‘Savage Harvest’ by Carl Hoffman, Text Publishing, 2014, 336 pp, paperback, $32.99
THERE’S been a short story, a novel, a play, a film and a rock song (by Guadalcanal Diary, 1984) about the November 1961 disappearance of Michael Rockefeller, scion of the wealthy and influential US family, who seemed to vanish without trace on the remote south-west coast of what today is Indonesian Papua.
In that same month 50 years ago, with the mystery generating headlines even in my home town of Nowra, I’d just been accepted into the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney to train for two years to teach in Papua New Guinea.
I was eager to escape the tedium of a country town but trepidatious about the risks that decision might entail. The 23-year old Rockefeller’s disappearance in inhospitable Asmat territory sharpened that concern.
The island of New Guinea was still a dangerous place in the 1960s as a complex matrix of traditional cultures, some of them extraordinarily violent, gave way grudgingly and sometimes lethally to the encroachment of a curious, intrusive and ultimately exploitative outside world.
Even as Rockefeller made his way through Netherlands New Guinea gathering primitive art, interlopers (whether they be prospectors, missionaries, government officers or collectors like him) were frequently attacked there and across the border in what was then the Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea.
Rockefeller’s disappearance was big global news. His father was billionaire philanthropist Nelson Rockefeller, serial US presidential candidate and at the time Governor of New York. In 1974 he was to become vice-president under Gerald Ford.
Carl Hoffman’s carefully researched, unusually evocative and beautifully written book traces Rockefeller’s final journey as well as Hoffman’s quest to try to tell the definitive story of what happened to the young man.
Hoffman’s research not only involved “hundreds and hundreds of pages of original memos and cables and letters between the Dutch government and the Catholic Church, and the church and its priests”, as he told US National Public Radio recently, but he also embarked on a difficult and bizarre journey amongst the people he believes were responsible for Michael Rockefeller’s death.
Rockefeller senior was an avid collector of modern and primitive art, a passion inherited by Michael, who had gone to Netherlands New Guinea to acquire artefacts for his father’s Museum of Primitive Art in New York, of which he was a youthful board member.
At the time of his disappearance, Rockefeller, Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing and two local guides were travelling in a homemade catamaran — two native canoes connected by a central platform bearing a thatched shelter - some five kilometres off the south-west coast of Netherlands New Guinea.
They were caught unawares by a wave and their craft was swamped and turned turtle.
The two guides swam for shore to get help while Rockefeller and Wassing waited on the upturned hull.
The next day Rockefeller’s patience ran out. Telling Wassing, “I think I can make it”, he strung a couple of empty petrol drums to his waist and struck out for the coast, by then 20 kilometres distant.
Wassing, a poor swimmer, refused to join him – a good decision, as he was rescued the next day. Rockefeller was never seen again. At least not by anyone who would tell.
The newspaper gossip at the time was that he had drowned or been taken by a shark or a croc. And, since the local Asmat people were known to be headhunters, there was even more lurid speculation - that he’d made it to shore and been killed and eaten.
The brief story is that Rockefeller’s body was never found and that he was declared legally dead in 1964. Fifty years later, the mystery has been dramatically revived by Carl Hoffman.
And Hoffman – back from living rough among the Asmat, itself an enthralling tale - believes he has the answer.
Hoffman is no slouch as a journalist. He’s a contributing editor with National Geographic Traveler, a distinguished authorand four times winner of the Lowell Thomas Award of the Society of American Travel Writers.
For Savage Harvest, he set himself the task of investigating and reconstructing Michael Rockefeller’s fate. He read all the documents – and they were voluminous – and most importantly he headed for Papua and spent time amongst the remarkable Asmat.
Savage Harvest begins with a blood curdling account of how Hoffman imagines Rockefeller met his death – speared in the chest by Asmat warriors from the village of Otsjanep at the end of what the young man thought was a swim to safety.
Hoffman believes, having studied the practice, that Rockefeller was then ritualistically butchered: his brain eaten, his head made a trophy and his bones shared amongst the tribe.
The massacre of Michael Rockefeller was no random misfortune.
In 1958, Dutch colonial officer Max Lapré, in the manner of the era, had raided the Otsjanep on a punitive expedition and shot and killed four tribal leaders amongst warriors he thought posed a threat. The people of Otsjanep, although duly intimidated, did not forget the incident. The people of Otsjanep forget very little.
Three years later, young Rockefeller came collecting. The Otsjanep were benign as they traded their artefacts. But they observed.
Speaking of Rockefeller’s demise, Hoffman told National Public Radio: “They [50 Asmat men travelling in a flotilla of canoes] arrived at the mouth of the [river] when what they thought was a crocodile swam up, and it wasn't a crocodile but a man and he was exhausted and vulnerable and weak and they recognised him.”
“The Asmat that day,” he writes in Savage Harvest, “killed Michael Rockefeller out of passion and love, love for what they had lost and what they were losing… [It was] an effort to avenge their own impotence against the intrusion of the West… An assertion of pride.
“They knew his name because he had been to the village before. They stabbed him with a spear right then and there and took him to a very sacred, hidden spot where they undertook their ceremonial rites.”
Hoffman said that, within two weeks of Rockefeller’s disappearance, two Asmat-speaking foreign priests who had lived in the area for years heard rumours he had swum ashore, encountered men from Otsjanep and been killed by them.
Hoffman said the priests wrote reports “in which they named names - who had Michael's head, who had other parts of his skeleton.
“They filed those reports to their superiors in the church and to the Dutch government. And they're all sort of saying: What are we going to do? Let's not tell the Rockefellers....”
In 1961, the Dutch authorities were battling the anti-colonial movement and Indonesia’s nationalistic President Sukarno. They didn’t want to also do battle with a Rockefeller family querying the competence of their administration of Netherlands New Guinea.
The torrent of search, police and government activity that followed the demise of Michael Rockefeller greatly affected the Asmat and foreshadowed the end of their traditional way of life.
But, half a century years later, Hoffman believes the real story of what happened to Michael Rockefeller is well known to people for whom history is something embedded in the soul not in books.
“Could they, after so much time,” Hoffman asks, “look me in the eye and pretend they knew nothing, remembered nothing?”
The Asmat could, and did. And so Hoffman has had to deduce the fate that befell Michael Rockefeller because the witness statements and hard evidence were, as he sees it, denied him.
For Hoffman, the case for Rockefeller’s violent death and dismemberment – while circumstantial – is compelling.
That Hoffman so adeptly comes to close grips with the spirituality and practices of the Asmat makes his case both plausible and no less compelling for the reader.