Sunday, June 12, 2011

Book Review: “Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z” by Col. Percy Fawcett

Book Review: “Exploration Fawcett: Journey to the Lost City of Z” by Col. Percy Fawcett.

General Description

This book was published in 1953, years after Col. Percy Fawcett disappeared in the Brazilian jungle with his oldest son and a friend of his son’s in 1925. His youngest son, Brian Fawcett, finally published his father’s journals of his earlier explorations in South America in this book, plus he added two additional chapters about his father’s final exploration as well as some of Brian Fawcett’s personal accounts on dealing with the mystery of his father’s and brother’s disappearance. The book is just over 300 pages long, of which 274 pages (22 chapters) are from Col. Fawcett and the remainder are by Brian Fawcett. There is a nice map at the beginning of the book with the various explorations routes (with a note to what chapter covers what part of the routes) done by Col. Fawcett, including a general idea where he was headed when his exploration party disappeared. At the beginning of each chapter is a period (pre-1925) cartoonish (like an editorial cartoon instead of a funny comic) style drawing of an event that occurs in that chapter. There are also 43 B&W photos into two different sections which were mostly taken by Col. Fawcett.

The Good

I have always been amazed by exploration stories since reading “Kon-Tiki” by Thor Heyerdahl so many years ago. I found this book to be a smashing yarn about the dangers and hardships of exploring South America. About the first third of the book is about Col. Fawcett’s first two explorations for the Royal Geographical Society in 1906 and 1907 in Peru, Bolivar, and Brazil to determine national borders the jungle area known as “The Acre” as an independent third party. He writes of the slavery and abuse by the rubber plantations of the Indians, as well as the corruption of government officials once he gets past the civilized cities and towns.

It is not until after 2/3rds of the way through the book that he starts really talking about the Lost City of Z, but he does discuss about lost tribes, cities, mines, and treasures earlier in the book. According to Col. Fawcett, he knew Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and it is his tales of his expeditions is what lead to the Sir Doyle to pen, “The Lost Worlds”.

One of the stranger parts of the books is the ghost stories about haunted buildings and such; including one that Col. Fawcett slept in and experienced the ghosts. I personally do not believe in spirits or ghosts, so I have to take these bits with a grain of salt, but they are entertaining anyway.

I highly encourage anyone reading this book, to read “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Grann afterwards. I actually read it shortly after it came out, so I will not be doing a review of it. But it is a great book that covers more of the Col. Fawcett’s final exploration in the Amazon and about the author’s personal exploration into the Amazon to seek any traces of Col. Fawcett.

Also, while they are not about the Lost City of Z, two other books which are very good about Amazon explorations in the early 20th Century are Theodore Roosevelt’s, “Through the Brazilian Wilderness” and Candice Millard, “The River of Doubt”, both which are about the Roosevelt-Rondon Expedition of 1910 up one of the Amazon’s tributary rivers. Roosevelt’s expedition is mention once or twice in this book.

The Bad

Even though Col. Fawcett speaks highly of native Indians and several noble South Americans, there is still a very strong “Anglo-Saxon” class superiority feel about the South Americans (including the Indians), and the Europeans that decided to go ‘native’ that he meets. Pretty much everyone is drunk, stupid, etc., except for most of upper society or the ‘wild’ Indians. This might turn off some people with his anti-PC view of South Americans. But, I remind anyone that first realize that he grew up in Victorian England from the middle classes and was a high ranking officer in the British Army. The day and age that he wrote this was not very PC to our modern day standards. I am sure that there is some truth to his tales about some of the unsavory lots that he writes of, but it probably was not as bad as he describes it. Because I have a strong interest in the 1920’s & ‘30’s, I have read several period novels and books and have grown to understand this, so it does not turn me off from his work.

Wargaming “Exploration Fawcett”

Wargaming expeditions in South America? Yes, it can be done and there are several rule sets and miniatures out there that cover this type of gaming already. With the rise of “Pulp” miniature gaming, a bunch of manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon with miniatures and rules. Even Copplestone Castings makes miniatures specifically for South American Indian tribes! However, most of rules that are out there are geared towards gaming in Africa or China. With a slight re-wording of the rules/scenarios, they can easily be changed over to cover South America. If one can get a hold of the old Avalon Hill’s, “Source of the Nile” boardgame or New Breed’s RPG, “Dark Continent” (both are sadly out of print and both are extremely good games), they have a great mechanics for a campaign system to include mapping and outfitting a exploration. Even a slightly seasoned game-master can easily change them to be about South America.

Why South America? Why not! But really, with the rise of the “Dark Africa” gaming several years back and the China’s “Back of Beyond” in more recent times, several gaming magazines have published articles about the explorers, tribes, etc. so that some of the “mystery” has been taken out of the game by the players knowing too much about different tribes or geography of the areas, if they read them. But, not much is written on the South American explorers and tribes of the early 20th Century in gaming magazines or games, so the “mystery” can still be there. Plus, you can make-up some things and most gamers would not have a clue to if it is correct or not, as you will have far less experts (or think they are an expert) on the tribes of the upper Amazon then you will ever have on the French Old Guard’s uniform buttons.

One interesting twist for gaming about South American exploration was most of the South American and European governments took measures to protect the tribal Indians from the capitalistic rubber plantation owners and slavers. A perfect example of this can be seen with the commander of the Brazil’s Indian Protection Bureau in the early 20th Century, Col. Cândido Rondon. Col. Rondon had a well known standing order for his soldiers when dealing with the Amazon tribes, “Die if you must, but do not kill!” In other words, he expected his soldiers to do everything possible to make friends and protect the Indians, including not defending themselves from an attack! The soldiers were instead to sacrifice themselves rather than allow harm to the Indians. So shooting the Indians will actually cause negative renown from the South American and European governments for the explorers. That should put a wrinkle in your players’ trigger happiness.

In Col. Fawcett’s book, he talks about the various tribes (including cannibals and Neanderthals) that he ran into and trying to make friendly contact with them; legends of lost cities and treasures; and even the ghost stories can be food for a great RPG campaign or miniature game with a bit of role-playing elements.

Next Book Review

From the jungles and rubber plantations of South America to the rubber plantations of Southeast Asia, is where I am heading next with “The Battle of Long Tan: The Legend of ANZAC Upheld” by Lex MacAulay.

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