In 1961, Michael Rockefeller went missing on the island of New Guinea. The 23-year-old heir to the Rockefeller fortune was gone without a trace. While on a trip to document native New Guinea tribes and collect carvings for his father's art museum, the boat he was traveling in capsized. He tried to swim to shore for help, and that was the last time anyone saw him alive.
The theories surrounding Rockefeller's death and disappearance are numerous: some believe he was eaten by sharks on his way to shore; others are sure he made it back to land but was killed and eaten by the headhunting and cannibalistic Asmat tribe. Then there are those who believe that he was taken captive as a god, still alive when the search for him was called off. The Dutch government, who controlled the island of New Guinea at the time, listed his cause of death as drowning, though his body was never officially recovered.
The world may never know for sure what happened to Rockefeller, though not for lack of trying. Much like John Paul Getty III, fellow son of an oil tycoon, all the money in the world couldn't save him from a mysterious death. However, while theories abound regarding what happened to Michael Rockefeller, odds are he likely fell victim to an ongoing conflict between colonial Dutch authorities and local tribespeople.
A Boat Accident Led Him To A Fateful Decision
While sailing to several different coastal villages to gather Asmat art for his collection, the small catamaran Rockefeller was traveling in capsized. The two native teens who were on board immediately swam for shore to get help, but Rockefeller and his companion, a Dutch anthropologist, stayed with the boat.
They clung to the hull through the night, and in the morning, Michael could see that they were in danger of drifting even farther from the island. He stripped down to his underwear and tied jerry cans to himself as flotation devices, telling his companion he thought he'd be able to make it to shore.
The anthropologist was found and rescued later that day, and the search began for Rockefeller. Eventually, the Dutch government listed his official cause of death as drowning.
A Dutch Missionary Claims Several Tribe Members Confessed To Killing Rockefeller
A Dutch priest named Hubertus von Peij was living as a missionary in Asmat at the time of Rockefeller's disappearance. He claimed that one day, four men from the surrounding villages came to him with a confession. They said that while on a trading trip, a group of local men spotted Rockefeller swimming to shore. They argued about whether they should headhunt him or not, and in the end, all but one decided they should kill him.
"While they tried to lift [the white man] into a canoe, Pep speared him in the ribs. It wasn’t fatal. They rowed him to a hidden creek, the Jawor River, where they killed him and made a big fire."
The priest wanted to make sure that the man they had killed was indeed Rockefeller, so he asked them what he had been wearing.
"The white man was wearing shorts, but shorts they’d never seen before and that you couldn’t buy in Asmat—shorts that ended high up on his legs and had no pockets. Underpants." They went on to describe how his body had been distributed: "Pep had one thigh bone, Ajim the other. A man named Jane had one tibia, Wasan the other. On the list went: who had his upper arms, forearms, ribs, shorts, glasses, a total of 15 men."
Shocked, but convinced that the men had just clearly outlined Rockefeller's fate, von Peij notified the Dutch government of the horrifying discovery. However, they chose not to act on his evidence.
A Brutal Attack By The Dutch Colonists Set The Stage For Rockefeller's Disappearance
In 1957, four years before Rockefeller disappeared, there was a brutal mutual raid among the Asmat. Two villages, neighboring and long-time enemies Otsjanep and Omadesep, led attacks on one another in which over 100 people were killed. The Dutch colonial controller of New Guinea at the time, Max Lepré, decided that things had gone too far and he needed to teach the Asmat "a lesson."
Things went downhill fairly quickly. Lepré went to Omadesep and confiscated weapons, setting fire to canoes and sacred buildings in the process. Since Otsjanep wasn't as easy to push over, Lepré brought armed policemen with him; in a misunderstanding, the Dutch police shot and killed five Asmat men, four of whom were leaders of their communities. Many believe that Rockefeller was killed as revenge for this loss of life perpetrated by the white colonists.
The Dutch Government Chose Not To Believe Testimony
Two Dutch missionaries that had been living among the Asmat in the years leading up to and following Rockefeller's death came to the Dutch government with testimony as to how he died. They had both been told by villagers that a group of Asmat men had killed Rockefeller, and they knew the local language well enough to know exactly what the men were telling them.
The Dutch government, however, was not willing to take their stories at face value and sent an officer to follow up. After investigating, that office, Wim van de Waal, concurred with the missionaries, and he even acquired a skull he believed to be Rockefeller's.
Wim van de Waal's evidence was also put aside, however, due to political tensions during the years of the investigation and the Netherlands' unwillingness to lose their final colony in the East. The stories were buried, and Rockefeller's parents were not informed of the new developments.