One of the great joys of reading history is the endless capacity it possesses for throwing up the unexpected.
There I was, ploughing happily through Richard Holmes’s well-researched and anecdote-rich Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front in my bath, when I ran across an old friend in quite unusual circumstances. ‘Structural and personal problems prevailed,’ writes Holmes in a passage otherwise dryly devoted to the problems encountered by British artillery in suppressing German heavy guns. ‘Perhaps the most notorious came in VI Corps in late 1916 when the Amazon explorer Colonel Percy Fawcett arrived to take up the new post of corps counter-battery colonel. He immediately declared that he was not in the least bit interested in the innovative work being done on the detection of German guns by flash-spotting and sound ranging… The only counter-battery shots which he would allow were those against targets clearly visible from British lines - or those he had personally detected on his ouija board.’
Fawcett, for those who have never encountered him, was one of the most celebrated explorers of his day, noted for a series of expeditions into the uncharted and dangerous Amazon basin that began with a 1906 commission to chart the boundary between Bolivia and Brazil. Best-known among Forteans for the post-war vanishing act he performed back in the jungle - which has since inspired dozens of expeditions to take off in search of him - he was actually a regular artillery officer, commissioned in 1886, who had seen long service in Ceylon – hence his appearance in the trenches. But while most accounts of Fawcett’s career agree he was eccentric, he is not usually thought of as much of a mystic. His still-unexplained disappearance, which occurred while on a quixotic expedition with his son Jack and the boy’s friend, Raleigh Rimmell, to find the ‘Lost City of Z’, deep in the jungle, is generally supposed to be about as weird as the explorer got. (The best recent coverage of this mysterious city, incidentally, appears in a long article by David Grann published in the New Yorker, 19 September 2005.)
It doesn’t take much digging, though, to discover that Fawcett was a much stranger bird than that. He enjoyed some highly eccentric cryptozoological encounters, supposedly shooting a monstrous anaconda measuring a record-breaking 62 feet long, and at one point discovered a breed of dog that had two noses. And, according to a TV producer named Misha Williams, his purpose in searching for the fabled City of Z was not what it had seemed at all.
The Observer covered Williams’s theories in a story published back in March 2004. The producer had befriended the Fawcett family and been granted access to personal papers that had lain unread for decades. Searching through these, he discovered that ‘Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.'
Fawcett, The Observer continued, ‘hoped to follow what he privately described to friends and family as 'the Grand Scheme'. He wanted to set up a secret community which would be based on a mixture of unusual beliefs involving both the worship of his own son, Jack, and the tenets of the then-fashionable credo of theosophy.
Jack Fawcett (left) - worship him! - and Raleigh Rimmell
'I can now show that there were scores of associates who were planning to go out and join Fawcett to live in a new, freer way,' Williams concluded after discovering ‘a drawing of a beguiling and ageless "sith" or female "spirit guide" who he suspects is near the heart of the mystery. Appearing only to the Fawcett family and to those who try to track the expedition's path, the erotic siren draws white men into the jungle.’
Earlier expeditions in search of Fawcett headed off in quite the wrong direction, the producer contends. The last word of his whereabouts came as he and his inexperienced companions crossed the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary of the Amazon. The repeated rescue missions followed mostly headed deep into the Matto Grosso, theorising that the explorer might have been killed by the Kalapalo tribe. One group even brought back bones said to Fawcett’s, but these proved on examination to be Indian, not European. As late as the 1960s there were those who believed Fawcett might still survive deep in the jungle perhaps worshipped as a god by some Amazon tribe.
This, it now transpires, may have been closer to the truth than anybody thought. Fawcett certainly planned to live on deep in the jungle. 'The English go native very easily, he once wrote. 'There is no disgrace in it. On the contrary, in my opinion it shows a creditable regard for the real things in life.'