ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY
In early 1925, British Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett, having convinced himself, based on a mix of archival research, deduction and clairvoyance, that a large undiscovered city lay hidden somewhere in the Amazon, entered the jungle to try to find it. The word “quixotic” has its origins in a story set on the Spanish plains, in the same century when Europeans were first entering South America’s vast, seemingly unending rainforest. Since then, the adjective has often been applied to those like Fawcett–explorers entranced by the promise of riches or fame, as assured in their quests as the Man of La Mancha was that the windmills he tilted at were giants. “I call it Z,” wrote Fawcett of his fabled metropolis, “for the sake of convenience.”
Fawcett, his son Jack and another companion were never heard from again, but their disappearance prompted a parade of would-be rescuers. With the US frontier closed, Africa carved up and the British Empire at its widest girth, “the big blank spaces in the map,” as a character says in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, based partly on Fawcett’s earlier travels, were “all being filled in, and there’s no room for romance anywhere”–except for the opportunity to reprise Stanley’s feat and find a lost Victorian. By 1933 so many film crews, reporters and adventurers were converging on the Amazon in the hunt for the Fawcett party that the Brazilian government, to avoid having to save yet another writer looking for material or Hollywood actor hoping for publicity, put an embargo on future trips.
Fawcett is often called the last of the great explorers, and the man who wrote his eulogy was Peter Fleming, brother of the creator of James Bond. In 1932 Fleming answered an ad in the London Times for “guns” to join a Fawcett search. An Etonian and recent Christ Church graduate, he had no doubt he would be picked. “An Old Boy,” he wrote, “is worth two young men.” The party didn’t find Fawcett, but Fleming’s account of the trip, Brazilian Adventure, became a bestseller. In its introduction, he confessed that he tried to “pile on the agony a good deal; I felt it would be expected of me.” He had, after all, a “free hand” in describing the “Great Unknown”; his predecessors had “made great play with the Terrors of the Jungle. The alligators, the snakes, the man-eating fish, the lurking savages, those dreadful insects–all the paraphernalia of tropical mumbo jumbo lay ready to my hand.” But finding the privations of the Amazon nothing compared with the dangers of London, Fleming opted to write a “strictly truthful” book.
Fleming could be accused of dressed-up Anglo supremacy. “You don’t hit your butler, do you?” he asked a fellow traveler, rebuking him for striking their Brazilian boat pilot. But the quip disarmed a tense situation by appealing to a culturebound sense of propriety, which Fleming held responsible for the fight in the first place: the pilot had patted the Englishman’s back in a show of friendship, but with the pilot being slightly drunk “his gesture…lacked that crisp and manly impetus with which Anglo-Saxons slap each other between the shoulder blades.” It was taken for “pawing,” a “word abhorrent wherever the English language is spoken.” Here then was empire looking back on itself, taking in the high-strung “homoerotic aura” of English public school, as described by historian Peter Gay, with its fastidious pretensions to “discipline, purity, and decorum.” Or, as Noël Coward wrote the year before Fleming left for Brazil, “though the British are effete,” like mad dogs they are “quite impervious to heat.” “Only an alienist,” Fleming admitted, “could have chronicled our activities either seriously or scientifically.”