The Disappearance of a Millionaire that Resulted in an Unusual Lunch
What happened to Michael Rockefeller?
Michael Rockefeller was rich, he was one of the richest men in the world. Born in 1938, he was the youngest son of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Like so many rich sons, he didn’t want to follow his father’s dreams, instead, he wanted to strike out with his own career and pursuits.
Michael was a quieter, more artistic spirit. The thought of sitting in boardrooms was not one he was interested in. When he graduated from Harvard in 1960, he wanted to follow his dreams. His father, who was a prolific art collector, had just opened a museum dedicated to non-western art. The display included Nigerian, Aztec and Mayan works. This was the direction young Michael wanted to go in. Taking a seat on his father’s museum board, he was eager to seek out his own pieces. He felt that here he could move away from the shadow of his family. He commented to a friend, ‘that he wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York.’
Throughout his life, he had travelled extensively to places like Japan and Venezuela. He wanted to travel to somewhere few people had been. He decided to make a scouting trip to a little known island in Dutch New Guinea off the Australian coast. Here he would meet the Asmat people.
Now this is wild and somehow more remote country that what I have ever seen before — Michael Rockefeller
Arriving at the island
Although in the 1960s the Dutch Colonial Authorities had been on the island for a decade, few of the Asmat people had seen a white man. With a limited connection to the outside world, they believed that the land beyond theirs was inhabited by spirits. They saw white people as supernatural beings. Michael became quite a curiosity in the village of Otsjanep, not an altogether welcome one. The locals were happy to be photographed but refused to sell any of their artefacts. This was not the success that Michael had hoped for,
Despite this, after the initial scouting mission, Michael was energised. He wrote out a detailed anthropological study on the Asmat people, and the collection of art he was going to display in his father’s museum.
In 1961, Michael set out again accompanied by Rene Wassing, a government anthropologist. As the boat approached Otsjanep a sudden squall capsized the boat, leaving both of the men clinging to the overturned hull. They were twelve miles from sure. Michael was sure that he could swim the distance, so he jumped into the water and set off. He was never seen again.
The loss of Michael prompted a manhunt of historical proportion. No resources were spared to find the heir to the Standard Oil fortune. The family used their wealth and power to search the area with ships, aeroplanes and helicopters. They scoured the region with no regard for native life. After nine days the search was called off, by the Dutch Interior Minister.
There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive
Despite extensive media rumours and conspiracy theories, no one found out what happened to the millionaire until 2014.
The hidden records
Carl Hoffman, a reporter for National Geographic, was always obsessed with the disappearance. He researched the subject extensively for his new book and found many reports that had been hidden away. On examination of these records and accounts from others who visited the island, he believed that the Asmat people had killed Michael Rockefeller.
Two Dutch missionaries, who had learnt the language of the native people, heard a confession from them about the murder. The police who were sent to investigate the following year had also come to the same conclusion. The detective had even produced a skull he believed belonged to the millionaire. At the time the reports were buried. The Rockefeller’s were informed that it was a rumour that was not substantiated.
The reason for this was that the Dutch were eager to portray the appearance they could control the native population. Having lost half the state to Indonesia, they feared they would be ousted, if the truth became known.
Hoffman and the Asmat Expedition
Hoffman decided to investigate further. He travelled to Otsjanep posing as a journalist documenting Asmat life. He learned that is was common knowledge on the island that the Asmat had killed a white man. They were reluctant to talk about this, for fear of reprisals. Shortly after the murder, the natives had been struck down by a Cholera outbreak, which they attributed to the spirits being angry with them.
The murder itself had been in revenge for the killing of Asmat people. In 1957, two tribes had fought. The Otsjanep and Omadesep village had killed many members of each tribe. The Dutch had become involved and disarmed the people. During this altercation, a misinterpretation of culture led to them opening fire and killing four of the war leaders.
When Michael had swum ashore he was discovered by the sons of the murdered leaders. They had speared him and chopped his head off. In tribal traditions, they had eaten his brains, cooked and eaten his flesh. His bones had been turned in tools.
By having the rich white millionaire for tea, the people of Otshanep believed they had restored balance to the world. Despite these claims, no remains or other physical proof of his death have ever been discovered. The official cause of Michael’s death was put down as drowning. For all the money and resources available to the Rockefeller’s, they have never managed to get a definitive answer to what happened to Michael. His murder remains an accident, in official records.