Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman is fascinating, a mix of history and adventuring and biography, with a smidgen of mystery-solving thrown in.
In 1961 Michael Rockefeller – a scion of those Rockefeller’s – was travelling in Papua New Guinea – well, the part of that mysterious, otherworldly island then governed by the Dutch, followed by newly- independent Indonesia – when he disappeared, presumed drowned, last seen swimming from his small boat towards the distant shore. He was there searching for Primitive Art – objects created by ‘primitive’ people’s, newly accorded status as Art by the Western art world. As Hoffman says, this was good as it gave such objects value and meaning, in the Western world, outside of their original cultural meanings and purposes, so they were therefore preserved, bought and admired -but also removed, physically and culturally, from their origins. In the 21st century, you’d be naive to doubt that any interaction between the West and Others, those the West doesn’t know quite what to make of, has Romantic ideas about, and simply doesn’t understand, is a two-edged sword – and the side holding the hilt, thinking itself immune to cuts and danger, isn’t always the one you’d think
Hoffman makes a compelling case for the ignorance of the people collecting up this Art, basically removing/buying objects that were the mainstays of complex cultures and which had great ceremonial import, at a time when the industrial world was first encroaching – some of these tribes had only just been contacted by the outside world. It would appear that Michael Rockefeller might have got caught in the middle of several conflicting tales: the Dutch holding on tight to sovereignty in West Papua; the Asmat, a native tribe of warriors whose complex culture was built around sacred, reciprocal violence, head hunting and ritual cannibalism; the Indonesians, pushing for full independence; and Michael himself, a man enchanted by the ‘Lost World’ vibe of Papua, who loved and responded to the art and cultural objects he saw there, and who also wanted to impress Dad, the original collector and promoter of Primitive Art.
Pretty soon after Rockefeller disappeared, rumours swirled that he had been killed and ceremonially eaten. Hoffman sets off to Papua himself, following the oral culture whispers and veiled stories from village to long house to clan… A really interesting tale, many layered, which gives you a lot to think about.
Are Hoffman’s conclusions about Rockefeller’s fate correct? They certainly could be, even probably are, but I found the clash of civilisations and peoples surrounding Rockefeller’s death, and still ongoing, the real point of this book.