For many years I fantasised about following, after the fashion of Werner Herzog at his most demented, the map of my great-grandfather Arthur Sinclair’s yearlong expedition to the Chanchamayo region of Eastern Peru. A journey undertaken in 1891 and recorded in a book, In Tropical Lands (Recent Travels to the Sources of the Amazon…), published in 1895.

I grew up with this slightly musty, leather-spined, gilt-lettered volume as a presence, infrequently consulted but containing some time-defying photographs: old Arthur, bearded like Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, inspecting ‘Cacao in Trinidad’… Arthur squatting, rifle across lap, on a ‘balsa’ raft, poled by a robed native (Heart of Darkness meets Aguirre, Wrath of God)… the dwarfish Cholo Highlander with wife and bundled infant… a mule train on the crest of the Andes… the skeletal remains of Pizarro (of dubious authenticity)… portraits (equal status) of the scarred and feathered ‘King Chokery’ with his frank gaze and the be-medalled and junk-eyed figure of Caceres, President of Peru, in his music-hall uniform, arms folded.

These images, long before I took the trouble to read the book, became the germ of a film (never to be made), as well as a sequence of unexplained Sebald-style inserts for a still-to-be-written Conradian romance. Arthur’s legend (explorer, adventurer, author), obscured by subsequent generations of medical men (my grandfather and father), haunted me. I used aspects of the story in a number of subterranean and mainstream books of my own: from The Birth Rug (1973) to, more substantially (with direct quotations and photographs), Dining on Stones (2004).

Arthur Sinclair, I came to suspect, was the one who had landed me with the karma of writing my way out of the gravity of London – by undertaking parodic expeditions around the hard-shoulder of the M25 or through the abandoned docks and landfill dunes of the Thames Estuary. I always superimposed the River Perene on the River Lea, the Thames on the Amazon. I ran sonar echoes of Conrad against the visual evidence, drawings, photographs and maps in Arthur’s book.

Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they had all gone out on that stream… What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!

Beyond the vigorous report, honoured but undefiled on its shelf, there were actual grave goods, trophies brought back from Peru, water jugs, fabulous beasts, minatory items much better left in the ground. My children were rightly wary of these. It was said that the objects, displayed on the top of a glass-fronted bookcase, moved at night, circled uneasily at their own volition, making marks in the dust. And here we come to the impetus for the proposed 2019 expedition.

I brought my eldest daughter, Farne, to stay with her grandparents in Wales, while she convalesced after an operation. My father’s duty, beyond reading aloud meaty slabs of Tolkien, was to tell the tales of his own grandfather, of Arthur in Peru. The myth lodged and became a reality when Farne, ten years later, decided to take off on her own for a gap-year trip around the country that was lodged, way back, as part of a mysterious legacy.

Later in life, now with her own children, Farne’s attention returned to Arthur’s book – which she read with interest and a revived sense of the moral complexities of the original expedition. She carried out detailed research into the Peruvian Corporation and their astonishing land grab: mines, railways and coffee plantations. How deeply was Arthur implicated in the consequences of his dangerous and difficult journey? She traced a speech given by Ross, one of Arthur’s fellow travellers, to the Royal Geographical Society. And she dug from the files at Kew the unpublished 100-page holograph manuscript of the third man on the expedition. All these surveyors were Scots, botanists or planters who had lived for years in Ceylon.

The whole question of colonialist guilt becomes more nuanced when Arthur’s autobiographical pamphlet is examined. In The Story of His Life as Told by Himself (Colombo, 1900), Sinclair describes a harsh start: ‘My parents were descended from an old Jacobite stock, at this time still rather at a discount.’ The ghosts of the Highland clearances and the aftermath of Culloden are still felt. The tribe (and culture) in which Arthur grew up was broken and dispersed. ‘In my tenth year my school education virtually ended… my father removing again to a bleak country district.’ The young boy taught himself basic botanical skills. With the few coins he earned, he walked to Aberdeen (rather like John Clare’s hike to Stamford), in order to acquire James Hervey’s Reflections on a Flower Garden. And, like Clare with James Thomson, he ‘could not help sitting down occasionally by the wayside to dip into it.’ Arthur records, with characteristic humour, that he had done with school – ‘and began my education such as it was and is.’

Patronised by a local aristocrat and landed proprietor, young Arthur discovers what it means to be a Highland Scot: the condition of being at home everywhere, except Scotland. He lives for years in Ceylon, advising on coffee planting and managing estates. He decides that he has made enough money, most of which he re-invested in coffee, to return to Scotland – where he writes for the Aberdeen Free Press and delivers lectures. ‘And yet I retired at the age of 40! Now for the next ten years I extracted as much enjoyment out of life as perhaps ever falls to the lot of ordinary unambitious mortals; but at the end of this time I fell among thieves, and as misfortunes rarely come single, the Hemileia must needs play havoc with securities in Ceylon…’

Failed coffee harvest. Investments wiped out. Arthur embarks on new adventures: gold prospecting in Australia and Tasmania swallow his reserves. Now (by the standards of the time) an aging man, he accepts the commission, for a monthly salary (nobody knows how long he will survive), to survey unknown territory, with an eye on future exploitation by the Peruvian Corporation of London. Again, I think of Conrad and his desperate punt at the Congo voyage on behalf of the Société Anonyme Belge pour le Commerce du Haut-Congo. Conrad and Arthur Sinclair sign their Faustian contracts in the same year, 1890. I speculate on the long voyages Arthur made, at various times, to Australia. Conrad, who sailed five times on the same route, rose from ordinary seaman to third mate, to master. Could they have met? This is where the impulse to forge fictional connections becomes impertinent.

Coming late, after several superficial trawls, to a concentrated reading of In Tropical Lands, I was impressed by the way Arthur sustained the momentum of his prose; how he managed ‘facts’, different levels of evidence and memoir, cullings from notebooks and diaries. Taken in combination with the botanical drawings and the range of photographs, I saw the model for much of the writing I had attempted. There was also – beyond the period attitude (Scottish Calvinist) towards the failure of the indigenous people to make full use of their ripe lands – a proper social and political cynicism, especially where Catholic missionaries were concerned. The priests who agree to guide the travellers into the unknown are paid in drink; when it is gone, they vanish into the night, stealing the last bottles of medicinal spirit. The humour darkens with the territory.

The chief priest disappeared, and we never saw him more, the respected brother slyly followed, stealing the few bottles of spirits we had carefully laid aside in case of sickness. Our own servants also vanished, we knew not why nor where; and just as the shades of evening were closing in we could see by the lurid light of a log fire, suspicious movements in the surrounding jungle. The natives, in short, were gathering in force, each armed with a bow and a bundle of arrows. They peered at us from behind trees, and apparently awaited a signal. It was a trying moment, and the probabilities were against our escape… Meanwhile, we hugged our rifles and revolvers, collected our cartridges, and continued rubbing our weapons…

When King Chokery agrees to construct balsas and to voyage with the invaders, out of his territory, his wife falls from a raft and is drowned. The King and his companions laugh and celebrate: they rejoice that she has been accepted by the moving, flowing, life-giving god of the place. The journey ends at impassable rapids, another echo of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo.

Herzog’s dairy of that shoot: At night I am even lonelier than during the day. I listen intently to the silence, pierced by the cries of tormented insects and tormented animals. Even the motors of our boats have something tormented about them. In the morning one of the Ashinka-Campa chiefs summoned me and gave me a little stone axe that had been found along the upper Río Tambo… I quickly got hold of a few rolls of film and gave them to him.

The undeclared (until now) aim of my trip to Peru in 2019 is to make contact with Arthur, in the way that indigenous people unite with their ancestors, and consult them, by journeying to a particular sacred location, waterfall, clearing, rock. My way of writing – tone, research method, attitude to raw material – derives from my great-grandfather. I haven’t advanced, just relocated, digging in to one place (never my own). The Mr Kurtz of this venture – the horror, the horror – is undead (as the story requires). He is a voiceless version of myself or a version condemned to repeat the same tale until some other reckless spirit picks it up and carries it on.

2. Aspects of the Proposed Trip

Having laid out some of my own motives for undertaking this expedition, it is important to register the presence and quite distinct prospectuses of my fellow travellers.

Farne Sinclair, who has undertaken most of the research into the background and personalities, and who  visited Peru as a young woman, will be making a series of recordings. Direct reportage. She has outlined her project in a separate document.

Grant Gee, working towards his own interpretation of material derived from several of my books, will be shooting footage (potential files) for a proposed film called The Gold Machine. Grant has made two well-received features on writers (Sebald, Pamuk) – so this one, if it can be adequately funded, will complete a literary triptych.

Adolfo Barberá del Rosal, a poet (with experience of the territory), travels as witness (and perhaps recorder). We have been in communication for several years while Adolfo worked on his scrupulous translation of Lud Heat (now published in Spain in a handsome edition, the best looking version done anywhere). Adolfo’s language skills (and diplomacy) will be invaluable. A single journey is sponsoring so many responses: radio, blog, film and assorted books.

— Iain Sinclair



Iain and his daughter have launched a crowdfunding campaign:

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