By Iain Sinclair



After Tarma and the old Spanish hacienda, with the stand of eucalyptus trees, the stepped gardens, the white and yellow irises, the scarlet geraniums, the green parrot, the dogs and chickens, the running water, an oasis much appreciated by Arthur, we are firmly established on the road travelled by my great-grandfather. So much so that for the first time I begin to hear his voice, to feel the portrait I’m carrying taking form against the curtainless window.


‘We stayed here for some days,’ Arthur wrote, ‘greatly enjoying its splendid climate – a paradise for consumptive patients.’ And then they took the route we were now following. ‘We halted for breakfast at Acombamba, only six miles from Tarma, from which we had been rather late in starting. Acombamba is a beautifully situated but decaying hamlet, with about 1,500 rather seedy-looking inhabitants.’


Dropping through a gorge, where trucks and cars flirt at every bend with disaster, throwing dirt over the wayside shrines of previous victims, and slowing only for landslides and craters being repaired by ragged bands of children and old people, freelancing for pitiful alms, we made the shift to La Merced, the town on the border of the territory we want to explore. The first intimations of a more humid jungle culture. ‘The valley opens out, and the vegetation assumes a more luxuriant aspect,’ Arthur reports. ‘The moist steamy heat tells us that we are truly in the tropics.’


The turning point in the original Sinclair/Ross expedition of 1891 comes when they make contact at the Convent of San Luis de Shuaro with the priests who will guide them through the territory of the Asháninka to the point on the Rio Perené where they will take to the water, to survey the land granted by the Peruvian Government to those remote investors, the Peruvian Corporation of London. Arthur does his best, as he confesses, to put aside his native bias against the perceived iniquities of ‘the Spanish priesthood’. 


‘I honestly tried to go forward unprejudiced, thinking only of the monks of old, and the good they did in their day. But this convent was a revelation to us. We had never seen anything quite so filthy and suspicious looking before, and would gladly have escaped within an hour; indeed, did so, and began erecting our tent at a safe distance; but were implored not to insult the reverend fathers by refusing to accept their hospitality, an infliction which we bore patiently for several days.’


Arthur does not name their tonsured guides, but claims that they ‘knew as little about the path as we did ourselves’. Arthur’s companion, Alexander Ross, is more forthcoming. The man taking them forward is none other than the celebrated Padre Gabriel Sala, a Franciscan missionary of fierce temperament; a well-armed backwoodsman, bounty hunter, chronicled for rounding up souls for Christ, filling the fortress of his newly-established convent with children and other cursed or damaged outsiders.

Our own guide, Lucho, knows nothing of this history or the status of the vanished buildings. But I have seen Sala’s pioneering large-scale map in the convent at Santa Rosa de Ocapo, with its drawings of buildings and river traffic, and I recognise the shape of the wall beside the new church. And right in front of it there is a statue of Sala, up on a high pedestal like a stylite; grim-faced, gripping his bible like a grenade. As I lift my camera, Lucho calls out. He has found an old Chinese lady, Maria Genoveva Leon Perez, keeper of the church keys. Here is one of those magical presences, usually female, usually bright-eyed but mature, spirits of place stepping from forest or river to put pilgrims who have put in the necessary miles on the right path.

Maria gets on well with Farne. We are invited into her house, where she tells us how the convent collapsed in an earthquake and was never restored. She knew about life in the Colony, the harshness of the rule of the Peruvian Corporation. Yes, there were schools and hospitals – but only for sanctioned employees. Otherwise, all that land along the river was enclosed, forbidden.

We visit the church and then, at the back, the rough ground on which Sala’s border-post convent once stood. Arthur’s story has moved into an active present tense. In the earth I find a rusted machete and a stand for votive candles. On the wall somebody, at some past moment, has painted FS – as if waiting for Farne Sinclair, who has now arrived to confirm the prophecy.

If nothing else, Sala inspired Arthur to try out a phrase that has become a standard in contemporary politics. 

The worst weakness of the Hispano-Peruvian race is their inability to tell truthfully the little they know… The common people are born and bred to it, but their lies are clumsy, palpable, and comparatively harmless. With the priests and privileged classes, however, it becomes a studied art. “We must dissimulate,” said the chief priest of the convent, and I will give him credit for consistency in this; for during the three weeks I had the opportunity of studying this great economist of the truth, I never once knew him to utter a word that could be relied upon. 




The second-highest train ride in the world is now a carefully managed, once-a-month tourist experience. For tourists with the confidence to boast of how they beat soroche, the almost compulsory dose of altitude sickness. Potential headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting: with spectacular views. And regular folk dances and halts at strange, melancholy, deserted platforms. And many miles of dust discriminations in pulling away from the endless sprawl of Lima. The railway, promoted by the American Henry Meiggs, and designed by the Polish engineer, Ernest Malinowski, was a monument to colonial enterprise, the will to conquer nature. 


Arthur Sinclair was impressed:

‘By rail to Chicla, 87 miles, thence on mule-back. This railway, it will be remembered, is, without exception, the highest in the world, and the engineering the most audacious. “We know of no difficulties,” the consulting engineer said to me; “we would hang the rails from balloons if necessary.”’


The 1891 party disembarked at Matucana (7, 788 feet above sea level), where they ‘resolved to stop for two days in order to get accustomed to the rarefied air’. Unconvinced tourists, we stood, awestruck and blinking from the dust and grit, in the open observation car. As the train swayed and shook, I discovered the true meaning of the term ‘branch line’, when a sprightly sapling ripped across my face. 

Lungs prepared after a couple of days of gentle introduction to mule transport, Arthur remounted the train and continued to Chicla (altitude: 12, 215 feet). ‘A dreary enough spot,’ he said. ‘Horses and mules from the low country frequently drop down dead here from failure of the heart’s action.’

The present operation, we were told, could be made more commercial by carrying cargo from the smelting plant at La Oroya (still in the top ten of most polluted places on earth), or agricultural produce and coffee from the farms of the cloud jungle. But freight traffic is too profitable a deal for haulage interests. And the political impulse is to let the heroic railway fade quietly away. The spectacular Lima terminal, Estacion Desamparados, once the offices of the Peruvian Corporation of London (sponsors of Arthur’s expedition), was now a library dedicated to Nobel prizewinning novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa. Who choose for many years to live in London. 


‘Leaving Chicla, the real tug of war begins,’ Arthur reported. ‘A wretched road, made worse by the debris from the railway, which, for the first fifteen miles, we saw being constructed still far above us, the navvies hung over the cliffs by ropes… Higher and still higher goes this extraordinary zig-zagging railway, boring into the bowels of the mountain and emerging again at least a dozen times before it takes it final plunge for the eastern side of the Andes.’


We step down from the train at La Galera. This was the highest station in the world before the Chinese, who are much in evidence here too, constructed the pan-Himalayan line through Tibet. It felt like coming ashore after a long voyage. Farne admits that moving from her seat might have been a mistake. She developed the worst headache of her life. Every step on the ground was a slow-motion adventure. Taking advice, I had dosed myself on coca tea (approved by Arthur) and the trick of learning to hold my breath as long as possible, before letting it slowly out. In fact, having taken one giant breath in Lima, I’m not sure if I remembered to take another until we disembarked, in the pulsing dark, all honking taxis, dogs, luggage, managed by a single policewoman in Huancayo. Our guide, the one who was supposed to meet us, was nowhere to be found.


By Iain Sinclair

It was a long-held ambition to follow the journey mapped and described, with picaresque vigour (and a degree of latitude), by my Scottish great-grandfather, Arthur Sinclair. He published his version of the 1891 expedition, undertaken with fellow planter Alexander Ross and ‘practical botanist’ P. D. G. Clark, in 1895. These men were on commission from the Peruvian Corporation of London to survey a vast tranche of land, more than 500,000 square miles, to assess its potential as an economic resource: exploitation by way of coffee estates and forestry. The journey, involving mules, bounty-hunting priests, encounters with indigenous people and a river adventure on balsa rafts, had serious and long-lasting consequences. 


The push to make the trip in July 2019 came from my daughter Farne, who was determined to record a series of podcasts and to satisfy her own curiosity about her distant relative’s motives and experiences. She was returning to a country she had previously visited in her gap year before university, earning the money required by working for the printers who had published all my early books. We were accompanied by the filmmaker Grant Gee, who had his own agenda, gathering material for a piece entitled The Gold Machine. My brief diary jottings are framed by quotations from Arthur’s book, In Tropical Lands: Recent Travels to the Sources of the Amazon… 




Arthur Sinclair: ‘And now, when in the capital, I am afraid I shall disappoint you, for I am not fond of cities; my heart always longs for the quiet country beyond. A simple man, my tastes lie among the simple people on the mountains, or in culling the common weeds by the wayside. I cannot, therefore, enter here into any detailed description of Lima, which at one time, we are told, was considered the gem of South America, and though now somewhat sullied, is still beautiful; picturesquely situated, with a climate almost perfect, the sun rarely scorching, and the rains never bedraggling the inhabitants.’ 


Dust. Haze. Horns. Arbitrary cab jumps: we learn, by experience, the more battered the better. The wrecks operate in wild, improvisatory spins and surges, down streets they have never before attempted, patron saint swinging as you corner, taking off on speed bumps, avoiding the main, permanently stalled boulevards with their Cola hoardings, cancelled hotels and new narco banks. The smarter vehicles, addicted to airport runs, have blind faith in the oracular pronouncements of sat-nav, robotic voices that always land them in the same twilight waste ground, by a perimeter fence, near a discontinued railway. With dogs.


With Farne, I set off, at her suggestion, to find the South American Explorers Club. A nice metaphor for what followed. Time is provisional. ‘Twenty minutes, comfortably’ becomes an hour of traffic dodging and shade chasing. The given address is a locked gate and shuttered windows. Enquiries at the Brazilian/Peruvian Cultural Institute carry us back to another dead building. The Explorers Club is just a Borgesian test: we fail, until we appreciate that the thing to be explored is our own incompetence. The Club is long gone (exploration rebranded as Adventure Tourism) – although, as we learn later, it was once operated by Lucho Hurtado, the man who will be our guide through the cloud jungle.


Arthur Sinclair: ‘Here I was shown the remains of the “Gran Conquistador”, a fit relic for this holy of holies. Pizarro, the pitiless tool of priestcraft and the conqueror for covetous Spain, had, like the last Napoleon, one redeeming trait in his character, viz., a taste for architecture, of which this cathedral is an example… It was on the 26th June, 1891, the 350th anniversary of Pizarro’s violent and bloody death, that the coffin was opened… On removing the lid the body was found almost in its entirety and completely mummified, still partially covered by rags of silk… and the remains of a finely embroidered shirt. The body was quite desiccated, and of a dingy white colour. On close examination it was found that certain portions were amissing, viz., the fingers, toes, and certain other parts, having been cut off and removed. From the appearance, the committee were satisfied that these mutilations had taken place immediately after death…’ 


Access to Plaza Major and La Cathedral is denied by a line of black uniformed police in baseball caps. We were told that they were anticipating a gay/lesbian protest action. Passage to the cathedral and the remains of Pizarro might be possible in one hour or two. Honouring Arthur’s taste for Chinese enterprise, we lunched on a platter of rice and bits with compulsory litre of sweet Cola. And delirious TV news reports shot raw on phones and surveillance cameras,  ferociously edited: motorbike thefts, looped corruption trials (often lasting for decades), street killings and chases.


When, eventually, we are allowed into the grand square, it is deserted. Pizarro’s remains seem to have been classified and reclassified on numerous occasions. Real flesh, fake bones.

 This is the right setting, without question, for Grant to record a brief reading I’ve been asked to do, to promote an anthology edited by Chris Kelso. ‘Death’s charnel house and every stage in the process of mortality, the unrobing of flesh from bone, is made visible…Churches are large buildings, in which, after the concept of sanctuary lost its force, nobody chose to live. And only marbled duplicates are permitted to sleep and wait.’


Picture 1 of 4


First photos of Iain’s adventure in Peru with his daughter Farne

Iain and Farne are doing well and they have sent a selection of photos of their adventure in Peru on the footsteps of their ancestor Arthur Sinclair.

A very exciting news: Iain plans to post about this trip. In his own words:

[…] a series of short reports on the journey will begin before too long. I’ll link my diary of the 2019 trip with brief extracts from Arthur Sinclair’s account of his much more difficult 1891 expedition (which led, with dire consequences, to the beginnings of the Peruvian Corporation of London’s coffee plantations along the River Perene). 


And don’t forget the campaign to help fund this trip:




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: