“This will confirm your assignment as Flight Operator to the NC146M, which is being chartered by the Matto Grosso Expedition for service in the interior of Brasil [sic] for a period of at least four months. Its base will be Desclavados [sic, Descalvados], Matto Grosso, which is about one thousand miles from Rio de Janeiro.”
On April 7, 1931, Mr. Hans Fred Due, Sr., received this letter from James C. Shattuck, of the communications department of Pan American Airlines. At the time, Due was employed by Pan American as a flight operator and was stationed in Rio de Janerio.
The Penn Museum’s Matto Grosso Expedition occurred in the Matto (now Mato) Grosso plateau in western Brazil for four months in 1931. The expedition is considered an example what later became known as “salvage ethnography”—a type of anthropology with the aim of recording a culture before it is destroyed as the result of modernization.
The expedition embarked with an interesting party, which included the flight crew of the chartered Pan American plane, anthropologist Dr. Vincenzo Petrullo of the Penn Museum, financial backer Fenimore Johnson, Latvian hunter/ jungle guide Sasha Siemel, and a Hollywood film crew.
The expedition aimed to create the first documentary with a synchronized sound recording made in the field. At the time, roughly 30 films had been made with synchronized sound in a highly controlled studio environment. The filming succeeded and “Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness” premiered as a blend of true and staged interactions. Content included travel, hunting, nature and animals, and interactions with native people.
Due’s role in the expedition included operating the radio and remaining in contact with the expedition base in Descalvados during flights. He also assisted the Brazilian radio operator while at the base and reported schedules to Rio de Janerio, Belém, and New York City. Due is seen in the film starting the engine of the amphibious Sikorsky plane.
In 1978, 47 years after the expedition, Due wrote a manuscript and sent it to Mr. Hilgard O’Reilly Sternberg, a professor of geography at the University of California, Berkeley. Due hoped that his account of the expedition would be published.
Flash forward 40 years after Due’s publication attempt: Hans F. Due, Jr., was contacted by Dr. Eric Hobson, a professor of English at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Hobson wondered if Due, Jr., was related to the radio operator of the Matto Grosso Expedition and if he, by some luck, had any related records. The materials that Due, Jr., inherited went on to serve a crucial role in a book about the expedition that is currently being written by Dr. Hobson.
Considering that Due, Sr., kept no other records from his time with Pan American, the expedition clearly left an impact. However, he didn’t really talk to his family about his experience. Due, Sr., was a very private person: “a Lutheran Norwegian. He didn’t do a lot of talking,” noted his granddaughter Shari Due.
Due, Jr., fondly remembers going fishing with his dad during his childhood—maybe a passion that his father first became interested in while on the Matto Grosso Expedition. His father’s manuscript waxes: “They showed us how to spear fish and how to kill fish with a bow and arrow; how they sharpened their teeth to a point….”
As Due, Jr., shared his father’s materials with Dr. Hobson, he became impassioned about the story they tell and considered the best home for the records—a place where they could gain exposure and help other researchers and historians. Dr. Hobson directed Due, Jr., toward the Penn Museum. Prior to this introduction, the Museum’s Matto Grosso archival collection included film, professional photos, Vincenzo Petrullo’s written records from the expedition, and posters used for the premiere of the film.
This month, Hans Due, Jr., came to the Museum with his daughter, Shari, and his wife, Marcia, to donate his father’s collection of documents and materials to the Museum’s existing Matto Grosso collection. The addition of these flight-related objects will provide a new lens into the expedition.
His father saved a map with the expedition’s flight patterns, letters from Pan American Airlines/ Panair do Brazil, a list of supplies taken on the plane, the Engine Handbook, a telegraph key, and photographs taken by himself.
“We have a lot of photographs because there were so many professional photographers on the expedition…but this is a unique perspective. This is really good,” says Alessandro Pezzati, Senior Archivist in the Museum Archives.
There are also three letters to Due, Sr., from Fenimore Johnson: two letters of recommendation and one personal letter. Fenimore Johnson funded the Museum’s Matto Grosso Expedition. He also worked to develop the Museum’s film collection, wrote a manual on the proper storage and maintenance of film, and supported the collection financially by funding a temperature-controlled film vault.
As Due, Jr., showed and explained the materials to Pezzati, Shari recorded—she’s a documentary filmmaker. When they were done looking through the materials, they also browsed the existing archives from the expedition. Due, Jr., was able to identify his father in a group photo of the expedition crew eating dinner.
Later, Pezzati showed him around the Museum Archives and explained what happens after new material is acquired, or added, to the Archives’ holdings. Meanwhile, Shari chatted with Kate Pourshariati, the Museum’s Film Archivist, about the role that the expedition played in film and documentary history.
Though he isn’t exactly sure what the expedition meant to his father, Due, Jr., was pretty certain about one thing: “I’m sure my father is looking down on us thinking, ‘This is great.’”
To hold you over until his book is completed, Dr. Eric Hobson discusses the Matto Grosso Expedition and Brazilian General Cândido Rondon in an upcoming issue of Expedition, the Penn Museum’s member magazine. In a previous issue of the magazine, you can learn about Sasha Siemel and the Matto Grosso Expedition’s attempt to catch him killing a jaguar on film.
Photos by author, unless otherwise noted.