I became interested in reading The Lost City of Z after reading David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon; I really enjoyed his journalistic style: investigative but also critical of how justice played out in the case of the Osage. This book was published eight years prior to Killers and I would have to say it’s quite different. It is a blend of biography, self-reflection and clear speculation as Grann chronicles the story of Percy Fawcett, a British man with an insatiable appetite for exploration and an obsession with finding the lost city of Z, an El Dorado-like untouched paradise, deep in the Amazon rainforest. There is also much more meandering throughout the book, as Grann discusses the stories of various other explorers including Fawcett’s main competitors, Fawcett’s companions and the drama on certain expeditions (every expedition has a Judas, apparently) and parts of Fawcett’s life that are a bit too tangential for my liking including his early days in Sri Lanka where as a young officer he met his wife and heard folklore about a treasure trove in a cave (he did not find it). But Grann does go to considerable lengths to piece Fawcett’s story together: traveling to England’s Royal Geographical Society where Fawcett was trained and his expeditions funded and to the Amazon itself, retracing Fawcett’s last known location. He also conducted extensive archival research, interviewed Fawcett’s surviving relatives who provided him with access to Fawcett’s journals, papers and private correspondences with his wife and sought help from anthropologists who studied both ancient and contemporary Amazon tribes. Grann paints a grim picture of what an obsession with the Amazon did to one man and his party.
Incredibly, Fawcett didn’t just explore the Amazon once, he went multiple times, each time exploring a different route. He, along with his eldest son Jack and his son’s best friend Raleigh, disappeared in 1925 on what would be his fifth Amazon expedition. No one has found their remains or knows what happened although many con-men have claimed to know what happened. Attacked by a violent tribe? Contraction of disease? Infection? Jaguar attack? Poison dart frog? Piranha? Starvation? The list goes on and on of the terrible things that could have happened to Fawcett and his party, all of which are plausible, but none confirmed. In the end, Grann doesn’t find out what happened to the missing group or if Z was real. Instead, the reader gets a glimpse into what kind of a culture facilitated this mission and infatuation with a mystical civilization.
When thinking about what I learned from this book, one word kept repeating itself in my mind, over and over again. Ego. Ego drives people to do the most extreme things, to the most extreme places, to submit oneself to the most extreme of circumstances. For name, recognition, reward, who knows what exactly what was going through Fawcett’s mind, but this explorer’s ego wasn’t uncommon in 20th century England, or 19th, or 18th or 17th. The idea of discovering, conquering and subjugating the foreign is rife in European (and American) history. Domesticate the savage, excavate his riches and profitting, was surely the mantra of colonizers who not only sought to exploit people and their labor, but also the land for agriculture and resources. Not only was the Royal Geographical Society, mostly focused on drawing accurate maps and developing the tools to do so, in on the idea of discovery, so were institutions like the Royal Botanic Gardens and the Crown. All these ideas of superiority in race, language and cultural values were used to justify European conquests of parts unknown and to educate and Christianize savages they encountered. It was violent: disease decimated those with no immunity, many were enslaved or murdered by rubber barons and miners, not to mention those who lost ancestral lands to burning, logging and damming. I think Grann should have highlighted this more, just how embedded this mindset of superiority, stemming from European cultural institutions was in explorers of Fawcett’s day.
While Grann is no anthropologist or scholar, there were some fascinating tidbits about the Amazon’s cultures and ecology. While there are hundreds of tribes all throughout the Amazon, many are insulated by the jungle and do not have any contact with government authorities. Some are violent and will kill any trespasser on site. On the other hand, there are many other tribes who do have councils of their own and lobby on the national scale for various Indian rights. There are Indians who have integrated into Brazilian and Bolivian societies (though Grann does not write about the challenges they face). There is amazing diversity in cultural practice, language and custom in the region, the landscape acting as an impermeable barrier to keep egoistic white men out and natives safe. I would be open to reading more literature on South America both fiction and non-fiction as there is just so much to learn.