to climb across roofs and up trees… Once I fell on the cervical vertebrae of my neck and that cost me a fortnight in bed with high delirium and unconscious. Since I had that accident my neck has always been slightly stooped.”)
It was Jack, however, who most yearned to be like his father. “By the look of it, my little son Jack is going to pass through the same phase as I did when he reaches early manhood,” Fawcett once remarked proudly. “Already he is fascinated by the stories we tell him of Galla-pita-Galla.” Fawcett wrote and illustrated stories for Jack, depicting him as a young adventurer, and when Fawcett was home the two did everything together-hiking, playing cricket, sailing. Jack was “the real apple of his eye,” one relative recalled.
In 1910, when Jack was heading off to boarding school along with Raleigh Rimell, Fawcett sent him a poem from “far away in the wild.” It was called “Jack Going to School” and read, in part:
Never forget us brave little man
Mother and father trust in you
Be brave as a lion, yet kind returning
Ready to fight and averse to wrong…
Never forget you’re a gentleman
And never a fear you’ll do.
Life is short and the world is wide
We’re just a ripple on life’s great pool
Enjoy your life to the best you can
All will help to enrich the span
But never forget you’re a gentleman
And the time will come when we all with pride
Will think of your days at school.
In a separate letter to Nina, Fawcett spoke about his older son’s character and future: “A leader of men, I think-possibly an orator-always an independent, loveable, erratic personality, which may go far… a bundle of nerves-inexhaustible nervous energy-a boy of boys-capable of extremes-sensitive and proud-the child we longed for, and, I think, born for some purpose as yet obscure.”
* * *
WORD OF FAWCETT’S feats as an explorer, meanwhile, was beginning to spread. Although his deeds lacked that single crystalline achievement, like reaching the North Pole or the top of Mount Everest-Amazonia defied such triumphs: no single person could ever conquer it-Fawcett, progressing inch by inch through the jungle, tracing rivers and mountains, cataloging exotic species, and researching the native inhabitants, had explored as much of the region as anyone. As one reporter later put it, “He was probably the world’s foremost expert on South America.” William S. Barclay, a member of the RGS, said of Fawcett, “I have for years regarded him as one of the best of his class that ever lived.”
His feats came at a time when Britain, with the death of Queen Victoria and the rise of Germany, had grown anxious about its empire. These doubts were exacerbated by an English general’s claim that 60 percent of the country’s young men were unfit to meet the requirements of military service, and by a rash of apocalyptic novels-including
The press seized upon Fawcett’s accomplishments, portraying him like one of his childhood heroes and holding him up as the perfect counterpoint to the national crisis of confidence. One newspaper declared, “‘The lure of the wild’ has not lost its power upon men of the fearless and resourceful type represented by Maj. Fawcett.” Another journal urged children to emulate him: “There is a true Scout for you to follow! He gives up all thought of his own safety or comfort, so that he may carry out the duty that has been given to him.”
In early 1911, at a lecture before the Royal Geographical Society, where he presented his findings, dozens of scientists and explorers from across Europe crowded into the hall to glimpse the “Livingstone of the Amazon.” Beckoning him to the front of the hall, Charles Darwin’s son Leonard, who was now the Society’s president, described how Fawcett had mapped “regions which have never before been visited by Europeans” and had traveled up rivers that had “never before been ascended by one.” Darwin added that Fawcett had demonstrated that there was still a place “where the explorer can go forth and exhibit perseverance, energy, courage, forethought, and all those qualities which go to make up the qualities of an explorer of the times now passing away.”
Although Fawcett liked to protest that he was not “a great seeker for publicity,” he clearly relished the attention. (One of his hobbies was to paste newspaper accounts about himself into a scrapbook.) Showing lantern slides of the jungle and sketches of his maps, he told the crowd:
What I hope is that the publicity of these explorations may attract other adventurous spirits into this neglected part of the world. But it should be remembered that 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. Without any desire whatever for self-glorification, I can vouch for it that it requires a great en thusiasm to successfully bridge, year after year, the wide gulf which lies between the comforts of civilization and the very real risks and penalties which dog every footstep in the unexplored forests of this still little-known continent.
A Bolivian emissary who was there said of the emerging map of South America, “I must tell you that it is owing to Major Fawcett’s bravery that this has been accomplished… If we had a few more men like him, I am sure there would not be a single corner of the unexplored regions.”
Fawcett’s growing legend was predicated on the fact that not only had he made journeys that no one else had dared but he had done so at a pace that seemed inhuman. He accomplished in months what others took years to do-or, as Fawcett once put it matter-of-factly, “I am a rapid worker and have no idle days.” Incredibly, he rarely, if ever, seemed to get sick. “He was fever-proof,” said Thomas Charles Bridges, a popular adventure writer at the time who knew Fawcett. The trait caused rampant speculation about his physiology. Bridges attributed this resistance to his having “a pulse below the normal.” One historian observed that Fawcett had “a virtual immunity from tropical disease. Perhaps this last quality was the most exceptional. There were other explorers, although not many, who equaled him in dedication, courage and strength, but in his resistance to disease he was unique.” Even Fawcett began to marvel at what he called the “perfect constitution.”
In addition, he was struck by his ability to elude predators. Once, after leaping over a pit viper, he wrote in his journal, “What amazed me more than anything was the warning of my subconscious mind, and the instant muscular response… I had not seen it till it flashed between my legs, but the ‘inner man’-if I can call it that-not only saw it in time, but judged its striking height and distance exactly, and issued commands to the body accordingly!” His RGS colleague William Barclay, who worked in Bolivia and knew Fawcett’s methods as an explorer as well as anyone, said that over the years the explorer had developed “the conviction that no danger could touch him” and that, like a mythic hero, “his actions and happenings were fore-ordained.” Or, as Fawcett liked to say, “I am in the hands of the Gods.”
Yet the very things that made Fawcett a great explorer-demonic fury, single-mindedness, and an almost divine sense of immortality-also made him terrifying to be with. Nothing was allowed to stand in the way of his object-or destiny. He was “prepared to travel lighter and fare harder than most people would consider either possible or proper,” the journal of the Royal Geographical Society reported. In a letter to the Society, Nina said, “By the way, you will be amused to hear Major Fawcett contemplated cutting through 100 miles of forest… in a month! The others fairly gasped at the thought!!!”
To those who could keep up with him, he showed tremendous loyalty. To those who couldn’t-well, Fawcett came to believe that their sickness, even their death, only confirmed their underlying cowardice. “Such journeys cannot be executed” faintly, Fawcett wrote Keltie, “or I should never have got anywhere. For those who can do [them] I have nothing but gratitude and praise-for those who can’t I have little sympathy for they accept the job with their eyes open-but for the lazy or incompetent I have no use whatever.” In his private papers, Fawcett denounced a former assistant as a “hopeless rotter! A typical waster!”-the words scribbled beneath the man’s obituary. (He had drowned in a river in Peru.) Several men were expelled from his expeditions or, aggrieved and bitter, deserted him. “Why he would not stop to let us eat or sleep,” a former member of his party complained to another South American explorer. “We were working twenty-four hours a day and driven like bullocks before the lash.”
“The strain has always been too much for members of my own parties,” Fawcett informed Keltie, adding, “I have no mercy for incompetence.”
Keltie gently chided his friend: “I am very glad to think that you are keeping so very fit. You must have a wonderful constitution to stand all that you have stood and be none the worse. I am afraid this makes you perhaps a little intolerant of men who are not so very fit as you are.”
Keltie no doubt had in mind one man in particular, an explorer whose collaboration with Fawcett, in 1911, ended in catastrophe.
* * *
IT SEEMED LIKE the perfect match: James Murray, the great polar scientist, and Fawcett, the great Amazon explorer. Together, they would break through hundreds of miles of unexplored jungle surrounding the Heath River along Bolivia’s northwestern border with Peru, to map the region and study its inhabitants and wildlife. The Royal Geographical Society had encouraged the excursion, and why not?
Born in Glasgow in 1865, Murray was the brilliant, peripatetic son of a grocer who, as a young man, had become obsessed with the recent discovery of microscopic creatures and, armed with little more than a microscope and a collecting jar, transformed himself into a virtually self-taught, world-renowned expert in the field. In 1902, he helped survey the muddy depths of the Scottish lochs. Five years later, Ernest Shackle-ton enlisted Murray for his expedition to Antarctica, where he carried out groundbreaking recordings on marine biology, physics, optics, and meteorology. Afterward, he co-wrote a book called
But had anyone peered closer at their characters he might have seen warning signs. Although only two years older than Fawcett, Murray, at forty-six, looked crumpled and wizened; his face, with its well-trimmed mustache and graying hair, was filled with crags, his body was ill shapen. During the Scottish expedition, he had suffered a physical breakdown. “I had had rheumatism, inflamed eyes, and God knows what not,” he said. On the Shackleton expedition, he had been in charge of the base camp and had not endured the most brutal conditions.
Moreover, the qualifications for a great polar explorer and for an Amazon one are not necessarily the same. Indeed, the two forms of exploration are, in many ways, the antithesis of each other. A polar explorer has to endure temperatures of nearly a hundred degrees below zero, and the same terrors over and over: frostbite, crevices in the ice, and scurvy. He looks out and sees snow and ice, snow and ice-an unrelenting bleakness. The psychological horror is in knowing that this landscape will never change, and the challenge is to endure, like a prisoner in solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. In contrast, an Amazon explorer, immersed in a cauldron of heat, has his senses constantly assaulted. In place of ice there is rain, and everywhere an explorer steps some new danger lurks: a malarial mosquito, a spear, a snake, a spider, a piranha. The mind has to deal with the terror of constant siege.
Fawcett had long been convinced that the Amazon was more grueling and of greater scientific import-botanically, zoologically, geographically, and anthropologically-than what he dismissed as the exploration of “bar ren regions of eternal ice.” And he resented the hold that polar explorers had on the public’s imagination and the extraordinary funding they received. Murray, in turn, seemed certain that his journey with Shackleton- a journey more heralded than any that Fawcett had undertaken-had elevated him above the man in charge of his latest expedition.
While the two explorers were sizing each other up, they were joined by Henry Costin, the British corporal who in 1910, bored with military life, had answered a newspaper advertisement that Fawcett had posted seeking an adventurous companion. Short and stocky, with a bold Kiplingesque mustache and heavily hooded eyes, Costin had proven Fawcett’s most durable and capable assistant. He was exceedingly fit, having been a gymnastics instructor in the Army, and was a world-class marksman. One of his sons later summed him up this way: “A tough bugger who hated bullshit.”
Rounding out the party was Henry Manley, a twenty-six-year-old Englishman who listed his profession as “explorer,” though he had not yet been to many places, and a handful of native porters.
On October 4, 1911, the expedition prepared to leave San Carlos to begin the trek northward along the banks of the Heath River. A Bolivian officer had warned Fawcett against traveling in this direction. “It’s impossible,” he said. “The Guarayos [Indians] are bad, and there are so many of them that they even dare to attack us armed soldiers right here!… To venture up into the midst of them is sheer madness.”
Fawcett was undeterred. So, too, was Murray-after all, how difficult could the jungle be compared with the Antarctic? Early on, the men had the benefit of pack animals, which Murray used to carry his microscope and collecting jars. One night Murray was astonished to see vampire bats swarming from the sky and attacking the animals. “Several mules with ugly wounds, and streaming with blood,” he wrote in his diary. The bats had front teeth as sharp as razor blades, which punctured the skin so swiftly and surgically that a sleeping victim often didn’t awake. The bats would use their grooved tongues to lap up blood for up to forty minutes, secreting a substance to keep the wound from clotting. The bats could also transmit a lethal protozoan.
The men cleaned and dressed the mules’ wounds quickly to ensure they didn’t become infected, but that wasn’t their only concern: vampire bats also fed on humans, as Costin and Fawcett had discovered from a previous trip. “We were all bitten by vampire bats,” Costin later recalled in a letter. “The major had his wounds on the head, while my four bites were on each knuckle of my right hand… It is surprising the amount of blood lost from such small wounds.”
“We awoke to find our hammocks saturated with blood,” Fawcett said, “for any part of our persons touching the mosquito-nets or protruding beyond them were attacked by these loathsome animals.”
In the jungle, a pack animal would falter every few steps, tripping over sludge-covered tree trunks or sinking into a mud hole, and the men had to poke and prod and beat the miserable creatures forward. “Surely an iron-bound rock-ribbed stomach is required to walk behind and drive” these animals, a companion of Fawcett’s once wrote in his diary. “I am frequently besmirched with wet clots of rotting blood and other putrid matter that drops from their sore heads that are kept in a state of constant irritation by insects. Yesterday I probed out the maggots with a stick and filled the wounds with warm candle grease and sulphur mixed but it is doubt ful whether this will prove effective.” The animals generally survived no more than a month in such conditions. Another Amazon explorer wrote, “The animals themselves are pitiful sights; bleeding from great, sloughing wounds… foam dripping from their mouths, they lunge and strain through this veritable hell on earth. For men and beasts alike it is a miserable existence, though a merciful death usually terminates the careers of the latter.” Fawcett finally announced that they would abandon the pack animals and proceed on foot with only a pair of dogs, which he considered the best sorts of companions: able to hunt, uncomplaining, and loyal to the bitter end.
Over the years, Fawcett had honed the number of items that his team carried on their backs, so that each pack weighed about sixty pounds. As the men loaded their gear, Fawcett asked Murray to carry one more thing: his pan for sifting gold. The weight of the pack startled Murray as he began to hump it through dense jungle and hip-deep mud. “My strength quite gave out, and I went slowly, resting now and again,” he wrote in his diary. Fawcett was forced to send a porter to help him carry his pack. The next day, Murray seemed even more exhausted and fell behind the rest of the party while ascending a summit littered with fallen trees. “I climbed over them for an hour, killing work with the heavy pack, and had not made one hundred yards,” Murray wrote. “All trace of the path was lost, I couldn’t get forward, I couldn’t get up the steep hill, I couldn’t go back.”
Scanning the forest for Fawcett and the others, Murray heard the sound of a river below and, hoping that it might lead to an easier path, took out his machete and tried to reach it, slashing at the grasping vines and enormous tree roots. “Without a machete,” he realized, “it means death to be lost in such forest.” His boots chafed his feet, and he threw his backpack in front of him, then picked it up and threw it once more. The roar of the river was growing louder and he hurried toward it, but he came at the rushing water too quickly and lost his balance, sending something tumbling out of his backpack
He pushed on, desperate to find the others before night erased what little light seeped into the forest. He noticed footprints on the muddy bank. Could they be those of the Guarayos he had been told so much about, whose tribal name meant “warlike”? Then he spotted a tent in the distance and staggered toward it, only to get there and realize it was a boulder. His mind was deceiving him. He had been marching since sunrise, but he had progressed scarcely a few hundred yards. It was getting dark, and in a fit of panic he fired his rifle in the air. There was no response. His feet ached, and he sat down and removed his boots and socks; the skin had peeled off his ankles. He had no food other than a pound of caramels, which Nina Fawcett had prepared for the expedition. The box was intended to be shared among the team, but Murray devoured half the contents, washing them down with the river’s milky water. Lying alone in the blackness, he smoked three Turkish cigarettes, trying to stifle his hunger. Then he passed out.
In the morning, the group found him, and Fawcett reprimanded Murray for slowing the group’s progress. But each day Murray lagged farther and farther behind. He was unaccustomed to intense hunger—the ceaseless, oppressive gnawing that ate away at mind and body alike. Later, when Murray was given some cornmeal, he scooped it greedily into his mouth with a leaf and let it melt over his tongue. “I wish no more than to be assured such food for the rest of my time,” he said. The entries in his diary became choppier, more frantic:
Very hot work, quite exhausted; suggest short rest, Fawcett refuses it; stay behind alone, when able to struggle on, fearfully dense scrub, cannot get through it, cut way back to river bank, very rough going there… see another playa [beach] away at next bend of the river, try to wade to it, gets too deep, return to mud playa, now night; gather some dead branches and canes and lianas and make fire to dry clothes; no food, some saccharine pellets, smoke three cigarettes, suck some of the cold fruits, mosquitoes pretty bad, cannot sleep from bites, cold and tiredness, try opium sedative, no use; weird noises in river and forest, [anteater] comes down to drink on opposite side, making great row. Think hear voices come across the river, and imagine they may be Guarayos. All clothes full of grit, gets in mouth, miserable night.
He tried to do some scientific work but soon gave up. As another biologist who later traveled with Fawcett put it, “I thought that I would get many valuable natural history notes but my experience is that when undergoing severe physical labor the mind is not at all active. One thinks of the particular problem in hand or perhaps the mind just wanders not performing coherent thought. As to missing various phases of civilized life, one has no time to miss anything save food or sleep or rest. In short one becomes little more than a rational animal.”
One night when Fawcett, Murray, and the others reached camp, they were so weak that most of them collapsed on the ground without pitching their hammocks. Later, Fawcett, apparently sensing the atmosphere of despair, and heeding what he had learned in exploring school, tried to encourage merriment. He pulled a recorder from his pack and played “The Calabar,” a gallows-humor Irish folk song about a shipwreck. He sang:
Next day we ran short of buttermilk-it was all the captain’s fault—
So the crew were laid up with scurvy, for the herrings were terrible salt.
Our coloured cook said the meat was done, there wasn’t a bap on the shelf;
“Then we’ll eat the soap,” the captain cried, “let no man wash himself.”
Murray hadn’t heard the song in thirty years and joined in along with Costin, who took out his own recorder. Manley lay listening, as the sound of their voices and instruments drowned out the howl of monkeys and the whir of mosquitoes. For a moment, they seemed, if not happy, at least able to mock the prospect of their own death.
* * *
“YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE TIRED!” Fawcett snapped at Murray.
They were on one of two rafts that they had built to go up the Heath River. Murray said that he wanted to wait for a boat that was trailing them, but Fawcett thought that he was making another excuse to rest. As Costin warned, internal discord was common in the miserable conditions, and was perhaps the biggest threat to a party’s survival. During the first European expedition down the Amazon, in the early 1540s, members were accused of deserting their commander in the “greatest cruelty that faithless men have ever shown.” In 1561, members of another South American expedition stabbed their leader to death while he slept, then, not long after, murdered the man they had chosen to replace him. Fawcett had his own view of mutiny: as a friend once warned him, “Every party has a Judas.”
With each day, tensions mounted between Fawcett and Murray. There was something about the man whom Costin reverently called “chief that scared Murray. Fawcett expected “every man to do as much as he can” and was “contemptuous” of anyone who succumbed to fear. (Fawcett once described fear as “the motive power of all evil” which had “excluded humanity from the Garden of Eden.”) Every year in the jungle seemed to make him harder and more fanatical, like a soldier who had experienced too much combat. He rarely cut a clean path through the forest; rather, he slashed his machete in every direction, as if he were being stung by bees. He painted his face with bright colors from berries, like an Indian warrior, and spoke openly of going native. “There is no disgrace in it,” he said in
Fawcett, who seemed to approach each journey as if it were a Buddhist rite of purification, believed that the expedition would never get anywhere with Murray. Not only was the biologist ill suited for the Amazon; he drained morale by complaining incessantly. Because Murray had served under Shackleton, he seemed to think that he could question Fawcett’s authority. Once, while walking a raft loaded with gear across a river, Murray was swept off his feet by the current. Ignoring Fawcett’s instructions, he grabbed onto the raft’s edge, threatening to topple it. Fawcett told him to let go and swim to safety, but he wouldn’t, which confirmed him, in Fawcett’s parlance, as “a pink-eyed weakling.”
Fawcett soon came to suspect the scientist of something more serious than cowardice: stealing. In addition to the missing caramels, other communal provisions had been pilfered. Few crimes were graver. “On such an expedition the theft of food comes next to murder as a crime and should by rights be punished as such,” Theodore Roosevelt said of his 1914 Amazon journey. When Fawcett confronted Murray about the thefts, the biologist was indignant. “Told them what I had eaten,” he wrote bitterly, adding, “It seems my honorable course would have been to starve.” Not long after, Costin caught Murray with maize that seemed to belong to reserves for later in the trip. Where did you get that? Costin demanded.
Murray said it was surplus from his own private store.
Fawcett ordered that because Murray had taken a handful, he wouldn’t be permitted to eat the bread made from the maize. Murray pointed out that Manley had eaten corn from his own private store. Fawcett was unmoved. It was a matter of principle, he said.
“If it was,” Murray said, “it was the principles of a fool.”
The mood continued to deteriorate. As Murray put it one evening, “There is no singing in camp tonight.”
* * *
MANLEY WAS the first stricken. His temperature rose to 104 degrees, and he shook uncontrollably-it was malaria. “This is too much for me,” he muttered to Murray. “I can’t manage it.” Unable to stand, Manley lay on the muddy bank, trying to let the sun bake the fever out of him, though it did little good.
Next, Costin contracted espundia, an illness with even more frightening symptoms. Caused by a parasite transmitted by sand flies, it destroys the flesh around the mouth, nose, and limbs, as if the person were slowly dissolving. “It develops into… a mass of leprous corruption,” Fawcett said. In rare instances, it leads to fatal secondary infections. In Costin’s case, the disease eventually became so bad, as Nina Fawcett later informed the Royal Geographical Society, that he had “gone off his rocker.”
Murray, meanwhile, seemed to be literally coming apart. One of his fingers grew inflamed after brushing against a poisonous plant. Then the nail slid off, as if someone had removed it with pliers. Then his right hand developed, as he put it, a “very sick, deep suppurating wound,” which made it “agony” even to pitch his hammock. Then he was stricken with diarrhea. Then he woke up to find what looked like worms in his knee and arm. He peered closer. They were maggots growing inside him. He counted fifty around his elbow alone. “Very painful now and again when they move,” Murray wrote.
Repulsed, he tried, despite Fawcett’s warnings, to poison them. He put anything-nicotine, corrosive sublimate, permanganate of potash- inside the wounds and then attempted to pick the worms out with a needle or by squeezing the flesh around them. Some worms died from the poison and started to rot inside him. Others grew as long as an inch and occasionally poked out their heads from his body, like a periscope on a submarine. It was as if his body were being taken over by the kind of tiny creatures he had studied. His skin smelled putrid. His feet swelled. Was he getting elephantiasis, too? “The feet are too big for the boots,” he wrote. “The skin is like pulp.”
Only Fawcett seemed unmolested. He discovered one or two maggots beneath his skin-a species of botfly plants its eggs on a mosquito, which then deposits the hatched larvae on humans-but he did not poison them, and the wounds caused by their burrowing remained uninfected. Despite the party’s weakened state, Fawcett and the men pressed on. At one point, a horrible cry rang out. According to Costin, a puma had pounced upon one of the dogs and was dragging it into the forest. “Being unarmed except for a machete, it was useless to follow,” Costin wrote. Soon after, the other dog drowned.
Starving, wet, feverish, pocked with mosquito bites, the party began to eat itself from within, like the maggots corkscrewing through Murray’s body. One night Murray and Manley fought bitterly over who would sleep on which side of the fire. By then, Fawcett had come to believe that Murray was a coward, a malingerer, a thief, and, worst of all, a cancer spreading throughout his expedition. It was no longer a question of whether Murray’s slowness would cause the expedition to fail, Fawcett thought; it was whether he would keep the party from getting out at all.
Murray believed that Fawcett simply lacked empathy-“no mercy on a sick or tired man.” Fawcett could slow down to “give a lame man a chance for his life,” but he refused. As the party pushed ahead again, Murray began to fixate on Fawcett’s gold-washing pan, until he couldn’t bear it any longer. He opened his backpack and dumped the pan, along with most of his possessions, including his hammock and clothes. Fawcett warned him that he would need these things, but Murray insisted that he was trying to save his life, since Fawcett wouldn’t wait for him.
The lighter pack improved Murray’s speed, but without his hammock he was forced to sleep on the ground in the pouring rain with bugs crawling on him. “By this time the Biologist… was suffering badly from his sores and from lack of a change of clothes, for those he possessed were stinking,” Fawcett wrote. “He was beginning to realize how foolish he had been to throw away all but immediate necessities in his pack, and became increasingly morose and frightened.” Fawcett added, “As we had thunderstorms every day with deluges of rain, he grew worse instead of better. I was frankly anxious about him. If blood poisoning set in he would be a dead man, for there was nothing we could do about it.”
“The prospect of getting out recedes; food is nearly done,” Murray wrote in his diary.
Murray’s body had become swollen with pus and worms and gangrene; flies swirled around him as if he were already a corpse. With their route not even half done, the moment had arrived that Fawcett had warned every expedition member of, were he too sick to carry on: abandonment.
Although Fawcett had prepared for such a contingency, he had never actually enforced it, and he consulted with Costin and Manley as Murray looked on grimly. “There was a curious discussion in camp tonight, on the question of my abandonment,” Murray wrote. “When traveling in the uninhabited forest, without other recourses than you carry with you, every man realized that if he falls sick or can’t keep up with the others he must take the consequences. The others can’t wait and die with him.” Still, Murray felt that they were close enough to a frontier outpost where he could be left behind. “This calm admission of the willingness to abandon me… was a queer thing to hear from an Englishman, though it did not surprise me, as I had gauged his character long before.”
In the end, Fawcett, with his customary impetuousness, took a step that for him was almost as radical as leaving a man to die: he diverted his mission, at least long enough to try to get Murray out. Bitterly and reluctantly, he looked for the nearest settlement. Fawcett ordered Costin to remain beside Murray and ensure his evacuation. According to Costin, Murray showed signs of delirium. “I will not detail the physical force methods I had to adopt with him,” Costin later recalled. “Suffice it to say I took away his revolver, so that he could not shoot me… But it was the only alternative to leaving him to die.”
Eventually, the party came across a frontiersman with a mule, who promised to try to carry the biologist back to civilization. Fawcett offered Murray some money to pay for food, though the enmity between them still burned. Costin told Murray that he hoped that any harsh words they had exchanged in the jungle would be forgotten. He then glanced at Murray’s infected knee. “You know that knee of yours is far worse than you think,” he said.
Murray gathered from his manner that Costin and the others expected him to die-that they would never see him again. The men loaded him onto the mule. His limbs, like his knee, had begun to discharge foul matter. “It is surprising the quantity that comes from both arm and knee,” Murray wrote. “The matter from the arm is very inflammatory and makes the whole forearm red flesh and very painful. The discharge from the knee is more copious; it runs down in streams from half-a-dozen holes and saturates my stockings.” He could barely sit up on the mule. “Feel more ill than ever I did, knee very bad, heel very bad, kidneys upset, whether from food or poison and must pass water frequently.” He prepared to die: “Lie awake all night wondering how the end will be, and whether it is justifiable to make it easier, with drugs or otherwise”-an apparent allusion to suicide. He continued, “Cannot say afraid of the end itself, but wonder if it will be very difficult.”
Fawcett, Manley, and Costin, meanwhile, trudged on, trying to complete at least part of the mission. A month later, when they left the jungle in Cojata, Peru, there was no word of Murray. He had vanished. Later, in La Paz, Fawcett sent off a letter to the Royal Geographical So ciety:
Murray is, I regret to say, missing… The Govt. of Peru is instituting searching enquiries, but I fear he must have received some accident on the dangerous Cordillera trails, or have died en route of gangrene. The British Minister has his case in hand and his family will not be communicated with unless there is definite news of some kind or all hopes of his existence are abandoned.
Pointing out that Manley had almost died as well, Fawcett concluded, “I am well and fit myself but want a rest.”
Then, miraculously, Murray emerged from the forest. It turned out that, after more than a week, he had made it on the mule with the settler to Tambopata, a frontier outpost on the border of Bolivia and Peru that consisted of a single house; there a man named Sardon and his family had nursed him for weeks. They slowly squeezed out “a good many dead maggots, big fat fellows,” drained the pus from his sores, and fed him. When he was strong enough, they put him on a mule and sent him to La Paz. Along the way, he “read enquires about Senor Murray, supposed dead in this region.” He reached La Paz in the beginning of 1912. His arrival shocked authorities, who discovered that he was not only alive but furious.
Murray accused Fawcett of all but trying to murder him, and was incensed that Fawcett had insinuated that he was a coward. Keltie informed Fawcett, “I understand that there is a possibility that the matter may be put into the hands of a well known solicitor. James Murray has got powerful and wealthy friends behind him.” Fawcett insisted, “Everything that could humanely speaking be done for him was done… Strictly speaking, he owed his condition to unsanitary habits, insatiability for food, and excessive partiality for strong liquor-all of which are suicidal in such places.” Fawcett added, “I have little sympathy with him. He knew to a detail what he would have to put up with and that on such journeys of a pioneering character illness and accidents cannot be allowed to jeopardize the safety of the party. Everyone who goes with me understands that much clearly before hand. It was only that he and Mr. Manley both were sick which compelled me to abandon the journey projected. That he was rushed rather mercilessly… was a matter of food supply and the necessity of saving his life, of which he himself was inclined to be pessimistic.” Costin was willing to testify on Fawcett’s behalf, as was Manley. The Royal Geographical Society, examining the initial evidence, suspected that Fawcett “did not ne glect Murray, but did his best for him under the circumstances.” Nevertheless, the Society pleaded with Fawcett to quietly put the matter to rest before it became a national scandal. “I am sure you don’t want to do Murray any injury and now you are both in a temperate climate I think you might take steps to come to an understanding,” Keltie said.
Whether Fawcett extended an apology to Murray or vice versa is not clear, but the full details of the feud were never made public, including how close Fawcett had come to deserting his countryman in the jungle. Costin, meanwhile, was now the one on the verge of death. His espundia was rapidly growing worse, and was compounded by other possible infections. “So far they have been unable to cure him,” Fawcett informed Keltie. “But he is undergoing a fresh and peculiarly painful course of treatment at the School of Tropical Medicine [in London]. I sincerely hope he will recover.” After an official from the RGS visited Costin, he told Fawcett in a letter, “What a dreadful sight he is poor man.” Gradually, Costin recovered his health, and when Fawcett announced that he planned to return to the Amazon he decided to accompany him. As he put it, “It’s hell all right, but one kind of likes it.” Manley, too, despite his brush with death, pledged to go with Fawcett. “He and Costin were the only assistants I could ever call completely reliable and fully adaptable, and never have I wished for better company,” Fawcett said.
Murray, for his part, had had enough of the tropics. He longed for the familiar bleakness of ice and snow, and in June 1913 joined a Canadian scientific expedition to the Arctic. Six weeks later, the ship he was on, the