This academic year, I'm using the AIP book review series, On My Shelf, to revisit the books in my personal library. Over the course of the next ten months, I rereading my collection of ethnographies and popular science books and to share some thoughts with you.
We'll kick this week off with a book that was gifted to me, took me a long time to finish, and became a mediocre motion picture despite relatively positive reviews (which is surprising given the American love affair with Indiana Jones, but then again, perhaps times are changing.)
Grann, David (2010). The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Vintage Books.
It hard to imagine a time when great parts of the earth were unknown because it all seems so readily accessible today. But this time did exist. People like Leif Ericsson, Paulo da Gama, Henry Hudson, Gertrude Bell, Sylvia Earle, and Buzz Aldrin gave us their experiences to enrich our own understanding. They were explorers. And while there are fewer unexplored spaces left today (much of that in the depth and darkness of the ocean), the rank of explorer is still exhilarating. Perhaps all the more so because their numbers are significantly fewer than in the Age of Exploration.
Percy Fawcett was one such explorer. And The Lost City of Z is both his story, and the story of this occupation. Fawcett's interest in intrigue and mystery manifested early: In his twenties, while serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery, he had been given a letter from a colonial administrator (who in turn had gotten it from a village headman in return for a favor) which spoke of treasure in a cave. While his family had once been wealthy, that money had long been lost by his father, and though enough of it had remained for Fawcett to mingle with the upper class, the potential of jewels had a definite appeal. He slipped away from his base and left Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and headed to the mainland. His trip to Badulla to search for Balla-pita-Galla is richly described and reflects the idea that the trip and the search captivated Fawcett. Of course he did not find his jewels, despite returning with an actual crew at a later date, but the taste of adventure would be enough to leave him wanting more.
Returning home after his time in Ceylon, Fawcett joined the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). The RGS produced gentleman explorers, and in this specific case, he was to learn the tools of surveying to help chart the unexplored areas of the world. These skills were seen an an opportunity for British authorities, who used the guise of cartographer to send many RGS members into the field as spies. Fawcett would serve his country in this way in 1901 in Morocco, gaining access to the royal court and sending dispatches on the Sultan! And it is this work that became the basis for for his next assignment from RGS: mapping the boundaries between Bolivia and Brazil in the Amazon.
What follows is the emergence of a brilliant career, inasmuch as one can make a career out of exploration. Despite the trials of this first trip, Fawcett completed his survey a year ahead of schedule, and quickly dove into successive ventures in the Amazon. His exposure to the native tribes of the region left him convinced that the Amazon was an area of great biological and historical importance, and by 1910, Fawcett began to suspect that the Indians of the region had an understanding and history of the Amazon that history had yet to recognize. This became the foundation for Z—a massive city reclaimed by the natural landscape—and Fawcett’s downfall. He would make several attempt to find this city. The last being in 1925 when he, his son Jack, and Jack’s childhood friend Raleigh Rimell, would disappear forever.
When I say this is the story of the occupation of explorers as well, it’s because Grann does an excellent job of tracing the trials and tribulations that came with these ventures; and he finds parallels in his own story as he sets out to trace Fawcett’s steps in an attempt to understand what happened to his last party. Despite Fawcett’s early successes and his growing reputation, he quickly learns that wealthier men seem to have an advantage as he is constantly trying to gain funding and finding his equipment lacking in comparison. For example, in 1924 his self-funded competitor Alexander H. Rice Junior had with him not just a team of botanist, zoologists, astronomers, topographers, and anthropologists; and a wireless radio that could send and receive messages; but a hydroplane as well. Fawcett was able to raise about $5000 for his subsequent trip, which was barely the equivalent of Rice’s radio.
This aspect of the story spans time. As Grann himself prepares to head into the Amazon, he’s struck by the ease with which he is able to purchase equipment. He walks into a specialty camping store and is outfitted by a salesman who discerns he has never been camping before. Among his purchases is a handheld GPS—how far we’ve come. Grann's hardships are not financial, but informational. He chases numerous leads for insights into Fawcett’s route into the Amazon, including a manuscript at Brazil’s National Library. He is first denied access but gains some time with the document, and finds that despite gaining clarity, he instead is further inspired to his task.
There’s an intangible aspect to Fawcett’s story that draws you in. We get a fraction of this sense from Grann's writing, but he clearly feels it fully. Perhaps it is the romanticism of the unknown, perhaps it’s the sense of control one has at the onset of these endeavors, perhaps it’s the potential to leave a mark for future generations. Grann does not need to name it, but it’s there.
My biggest issue with this story is probably an intentional ploy by Grann: At the very end, Grann recognizes the dearth of anthropological and archaeological evidence we have that supports Fawcett’s intuitions. As journalist, I would suppose that his informational activities would have first led him there and that this information would have made an earlier appearance in the book. Instead, we get a romanticized sense of the human spirit and of the place that would take Fawcett’s life. But its absence perhaps emphasizes how dark this period was in terms of understanding the Amazon and its peoples. The science is meant to be a revelatory moment for Grann, but it falls flat and feels like an afterthought that he inserts to justify his own journey to Kalapalo tribe. It’s condensed to a matter of pages when it would perhaps have strengthened the story particularly as there are parallel streams running throughout the book.
Fawcett became an early anthropologist and archaeologist, and while Grann’s depiction of his interactions with Indians seems largely sympathetic, there is evidence to suggest that Fawcett retained many of the attitudes of his time. At least one historian, John Hemming, has documented Fawcett’s racism toward Native Americans. Fawcett described one tribe as "large, hairy men, with exceptionally long arms, and with forehead sloping back from pronounced eye ridges—men of a very primitive kind; villainous savages; great apelike brutes who looked as if they had scarcely evolved beyond the level of beasts.” Grann makes it clear that Fawcett challenges some of the outstanding notions of Indians, but there are hints of bias that not even Grann can hide.
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Also in this series: