Headhunt Revisited: Chasing a Melanesian Dream

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

With Michele Westmorland

Headhunt Revisited Film

Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few other people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am celebrating ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG). The seventh person to be honored is artist Caroline Mytinger. This post also features SWG member Michele Westmorland, who provided many of the photographs.

Gibson Girl Goes to Melanesia

In 1926, artist and socialite Caroline Mytinger left the United States on a four-year trip to Oceania. Her goal was to preserve, through her paintings, one of the most culturally diverse areas of the world—the people and culture of Melanesia. Like many anthropologists, Caroline worried that indigenous races would soon vanish due to colonization by imperialist countries. Before they assimilated into European culture, she wanted to introduce Americans to the rich diversity of the Melanesian people.

Born in Sacramento, California, Caroline was a striking strawberry blond. In a letter of introduction, she described herself:

“I appear to have large feet and orange tresses, which hang around most of the time and make me look like a beastly flamboyant poodle.”

With her hair pinned up, she was attractive enough to model as a Gibson Girl, the iconic image of the tall, slender, and stylish new American woman. In 1920, Caroline married Dr. George Stober, but soon realized that she “was an anarchist who would never live in the conventional grove of matrimony.” She left Stober to carry out her dream of painting a vanishing race of indigenous people.

From Headhunt Revisited Film

At age 29, Caroline traveled to Melanesia with her friend Margaret Warner. She chose this region of the Pacific because it was compact. She could easily travel by boat to the various islands to paint people from different regions of Melanesia. She had consider painting indigenous Americans, but discarded the idea because their tribes are scattered across a vast nation.

They lacked their friends’ support:

They said no female outfit such as ours could go alone to paint headhunters and come back with their own heads. No man had done it.” Caroline replied: “No man had yet tried.”

Carolina and Margaret set out with $400—enough money to ship their bodies back to the United States if they should die during the trip. Caroline planned to raise money while they were traveling by painting the portraits of the Europeans who colonized the nation: “As long as there were still Europeans in the South Pacific, with heads to draw, and purses to pay for the likeness, there must be portrait commissions.”

In the Land of the Headhunters

Caroline was a plucky young woman. She wondered: “Just how much wheedling and chiseling, gold digging or apple polishing does it take to hoist oneself around the world on her own petard? The answer is this: The means of getting something for nothing is the same abroad as it is at home: sincerely expect to pay for it.” She hitched her way up the Fly River to the interior of Papua New Guinea on the boat Vanapa. She was delighted that the captain agreed to take them to visit the headhunters, who lived in the inland’s interior jungles: “It was the fastest wheedling on record. For a minute later, Margaret and I had staggered out onto the boat’s dark veranda, and were leaning on one another like an A, dazed to find ourselves going into a country that not even many white men have visited.”

While on the river cruise, they encountered leeches, bats, crocodiles, and a six-foot-high tidal bore that dissipated before it reached the Vanapa, which was stuck on a sandbar. The rising water lifted the boat, and they puttered on to the village of Weriadai, where they hoped to find a headhunter to paint. As they approached the village, they heard a commotion. Caroline wryly recalled:

“We, being tourists, assumed this was a Fly River welcome, but there seems to have been some question about it.”

She stayed on board and watched. The villagers sent over a canoe with men who met the government official on his whaleboat: “When the two boats met, there was one of those Atlantic Charter conferences, very brief; and we saw tobacco changing hands.”

Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska, Jan. 3 1943), 45

Caroline and Margaret hailed a canoe by wav