Wednesday 17 April 2013

Jungle Adventure

Lt Col Percy Fawcett pictured in 1911.

One of the many nice things about volunteering in an Oxfam bookshop is that you come across all sorts of hidden gems and unknown books which you wouldn’t normally seek out. Exploration Fawcett, by Lt Col PH Fawcett, is one such book.

This particular volume, a pale green, cloth-bound hardback published in 1954 by Hutchinson & Co for members of the Companion Book Club, rang a bell, so I picked it up, read a few pages... and kept reading! By that stage, of course, I had to buy it, despite making my usual pre-shift pledge about not acquiring any more books.

Percy Harrison Fawcett disappeared in 1925 in the Brazilian Matto Grosso while hunting for a long-lost city, which he called ‘Z’ and believed was still inhabited by descendants of an ancient ‘higher’ race, whose civilisation held the secrets of mankind. No trace of him or his two companions – his elder son Jack and his son’s friend Raleigh Rimell - was ever found which, given the climate and nature of the land he was travelling through, is probably not surprising. However, the mystery (fuelled in part by his own interest in the occult) gripped the public imagination and took on a life of its own, spawning myths and legends even more fantastic than those which set him off on his quest.

The book, ‘arranged’ from his manuscripts, letters, logbooks and records by his younger son Brian, traces his interest in South America, and his growing obsession with an ancient culture he claimed existed long before the pre-Conquest period. He first travelled to the continent in 1906, surveying and mapping the Bolivian border in a region where there were frontier disputes with Peru and Brazil.

Over the next two decades he carried out more work like this, but eventually mounted his own expeditions searching for traces of the long-lost civilisation he believed in so passionately. The only records of his final, ill-fated journey are a handful of letters, but the earlier accounts of his life, work and travels in South America are fascinating. Part travelogue, part boy’s on adventure, they are amazingly wide-ranging, describing his journeys, the landscape, weather, industry, the flora and fauna, history, customs and culture, archaeology, food, and the people he met,(the white men and the Indians).
The map on the front and back pages shows the areas Fawcett wrote about, 
There were dangers from swamps, venomous snakes, vicious insects, pirhana, hostile natives and goodness knows what else. He encountered giant anacondas, two-nosed dogs, spiders as big as dinner plates and tribes who had little or no contact with the outside world – one was even using Stone Age tools. Fawcett must have kept notes on every traveller’s tale he ever heard, no matter how unlikely it seemed, for the book is packed with such yarns. He was especially intrigued by anything he thought had a bearing on his own theories, like the stories about White Indians (light-skinned Indians with blue eyes and red hair) and those which told of a magical plant juice potion which could turn the surface of stone to mud.

The world he portrays is violent and brutal. Life was cheap and land was being exploited for natural resources like gold, diamonds and rubber. Even in the early days of the 20th century the rain forests of the Amazon basin and its tributaries were being eroded by so-called ‘development’ and Fawcett showed concern for the environmental and ecological issues.

Exploration Fawcett - and adventure tale, and a
a travelogue.
He has been accused of racism, and I can see why. It’s his use of the word ‘savages’ which grates on modern ears, and terms like ‘tame Indians’.  But I don’t think he was any more racist than most other people of the time – and he was considerably more enlightened than some. He recognised the adverse affect of white settlers on ethnic people, was outraged by their ill treatment, and said they were quick learners who, when given the opportunity, could hold their own in business and society. I think perhaps patronising would be a better description of his attitude.

He certainly had a way with words, and the places, people and things he describes spring to life, and his love of Brazil shines through, as does his obsession with the idea of a lost city. By the end of the book I desperately wanted him to have found his El Dorado, but I doubt he ever did.

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