The forests of the Bolivian Amazon have long attracted adventurers, eccentrics and explorers, but few have matched the exploits of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett. An officer in the British Indian Army, Fawcett first came to Bolivia in 1906 to survey the unmarked and largely unexplored wilderness frontiers between Bolivia and Peru and Brazil. Over the next nineteen years, he travelled the length and breadth of the Beni, keeping a diary which his brother Brian would later use as the basis for the iconic Exploration Fawcett. First published in 1953, the book painted a vivid if, as some have speculated, somewhat embellished picture of life in the Amazon at the peak of the rubber boom. This was a time when “slavery, vice and bloodshed ruled supreme on the rivers”, and during which the indigenous inhabitants – considered “wild and hostile savages” – were “as a rule … either shot on sight like dangerous animals or ruthlessly hunted down to be sent as slaves to rubber estates”. Fawcett’s own adventures involved frequent close encounters with 20m-long anacondas, ferocious cannibal tribes, virulent tropical diseases and brutal and corrupt officials. On one occasion he and a small exploration party found their canoe marooned on a sandbar in the Río Heath and surrounded by heavily armed Guarayos warriors. Realizing that to fight would be hopeless, Fawcett says he ordered his companions to sing, accompanied by an accordion. After a few verses of “A Bicycle Made for Two”, the previously hostile tribesmen were completely pacified.
From man to myth
In other respects a typical product of the British Empire, the longer Fawcett spent in the Amazon, the more he came to love the wilderness and sympathize with its inhabitants. Over the years he became convinced that somewhere hidden deep in the forest stood a magnificent city inhabited by an ancient and highly advanced race of white Indians. Condemned by many of his contemporaries as a mystic and dreamer, in 1925 he set off to find this mythical city in the wilds of the Brazilian Amazon, and was never seen again. Since then, countless expeditions have gone in search of the colonel, while rumours concerning his possible end abound; according to David Grann’s definitive Lost City of Z, the most likely scenario is that Fawcett – along with his son Jack – was murdered by one of the warlike tribes in the Xingu region of Brazil. The truth behind his disappearance has never been established conclusively, however, and his own fate has now become the kind of mystery that so entranced him when he was alive. As the archeological evidence continues to mount up, moreover, his core theory of an advanced Amazonian civilisation looks more and more like the work of a visionary rather than a dreamer.