Pack your bags! We’re headed to the Amazon today as we compare history with The Lost City of Z.
About The Lost City of Z
On July 5th, 1994, Jeff Bezos incorporated a company called Cadabra, Inc. It didn’t take long for someone to mishear that name as “cadaver”, though, and Jeff renamed the company to something he thought sounded a little more exotic and different. Since he was planning on building the biggest store in the world, he decided to opt for naming his company after the biggest river in the world.
While Amazon.com was starting up in Seattle, across the United States, another startup was just getting underway. The Hill is a political newspaper based out of Washington D.C. that also started up in 1994.
One of the first copy editors to work at The Hill was named David Grann. Within a year, that young copy editor would go on to be named the newspaper’s executive editor.
Fast forward eleven years, and David wrote an article for The New Yorker called The Lost City of Z, which published in 2005. Four years of research and writing later, and David expanded on that article for his first book of the same name that was published in 2009.
After a few changes to the production that saw Brad Pitt get replaced for the lead role by Charlie Hunnam, this year, in April, Jeff Bezos’ Amazon Studios released an original movie based on that book and teamed up with the distribution company Bleecker Street to play it in traditional theaters—something relatively new for the online superstore’s original movie department.
Now, I was unable to uncover the exact reason why the online superstore decided to pick David’s book as one to make it into the theaters instead of going straight to their online streaming platform like many of their other originals…so this is just my speculation, but I’d like to think it might have something to do with the subject matter.
You see, David’s book called The Lost City of Z and the movie with the same name is all about the exploration of the real jungles of the Amazon that the massive online store is named after.
So whether you saw the movie in theaters this summer or watched it on Amazon’s streaming service since then—the website, not the river or the jungles—let’s take a few minutes to compare the story we saw on screen to what really happened in history.
Learn the true story of The Lost City of Z
The movie opens by letting us know that it’s 1905 and we’re joining a deer hunt at the British Army Barracks in Cork, Ireland. It’s here that we meet Percival Fawcett as played by Charlie Hunnam.
After chasing down the deer with a bunch of other soldiers and quite possibly the cutest pack of hunting beagles you’ll ever see, Percival manages to kill the deer and return to the cheers of his fellow soldiers who greet him along with his wife and son.
While that particular hunt is something that’s almost impossible to verify the documentation of, there’s a few facts we do know.
Let’s start with the family and military career that we see in the film for Percival, or Percy as he’s called in the movie.
By the time the movie’s timeline begins in 1905, Percival Harrison Fawcett had been in the British Army for 19 years after joining at the age of 19 in 1886.
That would’ve made him about 38 when the movie’s timeline begins in 1905. And it’s true that he was in Ireland at that time. More specifically, he was stationed at the fortress on Spike Island, which is in Cork Harbor just south of the city of Cork, which is in the southernmost county in Ireland called, you guessed it, Cork County.
The movie is also correct in showing Percy with a wife and child. Percy met Nina Agnes Paterson, who is played by Sienna Miller in the movie, while he was stationed in Ceylon, which Charlie Hunnam’s version of Percy mentions later on. That was during the 19 years of military service prior to the movie’s timeline, but it was just before that timeline, in 1901, when Percy and Nina were married.
As a little side note, throughout the movie we hardly ever hear Percy call Nina by hear real name. In fact, unless I completely missed it, I never heard him say it. Instead, he always calls her “Cheeky.” That’s an actual nickname he had for her, something evidenced by his using the name “Cheeky” in dedicating his 1924 book called Exploration Fawcett to his wife.
Well, I should probably say that the book Exploration Fawcett was actually published in 1953 after being completed by Percy’s son, Brian. So there’s been some who have wondered at its accuracy, or if some parts had been altered by Brian or added to in a way to add to his father’s legacy. There’s no proof of this that I could find, but that doesn’t stop people from thinking that. But since that book is one of the only documents we have of Percy’s own thoughts and recollections of a lot of the events, it’s an important piece of evidence to help determine the movie’s accuracy.
As another little side note, Ceylon was what it was called when it was a British colony from 1802 to 1948. That name changed in 1972. Now, the nation that used to be the British colony of Ceylon is known as Sri Lanka. As a little geography refresher, Sri Lanka is the island located just south of India.
So Percy and Nina were married in 1901 and two years later they had their first child, Brian. That means little Brian would’ve been about two years old when we see them for the first time in the movie in 1905.
Oh, and we also hear some of the other soldiers calling Percy a major. That’s true. Percy Fawcett was promoted to the rank of major on January 11th, 1905.
Back in the movie, a couple years have passed as the next scene starts with a bit of text saying it’s March of 1906. Percy gets called to London where he meets Sir George Goldie and Mr. John Scott Keltie, both of the Royal Geographical Society, or the RGS.
Although the movie doesn’t explicitly say this was Percy’s first time working with the RGS, that’s sort of implied since Percy starts off by introducing himself to Sir Goldie and Mr. Keltie.
In truth, though, Percy joined the RGS in 1901. He had been an engineer in the British Army, but was fascinated with exploration and so his enrollment in the RGS was a way of learning the skills of mapmaking and surveying needed to be an explorer.
Despite this seemingly inaccurate bit in the movie, there was a brief mention by Charlie Hunnam’s version of Percy Fawcett that he was trying to put his surveying days behind him. He’s hoping to go somewhere with more action. So maybe we can chalk my thought of this scene being a first-time for Percy to work with the RGS as just my misinterpretation of the scene.
The movie is correct, though, in saying it was in 1906 when he was asked to join a special mission by the president of the RGS, which at that time was, as the movie shows, Sir George Goldie. In fact, this whole scene is pretty accurately shown in the movie. Even down to some of the conversations being pulled straight from the real Percy’s book, Exploration Fawcett.
For example, how Sir Goldie explains the price of rubber was increasing so much that there was a chance of war between Brazil and Bolivia. Although, the movie doesn’t mention that Peru was also in that mix.
Charlie Hunnam’s version of Percy Fawcett understands, but then says…what does this have to do with me? That’s something we saw in the movie, and seems to have been lifted from the pages of Exploration Fawcett.
Oh, and in the movie there’s a brief mention where Percy says he’s not sure if he wants to go because he was hoping to go where the action was…not surveying.
That’s sort of true, but it’s also sort of not true.
According to the real Percy Fawcett’s account of the conversation in his book Exploration Fawcett, he was excited about the trip as a way to break the monotony of being an artillery officer stationed in friendly territory—basically, away from any action—but he was hoping it’d be more than surveying.
And it was.
Back in the movie, it’s during this meeting that another part comes up. It’s really brief, but one of the characters also mentioned it briefly at the gala in the beginning of the movie, so I wanted to make sure to touch on that. I’m talking about Percy’s father. At the gala, there’s a couple characters talking about how Percy hasn’t been too good with his choice of ancestors.
Because we can choose our ancestors. Although I don’t fault the filmmakers for that line—while there’s no way I could prove that line of dialog was actually something that was said, sadly that sort of thing was common. Class and social stature was a huge deal back then…well, and now, too, probably more than we’d like to admit.
Then while Percy’s talking to Sir Goldie about the trip, Sir Goldie brings the topic up again when he says this mission is a chance to gain decoration and reclaim the family name.
So what they’re referring to here was Percy’s father, Edward Fawcett. Edward was also an officer in the British Army as well as being a first-class cricketer, playing for the Sussex County Cricket Club. He was born into high society and only elevated both his stature and fortunes when he married Percy’s mother, Myra MacDougall, in the small coastal town of Hove, near Brighton.
She was the daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel in the British Bengal Army.
After marrying and settling down, Edward and Myra had two sons and three daughters. Somewhere in there, Edward began to crack and it didn’t take long for him to earn himself a reputation for gambling, heavy, heavy drinking and what some reports would suggest were plenty of casual affairs with other women.
Along the way, Edward had managed to not only fritter away his family fortune but also anything they had from Myra’s family.
By the time Percy had grown up, the Fawcett family name didn’t have the same reputation it did when Edward grew up.
So that’s what the movie is referring to there in those brief moments talking about Percy’s family reputation.
Going back to the movie’s timeline, as Percy is about to embark on his first mission, Nina tells him that she’s pregnant. Then we find out in the next scene that it’s April of 1906, and Percy is on a ship, the S.S. Panama, headed across the Atlantic.
The basic gist of that plot point is true.
We get introduced to him later, but Brian Fawcett was born in 1906, three years after his older brother Jack.
These brothers are played by a few different characters as we see them grow in the movie. The three year old Jack here was played by Tom Mulheron. Not to get too far ahead of our movie’s timeline, but later we’ll see him at seven years old and he’s played by Bobby Smalldridge. Finally, we’ll see Jack as a young man and he’s played by Tom Holland. As for Brian, we see him first as a seven year old as he’s played by Nathaniel Bates Fisher, then again as a 15-year-old, played by Daniel Huttlestone.
Oh, and while it was the S.S. Panama that bore the real Percy Fawcett to, well, Panama, it wasn’t the first ship he took. It’d seem the movie hurried the timeline a little bit, because according to Percy, he left his post at Spike Island on board a German ship, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in May of 1906 bound for New York.
Then from there he took the S.S. Panama to the Central American country of Panama.
But it’s probably good that the movie skipped over that first ship because the real Percy even went above and beyond to mention that he hated that trip. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was a luxury liner, and Percy said that sort of travel made him bored and indifferent to, as he put it, passengers who were overfed and sprawled around the various decks of the ship.
After this, according to the movie, Percy meets his assistant while he’s on the S.S. Panama in the Atlantic. That’s Henry Costin, as played by Robert Pattinson.
It would seem the movie is speeding things up a little bit again. While Henry Costin was a real person, I couldn’t find anything that says Henry joined Percy on this trip in 1906.
Not to get too far ahead of our story, but the first mention of Henry Costin in the real Percy Fawcett’s book was when he writes optimistically about being able to procure the services of two splendid non-commissioned officers from the Rifle Regiment in 1910. Those two officers being Corporal Henry J. Costin and the other being someone who isn’t in the movie at all, a man named H. Leigh.
So the movie is about four years ahead of the timeline, although it is true that Henry found out about Percy’s expedition through a newspaper advertisement like the movie says.
And it’s also true that over the course of their working together, Percy and Henry developed a great friendship.
Oh, and at one point while they’re on a train before they get to the jungle, Charlie Hunnam’s version of Percy Fawcett gets a cable from back home. Then he mentions to Robert Pattinson’s version of Henry Costin that they have new orders. They’re supposed to map the Verde River and find its source.
That’s sort of true, but the movie is speeding up the timeline again.
In truth, the 1906 expedition for Percy was what the movie mentioned it was in the first place. Remember that scene where Sir Goldie of the Royal Geographical Society wanted Percy to map the border between Brazil and Bolivia because neither country trusted the other one to do it? Well, that’s what he did.
It wasn’t until 1908 that he was tasked with trying to find the source of the Verde River—not to be confused with the United States’ Verde River in Arizona.
As a little side note, I’ll admit to having a hard time deciphering the exact location of the Verde River. Not because it doesn’t exist but almost the opposite. Verde River, or Rio Verde as it’d be called in South America, just means green river. And there’s a couple dozen rivers with that name in Brazil alone. But as best as I can tell, I believe the river Percy was trying to find the source for in 1908 was what we’d call today the Guaporé River. That’s on the border between western Brazil and eastern Bolivia, and its source is at the Parecis plateau, which is in the modern-day Brazilian state of Rondônia.
Oh, and since the movie speeds up the timeline a bit and blends expeditions together, I think it’s worth pointing out that in all Percy Fawcett had seven different expeditions to the Amazon between 1906 and 1924.
Something else the movie doesn’t really mention are the various creatures he claimed to have seen. We see some of them, like when we see them stumble upon a panther, but some of the real Percy Fawcett’s claims were much more…well, exotic.
For example, he claimed to have shot and killed a giant anaconda. All anacondas are big, but to date the world’s largest anaconda was measured in 2011 to be 25 feet and two inches long. That’s about 7.67 meters long.
So, yeah, that’s pretty giant.
But Percy’s claim was to have killed an anaconda that was 62 feet long! That’s almost 19 meters!
Of course, most people didn’t believe him. It probably didn’t help that Percy didn’t have any tools to be able to accurately measure it, so he was just eyeballing it.
He also claimed to have seen some sort of a doglike, catlike hybrid creature. Today cryptozoologists call it Fawcett’s cat-dog, which Fawcett himself referred to as a mitla. It’s never been verified, but that hasn’t stopped numerous people from searching for it like Jeremy Mallinson did in 1960 while he was the director of the Jersey Zoo, now called the Durrell Wildlife Park.
Percy claimed to have seen it twice, describing it as a black, dog-like cat that was about the size of a foxhound.
Then there was something he called an apazauca spider that he described as a black tarantula so large that a plate would hardly cover it. According to Percy, this huge spider was one they’d encounter at night while they were sleeping.
He told one story about how he climbed into his sleeping bag one night along the river when he felt something hairy scurry along his arm and up over his neck.
Instinctively, he brushed it off and there he found a huge apazauca spider latched onto the back of his hand. It took some vigorous shaking to get it to finally drop to the ground. Percy considered himself lucky, claiming that the apazauca spider’s bite is very poisonous and can kill.
Like the mitla, to this day we don’t really have proof of something called an apazauca spider. Of course, there’s plenty of huge spiders out there. There’s poisonous spiders out there. So maybe we just call it something else today, or maybe it’s something that hasn’t been documented by modern-day scientists.
In either case, it’s interesting that in Percy’s account he was so matter-of-fact about how the spider’s bite could kill a human. Sort of makes you wonder how he knew that.
Going back to the movie, one of the places that Percy and Henry end up in the jungle is something the movie calls Fazenda Jacobina. It’s here that they meet Arthur Manley, who’s played by Edward Ashley in the film.
All of the facts are there, but the movie seems to have rearranged them a bit.
Let’s start with Arthur Manley. He was a real person, except his first name wasn’t Arthur—it was Henry. While I can’t verify this, I’m guessing they changed his name to help eliminate confusion between Henry Manley and Henry Costin. But in Percy’s book, he avoids this confusion by just calling them by their last names. So for the sake of this episode, I’ll do the same.
But like Costin, Percy developed quite a friendship with Manley. Together, the three men relied on each other and put each other’s lives in the hands of the other many times over.
Apparently that’s what you do when you go into the jungle and face unknown peoples, mythical-sized spiders and disease.
But the first mention of Manley in Percy’s book says that he and Costin managed to get Manley to come along for an expedition starting in 1911, not from the 1906 expedition like the movie claims, or even the 1908 expedition to map the Verde River.
That brings us to Fazenda Jacobina.
There’s also no mention of Fazenda Jacobina either in Percy Fawcett’s book or David Grann’s book that the movie is based on.
However, that is a real place and, by the way, fazenda is Portuguese for farm. The Jacobina farm was established somewhere around the year 1769, so it had been around for a while. Like the movie implies, it was an outfit that largely relied on slave labor.
Although it’s worth pointing out that there’s a report from a Frenchman named Hercules Florence who joined a scientific exploration into the Amazon. During that expedition, he stayed at the farm and wrote in his diary that:
In 1827, the Jacobina was the richest farm in the province. It had 60,000 head of cattle, 200 slaves and equal number of freed.
Think about that for a bit. 400 people, half of them slaves, managing a farm with 60,000 cattle. That is a massive, massive farm.
Oh, and as a fun little fact, Hercules Florence was also an inventor came up with a process of using negatives and positives to create an image. He referred to his invention as photographie in 1834, so that was four years before John Herschel coined the term photography in English—by the way, John is the person we know of as inventing photography.
So as a little recap, Manley was a real person, but it seems he didn’t join Percy’s expeditions until later. As for the Jacobina, that’s a real place but there’s nothing I could find that showed Percy was there in 1906.
Of course, it’s plausible—that is the general area and from Hercules Florence’s account, it’d seem explorers knew it was there, so it’s likely to have been a spot anyone exploring the area would’ve known about.
But there’s one fact that I haven’t mentioned yet. On May 13th, 1888, Lei Áurea was passed or, in English, the Golden Law. That officially abolished slavery in Brazil and was the beginning of the end of Jacobina, and it didn’t take long for it to fall into ruin.
So while it’s plausible, I’d venture to say it’s not likely that Percy went there in 1906 like the movie implies. And if they did, they shouldn’t have come across slavery like the film shows.
But as you can tell by the way I carefully worded those sentences, there’s not a lot of proof to back up what the movie shows. If you have some proof, I’d love to hear it! Hop into the Based on a True Story Facebook group and share it!
If you noticed, though, I used the present tense to refer to the Jacobina farm. That’s because not only did it exist during Percy Fawcett’s time, but it still exists today.
In fact, today what’s left of the historic farm is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the town of Cáceres, which is located along the Paraguay River in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso along the border between Brazil and Bolivia.
Back in the movie, after this first expedition Percy returns home to now two children and gets invited to a delightful dinner at the home of James Murray. If you remember, Nina was pregnant with Brian before Percy left.
Now the movie doesn’t mention any sort of date here, but if you remember from when we learned about Brian before, the first time we meet him he’s seven years old. Well, that’s what I’m assuming anyway, because Nathanial Fisher is the actor who is listed in the movie’s credits as being Brian Fawcett at age seven.
So we know from history that Brian was born in 1906. If the movie says he’s cast as a seven-year-old, then that’d mean this next scene should be around 1913. Give or take a little bit since the movie doesn’t mention what month it is.
But regardless of what month it is, the movie is speeding things up a bit. You see, James Murray, who’s played by Angus Macfadyen in the movie, was indeed a real person. But he embarked on an expedition with Percy Fawcett in 1911. If you remember, that’s the first time Henry Manley joined the expedition as well.
Although the movie correctly mentions that James Murray had already earned a name for himself thanks in part to an expedition to Antarctica with the renowned explorer of the time, Ernest Shackleton.
Before making this expedition, according to the movie, Percy’s wife, Nina, is pregnant yet again.
And that’s true. This time, as the movie correctly shows, it’s a girl. Her name was Joan. In the movie, Joan Fawcett is played by Bethan Coomber.
Oh, and by the way, after this dinner with James Murray there’s a scene where we see Charlie Hunnam’s version of Percy Fawcett speaking in front of a group of people. During that speech, he mentions some of the evidence of a lost city that he’s calling Z.
One of those pieces of evidence that he mentions is a manuscript that he believes was written by a Portuguese soldier in 1753 that, as he quotes it as saying:
We came upon the ruins of an ancient city bedecked with gold. Roads, temples, ancient symbols.
The movie implies this was a big part of Percy’s belief in the lost city of Z.
That’s actually true. And that manuscript does exist. It’s too long to include here, but I’ll add it as a bonus episode for Based on a True Story Producers.
For the purposes of this episode, though, the point is that the movie is correct with the basic gist of there being an old manuscript as being the basis of Percy Fawcett’s belief in the lost city of Z deep in the Amazon.
Going back to James Murray, though, while the movie doesn’t mention it, before his expedition with Shackleton, James also spent time surveying uncharted regions in his home country of Scotland. It’d seem like he would be able to handle his own. Percy himself once wrote that he thought James Murray would be a great addition to the next expedition into the Amazon.
But, as author David Grann pointed out in the book that the movie is based on, there were some warning signs. For example, during the Scottish expeditions, James ran into physical limitations. While in Antarctica, he was in charge of the camp—he never really had to deal with the levels of exposure the others in the expedition did.
By the time he joined Percy’s expedition James was, well, as the movie shows, out of shape.
His complaints certainly were something that had to have gotten on the nerves of Percy, Costin and Manley. While the scenes of Angus Macfadyen’s version of James Murray complaining were dramatized for effect in the film, the movie is correct in showing that James Murray complained. A lot.
Oh, and while the movie sort of implies that they all leave from England together, in truth James Murray met Percy’s expedition in San Carlos, a town on the western border of Brazil near Bolivia.
The expedition left San Carlos on October 4th, 1911.
As a fun little side note, there were some reports that the expedition came across vampire bats like the movie shows…well, it doesn’t really show it directly, but we see Costin have some bites from the little vampiric bats. Maybe that’s why they cast Robert Pattinson to be Henry Costin.
Get it? …Twilight?
OK, that was a bad joke.
The vampire bats weren’t the only thing they had to endure. Disease struck. First it was Manley, who caught malaria. With temperatures hitting 104º F—that’s about 40º C—Manley was sapped of energy. Then Costin caught what Percy called espundia in his book, or you might know it today, Leishmaniasis.
Or if you’re like me, you’ve never heard of either of these. It’s a disease that causes skin ulcers that’s caused from the bite of a very particular kind of sand flies. But here’s a tip for you: Don’t Google it.
Then the diseases hit James Murray, who was already lagging behind when healthy. It started with one of his fingernails which simply slid off. That’s not supposed to happen. Then he noticed a wound on his right hand. Then it was diarrhea. He woke up one day to find…
…and, I’ll warn you—you might want to skip ahead a few seconds if you’re with kids…
James woke up one day to find maggots growing inside of him. They were in his knee and arm; about fifty of them, he wrote at one point, that he found around his elbow. To try to get rid of them, he did just about anything. Picking and pulling. Squeezing the skin around the wounds to try to force them out. He even tried to poison them. That worked for some, but then the dead maggots started rotting under his skin.
OK, enough of the descriptors. You get the idea.
If James complained beforehand, you can only imagine what he was like now. Despite his horrible state, it’d seem that at this point Percy had already changed his belief that James was a good fit for the expedition. He’d suspected James of stealing supplies and food, and of course there were the complaints.
So for a while they pressed on.
Eventually it became too much. Percy reluctantly decided to go out of their way to try to find an encampment to drop off James.
While in the movie the men in the expedition sendoff James on their last remaining horse, what really happened was that they happened on someone with a mule. That man, who remained unnamed by any documentation I could find, offered to take James to the nearest town.
But Percy did offer James some money to buy food with and they seemed to at least try to set things right. James certainly couldn’t have been in a good state, and was convinced that the expedition was just waiting for him to die.
And that’s the last we know of James for a while.
Just like the movie shows, Percy and the rest of the expedition didn’t really know what happened to him. For all they knew, he had been sent off into the jungle with the man who had promised to take James to safety. Had he been able to do that? There was no way Percy could’ve known.
About a month or so after all of this, Percy’s expedition showed up La Paz, Bolivia. It was from here that Percy sent a message back to the Royal Geographical Society letting them know that James Murray was missing.
While the movie doesn’t mention this at all, we know from history that what happened to James was that the random man they came across in the jungle with the mule had indeed fulfilled his word. He took James to a small encampment called Tambopata near the border of Peru and Bolivia.
By small, I mean small. There was one house.
I’ll save you the details, but let’s just say it was there that James made his miraculous recovery.
Then it was in early 1912 when James Murray showed up in La Paz himself, furious and claiming that Percy had left him to die.
So the movie is correct when it shows that there was a feud of sorts between James and Percy. Except it didn’t happen in the same room, but rather through letters between them and the RGS.
Oh, and while that was all going on it’d seem that Costin was being hospitalized. He had been on the verge of death, but slowly was recovering from his own illness. Manley, who had also fallen ill during the expedition, seemed to have recovered quicker than Costin.
As for James, he never returned to the Amazon.
In fact, his next expedition was to the Arctic—just my speculation, but maybe trying to relive some of the glory days from his successful expedition to the cold temperatures in the Antarctica? We’ll never know.
He was on board a ship called Karluk which got stuck in the ice in August of 1913. They set up a camp, but things didn’t get much better. On February 4th, 1914, James Murray was one of four men who mutinied against the captain and left their camp on Wrangel Island to return home.
No one saw them again.
As a little side note, if you want to hear another story about Wrangel Island and that same captain that James mutinied against—a man named Vilhjalmur Stefansson, check out the Wrangel Island episode from the Omitted podcast.
Back in the movie, Percy doesn’t go back to the Amazon right away himself. Instead we see that years have passed. Like most of the world, Percy has been sucked into The Great War—what we now call World War I.
Despite officially retiring from the British Army in 1910 so he could focus on exploration full-time, Percy returned to active duty when he volunteered for duty.
According to the movie, though, we see the date as being September 26th, 1916 when we see Costin, Manley and Percy together on the battlefield. In an offensive push, they’re hit with chemical weapons. Just as Percy is trying to get his mask on, he looks up…Manley looks back. Then, in a flash, Manley is hit. A shot to the head, and Manley falls to the ground.
Manley survived the war. Sadly, though, he died soon after the war due to heart disease. As far as I could tell in my research, there wasn’t anything that tied the illness he got in the jungle to his cause of death, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a connection there somewhere.
On March 1st, 1918, Percy Fawcett was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel after receiving a Distinguished Service Order award in June of the previous year.
On November 11th, 1918, the war came to an end. At that point, Percy was just over 51 years old.
So the movie didn’t show the method of Manley’s death correctly, but unfortunately the result was the same.
After the war, Percy wanted to go back to the jungle, but Manley had passed away. Costin, like the movie correctly shows, had recently married and wasn’t keen on leaving his new family to go back for another expedition.
So Percy was on his own.
According to the movie, that’s when Percy finds a new partner for his expedition. His son, Jack.
That’s true. In fact, for the Based on a True Story Producers, you’ll get an extra bonus episode that’s a newspaper article from January 12th, 1925 that talks about the father-son duo’s expedition. If you’re not a Producer, you can become one at patreon.com/basedonatruestorypodcast/
What the movie doesn’t mention is that one of Jack’s best friends, a young man named Raleigh Rimell also came along. It was Percy, Jack and Raleigh as the primary leaders of the expedition. Then there were two Brazilians to help with manual labor, a couple of horses, a couple of dogs and eight mules.
Their purpose for this expedition? To find the lost city of Z.
In the movie, we see a date of April 1925 when Percy and Jack reach a clearly abandoned and overgrown Jacobina farm. We already learned about the farm, but the timeline is pretty close.
It was on April 25th, 1925 when Percy, Jack and the rest of their expedition left Cuiabá, which is the capital of the state of Mato Grosso in western Brazil.
And this is where, well, I’m going to have to say most of what the movie says is made up. We don’t know a lot of what happened after this.
What we do know is that, like the movie shows, there was a letter written from Percy to his wife, Nina. That was from May 29th, 1925. This is the text of that final letter:
My dear Nina,
The attempt to write is fraught with much difficulty, thanks to the legions of flies that pester one from dawn till dusk – and sometimes all through the night! The worst are the tiny ones that are smaller than a pinhead, almost invisible, but sting like a mosquito. Clouds of them are always present. Millions of bees add to the plague, and other bugs galore, stinging horrors that get all over ones hands. Even the head nets won’t keep them out, and as for mosquito nets, the pests fly through them! It is quite maddening.
We hope to get through this region in a few days, and are camped here for a while to arrange for the return of the peons, who are anxious to get back, having had enough of it – and I don’t blame them. We go on with eight animals – three saddle mules, four cargo mules, and a madrinha, a leading animal which keeps the others together. Jack is well and fit and getting stronger every day, even though he suffers a bit from insects.
I myself am bitten or stung by ticks, and these piums, as they call the tiny ones, all over the body. It is Raleigh I am anxious about. He still has one leg in a bandage but won’t go back. So far we have plenty of food and no need to walk, but I am not sure how long this will last. There may be little for the animals to eat as we head further in. I cannot hope to stand up on this journey better than Jack or Raleigh – my extra years tell, though I do my best to make up for it with enthusiasm – but I had to do this.
I calculate that I shall contact the Indians in about a week, perhaps ten days, when we should be able to reach the much talked-about waterfall.
Here we are at Dead Horse Camp, Lat. 110 43’ S and 540 35’ W, the spot where my horse died in 1920. Only his white bones remain. We can bathe ourselves here, but the insects make it a matter of great haste. Nevertheless, the season is good. It is very cold at night and fresh in the morning, but the insects and heat are out in full force come mid-day, and from then until evening it is sheer misery in camp.
You need have no fear of any failure ….
Those were the last words of Percy Fawcett.
The movie shows that Percy and Jack were captured by a tribe of natives, drugged and carried off. We don’t really see what happens, but you see a large plume of smoke suggesting that they were killed by the tribe.
That’s one theory. The last tribe to have seen the expedition alive was a tribe called the Kalapalos. Their oral versions of the tale claimed that the explorers were very ill and noticed that about five days after leaving the Kalapalos village, there were no longer camp fires visible at night. Their belief is that another tribe found them and killed them.
Some others suggest that maybe they simply succumbed to illness and died of natural causes.
In 1927, Percy and the other members of his expedition were officially labeled as missing.
Many people tried to find answers.
In 1951, a Brazilian activist for indigenous people named Orlando Villas-Bôas said he talked to people who were there when Percy’s expedition disappeared. According to that version of the story, Percy’s expedition had some troubles on the river and lost a bunch of the gifts that they had planned on using to pacify the native tribes.
As a little side note, while I didn’t mention it before, that’s how Percy had managed to stay on friendly terms with many of the tribes he came across for the previous expeditions. Between his friendly behavior and giving lots of gifts, he was able to move around without too much trouble before.
In explaining the stories he was told, Orlando Villas-Bôas made it very clear that the Kalapalos people aren’t known for dishonesty. He explained that their way of lying was to tell partial truths…just not telling the full story all at once. So it took hours of conversations for him to be able to piece together the account of what happened.
And here’s what he claimed that account unveiled.
There were three things that were the downfall of Percy’s expedition. The first was when Jack relieved himself in the river upstream of the village. That was seen as very offensive to the Kalapalos people since the river was their drinking water.
The second thing was when one of the expedition members shot and killed an animal for food. They hung it up in the village so insects couldn’t get to it, but when one of the Kalapalos people tried to get a piece of the meat, he was shoved away. That was offensive as everyone in the village shared meat. No one kept a kill to themselves.
Lastly, the final straw was when one of the Kalapalos children started playing with some of the possessions of the expedition. That child was pushed away. Like you’d expect and child would deal with this, they weren’t too affected by it and went right back to playing with their things.
Then one of the men—only identified by the Kalapalos as a white man—hit the child. In Europe, hitting a child might not’ve been a big deal. That was the final straw for the Kalapalos. In their culture, no one ever hit a child. It was unforgiveable.
This version of the story ends when the Kalapalos let the expedition leave their village peacefully one morning. Then, after letting them get a little distance from the village, they ambushed and killed everyone in the expedition.
To help validate the story, Orlando Villas-Bôas claims he was given human bones that the Kalapalos claimed to have been from the expedition. Orlando sent them off to be tested in a lab and allegedly those results came back to be Percy.
As time ticked on, the members of the Kalapalos tribe that Orlando talked to who claimed to have been there for all of this have passed away. When David Grann visited the Kalapalos tribe in 2005, the version of the story he got was no longer first hand.
Despite this, there’s still other reports that say they’ve talked to people who say they’ve seen Percy and that he didn’t disappear. He simply found the lost city he was looking for and decided to stay.
Personally, I don’t know if I believe that since that’d mean abandoning his wife and two of his three children back home. Wouldn’t he at least send for them if he’d found some utopian kingdom in the middle of the Amazon? I’d like to hope so.
As for Percy’s son, Brian, he rejected the results of the bones tested by Orlando. Despite Orlando’s claim that Brian was too focused on making money off of selling the story of his father’s disappearance, Brian spent a good portion of his life searching for his dad and older brother.
Since so much of the stories rely on being passed down orally from person to person, and since it’s clear that there’s different people believing different things…the truth is not likely to be something we’ll ever be able to verify.
And so, the mystery remains.
KEEP LEARNING WITH MORE RESOURCES
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