In April 1925, Lieutenant Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett entered the Mato Grosso with Jack, his older son, and Jack’s friend Raleigh Rimell in search of an ancient Atlantean city that he referred to as Z. Shortly before his departure he told the press that should the expedition fail to return it would be futile to hunt for them. The mystery that surrounded their disappearance gripped the public imagination. Three years after they had gone missing a large search party led by the Amazon explorer and aviator George Dyott attempted to retrace their footsteps based on Fawcett’s last letters to the Royal Geographical Society and the expedition’s sponsor, the North American Newspaper Alliance.
The “suicide squad”, as the large expedition had been dubbed by the Brazilian press, returned to a hero’s welcome. Dyott told his audience at the Royal Geographical Society that he had feared for his life when he and his men had been detained by Indians and that he was in no doubt that the “gallant explorer” had been killed by hostile savages. In his book Man Hunting in the Jungle, being the search for three explorers lost in the Brazilian wilds (1930) he wrote that Aloique, the chief of the Nafaqua Indians, had shown him a military trunk that had been given to him by a white man who had come with two other younger men both of whom were lame. Aloique had then escorted the three men to the Kalapalo village, after which they had crossed the Kuluene river under their own steam and travelled east. For five days smoke from their campfire was seen each night by the Kalapalos but then no more. The vanishing attained imperishable newsworthiness and adventurers continued to search for Fawcett in the forest. From time to time uncorroborated sightings came in on the wires from Brazil. In 1931 a Swiss backwoodsman called Stefan Rattin reported that he had spoken to an elderly Englishman who was being held by an Indian tribe on a tributary of the Teles Pires river. The report was given serious consideration by the British consul, even though it was far from the area where the official search party had looked but Rattin, who went back into the area to rescue the old man, was never heard of again. In 1934 Fawcett was officially declared dead.
Just as interest in the fate of Lieutenant Colonel Fawcett began to wane and long after his achievements had been downgraded in the eyes of the Royal Geographical Society a real life adventure tale called Exploration Fawcett revived his reputation and became an overnight success. Grahame Greene, in his review for The New Statesman and Nation, wrote that no reader’s imagination could fail to be touched by the poignancy of Fawcett’s story. Somehow, through the verbiage and the extravagant anecdotes, a sense of wild nature, mystery, fortitude and doom had emerged. Reading this book as a fourteen-year-old encouraged me in the belief that an escape with no way out might still exist. On the inside cover, locations such as “Veil of the Primeval”, “River of Evil” and “Poisoned Hell” were emblazoned on a map of South America. Nothing was known; everything was possible. Unlike Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, Fawcett’s escapades were all true. I was convinced he was still alive.
If it had not been for a framed picture showing the face of a forlorn beauty surrounded by lighted candles that floated past me as I rode the up escalator at Piccadilly Circus tube station my sentimental adolescent memories relating to Fawcett would probably have remained permanently undisturbed. Inset on either side of the woman were the faces of two bearded explorers and I just had time to see that it was a promotion for a new film called The Lost City of Z. This coup d’oeil triggered a desire to recapture the Brazil of my bedroom. Unfortunately after a rereading of my unreturned fifty-year-old library copy of Exploration Fawcett I was confronted with several ugly truths. The first time round I had not really appreciated that it was Brian, his younger son, who had written the book. I still imagined Fawcett as a brave man with great powers of endurance and perseverance but I now sensed an imperviousness to the suffering of others. His descriptions of the forest were prosaic and his encounters with dangerous beasts either grossly exaggerated or crypto-zoological. Unlike Spruce and Bates, he was never truly in harmony with the lands through which he travelled. He had commendably drawn attention to the atrocities being committed against the Indians by the rubber barons but he classified “savages” into two categories, those who closely resembled decent noble white English gentlemen and the rest, who were evil, hirsute, dark-skinned head hunters. His progress at times, especially through the Acre region on his first expedition, seemed painfully slow. Everything came over as hard grind. Memories of those halcyon unmolested nights where nothing was real had been changed for ever, and sadly for the worse.
I also read the book on which the film had been based. It had been written by a staff writer on The New Yorker called David Grann who had studied the closely guarded Fawcett family papers and then travelled to the Xingu National Park. Like Brian before him, Grann portrayed Fawcett or PHF as he preferred to be known, as a daring, fearless adventurer who had never been motivated by glory or money but rather by a hope that his discoveries would benefit mankind. Recent anthropological and geological studies had provided evidence of large and advanced Indian civilisations in the Amazon and Grann believed that Fawcett may have been tantalisingly close to his goal when he was killed by the Indians. It seemed that Grann wanted me to go on believing in “Fawcett of South America” and “lost cities”. After the Lost City of Z film went on general release John Hemming, the distinguished Amazon explorer and former director of the Royal Geographical Society, wrote in The Spectator that Fawcett was a Colonel Blimp figure who had carried out routine surveying along long inhabited rivers and had discovered nothing new. Emmanouil Lalaios, a former ground engineer at the technical operations department of Olympic Airways and international travel consultant told me that Fawcett was still alive in the underground city of Ibez, the land of immortality in the Hollow Earth, where he was able to materialise and dematerialise at will.
The question of what had happened to PHF would never be answered but an explanation as to why at the age of fifty-eight he had set off on a doomed mission accompanied by his son had now become important to me. With the help of Misha Williams, a film and theatre director, I set off to unravel the liberating truth. After a lively exchange of letters Misha invited me to his home in Somerset. Over a coffee sitting at a table brought back from Peru by Nina, Fawcett’s wife, he started to tell me what he had learned. After an unsuccessful solo trek to the Mato Grosso in search of clues that might lead to a television documentary he had been contacted by Fawcett’s relatives and invited to visit Joan, Fawcett’s daughter, at her home in Switzerland. Misha told me that Joan had been anxious that the truth should come out and allowed him access to tons of boxes that included archival material her mother had bequeathed her and extensive correspondence and diaries that had belonged to her brother Brian. After Joan’s death Misha had also had numerous meetings with her daughter Rolette and her husband and had been given further access to the family papers, which were kept in his mill. Photocopies of much of the material were available for me to look through.
Fawcett claimed ancestral links with the Ó Súilleabháin Mórs. Mór was the Viking name for the House of Sinclair and Fawcett believed that the Earl of Orkney, Henry Sinclair, with help from the Zeno brothers, had reached Nova Scotia before Columbus landed on Hispaniola. The family also claimed ancestry to a mermaid and may have had connections with the Knight Templars. Although PHF had been born and raised in Devon, it was evident from the family papers that he had always regarded Scaleby Castle near Carlisle to be his true home. His mother, a MacDougall descended from Somerled of the Isles and the Lords of Lorn, later in life retreated into her own world rich in Gaelic folklore.
After being posted as a subaltern to Ceylon he became captivated by the island’s magic and mysticism and managed, through seeking out holy men and fakirs, to partly free himself from the manacles of his unhappy childhood. He was also attracted to the teachings of Helena Blavatsky and joined the Theosophical Society. In a letter sent anonymously to The Theosophist in 1888 he wrote that during a period of leave he had decided to pay a visit to the seven wells of Kanniya, where it was rumoured supernatural events occurred each Thursday evening. As night fell lights had begun to flicker between the trees and he had heard the faint tinkling of bells and the sound of a stringed instrument. On waking the next morning from a deep sleep he met a fakir close to the ruined Hindu monastery. Sensing that the holy man was one of the “Brethren of the Path” he invited him to visit him at the barracks at Fort Frederick in Trincomalee.
A few days later the holy man and his chela (pupil) slipped past the guards unnoticed and entered his bungalow, whereupon he had chastised him with the following words: “Worldly possessions are illusions that will hold you back from the path of wisdom and blind you to the truth. Why shackle yourself to the Wheel of Rebirth with all these baubles?” The fakir then went on to say “A time will come when your name will be spoken of the world over.” Fawcett was then instructed to meet him at the mosque. When Fawcett arrived the following evening the holy man handed him a mixture of what looked like fine sand and tobacco. Fawcett swallowed the powder and went to bed but was unable to sleep. After what seemed to him like an age he had got up to put his fox-terriers outside and on his return to his bungalow fell into a deep sleep.
His letter went on to say that the following morning he recalled that in his sleep he had had visions of Old Ceylon and seen the hot wells in all their former glory. He had stood at the summit of a mountain overlooking a panorama of astonishing beauty where ridge after ridge, valley after valley, stretched to eternity. He had then floated through the air to a building, where to his surprise he had been able to pass through its solid wall. There he had lain on a couch in a palatial room and was bathed in perfume by the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. She spoke to him, saying “Percy are you the man to renounce the world, to renounce love, to renounce me –and for a future as uncertain as the past?” As he gazed into her eyes he experienced a numinous happiness, all his hopes for the future, his indifference to earthly enjoyment and his perspective on life and death flashed by. He had then sprung up crying, “No never” and seized her in his arms and showered her with kisses. He had woken drenched in sweat to the sound of the woman’s rippling laugh. Fawcett wrote that he had now understood that it was the dreamer who was the true man of action but that at the same time he had realised that he did not have the power or courage to turn his life in a different direction.
Many years later he wrote some essays under his own name in The Occult Review, an illustrated monthly magazine devoted to the investigation of supernormal phenomena and the borderland between science and magic. Dion Fortune, Algernon Blackwood and Aleister Crowley, contemporaries of Fawcett, were regular contributors. In the first of his four articles published in December 1922 he wrote that the Great White Brotherhood was under the authority of fifteen spiritually developed trans-dimensional human beings from parallel versions of Venus, the Moon and Mars. He believed that mankind’s hope and destiny lay in the hands of the Earth Guardians or “Adepts” who lived in six underground Lodges located in continents that had once been home to great civilisations. The Lodges extended into the astral plane and were surrounded by an impenetrable wall of mental matter. Theosophy was connected to the Aryan Lodge while the Spiritualist movement was the inspiration for an Older Lodge. Under the Lodges were the Occult Schools that were located all over the world except for Europe where they had been forced to withdraw after the horrors of war. First and Second-Degree Initiates of the Schools strived to live pure lives within human society. Those who managed to purge themselves of every last vestige of self-indulgence would go on to play a dominant role in world changes either through thought or political action and then no longer needed to incur physical death and reincarnation. Once an Initiate ascended to the Fourth Degree he was required to leave human society forever.
In his prologue to Exploration Fawcett Brian had written:
‘Fawcett the Mystic!’
An accusation perhaps, or a subtle suggestion of eccentricity to explain the tenacity with which he followed what many considered to be nothing but a fantasy. But any man risks being termed ‘mystic’ who seeks knowledge beyond the material. He made no secret of his interest in the occult and it has been quoted in his disfavour, the insinuation being that anyone so incredulous as to believe in ‘psychic hocus-pocus’ must not be taken seriously. There are respected people in the worlds of science and letters who might be similarly condemned. After all he was an explorer ‑ a man of inquiring turn of mind whose desire for knowledge led him to explore more channels than one.
After the traumas of the Great War his father’s view of reality and sense of direction had become increasingly influenced by a man called Harold Large, a New Zealander of considerable spiritual development who had deserted the Theosophical Society for the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn because he felt it inconceivable that Christianity was the only great religion bereft of Divine wisdom. Two years before the two men first met Large had launched an experimental arts and metaphysical movement called the Havelock Work in the Hawke’s Bay region of the North Island of New Zealand. The public face of the mission included readings from Dickens and Thackeray. Beneath the surface of “this silent power station” lay a much deeper spiritual errand borne out of a resistance to the tyranny of modernity and its threat to mystery. Through rigorous contemplation, selflessness and goodwill the Havelock North leaders hoped to resurrect the ancient teachings of the church and reclaim its esoteric tradition. The two men attended numerous seances with the leading mediums of the day in London hotel rooms and started to hatch a plan they referred to as The Grand Scheme. Fawcett continued to dangle the lost city of Z as bait in his applications for funding to the Royal Geographical Society but the papers made it clear that by 1921 it had become for him a means to an end, a clue to the location of the Lodge, the subterranean home of the Adepts.
The plan of action was that once PHF sent the word to his wife, Nina, she and Large, along with a group of other sympathisers, would join him in the Mato Grosso and form a community broadly modelled on Havelock North. Jack would be handed over to the Earth Guardians and his physical body “taken over” by an ancient “other”. Jack would then leave Brazil and set up a new Lodge of the Great White Brotherhood near Trincomalee. This new colony of evolved beings would guide the human race back to a new beginning, with the restoration of basic values of love and harmony. Large likened the apotheosis to pupation, where a larval body is forced to disintegrate before re-emerging as an imago.
Percy Harrison Fawcett, ever the brave pioneer, had been prepared to evaporate in his quest to commune with supernatural beings of great mystical power. After he and his son had gone out of contact Large wrote to Nina reminding her of the real motives of the expedition:
The hidden inhabited cities may be under the protection of a Lodge and may have remained so for a very long period. Fawcett may not be permitted to see aught but the remains of the uninhabited cities: and if he does get further the world in general will not be told. Why are there hidden spots on the earth? So that the real work can go on in peace, Man is still a destructive being and has not learnt sufficient for the New Jerusalem to be formed on earth.
Brian’s diaries explained why this important part of the Fawcett saga had been omitted from the book and why he had gone to such pains to emphasise that the enigma of his father and brother’s disappearance would remain unresolved. As a child he had encountered a leannan sith that he identified in his diary by the two runes YX or the letter M. In Peru, where he had worked as a railway engineer for twenty-two years, this fairy temptress had become his lover, and on her advice he and his second wife, Ruth, had retired to live in a bungalow in Durdar Road, Carlisle, not far from Scaleby Castle. There, in the front room, living on a diet of buns and jam sandwiches, he had transformed his father’s “artless note books” into a bestseller. His Dark Muse cautioned him that postwar Britain, brainwashed by “The Modern Movement” and the Republic of Science, would not be receptive to the truth. In his diary he wrote:
This morning “M” said ‘You did a splendid job with Exploration Fawcett. You gave out the superficial story of your father, which was just right for the masses, and I promoted it so the work has become the textbook about him. That’s just as I wanted it. Ordinary people may know that much. What I don’t want is a revelation of his mystic side. The story as now published is a red herring to obscure the other life.
Brian also suspected that the beautiful woman who had appeared in his father’s dream in Trincomalee was M’ s mother, called Màireach.
The page in the original letter that had been sent to The Theosophist had been ripped out in his papers and Brian had written:
But why did Daddy destroy one particular sheet of his manuscript? The clues add up to overwhelming evidence. I asked Mother if she had any idea and she said ‘it had something to do with some woman, but he destroyed the sheet because he thought it might be offensive to me’.
By the time Màireach had finally seduced his father in the Carrigaline woods during his posting at Spike Island in Cork Harbour his destiny had already been sealed. In Brian’s view his father’s unhappy and stifling childhood had prevented him from developing the innate sixth sense and had forced him to depend on charismatic individuals like Helena Blavatsky and Harold Large for spiritual guidance.
The papers Misha showed me left no doubt that Brian was well aware of the Grand Scheme when he had written Exploration Fawcett:
The idea that Jack was recruited with the object of providing a perfect young body for somebody else to occupy is distasteful ‑ to say the least ‑ to the human mind. I was talking about this to ‘M’ last night and again today. She agrees that the normal human may jib at the idea; but not the enlightened ‑ Jack saved his life-root a whole series of incarnations.
Brian went on to add that if Jack had actually reached the Lodge then he would have been allowed out once his instruction was completed but that his identity would have been “hooded”. The sketches Brian had drawn of “M” in 1937, the 1940s and lastly in 1972 portray her as a dark-haired vulpine woman with pencilled eyebrows a thin angular face and a retroussé nose. I then listened to some of the tape recordings. With canaries singing in the background, Joan, in her piping voice with charming inflections, told Misha
Brian was very clairvoyant and after his return to England he came more and more under the power of ‘M’ who eventually played a part in his death. Siths like to live near stagnant water and are very dangerous. They tell you a certain number of things that would come true to get your confidence and then lead you up the garden path with any amount of lies. They are an absolute solid evolution but on a different plane to us. ‘M’ was Brian’s lover, which is why he always hid her existence from Ruth.
I had finally come to understand that Fawcett now meant very different things to different people. In his absence he could be whatever I wanted him to be but the truth behind his disappearance had left a longing for the lost Brazils of my bedroom. It had created a memory of a happy loneliness that refused to go away.
Andrew Lees’s book The Other Place will be published in February 2020 by Notting Hill Editions.