In The Media
March 15, 2014
The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in remote New Guinea in 1961 has kept the world, and even Michael's powerful, influential family, guessing for years. Now, Carl Hoffman uncovers startling new evidence that finally tells the full, astonishing story.Read more...
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The mysterious disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in remote New Guinea in 1961 has kept the world, and even Michael's powerful, influential family, guessing for years. Now, Carl Hoffman uncovers startling new evidence that finally tells the full, astonishing story.
On November 21, 1961, Michael C. Rockefeller, the twenty-three-year-old son of New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, vanished off the coast of southwest New Guinea when his catamaran capsized while crossing a turbulent river mouth. He was on an expedition to collect art for the Museum of Primitive Art, which his father had founded in 1957, and his expedition partner--who stayed with the boat and was later rescued--shared Michael's final words as he swam for help: "I think I can make it."
Despite exhaustive searches by air, ground, and sea, no trace of Michael was ever found. Soon after his disappearance, rumors surfaced that he'd made it to shore, where he was then killed and eaten by the local Asmat--a native tribe of warriors whose complex culture was built around sacred, reciprocal violence, headhunting, and ritual cannibalism. The Dutch government and the Rockefeller family vehemently denied the story, and Michael's death was officially ruled a drowning.
While the cause of death was accepted publicly, doubts lingered and sensational stories circulated, fueling speculation and intrigue for decades. The real story has long waited to be told--until now.
Retracing Michael's steps, award-winning journalist Carl Hoffman traveled to the jungles of New Guinea, immersing himself in a world of former headhunters and cannibals, secret spirits and customs, and getting to know generations of Asmat. Through exhaustive archival research, he uncovered hundreds of pages of never-before-seen original documents and located witnesses willing to speak publicly for the first time in fifty years.
In Savage Harvest Hoffman finally solves this decades-old mystery and illuminates a culture transformed by years of colonial rule, whose people continue to be shaped by ancient customs and lore. Combining history, art, colonialism, adventure, and ethnography, Savage Harvest is at once a mesmerizing whodunit and a fascinating portrait of the clash between two civilizations that resulted in the death of one of America's richest and most powerful scions.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-11-18
- Reviewer: Staff
Born into one of the world’s richest and most influential families, Michael Rockefeller was immersed in the art scene virtually from birth and eventually developed an affinity for primitive artwork that would lead to his disappearance in 1961 off the coast of New Guinea in an area populated by cannibals. Whether then-23-year-old Rockefeller was eaten by those inhabitants was the source of a tremendous amount of speculation and, as Hoffman (The Lunatic Express) shows, an intricate conspiracy involving the Dutch government and the Catholic Church. In an expertly told tale that is begging for a film adaptation, Hoffman travels to the area to speak with members of the Asmat tribe, hoping to gain insight about their practices and complex social structure. By understanding how a possibly unrelated event—the slaughter of a handful of Asmat men by a panicked Dutchman years earlier—led to Rockefeller’s death, Hoffman shows readers the larger picture, and the ways this tragic event had terrible consequences for Rockefeller as well as the tribe. Aware of his own biases as well as Rockefeller’s hubris in collecting items now housed in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Hoffman crafts a remarkable, balanced examination of this sensational case. While the truth of Rockefeller’s disappearance may never be known, Hoffman deserves much credit for this riveting, multilayered tale. Photos. Agent: Joe Regal and Markus Hoffmann, Regal Literary. (Mar.)
Not a crumb to be found
Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old son of then New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, disappeared in 1961 while on an art-collecting trip in the Asmat region along the coast of southwest New Guinea. His boat capsized in rough waters, and, after he and a companion had waited overnight for rescue, Rockefeller decided to swim to shore, buoyed by two empty gasoline cans. He was never seen again—at least not by any witnesses who’ve been willing to come forward.
The official cause of death was drowning at sea. But even as the search for young Rockefeller was still going on, rumors began surfacing that he had been killed and eaten by Asmat natives, among whom cannibalism was still a common and sacred practice. The aim of Savage Harvest is to settle the question of Rockefeller’s fate, just as earlier books and articles have attempted.
Since Carl Hoffman opens his narrative with a jarringly graphic description of what might have been Rockefeller’s last agonizing minutes, it will come as no surprise that he is indeed convinced that the young man was cannibalized. A contributing editor of National Geographic Traveler, Hoffman forms and undergirds his thesis by visiting the same villages Rockefeller scoured for art objects, interviewing descendants and kinsmen of those rumored to have killed him and uncovering personal correspondences and official documents concerning the disappearance. He also explains how the politics of the region— waning Dutch colonialism vs. rising Indonesian nationalism—figured into the story.
Hoffman depicts Rockefeller as a young man bent on pleasing his doting father—talented, to be sure, but a bit overeager and entitled, and oblivious to the fact that the art objects he was acquiring so matter-of-factly still had deep spiritual significance to their creators. Among local tribes, the author explains, taking revenge against one’s enemies was a way of restoring balance to the universe. He speculates that Rockefeller was probably killed in response to a Dutch raid on a native village three years earlier in which the main tribal leaders were slaughtered.
Hoffman’s quest is to discover physical or eyewitness evidence that Rockefeller made it to shore and there met his end. Whether his findings achieve the level of “beyond a reasonable doubt,” readers are left to decide for themselves.