Sometime mid-October this year, John Allen Chau, a 27-year-old American whose Instagram account is filled with photos shot in exotic locations, landed in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
He had one thing on his mind — an expedition to North Sentinel, an island inhabited by the Sentinelese, a 60,000-year-old indigenous tribe that is among the last ‘uncontacted people’ in the world.
What Chau wanted to do was deadly dangerous. The Sentinelese have a history of violently rejecting any and all contact from the ‘modern’ world. Often with bows and arrows.
In 2006, two Indian fishermen inadvertently landed on the shores of North Sentinel, an island that is part of the Anadamans archipelago. The Sentinelse, who are protected under Indian law, killed them.
John Allen Chau, a Christian missionary who was also a traveller and a football coach, knew a similar fate could befall him if he dared to venture to North Sentinel Island.
In a note he wrote to his family, Chau indicated that he was aware he could be killed. Chau asked his family not to be angry at the Sentinelese or at God if was killed on the island.
He was killed. And his body is buried there.
ARRIVAL IN ANDAMANS
Twenty-seven-year-old John Allen Chau landed in Port Blair on October 16 this year. He had been to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands before.
In a blogpost from November 3, 2015, Chau, “Going back to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India is on the top [of my must-do adventure list] — there’s so much to see and do there!”
Police haven’t revealed what Chau did in the days after he landed in Andaman and Nicobar Islands. But, it is likely that the American worked towards organising an expedition to meet the Sentinelese.
By mid-November he had a plan in place. Chau assembled a team of seven locals who would help reach the out-of-bounds North Sentinel Island.
The team included a local friend, a man employed at a water sports facility, and five fishermen.
THE MIDNIGHT TRIP
John Allen Chau and the seven men he had assembled set sail for the North Sentinel Island at 8 pm on November 14.
The group had disguised themselves as fishermen and were likely hoping to use the cover of darkness to evade Indian Navy and Coast Guard boats that patrol the area in order to prevent people from visiting the North Sentinel Island.
Chau and his team of fishermen, whom he had paid Rs 25,000, neared the island around midnight. The next morning, John jumped onto a kayak that had been pulled along by the group’s boat and headed towards the island’s shores.
The fishermen — all locals probably aware of how dangerous the Sentinelese could be — chose to stay back. According the police, they instead fixed times and a point between the island’s shore and the high seas where they would make contact with Chau again.
Over the next couple of days, Chau seems to have made multiple trips to the island. The police have recovered a journal he maintained during these days.
This journal, according to US daily Washington Post, contains scribbles suggesting that Chau was hell-bent on making contact with the Sentinelese and preaching the message of Christianity to them.
I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people [the Sentinelese]
For his mission, he was reportedly carrying along several items: Scissors, safety pins, football and the Holy Bible.
The Bible was pierced by an arrow shot by a Sentinelese teen, the Post reported. Chau met a similar fate sometime later.
THE LAST NOTE
Among the last notes Chau made in his 13-page journal was a message to his family. The message, which is dated November 16, reads like a goodbye.
“You guys might think I’m crazy… but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people [the Sentinelese],” Chau began his letter (read the full text here).
“Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed…rather please live your lives in obedience to whatever He has call you to [do] and I’ll see you again when you pass through the veil,” Chau said.
Chau then went on to once again explain how it important it was for him to preach Christianity to the Sentinelese.
“This is not a pointless thing…the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language…,” Chau said, ending with a reference to chapter 7, verses nine and ten of the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
These verses talk about “all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne… crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne…'”
Sometime after writing the note, which is dated November 16 and which suggests that Chau was “southwest-ish” of the North Sentinel Island, the American handed over his notebook to the fishermen who had brought him near the island.
And, he set sail to meet the Sentinelese, never to return.
Police say the fishermen returned on the morning of November 17. They were greeted by the sight of the Sentinelese burying Chau on the shore.
They immediately turned back, headed back to Port Blair and met Chau’s friend. The fishermen handed the friend Chau’s journal and narrated what they had seen on the North Sentinel Island.
This friend in turn contacted another of Chau’s friend in the United States, who then got in touch with the American’s mother.
She then wrote to the US embassy in New Delhi, which forward her message to the Chennai-based US consulate.
The consulate dashed off an email to the Andaman and Nicobar Police, asking about Chau’s well being. The police soon determined that Chau had been killed on the island.
Local media reported this and on November 21, Chau’s death at the hands of the Sentinelese made banner headlines, first across India and then across the globe.
Chau’s body is still on the North Sentinel Island. The hostility of the Sentinelese to outside contact makes it uncertain whether it will ever be recovered.
The Andaman and Nicobar Police, with the Indian Coast Guard, has carried out aerial surveys of the North Sentinel Island.
The Andaman and Nicobar Islands’ top cop has said that a police team is also being sent to the waters near North Sentinel Island.
This is not a pointless thing…the eternal lives of this tribe is at hand I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language
The police have also roped in anthropologists and other experts in order to assess whether John Allen Chau’s body can be retrieved from the island.
Meanwhile, Chau’s family, in an emotional message, said that they forgive the Sentinelese and that their son had “nothing but love” for the tribe.
WHAT ABOUT THE SENTINELESE?
Sixty thousand years ago, a group of homo sapiens left Africa and made North Sentinel Island their home. Unlike the other Andamanese tribes that have shown an inclination to interact with the outside world, the Sentinelese have furiously — sometimes violently — rejected contact.
They officially number just 15. However, their population could be higher since the 2011 Census of India, which counted 12 Sentineli men and three women, was done from a distance.
The Indian government, concerned about their welfare, made attempts in the past to win over their friendship through gifting missions.
The missions were unsuccessful and the government ultimately abandoned efforts to make contact with the Sentinelese.
India now follows a “hands-off, eyes-on” policy towards the Sentinelese; i.e. no efforts will be made to interfere in with the Sentinelese’s affairs. But, the government does occasionally send out boats to check whether the Setinelese are alright.
These boats area anchored more than an arrow’s throw away, and for good reason.
In 2004, following the devastating tsunami that killed more than two lakh people, the Indian Coast Guard sent a helicopter over the North Sentinel Island in order to see if the tribe there was okay.
The Sentinelese greeted the helicopter with arrows, as this famous photo captured.
The arrow of course did not hit the helicopter, but the photograph and the incident underlined the Sentinelese’s fierce opposition to the ‘modern’ people coming near them.
John Allen Chau knew about this opposition. He still wanted to meet the Sentinelese, hoping things would be different in his case.