Murder, Art; Region: Pacific Rim

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest by Carl Hoffman

  • The author came for the facts, but he returned for the context
  • 322 pages (280 without Acknowledgments, Notes and the bibliography)

You wouldn’t think that a book that narrates a gruesome killing in the first couple chapters could be said to start off slowly, but it does. The way Hoffman organizes this story will make more sense to you as you stick with it, however. He needs to deal with the facts of Rockefeller’s demise right away so it doesn’t distract you from all of the other ideas this book contains. He has some important themes he wants you to walk away with—to talk about over wine at your book club—not just the grim, salacious-sounding details of the murder.

The mystery and possible murder of Michael Rockefeller, son of Governor Nelson Rockefeller, while on an art-buying expedition in Indonesia in 1961 drew author Carl Hoffman to investigate some fifty years later. No one had ever really come up with a satisfactory explanation of what had happened to Rockefeller. Drowning, officially, according to the Dutch who had colonized that part of Indonesia in those days, but questions had been actively discouraged. Curious Hoffman had wanted a more concrete set of facts, so he not only went to the Asmat, the remote part of Indonesia where the Rockefeller tragedy occurred, but he tracked down many of the people even tangentially involved. His consequent results offer a more convincing tale than did much of the news coverage at the time.

Dutch Colonialism

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Indonesians started to make some noise on the international stage about removing the Dutch colonists who were still clinging to their corner of New Guinea. For their part, the Dutch needed to demonstrate to the world’s diplomats that their presence in New Guinea was a net good for everyone. They needed to show improved quality of life for the local population if they wanted to retain control, and to the mid-twentieth century mind, that meant modernization. The last thing the Dutch colonial government needed were some crazy rumors about cannibalism and tribal warfare. Dutch missionaries had of course been embedded with the Asmat people in their swampland for some time, a Westernizing, Christianizing influence. The idea of cannibalism in the 1960s didn’t belong in the papers, as far as the Dutch were concerned, so Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance and demise became, officially, a drowning.

The Dutch government sometimes fumbled the ball with its New Guinea colony, as it did when it sent a white man to settle reported conflict between two tribal villages by shooting some of the local men. Hoffman gradually puts together what a ham-fisted exercise of power this resolution proved for the Dutch. When he explains how it fits into the story he wants to tell you, it’s not so much of a sermon about the evils of colonialism as a face-palm, the thing that of course you should have seen all along.

What Is “Primitive”?

Hoffman explores this question a few places in his book, and his own thinking evolved over the course of researching the book. There’s an inherent condescension in the term, a presumption that one has evolved past whatever or whomever one identifies as “primitive.” After all, the Asmat people could not be mistaken for any species other than Homo sapiens sapiens. Hoffman points out that given different resources, Asmat people could pilot jet planes or perform heart surgery. Instead, their intellect focuses on a hunter-gather subsistence: precise and subtle knowledge of the tides, the surrounding ecosystem, and a complicated, revenge-based society. And yet, there’s a tendency to assume that they are simple-minded because they traditionally don’t bother to count past five. Hoffman maintains that Rockefeller and the others endorsing his art collecting expedition in the Asmat underestimated the complexity of the Asmat society when they didn’t bother to fully explore the complicated significance of some of the pieces collected and cataloged – but the failure to do so was a dangerous mistake.

Personally, I’m not sure the suggestion that Michael Rockefeller or the few white people in the Asmat (a couple of Dutch missionaries) could have seen his death coming is entirely valid.  I do think Hoffman ended up with a better grasp of the culture than did Rockefeller because Hoffman was eventually able to shake off the romance attached to the idea of untouched society in the primordial-looking Asmat, to stop looking at bisj poles strictly as art objects, and to get to know individuals in the villages involved in the story.

Integration and Taboos

One of the most interesting questions raised in this book is what will happen if the Asmat men involved in what is pretty clearly a ritual murder admit to the deed. What they have done makes complete sense in the context of their own culture and is absolutely permissible within that culture. Revenge is a key idea among the Asmat, and it is a motive behind what happened in 1961. The revenge motive just isn’t obvious until you begin to understand the Asmat point of view in their 1961 circumstances, and those are the dots Hoffman goes to some considerable trouble to connect.

As they began to integrate into a larger culture, either Western society or Indonesian, the presiding government regarded that same slaying not only as illegal, but as a terrible taboo. Since the 1960s, the Asmat have adopted Catholicism and don’t wish to discuss parts of their own history in seeming conflict with that faith. They want soccer balls, tobacco and outboard motors for river travel. What would happen to the flow of those goods into their villages if they owned up to a murder? What would happen to the village leadership, and their right to govern themselves without much interference from the distant Indonesian government? Hoffman makes sure you understand that the older Asmat men he met know perfectly well what happened to Michael Rockefeller…just that they have the sense not to tell you.

Image: By Edi Wibowo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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