Deep in the Brazilian jungle, at an isolated outpost named Dead Horse Camp, Percy Fawcett scribbled a final letter to his wife, Nina.
Despite being plagued by insects and subjected to almost unbearable heat, the famous explorer was positive his team – including their eldest son, Jack, and his friend Raleigh Rimell – could push on and find what had obsessed him for years: the lost city of Z.
Instead, the trio disappeared without trace, creating one of the most intriguing mysteries in the history of exploration.
Percy Harrison Fawcett was born on August 18, 1867 in Torquay at the Villa Devonia, which was later demolished and is now the site of Shirley Towers on Vane Hill Road.
Fawcett, who attended Newton Abbot Proprietary College, came from an adventurous family: his father was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), while his brother was a climber and author.
Percy joined the artillery in the army in 1886 – the same year he met Nina. They married in 1901 and had two boys, Jack and Brian, and a daughter named Joan.
He served in the likes of Hong Kong, Malta and Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – before later studying mapmaking and surveying.
In 1906, the army allowed him to take the RGS’ frontier surveying course.
His timing was perfect.
Bolivia had just sold a large chunk of land to Brazil and wanted its new borders mapped out. The South American country approached the RGS, who assigned the task to the newly-qualified Fawcett.
His work was applauded as being thorough and accurate, but he also attracted ridicule for making ludicrous claims such as shooting a giant anaconda measuring 19m (62 feet – more than double the largest ever found) and discovering a new type of animal which was a cross between a dog and a cat.
Fawcett also claimed the work was boring, but he readily accepted a second assignment in the same country in 1908.
It was a disaster.
Given extra responsibility, Fawcett had to organise this expedition entirely by himself. He failed to bring enough food, while he also timed it so poorly that the dry season saw the team abandon their boat within a week.
Five of his six peons – unskilled labourers who accompanied expeditions like this – died on the journey.
Astonishingly, he was invited back a third time by Bolivia in 1910 to map their border with Peru.
It was here he encountered wild indigenous tribes for the first time. Despite having arrows fired at him, he managed to befriend a number of peoples, recording much about their way of life before leaving.
A fourth trip to Bolivia took him deep into the interior of the country. There, he again met some tribes which he befriended.
However, he also clashed with another, which culminated in him shooting one with his revolver after he had an arrow aimed at him.
He described them as ‘villainous savages, hideous ape men with pig-like eyes’, but his act of using Western weaponry was deeply frowned upon, even at the time.
“There are three kinds of Indians,” he added in language not uncommon for the time. “The first are docile and miserable people, easily tamed; the second, dangerous, repulsive cannibals very rarely seen; the third, a robust and fair people, who must have a civilised origin.”
In 1914, World War One broke out. Fawcett was deep in Bolivia, but rushed home so he could serve.
Although he was too old for frontline service, he served with distinction and took command of an artillery brigade in Flanders.
He ended the war as a lieutenant-colonel, received three mentions in despatches and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
After the war, he returned to Brazil to study local wildlife and archaeology.
It is unclear exactly when his obsession for the lost city of Z began.
Based on early histories of South America and his own explorations of the Amazon River region, Fawcett thought that a complex civilization once existed there, and that isolated ruins may have survived.
Fawcett had found a document known as Manuscript 512, held at the National Library of Brazil, believed to have been written by a Portuguese bandeirante – the name given to slavers who scoured the interior of Brazil for Indians to capture – named João da Silva Guimarães.
The document claimed a lost city, including arches, a statue and a temple with hieroglyphs, had been discovered by the group.
He described the city ruins in great detail without giving its location, although some Brazilian historians consider it ‘the greatest myth of national archaeology’.
There were also rumours of a mythical civilisation referred to by Spanish conquistadors as ‘El Dorado’.
Fawcett became obsessed, and named it Z – pronounced Zed – to confuse any potential rivals. He had planned to search for it before the war but, now that was over, he was free to return and start looking.
His younger son, Brian, once said of him: “True, he dreamed; but his dreams were built upon reason, and he was not the man to shirk the effort to turn theory into fact.”
His first effort, though, was a disaster. He was forced to turn around less than half-way towards his intended target due to a lack of food.
The final expedition
By this time, his family had lived in many parts of Devon, including St Marychurch, Teignmouth, Uplyme, and finally Stoke Canon, just outside Exeter.
Despite being broke, he gained support from a London institution known as ‘the Glove’ to fund a final expedition.
He took his son, Jack, with him for his fine physical condition and his loyalty to his father. Jack’s friend, Raleigh Rimell, also came along.
They set off in 1925, travelling light to make movement easier and attract less attention. In a risky move, he hoped that they would be fed by friendly tribes he had met in the past.
Fawcett was accompanied by two Brazilian laborers, two horses, eight mules, and a pair of dogs. He also left instructions that no rescue operation should be launched if they failed to return.
He added that they could be gone for as long as two years.
Dead Horse Camp letter
On May 29, 1925, Fawcett wrote his final letter to Nina from Dead Horse Camp, so named after his horse died there on an earlier expedition. Its bones were still visible as Fawcett wrote his letter.
Strangely, the coordinates he left his wife were different to those he reported to the North American Newspaper Alliance.
An extremely secretive man, perhaps he did not want his location known in case he located the city before he could reveal it to the world.
He complained of the insects, and of the ‘sheer misery’ of their camp, but said Jack remained strong. He did voice concerns over Raleigh, who had a bandage over his leg for an unknown injury. He had refused the offer of turning back though.
He hoped to reach the isolated tribes in 7-10 days, and push on from there.
“You need have no fear of any failure,” were his final words.
It was the last anyone ever heard of him.
By January 1927, the RGS accepted that the expedition was lost.
Despite Fawcett insisting nobody should look for his body, many did – and it did not take long before they started to find evidence of his demise.
Commander George Dyott traced Fawcett’s trail to a village of the Nahukwá tribe in 1928, where the chief’s son had hanging round his neck a small brass plate marked ‘W.S. Silver and Company’ – a London firm which had supplied Fawcett with some airtight metal cases.
Dyott trekked on to the next tribe, known as the Kalapalos, who reported seeing smoke from Fawcett’s camp fires for five days, and then nothing on the sixth day.
They indicated to Dyott, in sign language, their belief that the party had been massacred. Dyott thought the culprits were the Nahukwá, but they said it was a notoriously fierce group called the Suyá.
Many agreed that he had been killed by one of the many tribes there, and 20 years later, a Kalapalo chief called Comatzi claimed to have killed them.
However, the bones that supposedly belonged to the men were analysed and found not to belong to Fawcett or his companions.
In June 1933, a theodolite compass belonging to Fawcett was found near the Baciary Indians of Mato Grosso by Colonel Aniceto Botelho. However, this was proven to have been left behind before he entered the jungle on his final journey.
What happed to him?
No trace of Fawcett himself has ever been found. Speculation continues to run wild as to what happened to him.
Henry Costin, who accompanied him on numerous expeditions, said he built up excellent relations with tribes and was unlikely to have died at their hands. He felt they had simply perished in the inhospitable rain forest.
The story has continued to baffle, intrigue and amaze. After a number of high-profile articles and books, a film was released in 2016, directed by James Gray, about his life.
Incredibly, in 1979 Fawcett’s signet ring was found in a pawnshop in Brazil. It was engraved with the family motto, one which Fawcett personified: ‘Nec aspera terrent’ – hardships hold no fear.
How it ended up there remains, as with the rest of Fawcett’s disappearance, a mystery.