Tobias returns to the Asmat

Having failed, miserably, at snorkeling, I never-the-less found myself sitting, one afternoon in a rubber boat over the magnificent reef called Lucipara which is in the Straits of Molucca, Indonesia.

Many avid divers had been awaiting the moment for days. It would be far less rewarding for me, but I did don a mask and hop overboard so I could take a brief look at the coral..

The reef was totally submerged and with no land in sight, it was a strange sensation to stand in the middle of the sea. I took a deep breath and swam to the edge of the reef. Far below, I spotted a shark and decided I much preferred sitting in the boat with Tobias.

(Sadly, as it turned out, Lucipara had been devastated by a recent cyclone, so the divers were not as well rewarded as they had expected. All part of “adventure cruising”..)

Tobias Schneebaum was an artist/anthropologist lecturer accompanying us on this trip. His lectures were a highlight of the trip. Tobias had lived, in 1973, among the Asmat people we were going to visit. He had totally immersed himself in their culture, down to removing all his clothing.

Tobias’ was a gifted story teller and although I don’t remember the details, his lectures included much discussion of the sexual mores of Asmat society, which seemed to be of great fascination to most of the passengers!

For me, it was exciting to be with Tobias when he was re-united with the people he had come to love.

The ship “Society Explorer” had sailed from Port Moresby, across the Arafura Sea. Before proceeding to the Asmat, we had to call in at Merauke.

The brief journey had given me time enough to acquire whatever the current ship’s “flu” may have been.

Tim had put my queasiness down to sea-sickness but having struggled ashore and snapped pictures of our welcoming committee, I sat prone in the bus, rather hoping I might expire.

Then Tim discovered I was burning with fever.

Fortunately Merauke was not the highlight of the cruise. Although the costumes were very interesting. This would have been ceremonial, not daily dress:

The ladies headdress was part of a bird of paradise. I would rather have seen it alive.

The Asmat is a large swamp area on the southern coast of West Papua. The first Dutch outpost was built at Agats in 1938 and then abandoned during WWII. Then in 1953 Catholic missionaries began to arrive with the intention of “civilizing” the Asmat people by conversion to Christianity and by forcing them to wear clothes.

Oh, and by outlawing traditional practices, such as head-hunting and cannibalism.

Photographer Michael C Rockefeller (son of Nelson) had disappeared in the area of Agats in 1961. He had been crossing the expansive mouth of the Pulau River in a dugout canoe, in the company of a Dutch anthropologist and 2 Asmat “boat boys”. It somehow became swamped, 3 miles from shore. The Asmat boys immediately swam away, saying help would come, but after 24 hours the two men were still clinging to the overturned boat. Michael Rockefeller decided he could swim to shore and left. The Dutchman was rescued the following day, but Rockefeller was never seen again.

The timing of Rockefeller’s adventure was most unfortunate. A year or two previously, 5 important headmen in the area had been slain by a Dutch official. According to Asmat belief, their souls could not rest until they had been avenged. It is fairly certain that Michael Rockefeller was killed by people from of Otsjanep, which was the village we were to visit, where Tobias had in fact lived.

In his final lecture, before arriving outside Agats, Tobias had asked us not to barter tee-shirts with the villagers because ringworm was endemic. The people, having no previous experience with clothing, did not understand the need for washing it.

As we left the ship, in our rubber boats, as there was no dock at Agats, we were told that villagers would come out in their dugouts to meet us. We should take our picnic lunch there, being sure to share whatever we had.

One lady accepted an orange, but not knowing what it was, put it immediately to her mouth peel and all.

Tobias was beaming.

Whether the village men wore shorts for our benefit, I’m not sure.

When lunch was done, it was time to proceed to Otsjanep.

Even the ship’s launch came:

And at the village we got a few welcoming stares:

Sadly the photographs don’t scan well.

There were not a few great faces:

And one that was downright scary:

As one might have guessed, the white powder denoted a recent loss in the family.

One of our on-board scientists met up with this gentleman later on with interesting and rather disturbing results:

The Asmat may not have been any longer actually hunting heads, but an ancestor’s skull was certainly of importance. Maybe it was significant that this man was in mourning and also carrying the skull of an ancestor. Regrettably, I never thought to ask.

There was really no way to communicate, or so I thought. I think I felt guilty enough, just taking the photograph.

It did not occur to me the skull was going to be joining us for the balance of the cruise.

One day, the scientist, Craig, happened to tell Tim that he was having trouble sleeping.

“Oh,” said Tim, “what seems to be the problem?”

“I think it’s the skull” said Craig.

“Oh rubbish,” said Tim “give it to me and I’ll sleep with it.”

Meanwhile, I was thinking OMG, he took the ancestor’s head! What will happen to that man, without his ancestor looking over him? I didn’t dare discuss it with Tobias.

Next day I asked Tim how he slept: “The thing is, I started to imagine I could smell it.”

“Well of course you could, fool, it’s wrapped in a dirty tee-shirt!”

There was an obvious solution. I told Tim to hide the skull back in Craig’s cabin and see if he still couldn’t sleep, not knowing it was there.

I never got an answer to that, but Craig tried a sneaky on us. He was going to be leaving the ship in Singapore to do some local travelling and asked if we would take a piece of baggage back for him, which, believe it or not, you could in those days.

It was a large taped up cooler. I told Tim he’d better ask Craig if the skull was inside. Well, yes.

However, importing human remains was not prohibited, just animal remains, so no problem with customs. We got a flight home with a Captain I knew, so I found out that after we had safely disembarked at JFK, the aeroplane developed a “technical” problem. and BA had to cancel the return flight. Hmmm.


Some of the passengers had bartered tee-shirts.

One of the photographs I didn’t take was of a man wearing a pair of ladies underpants, on his head.

Visiting a culture like the Asmat was, to me, an enormous privilege but I came away feeling that tourists ought never to be allowed near those people.

For one thing, who knew what foreign diseases we might introduce, although hopefully this had been considered and not problematic.

More disturbing to me was the idea of the disruption to an isolated society by introducing to them all the evils of “civilized” society.

Who are we to call ourselves civilized? Because we have roads and cars and we tear down forests to build big dirty cities and create so much waste we can no longer dispose of it? Because we fly in aeroplanes that pollute the air? Oh yes, and cruise the world in ships? And on and on….

After visiting the Asmat I had many of these troubling thoughts. What made it worse was the certain knowledge that the days of the Asmat people are surely numbered. In 1969, Indonesia took control of Irian Jaya, now West Papua, and began “transmigrating” people from their more overcrowded islands.

When I read about this, many years ago, I wept, at the thought of innocent Indonesians migrating to an alien environment where they would be most unwelcome by a totally alien people. Then followed, of course, the deforestation, the devastation of the environment and the many creatures to whom it was home.

At the root of all this, minerals, money and over-population. No one wants to intercede on the part of the Papuan people, because it just isn’t convenient. Indonesia is mostly Muslim. Extreme Muslims are reportedly declaring Jihad on the “Christian” Papuans.

Genocide. One more time.

Why could we not just have left those people in peace?

7 thoughts on “Agats

  1. what an amazing tale! there are so many lovely details – the eating of the orange, the pants on the head, the shark ‘far’ below, the cannibalism, and the skull!

    – what do you think the man meant by giving away the skull? one would imagine it to be of great value. perhaps it somehow ‘propelled on into ‘another world”?

    fascinating post, carolyn!

  2. I don’t know about the man with/without the skull. It was decorated, so obviously it was not a recent death. Why didn’t I quiz Craig about it? Why not Tobias? I wonder where the skull is now. I only hope it was treated with respect. But I often thought about that man and worried about him.
    Glad you liked the story. Indonesia and New Guinea were both wonderful.

  3. I really enjoyed this story – fascinating how these people lived (and for them this was how life was suppose to be …)
    Thanks for sharing this – and those photo’s … priceless!

  4. Thank you for your insight regarding these island people. I also hope for the best for them, but agree that the “civilized” population will not allow them to live their lives in peace. Your photos are wonderful and I appreciate getting your first hand information (rather than the kind that comes over the TV networks). -Gladys

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