In November 2018, news of a murder spread quickly around the globe. With somewhere in the region of 1,000 homicides occurring every day, this loss of life wasn’t exactly unique, but the circumstances surrounding the death of John Allen Chau certainly were
It wasn’t so much how Chau died, but rather where and at the hands of whom, that sparked the feverish media interest. The murder of the U.S missionary on the tiny North Sentinel Island, located in the Bay of Bengal, roughly 36 km (22 mi) west of South Andaman Island, by a group of native people who have remained almost entirely isolated from the modern world, triggered not only an intense renewed fascination regarding the North Sentinelese but rekindled the fierce debate surrounding missionary practices.
Shortly after Chau’s murder, video footage shot from a helicopter years before showing members of the tribe hurling spears and firing arrows towards what they no doubt believed to be a strange mechanical beast began swirling around the world. For many, it seemed astonishing that in the second decade of the 21st Century, there were still people on planet Earth who live completely isolated from the modern world and whose way of life had not changed for hundreds, and probably even thousands of years.
Our knowledge about the North Sentinelese is almost non-existent and I’m not exaggerating when I say that we probably know more about the surface of the moon than we do about this tribe. But what we are pretty certain about, through the deaths of Chau in 2018, and two fishermen who strayed too close in 2006, the North Sentinelese are not exactly welcoming to outsiders.
North Sentinel Island
As I said, North Sentinel Island lies in the Bay of Bengal, around 130 km (81 miles) southwest of Myanmar – but is part of India. It’s not as isolated as you’d think with the Andaman Islands, with a population of around 43,000, just 36 km (22 mi) to the west. This creates the quite intriguing situation of having a group of people who are, for all intents and purposes still pretty much in the stone age, only around 50 km (31 miles) from the relatively modern city of Port Blair, with its roads, cars, electricity, internet, and running water.
The island itself has a landmass of around 59.67 km2 (23.04 sq mi) and is square-ish in shape with a white sandy beach wrapping around most of the island and thick vegetation inland.
But quite remarkably, the Sentinelese are not the only tribe in the region who live in either complete or near isolation. The Jarawas is a tribe that lives in parts of the South Andaman and Middle Andaman Islands and only began to come into regular contact with the outside world in the late 1990s. Contact has been sporadic and certainly not always healthy or pleasant. Measles outbreaks have ravaged the Jarawas on several occasions, while the construction of a small resort, unabashedly named Barefoot, has created creepy instances where members of the tribe have been thrown food from moving vehicles or encouraged to dance for tourists.
But are the North Sentinelese quite as unique as you might think? Well, yes and no. It’s difficult to sometimes differentiate between ‘undiscovered tribes’ who have had next to no contact with the modern world and those who have come into contact with contemporary life and for whatever reason have chosen to shun our modern convenience for their more traditional ways of life.
The non-profit group Survival International estimates anywhere between 100 and 200 tribes around the world living in voluntary isolation – numbering perhaps 10,000 individuals. Now, of course, that’s a rough guess and it’s near impossible to get clear figures but whatever the true figure is, it’s most likely falling.
The vast majority of these tribes currently live in South America, with between 77 and 84 thought to be living in Brazil alone. Outside of South America, Papua New Guinea is home to roughly 40 tribes who live in some degree of isolation, though information here is sketchy, to say the least.
Without proper genealogical investigation – and good luck trying to land on the island to take some samples – much of what we know about the Sentinelese, anthropologically speaking, is logical guesswork.
We assume that they have some kind of connection with other tribes that are, or were, on the Andaman Islands, where evidence of human existence goes back some 2,000 years. However, genome studies have suggested that the islands may have been populated as far as 30,000 years ago, but where the Sentinelese split with other tribes, it’s impossible to know.
To give you a rough idea at least, in the 19th Century, when the British visited North Sentinel Island, they took with them members of the Onge tribe who live on the Andaman Islands in the hope that the two groups would be able to communicate. But alas, the Onge couldn’t understand anything of the Sentinelese language, and presumably vice versa, which might suggest the split occurred far back in history.
So while anybody who has set foot on North Sentinal Island over the last few decades has met a rather sticky end, that has not always been the case. Since the late 18th Century, all the way up to the 1990s there was sporadic contact between the Sentinelese and outsiders. Sometimes this ended in bloodshed, but there were numerous instances of genuine peaceful interaction between the groups.
The first known mention of the Sentinelese came in 1771 when an East India Company hydrographic survey vessel passed close to the island and reported seeing lights flickering in the darkness. Things got significantly more dramatic later the same year when the Nineveh, an Indian merchant ship, ran aground on the island. 106 of the passenger and crew managed to wade ashore and for the first couple of days at least it appeared as if they had washed up on a deserted island.
However, things soon went south when the survivors were attacked on the third day by the island’s natives who rained arrows towards the group, who in turn defended themselves with sticks and stones. Accounts a little hazy here, but it seems as if neither side was willing – or could – budge and a begrudging truce descended long enough for a Royal Navy ship to arrive and whisk the survivors away to safety.
While it would be reasonable to suggest that the first interaction didn’t go well because of surprise and perhaps even misunderstanding, the next time a group landed on North Sentinel it no doubt left a lasting impression.
When Maurice Vidal Portman and his team landed on North Sentinel in January 1880, they did so intending to study the Sentinelese. For six days the group explored the island but found only pathways and what looked like hastily assembled huts. Assuming that those living on the island had fled deep into the interior, they pressed on and eventually found six Sentinelese – 2 elderly and 4 children – who probably hadn’t managed to keep up.
What came next can only really be described as darkly colonial in all its stupidity and savagery. The British dragged the six Sentinelese back to their boats and set sail for Port Blair. The kidnappees almost immediately fell ill and the two elderly members soon died. Faced with the possibility of all six dying on his hands, Portman decided to return to North Sentinel and dump the children on the beach, along with a pile of gifts, perhaps as a wildly offensive apology.
Portman returned to the island several times over a decade, each time leaving more gifts, but the Sentinelese refused any kind of contact – and who can blame them.
The first outside death attributed to the Sentinelese, that we are certain of at least, came in 1896 when an escaped convict being held on the Andaman Island managed to sail across the strait on a makeshift raft. No doubt he must have felt rather pleased with himself as he stepped onto the North Sentinel sand, a free man once again, but he couldn’t have chosen a worse place to escape to. When the authorities came ashore a few days later in pursuit, they soon found the convict’s body, complete with several arrow piercings and a cut throat for good measure.
It appears as if something similar happened just a few years later when bodies of more fugitives were discovered on the beach by British authorities just as mysterious figures slipped silently into the undergrowth and out of sight. The Sentinelese were well on their way to developing a reputation as a people you were best off giving a wide berth.
They were described by Richard Carnac Temple, who served as chief commissioner of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands from 1895 to 1904, as,
“a tribe which slays every stranger, however inoffensive, on sight, whether a forgotten member of itself, of another Andamanese tribe or a complete foreigner”
In 1911, a group from the neighbouring Andaman Islands, tasked with carrying out a census of the region landed on North Sentinel and reported seeing five Sentinelese in canoes and eight on the beach, all of whom scampered quickly into the forest and remained elusive after the British landed.
Change of Nation
It’s worth remembering that the words Britain or ‘subjects of the British Empire’ meant absolutely nothing to the Sentinelese, probably just as much as India and ‘citizens of India’ after the country gained independence from the British in 1947.
While all British territories deemed part of India were handed over, there was absolutely nothing official to say that North Sentinel was part of India. In 1956, the Indian government declared North Sentinel Island a tribal reserve, and travel within 3 nautical miles (5.6 kilometres – 3.4 miles) was prohibited.
In 1967, Indian anthropologist T. N. Pandit led a group of 20 men well armed me onto the island with intention of befriending the Sentinelese – and yes we’re well aware of the hypocrisy of that sentence. Several of the native population were seen on the beach as the boat neared the shore, but all had disappeared once the outsiders had waded onto land.
The group pressed further into the island, and despite failing to find a single Sentinelese, they did come across 18 lean-to huts made from grass and leaves with several fires still smouldering in the corner. They also found raw honey, skeletal remains of pigs, wild fruits, an adze – an ancient cutting tool similar to an axe – a multi-pronged wooden spear, bows, arrows, cane baskets, fishing nets, bamboo pots, and wooden buckets.
In terms of assessing the anthropological origins of the Sentinelese, the expedition had been an utter failure, but it soon spurred on other endeavours. In 1970, the Indian government had a stone tablet placed on the island that stated clearly that North Sentinel was part of India – not that the Sentinelese would have understood the strange scrawled text.
In 1974, a National Geographic documentary crew arrived on North Sentinel accompanied by armed guards to shoot a film that was titled Man in Search of Man that documented the tribes of the area, including the Sentinelese and Jarawa. This short film can still be found on Youtube and shows the quiet extraordinary moment where the Sentinelese are seen on the beach for the first time.
But it must be said the figures on the beach appear far from welcoming, with some firing arrows towards the small boat. Not deterred, the crew landed at what they deemed to be a safe distance and left a collection of gifts, including a miniature plastic car, some coconuts, a live pig, a doll, and some aluminium cookware. The Sentinelese responded with yet more volleys of arrows, one of which hit the film’s director in his thigh. As the crew beat a hasty retreat, the Sentinelese rushed towards the gifts, immediately killing the pig and quickly burying it along with the doll.
Things did however improve over the next two decades, with Pandit returning numerous times, often with other anthropologists or visiting dignitaries. Encounters could range from the broadly friendly, where the Sentinelese even left gifts for the visitors, to the violent which sometimes ended in death. To give you a good idea of how mixed receptions could be, boats approaching the island might be either greeted by friendly waves or what Pandit rather eloquently described as a “defecating posture” which he assumed to be unwelcoming.
Things reached their peak in the early 1990s when two expeditions came face to face with Sentinelese, close enough to hand over bags of coconuts. These moments, in which direct physical contact actually occurred, would prove to be the dizzying peak. For whatever reason, later expeditions were again greeted with extreme hostility, and eventually, the Indian government stopped trying.
Big Waves and Murder
Visits to the island began to fall out of fashion, but it was the events of 26th December 2004 that brought the authorities back. When a powerful earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia, it set off a change of events that would eventually kill at least 225,000 thousand across the Pacific as tsunamis struck with tragic effect.
Two aerial expeditions were dispatched to assess the damage on North Sentinel and determine how many, if any, had survived. The effects to the island had been dramatic with the seawater around it rising by an estimated 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in), exposing the nearby reefs and enlarging the island by linking it with a much smaller island next to it.
While it was impossible to assess the death toll on the island, a total of 32 Sentinelese were counted across three separate locations, leading many to assume that the island had escaped the worst of the tragedy.
But the Sentinelese were catapulted into Indian news in 2006 when two illegal fishermen drifted onto the beach after their motor had failed. According to other fishermen in the vicinity, once the boat hit the shore, it was set upon by a group of Sentinelese who dispatched the two fishermen with axes. In a quite grizzly statement, it was said that the two bodies were then placed on stakes facing out to sea – one can only assume as a message to any would-be intruders.
Born in Alabama in 1991, John Chau held two major interests throughout his life – adventure and his Christain Faith. After graduating from Oral Roberts, an evangelical university in Oklahoma, he became part of the Kansas City-based evangelical organization All Nations and eventually attended a missionary “boot camp” that involved mock villages and intense training in how to both approach and convert tribes similar to the Sentinelese.
He visited North Andaman in 2016 and 2017 but didn’t attempt to visit North Sentinel. In October 2018 he returned once again, seemingly intent on making contact with the Sentinelese.
In his diary, which was recovered after his death, he wrote,
“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”, “The eternal lives of this tribe is at hand”, and, “I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed…Don’t retrieve my body.”
He made his first approach to North Sentinel in a small canoe on 15th November after paying local fishermen to take him close to the island but faced a mixture of hostility and bemusement from the Sentinelese. After failing to communicate with them, he attempted to hand over gifts but a young Sentinelese reportedly fired an arrow that pierced the bible that Chau was clutching to his chest. He was forced to swim almost a mile back to the waiting fishing boat, but the following day, he informed the fishermen he would be returning and that they shouldn’t wait for him.
The last moments of Chau’s life are unclear. On 16th November the fishermen recalled him wading ashore once again and later briefly saw something being dragged along the beach. The next day, a corpse was clearly visible lying on the sand.
Several attempts to retrieve his body were made in the coming days, all of which failed. Seven fishermen were arrested in connection with Chau’s illegal entry into North Sentinel, but it appears the case never even got started against any potential criminal investigation on the island, with the U.S government confirming that they had not requested any chargers over the murder of John Chau.
It was a horrifying end for a 26-year man who no doubt believed he was doing some good, but perhaps entirely underestimated what he was walking into. It immediately raised questions about missionary ethics, the likes of which haven’t needed to be asked for some time, for the simple reason it doesn’t happen in anywhere near the frequency it once did.
When the media explosion eventually died down and moved on to its next ‘cause celebre’ focus on the North Sentinelese vanished almost overnight. From being the most talked about undiscovered tribe on the planet, they have once again slipped into the shadows, arguably where they want to be. With India’s firm stance on ‘eyes-only’ contact, the chances of further friendly progress with the Sentinelese look slim. This undiscovered tribe with a habit of dispatching those who venture foolishly onto their island, will almost certainly remain that way for some time to come.