There was no epiphany, no bolt of lightning. Rather, the theory developed over time, with a clue here and a clue there, in fits and starts and with unexpected turns, the trail of evidence reaching as far back as his days in Ceylon. At Fort Frederick, Fawcett had first learned that it was possible for a great kingdom to seclude itself in the jungle and, after time had taken its inexorable toll, for its palaces and thoroughfares to vanish under creeping vines and roots. But the notion of Z-of a lost civilization concealed in the Amazon-began truly to take hold when Fawcett encountered the hostile Indians he had been warned to avoid at all costs.
In 1910, he was riding in canoes with Costin and several other companions, exploring an unknown part of the Heath River in Bolivia, when seven-foot-long poisonous arrows started to rain down, boring into the side of the canoe. A Spanish friar once described watching a companion who had been hit by such a weapon: “The moment that it struck him he felt a great pain… for the foot in which he had been wounded turned very black, and the poison gradually made its way up through the leg, like a living thing, without its being possible to head it off, although they applied many cauteries to it with fire… and when it had mounted to his heart, he died, being in great pain until the third day, when he gave his soul to God, who had created it.”
A member of Fawcett’s team dived into the water, shouting, “Retire! Retire!” But Fawcett insisted on pulling the boats to the opposite bank, as arrows continued to cascade from the sky. “One of these came within a foot of my head, and I actually saw the face of the savage who fired it,” Costin later recalled. Fawcett ordered his men to drop their rifles, but the barrage of arrows persisted. And so Fawcett instructed one of the men, as further demonstration of their peaceful intentions, to pull out his accordion and play it. The rest of the party, commanded to stand and face their deaths without protest, sang along as Costin, first in a trembling voice, then more fervently, called out the words to “The Soldiers of the Queen”: “In the fight for England’s glory, lads / Of its world wide glory let us sing.”
Fawcett then did something that shocked Costin so much that he would recall it vividly even as an old man: the major untied the handkerchief around his neck and, waving it above his head, waded into the river, heading directly into the fusillade of arrows. Over the years, Fawcett had picked up scraps of Indian dialects, scribbling the words in his logbooks and studying them at night, and he called out the few fragments of vocabulary he knew, repeating
“On climbing the opposite bank,” Fawcett said, “I had an unpleasant anticipation of receiving a shot in the face or an arrow in the stomach.”
The Indians led him away. “[Fawcett] disappeared into the forest, and we were left wondering!” Costin said. The party feared that its leader had been slaughtered until, nearly an hour later, he emerged from the jungle with an Indian cheerfully wearing his Stetson.
In such fashion, Fawcett made friends with a group of Guarayos. “[They] helped us to make camp, remaining in it all night and giving us yucca, bananas, fish, necklaces, parrots, and in fact of all they had,” Fawcett wrote in one of his dispatches.
Fawcett did not carry a craniometer and relied instead on his eyes to record observations of the Indians. He had been accustomed to meeting tribes that had been conquered by whites and acculturated by force, their members weakened by disease and brutality. By contrast, these hundred and fifty or so forest Indians seemed robust. “The men are finely developed, and of a warm brown, black haired, good looking and well clothed in dyed cotton shirts, plenty of which were in course of manufacture in their huts,” Fawcett wrote. He was struck by the fact that, unlike the emaciated explorers, they had substantial resources of food. One Guarayo crushed a plant with a stone and let its juice spill into a stream, where it formed a milky cloud. “After a few minutes a fish came to the surface, swimming in a circle, mouth gaping, then turned on its back apparently dead,” Costin recalled. “Soon there were a dozen fish floating belly up.” They had been poisoned. A Guarayo boy waded into the water and picked out the fattest ones for eating. The quantity of poison only stunned them and posed no risk to humans when the fish were cooked; equally remarkable, the fish that the boy had left in the water soon returned to life and swam away unharmed. The same poison was often used for toothaches. The Indians, Fawcett was discovering, were masters of pharmacology, adept at manipulating their environment to suit their needs, and he concluded that the Guarayos were “a most intelligent race of people.”
After his 1910 expedition, Fawcett, suspecting that the Indians of the Amazon held secrets long overlooked by historians and ethnologists, started to seek out various tribes, no matter how fierce their reputation. “There are problems to solve out here… which shout for someone to undertake them,” he informed the RGS. “But experience is essential. It is a folly to enter the unexplored parts without it-and in these days suicide.” In 1911, he resigned from the boundary commission to pursue inquiries into the burgeoning new field of anthropology. Once, not far from the Heath River, Fawcett was sitting with Costin and the rest of his team eating when a band of Indians encircled them with drawn bows. “Without any hesitation,” Costin wrote, “Fawcett dropped his belt and machete, to show he was unarmed, and advanced toward them, hands above his head. There was a slight pause in doubt and then one of ‘los barbaros’ [the savages] put down his arrows and walked to meet him. We had made friends with the Echojas!”
Over time, this became Fawcett’s signature approach. “Whenever he came upon the savages,” Costin said, “he would walk slowly towards them… with hands stretched in the air.” As with his method of traveling in radically small parties, without protection from armed soldiers, his means of establishing relations with tribes, some of which had never before seen a white man, struck many as both heroic and suicidal. “I know, from persons who have informed me, how he crossed the river in front of a whole tribe of hostile savages, and simply by his bravery induced them to cease firing, and accompanied them to their village,” a Bolivian official reported to the Royal Geographical Society of Fawcett’s meeting with the Guarayos. “I must say they are indeed very hostile, because I have been among them myself, and in 1893 General Pando not only lost some of his men, but also lost his nephew, and the engineer, Mr. Muller, who, tired of the journey, decided to cross from one of the rivers up to the Modeidi, and up to this day we have not heard anything about them.”
Fawcett’s ability to succeed where so many others failed contributed to a growing myth of his invincibility, which he himself began to believe. How could one explain, he wondered, “standing deliberately in front of savages with whom it was vital to make friends, arrows fixing past one’s head, between one’s legs, even between arm and body, for several minutes, and yet being untouched”? Nina also thought that he was indestructible.
Once, after he had approached a hostile Indian tribe with his modus operandi, she informed the RGS, “His encounter with the savages and the way he handled them is one of the bravest episodes I have ever heard of- and I am glad he behaved as he did-personally, I have no fears whatever regarding his safety, for I am so certain that on occasions like that he will do the right thing.”
Costin wrote that on their five expeditions Fawcett invariably made friends with the tribes they met. There was, however, one exception. In 1914, Fawcett sought out a group of Maricoxis in Bolivia, of whom the other Indians in the area had told him to be wary. When he made his usual overtures, the Indians reacted violently. As they came in for the kill, Fawcett’s men pleaded for permission to use their guns. We
Fawcett hesitated. “He did not wish to do so, for we had never fired before,” Costin recalled. But at last Fawcett relented. Later, Fawcett said that he had ordered his men to fire only at the ground or in the air. But, according to Costin, “we could see that one [Indian] at least had been hit in the stomach.”
If Costin’s account is correct, and there is little reason to doubt it, then it was the one time Fawcett violated his own edict, and he was apparently so mortified that he doctored his official reports to the RGS and concealed the truth his entire life.
* * *
ONE DAY, WHILE staying with a tribe of Echojas in the Bolivian region of the Amazon, Fawcett stumbled across further evidence that seemed to contradict the prevailing notion that the jungle was a death trap in which small bands of hunter-gatherers led a miserable existence, abandoning and killing their own to survive. Fawcett had reinforced this image with accounts of his own harrowing journeys, and he was stunned to find that, like the Guarayos, the Echojas had stockpiled mass quantities of food. They often used the Amazonian floodplains, which were more fertile than terra firma, to grow crops, and they had developed elaborate ways of hunting and fishing. “Food problems never bothered them,” Fawcett said. “When hungry, one of them would go off into the forest and call for game; and I joined him on one occasion to see how he did it. I could see no signs of an animal in the bush, but the Indian plainly knew better. He set up ear-piercing cries and signed to me to keep still. In a few minutes a small deer came timidly through the bush… and the Indian shot it with bow and arrow. I have seen them draw monkeys and birds out of the trees above by means of these peculiar cries.” Costin, an award-winning marksman, was equally amazed to watch the Indians succeed where he, with his rifle, failed again and again.
And it wasn’t just the Indians’ ability to generate an abundant food supply-a precursor to any densely populated, sophisticated civilization- that intrigued Fawcett. Though the Echojas seemed to have no defenses against imported European diseases like measles, which is one reason Fawcett suspected their population was still small, they had developed an array of medicinal herbs and unorthodox treatments to protect themselves against the daily assault of the jungle. They were even adept at removing the maggots that had tortured Murray. “[The Echojas] would make a curious whistling noise with their tongues, and at once the grub’s head would issue from the blowhole,” Fawcett wrote. “Then the Indian would give the sore a quick squeeze, and the invader was ejected.” He added, “I sucked, whistled, protested, and even played the flute to mine, with absolutely no effect.” A Western doctor who was traveling with Fawcett considered such methods witchcraft, but Fawcett regarded them, along with an assortment of herbal cures, as a marvel. “With illness and disease so prevalent it is no wonder that herbal remedies are used,” Fawcett said. “It seems as though every disorder has its appropriate nature-cure.” He added, “Of course, the medical profession does not encourage people to make use of them. Yet the cures they effect are often remarkable, and I speak as one who has tried several with complete success.” Adopting herbal medicines and native methods of hunting, Fawcett was better able to survive off the land. “In 99 cases out of a 100 there is no need to starve,” he concluded.
But even if the Amazon could, as he supposed, sustain a large civilization, had the Indians ever actually constructed one? There was still no archaeological evidence. There was not even evidence of dense populations in the Amazon. And the notion of a complex civilization contradicted the two main ethnological paradigms that had prevailed for centuries and that originated with the first encounter between Europeans and Native Americans, more than four hundred years earlier. Though some of the first conquistadores were in awe of the civilizations that Native Americans had developed, many theologians debated whether these dark-skinned, scantily clad peoples were, in fact, human; for how could the descendants of Adam and Eve have wandered so far, and how could the biblical prophets have been ignorant of them? In the mid-sixteenth century, Juan Gin?s de Sep?lveda, one of the Holy Roman Emperor’s chaplains, argued that the Indians were “half men” who should be treated as natural slaves. “The Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World,” Sep?lveda declared, adding, “For there exists between the two as great a difference as between… apes and men.”
At the time, the most forceful critic of this genocidal paradigm was Bartolom? de Las Casas, a Dominican friar who had traveled throughout the Americas. In a famous debate with Sep?lveda and in a series of treatises, Las Casas tried to prove, once and for all, that Indians were equal humans (“Are these not men? Do they not have rational souls?”), and to condemn those “pretending to be Christians” who “wiped them from the face of the earth.” In the process, however, he contributed to a conception of the Indians that became an equal staple of European ethnology: the “noble savage.” According to Las Casas, the Indians were “the simplest people in the world,” “without malice or guile,” “never quarrelsome or belligerent or boisterous,” who “are neither ambitious nor greedy, and are totally uninterested in worldly power.”
Although in Fawcett’s era both conceptions remained prevalent in scholarly and popular literature, they were now filtered through a radical new scientific theory: evolution. Darwin’s theory, laid out in
Is there any notable peculiarity of odour attached to the persons of the tribe or people described? What is the habitual posture in sleep? Is the body well balanced in walking? Is the body erect and the leg straightened? Or do they stand and move with the knee slightly bent? Do they swing the arm in walking? Do they climb trees well? Is astonishment expressed by the eyes and mouth being opened wide, and by the eyebrows being raised? Does shame excite a blush?
The Victorians wanted to know, in effect, why some apes had evolved into English gentlemen and why some hadn’t.
Whereas Sep?lveda had argued that Indians were inferior on religious grounds, many Victorians now claimed that they were inferior on biological ones-that they were possibly even a “missing link” in the evolutionary chain between apes and men. In 1863, the Anthropological Society of London was created to investigate such theories. Richard Burton, one of the Society’s founders, postulated that Indians, like blacks, with their “ quasigorillahood,” belonged to a “ sub-species.” (Darwin himself, who never subscribed to the extreme racialism that emerged in his name, described the Fuegians he saw in South America-“these poor wretches… stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent and without dignity”-as if it were hard to “believe they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world.”) Many anthropologists, including Burton, practiced phrenology-the study of the protuberances on human skulls, which were thought to indicate intelligence and character traits. One phrenologist comparing two Indian craniums with those of Europeans said that the former were marked by “firmness” and “secretiveness” and that their shape explained “the magnanimity displayed by the Indians in their endurance of torture.” Francis Galton, in his theory of eugenics, which once counted among its followers John Maynard Keynes and Winston Churchill, argued that human intelligence was inherited and immutable and that native peoples of the New World were intrinsically “children in mind.” Even many Victorians who believed in a “psychic unity to mankind” assumed that Indian societies were in a different stage of evolutionary development. By the early twentieth century, the then-popular diffusionist school of anthropologists maintained that if a sophisticated ancient civilization ever did exist in South America, its origins were either Western or Near Eastern-in the lost tribes of Israel, for example, or in seafaring Phoenicians. “There are all sorts of theories among anthropologists regarding the distribution of the human race,” Keltie, of the Royal Geographical Society, noted, adding that diffusionist anthropologists “maintain that the Phoenicians navigated the whole of the Pacific Ocean, and that many of them penetrated South America.”
Fawcett was deeply influenced by such ideas-his writings are rife with images of Indians as “jolly children” and “ ape-like” savages. When he first saw an Indian cry, he expressed befuddlement, sure that physiologically Indians had to be stoic. He struggled to reconcile what he observed with everything he had been taught, and his conclusions were filled with convolutions and contradictions. He believed, for instance, that the jungle contained “savages of the most barbarous kind, ape-men who live in holes in the ground and come out only at night;” yet he nearly always described the Indians whom he met as being “civilized,” and often far more so than Europeans. (“My experience is that few of these savages are naturally ‘bad,’ unless contact with ‘savages’ from the outside world has made them so.”) He vigorously opposed the destruction of indigenous cultures through colonization. In the jungle, the absolutist became a relativist. After he witnessed a tribe cannibalize one of its dead as part of a religious ceremony-the body “roasted over a big fire” and “cut up and divided amongst the various families”-Fawcett beseeched Europeans not to deplore the “elaborate ritual.” He hated to classify unacculturated Indians as “savages”-then the common terminology-and he noted that the kind, decent Echojas were “plain proof of how unjustified is the general condemnation of all the wild forest people.” Along with adopting Indian mores, he learned to speak myriad indigenous languages. “He knew the Indians as few white men have ever known them, and he had the gift of tongues,” observed the adventure writer and Fawcett associate Thomas Charles Bridges. “Few men have ever possessed that gift to such a marked degree.” Costin, summing up Fawcett’s relationship with the natives of the Amazon, said simply, “He understood them better than anyone.”
Yet Fawcett could never find his way out of what the historian Dane Kennedy has called the “mental maze of race.” When Fawcett detected a highly sophisticated tribe, he frequently tried to find racial markers-more “whiteness” or “redness”-that might reconcile the notion of an advanced Indian society with his Victorian beliefs and attitudes. “There are three kinds of Indians,” he once wrote. “The first are docile and miserable people… [T]he second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third, a robust and fair people, who must have a civilized origin.”
The notion that the Americas contained a tribe of “fair” people, or “white Indians,” had endured since Columbus claimed that he had seen several natives who were as “white as we are.” Later, conquistadores said that they had found an Aztec room filled with “men, women and children, white at birth in the face, body, hair and eyelashes.” The legend of “white Indians” had taken hold perhaps most fervently in the Amazon, where the first Spanish explorers to descend the river described female warriors as “very white and tall.” Many of these legends undoubtedly had their origins in the existence of tribes with markedly lighter skin. One group of uncommonly tall, pale Indians in eastern Bolivia were called the Yurucares, which literally means “white men.” The Yanomami of the Amazon were also known as “white Indians” owing to their lightness, as were the Wai-Wai of Guyana.
In Fawcett’s day, the “white Indian question,” as it was called, gave credence to the diffusionists’ theory that Phoenicians or some other Westerners, such as the Atlanteans or the Israelites, had migrated into the jungle thousands of years earlier. Fawcett was initially skeptical of the existence of “white Indians,” calling the evidence “weak,” but over time they seemed to give him a way out of his personal mental maze of race: if the Indians had descended from Western civilization, there could be no doubt that they could build a complex society. Fawcett could never take the final leap of a modern anthropologist and accept that complex civilizations were capable of springing up independently of each other. As a result, while some anthropologists and historians today consider Fawcett enlightened for his era, others, like John Hemming, depict him as a “Nietzschean explorer” who spouted “eugenic gibberish.” In truth, he was both. As much as Fawcett rebelled against Victorian mores-becoming a Buddhist who lived like an Indian warrior-he could never transcend them. He escaped virtually every kind of pathology in the jungle, but he could not rid himself of the pernicious disease of race.
What is consistent in his writings is the growing belief that the Amazon and its people were not what everyone assumed them to be. Something was amiss. He had seen during his
* * *
IN 1914, FAWCETT was traveling with Costin and Manley in a remote corner of the Brazilian Amazon, far from any major rivers, when the jungle suddenly opened into a huge clearing. In the burst of light, Fawcett could see a series of beautiful dome-shaped houses made of thatch; some were seventy feet high and a hundred feet in diameter. Nearby were plantings of maize, yucca, bananas, and sweet potato. There didn’t seem to be anyone in the vicinity, and Fawcett signaled to Costin to look into one of the houses. When Costin reached the entrance, he saw a solitary old woman leaning over a fire, cooking a meal. The scent of yucca and potatoes wafted toward him, and, overcome with hunger, he found himself being pulled inside, despite the danger. Fawcett and Manley smelled the aroma as well, and followed him. The men motioned to their stomachs, and the startled woman handed them bowls of food. “Probably none of us had ever tasted anything so good,” Fawcett later recalled. As the explorers were eating, paint-streaked warriors began to appear all around them. “They slipped in by various entrances not previously noticed, and through the doorway beside us we could see the shadows of more men outside,” Fawcett wrote. Their nostrils and mouths were pierced with wooden pegs; they carried drawn bows and blowpipes.
Fawcett whispered to Costin and Manley, “Don’t move!”
According to Costin, Fawcett slowly untied the handkerchief around his neck and placed it on the ground, as a gift, before a man who appeared to be the chief. The man picked it up and examined it in stern silence. Fawcett told Costin,
“I myself made a blunder,” Costin later recalled. “I not only produced a match, but struck it.”
There was a flutter of panic, and Fawcett quickly delved in his pocket for another gift-a glittering necklace. A member of the tribe, in turn, handed to its visitors gourds full of nuts. “Our friendship was now accepted,” Fawcett wrote, “and the chief himself sat down on a curved stool and shared the peanuts with us.” They had befriended a previously unknown group of Indians that Fawcett classified as the Maxubis. And, while staying there, Fawcett discovered something he had never seen before: a large population numbering in the several thousands. Moreover, the village was surrounded by indigenous settlements with thousands more people. (Fawcett’s discovery of so many previously unknown Indians prompted a president of the American Geographical Society to proclaim, “We do not know of anything so amazing in the history of recent exploration.”) It dawned on Fawcett that in regions far from the major rivers, where most European travelers and slave raiders went, tribes were healthier and more populous. Physically, they were less decimated by diseases and alcoholism; culturally, they remained vibrant. “Perhaps this is why the ethnology of the continent has been built on a misconception,” Fawcett said.
The Maxubis, in particular, showed evidence of a sophisticated culture, he thought. They made exquisite pottery and had names for the planets. “The tribe is also exceedingly musical,” Fawcett noted. Describing their songs, he added, “In the utter silence of the forest, when the first light of day had stilled the nightlong uproar of insect life, these hymns impressed us greatly with their beauty.” It was true, he wrote, that he had encountered some tribes in the jungle that were “intractable, hopelessly brutal,” but others, like the Maxubis, were “brave and intelligent,” “utterly refuting the conclusions arrived at by ethnologists, who have only explored the rivers and know nothing of the less accessible places.” What’s more, many of these tribes told legends about their ancestors who lived in settlements that were even grander and more beautiful.
* * *
THERE WERE OTHER clues. On rocks throughout the jungle, Fawcett had observed what appeared to be ancient paintings and carvings of human and animal figures. Once, while climbing a desolate mound of earth above the floodplains of the Bolivian Amazon, he noticed something sticking out of the ground. He scooped it into his hand: it was a shard of pottery. He started to scour the soil. Virtually everywhere he scratched, he later informed the RGS, he turned up bits of ancient, brittle pottery. He thought the craftsmanship was as refined as anything from ancient Greece or Rome or China. Yet there were no inhabitants for hundreds of miles. Where had the pottery come from? To whom had it once belonged?
Even as the mystery seemed to deepen, some patterns were emerging. “Wherever there are ‘alturas,’ that is high ground above the plains” in the Amazon basin, Fawcett told Keltie, “there are artifacts.” And that wasn’t all: extending between these
* * *
AS FAWCETT WAS developing his theory of an ancient Amazonian civilization, he was conscious of growing competition from other explorers, who were racing into the interior of South America to survey one of the last uncharted realms. They were an eclectic, fractious, monomaniacal bunch, each with his own pet theory and obsession. There was, for instance, Henry Savage Landor, who had attracted worldwide renown for his travelogues in which he told of nearly being executed in Tibet, of climbing the Himalayas without ropes and clamps, and of crossing the deserts of Persia and Baluchistan by camel, and who was now wandering through parts of the Amazon dressed as if he were heading off to a luncheon in Piccadilly Circus (“I did not masquerade about in fancy costumes such as are imagined to be worn by explorers”) while his men mutinied and nearly shot him. There was the Brazilian colonel and part-Indian orphan C?ndido Mariano da Silva Rondon, who had helped to lay telegraph lines across the jungle, lost a toe to piranhas, and started the Indian Protection Service. (Its motto, like his, was “Die if you must, but never kill.”) There was Theodore Roosevelt, who, after being defeated in the 1912 presidential election, sought refuge in the Amazon and surveyed with Rondon the River of Doubt. (By the end of the journey, the former president, who had advocated “the strenuous life,” was reduced to near death from hunger and fever, and kept repeating the opening lines to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree.”)
But perhaps the rival Fawcett most feared was Alexander Hamilton Rice, a tall, debonair American doctor who, like Fawcett, had trained under Edward Ayearst Reeves at the Royal Geographical Society. In his late thirties, with a barrel chest and bushy mustache, Rice had graduated from Harvard Medical School in 1904. An interest in tropical diseases led him to the Amazon, where he investigated lethal parasites by dissecting monkeys and jaguars and where he soon became obsessed with the region’s geography and ethnology. In 1907, while Fawcett was conducting his first surveying expedition, Dr. Rice was trekking over the Andes with a then-unknown amateur archaeologist named Hiram Bingham. Later, Dr. Rice descended into the northern basin of the Amazon, searching for the sources of several rivers and studying the native inhabitants. In a letter to a friend, Dr. Rice wrote, “I am going very slowly, studying everything carefully, and coming only to conclusions after long meditation. If I am in doubt about anything, I return to work over it again.”
After that expedition, Dr. Rice, realizing that he lacked sufficient technical training, enrolled at the School of Astronomy and Surveying at the Royal Geographical Society. Upon graduating in 1910 (“We look upon him, in a very special degree, as a child of our Society,” an RGS president later noted), he returned to South America to explore the Amazon basin. Whereas Fawcett was impetuous and daring, Dr. Rice approached his mission with the calm precision of a surgeon. He did not so much want to transcend the brutal conditions as transform them. He assembled teams of as many as a hundred men, and was fixated on gad-getry-new boats, new boots, new generators-and on bringing the latest methods of modern science into the wild. During one expedition, he paused to perform emergency surgery on a native suffering from anthrax and on an Indian with an abscess near her liver. The RGS noted that the latter procedure was “probably the first surgical operation under chloroform carried out in this primeval wilderness.” Although Dr. Rice did not push his men the way Fawcett did, on at least one occasion they mutinied, deserting him in the jungle. During that same expedition, Dr. Rice’s leg became so infected that he took his surgical blade and plunged it into his flesh to remove part of the tissue, operating on himself while he was still conscious. As Keltie told Fawcett, “He is a medical man and very clever in all his work.”
Fawcett may have been confident that no one could surpass his abilities as an explorer, but he knew that his chief rival had an advantage that he could never match: money. Dr. Rice, who was the wealthy grandson of a former mayor of Boston and governor of Massachusetts, had married Eleanor Widener, the widow of a Philadelphia tycoon who had been one of the richest men in America. (Her first husband and her son were on the
Despite the vastness of the Amazon, it seemed unable to accommodate all of these explorers’ egos and ambitions. The men tended to eye one another hawkishly, jealously guarding their routes for fear of being beaten to a discovery. They even conducted reconnaissance on each other’s activities. “Keep your ears open as to any information about the movements of Landor,” the RGS advised Fawcett in a communiqu? in 1911. Fawcett needed no prodding: he maintained the paranoia of a spy.
At the same time, the explorers were quick to cast doubt upon, and even denigrate, a rival’s accomplishments. After Roosevelt and Rondon announced that they had explored for the first time a nearly thousand-mile-long river-renamed Rio Roosevelt in the president’s honor-Landor told reporters it was impossible that such a tributary existed. Branding Roosevelt a “charlatan,” he accused the former president of plagiarizing events from the narrative of Landor’s own journey: “I see he even has had the same sickness as I experienced and, what is more extraordinary, in the very same leg I had trouble with. These things happen very often to big explorers who carefully read the books of some of the humble travelers who preceded them.” Roosevelt snapped back that Landor was “a pure fake, to whom no attention should be paid.” (It was not the first time Landor had been called a fake: after he ascended a peak in the Himalayas, Douglas Freshfield, one of the most distinguished climbers of his day and a future president of the RGS, said that “no mountaineer can accept the marvelous feats of speed and endurance Mr. Landor believes himself to have accomplished” and that his “very sensational tale” affects “the credit, both at home and on the Continent, of English travellers, critics and scientific societies.”) Dr. Rice, for his part, initially found Roosevelt’s account “unintelligible;” but after Roosevelt furnished him with more details he apologized. Though Fawcett never doubted Roosevelt’s discovery, he dismissed it tartly as a good journey “for an elderly man.”
“I do not wish to deprecate other exploration work in South America,” Fawcett told the RGS, “only to point out the vast difference between river journeys with their freedom from the great food problem, and forest journeys on foot-when one has perforce to put up with circumstances and deliberately penetrate Indian sanctuaries.” Nor was Fawcett impressed by Landor, whom he considered “a humbug from the first.” Fawcett told Keltie that he had no desire to be “counted in with the Savage Landors and Roosevelts of the so-called exploring fraternity.”
Fawcett had often expressed admiration for Rondon, but eventually he grew suspicious of him, too. Fawcett argued that Rondon sacrificed too many lives by traveling in large parties. (In 1900, Rondon embarked on an expedition with eighty-one men and returned with only thirty-the rest had either died or been hospitalized, or had deserted.) Rondon, a proud, deeply patriotic man, did not understand why Fawcett-who told the RGS he preferred in his parties English “gentlemen, owing to greater powers of endurance and enthusiasm for adventure”-always resisted taking Brazilian soldiers on expeditions. A colleague of Rondon’s said that the colonel disliked “the idea of a foreigner’s coming here to do what he said Brazilians could do for themselves.”
Despite Fawcett’s imperviousness to the most brutal conditions in the jungle, he was hypersensitive to the smallest personal criticism. An official from the RGS advised Fawcett, “I think you worry yourself a great deal too much as to what people say about you. I should not trouble myself about it if I were you. Nothing succeeds like success.”
Still, as Fawcett pieced together his evidence of a lost civilization in the Amazon, he worried that someone like Dr. Rice might be on the same trail. When Fawcett hinted to the RGS the new direction of his anthropological inquiries, Keltie wrote back saying that Dr. Rice was “sure to go out again” and might be “disposed to take up the task which you indicate.”
In 1911, the cohort of South American explorers, along with the rest of the world, was astounded by the announcement that Hiram Bingham, Dr. Rice’s old traveling companion, had, with the aid of a Peruvian guide, uncovered the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, nearly eight thousand feet above sea level, in the Andes. Although Bingham had not discovered an unknown civilization-the Incan empire and its monumental architectural works were well documented-he had helped to illuminate this ancient world in remarkable fashion.
The discovery fired Fawcett’s imagination. It undoubtedly stung, too. But Fawcett believed that the evidence he had gathered suggested something potentially more momentous: remnants of a yet unknown civilization in the heart of the Amazon, where for centuries the conquistadores had searched for an ancient kingdom-a place they called El Dorado.