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History of Spike Island Cork & Colonel Percy Fawcett

In the last 1300 years Spike Island has been host to a 6th century Monastery, a 24 acre Fortress, the largest convict depot in the world in Victorian times and centuries of island homes.  The island’s rich history has included monks and monasteries, rioters and redcoats, captains and convicts and sinners and saints. 

Today the island is dominated by the 200 year old Fort Mitchel, the star shaped Fortress which became a prison holding over 2300 prisoners. Take the scenic ferry ride from Kennedy Pier, Cobh, and enjoy a fully guided tour of our island and fortress, and relax in our cafe and picnic areas.  Get captured in the history and mystery of this magical heritage island.

Fort Mitchel

The 24 acre star shaped Fort Mitchel is one of the largest in the world and it was the cutting edge of military technology when it was completed around 1850.  The points of the star shape meant that defenders could arc fire over all parts of the island, making the whole island one effective kill zone.  Should anyone get close enough to the Fort, flanking galleries made for ideal sniper positions hovering over enemy troops.  And the whole Fort is set down in such a way that it can barely be seen by enemy troops, making it almost impossible to target.

The fort was designed and built by General Vallency, a character of his time who had 4 wives and 14 children.  ​

 The work on the Fort began in 1804 when the threat of invasion from Napoleon was very real but it was left incomplete with his defeat at Waterloo.  Two earlier forts had been built before hand as the strategic importance of Spike Island was noticed long before Winston Chruchill would call the island ‘The sentinel tower of the approaches to Western Europe’.  

On its completion the Fort was designed to garrison up to 3000 men, but the famine years drove up the prisoner population and Spike instead had to keep men in rather than keep them out.

The last of the prisoners left in the late 1800’s and the Fort was used by both the British and Irish army and Navy over much of the 20th century before becoming a prison again in 1985.  

The Fort originally called Fort Westmoreland but it was renamed Fort Mitchel after the Nationalist hero who was a prisoner on Spike in the 1840s.  

Percy Fawcett: 1867 – 1925* (*Exact year of death unknown)

Colonel Percy Fawcett was one of the most enigmatic, colourful and adventurous characters of the entire 20th century, let alone the history of Spike Island, and the 3 years he would spend on Spike Island were just part of a rich life lived with a real zest for exploration and achievement. 

Fawcett was a man of many talents, and he would find work during his life as a British spy, a noted surveyor, a jungle adventurer and a celebrated writer.  Famous within his own lifetime, he would become friends with literary giants H.R Hagard of ‘Kings Solomon’s mines’ fame, and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ creator Arthur Conan Doyle who would write his best selling ‘The lost World’ book based on Fawcetts accounts of his journeys in unexplored South America.  His fame lasts til this day, and In 2017 a Hollywood movie called ‘The lost city of Z’ is being released by Brad Pitts production company, starring Robert Pattinson of ‘Twilight’ fame, Tom Holland as Fawcett’s son Jack, Sienna Miller as his wife Nina and Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett himself.  The film retells his life as relayed from his own best selling journals and his surviving sons account of his life in the book ‘Exploration Fawcett’. 

Fawcett started life in Torquay and joined the royal artillery corps in 1886.  He would be sent to Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka and 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 a return to Ceylon.  They met at a tennis party in Fort Galle, hitting it off instantly and falling deeply for one another.  Fawcett soon proposed to the girl considered to be the prettiest in Sri Lanka but his mischievous brother and sisters, driven by jealously presumably, falsely told him that Nina was ‘far from a virgin’.  He wrote to her and saying ‘you are not the pure young girl I thought you to be’ and the engagement was promptly off.  Nina would soon marry a Captain Herbert Prichard, as was the lot of women of her time, and she was taken to live in Alexandria into a life she did not choos.  But her husband would die soon of Anthrax and clearly the man 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 Victorian drama indeed! 

Fawcett, having discovered the nasty ploy of his family begged Nina for forgiveness and they were soon married.  He would call her ‘Cheeky’ and she would name him ‘Puggy’ as they enjoyed a happy life together in the beautiful Sri Lankan countryside, and they soon had a son and named him Jack.

Fawcett would work in North Africa for the British secret service, a role that no doubt appealed to his thirst for adventure.  It was in 1903 that Fawcett was sent to work by the war office on Spike Island, Cork, uprooting the family initially, but they would soon find a peace and comfort on Spike Island that Fawcett  would miss on occasions when deep within the jungles of South America. 

He long burned a candle for the adventurous life and when the opportunity came to go to Bolivia to work as the chief survey commissioner he could not refuse.  He left in 1906 and it was to be the first of several journeys that involved exploring previously untouched rainforests and rivers to assist in mapmaking and border disputes.  He would often encounter incredibly dangerous working towns, where the booming rubber industry drove men to find their fortune, despite the terrible conditions they endured.  If the Europeans emigrants weren’t already dangerous enough, the local Amazonian tribes offered plenty of distraction, as he often found himself avoiding their poisoned darts and arrows as he went about his work.  While much of this work was for practical ends, Fawcett was driven by the idea of finding something much less run of the mill.  He was interested in finding one of the fabled ‘lost cities’ of South America, and he put much research into their existence and possible locations.   

Based on his documentary research, Fawcett had by 1914 formulated ideas about a “lost city” he named “Z” somewhere in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. He theorized that a complex civilization once existed in the Amazon region and that isolated ruins may have survived.  Fawcett also found a document known as Manuscript 512, written 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 by Portuguese bandeirante João da Silva Guimarães, who wrote that during 1753 he’d discovered the ruins of an ancient city that contained arches, a statue, and a temple with hieroglyphics; the city is described in great detail without providing a specific location. This city became a secondary destination for Fawcett, after “Z”, and by now the quest consumed him and his thoughts.

He would return to see his wife and family every few years, but he would not be long back in Britain where Nina had now relocated to before he would be restless and consumed again.  He spent almost 2 decades back and forth to South America, threading where no European had ever set foot before as he ventured deeper and deeper into the unknown. 

It was in 1925 with funding from a London-based group of financiers known as the Glove that Fawcett returned to Brazil with his elder son Jack and Jack’s friend, for an exploratory expedition to find “Z”.  Fawcett left instructions stating that if the expedition did not return, no rescue expedition should be sent lest the rescuers suffer his fate.

Fawcett was a man with years of experience travelling, and had brought equipment such as canned foods, powdered milk, guns, flares, a sextant, and a chronometer. His travel companions were both chosen for their health, ability and loyalty to each other—- his eldest son Jack Fawcett and Jack’s long-time friend Raleigh Rimell.  Fawcett chose only two companions in order to travel lighter and with less notice to native tribes, as he knew many remained hostile towards Europeans who had decimated much of their numbers.

On 20 April 1925 his final expedition departed from Cuiabá.  In addition to his two principal companions, Fawcett was accompanied by two Brazilian labourers, two horses, eight mules, and a pair of dogs.  The last communication from the expedition was 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, which was delivered by a native runner. They were reported to be crossing the Upper Xingu, a southeastern tributary river of the River Amazon.  The final letter, written from Dead Horse Camp, gave their location and was generally optimistic.  But it was to be the last.

When there was no word for many months, the grim reality had to be accepted.  The quest had taken his life, and that of his companions.  Many people assumed that local Indians had killed them, as several tribes were nearby at the time: the Kalapalos, the last tribe to have seen them, the Arumás, Suyás, and the Xavantes whose territory they were entering.  Both of the younger men were lame and ill when last seen, and there is not any proof they were murdered.  It is plausible that they died of natural causes in the Brazilian jungle, but no one can say to this day.

Despite his earlier appeal, several rescue efforts were sent after the 3 man team.  During 1927 one such expedition found a name-plate of Fawcett with an Indian tribe.  During June 1933, a theodolite compass belonging to Fawcett was found near the Baciary Indians of Mato Grosso by Colonel Aniceto Botelho.  However, the name-plate was from Fawcett’s expedition five years earlier and had most likely been given as a gift to the chief of that Indian tribe.  The compass was proved to have been left behind before he entered the jungle on his final journey.   There could be no certain of how the group had met their demise.

During the decades ensuing, various groups mounted several rescue expeditions, without success. They heard only various rumours that could not be verified. In addition to 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.

An estimated 100 would-be-rescuers died on several expeditions attempting to discover Fawcett’s fate.  One of the earliest was commanded by American explorer George Miller Dyott during 1927; he claimed to have found evidence of Fawcett’s death by the Aloique Indians, but his story was unconvincing.  During 1930-31, Aloha Wanderwell used her seaplane to try to find him. A 1951 expedition unearthed human bones that were found later to be unrelated to Fawcett or his companions.

Danish explorer Arne Falk-Rønne journeyed to the Mato Grosso during the 1960s. 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; since the expedition members were all more or less seriously ill at the time, the Kalapalo tribe they encountered 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 in truth no one can say what happened to the 20th century’s greatest explorer.  His wife Nina would move with Fawcetts remaining son 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, but to no avail.  The man who tried to solve some of South Americas great mysteries became one himself. 


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