“Fawcett Expedition: To Penetrate Land Whence None Returned.” The year was 1925 and the press was rabid with anticipation: Someone was setting off to conquer the Amazon.
At the time, the rainforest was one of the world’s few remaining mysteries: a magical site believed to be teeming with danger, savage natives, boundless riches, and ancient civilizations. So when the strapping British explorer Col. Percy Harrison Fawcett – accompanied by his 21-year-old son Jack and Jack’s best friend Raleigh – plunged into the Amazon in search of a golden treasure city known only as Z, it seemed the stuff of legends.
But Fawcett and his party never returned.
In his first book, New Yorker journalist David Grann, relies on Fawcett’s never-before published diaries to pick up the trail of one of the most enduring mysteries of the early 20th century. In the gripping The Lost City of Z, Grann toggles between a biographic portrait of the near-mythic figure of Fawcett and his own modern-day attempt to reconstruct the ill-fated expedition.
Long before Fawcett’s death in the Amazon, he had emerged as the ultimate Victorian man. Tall, strong, and fearless, he entered his prime soon after the turn of the 20th century. It was a time, Grann writes, when, “Britain, with the death of Queen Victoria and the rise of Germany, had grown anxious about its empire.” Fawcett was seized upon by the British press as “the perfect counter point to the national crisis of confidence.”
He had earned his countrymen’s awe by not only bravely charting courses through unexplored land in South America, but by doing it fast, and doing it in style.
Fawcett was a consummate scientist, a loyal servant of the crown, a heroic veteran of World War I, and a man who “rarely, if ever, seemed to get sick.” He scoffed at specialists and reviled those who could not keep their composure in the face of an anaconda attack.
He was, in Grann’s words, an English gentleman, of the old school and of the highest order.
But underlying such reverence, Grann notes, are the sad strains of Europe’s colonialist impulses.
Exploration, in the English sense, entailed taming and civilizing. In the Amazon, this work had long-lasting consequences – the conversion of the natives by missionaries, the introduction of industry (especially rubber), the exploitation of natural resources – all marked by the notion of making “modern” that which was “savage.”
During Fawcett’s official training with the Royal Geographical Society he was taught the “science of savages,” which related, in part, that “it is established that some races are inferior to others in volume and complexity of brain, Australians and Africans being in this respect below Europeans.”
Grann notes, “[Fawcett] escaped virtually every kind of pathology in the jungle, but he could not rid himself of the pernicious disease of race.”
What makes Fawcett such a fascinating biography subject are his contradictions. Remembered by his family members as a man who preferred vegetarianism because he hated to kill an animal unnecessarily, he was also a stoic who made a point of telling his expedition companions that anyone who broke a leg in the forest would be abandoned to prevent slowing down the entire party.
It is also unclear why an überrationalist like Fawcett would risk his all in search of so nebulous a goal. What was Z, exactly? A city of gold? A still-thriving civilization of extreme complexity? Something else entirely? To this day it remains hard to understand how the very vague legends that surrounded the unknown site could have provoked evangelical fervor in a man of science.
Fawcett’s time in the trenches in World War I seems to have upended his sense of what it meant to be a civilized man. “Civilization!‚ Ye Gods!,” Fawcett wrote toward the end of the war. “To see what one has seen the word is an absurdity. It has been an insane explosion of the lowest human emotions.”
Yet somehow, he emerged from the war with an even stronger need to find Z.
There is something about Fawcett’s spirit and self-assurance that captivates many who hear his story, Grann included. As readers, we are left wondering if that eternal explorer’s ethos – the desire to climb the mountain “because it’s there” – is something intrinsically human or if, ultimately, exploration is a cultural construct.
In one of the most poignant scenes of the book, Grann speaks with a native member of an Indian tribe who lives not far from where Fawcett is believed to have disappeared. The woman has encountered more than her fair share of latter-day searchers like Grann, all hoping to discover what had happened to Fawcett and his party. “What is it that these white people did?,” she asks. “Why is it so important for their tribe to find them?”
It’s a question that gives pause. Fawcett saved no lives and solved no cosmic mysteries. On the contrary, he and the Spanish conquistadores before him brought the diseases that helped turn once-flourishing native civilizations into decaying ruins.
And yet it’s hard not to care about the fate of this man who pushed himself so far beyond the normal limits of human capacity. And to read “The Lost City of Z” is to feel grateful that Grann himself bothered to set out for the Amazon in search of the bones of an explorer whose body was long ago reclaimed by the jungle.
Jeremy Kutner is a Monitor intern.