Colonel Percy Fawcett
He charted the wilderness of South America, but then disappeared without a trace.
"Do you know anything about Bolivia?" asked the President of the Royal Geographical Society to Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett early in 1906. The Colonel replied that he didn't and the President went on to explain the tremendous economic potential of South America and also the complete lack of reliable maps. "Look at this area!" he said, pushing a chart in front of Fawcett, "It's full of blank spaces because so little is known of it."
The President went on to explain that the lack of well-defined borders in South America was leading to tension in that region. Much of the area was 'rubber country' where vast forests of rubber trees could be tapped to provide the world's need for rubber and generate revenue for countries like Bolivia and Brazil. The lack of defined borders could lead to war. An expedition to mark the borders could not be led by either a Bolivian or a Brazilian. Only a neutral third party could be trusted with the job and the Royal Geographical Society had been asked to act as a referee.
Now the President of the Society wanted to know if Fawcett was interested in the position. It would be a dangerous job. Disease was rampant there. Some of the native tribes had a reputation for savagery. Without hesitation, though, the Colonel took the job.
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett was born in 1867 in Devon, England. At the age of nineteen he was given a commission in the Royal Artillery. He served in Ceylon for several years where he met and married his wife. Later he performed secret service work in North Africa. Fawcett found himself bored with Army life and learned the art of surveying, hoping to land a more interesting job. Then in 1906 came the offer from the Society: His ticket to adventure.
The Colonel arrived in La Plaz, Bolivia, in June of 1906 ready to start his expedition. After a disagreement with the government over expenses ,Fawcett started into the heart of the continent to begin the boundary survey. He quickly found that just getting to the area where he was to be working would be an ordeal in itself. The trail lead up a precipitous path to a pass in the mountains at 17,000 feet. It took him and his companions two hours to go four miles and climb 6,000 feet. The pack mules would struggle up the path 30 feet at a time, then stop, gasping for breath in the thin air. The party was afraid that if they overworked the animals, they would die.
Arriving at the town of Cobija, Fawcett quickly got a taste of how difficult life was in the interior of South America. Disease was common and he was told that the death rate in the town was nearly fifty percent a year. Cut off from the outside world, many depressed inhabitants sought comfort by abusing alcohol. One night one of the local army officers became enraged by his subordinate's refusal to join him in a card game. Drunk, the officer drew his sword and went after the man, injuring him. When another soldier tried to assist the injured man the officer turned on him, chasing him around a hut. The fellow sought refuge in Fawcett's room, but the officer followed him inside.
"Where is that dirty so-and-so?" the officer roared. "Where have you hidden him?"
When Fawcett reprimanded the officer for chasing unarmed men with his sword, the officer cursed at the Colonel and drew his revolver. Fawcett grabbed the man's wrist and struggled with him, finally forcing the gun from his hand.
Bolivia was a lawless frontier is those days, much like the American West had been a half century before. Fawcett, in fact, met an American gunslinger named Harvey. The red-bearded, silent man was quick with his revolver and sure with his aim. Harvey, a bandit, had found the United States too civilized and dodged the Texas Rangers, working his way down through Mexico into South America. He had held up a mining company in a neighboring country, and there was a large reward on his head. Boliva had no extradition law, however, and he was safe in this new frontier.
Colonel Fawcett was appalled by treatment of the native South American Indians. Although slavery was illegal, rubber plantation owners would often organize trips into the jungle for the purpose of capturing slaves to be used as rubber collectors. Some of the tribes, in return, became quite hostile toward those of European decent. Fawcett believed that if you treated the Indians with kindness and understanding, you would receive kindness in return. During a trip up the Heath River to find its source in 1910, Fawcett had a unique opportunity to test his theory.
He and his group had been warned off traveling up the Heath because the tribes along it had a reputation for unrestrained savagery. "To venture up into the midst of them is sheer madness," exclaimed an army major. Fawcett went anyway.
After a week paddling up the river, the party rounded a bend and ran straight into an Indian encampment perched on a sandbar. The natives were as surprised as the expedition. "Dogs barked, men shouted, women screamed and reached for their children" Fawcett recalled. The natives hid in the trees while the group grounded their canoes on the sandbar. Arrows whizzed by the men or fell around them. Fawcett tried some peace overtures using native words he had learned, but the message didn't seem to be getting through. Then he had an idea. One of the group was seated just beyond arrow range and was told to play his accordion. The man sang "A Bicycle Made for Two", "Suwannee River", "Onward Christian Soldiers" and other tunes. Finally Fawcett noticed the lyrics had changed to "They've-all-stopped-shooting-at-us." Sure enough, the singer was right. Fawcett approached the natives and greeted them. Gifts were exchanged as a sign of friendship.
Not all contacts with the Indians ended so well. During a trip down the Chocolatal River, the pilot of the boat Fawcett was traveling on went off to inspect a nearby road. When he didn't come back Fawcett found him dead with 42 arrows in his body.
People were only one of the dangers of the jungle. The animal kingdom was another. One night while camped near the Yalu River ,the Colonel was climbing into his sleeping bag when he felt something "hairy and revolting" scuttle up his arm and over his neck. It was a gigantic apazauca spider. It clung to his hand fiercely while Fawcett tried to shake it off. The spider finally dropped to the ground and walked away without attacking. The animal's bite is poisonous and sometimes fatal.
Vampire bats were also a nuisance in some remote areas. At night these creatures would come to bite and lap up blood from sleepers. Fawcett reported that though they slept under mosquito nets, any portion of bodies touching the net or protruding beyond it would be attacked. In the morning they would find their hammocks saturated with blood.
Near Potrero, wild bulls became a problem for one of Fawcett's expeditions. The group was traveling in an ox cart which gave them some protection. Even so, the group was attacked by three bulls one day. They managed to drive them off only after killing one animal and riddling the other two with bullets. On that same trip Fawcett was fifty yards behind the rest of the group when a big red bull appeared between him and the cart. The Colonel wasn't carrying a rifle and there were no trees or other places to seek refuge. Fawcett was able to get past the animal, as it snorted, lashed its tail and tore up the ground, by moving slowly while fixing it with a a hopefully hypnotic stare.
Snakes were also a constant threat too. Once while traveling with a Texan named Ross, they were attacked by a seven-foot long "Bushmaster," a deadly poisonous snake. The men leapt out of the way as the Texan pulled his revolver, putting two slugs through the ugly head of the creature. On close examination Ross realized the snake had bitten him, but the fangs had sunk into his tobacco pouch. His skin showed two dents where the fangs had pressed against him, but never broke through. His skin was wet with venom. The pouch had saved his life.
Fawcett often found it necessary to swim rivers in order to get a rope across for hauling equipment over. The Colonel had to be very careful there were no cuts or open sores on his body that might attract piranha fish. Swarms of these fish have been known to strip the flesh off a man in minutes if he was unlucky enough to fall into the water were they where congregated. One of Fawcett's companions lost two fingers to them while washing his blood stained hands in the river.
Though not poisonous, the giant anaconda is probably the most feared snake in the jungle. Fawcett had a run-in with one not long after he arrived in South America. In his diary he noted: "We were drifting easily along the sluggish current not far below the confluence of the Rio Negro when almost under the bow of the igarit'e [boat] there appeared a triangular head and several feet of undulating body. It was a giant anaconda. I sprang for my rifle as the creature began to make its way up the bank, and hardly waiting to aim, smashed a .44 soft-nosed bullet into its spine, ten feet below the wicked head."
The boat stopped so that the Colonel could examine the body. Despite being fatally wounded, "shivers ran up and down the body like puffs of wind on a mountain tarn." Though they had no measuring device along with them, Fawcett estimated the creature was sixty-two feet in length and 12-inches in diameter.
Colonel Fawcett probably came closest to death during his trips not from human or animal agents but from the geography of the land itself. While traveling down the uncharted Madidi River by raft, his expedition encountered a series of dangerous rapids. With each the speed of the rafts increased until they were rushing down the river uncontrolled. Finally, the river widened and the velocity slowed.
The crews had just given a sigh of relief when they rounded a steep bluff and the roar of a waterfall filled their ears. One of the rafts was able to make it to shore, but Fawcett's was caught in the current. With the water too deep to use a pole to snag the bottom and turn away, the raft shot over the drop.
Fawcett later recounted, "...the raft seemed to poise there for an instant before it fell from under us. Turning over two or three times as it shot through the air, the balsa crashed down into the black depths."
The group survived, but lost much of their equipment. "Looking back we saw what we had come through. The fall was about twenty feet high, and where river dropped the canyon narrowed to a mere ten feet across; through this bottleneck the huge volume of water gushed with terrific force, thundering down into the a welter of brown foam and black-topped rocks. It seemed incredible that we could have survived that maelstrom!"
During a trip to map the Rio Verde River and discover its source, Fawcett came face to face with starvation. The expedition started well: The land around the mouth of the river had plenty of game and the group took what they estimated to be three weeks worth of food with them. Then the expedition was forced to abandon their boats because of rapids, and had to continue up the riverbank on foot.
Because the expedition needed to minimize the weight they would carry, Fawcett decided to bury some of his equipment and 60 gold sovereigns (worth about $300) in metal cases near where they landed. Fawcett was amazed when years later stories came to him about a "Verde Treasure" that had been left behind by his expedition. The story had been retold and embellished so many times that the size of the treasure had been magnified to 60,000 gold sovereigns. The Colonel was particularly amused because the story never mentioned the fact the he had retrieved the cases after the trip was over. He was sure the story would attract future would-be treasure hunters.
As they walked upriver the water, which had been clean, turned bitter and no fish could be found. Then game also seemed to disappear. Soon the supplies they carried were exhausted. For ten more days the group pressed on, despite only having consumed some bad honey and a few bird eggs. Finally, the found the source of the river and charted it (left).
Freed from the responsibility of charting the river, Fawcett tried to figure out the quickest route to somewhere they could get food. Deciding the best chance was to go over the Ricardo Franco Hills, the group tried to work their way up canyons that would lead them to the top.
The hills were flat-topped and mysterious. They looked like giant tables and their forested tops were completely cut off from the jungle below. When Fawcett later told Conan Doyle about these hills, the writer pictured the isolated tops populated with surviving dinosaurs. Doyle used these hills as the location for his famous novel The Lost World.
The expedition quickly found that crossing the hills was futile, and returning the way they had come impossible. Colonel Fawcett instead decided to follow the direction the streams in the region were flowing, hoping that it would get them out. Days passed and no food. One of the expedition's Indian assistants lay down to die, and only the prodding of Fawcett's hunting knife in his ribs got him moving again.
After twenty days without food, the group was at its limit. Fawcett prayed audibly for relief. Then fifteen minutes later a deer appeared 300 yards away. Fawcett unslung his gun. The target was too far away and his hands were shaking, but,in a miracle the Colonel could only attribute to a higher power, the bullet found its mark, killing the deer instantly.
The group consumed every part of the deer: skin, fur and all. The expedition's fortune had turned and within six days they were back in a town with the Verde trip only a bad memory.
For the first three years Fawcett had worked for the Boundary Commission charting the region. When that job came to an end, Fawcett retired from the military and continued exploring on his own, financing the trips with help from newspapers and other businesses. After returning to England to serve in World War I, the Colonel was again drawn back to the South American jungle. As time went on, he became more and more interested in the archaeology of the region. In total he made seven expeditions into wilderness between 1906 and 1924.
The Final Expedition
Finding reliable companions for his trips had always been a problem, but by 1925 his oldest son, Jack, had reached an age where he could join his father in the field.
Fawcett, by examining records and sifting through old stories, had become convinced that there was a large, ancient city concealed in the wilds of Brazil. Fawcett called this city "Z" and planned an expedition that consisted of himself, his son, Jack, and a friend of Jack's. Fawcett had always preferred small expeditions that could live off the land, thinking that a small group would look less like an invasion to the Indians and therefore be less likely to be attacked. The route was carefully planned.
Fawcett, concerned with others, left word that should they not return, a rescue expedition was not to be mounted. He felt that it would be too dangerous.
On May 29th, 1925, a message was sent from Fawcett to his wife, indicating that they were ready to enter unexplored territory. The three were sending back the assistants that had helped them to this point and were ready to go on by themselves. Fawcett told his wife "You need have no fear of failure..." It was the last anyone ever heard of the expedition. They disappeared into the jungle never to be seen again.
Despite Fawcett's wishes, several rescue expeditions tried to find him, but without success. Occasionally there were intriguing reports that he'd been seen, but none of these were ever confirmed.
So what happened to Colonel Fawcett? What danger that he had eluded in the past had gotten him this time? Hostile Indians? A giant anaconda? Piranhas? Disease? Starvation? Or was it, as one tale told, he'd lost his memory and lived out the rest of his life as a chief among a tribe of cannibals?
In 1996 an expedition was put together by René Delmotte and James Lynch look for traces of Fawcett. It didn't get far. Indians stopped the group, threatened their lives, and detained them for some days. They were finally released, but $30,000 worth of equipment was confiscated. Even seventy years after his disappearance, it seems the jungle is still too dangerous a place for anyone to follow in Colonel Percy Fawcett's footsteps.