Thursday, 7 February 2013

Percy on song

Amazon explorer Col Percy H Fawcett
Good old Col Percy Harrison Fawcett. Mad as a monkey of course. Who else would devote half his life to looking for lost civilisations in South America? But he was also a professional English army officer of the old school, tough and tenacious. And it’s this curious mix of hard-headed soldier and kooky eccentric that no doubt caused him to react so memorably when, in 1910, he came under attack from Amazonian Indians.

Percy was heading up the Heath River in Peru when it happened. He was in dangerous territory. He’d been warned not to venture there. But off he’d gone anyway, his small party poling its way up the murky river in canoes. And predictably, on the seventh day, the men rounded a bend and ran straight into a group of “Guarayo” warriors who wasted little time in sending their way a hail of poisoned arrows.

Percy and his men found themselves pinned down on the other riverbank, the deadly missiles zipping over their heads and thumping into the ground around them. But they held fire: retaliation would surely only seal their fate. And instead Percy tried raising both hands and shouting “peace overtures” across the water at the bowmen. This proved unsuccessful. “The arrows,” Percy wrote, “flew thicker than ever!”

Then inspiration struck. Among Percy’s men was one Gunner Todd, a musical fellow who happened to be travelling with his accordion (as you do). Todd was directed to sit on a log and start playing, stamping his feet to keep time. A “mad sing-song” followed, strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers, “Bicycle Made For Two” and “Swannee River” bellowing through the rainforest. “Ludicrous…” Percy later conceded, “Anyone coming on this scene would have said we were all roaring drunk.”

Ludicrous or not, it worked. Mystified Indians, their faces painted, began emerging from cover. Seizing the moment, Percy hopped into his canoe and paddled over to greet them. Incredibly, friendly relations were quickly established. Laughter and back-slapping followed. By dusk, Indians and explorers were old pals and Gunner Todd and his accordion once again took centre stage. “We slept well that night,” Percy wrote, “for no one was required on guard.”

You can read more in Exploration Fawcett, an entertaining account of Percy's adventures complied from his letters, log-books and papers

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