In 1906, Sir George Goldie, President of the Royal Geographical Society, approached Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett with a proposal. Undefined borders were causing tensions between Bolivia and Brazil--both countries were eager to lay claim to the vast forests of rubber trees that lay between them, well aware of the enormous economic potential untapped resource represented. War seemed an increasingly likely prospect and all parties involved agreed that the boundaries needed to be clarified. As it was vital that any expedition attempting to do so was led by a neutral third party, the RGS agreed to act as referee.
Although Fawcett wasn't particularly knowledgeable about the region, his previous experiences in the Army and subsequent training recommended him for the role. He had joined the Royal Artillery at the age of 19, and spent several years serving in Sri Lanka. There he met and married his wife before being transferred to North Africa, where he began working for the Secret Service. Eventually tiring of Army life, he retrained as a surveyor, and when the commission came from the RGS, he eagerly accepted it.
It quickly became apparent that Fawcett had somewhat underestimated the difficulties that he would have to overcome in even attempting to reach the area that he was supposed to be surveying. Faced with the combined obstacles of a suspicious native population--whose main contact with outsiders had been in the form of raiding parties seeking slaves for the rubber plantations--hostile wildlife and rugged, barely explored terrain, Fawcett had his work cut out for him. However, he wasn't a man to accept defeat easily and he worked hard to overcome the misapprehensions of the local people he met along the way.
The survey took three years, after which Fawcett decided to continue to explore the region under his own steam. Aside from a brief tour of duty during the First World War, he conducted a total of seven expeditions to South America between 1906 and 1924.
Then, in 1925, he set out with his eldest son, Jack Fawcett, and one of Jack's friends, Raleigh Rimmell, on what would prove to be his final trek.
It's thought that Fawcett's aim was to locate an ancient city--which he dubbed 'Z'--that he believed was hidden in the jungles of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. None of the party would return.
Rumours as to what became of them have been rife for years, and in many cases border on the fantastical. One theory holds that Fawcett lost his memory and lived the rest of his life as chief of a tribe of cannibals, while another posits that he found the ancient city and took up residence there with a group of surviving Atlanteans who have been entrusted with the role of guarding the planet. A third, and altogether more likely scenario, is that the men either fell ill and died, or fell foul of hostile locals. To date, the mystery of Fawcett's disappearance remains unsolved.
Some years later an expedition found no sign of Colonel Fawcett but they did find his Altimeter.
Altimeter used by Colonel Fawcett on his expedition into the interior of Brazil
Date: 1920 - 1929. © Royal Geographical Society
Close-up of an Altimeter
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