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The Mysterious Disappearance and Death of Michael Rockefeller

“I’m sure I can do it,” Rockefeller says.

He sees the coastline in the distance and estimates it to be about six miles. A good swimmer like him should be able to cover that distance.

And when Rockefeller gets into trouble, he’s kept afloat by two empty jerry cans strapped to his belt. He also wears only white underpants and thick glasses.

The boat rocks as Rockefeller jumps and takes his first dip in the lukewarm water. After a few hours, the American is so far away that Wassing can barely see him.

The next day, Wassing is picked up by a lifeboat and a major search for Rockefeller begins. But the rich man’s son seems to have been swallowed by the water.

Rockefeller left for New Guinea

Michael Rockefeller was the great-grandson of the wealthy John D. Rockefeller, who became the richest man in the world at the end of the 19th century with his oil company Standard Oil.

Michael was born in 1938 and grew up in a giant mansion in Manhattan. Here he was surrounded by success—not least that of his father, Nelson Rockefeller, who was governor of New York State.

But Michael was not interested in business or politics. He was especially fond of art and cultural history.

In 1960, Michael went to Dutch New Guinea – now the Indonesian half of the huge Pacific island – to study the local peoples and their art. Along the way he became fascinated by the Asmat, a people he visited in the impenetrable jungle together with the 34-year-old Dutch anthropologist René Wassing.

“It is extremely tiring to be here, but also exciting. The Asmat are a huge jigsaw puzzle, and all the ceremonies and art form the puzzle pieces,” Rockefeller wrote in his journal.

The Asmat people lived in southwestern New Guinea. The tribes were often at war with each other, and Rockefeller discovered that the warriors cut off their enemies’ heads as trophies. In addition, they ate the warriors they killed.

The cannibals also made a nice pole that bisj was named. Rockefeller was so impressed with the Asmat that after returning to the US, he decided to go back in the fall of 1961 to buy a large batch of bisj poles.

“It’s the desire to do something adventurous at a time when boundaries, in the original sense of the word, are disappearing,” he said of his plan to “bring a large collection to New York.”

Great search is started

In September 1961 Rockefeller was back in Dutch New Guinea, where he picked up Wassing. For two months the men sailed together across rivers and along the coast in a primitive, homemade catamaran with an outboard motor. Rockefeller collected several bisj poles, ornate weapons, and multiple decorated skulls.

On Saturday, November 18, their boat capsized in the open sea, and the next day Michael Rockefeller made the fateful decision to swim to shore. Moments later, a search was underway for the missing celebrity.

“I’ll do everything I can to find him,” said Michael’s father, Nelson Rockefeller.

Not much later, planes and helicopters flew over the jungle, ships patrolled the coast and boats searched the rivers. After a month, the search was officially abandoned, and because apparently no clues had been found, Michael Rockefeller was pronounced dead in 1964 – he was said to have drowned.

Because his body was attached to two jerry cans that were supposed to keep him afloat, people wondered why he had never been found. The explanation from the authorities was simple, but cruel: he was probably eaten by a shark or a saltwater crocodile.

The rumor mill was in full swing

Because Rockefeller had disappeared into an area inhabited by cannibals and headhunters, speculation abounded: Perhaps the rich man’s son had survived the swim, but was later killed by local warriors?

The Rockefellers wanted clarity and offered a $250,000 reward. In 1979, they even hired a private investigator who traveled New Guinea to solve the case. In the end, the detective returned to New York with three skulls purchased from local headhunters.

According to a documentary on the History Channel, the skulls were examined, and one of them is believed to have belonged to Rockefeller. The TV channel also reported that the family had given the detective a check for $250,000 for solving the mystery.

In fact, the mystery surrounding the young American’s fate could have been solved a month after his disappearance. On December 9, 1961, there was a knock on the door of Father Hubertus von Peij, a Dutch missionary in New Guinea who had met Michael Rockefeller two days before the boat accident. A colleague said someone wanted to see him.

‘These men want to see you. They have a message for you.’

Guests told a macabre story

Four local residents entered the hut. Two of them came from the Asmat village of Ochanep, which was near the stretch of coast Rockefeller had swum to.

The visitors told the missionary that on the morning of November 19, 50 warriors from Ochanep had seen a white man waving to them from the sea as they rested in their canoes.

“Men of Ochanep, you always talk about beheading one daily (white man, ed.). Go ahead, this is your chance,’ one of the warriors is said to have said.

Moments later, as the warriors hoisted the white man aboard their canoe, one of them stabbed him with a spear. During the trip back to shore, the injured man screamed until he was killed on the beach. Then they cut him into pieces and roasted the flesh over a fire – as cannibals did their enemies.

“What kind of clothes was he wearing?” Von Peij asked his guests.

His clothes were strange, they said. He was wearing pants they had never seen before. Shorts without pockets. Underpants.

“Where’s his head?” demanded the priest. After six years in the region, he knew that the Asmat had a habit of collecting the skulls of their enemies.

‘It hangs in Fin’s house. It looks so small – like a child’s head.’

Then Von Peij knew what had happened to Michael Rockefeller. He wondered why they had killed the young American, because some of the locals had met him before in the area.

The four men stated that a group of Dutch settlers had killed a number of warriors in Otsjanep during a military expedition three years earlier, in order to prevent a tribal war. Ever since then, the warriors—one of whom was a man named Fin—have been lusting after revenge. And to them, all white men were the same.

When the warriors had left, Von Peij told their story to his colleague Cornelius van Kessel. It turned out that Van Kessel had also heard rumors about the murder a day earlier. So on December 15, 1961, he sent a letter to the highest ecclesiastical authority in the Dutch colony – capitalized to emphasize its importance:


The Netherlands kept it a secret

The two missionaries thought that the authorities would send people to the region to investigate the matter. The colony’s governor, PJ Pateel, received Van Kessel’s report on December 20, 1961, but wrote to Nelson Rockefeller that same day:

“There’s nothing more we can do.”

The Dutch government probably wanted to keep secret that a member of the prominent Rockefeller family had been barbarously murdered. Such an incident was painful at a time when the Dutch were fighting to maintain their colony. They wanted to show that everything was under control and not lose US support.

The message of the missionaries was therefore covered up and only came to light 50 years later when the American journalist Carl Hoffman investigated the matter in 2011. Hoffman visited Hubertus von Peij, who was more than happy to tell his story.

“I wrote to the bishop, but he forbade me to speak about it—tell it. The government was ashamed and silent, and I said nothing. But I’m sure,” Von Peij told Hoffman in 2012.

Officially, however, the rich man’s son Michael Rockefeller still drowned.

2023-04-15 14:56:11

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