“Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed,” he wrote in the letter he left with the fishermen who took him to North Sentinel. “I love you all.” John Chau. (Gettleman, Kumar & Schultz, 2018)
Those were the last words of the 27-year old man who took it upon himself to share the Gospel with the hostile people of North Sentinel, which is an island in the Bay of Bengal off the coast of India. He brought a waterproof Bible with him, along with the great desire “to declare Jesus to these people.” (Gettleman et al., 2018).
In the thirteenth century, Marco Polo described the Sentinelese as follows: “They are a most violent and cruel generation who seem to eat everybody they catch” (McKie, 2006). While their cannibalism has not been proven, their hostility towards foreigners has been proven (McKie, 2006).
The Indian government prohibits people from going to the isolated island – and its history of murdering outsiders scares most off. The government navy patrols around the island to prohibit people from visiting and provides no services to it.
“The Milky Way was above and God Himself was shielding us from the Coast Guard and Navy Patrols…Two armed Sentinelese came rushing out yelling. They had two arrows each, unstrung, until they got closer. I hollered ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.’” (Gettleman et al., 2018).
A couple of days passed as John Allen Chau paddled his kayak between the island and the fishing boat that carried him there. He struggled and was scared.
“It’s weird. Actually, no, it’s natural. I’m scared…Also frustrated and uncertain.” “What makes them become this defensive and hostile?” “I don’t want to die!” (Gettleman et al., 2018)
“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” (McKirdy, 2018)
On November 16, Chau instructed the fishermen who took him to the island that they could leave him there. He had paid them 25,000 rupees ($354) to take him there (BBC, 2018). When they returned the next morning, they saw the Sentinelese dragging his dead body on the beach with a rope. His body is still on the island as policemen from India are afraid to retrieve it. (Gettleman, et al., 2018). The seven who facilitated his trip have been arrested (McKirdy, 2018).
What do we know about the Sentinelese?
We know very little about the last of the “Stone Age” people. They have shown no evidence for agriculture and instead are hunters and gatherers. They hunt turtles and pigs and wear loincloths and speak their own language. Estimates indicate they have lived on Sentinel for 60,000 years (Sengar, 2018). The Indian government took a census in 1991, estimating that 117 people were living there, and a second census in 2011, where they counted 15 people in total (Shamsian, 2018). Other current estimates indicate that between fifty and one hundred people live there (Gettleman et al., 2018).
The first documented contact with the Sentinelese came over a thousand years ago by Chinese and Arabian travelers who tried to land on the island, yet were met with arrows (McKie, 2006). Christian missionaries were also met with great hostility in the 1800s (McKie, 2006).
Due to their isolation, scientists are highly interested in studying them to learn more about their biological and geographical roots. Yet some are concerned that coming in contact with them will be destructive, as their population hasn’t developed a resistance to modern diseases. Related Andamanese tribes who were civilized and educated in the mid-1800s succumbed to epidemics of pneumonia, measles and the flu (McKie, 2006).
“In 1967, the Indian government initiated contact with Sentinelese in association with anthropologist T. N. Pandit. They tried extending a hand of friendship by leaving gifts for the tribe and beckoning them. However, the tribesmen would turn their backs on the government delegates and sit on their haunches in a defecating posture. This gesture was obviously meant to insult.
Again, in March 1970, when Pandit’s team made another attempt to befriend the Sentinelese, the tribesmen hurled cryptic words at them. When the group signaled and spoke to make them believe they wish to buddy up, the tribe threw another shocker at the unassuming party. A woman from the tribe joined a warrior man and sat on the shore in a cozy embrace; other women of the tribe followed suit.
After the 2004 Tsunami which wreaked havoc in South India and parts of the Indian Ocean, the government had sent helicopters from the Indian Coast Guard to render aid to the Sentinelese and drop food packets. At this sight, a member of the Sentinelese tribe reacted by shooting arrows at it.
In 2006, they showed their strong aversion to foreign contact by killing two Indian fishermen who accidentally went too close to the island in their boat while hunting for mud crabs.” (Sengar, 2018).
How are people reacting to John Allen Chau’s death?
On social media, I’ve encountered a flurry of tweets after posting tweets about this case that either indicate hostility towards Chau or mercy for his efforts. I wrote “The Sentinelese who have been occupying an island off of India for 1000s of years are so hostile to the outside that they murder anyone who comes near them with arrows. The Indian government once tried to stop this. Now they allow this evil 50 – 150 tribe to get away with murder.”
Glenn Edwards wrote “These tribesmen show that they are not willing to deal with the outside world. However, they too are in God’s perfect plan. Should we hold them accountable for their actions? If so, how would we go about that?”
Larry Waddell wrote “He had poor judgment, but it poor judgment a reason for killing? Or are we now living in a world where we kill because we dislike another’s mistakes?”
Another person responded “I think it’s a tragically unnecessary death. It’s a prime example of religion causing harm. This man believed he had supernatural protection. He didn’t. His delusion cost him his life. So sad!!!”
A fourth wrote, “Cut it out. This has nothing to do with someone trying to spread Jesus. It has to do with someone trying to spread a disease that could have killed most, if not all of the population. The dude was warned multiple times and got what was coming to his colonizing a**.”
A fifth commented, “Savages? Innocent people? He was the aggressor here. He meant to harm them. He was in the wrong. He violated their code. He was warned. They were just protecting themselves.”
A sixth said, “SJ, how was this murdering the innocent? He tried to contact people that have asked to never be contacted. They imposed their form of justice. It may seem barbaric to you, but it’s their island…their rules! Leave them alone.”
A seventh wrote “Seriously, why do these people keep insisting that it was merely ‘poor judgment?’ No, it wasn’t. He knew that he was breaking the law and continued anyway. He was a criminal. Sentinelese justice was dispensed. Sure, I’m sad for him and his family; it was a senseless loss.”
An eighth stated, “If only you could be locked up and tried for crimes against logic, reason, and fundamentally misunderstanding how laws work in different places…You still fail to grasp that there are laws against anyone trying to visit the Sentinelese, who have occupied that land for so long. It is not murder! It is their island and they make their own laws. Chau was the criminal. Why is it so hard for you to grasp that?”
Finally, one wrote “If people stopped trying to invade their home, they’d stop killing people.”
I compared the death of John Allen Chau to the torture and death of 22-year old Otto Warmbier, who traveled to North Korea and tried to steal a propaganda poster. He was sentenced to hard labor and was imprisoned for seventeen months before being released and going into a coma, eventually dying (Borger, 2017).
I wrote, “Why did the same people who protest this (Warmbier) justify the murder of John Allen Chau?
One responder said, “Korea killed who? Oh right, this was an entirely separate group of people. Who have nothing to do with the politics of NK. It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples and orangutans.”
This response was duplicated by several others who appear to apply their own relative sense of morality to this particular case.
“Even though by our standards it’s unjust. There are a bunch of countries I would never visit because of stuff like this. You put yourself in the lion’s den then slap it, it’s your doing.”
Do humans have any international rights?
The short answer is yes. We are protected by the United Nations.
“The international human rights movement was strengthened when the United Nations General Assembly adopted of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) on 10 December 1948. Drafted as ‘a common standard of achievement for all peoples and nations’, the Declaration for the first time in human history spell out basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights that all human beings should enjoy. It has over time been widely accepted as the fundamental norms of human rights that everyone should respect and protect. The UDHR, together with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its two Optional Protocols, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, form the so – called International Bill of Human Rights.” (United Nations, 2018).
The articles of the International Bill of Human Rights are (1) innate freedom and equality; (2) ban on discrimination; (3) right to life; (4) ban on slavery; (5) ban on torture; (6) right to recognition as a person before the law; and (7) equality before the law.
We can apply the third article, the right to life, to the Sentinelese people, who clearly violated it. In my opinion, the Indian government (or an international council) should identify, arrest, and prosecute those responsible for the murder of John Allen Chau. Doing anything less will encourage similar murders in future years. The fact this brutal tribe was able to get away with murder in 2006 and (possibly now) in 2018 only amplifies the potential for future murders.
According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “Where domestic legal proceedings fail to address human rights abuses, mechanisms and procedures for individual complaints or communications are available at the regional and international levels to help ensure that international human rights standards are indeed respected, implemented, and enforced at the local level.”
That said, John Allen Chau’s death was not in vain. He has enlightened the world on his devotion to Jesus Christ and love for humanity. May his memory live on in all Christian missionary work.
Thank you for your time.
Anonymous. (2018). Andamans: U.S. man’s death puts spotlight on ‘Tribal Tourism.” BBC. November 23. Accessed November 24, 2018 at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-46313965
Borger, J. (2017). Otto Warmbier dies days after being returned from North Korea. The Guardian. June 20, 2017. Accessed November 24, 2018 at
Gettleman, J., Kumar, H., and Schultz, K. (2018). A man’s last letter before being killed on a forbidden island. New York Times. November 23. Accessed November 24, 2018 at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/world/asia/andaman-missionary-john-chau.html
McKie, R. (2006). Survival comes first for Sentinel islanders – the world’s last ‘stone age’ tribe. The Guardian. February 12. Accessed November 24, 2018 at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/feb/12/theobserver.worldnews12
McKirdy, E. (2018). ‘You guys might think I’m crazy.’ Diary of U.S. ‘missionary’ reveals last days on remote island. CNN. November 23. Accessed November 24 at https://www.cnn.com/2018/11/22/asia/north-sentinel-island-john-allen-chau-diary-intl/index.html
Sengar, R. (2018). Know how 60,000 year old human tribe of secluded North Sentinel Island Behaves with Outsiders. Times of India. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/travel/destinations/know-how-60000-year-old-human-tribe-of-secluded-north-sentinel-island-behaves-with-outsiders/as62566496.cms
United Nations. (2018). International human rights law. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. Accessed November 24, 2018 at https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/Pages/InternationalLaw.aspx