Fawcett had narrowed down the location. He was sure that he had found proof of archaeological remains, including causeways and pottery, scattered throughout the Amazon. He even believed that there was more than a single ancient city-the one that the
In September of 1914, after a yearlong reconnaissance trip with Manley and Costin, Fawcett was ready to launch an expedition in search of the lost city. Yet when he emerged from the jungle he was greeted with the news that, more than two months earlier, the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand-who was the unlikely catalyst for Fawcett and Nina’s first meeting in Ceylon-had been assassinated. World War I had begun.
Fawcett and his two British companions immediately set sail for England. “Of course experienced men like you are very much wanted: there is a great deficiency of trained officers,” Keltie told Fawcett in a letter that December. “We have had tremendous losses, as you see, at the front, far more in proportion, I should think, than has ever been among officers before.” Though Fawcett was forty-seven years old and a “renegade” from European life, he felt compelled to volunteer. He informed Keltie that he had his “finger on important discoveries” in the Amazon, but was obliged by “the patriotic desire of all able-bodied men to squash the Teuton.”
Most of Europe was gripped by a similar zeal. Conan Doyle, who churned out propaganda that portrayed the war as a clash of chivalrous knights, wrote, “Fear not, for our sword will not be broken, nor shall it ever drop from our hands.”
After a brief visit with his family, Fawcett made his way to the western front, where, as he told Keltie, he would soon be “in the thick of it.”
As a major in the Royal Field Artillery, Fawcett was placed in charge of a battery of more than a hundred men. Cecil Eric Lewis Lyne, a twenty-two-year-old second lieutenant, recalled when the Amazon explorer arrived in his dark khaki uniform, carrying his revolver. He was, Lyne wrote in a diary, “one of the most colorful personalities I ever encountered”-a man of “magnificent physique and great technical ability.”
As always, Fawcett was an electric and polarizing figure, and his men fell into two camps: the Costins and the Murrays. The Costins gravitated toward him, relishing his daring and ?lan, while the Murrays despised his ferocity and unforgivingness. An officer among the Murrays said that Fawcett “was probably the nastiest man I have ever met in this world and his dislike of me was only exceeded by my dislike of him.” Yet Lyne was a Costin. “Fawcett and I, despite the disparity of our ages, became great friends.”
Along with their men, Fawcett and Lyne dug trenches-sometimes only a few hundred yards from the Germans-in the area around Ploeg-steert, a hamlet in western Belgium, near the border of France. One day Fawcett spotted a suspicious-looking figure in the village wearing a long fur coat, a French steel helmet three sizes too small for his head, and a shepherd’s smock-“queer garments,” as Fawcett put it. Fawcett overheard the man saying, in a guttural voice, that this area would be ideal for an observation post, even though it struck Fawcett as “a bloody awful place.” German spies were rumored to be infiltrating British lines dressed as Belgian civilians, and Fawcett, who knew what it meant to be a secret agent, rushed back to headquarters and reported, “We’ve got a spy in our sector!”
Before an arrest party was dispatched, further inquiries revealed that the man was none other than Winston Churchill, who had volunteered to command a battalion on the western front after being forced to resign as First Lord of the Admiralty in the wake of the disastrous invasion of Gal-lipoli. While visiting the trenches south of Fawcett’s position, Churchill wrote, “Filth & rubbish everywhere, graves built into the defences & scattered about promiscuously, feet & clothing breaking through the soil, water & muck on all sides; & about this scene in the dazzling moonlight troops of enormous bats creep & glide, to the unceasing accompaniment of rifles & machine guns & the venomous whining & whirring of the bullets which pass overhead.”
Fawcett, who was accustomed to inhuman conditions, was superb at holding his position, and in January 1916 he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and put in command of a brigade of more than seven hundred men. Nina kept Keltie and the Royal Geographical Society apprised of his activities. In a letter dated March 2, 1916, she wrote, “He is very well in spite of 3 months constantly under shell fire.” Several weeks later, she said that he was overseeing nine batteries, far more than constituted a typical brigade. “So you can imagine how hard worked he is,” she said, adding, “Of course I am glad he has an opportunity to use his powers of organization and leadership for it all helps in the struggle for victory.” Nina was not the only one who touted his abilities. He was repeatedly cited in dispatches for his “gallant” and “distinguished” services under fire.
Even in the trenches, Fawcett tried to keep informed of events in the Amazon. He learned of expeditions being led by anthropologists and explorers from America, which was not yet engaged in the war, and these reports only intensified his fear that someone would discover Z before he did. In a letter to his old teaching mentor Reeves, he confided, “If you only knew what these expeditions cost in physical strain, you would, I feel sure, appreciate what a lot it means to me that I shall have the completion of the work.”
He had reason to fret, in particular, about Dr. Rice. To Fawcett’s shock, the RGS had, in 1914, presented Dr. Rice with a gold medal for his “meritorious work on the head waters of the Orinoco and the Northern tributaries of the Amazon.” Fawcett was incensed that his own efforts had not received equal recognition. Then, in early 1916, he discovered that the doctor was preparing to launch another expedition. A bulletin in the
That spring, amid intense fighting, Fawcett received a letter from the Royal Geographical Society. It said that, in tribute to his historic mapping of South America, he, too, had been awarded a gold medal. (The Society gave out two gold medals, both equal in prestige: Fawcett’s was the Founder’s Medal and Dr. Rice’s the Patron’s.) The award was the same honor that had been bestowed upon the likes of Livingstone and Burton-“the dream of his life,” as Nina put it. Not even the prospect of Dr. Rice’s expedition or the continuation of the war could diminish Fawcett’s delight. Nina, who told Keltie that such an occasion comes “only once in a life time,” quickly set about planning for the award presentation on May 22. Fawcett obtained leave to attend. “I possess the medal and am content,” he remarked.
After the ceremony, he hurried back to the front: he had received orders that the British command was launching an unprecedented assault, with the aim of ending the war. In early July 1916, Fawcett and his men took up their positions along a placid river in northern France, providing cover as tens of thousands of British soldiers clambered up ladders propped against the muddy trench walls and marched onto the battlefield, bayonets gleaming and arms swinging, like in a parade. From his perch, Fawcett would have seen the German gunners, who were supposed to have been destroyed by weeks of bombardment. They were emerging from cavernous holes, unleashing machine-gun fire. The British soldiers fell, one by one. Fawcett tried to offer cover, but there was no way to protect men walking into a hail of bullets and eighteen-pound shells and liquidy bursts from flamethrowers. No force of nature in the jungle had prepared him for this man-made onslaught. Bits of letters and photographs that men had carried into battle fluttered over their corpses like snow. The wounded crawled into shell holes, shrieking. Fawcett called it “Armageddon.”
It was the Battle of the Somme-or what the Germans, who suffered massive casualties as well, referred to in letters home as “the bath of blood.” On the first day of the offensive, nearly twenty thousand British soldiers died and almost forty thousand were wounded. It was the greatest loss of life in the history of the British military, and many in the West began to portray the “savage” as European rather than as some native in the jungle. Fawcett, quoting a companion, wrote that cannibalism “at least provides a reasonable motive for killing a man, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare.”
When Ernest Shackleton, who had been trekking through Antarctica for nearly a year and a half, emerged in 1916 on the island of South Georgia, he immediately asked someone, “Tell me, when was the war over?” The person replied, “The war is not over… Europe is mad. The whole world is mad.”
As the conflict dragged on, Fawcett often remained at the front lines, living among corpses. The air smelled of blood and fumes. Trenches became bogs of urine and excrement and bones and lice and maggots and rats. The walls caved in from rain, and occasionally men drowned in the slime. One soldier sank slowly for days in a mud hole, without anyone being able to reach him. Fawcett, who had always found refuge in the natural world, no longer recognized the wilderness of bombed-out villages, denuded trees, craters, and sunbaked skeletons. As Lyne wrote in his diary, “Dante would never have condemned lost souls to wander in so terrible a purgatory.”
Periodically, Fawcett would hear a gong-like sound, which meant the gases were coming. Shells unleashed phosgene, chlorine, or mustard gas. A nurse described patients “burnt up and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes… all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.” In March 1917, Nina sent a letter to the RGS saying her husband had been “gassed” after Christmas. For once, Fawcett had been injured. “He was troubled for some time by the effects of the poison,” Nina told Keltie. Certain days were worse than others: “He feels better but not quite right.”
All around Fawcett, people he knew or had been associated with were dying. The war had claimed the lives of more than a hundred and thirty RGS members. Conan Doyle’s oldest son, Kingsley, died of wounds and influenza. A surveyor with whom Fawcett had worked on the South American boundary commission was killed. (“He was a good fellow-we all thought so,” Fawcett informed Keltie. “I am sorry.”) A friend in his brigade was blown up when he rushed to help someone-an act, Fawcett wrote in his official report, “of purely unselfish self-sacrifice.”
Toward the end of the war, Fawcett described some of the carnage that he had witnessed in a missive published in an English newspaper under the headline “British Colonel in Letter Here Tells of Enormous Slaughter.” “If you can imagine 60 miles of front, to a depth of 1 to 30 miles, literally carpeted with dead, often in little hills,” Fawcett wrote. “It is a measure of the price paid. Masses of men moved to the slaughter in endless waves, bridged the wires and filled the trenches with dead and dying. It was the irresistible force of an army of ants, where the pressure of the succeeding waves forced the legions in front, willingly or unwillingly, into the shambles. No thin line could withstand the human tidal wave, or go on killing forever. It is, I think, the most terrible testimony to the relentless effect of an unbridled militarism.” He concluded, “ ‘Civilization!’ Ye gods! To see what one has seen the word is an absurdity. It has been an insane explosion of the lowest human emotions.”
Amid this onslaught, Fawcett continued to be heralded in dispatches for his bravery, and, as the
I said, “Is that you, boy?”
He said in a very intense whisper and a tone all his own, “Father!” and then after a pause, “Forgive me!”
I said, “There was never anything to forgive. You were the best son a man ever had.” A strong hand descended on my head which was slowly pressed forward, and I felt a kiss just above my brow.
“Are you happy?” I cried.
There was a pause and then very gently, “I am so happy.”
Fawcett wrote to Conan Doyle about his own experiences with mediums. He recounted how his dreaded mother had spoken to him during a s?ance. The medium, who channeled her spirit, said, “She loved you so as a little boy and she has remorse for treating you badly.” And, “She would like to send her love but fears it might not be accepted.”
In the past, Fawcett’s interest in the occult had been largely an expression of his youthful rebellion and scientific curiosity, and had contributed to his willingness to defy the prevailing orthodoxies of his own society and to respect tribal legends and religions. Now, though, his approach was untethered from his rigorous RGS training and acute powers of observation. He imbibed Madame Blavatsky’s most outlandish teachings about Hyperboreans and astral bodies and Lords of the Dark Face and keys to unlocking the universe-the Other World seemingly more tantalizing than the present one. (In
More than anything, though, Fawcett was consumed with visions of Z, which, amid the war’s horror, gathered only more luster-a glittering place seemingly immune to the rottenness of Western civilization. Or, as he told Conan Doyle, something of “The Lost World” really did exist. By all accounts, Fawcett thought about Z when he was firing howitzers, when he was being shot at in the trenches, when he was burying the dead. In an article published in the
Fawcett deluged Costin and Manley, who were also fighting on the western front, with letters, trying to secure their services in the future. And he petitioned the RGS for funding.
“It is a little awkward as you can understand, for us at the present moment, to make any definite promise as to what could be done after the war,” Keltie responded to one of his appeals. “If you can only afford to wait.”
“I am getting older and am, I daresay, impatient of lost years and months,” Fawcett complained to Keltie in early 1918. Later that year, he told
On June 28, 1919, nearly five years after Fawcett returned from the Amazon and shortly before his fifty-second birthday, Germany finally signed a peace treaty in surrender. Some twenty million people had been killed and at least twenty million wounded. Fawcett described “the whole business” as “suicide” for Western civilization, and thought, “Many thousands must have come through those four years of mud and blood with a similar disillusionment.”
Returning to his home in England, he saw his wife and children on a regular basis for the first time in years. He was astonished by how much Jack had grown, how much bigger he was through his shoulders and around his arms. Jack had recently celebrated his sixteenth birthday and was “now quite an inch, if not more, taller than his father!” Nina wrote in a letter to Harold Large, a family friend who lived in New Zealand. Jack had developed into a powerful athlete and was already honing his body for the day when he was old enough to venture with his father into the wilderness. “We all went to the sports on Saturday and saw him win the 2nd Prize for the High Jump and Putting the Weight,” Nina said.
Fawcett and Jack played their usual sports together, only now the son often surpassed the father in ability. Jack wrote to Large, boasting, “I had a ripping cricket season, as I was vice-captain of the [school] team, and won the average ball, and was second in the batting averages. Also I never dropped a catch throughout the whole season.” He wrote with a mixture of youthful cockiness and innocence. He noted that he had taken up photography and made “some ripping photos.” Occasionally in his letters he’d include a pen-and-ink caricature of his brother or sister.
Despite his brashness and athletic grace, Jack remained, in many ways, an awkward teenager who, unsure how to interact with girls and desperate to uphold his father’s monkish edicts, seemed mostly at ease in the company of his childhood friend Raleigh Rimell. Brian Fawcett said that Raleigh was Jack’s “able and willing lieutenant.” During the war, the two friends would shoot starlings off the roofs of surrounding houses, causing a furor among the neighbors and the local police. Once, Raleigh shattered a letter box and was summoned by the police and ordered to pay ten shillings to replace it. Whenever Raleigh passed the new letter box, he would polish it with a handkerchief and proclaim, “This is mine, you know!”
On the rare occasions when Raleigh wasn’t present, it was Brian Fawcett who followed Jack around. Brian was different from his older brother-indeed, different from most Fawcett men. He lacked athletic prowess and was often, as he admitted, bullied by other kids “into a stupor.” Suffering in the shadow of his brother, Brian recalled, “At school it was always Jack who distinguished himself in games, in fights, and by standing up to the severe canings of the headmaster.”
Although Nina thought her children had no “hidden feeling of fear or distrust” toward their parents, Brian seemed roiled by his father’s actions. Fawcett always seemed to want to play with Jack and touted him as a future explorer; he even gave Jack his Ceylon treasure map. Brian once noted in a letter to his mother that at least when his father was away there were “no favourites” in the house.
One day Brian followed Jack into the room where their father kept his collection of artifacts. It included a sword, stone axes, a spear tipped with bone, bows and arrows, and shell necklaces. The boys had previously devoured a bag of nuts that the chief of the Maxubis had given Fawcett as a present; now Jack removed a beautifully handcrafted musket called a jezail, which Fawcett had obtained in Morocco. Wondering if it would fire, Jack carried the jezail outside and loaded it with powder. Given its rust and age, the gun was likely to backfire, lethally, and Jack said that he and Brian should flip a coin to see who would pull the trigger. Brian lost. “My elder brother stood well clear, and goaded me on to fulfil my honourable obligation to risk suicide,” Brian recalled. “I pulled the trigger, the pan flashed and sizzled-and nothing further seemed to happen. But things
* * *
FAWCETT, MEANWHILE, was frantically trying to organize what he called his “path to Z.” His two most trusted companions were no longer available: Manley had died of heart disease shortly after the war, and Costin had married and decided to settle down. The loss of these men was a blow that perhaps only Costin fully appreciated. He told his family that Fawcett’s only Achilles’ heel as an explorer was that he hated to slow down, and he needed someone whom he trusted enough to defer to when the person said,
Fawcett then suffered a more severe setback: the RGS and a number of other institutions turned down his requests for funding. The war had made money for scientific exploration harder to come by, but that wasn’t the only reason. University-trained anthropologists and archaeologists were displacing “Hints to Travellers” amateurs; sub-specialization had rendered obsolete the man or woman who dared to try to provide an
Colleagues had once doubted his theory of Z largely for biological reasons: the Indians were physically incapable of constructing a complex civilization. Now many of the new breed of scientists doubted him for environmental reasons: the physical landscape of the Amazon was too inhospitable for primitive tribes to construct any sort of sophisticated society. Biological determinism had increasingly given way to environmental determinism. And the Amazon-the great “counterfeit paradise”-was the most vivid proof of the Malthusian limits that the environment placed on civilizations.
The chronicles of the early El Dorado hunters that Fawcett cited only confirmed to many in the scientific establishment that he was an “amateur.” An article in
Fawcett protested to Keltie, “Remember that I am a sane enthusiast and not an eccentric hunter of the Snark”-a reference to the make-believe creature in the Lewis Carroll poem. (According to the poem, Snark hunters often “suddenly vanish away, / And never be met with again.”)
Within the RGS, Fawcett maintained a loyal faction of supporters, including Reeves and Keltie, who in 1921 became the Society’s vice president. “Never mind what people say about you and about your so-called ‘tall stories,’ ” Keltie told Fawcett. “That does not matter. There are plenty of people who believe in you.”
Fawcett might have persuaded his detractors with delicacy and tact, but after so many years in the jungle he had become a creature of it. He did not dress fashionably, and in his house preferred to sleep in a hammock. His eyes were sunk deep in their sockets, like a doomsday prophet’s, and even among the eccentrics at the RGS there was something vaguely frightening about what one official called his “rather queer” manner. After reports circulated within the Society that he was too intemperate, too uncontrollable, Fawcett grumbled to members of its council, “I don’t lose my temper. I am not naturally tempestuous”-though his protestations suggested that he was being thrown into yet another pique.
In 1920, following the New Year, Fawcett used what little savings he had to move his family to Jamaica, saying that he wanted his children to have “an opportunity to grow up in the virile ambiente of the New World.” Although sixteen-year-old Jack had to leave school, he was delighted, because Raleigh Rimell had also settled there with his family, after the death of his father. While Jack worked as a cowhand on a ranch, Raleigh toiled on a United Fruit Company plantation. At night, the two boys would often get together and plot their incandescent futures: how they would dig up the Galla-pita-Galla treasure in Ceylon and crawl through the Amazon in search of Z.
THAT FEBRUARY, Fawcett left again for South America, in the hope of securing funding from the Brazilian government. Dr. Rice, whose 1916 journey had ended prematurely owing to the entry of the United States into the war, was already back in the jungle, near the Orinoco-a region north of the one Fawcett had targeted, which for centuries had been speculated to be a possible location of El Dorado. As usual, Dr. Rice went with a large, well-armed party, which rarely veered far from the major rivers. Ever obsessed with gadgetry, he had designed a forty-five-foot boat to overcome, as he put it, “the difficulty of bad rapids, strong currents, submerged rocks, and shallow waters.” The boat was shipped in pieces to Manaus, just as the city’s opera house had been, and was assembled by laborers working around the clock. Dr. Rice christened the boat
One evening at camp, he carefully removed the box and placed it on a makeshift table. Slipping on a pair of earphones and twirling the dials as ants crawled over his fingertips, he could hear vague crackling sounds, as if someone were whispering from behind the trees-only the signals were coming from as far as the United States. Dr. Rice had picked them up using a wireless telegraphy set-an early radio-specially outfitted for the expedition. The device cost around six thousand dollars, the equivalent today of about sixty-seven thousand dollars.
Each night, as the rain dripped off the leaves and monkeys swung over his head, Dr. Rice would set up the machine and listen to the news: how President Woodrow Wilson had suffered a stroke and how the Yankees had purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $125,000. Although the machine could not send messages, it retrieved signals indicating the time of day at different meridians around the globe, so that Dr. Rice could more accurately fix longitude. “The results… far exceeded expectations,” remarked John W. Swanson, a member of the expedition who helped operate the radio. “Time signals were received at every locality where they were desired and a daily newspaper, published from news reports received from radio-stations in the United States, Panama, and Europe, kept the members of the expedition fully informed of current events.”
The expedition followed the Casiquiare, a two-hundred-mile natural canal that connected the Orinoco and the Amazon river systems. At one point, Dr. Rice and his men abandoned the boats and went on foot to explore a portion of jungle that was rumored to contain Indian artifacts. After cutting through the forest for about half a mile, they came upon several towering rocks with curious markings. The men quickly scraped away the moss and vines. The rock faces were painted with figures resembling animals and human bodies. Without more modern technology (radiocarbon dating wasn’t available until 1949), it was impossible to determine their age, but they were similar to the ancient-looking rock paintings that Fawcett had seen and made diagrams of in his logbooks.
The expedition, excited, returned to the boat and continued to ascend the river. On January 22, 1920, two members of Dr. Rice’s team were foraging along the shore when they thought they saw someone watching them. They bolted back to camp, sounding the alarm. In an instant, Indians fanned out on the opposite bank of the river. “A large, stout, dark, hideous individual gesticulated violently and kept shouting in an angry manner,” Dr. Rice later wrote in his report to the RGS. “A thick, short growth of hair adorned his upper lip, and a great tooth was suspended from the lower. He was the leader of a band of which some sixty were visible at first, but more seemed to spring up each minute, until the bank was lined with them as far up and down as we could see.”
They carried long bows, arrows, clubs, and blow darts. What was most striking, however, was their skin. It was “almost white in color,” Dr. Rice said. The tribesmen were Yanomami, one of the groups of so-called white Indians.
During his previous expeditions, Dr. Rice had taken a cautious, paternalistic approach when contacting tribes. Whereas Fawcett believed that the Indians should, for the most part, remain “uncontaminated” by Westerners, Dr. Rice thought that they should be “civilized,” and he and his wife had established a school in S?o Gabriel, along the Rio Negro, and several medical clinics staffed with Christian missionaries. After one visit to the school, Dr. Rice told the RGS that the change in the children’s “dress, manners, and general appearance” and the “atmosphere of order and industry” were in “striking contrast to the squalid village of naked little savages” that had once prevailed.
Now, as the Yanomami approached, Dr. Rice’s men stood watch, armed with an assortment of weapons, including a rifle, a shotgun, a revolver, and a muzzle-loader. Dr. Rice placed offerings of knives and mirrors on the ground, where the light could glint off them. The Indians, perhaps seeing the guns aimed at them, refused to take the gifts; instead, some Yanomami edged closer to the explorers, pointing their drawn bows. Dr. Rice ordered his men to fire a warning shot over their heads, but the gesture only provoked the Indians, who began to unleash their arrows, one landing by the doctor’s foot. Dr. Rice then gave the command to open fire-shooting to kill. It is not known how many Indians died during the onslaught. In a missive to the RGS, Dr. Rice wrote, “There was no alternative, they being the aggressors, resenting all attempts at parley or truce, and compelling a defensive that resulted disastrously for them and was a keen disappointment to me.”
As the Indians retreated under the fusillade, Dr. Rice and his men returned to their boats and fled. “We could hear their blood-curdling screams as they kept at our heels,” Dr. Rice said. When the expedition eventually emerged from the jungle, the explorers were hailed for their bravery. Fawcett, however, was appalled, and told the RGS that to shoot indiscriminately at the Indians was reprehensible. He also could not resist pointing out that Dr. Rice had “skedaddled” the moment he encountered danger and was “rather too soft for the real game.”
Yet reports that the doctor had uncovered ancient Indian paintings and intended to head back into the jungle with even more gadgetry put Fawcett in a frenzy as he tried to raise funding in Brazil. In Rio, he stayed with the British ambassador, Sir Ralph Paget, a close friend, who lobbied the Brazilian government on his behalf. Although the RGS had refused to devote its depleted resources to the expedition, it recommended its famous disciple to the Brazilian government, writing in a cable that “it is quite true that he has a reputation of being difficult to get on with… but all the same he has an extraordinary power of getting through difficulties that would deter anybody else.” On February 26, a meeting was arranged with the Brazilian president, Epit?cio Pessoa, and the renowned explorer and head of the Indian Protection Service, C?ndido Rondon. Fawcett presented himself as a colonel, even though he had retired after the war as a lieutenant colonel. He had recently petitioned the British War Office to approve the change in rank, since he was returning to South America to raise money and “it is a matter of some importance.” In a later plea, he was more explicit: “The higher rank has a certain importance in dealing with local officials, ‘Lt Colonel’ not only being locally equivalent to ‘Comman-dante,’ a grade below colonel, but as a rank having lost much of its local prestige owing to the large number of Temporary Officers who have retained it.” The War Office refused his request on both occasions, but he inflated his rank anyway-a subterfuge he maintained so steadfastly that nearly everyone, including his family and friends, eventually knew him only as “Colonel Fawcett.”
In the presidential palace, Fawcett and Rondon greeted each other cordially. Rondon, who had been promoted to general, was in uniform and wore a gold-braided cap. His graying hair gave him a distinguished look, and he stood ramrod straight. As another English traveler once noted, he commanded “instant attention-an atmosphere of conscious dignity and power that immediately singled him out.” Aside from the president, there was no one else in the room.
According to Rondon, Fawcett gradually made his case for Z, emphasizing the importance of his archaeological research for Brazil. The president seemed sympathetic, and asked Rondon what he thought of “this valuable project.” Rondon suspected that his rival, who remained secretive about his route, might have some ulterior motive-perhaps to exploit the jungle’s mineral wealth for England. There were also rumors, later fanned by the Russians on Radio Moscow, that Fawcett was still a spy, though there was no evidence for this. Rondon insisted that it was not necessary for “foreigners to conduct expeditions in Brazil, as we have civilians and military men who are very capable of doing such work.”
The president noted that he had promised the British ambassador that he would help. Rondon said that it was imperative, then, that the search for Z involve a joint Brazilian-British expedition.
Fawcett was convinced that Rondon was trying to sabotage him, and his temper grew. “I intend to go alone,” he snapped.
The two explorers faced each other down. The president initially sided with his countryman and said that the expedition should include Rondon’s men. But economic difficulties prompted the Brazilian government to withdraw from the expedition, though it gave Fawcett enough money to launch a bare-bones operation. Before Fawcett left their final meeting, Rondon told him, “I pray for the Colonel’s good fortune.”
Fawcett had enlisted for the expedition a British army officer and RGS member whom Reeves had recommended, but at the last minute the officer backed out. Undeterred, Fawcett posted an advertisement in newspapers and recruited a six-foot-five-inch Australian boxer named Lewis Brown and a thirty-one-year-old American ornithologist, Ernest Holt. Brown was the wild sort drawn to the frontier, and before leaving on the expedition he indulged his sexual appetites. “I’m flesh and blood like the rest!” he told Fawcett. Holt, in contrast, was a sensitive young man who, growing up in Alabama, had collected lizards and snakes and had long aspired to be a naturalist-explorer in the mold of Darwin. Like Fawcett, he wrote down poems in his diary to recite in the jungle, including Kipling’s words “The Dreamer whose dream came true!” Holt also printed on his diary’s cover, in bold letters, a relative’s address, “IN CASE OF FATAL ACCIDENT.”
The three gathered in Cuiab?, the capital of Mato Grosso. During the six years Fawcett had been away from the Amazon, the rubber boom had collapsed, and a central role in its demise was played by a former president of the Royal Geographical Society, Sir Clements Markham. In the 1870s, Markham had engineered the smuggling of Amazonian rubber-tree seeds to Europe, which were then distributed to plantations throughout British colonies in Asia. Compared with the brutal, inefficient, and costly extraction of wild rubber in the jungle, growing rubber on Asian plantations was easy and cheap, and the produce abundant. “The electric lights went out in Manaus,” the historian Robin Furneaux wrote. “The opera house was silent and the jewels which had filled it were gone… Vampire bats circled the chandeliers of the broken palaces and spiders scurried across their floors.”
Fawcett described Cuiab? as “impoverished and backward,” a place that had degenerated into “little better than a ghost town.” The streets were covered in mud and grass; only the main road was illuminated by electric lightbulbs. As Fawcett gathered provisions for his expedition, he feared that he was being spied on. In fact, General Rondon had vowed not to let the Englishman out of his sight until he discovered his true intentions. In his correspondence, Fawcett began to use a cipher to conceal his route. As Nina explained in a letter to a trusted friend, “Lat x+4 to x+5, and Long y+2, where ‘x’ is twice the number of letters in the name of the town where he stayed with us, and ‘y’ is the number of the building in London where I used to visit him.” She added, “Keep the key to this cipher entirely to yourself.”
Fawcett received a farewell note from his son Jack, who wrote that he had had a “dream” in which he entered an ancient temple in a city like Z. May “protection” be “with you at all stages of your journey,” Jack told his father, and wished him Godspeed. Fawcett asked a local intermediary that if his family or friends “get alarmed at no news please soothe them with the confident assertion we shall come to no untoward end and shall be heard of in due course.” And in a letter to Keltie he vowed, “I am going to reach this place and return from it.” Trailed by his two companions, plus two horses, two oxen, and a pair of dogs, he then marched northward toward the Xingu River, holding his machete like a knight clutching his sword.
Soon after, everything began to unravel. Rains flooded their path and destroyed their equipment. Brown, despite his ferocious appearance, suffered a mental breakdown, and Fawcett, fearing another Murray-like disaster, dispatched him back to Cuiab?. Holt, too, grew feeble; he said that it was impossible to do fieldwork because of the horrific conditions, and he maniacally cataloged the bugs that were attacking him, until his diary contained details of almost nothing else. “More than half ill from insects,” he scribbled, adding, “Days of toil, nights of torture-an explorer’s life! Where is the romance now?”
Fawcett was irate. How could he get anywhere with “this cripple”? he wrote in his journals. Yet Fawcett, too, was, at the age of fifty-three, no longer immune to the forces of nature. His leg had become swollen and infected, “giving me so much pain at night that sleep was difficult,” he confessed in his diary. One night he took opium pills and became violently ill. “It was rather unusual for me to be laid low in this way, and I was heartily ashamed of myself,” he wrote.
A month into their journey, the animals started to collapse. “It is awful on one’s nerves to watch one’s pack animals slowly dying,” Holt wrote. An ox that had been invaded by maggots lay down and never got up. One of the dogs was starving, and Holt shot it. A horse drowned. Then the other horse dropped in its tracks, and Fawcett put it out of its misery with a bullet-this was the site that became known as Dead Horse Camp. Finally, Holt prostrated himself and said, “Never mind me, Colonel. You go on-just leave me here.”
Fawcett knew the expedition might be his last opportunity to prove the theory of Z, and he cursed the gods for conspiring against him- decried them for the weather, his companions, and the war that had held him back. Fawcett realized that if he left Holt behind he would die. “There was nothing for it,” Fawcett later wrote, “but to take him back and give up the present trip as a failure-a sickening, heartrending failure!”
What he would not admit was that his own infected leg made proceeding almost impossible. As the expedition party struggled back to the nearest frontier outpost, enduring thirty-six hours without water, Fawcett told Holt, “The exit from Hell is always difficult.”
When they emerged in Cuiab? in January 1921, Ambassador Paget sent a telegram to Nina saying only, “Your husband returned.” Nina asked Harold Large, “What does it mean, think you?-Not failure I should say! Possibly, he may not have found the ‘lost cities’ but I should think he’s found something important or surely he wouldn’t have returned.” Yet he had returned with nothing. General Rondon released a gloating statement to the press that said, “Col. Fawcett’s expedition was abandoned… in spite of all his pride as an explorer… He came back thin, naturally disappointed for having been forced to retreat before entering the hardest part of the Xingu.” Devastated, Fawcett made plans to return to the jungle with Holt, who was still under contract and whose services were all he could afford. The wife of the American vice-consul in Rio, who was a friend of the ornithologist’s, sent Holt a letter beseeching him not to go:
You are a strong, able-bodied young man, so
Still, Holt was determined to see the expedition through, and went to Rio to collect supplies. Fawcett, meanwhile, was turning over in his mind every aspect of Holt’s performance: each complaint, each misstep, each error. He even began to suspect, though he had no evidence, that Holt was a Judas, sending information back to Dr. Rice or another rival. Fawcett dispatched a message to Holt that said, “Unfortunately we live and think in different worlds and can no more mix than oil and water… And as the objects of this journey with me come first and personal considerations last, I prefer to finish it alone than to risk results unnecessarily.”
Holt, dumbfounded, wrote in his diary, “After close association with Col. Fawcett for a period covering one year, I… find that the lesson most clearly impressed upon my mind is: Never again under any circumstances form any connections with any Englishman whatsoever.” He lamented that, instead of earning fame, he remained a “vagabond ornithologist-or perhaps ‘tramp birdskinner’ would be nearer a true title.” He concluded, “As far as my biased observation goes [Fawcett] possesses only 3 qualities that I admire: Nerve, kindness to animals, and quick forgetful-ness of a row.”
Fawcett told a friend that he had fired another expedition companion, who was “convinced I am sure that I am a lunatic.”
Now, for the first time, the thought began to take hold:
For the moment, though, Jack, still only eighteen, was not ready, and Fawcett had no one. The logical choice was to postpone the journey, but instead he sold half his military pension to pay for provisions-gambling what little private savings he had-and came up with a new plan. This time he would try to reach Z from the opposite direction, heading from east to west. Starting in Bahia and passing where he thought the
“I must return,” he vowed. “I