By Nathaniel (Nate) King, VI Form
Exploring the Mystery: The Evolution of Colonel Percy Fawcett’s Memory through Time
Editor’s Note: This paper was completed as a part of the History Research Fellowship, a one-semester course available to sixth form students.
After spending years in the Amazon, Fawcett was one of the world’s most prominent experts on the region. This, alongside his rough and adventurous demeanor, garnered Fawcett many supporters through the printing of his dispatches and reports in popular newspapers. Like athletes at the time, with the maturation of the newspaper, explorers were given a new level of name recognition. In 1925 Fawcett’s fame was at its peak as newspapers looked to cover his next expedition to find what could be one of the biggest discoveries of the century: an ancient city hidden deep in the Amazon jungle. Fawcett’s dispatches from this expedition were filled with detailed accounts of what he had encountered, and the public was voraciously reading each one until they suddenly stopped. Fawcett had predicted that he and his party might go silent for a few months at a time as they traversed difficult terrain under terrible conditions. However, as years began to slowly pass, people began to worry and speculate about what had happened to Fawcett. Several theories were churned out, yet as search parties looking for the truth came back with few answers, the mystery of Fawcett’s fate only became more alluring.
Why has an explorer who did not discover much that was historically significant been given so much attention both during his professional career and long after? Although Fawcett’s greatest accomplishments were mapping out portions of the Amazon rainforest, he has continued to be a figure of fascination today largely because of his disappearance. However, during his time he received just as much coverage by the media, albeit for different reasons.
Fawcett began his career near the end of the Victorian era as the world began its widespread transition to a new industrial age. During this time new inventions like the yellow press, steamships, and typewriters revolutionized communications and opened new worlds to those who rarely traveled, but who could vicariously enter exotic, foreign locales through others’ reports. People like Fawcett stepped into this scenario. Fawcett allowed those bound to their desks or machines to hack through the jungle by reading his dispatches, which were delivered to the outside world through native runners. In 1953 the London Geographical Journal, one of the most distinguished publications in its field, observed that “Fawcett marked the end of an age. One might almost call him the last of the individualist explorers. The day of the aeroplane, the radio, the organized and heavily financed modern expedition had not arrived. With him, it was the heroic story of a man against the forest.” Fawcett may have been one of the final members of the age of dangerous individual exploration, but his exploits fulfilled a psychic need for those who had lost out on the experience of conquering, or being conquered by, nature.
During this time, called the Second Industrial Revolution, there was a large scale urban movement to fulfill the labor requirements in factories. The Agricultural society that had existed for millenia and had constantly exposed people to the vicissitudes of nature was replaced by a new social system in which people live in cities to work in the ever-growing factories and offices of the industrial era. The transition from rigorous farm work to either sedentary white-collar desk jobs or blue-collar work in dingy indoor factories took away the experiences that brought them into nature and its inherent, thrilling risks. With these new urban lifestyles came a fear among many, especially white protestants, that people were becoming too feeble. Their biggest worry was that the growing physical weakness was a threat to the white male’s continued dominance in society. To prevent this, protestants began to emphasize the importance of sports and physical activity to build up a muscular body. This new movement, called muscular Christianity, was revived from early nineteenth century writers and marked a deep Christian commitment to health and manliness. The emphasis on fitness was to be used as a “tool for good and an agent to be used on behalf of social progress and world uplift.” During this movement, many youth service groups like the YMCA and the Boy Scouts began to focus on physical activity alongside many Christian boarding schools. These organizations began requiring things like sports to toughen kids up, build their bodies, expose them to difficult surroundings, and thereby improve the “race.” To find role models for the boys, newspapers began to print more stories about people who were active and adventurous. Fawcett, an explorer who was raised playing cricket and rugby at boarding school, was quickly idolized by many.
Although there were more effective explorers in his time, people adored Fawcett because of his corresponding moral and physical ideals and his connection to athletics and boarding school. However, as time has progressed, the media has given him more attention because of his disappearance rather than his accomplishments. From this, people have emphasized his smaller characteristics, such as his improved treatment of natives, and championed him as a “man before his time.”
The first section of this paper introduces Percy Fawcett and gives a biography of his early life and an account of some of his early adventures. The second section explains Fawcett’s final expedition and explores some of the explanations for his disappearance that were published in newspapers at the time. The third section examines the differences between Fawcett’s appearances in the media and the use of him as inspiration for forms of entertainment. The concluding section of the paper restates the importance of earlier ideas and explains how we can learn from the history of Fawcett that our beliefs about celebrities can cloud our interpretation of historical figures and events.
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Nate King is a VI Form boarding student from Holliston, Massachusetts. His favorite subjects are history and science, and he enjoys playing soccer in his free time.