Did an erotic siren lure Percy Fawcett to his death as he searched for a lost city in the Amazon? An article by Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent.
It is an unsolved riddle which has inspired explorers and writers for nearly 80 years. Yet now, after a decade of research, one British writer and director has shed unexpected light on the murky fate of Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett and those who followed him deep into the Brazilian jungle.
It has long been assumed that the missing colonel, a celebrated explorer who knew the popular adventure writers Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle, must have been murdered by Amazonian tribesmen in 1925 during his fabled expedition to find the Lost City of Z. The truth, however, turns out to be stranger than the myth.
According to previously hidden private papers, it appears that Fawcett had no intention of ever returning to Britain and, perhaps lured by a native she-god or spirit guide whose beautiful image haunts the family archive, he planned instead to set up a commune in the jungle, based on a bizarre cult.
'The English go native very easily, he once wrote. 'There is no disgrace in it. On the contrary, in my opinion it shows a creditable regard for the real things in life.'
More than 13 separate expeditions have so far failed to discover what happened to Fawcett in the darkest Amazonian jungle and 100 people have died in the attempt. Only eight years ago a group following his footsteps into the Mato Grosso region had to be rescued after they were held hostage by Kalapalo tribesmen and put in fear of their lives. But the veil is at last lifting.
After visiting this remote jungle, then gaining permission to search through Fawcett's correspondence for the first time, theatre and television director Misha Williams now believes the other expeditions have all been travelling in the wrong direction and looking for the wrong things. Fawcett, he claims, hoped to follow what he privately described to friends and family as 'the Grand Scheme'. He wanted to set up a secret community which would be based on a mixture of unusual beliefs involving both the worship of his own son, Jack, and the tenets of the then-fashionable credo of theosophy.
'I can now show that there were scores of associates who were planning to go out and join Fawcett to live in a new, freer way,' said Williams, who has become a confidant of Fawcett's descendants. He has also uncovered a drawing of a beguiling and ageless 'sith' or female 'spirit guide' who he suspects is near the heart of the mystery. Appearing only to the Fawcett family and to those who try to track the expedition's path, the erotic siren draws white men into the jungle.
Williams's revelations have already inspired a new expedition into the region. Mark Beken of the travel company High and Wild is hoping to take a group into the jungle next summer to follow up the new evidence about Fawcett's story.
'We will be taking a different route to previous expeditions because of Misha's findings,' said Beken, who hopes that his team will have more luck than earlier attempts. 'In the past it has been very dangerous because it was still bow-and-arrow territory and because of malaria and yellow fever.' Williams explains that much of the uncertainty surrounding the disappearance of the colonel can be put down to the Fawcett family's own attempts to protect their father's reputation. His surviving son, Brian, even went so far as to write a bestselling book, Exploration Fawcett , in a deliberate effort to put up a 'smoke screen', said Williams, who has written his own play about Fawcett which opens next month at the Bridewell Theatre in London. The man at the centre of the puzzle was born in Torquay in 1867 and first fell in love with South America when he helped the Bolivian government to survey its frontier with Brazil. He served with distinction in the First World War, but today his real fame stems from the moment when, at the age of 58, he set out with his eldest son and his son's friend, Raleigh Rimmell, to look for a hidden 'city of gold', known in mythology as Z.
The last word was heard from the group as they crossed the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary of the Amazon. Repeated rescue missions followed, as did rival theories about Fawcett's demise. Either he had been eaten by jaguars, was still living alone as a native, had starved or been killed by the indigenous people, the Kalapalo. Bones unearthed in 1951 proved on examination not to belong to Fawcett and the mystery grew.
'This is one of the great adventure stories of the past century,' said Williams, 'and at last we are finding out what really happened. Fawcett was a kind of Indiana Jones figure and his children have fought hard to keep his good name, in spite of interest from Hollywood and countless books. 'His secret plans for a new and unconventional way of life have only just emerged from the letters he wrote to friends.'
Colonel Percy Harrison Fawcett
Arthur Conan Doyle author of the Lost World - its setting is thought to have been influenced by Percy Fawcett