The Story Of The Wealthy Heir Who May Have Been Eaten By Cannibals Is Almost Too Weird To Be True

Boredom Therapy Staff

When you’re the son of a governor, the great-grandson of the world’s richest man, and the heir to a massive fortune, you don’t really need to lift too many fingers to get by in life. Nonetheless, plenty of wealthy heirs attempt to carve out their own legacy—but it doesn’t always end well.

Set to someday inherit a piece of the Rockefeller fortune, Michael Rockefeller could have taken a role on the Standard Oil board of directors and raked in cash, but he wanted more. Instead, he took on a non-oil-related role, pursuing a different passion all the way to the ends of the Earth… and lost everything, including his life.

Realistically speaking, Michael Rockefeller had the good life laid out before him: inherit part of the family fortune, manage family assets on the board of Standard Oil, work hard, and grow old. But he had greater ambitions—and they would up costing him his life.

Carl Hoffman via The Daily Mail

Despite being the fifth son of Nelson Rockefeller, the then-governor of New York, as well as the great-grandson of the robber baron John D. Rockefeller, Michael was more of a camera-and-paint guy than a pen-and-tie guy. In other words, he pursued art instead of business or politics.

NY Daily News

Just before Michael graduated from Harvard in 1960, his father—an avid art collector—launched the Museum of Primitive Art. It featured works from non-Western artists, like the Aztecs and Mayans, and this enthralled Michael…

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Determined to help his son follow his passions, Nelson placed Michael on the museum’s board of directors. The young Rockefeller seized the opportunity, but this still wasn’t enough for him.

According to a Harvard classmate, Michael “wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before and to bring a major collection to New York.” He knew just where to look for it, too: then-Dutch New Guinea, a portion of the Papua region of Indonesia.


The 23-year-old contacted the Dutch National Museum of Ethnology and, taking their advice, organized a team to visit, study, and collect art from the region’s Asmat tribe. As he soon discovered in detail, this journey would be a far cry from the wealthy life of Manhattan.

Guilbert Gate/ Smithsonian Magazine

After arriving in the village of Otsjanep, Michael was met with hesitation. While the Asmat had interactions with outsiders in the past—interactions Michael may have wished he studied—those meetings were rare.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Still, while visiting, he did his best to fit in and assimilate, and for the most part, he managed to do so. He obtained wooden masks, shields, spears, and other artifacts from the locals, and all seemed well. The differences in backgrounds, though, couldn’t be ignored.

Michael observed that in Asmat culture, it was the norm to engage in rituals that involved drinking urine and eating the remains of your wartime enemies. Engaged with the people and their culture, he didn’t notice the sidelong glances some of the Asmat cast towards him…

Michael left the island, but he wasn’t finished with his work there. The visit to Otsjanep had been as culturally enriching as he’d hoped, so he made a plan to return the following year—and that’s when it all went haywire.

It was November 1961 when Michael and his team returned to Otsjanep. Or, at least, they tried to. They were just 12 miles from the shore when their ship capsized. Michael, treading water, saw the shore on the horizon and decided to swim for it.

That was the last anyone ever saw Michael Rockefeller. At least, no one from America. In the wake of his son’s sudden disappearance, Nelson sent airplanes and ships looking for him and even flew to New Guinea to help search for him.

LBJ Library

Eventually, however, the Dutch Interior Minister called off the search. “There is no longer any hope of finding Michael Rockefeller alive,” he announced. The official cause of death? Drowning. Still, some weren’t so sure about that…

The media ran wild with the story of the governor’s son, a Rockefeller heir, going missing. Talking heads posed theories on his disappearance that ranged from shark attacks to him living secretly, wealth-free, on the island as a member of the tribe. The truth remained hidden for decades…

But, years later, National Geographic reporter Carl Hoffman wanted the truth. Although he was just a year old when Michael disappeared, he had long been fascinated with the infamous mystery. So, Carl traveled to Otsjanep himself and began to uncover the truth.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Claiming to be studying Asmat culture, Carl overheard—through his interpreter—islanders discussing an American tourist who’d been killed decades earlier on the island. Carl asked who this tourist was.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Interestingly enough, the islanders were eager to spill the beans. With little prodding, they told Carl all about the day an American washed ashore—the day they killed Michael Rockefeller.

In fairness, the Asmat claimed the killing was justified. To understand why, they offered some context. Three years before Michael first visited them, Dutch officials had invaded Otsjanep in order to quell a tribal civil war that had erupted on the island. It didn’t go well.

Due to a misunderstanding, these Dutch colonialists ended up firing on the Asmat tribe, killing four of their leaders in the process. Years later, when Michael washed ashore exhausted, guess who he first encountered?

When Michael reached the shore of Otsjanep, he’d come face to face with the sons of the war leaders murdered by the Dutch soldiers. Whether it was fear or anger that drove these Asmats to kill Michael, they wouldn’t let the chance for revenge pass.

The aftermath, as Carl Hoffman described in a book he wrote on the subject, was brutal: the Asmat scalped him, ate his brain raw, cooked his flesh, and used his bones for tools. They drenched themselves in his blood. As they saw it, they had restored balance to the world.

Still, the Asmat had seen guns, thanks to the Dutch colonialists. They’d seen helicopters, thanks to the Americans. Had word of their killing gotten out, the tribe feared they would have been wiped out. So they resolved to keep Michael’s killing silent.

Carl Hoffman / Smithsonian Magazine

Whether the story happened like this is difficult to know. Most of the islanders told Carl they’d heard this one passed down for years, but it remains unconfirmed. Some have suggested that this was a fictional tale created decades ago to make the Asmat seem tougher in the face of impeding outsiders.

Still, one tribe leader claimed to have Michael’s skull amid his collection. And when asked what Michael had been wearing the day he died? The leader described the outfit perfectly…

Musee du Quai Branly / Scala / Art Resource, NY

So what became of Michael’s artistic visions? Most of the artifacts he collected on his initial visit to Otsjanep ended up in the (aptly named) Michael C. Rockefeller Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. They’re still there to this day.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

It’s a shame Michael Rockefeller met an untimely demise pursuing what he loved. Luckily, thanks to the museum exhibit, he can share his interests and passions with the rest of the world!

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America Is Losing Yet Another Drug War—in Afghanistan

Opium is the fundamental factor driving the Taliban’s success, but try telling that to Donald Trump.

Interesting Surveys on Afghanistan Opium from UNODC

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is a United Nations office that was established in 1997 as the Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention by combining the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) and the Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division in the United Nations Office at Vienna. It is a member of the United Nations Development Group and was renamed the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in 2002.

UNODC was established to assist the UN in better addressing a coordinated, comprehensive response to the interrelated issues of illicit trafficking in and abuse of drugs, crime prevention and criminal justice, international terrorism, and political corruption. These goals are pursued through three primary functions: research, guidance and support to governments in the adoption and implementation of various crime-, drug-, terrorism-, and corruption-related conventions, treaties and protocols, as well as technical/financial assistance to said governments to face their respective situations and challenges in these fields.

These are the main themes that UNODC deals with: Alternative Development, Corruption, Criminal Justice, Prison Reform and Crime Prevention, Drug Prevention, -Treatment and Care, HIV and AIDS, Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling, Money Laundering, Organized Crime, Piracy, Terrorism Prevention.

Afghanistan’s Opium Child Brides

As the heroin trade suffers in Afghanistan, poppy farmers are marrying off their daughters, sometimes to unsavory and far-away men, to pay their debts.

Afghan children at school/Reuters

She was a 12-year-old girl, with fiery green eyes and defiance on her face. Her father had promised her hand to a stranger from Helmand province who didn’t speak her language, was more than 30 years her senior, and already had eight children. Her father had borrowed the man’s money for his poppy venture. And now it was up to her to repay that debt.

Darya, as she was called in a new book by Fariba Nawa, Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan, represents a growing trend in Afghanistan, a trend in which families marry off their daughters to settle debts originating from the opium trade. “Opium brides,” they called them.

Nawa, an Afghan-American journalist, spoke on January 10 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on the impact Afghan’s opium economy has on girls like Darya. Nawa met the girl when she traveled to Afghanistan in the early 2000s. She witnessed a town deluged with opium addicts and countless widows whose husbands and sons had died while smuggling drugs across borders. But nothing shook her like Darya. It was the child bride who opened up to her, talked to her as if she was a savior, while others around her hid behind their fear. Darya’s narrative, as well as stories of those like her, make perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of the opium trade.

“What’s the saddest part? What’s the most interesting part of this story to you?” she had asked her guide before she met the girl. “It’s the opium brides,” her guide had answered. And when Nawa asked him to introduce her to one, he responded, “Oh, which one? There are so many of them.”

Child marriage exists throughout the world. Even if the number has decreased globally over the past 30 years, 64 million women ages 20 to 24 still marry or enter a union before they turn 18, according to a UNICEF estimate. In Afghanistan, that would be about 378,000 women. Although Kabul has passed a law to curb the practice, raising marriageable ages to 18 for males and 16 for females, more than 60 percent of marriages in Afghanistan involve girls below the legal age.

Marrying girls at a young age is nothing new to Afghanistan. For centuries, marriages have been used to settle debts and improve a family’s financial condition. Many poor households see their daughters as an economic burden and would rather send them off quickly to their husbands. They have also treated women and girls as a means to settle monetary disputes, making them “loan brides” in exchange for debt relief. “But those marriages are within family,” Nawa said. Cousins would marry. Two brothers would betroth their son and daughter to each other. But not many would promise their daughters to strangers from a completely different town, men with wives and families, who smuggle drugs and don’t speak their language. “It has been done in the past,” Nawa said. “But the level and how many are being done is unprecedented inside Afghanistan right now.”

Nawa attributed that spike to the opium trade, Afghanistan’s biggest industry. Despite the 65 percent increase in eradication in 2011, the country still managed to roll out a growth of seven percent in net poppy cultivation. As a result, opium production in Afghanistan has exceeded global demand for the past several years. A sharp production decline in 2010 barely hurt the world’s supply; there was no major shortage of heroin — a derivative of opium poppy — reported from the consumer markets. The country is now the center of global heroin manufacture, with roughly 300 to 500 operating laboratories producing about 380 to 400 tons of heroin per year.

The Taliban regime relied on opium production for revenues. It legalized the farming, trafficking and processing of the illicit crop. Its agricultural program consisted of flying experienced poppy farmers all over Afghanistan to teach people the techniques of opium cultivation.

It didn’t take much to convince Afghans to embrace poppy. Decades of war have destroyed their traditional orchards. Cyclical drought and poverty hinder Afghan farmers from growing high-profit fruit and saffron, which require an investment in irrigation systems. In the end, it was the poppy that met all the prerequisites: higher yield with less land, little irrigation, and greater profits. With the price high and rising — 2011 gross income from opium per hectare has skyrocketed 118 percent from the year before — it would take a lot more than free alternative crop seeds and fertilizer distribution to wean Afghan farmers off opium production.

Poppy seeds and fertilizer also cost money, but start-up farmers are willing to approach traffickers, asking to borrow money with a promise to repay with kilos of opium at harvest time. They know opium is much more promising than wheat. As eradication efforts ramp up, however, farmers who don’t have enough to bribe officials end up watching their lucrative crop ripped up and flattened. Gone with it is their hope for a better future — and, sometimes, their daughters.

“This is a business deal, essentially,” Nawa said. “This has become a more common practice because of the opium trade, because this society has disintegrated and family is being interrupted.”

Poppy farmers who give their daughters in marriage to lenders receive quittance — and sometimes a cash dowry that can be used to start a new life. Even so, such opportunity offers little consolation to those who have chosen that path; loan brides are considered a shame to the culture. “The fathers who sell their daughters to settle their opium debts are ashamed of what they’re doing,” Nawa said. “It is not something that is accepted or normal.”

There are no statistics on how many girls have been traded as a result of the opium trade. Data collection isn’t the norm in Afghanistan–not even for birth records. And when these marriages are performed without being registered with the state or religious authorities, statistics are likely to be clouded by severe inconsistencies; the real number of girls entering marriage before 18 could be much higher.

Despite the shame and heartache the opium trade has brought Afghan families, poppy cultivation is proven increasingly resilient. For a country that’s ranked almost at the bottom of the Human Development Index, growing opium poppy can be a real opportunity. Stories of those who have improved their lives through the illicit crop continue to be a source of inspiration. There are farmers who grow rich and reinvest the opium money to rebuild their communities. There are women who enjoy the ability to work; cultivating and processing opium are done within a compound, thus available to women under the Taliban regime. This gives women a chance to become an integral part of the society.

Still, many farmers want to stop growing poppy, but they won’t until they can establish other sources of income.

And it’s possible. Nawa has seen it: a woman who was able to quit opium cultivation once she had provided alternative sources of income for her family.

Poppy had given her the money to buy her son a car that he turned into a taxi. She also bought her daughter a carpet frame that turned into another source of revenue. “I think women who do grow poppy are very willing to stop growing poppy if they’re able to invest in other businesses,” Nawa said.

But such cases are rare. The source of strength in Afghanistan–the Afghan family–has been weakened by the drug trade, war and violence, according to Nawa. Families are broken. People are drowned in a never-ending cycle of poverty. Corruption has sucked away most aid money that could have pulled Afghanistan out of the heroin assembly line, she said.

The country, it seems, has become a network of spider webs that torture the innocent lives as much as the wrongdoers. And girls like Darya are a part of this web, though not intentionally. After many kind attempts to convince her to go with him — each met with Darya’s firm rejection — the Helmand smuggler finally took her away, marrying the girl before she even reached puberty.

“There are many sad stories,” Nawa said. Despite much tragedy she has witnessed while documenting how the drug trade has impacted women, she sees a glimmer of hope. “One thing that you will know, or you will see among the characters is the resilience and their ability to just pick up and keep living. And I think that’s where the hope is for women.”

This story was reported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, an Atlantic partner site.

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The Truth About Opium Brides

What Afghanistan’s Heroin Industry Is Costing Women

Afghan women working in a poppy field. (Courtesy Reuters)

In the dusty village of Ghurian on Afghanistan’s arid western border, Touraj* had made his life as a shepherd, but in the late 1990s, when a drought brought that livelihood to an end, he became a middleman in the country’s lucrative drug business. Touraj’s primary job was to hire couriers to carry drugs across the border into Iran. At first, the risk paid off — he was able to build a two-story house and buy gold jewelry for his wife. For himself, he purchased a motorcycle and a Rado watch. Feeling flush, he even took a girl from the city on as a second wife.

But more recently, after a few deals went bad, Touraj fell into $10,000 worth of debt to smugglers from Helmand Province, the frontline of the NATO counterinsurgency campaign. He was jailed. To buy back his freedom and save the rest of his family, he would sell two of his daughters.

He bartered Darya, 12, and her 14-year-old sister, Saboora, as brides to opium smugglers. The girls were wed without their consent in Helmand — Touraj and the smugglers performed the Islamic nikah ceremony, which pronounces a man and woman as husband and wife. As it turned out, Saboora escaped her newfound fate: Her husband never showed up to collect. He was presumably killed while on his way; Saboora remained with her family.

Darya’s husband, however, did turn up to claim his new bride. Haji Tor was 34 years her elder and had another wife and eight children. He spoke Pashto; she only spoke Dari. For two years, Darya refused to go with him. He was lenient enough to let her stay with her family, although he routinely visited to try to convince her to come with him to Helmand. In 2003, I was in the village researching my book Opium Nation, and after I met Darya, she pleaded for me to somehow free her.

Over the last ten years, such stories have become increasingly common in Afghanistan, as bartering girls into marriage to pay off opium debts has become more prevalent. Farmers, middlemen in the drug trade, drug couriers, and even some drug lords themselves sell their daughters to more powerful traffickers and smugglers. The women are worth thousands of dollars, a sizeable sum in a country where the average monthly income for a civil servant is $70. Some women who are sold into the drug trade have not reached puberty; many are sold to men three to four decades their senior. In fact, the younger the wife, the more she raises the status of the man — showing off his wealth and virility.

If a girl refuses to join the new husband, her entire family can become a target. Indeed, traffickers are infamous for their threats to collect their debts, whether it be kidnapping the girls, burning down family homes, or killing whole families in revenge.

The trade in opium brides has long existed in Afghanistan. But with the poppy trade now accounting for more than half of the country’s economy, thousands more girls each year are likely becoming victims. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but girls in villages bordering neighboring countries suffer the most. In one Kandahar village, I was told an entire block of homes included opium brides as second and third wives. Just about the only employment in these areas is in the narcotics industry — for income, some families have uprooted their courtyard rose beds to plant poppies. Nearly 500,000 farming families, about 20 percent of Afghans, survive on poppy farms.

I reported Darya’s case to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which informed me that it could do nothing to help one girl out of thousands. Under Afghan law, Sunni girls cannot be married until they are 16. There is more leeway for Shiites to marry younger. A year after I left, Darya’s family convinced her to go with her husband. Just a few months later, however, Darya’s mother asked me to travel south toward Helmand and find her daughter. Darya had threatened to burn herself to death — an increasingly common form of protest among Afghan girls trying to escape their misery. From January to September 2011, a doctor in Herat Hospital reported 50 cases of self-inflicted burns.

It helps to understand how the drug trade works in Afghanistan today. In early to mid-summer, families harvest their crop. By scoring the milky juice from poppy pods and storing them overnight, they turn the poppies into opium. Two-thirds of that opium is then refined into heroin. Before 2001, the refining process, which involves cooking various chemicals with the opium and water, used to take place largely in Pakistan, Turkey, and other Gulf kingdoms.

In 2000, the Taliban outlawed production to raise opium prices and try to gain international recognition, but they still encouraged processing and trafficking. The Pakistani government raided the labs on its border, and lab workers moved across the mountain passes to Afghanistan. Heroin reaps ten times more profits than opium. Due to the international community’s neglect of the drug trade after 2001, the accessibility of precursor chemicals, and the insurgency’s reliance on the drug trade to fight its war, secret laboratories within Afghanistan are increasingly able to turn opium into heroin. Lower-grade, small-quantity heroin can be produced in home kitchens, while the finest China White, as it’s known, is mass-produced inside elaborate labs nestled in mountain caves.

The Afghan heroin industry churns out 380 to 400 tons of heroin a year, an amount that exceeds global demand, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Counternarcotic agents are often tipped off to lab locations, but usually by the time they arrive, chemists and lab workers have already escaped. Double agents in the Afghan government abound: They tell the lab workers first, then the agents, who respond by blowing up the labs with no drugs or people inside.

The opium and heroin industry is worth $65 billion per year worldwide. Afghanistan gets about $4 billion of the take, most of which flows into the pockets of the trafficking mafias, drug kingpins, and corrupt government officials who provide protection. Farmers, who usually turn to planting poppy out of desperation, receive only 20 percent of the profits and are the most vulnerable to debt. Under an antiquated loan system called salaam, local smugglers lend farmers the poppy seeds for their first crop. If the farmers’ harvest is plentiful, they repay the loan and continue to plant. If the land does not yield the desired amount, or if opium prices dwindle, the farmer will have no way to repay the smuggler and falls deeper into debt. It is possible to get out of poppy farming only once the farmer has produced enough to sustain his livelihood and pay off the loan.

More than half of Afghanistan’s heroin is transported through Iran, because it is the quickest route to Europe. Middlemen and couriers crossing borders are likely to end up in debt as well, as hauls are captured by authorities or lost in firefights en route. Smugglers, who are constantly competing for turf, battle one another with advanced weapons and fast-moving vehicles. The arms-for-drugs racket is prevalent — instead of money, drug dealers may accept a machine gun on the black market for a kilo of heroin. Entering the narcotics industry is a high-risk business, and young girls — and sometimes boys — are its most innocent victims.

While in search of Darya, evidence abounded of a huge trade network of cash, drugs, and daughters between Afghanistan’s west and south. The international community has spent billions of dollars trying to find a solution to Afghanistan’s poppy problem. It has attempted to eradicate farms, find alternative livelihoods for farmers, and train elite counternarcotic forces. These efforts have yielded some success. Today, fewer provinces are cultivating poppy than in 2007, when a record 8,000 tons of opium were produced.

But a sustainable solution is elusive. Eradication of poorer farmers’ crops only propels the sale of more girls. Fathers end up in debt when their harvest is destroyed. Farmers endure daily harassment by drug dealers if they are still in debt. Even after they settle their debts by selling their girls, they will continue to plant poppy for lack of a more profitable crop. Most small landowners divide their land in three plots, planting poppy in one and wheat for subsistence in another, while leaving one plot fallow to rejuvenate the soil.

It will take decades to wean Afghanistan off opium for good. In the meantime, the international community should do much more to protect young girls from becoming casualties. In a documentary film on opium brides released by “Frontline” in January, a young girl who had been sold to traffickers sought protection in a women’s shelter. Today, there are about 14 women’s shelters in Afghanistan serving abused Afghan women and girls. The number seems small, but it is still progress. The location of these shelters is secret. They give girls an option to save themselves from drug traffickers, even though their families will remain in danger. Investment in such projects would go a long way.

In addition, provincial governors and local leaders need to be held responsible for enforcing Afghanistan’s laws on coerced and early marriage. More education and awareness about human rights among Afghans is vital. And any donor country invested in fighting the drug trade, including the United States and Britain, should partner with local organizations to help farmers repay debts and discourage the sale of girls.

Darya’s fate is still unknown. The sale of girls like her — the tens of thousands of them — is not just the crime of underage or forced marriage. It is human trafficking, slavery, and a gross injustice that will continue to bring shame on those who choose to ignore it.

Matthew DuPee, a security and drug research specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School, contributed to this article.

* Some of the names have been changed to protect the lives of the individuals.

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