From the Crusades, to Britain’s colonization of India, to the Spanish Inquisition, and finally to the genocide and statistical extermination of Native Americans, the Western practice of conquering and forcing others to conform to its ideals has a long and sullied history.
Missionary work in particular, which ultimately led to the recent death of a 26-year-old American on a hostile island, is a point of contention. It’s been speculated that evangelization had a hand in “civilized,” “advanced” nations settling land owned by those indigenous people and “savages” they considered inferior. Yet missionary work continues to be a staple for religious citizens in first world nations who consider it to be proof of their piousness and a service that helps others. People have repeatedly risked their lives in order to share their faith, and many have died. The question is whether or not missionary work (in some cases) is worth breaking the law and endangering the lives of those involved.
John Allen Chau, an American missionary who paid the ultimate price while attempting to convert violent tribespeople to Christianity, thought that it was. Chau knew the risks of sneaking illegally onto the remote island of North Sentinel. He had visited the island twice before, documenting how he sustained multiple wounds and his bible was struck by the arrow of a young boy. On November 16, Chau bribed locals to sneak him back to the island for a third time so that he could “declare Jesus” to the tribespeople. In spite of multiple warnings from his friends and family, as well as the knowledge that two illegal fishermen had been killed there in 2006, Chau pushed on. His written notes reveal that Chau was cognizant of the fact that he might be killed. Indian authorities pronounced him dead after local fishermen revealed that Chau’s body was supposedly “dragged” across the beach by Sentinelese tribesmen and buried the day after his final visit.
Even though he seemed aware of the peril he was getting himself into, Chau was oblivious to the importance of the island he was hastily trying to change and communicate with. A place stuck in time, just predated by the Stone Ages.
North Sentinel is part of an archipelago of more than 300 islands which form the Andaman Islands. This island, home to the most secluded tribe on Earth and virtually untouched by modern civilization, lies between the coasts of Myanmar and India. The Sentinelese tribe that came over to the island 60,000 years ago could today contain as few as 15 members, although better estimates suggest numbers anywhere between 80 and 500 people. These members also speak their own language which is so dissimilar to Hindi and the languages of surrounding islands that it has been impossible to decipher. Eating not much else besides fish and small birds, as well as hunting with bows and arrows made of the scrap metal left from wrecked ships, the Sentinelese are considered an extremely valuable and fragile culture. As an indigenous group they are heavily protected.
Following the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956, it was deemed illegal to come within five nautical miles of North Sentinel without explicit permission from the Indian government. The Indian Coast Guard has been formally guarding the island since 1970, when it was declared part of the Republic of India, and in 2017 a law was passed that banned pictures of the Sentinelese people from being posted on the internet and social media sites.
These rules and regulations are in place not only to protect the Setinelese tribe as a unique entity vulnerable to outside influences and modern diseases, but also to protect tourists and passerby from the hostile tendencies of the Sentinelese.
All attempts at peaceful contact with the Sentinelese have failed except one. After 20 years of anthropologists dropping gifts of coconuts and iron on the shores of North Sentinel, Triloknath Pandit and his team were were finally able meet the Sentinelese safely in 1991. While they weren’t allowed to travel past the beaches, they were greeted without weaponry in the water. Pandit, who studied the Sentinelese for over 30 years, said that their hostility was solely in the interest of self-preservation. This protectiveness is undeniably justified due the endangered state of their tribe and others around them.
In the 1850s when the British began setting up penal colonies in the Andaman Islands, there were over 5,000 aboriginals that comprised the Sentinelese, Andamanese, Onge and Jarawa tribes. But as these groups (except for the Sentinelese who were left alone by a stroke of luck) displayed dissent towards their foreign intruders, the British government began massacring them. As a result, only hundreds remain today. Later, around 1880, naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman became the first colonist to set foot on the island of North Sentinel, capturing six Sentinelese, two of whom died. He later returned the four remaining, sickened children home with gifts that were meant to convince the Sentinelese people of Britain’s “friendliness”.
In addition to colonization, there is also intrusive tourism to worry about. Many tourists traveling from Andaman’s capital Port Blair take a route through the dense forest in order to look at the Jarawa tribe as if they were an exhibit in a human zoo, and in the past there have been significant issues with the sexual exploitation and terminal infection of Jarawa people.
So while the Sentinelese were first described as a “most violent and cruel generation” of cannibals by Marco Polo, there is no evidence of cannibalism, and it seems as though the violence is the only thing that has kept their people and their independence alive, if only barely.
Aside from minimal contact with the Sentinelese through these instances, as well as a few failed rescue missions, expeditions, and a National Geographic trip where journalists were attacked, the island has been doing fine on its own. The Sentinelese people were even resilient enough to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami which was part of the deadliest, most devastating natural disaster in recorded history.
Currently, operations to retrieve Chau’s body have been “put on hold“, at the insistence of Survival International, a human rights group, as well as Indian anthropologists and researchers who fear the consequences of using an invasive recovery tactic. In 2006, officials were unable to get the fishermen’s bodies, because when they got close they were bombarded with a slew of arrows. Pandit, who knows more about the Sentinelese than virtually anyone, said it seems Chau “did a foolish thing“. He believes patience, luck and caution are needed if there is any hope of having Chau’s body willfully returned.
Perhaps the most troubling part of this whole ordeal is the fact that in August, India stopped requiring visitors to have Restricted Area Permits when visiting 29 of Andaman’s most cloistered islands, including North Sentinel, in an attempt to boost tourism to the area. Government officials claim they would still enforce strict travel guidelines and would need to grant all foreigners explicit permission for a day trip, there is no doubt that it allows dangerous tourist encroachment on the extraordinarily rare ecosystems and homes of endangered tribes.
It’s so very crucial that we fight to preserve tribes like these as they are the only people left that haven’t been tainted by modern society. Americans and tourists especially need to respect their culture and the way they are living outside of the laws of civilization. However you justify what you’re doing, wanting to introduce them to religion, or resources, it’s still a colonizer mindset because you mistakenly believe your way is better than theirs, or it’s what is best for a people you know nothing about.
Unless you are a scientist or an anthropologist like Pandit who is solely interested in learning about and understanding other cultures without doing harm, don’t attempt to make contact with tribes. Their way of life is not for you to gawk at, or alter. For their safety and your own, consider other spots for your next vacation or mission trip that can better accommodate you and your intentions.