Search for Michael Rockefeller in New Guinea Part 5

About the search for Michael Rockefeller, son of New York mayor Nelson Rockefeller, history of his mysterious disappearance.


Only after the turmoil of the search had died down did it become apparent that a large number of people shared our opinion. There was, in fact, a sharp split between Dutch officialdom and the local white civilians as to young Rockefeller's fate. Those who lived in the area--resident missionaries, medical men, traders--were convinced that, whatever else may have happened, Michael had not perished in the water.

The first person to confirm my private doubts was Dr. Ary Kemper, who specialized in tropical medicine and had lived in the Asmat for 11 years.

"That young man was a powerful swimmer, and with those floats on his back he could not have drowned," said the doctor. "Sharks and crocodiles? Yes, there are plenty. But, you know, in all the years here I have never heard of one human being attacked. The natives swim and fish without fear of them. They just don't seem to be man-eaters. Not along this part of the coast. Believe me, I would have learned of any such attack."

"Well, what do you think happened?" I asked.

"I think he reached land. And I think he was killed there," Kemper said grimly. "By the Asmats. Perhaps for his head. Or perhaps he was eaten. One man alone--unarmed--wandering on this coast, now that is risky."

"Then why are the government people so adamant about him being lost at sea?"

Kemper grinned wryly. "Because they don't wish the world to know that they are not in control of the entire territory. Officially there is no head-hunting, no cannibalism, no tribal warfare, you understand? No white man is ever murdered. And such an important person--a billionaire's son--this must not have occurred! It would look very bad at the United Nations, you understand?"

I understood even better after talking to a Dutch administration officer. Over half a bottle of jonge genever he gave me a view of Michael that had not hitherto been voiced.

"He was a likable boy, very courageous and sincere, but sometimes very foolish. He came to the Asmat and offered six, seven steel axes per skull for his museum. He offered this to natives who hardly know any metal. Six steel axes--why, gottverdomme, that is a fortune! They could buy two wives for that price!"

The official went on to describe how--as soon as word of the offer spread--head-hunting flared up along the entire coast. "I don't think Rockefeller realized what he was doing," he went on. "But some tribesmen actually approached me for permission to go raiding--`only one night, two night, no more.' And when I refused, they went just the same. They just couldn't resist that offer."

Although the administrator didn't say so, his implication was that Michael had perished in trouble of his own making. To the Asmat warriors a head was a head; they couldn't have known that the half-naked white man on the shore was the source of those steel hatchets.

The more locals I interviewed, the stronger grew the impression that Michael had indeed been slain rather than drowned. One missionary priest, Father Jan Smit--who knew Rockefeller well--told me he had actually seen a warrior wearing the young man's shorts. Father Smit, who was himself killed by the Asmats in 1965, was the first person who pinpointed the murder scene for me: the costal village of Otsjanep.

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