Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, William Morrow, New York, 2014, 322pp, ISBN: 9780062325310. From Amazon: $US16.23 (Hardcover); $US15.20 Kindle
IN the earliest days of the Australian administration in what is now Western Province, one of the continuing problems was the raids on Southern Fly River villages by headhunters from across the border with Dutch New Guinea.
These headhunters came from the vast swamps of the southeast where the distinction between the Arafura Sea and the land is sometimes difficult to determine. The raiders were known by many names, including Marind and Tugeri.
While headhunting in Western Province was brought to an end relatively quickly, it persisted for many more years over the border. Even in the years following World War II, headhunters were active right through to the lands of the Asmat along the Casuarinen Coast.
It was into this area that a young Michael Rockefeller arrived in March 1961 to collect artefacts for the Museum of Primitive Art in New York.
Michael Rockefeller was no ordinary collector. His father, Nelson, was then the richest man in America and aspirant for the US presidency.
One of his passions was collecting primitive art, which he had been buying from dealers for many years and housing in a purpose-built museum.
Michael had decided to take his father’s passion a step further and go into the field to make the collections himself. The spectacular carvings of the Asmat were a drawcard.
It was in the swamps of the Asmat that Michael mysteriously disappeared on 19 November 1961. Despite extensive searches his body was never found.
The boat that he and a companion were travelling in had flipped in the truculent offshore waters of the Arafura Sea. The two young guides they had with them had set off swimming the previous day, but had been gone a long time and could have perished, so Michael decided to swim ashore for help.
His companion was only an average swimmer and stayed on the upturned boat. He was eventually rescued. The guides had actually made the shore and walked through the swamps to raise the alarm
After extensive searches by the Dutch authorities assisted by the Australian military, it was concluded that Michael had drowned.
In the years that followed there were persistent rumours that he had actually made it to shore and been killed and eaten by the Asmat.
In 2012 author Carl Hoffman set off to find out for himself.
The evidence that Hoffman collected is very compelling. As he tells it Michael’s death stemmed from an incident a few years before Michael’s arrival in the area.
At that time two Asmat villages where Michael came to do his collecting had erupted and there was a series of raids, murders and head-taking. As in many parts of New Guinea the people were following the age-old traditions of murder and revenge.
A Dutch patrol officer and his police had hastened to the area and run into stiff opposition. In the ensuing melee, several Asmat warriors were shot and killed.
Hoffman contends that when an exhausted Michael Rockefeller made it to the shallows he met a flotilla of canoes. Knowing some of the men in the canoes he thought he was saved.
But instead of hauling him aboard the Asmat speared him and took his body to eat. The killings enacted by the Dutch patrol officer had been avenged.
Hoffman discovered that Michael Rockefeller’s fate was common knowledge among the Asmat and the circumstances had been documented and reported by a Catholic mission priest.
The priest even had the names of the men who did the spearing, who cut up the body, who ate which parts and who took away Michael’s various bones, including his skull. There was, however, a cover-up.
At the time the Dutch were trying to make a case with the United Nations for the retention of West Papua. They were up against strident opposition from Indonesian President Sukarno.
The last thing the UN needed was a report of a white man of Michael’s stature eaten by the people they were representing as being well on the way to civilised autonomy.
Strangely, the Rockefellers accepted the Dutch version and didn’t push it any further. Perhaps they also appreciated the political significance in such a volatile area.
Hoffman’s account is compelling and plausible but not conclusive. For that he needed Michael’s bones, particularly his skull. He didn’t find it.
Hoffman believes that it is probably still in the ceiling of a men’s house somewhere in the Asmat.