To call Peter Fleming an unlikely adventurer is to misunderstand the era in which he was raised. Indeed, for that era, he was as likely an adventurer as anyone else. Born to wealthy parents in 1907, Fleming grew up in the sort of bourgeois mercantile comfort that he would spend much of his life actively escaping. At Eton and Oxford, he won fame writing for student publications and acting in amateur theatricals. (His biographer, Duff Hart-Davis, mentions an unconvincing Iago, for which Fleming employed a bizarre staccato cadence straight out of a pulp detective movie.) In the fall of 1929, his mother commandeered him into a Wall Street position. Fleming sailed for New York, arriving just in time for the collapse of the markets and the rise of the hobo-based economy. Things just got worse after this inauspicious start, and he returned to England the next year, cheerfully leaving business behind forever.
After a brief idle spell, Fleming found work at the Spectator. At the time, the long-lived weekly magazine was known for its sterling reputation, but not for its editorial energy. The job turned out to be an awkward fit. Hart-Davis writes that Fleming “began producing articles of such incisive wit and cynicism that the older hands on the paper became seriously alarmed.” His bosses were perhaps relieved when Fleming informed them that he had been selected as an honorary secretary for a British trade mission to China, and would require a four-month leave of absence. He returned to England the next year and resumed his blithe assault on the Spectator’s masthead, inventing a contributor named “Walter B. Tizzard” and using the name to sign a series of opinionated reviews. But the China trip made him hunger for more adventurous pastimes.
And so he devoured a notice in the Times of London in April 1932, promising adventure and amusement in the wilds of Brazil. “It is easy to attract public attention to any exploit which is at once highly improbable and absolutely useless,” wrote Fleming. The advertisement, which ran in the paper’s “Agony Column” devoted to missing relatives and friends, seemed to fall into both categories: “Exploring and sporting expedition, under experienced guidance, leaving England June, to explore rivers Central Brazil, if possible ascertain fate Colonel Fawcett; abundance game, big and small; exceptional fishing; room two more guns; highest references expected and given.”
Fleming felt that the ad had “the right improbable ring to it.” Today, its clipped and credulous pomposity reads as an artifact of the golden age of dilettante exploration. Adventure travel, of course, has always been a romantic’s pursuit. Yet such romantics were unusually thick on the ground during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Weaned on the melodramatic novels of H. Rider Haggard, flush with the free time and money granted to those on the right side of the industrial age, these men trekked across the lesser-known continents, hoisting the standards of geography, and ethnology, and science, however loosely defined.
“Nowadays, being an explorer is a trade, which consists not, as one might think, in discovering hitherto unknown facts after years of study, but in covering a great many miles and assembling lantern-slides or motion pictures, preferably in colour, so as to fill a hall with an audience for several days in succession,” lamented the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, who would himself visit Mato Grosso a few years after Fleming. Such explorers did win significant fame, bestowed indiscriminately by a pre-mass-media public eager for exotica. Their travels were lauded—and often financed—by the press, which knew that danger porn sold newspapers. Their findings, most of the time, were of very little practical use.