By Prarthana Mitra
The protected Sentinelese tribe of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands came under international scrutiny when an American tourist arrived at the island last week to spread Christianity among the indigenous inhabitants and met with a fatal end.
Here’s what happened
The 26-year-old Christian missionary John Allen Chau reportedly visited the remote Indian island twice in November, bearing gifts for the Sentinelese who are known to attack anyone encroaching on their primitivist way of life with bows and arrows.
When he returned to Sentinel on November 16, after having already been hit by an arrow the first time, the tribespeople allegedly killed and buried Chau following a possible disagreement over conversion, although the specifics of his death are unknown.
How Indian authorities reacted
On November 17, a group of fishermen who had helped him reach the island, watched and reported from their boat at a distance, as tribesmen dragged Chau’s body along the beach.
Seven of these fishermen have been arrested for knowingly pushing Chau to his mortal peril. According to reports, they last saw the American man facing a flurry of arrows after he landed on the island after which the tribes dragged the American to the beach. Later they saw Chau’s body half-buried in the sand.
Dependera Pathak, director-general of police of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, informed Associated Press that visits to the island are prohibited by the government, and officials were currently working with anthropologists to recover the body to ascertain the precise cause of death. The authorities in the Union Territory have also launched helicopter search teams to look for the body.
“It was a case of misdirected adventure,” Pathak said.
About the tribe
One of the last remaining uncontacted group in Asia, the Sentinelese are fiercely protective of their lifestyle and values, known for having thwarted even the Britishers’ attempt to colonise their tiny speck of land off the coast of India. According to an inconclusive government survey, there are about 15 indigenous people inhabiting the island today, as opposed to a thriving population a century ago. These protected and isolated tribes often become the target of speculation and threat from outsiders who often bribe locals to access them, according to activists.
Boats aren’t allowed within 5 nautical miles of the island after previous instances of hostility towards outsiders, including the deaths of two local fishermen who found themselves swept ashore in 2006. So, the self-styled adventurer’s agenda to proselytize the endangered people of Sentinel couldn’t have gone down any differently.
“The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survives. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable,” Stephen Corry, director of tribal rights group Survival International, said in a statement. He also called for better protection of the last remaining and steadily declining population of North Sentinel Island.
How Chau’s friends and family reacted
Chau’s family, realising the jeopardy his actions have put the indigenous people in, issued a statement saying, “He ventured out on his own free will and his local contacts need not be persecuted for his own actions,” the family said.
“He was a beloved son, brother, uncle, and best friend to us,” the Chau family wrote in its Instagram post. “To others he was a Christian missionary, a wilderness EMT, an international soccer coach, and a mountaineer. He loved God, life, helping those in need, and he had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”
Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Covenant Journey that Chau was a part of, said that his last notes to his family on November 16 asked them not to be angry if he was killed. Chau, who trekked all over the world including Israel and South Africa on mission trips, was drawn to the Indian Ocean island he had heard so much about.
Indian authorities have refused to call him a tourist, on account of his specific purpose for visiting the remote island. Chau’s close friends described him as a man who was passionate about travelling and religion, some even beatifying him as a martyr for the Christian faith.
According to a CNN report, Chau was first drawn to the outdoors after discovering Robinson Crusoe, a literary text heavily critcised today for its cultural appropriation and stereotyping of the indigenous peoples, and for upholding the white man as the saviour of “savages”.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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