Percival Harrison Fawcett was a British explorer, surveyor, solider and mapmaker. He was born in Torquay to a father who was both a seasoned traveller and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
After serving with the Royal Artillery in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Fawcett studied mapmaking and surveying at the Royal Geographical Society, developing skills that he later put to use for the British Secret Service in North Africa.
In 1906 Fawcett undertook his first expedition for the Royal Geographical Society, mapping a large area of jungle at the border between Brazil, Peru and Bolivia. The expedition was a success, and paved the way for more than half a dozen further expeditions to South America. His fervent note-taking, mapmaking, love of a good story and passion for exploration led him to become friends with adventure writers Henry Rider Haggard and Arthur Conan Doyle. It is even said that Conan Doyle based the character of Lord John Roxton (of The Lost World fame) on Fawcett.
Fawcett’s time in South America – and subsequent research at home in England – convinced him that somewhere in the Amazonian rainforest lay an ancient and mysterious lost city, a city he named ‘Z’. In 1925 Fawcett set off for Brazil with his eldest son, Jack, and his son’s friend, Raleigh, in the hope of finding it.
On 25 April 1925 they left the city of Cuiabá, the geographic centre of South America, in the direction of the Xingu River. On 29 May Fawcett sent a telegraph. It was to his wife, telling her that they were about to venture into unexplored territory in search of the lost city.
The outside world never heard from Fawcett, Jack and Raleigh again.
Numerous expeditions have been made in order to discover the fate of Fawcett and his two companions, though none has yet managed to confirm what happened. One particularly fanciful rumour had it that Fawcett lost his memory and lived out the rest of his life as the chief of a cannibal tribe. While this tale would make for an amazing film, it is more likely that the men were either killed by hostile natives or succumbed to tropical diseases.
Whatever Fawcett’s fate, his impact on would-be explorers has been astonishing: a Russian film crew made a documentary about Fawcett’s last expedition as recently as 2003, and his name frequently occurs alongside modern-day mentions of ancient Amazonian lost cities. New Yorker writer David Grann’s best-selling book, The Lost City of Z, is based upon the search for Fawcett, and is set to be made into a film due for release in 2012.
The Lost City of Z by David Grann (the original New Yorker article that Grann later expanded into a book).