A former Spike Island soldier and the quest that took his life…
Spike Islands 19th century prison closed in 1883 after thirty-six extraordinary years of operation. Its first decade was beset by the impact of the famine, as its numbers climbed to astronomical levels, never again seen in Ireland and Britain. The death rates rose in tandem, in a penal tragedy without compare on these shores.
But who could have foreseen that after the island prison ceased operation, the world’s greatest explorer would find his way to Spike Island Cork?
After the prison closed, the island returned to solely military use as it continued its role defending strategically important Cork Harbour. These were quiet times for the island’s soldiers and their families, who were allowed to live with them on the island.
After the high-tension years of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th century, and before the coming of World War one in 1914, Spike Island was a quiet posting with little risk of foreign invasion.
Three decades passed on Ireland’s historic island after its prison closed in 1883 to the outbreak of war in 1914 that were peaceful but always eventful. There was the constant coming and goings of interesting soldiers and their families, like Waterford’s William Organ and his daughter Ellen, whose tragic life influenced a Pope and led to a reduction in the age of Catholic Communion.
In 1903, a soldier and his family arrived solider to a sleep island fortress that would go on to world fame. Colonel Percy Fawcett is one of the most enigmatic, colorful and adventurous characters of the entire 20th century, let alone the history of Spike Island, and the three years he would spend on Spike Island were just part of a rich life lived with a zest for exploration and achievement.
Percy started life in Torquay where a family of eccentrics set him on a path of adventure. His father was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, while his elder brother, Edward Douglas Fawcett, was a mountain climber, occultist and the author of philosophical books and adventure novels.
Fawcett first joined the royal artillery corps and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in 1886. He was happy to be sent on various overseas appointments like Hong Kong and Malta, before landing in distant Sri Lanka in Southeast Asia, then known as British territory Ceylon.
There he would meet his wife and lifetime partner Nina, who was born to a wealthy family who sent her to Scotland to be educated before returning to Sri Lanka. They met at a tennis party in Fort Galle, hitting it off instantly and falling deeply in love.
Fawcett soon proposed to the girl considered to be the prettiest in all of Sri Lanka, but his mischievous brother and sisters, driven presumably by jealously, falsely told Percy that Nina was ‘far from a virgin’. He wrote to her saying ‘you are not the pure young girl I thought you to be’ and the engagement was off. Nina would soon marry a Captain Herbert Prichard who took her to live a reluctant life in Alexandria.
Her first husband would die soon of Anthrax, and clearly he knew the heart of his wife, for his last words to her were reported to be “Go….and marry Fawcett. He is the real man for you“. High Edwardian drama indeed!
Having discovered the ploy of his family, Percy begged Nina for forgiveness, and they were soon married. He would call her ‘Cheeky’ and she called him ‘Puggy’, and the inseparable pair enjoyed a happy life together in the beautiful Sri Lankan countryside. They soon had a son they named Jack. The couple shared common interests that were not necessarily common in society, like a fascination with seances and the occult. Contacting the dead was a passing fad but was still a niche pastime in Victorian circles.
Fawcett was sent to work in North Africa, reputedly as a spy for the British secret service. It is more likely he carried out surveying work for the Royal Geographical Society, having joined in 1901, which could be considered spying activity by the locals of a reluctantly colonised country. The travel and varied roles no doubt appealed to Fawcett’s thirst for adventure, who was deeply bitten by the travel bug.
It was in 1903 that Fawcett was sent to work on Spike Island by the war office, uprooting the family. Here they found a peace and comfort in Cork Harbour that Fawcett would miss in later life, but sufficiently to quench his desire for travel. As a high-ranking officer, it was a position of comfort for Fawcett who engaged in the finer activities of the age.
He was promoted to Major while serving on the island in 1905, and had a son, Brian, born on the island in 1906, making him a distinguished member of the very select group known as ‘Spikey’s’.
The time and posting were comfortable, and the family engaged in a serene island life, while the dark history of the island was suited to the interests of Percy and Nina, and their penchant for arranging séances to communicate with the dead.
Percy had long burned a candle for the adventurous life, so when the opportunity came from the Royal Geographic Society to go to Bolivia and work as the chief survey commissioner, he could not refuse. The posting was important as it would settle a dispute between Brazil and Bolivia on the extent of borders, and Percy saw it as a chance to salvage the family name.
His father was disgraced while a member of the RGS for drinking away his own fortune and that of his wife. Despite it taking him from his beloved family, Percy set out to tackle the deepest Amazon rainforest.
He left Spike Island in 1906 and it was to be the first of several journeys to South America that involved exploring previously untouched rainforests, unknown rivers, and to assist in mapmaking and border disputes. This was true adventure in its purest form, as many areas he visited were believed to be untouched by Europeans.
The local Amazonian tribes offered Percy plenty danger and distraction, and he often found himself avoiding poisoned darts and arrows as he went about his work, charting the deepest jungle. The Amazon was known to contain tribes of cannibals. It was extraordinarily dangerous work that made for interesting reading in his future publications, and on his updates given at Royal Geographical Society meetings.
As if the danger from Amazonian tribes was not enough, he was often forced to resupply in incredibly dangerous working towns in remote areas, where the booming rubber industry drove men to find fortune, despite terrible conditions. Some of these town reported death rates of 40% a year, from disease and murder. Percy Fawcett was taking on decidedly risky business.
While much of this work was for practical ends, Fawcett was secretly driven by the idea of discovering something far less run of the mill than identifying borders for map making. He had become interested in finding one of the fabled ‘lost cities’ of South America, and he put his time and research into their existence and possible locations. The stories of cities of gold went as far back as Sir Walter Raleigh in 1595, who sailed the Orinoco River made famous by Irish singer Enya in the 1980’s.
He and the many before and after him did not find a city of gold, but some found ancient, ruined cities and evidence of civilisation. Percy became so engrossed, he retired from the army in 1910 to focus solely on exploration.
Based on his documentary research, by 1914 Fawcet formulated a theory about a “lost city” named “Z”, located somewhere in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He theorized that a complex civilization once existed in the Amazon, and that isolated ruins of a large city may survive.
In addition, Fawcett found a document known as Manuscript 512, written by an explorer after explorations made in the sertão of the province of Bahia, and housed at the National Library of Rio de Janeiro. It is believed to be written by Portuguese explorer bandeirante João da Silva Guimarães, who recorded that during an excursion in 1753 he’d discovered the ‘ruins of an ancient city that contained arches, statues and a temple with strange hieroglyphics’.
The city was described in detail without providing a specific location.
It was this city that became a secondary destination for Fawcett after his fabled city of “Z”, and in the years leading up to World War one the quest consumed his thoughts. He wanted his great achievement to be confirming this lost civilisation theory, and all the better if the search included his city of gold.
He sought funding from his fellows at the royal societies, but many mocked his search for what they saw as a myth, the fanciful notion of a ‘city of gold’.
Fawcett was recalled to active service at the outbreak of World War One and served with distinction, commanding men at the front and surviving where so many perished. But he was horrified by what he saw in the war, commenting –
Cannibalism at least provides a reasonable motive for killing a man, which is more than you can say for civilized warfare.Fawcett’s Diary, later book – Exploration Fawcett
It was during this period he conducted a séance to speak to the dead souls of men who had lived in the South America region, which he was desperate to return too.
A woman carrying out the séance told him he would find what was lost, and infamy awaited. Percy became convinced, fanatical even, that his lost city awaited, covered in thick jungle begging to be found.
After the war he returned to South America again and again and made as many as eight intense excursions to the region, despite the dangers. Each time he returned to see his wife and family and share his discoveries with an increasingly rapt audience. He would not be long back in Britain, where Nina had now relocated from Spike Island before he was restless and consumed once again.
He began venturing deeper into the unknown, to areas where no European had ever set foot. Along the way he encountered many signs that led him to believe he was on the right path, which included ruins of roads, stairs and markings deep within the jungle. These were in areas where supposedly no human civilisation had been before, heightening his sense that his lost civilisation claim was accurate.
A discovery in a neighbouring country early in his quest had brought hope. The uncovering of Machu Picchu in Peru in 1911 proved to many that Fawcett was exactly right, that great civilisations had existed in what was now the deep jungles of South America. A fact now well established. The discovery of the city, high in the mountains of Peru, did not deter Fawcett in any way, and he remained convinced that this was not his lost city of Z, but a similar site.
By 1925, Percy Fawcett was world famous as an explorer and eccentric. His exploits in the jungles were being serialised and published in daily newspapers, making for a popular feature. He had become friends with author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous as the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, who cited Fawcett as the inspiration for his bestselling novel ‘The Lost World’.
He was also close with writer Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, one of the biggest selling books of all time. With this fame came the opportunity for private financing, and Percy planned a purely exploratory expedition to find his lost city that was paid for by a consortium of newspapers.
He planned a trip with two hardy travel companions chosen for their health, vitality, and loyalty to one another – his eldest son Jack Fawcett, and Jack’s long-time friend Raleigh Rimell. Fawcett chose only two companions to travel light and be less noticeable to the native tribes. He was as experienced as anyone and knew many tribes remained hostile towards Europeans, who had decimated their numbers.
He left instructions that if the expedition did not return, no rescue expedition should be sent, lest the rescuers suffer the party’s fate. The papers devoured Percy’s flair for drama.
The party left well equipped with canned foods, powdered milk, guns, flares, a sextant, and a chronometer, but light and nimble enough to traverse difficult terrain. Fawcett’s style contrasted with many other explorers, who brought caravans of dozens of men and multitudes of equipment.
On 20 April, 1925, the expedition departed from Cuiabá, the capital city of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso. In addition to his two principal companions, Fawcett was accompanied by two Brazilian labourers, two horses, eight mules, and a pair of dogs.
A communication from the expedition was sent on 29 May 1925, when Fawcett wrote a letter to his Nina to say that he was ready to go into unexplored territory with only Jack and Rimell. The letter was delivered by a native runner, and subsequent sightings reported they crossed the Upper Xingu, a south-eastern tributary river of the River Amazon.
It was the last every sighting and contact ever reported of adventurer Percy Fawcett, or any of his companions, who disappearance has remained a mystery for a century.
The final letter, written from Dead Horse Camp, gave the parties location and was generally optimistic. When there was no word received for many weeks, which grew into months then years, the grim reality had to be accepted by Nina and an expectant public. The twenty-year quest for the lost city of gold had taken the life of Percy Fawcett, and that of his son and friend.
It was assumed that local Indians had killed them, as several tribes were active nearby at the time. People like the Kalapalos, who were the last tribe to see them alive, or the Arumás, Suyás and Xavantes, whose territory they were entering. Both of the younger men were reportedly lame and ill when the party was last seen.
Unable to move at speed, it would have been common for such trespassers to be killed by tribes if captured. It is also plausible that the group died of natural causes in the Brazilian jungle, with several dozen ways the unforgiving jungle could have poisoned, eaten or killed them.
There was only one way to be sure, and despite Fawcett’s earlier appeal that no one should search for them, several rescue efforts were sent after the three-man team. In 1927, two years after their disappearance, one such expedition found a nameplate of Fawcett’s with an Indian tribe.
In June 1933, a theodolite compass belonging to Fawcett was found near a site owned by the Baciary Indians of Mato Grosso, now on display at Torquay Museum. Found by Colonel Aniceto Botelho, it sparked hopes of an answer to the riddle. Sadly, the name-plate turned out to be from Fawcett’s expedition five years earlier, and had most likely been given as a gift to the chief of that Indian tribe.
It later that transpired the compass had been left behind before he entered the jungle on his final journey, and so offered no further clues.
For all the expenditure and intense rescue efforts, there could be no certainty of how the group had met their demise. In the ensuing decades, various other groups mounted several expeditions without success. They heard rumours that could not be verified, reports that Fawcett had been killed by Indians or wild animals.
There was a tale that Fawcett had lost his memory and lived out his life as the chief of a tribe of cannibals. Fantastical speculation, likely hiding a sad truth that Fawcett’s luck had run out.
Incredibly, an estimated one hundred would-be-rescuers died undertaking rescue expeditions to discover Fawcett’s fate. The staggering figure highlighted the extreme dangers of the region, and Fawcett’s impressive accomplishment in surviving so many trips unscathed.
In 1930-31, a famous female explorer named Aloha Wanderwell used her seaplane to try to find Fawcett, while a 1951 expedition unearthed human bones but these were found later to be unrelated to Fawcett or his companions.
Danish explorer Arne Falk-Rønne journeyed to the Mato Grosso during the 1960s, and in a 1991 book he wrote that he learned of Fawcett’s fate from Orlando Villas-Bôas, who had heard it from one of Fawcett’s murderers.
Allegedly, Fawcett and his companions had a mishap on the river and lost most of the gifts they’d brought along for the Indian tribes. Continuing without gifts was a serious breach of protocol. When the expedition members encountered the Kalapalo tribe, without gifts and being seriously ill at the time, they decided to kill them. The bodies of Jack Fawcett and Raleigh Rimell were thrown into the river; Colonel Fawcett, considered an old man and therefore distinguished, received a proper burial.
Falk-Rønne visited the Kalapalo tribe and reported that one of the tribesmen confirmed Villas-Bôas’s story about how and why Fawcett had been killed. But a conflicting story emerged in 2005, when New Yorker staffer David Grann visited the Kalapalo tribe who hold an oral tradition that their ancestors tried to talk Fawcett and his ill companions out of travelling any further, which would take them into the lands of a brutal tribe.
Fawcett would not listen and the tribe witnessed campfires for five nights after they departed, but suddenly they stopped, leading them to assume the explorers had met their end.
In truth, no one can say what happened to geographer, artillery officer, cartographer, explorer, husband and father Percy Fawcett, who died arguably the 20th century’s most famous explorer. His wife Nina would move with Fawcett’s remaining son, Spike Island born Jack, to Jamaica, away from the press hysteria surrounding his disappearance.
The British society would continue to send missions enquiring as to his disappearance, as late as the 1980’s some sixty years after his disappearance, but to no avail. The man who tried to solve some of South America’s greatest mysteries became one of the world’s greatest mysteries himself.
His Spike Island born son Brian published the notes of his previous expeditions as the popular 1956 book ‘Exploration Fawcett’, most of it written in Fawcett’s own words. The explorer lives on the in the popular culture of today, having had a Hollywood movie made about his life story in 2017.
The Lost City of Z starred Charlie Hunnam as the explorer, and Robert Pattinson and Tom Holland with Sienna Miller playing the role of Nina. His story was recounted in Hollywood fashion to a new generation.
The British Museum holds a small number of his artefacts and personal items, and his tale of mystery is regularly retold on the Discovery Channel and other historical programmes. Lonely Planet recently named the Spike Island solider in their list of greatest explorers of all time, and he and the other famous explorers of his age inspired the Indianan Jones character crafted by George Lucas, down to the distinctive hat that Fawcett was often pictured in.
He might well be the most famous ex-resident of this tiny Cork Harbour outcrop, and his son Brian being a ‘Spikey’, one born on the island, leaves him forever entwined with the location.
The extraordinary story of the former Spike Island solider come Amazon adventurer makes for an interesting aside to the island’s history. Particularly in its quieter years as a British Military barracks at the turn of the 19th century.
Soldiers and their families came and went as postings changed, and life continued in quiet fashion until the war erupted in 1914, and a prison returned to the island in 1921.
REFERENCES – FURTHER READING:
Brian Fawcett birth registration. s.l. : General Registers Office, 1906. Group Registration ID 352507.
Fawcett, Percy Fawcett – Jack. Exploration Fawcett. s.l. : Orion Publishing, 2001 (regular reprints).
Grann, David. The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon . 2009.
Fleming, Peter. Brazilian Adventure. 1933