Chau “trespassed into a sovereign nation, endangered the island’s inhabitants, was justifiably perceived as threat, and then was killed in self-defense.”
H knew it was a risky trip but his unflinching faith in Jesus Christ was a driving force behind his courage not to look back. His desire was to preach the word of God to the Sentinelese, an aggressive, isolated endangered tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands located in the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean.
27-year-old John Allan Chau in a message to his family had said: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this, but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people.” In the message which was the last the American missionary sent to his mother in Washington, he said: “God, I don’t want to die.”He also wondered “why does this beautiful place have to have so much death here.”In his dairy which his mother shared with The Washington Post, Chau explained how he tried to befriend the hostile inhabitants with a holler: “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.”
The obstinacy of the Sentinels was captured in the dairy where it was documented that a child shot at Chau with an arrow that pierced his waterproof Bible. And as it dawned on the young missionary that he may not be out of danger, he wrote: “I hope this isn’t one of my last notes but if it is ‘to God be the Glory.’”And that was the last his family heard from him before the heart-breaking news of his death.
The Sentinelese shot him to death with arrows and dragged his body along the beach before they buried it in a location yet to be identified by the Indian authorities. Even then, there is no hope that the body will ever be recovered.
That is because the government had to abandon the idea to recover the body after wide consultations with relevant groups who warned of the danger such a mission could pose to Indian officials and the inhabitants of the island.
There is palpable fear that the tribe will react fiercely as they do not allow strangers in their domain. The journey of Chau to his death started after he paid Indian fishermen $325 to take him close to the island. The fishermen dropped him off the island and left for a safe distance, from where they washed the scenario. Though the seven fishermen were arrested for taking Chau to a prohibited area, the death of the graduate of Oral Roberts University, Oklahoma, United States between November 16 and 17, 2-018 has put the Sentinelese on a new spotlight after Christians reacted angrily to the news.
Who are the Sentinelese?
Historians and anthropologists are not categorical in their claim on the origin of the Sentinelese. But they believe they are descendants of Africans who may have migrated to the island some 60,000 years ago. What is not in doubt is that any attempt to make contact with them is always disastrous. They shoot arrows upon sighting a stranger without stopping to ask questions, a development that made the Indian government to “declare it a criminal offence to go within 3 miles of the island or attempt to make any contact with the inhabitants.”Indeed, the Indian government declared it a sovereign state under its protection. It is believed that the island is the only place on earth that has remained “untouched from the impact of modern civilisation.”
Their language and religion remains strange. According to Wikipedia, nothing is known about their language and “the Sentinelese language remains an unclassified.”For this reason, there are “no bilingual translators.” They communicate with outsiders through gestures.
The population is about 500 “with estimates between 50 and 200.”Their life style has a resemblance of the Old Stone Age. Reports by anthropologists who had observed them either with the aid of binoculars or in boats stationed from an arrow distance, said they don’t know how to make fire. Rather, “they wait for lightning strikes, then keep the resulting embers burning as long as they can.”They are hunters and fishermen. But they never leave their island nor allow strangers entry. Their boats are described as “outrigger canoes too narrow to fit two feet in.”They are used only in shallow waters and are “steered and propelled with a pole like a punt.”
The Sentinelese live in communal huts with hearths or temporary shelters, with no sides. While the women wear fibre strings tied around their waists, necks and heads, the men wear necklaces and headbands, with a thicker waist belt. Photos secretly taken from an arrow distance show that both men and women dress half nude. At all time, they are seen carrying spears, bows and arrows, ready to fight off visitors irrespective of the socio-political and economic status of who is involved.
Some historians and anthropologists who have been observing the tribe over time have said the lifestyle of the tribe has “changed and adapted many times.” They point to their use of metals “which has been washed up or which they have recovered from shipwrecks on the island reefs. The iron is sharpened and used to tip their arrows.”Interestingly, the Sentinelese “look proud, strong and healthy.” Observers have also reported seeing many children and pregnant women.
How Chau’s family, Christians reacted
Chau’s family gave a cautious reaction though full of emotion. The family reportedly said in a statement shared on Chau’s Instagram account that he had “nothing but love for the Sentinelese people,” adding that they “forgive those reportedly responsible for his death.” They also asked for the release of those who helped him travel to the island, noting that their son “ventured out on his own free will.”
A former director of Oral Roberts University Department of Missions and Outreach, Bobby Parks in his reaction to Chau’s death said: I have never known a more courageous, selfless, compassionate man and friend. John lived and gave his life to share the love of Jesus with everyone.”
The International Christian Concern, a non-profit organisation called for the investigation of Chau’s death with a view to bringing those responsible to justice. Precisely, they “want the tribe to be charged with murder.”
In a statement, the group said: “We here at International Christian Concern are extremely concerned by the reports of an American missionary being murdered in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Our thoughts and prayers go out to both John’s family and friends. A full investigation must be launched in this murder and those responsible must be brought to justice.”
Survival International, anthropologists, police defend the Sentinelese
It is obvious that punitive action will never be taken against the Sentinelese. Chau’s case will go the way others did. This is not the first time the tribe will be killing people considered as ‘intruders.’ The Director General of Police of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Dependra Pathak reportedly said: “We refuse to call him a tourist. Yes, he came on a tourist visa but he came with a specific purpose to preach on a prohibited island.” He told CNN that Chau did not inform the police of his intention to travel to the island to attempt to convert its inhabitants.
As far as the island’s authorities are concern, Chau was a trespasser who entered an island protected under Indian law. Chau “unlawfully trespassed into a sovereign nation, endangered the island’s inhabitants, was justifiably perceived as threat, and then was killed in self-defense. Which they were well within their rights to do,” he said.
While wondering “since when are any of those villagers bound by American law,” and “since when in the history of ever can they be tried by our court system,” he asked rhetorically, “And why the hell isn’t Chau being held accountable for his own reckless and self-serving behaviour?”
The Indian authorities believe that “Chau’s death had absolutely nothing to do with ant type of ‘religious persecution and everything to do with the consequences of sticking his bible where it didn’t belong.”Reports however said local police did open a murder investigation but it was merely formality, “considering the severity of the circumstances.”
On its part, Survival International, a group that protects indigenous tribes in the Andaman Islands, blamed Chau and the Indian government. A statement issued by Survival International’s Director Stephen Corry said: “This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen. The Indian authorities should have been enforcing the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for the safety of both the tribe and outsiders.
“Instead, a few months ago the authorities lifted one of the restrictions that had been protecting the Sentinelese tribe’s island from foreign tourists, which sent exactly the wrong message, and may have contributed to this terrible event.
“It’s not impossible that the Sentinelese have just been infected by deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity, with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe. The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected. The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribes people, and only a fraction of the original population now survive. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable.
On the recovery of the body of Chau, several experts supported the call to abandon the mission. They made their position known in a joint statement, reportedly signed by Islands in Flux – the Andaman and Nicobar Story author Pankaj.
“The media has reported nervous stand-offs between the teams seeking to land on North Sentinel to get the body and members of the Sentinelese community who clearly find these incursions unwelcome. Continuing with the efforts could well lead to further violence and completely unwarranted loss of life,” the statement said.
“The rights and the desires of the Sentinelese need to be respected and nothing is to be achieved by escalating the conflict and tension, and worse, to creating a situation where more harm is caused,” it added.