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Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon | The Nation

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Green Acres: Lost in the Amazon

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ROYAL GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETYPercy Harrison Fawcett maps the frontier between Brazil and Bolivia in 1908.

About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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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."

And yet over the years, the Amazon still beckons and Fawcett still summons. Brazil's attempt to ban Fawcett-sleuthing failed, and since Fleming, successive missions have tried to establish the facts of the disappearance. The most recent detective is New Yorker writer David Grann, who in The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon depicts Fawcett as close cousin to Hannah Arendt's "tragic and quixotic fools of imperialism," essential to empire's advance yet standing slightly askew to its edifice. Fawcett hailed from the aristocracy, but his father, born in India and a famous cricket batsman, drank himself into destitution. A military commission in Ceylon allowed Fawcett--then a lieutenant--to keep up gentry appearances, though he viewed the colonial officer corps as a "base" reproduction of Britain's "white ruling caste," instilling in him a "somewhat Dickensian horror."

Need of money first sent Fawcett into the wilds of Ceylon searching for treasure, but, as Grann writes, exploration was an extension into nature of the Victorians' "never ending war" against the world's physical and moral corruptions. Fawcett was a supreme soldier of this war; Grann, whose own hunt for Fawcett traces a path through the archives and into the Amazon forest, links the colonel's legendary stamina in the jungle to the discipline involved in repressing sexual urges. Fawcett survived public-school canings, military academy tortures and the Battle of the Somme, which he called Armageddon, forging himself into a "Nietzschean explorer." Grann also makes a case that rebellion against such strictures, equally Victorian, blossomed into a radical cultural and metaphysical relativism. Fawcett increasingly questioned Anglo-Saxon man's place at the apex of evolution. Cannibalism, he wrote after the Somme battle, "at least provides a reasonable motive for killing a man, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare." The explorer became obsessed with the occult, certain of the existence of a more pristine plane of being, which for a while in Ceylon he thought he had found in Buddhism. "I transgressed again and again," Fawcett confessed, "the awful laws of traditional behavior."

Sent by London's Royal Geographical Society in 1906 to help Bolivia and Brazil map their Amazonian border, Fawcett became addicted to the jungle. Grann writes that Fawcett "conducted one expedition after another in which he explored thousands of square miles of the Amazon and helped to redraw the map of South America." It was during these treks that the explorer came to believe in Z, which he placed somewhere in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. After the Great War, the idea took hold of Fawcett with pounding delirium. He thought Z to be the "cradle of all civilization," perhaps even the lost city of Atlantis, finding confirmation of its existence in séances and mediums. Like Arendt's fool, who after tours on empire's front line couldn't recover his "English self," Fawcett grew agitated while in London. The city, he said, was as a "prison gate slowly but surely shutting me in." At the same time, long periods abroad fortified a crystalline Victorianism, austere and unerring. And though Grann doesn't speculate on this point, perhaps it was the allure of such purity that explains why so many--one chronicle puts the number at over a hundred--followed lemminglike to their deaths this last true Englishman.

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