Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Michael Rockefeller

Bad News at Home

The Harvard group returned to the United States at the beginning of September. At home, Rockefeller received bad news: His parents planned to divorce.

Michael Rockefeller responded by throwing himself into his fledgling New Guinea art project. At night, he compiled research and edited his journal notes into a formal account of his contact with the Asmats.

During the day, he worked on arrangements for the return trip and his art-collection expedition. There were scores of details to attend to — from bulk purchases and shipment of barter materials to arrangement of a charter flight to carry the Asmat art back to New York.

Rene Wassink
Rene Wassink

He planned to visit as many villages as possible, traveling by boat up and down rivers, the only accessible byways in the tangled coastal mangrove swamps. He would store his objects at a base camp in the coastal town of Agats.

He needed government approval for his trip, but that came quickly when his father pressed connections in both the United States government in Washington and the Dutch government in The Hague.

After barely two weeks at home, he returned to New Guinea in late September.

His first stop was in Hollandia, on the northern coast. He had asked the Dutch government to recommend a guide, and colonial officials assigned Rene Wassink, 34, who worked with the Dutch Bureau of Native Affairs. This was an odd choice because Wassink was an anthropologist, not an experienced bushman.

The two traveled to Merauke, on the southern coast, where they arranged to purchase a boat from Rob Eibrink Jansen, a Dutch official there.

It was an odd vessel, a makeshift catamaran adapted from a design used by the local constable for water patrols.

The boat consisted of two 30-foot dugout canoes connected by a bamboo deck that was topped by a hut with a tin roof, to afford protection from rain and sun. To power the craft they bought two 18-horsepower outboard motors, then stowed numerous cans of fuel.

Jansen later told the Dutch press that he warned Rockefeller and Wassink that the vessel was top heavy. It was unsuitable for use in open seas, Janssen told them. He said it was perfectly stable for running up and down rivers — as long as it wasn't overloaded.

He said he also explicitly warned them that they should avoid the mouth of Eilanden River during tidal surges.

They didn't listen.

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