John Hemming

Lost city of fantasy

A new Hollywood film hypes Percy Fawcett as a great explorer. In fact, he was a racist incompetent who achieved very little

The new film The Lost City of Z is being advertised as based on the true story of one of Britain’s greatest explorers. It is about Lt-Col Percy Fawcett. Greatest explorer? Fawcett? He was a surveyor who never discovered anything, a nutter, a racist, and so incompetent that the only expedition he organised was a five-week disaster. Calling him one of our greatest explorers is like calling Eddie the Eagle one of our greatest sportsmen. It is an insult to the huge roster of true explorers. Had the advertisement been about a soap powder, it would fall foul of the Trade Descriptions Act.

Percy Fawcett joined the army immediately after school, with a commission in the artillery in 1886. The next 20 years involved garrison duty in Ceylon and postings in Malta and England. The only significant events were getting married and becoming a devotee (like many others) of the charlatan psychic Madame Blavatsky. Fawcett’s game-changer came in 1906, when he was 40. The army let him take the Royal Geographical Society’s course on frontier surveying. Far away in South America, Bolivia had just sold its rubber-rich province of Acre to Brazil, so it needed its new north-western boundary mapped. The Bolivians approached the RGS for a mature surveyor to do this. The society’s secretary asked the newly qualified Fawcett whether he wanted to go; he accepted, reported for duty in La Paz and was at work on the new Amazonian frontier by the end of the year. This survey was the best thing Fawcett did. But he described it as boring, because the new frontier was all along rivers. This was the height of the great Amazon rubber boom, so he and his team cruised from one comfortable rubber barraca to the next, taking their regular measurements.

John Hemming corrects the Fawcett record on our podcast:

Fawcett’s only publications were a series of papers in the Geographical Journal about his mapping work.

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