Winding up as an entrée was not what the 23-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller had in mind when he ventured to the far side of the globe to pursue an anthropology career and a brief escape from his silver straitjacket. On November 18, 1961, Rockefeller, who was traveling the southern coast of Dutch New Guinea (now Indonesian Irian Jaya) buying art from the primitive Asmat tribe, disappeared when his overloaded 40-foot dugout was swamped in the Arafura Sea near the mouth of the Eilanden River. Two native guides swam three miles to shore for help while Rockefeller and his travel partner, Dutch anthropologist René Wassing, clung to the drifting boat overnight.
Help was slow getting to the stranded Westerners, and the boat continued to drift toward the open ocean. Rockefeller, convinced that the guides had perished, decided to swim to shore. His last words to Wassing were, "I think I can make it." And just like that, he was gone. (Wassing was picked up by rescuers the next day.)
While the waters in which the boat overturned were known to be infested with sharks and saltwater crocs, it is possible that Rockefeller, like his guides, reached land. If he did, he'd have found himself in a cruel parody of Gilligan's Island, a region of thick mangrove swamps and tribes of headhunters and cannibals.
The Dutch colonial government and the Rockefeller family organized a massive search, with more than a thousand canoes probing the southern coast for ten days. They found nothing, and in 1964, Michael was declared legally dead. But in 1969, prompted by a story from an Australian smuggler who claimed to have seen Rockefeller on a tiny outlying island, American journalist Milt Machlin launched his own investigation. In the end, Machlin dismissed such sightings. "I don't believe he was alive elsewhere," says Machlin, whose 1972 book The Search for Michael Rockefeller chronicled his investigation. "I think he was killed almost immediately after making shore." Machlin holds that Rockefeller's murder was an act of revenge for the killing of several local villagers by a Dutch colonial patrol.
The events that led to Rockefeller's alleged murder went years back in local history and were rooted in the traditional rivalry between the villages of Otsjanep and Omadesep, with which Michael was familiar from his last trip there. As far back as 1952, almost ten years before Michael arrived on the Casuarinen coast, Chinese crocodile hunters had visited Otsjanep with rowers from Omadesep. A violent battle ensued, with the Chinese taking the part of their Omadesep paddlers. Six women and two Otsjanep boys were killed - four of them by gunshot.
In December, 1955, Rob Eibrink Jansen - the same man who directed the Rockefeller search - was sent to investigate the killings. Unfortunately he too was using rowers from Omadesep. Spying the canoes coming up the river paddled by their traditional enemies, the Otsjanep people prepared for bloody combat. Jansen sized up the situation and realized that it would be much too dangerous to attempt a contact at that time, so he returned without completing his investigation.
Toward the end of 1957 the situation was exacerbated when the Omadesep warriors succeeded in killing seven Otsjanep men returning from a canoe trip to one of their coastal outposts. In retaliation Otsjanep tribesmen came down the Ewta River and scored an ambush in which a dozen Omadesep fighters were killed. Actually on the whole expedition, which had started out as an ostensibly combined and friendly trip with the Omadesep flotilla, 124 Otsjanep men had set out, but only 24 returned alive, the rest having been slain by various hostile tribes en route.
In January, 1958, a police superintendent named Dias arrested eleven men in the village of Omadesep, charging them with the murder of Otsjanep tribesmen, possibly in the hope that this would head off what seemed a certain payback raid. He emphasized the government's displeasure by cutting up all their large canoes, burning down their yeu houses and confiscating their weapons.
A week later a nervous young patrol officer named Lapre was sent in to clear up the problem with the Otsjaneps. Who was Lapre? What was his experience? The sometimes meticulous Dutch records seem strangely silent on the details. The consensus of missionaries and government officials reveal only that he was relatively new to the job and clearly nervous about confronting a village known up and down the coast for its acts of violence.
On his first trip in January Lapre was apparently so intimidated by the bellicose attitude of the Otsjanep villagers that he retreated without taking any action at all. The following month he returned with Superintendent Dias and several native policemen armed with submachine guns.
The patrol found themselves confronted by at least two hundred hot-eyed Otsjanep warriors, armed and seemingly ready to fight. Lapre, Dias and the rest of the Dutch patrol apparently snapped under the now-oppressive tension. They opened fire into the massed ranks of the villagers.
Desire for revenge for these killings of Otsjanep villagers by white men were "still embedded in their heads and in their hearts." To the primitive villagers of course all whites were the same. They could hardly be expected to understand the difference between a Dutchman and an American.
But before revenge could be taken, a bis pole had to be built and dedicated. This was the pole photographed by The Sky Above and the Mud Below team before their hasty departure from Otsjanep. Beltgens, the policeman, was well aware of the trouble that had occurred only a year earlier and surely knew what he was doing when he advised the group to leave.
This brings us to the Rockefeller expedition the following year. Were the Otsjanep villagers planning revenge even as they traded with Rockefeller and Wassing? Did Rockefeller actually buy the bis pole which may have predicted his own end? Nobody can say authoritatively.
During the search, police officials were asked if they were aware of the possibility that Michael Rockefeller had been killed in revenge for what had happened two years before. Before Mike Rockefeller got permission from his father to go to West Irian, Nelson Rockefeller talked with Mr. Joseph Luns, minister of foreign affairs of Holland about Mike going to West Irian.
One wonders whether Rob Eibrink Jansen, who well knew the hostility of Otsjanep village, was aware that Michael intended to visit this warlike and much aggrieved group. It hardly seems possible he would let them travel without an armed escort if he did know.
If Michael had reached shore, he might have reached the shore at a place that was not the best place for him. A man coming out of the sea, swimming all the time would be tired, of course, after the long time of swimming. Mike Rockefeller is quite alone with no protection. That is the nicest opportunity for the Asmat men to take revenge. No defense. He was an easy prey. The most probable thing is that he fell in the hands of the people that recalled what had happened two years ago.
It's very unlikely that there could have been sharks or crocodiles or something that could have caused Rockefeller's death. There had been no cases of natives ever killed by sharks in this particular area. So sharks don't seem to be very dangerous or attack people in this area. There are few crocodiles, of course in the open sea. If a crocodile gets a human being, he brings him ashore, and then he kills him. The crocodile always drags his victim, often alive, as far on dry land as possible and then kills it and lets it decay before eating it. In view of the intensive search of the shoreline and the rarity of maneating crocodiles or sharks, it hardly seems likely that Michael was eaten by a sea predator.
It was entirely feasible that Michael would have reached shore near Otsjanep. The land with a single tree that had been spotted by Michael and Wassing early in their drift, he identifies fairly definitely as a point near Omadesep, a familiar navigational reference.
In regard to Wassing himself, it had been poor judgment to give him the sole responsibility of accompanying Michael. Wassing was a man working in a museum. . . . He was not a practical man like a patrol officer. So it was another thing the government was blamed for. They needed to appoint a practical man who is able to handle the situation. But he [Wassing] wasn't the company he [Rockefeller] needed. But here there was an appointment made that this man and Mike would go after these woodcrafts together. . . . So the Dutch officials . . . sent a man, scientific type of man with an interest and an eye for the local woodcraft. He was acquainted with, and he could pick out the good ones and leave the worse ones.
The more fanciful theories of Rockefeller's fate follow a Conradesque trajectory, placing the young heir, Kurtz-like, in a remote native village, held as a captive god, or living there of his own volition. Today, the closest you're likely to get to him is a visit to the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where you'll find some of the Asmat artifacts he sent home before he disappeared. Or perhaps you'll find reason to believe, as many still do, that one of America's most fortunate sons went looking for-and found-a new life elsewhere.
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