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The Andaman and Nicobar Islands, a union territory of India, are a group of more than five hundred rainforest islands in the Indian Ocean, closer to Bangkok than Calcutta. Some of the first settlers came to the islands in 1858 when the British Indian government built a penal colony to imprison the rebels of the Sepoy Mutiny; another wave arrived in 1947 after Partition. The indigenous people are the descendants of hunter-gatherers who came to the islands about 55,000 years ago. Only four tribes survive on the Andaman Islands, with populations numbered in the dozens or low hundreds.

John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American from Vancouver, Washington, went to North Sentinel Island last month. Under Indian law it is illegal to travel within five nautical miles of the island. But on the night of 14 November, Chau paid $400 to six settlers and left on their dinghy from the town of Port Blair. They changed route several times to evade the Indian coastguard. When he reached the island the next morning, Chau initiated contact with the tribes by yelling at them. He wrote in his journal:

I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you. Jesus Christ gave me authority to come to you. Here is some fish!’

The next day, the settlers who had taken him there saw him dead on the beach, shot by an arrow. His body still lies on the island, probably buried by the North Sentinelese people who killed him.

Chau was a well-travelled man. He had been to South Africa and Kurdistan, met many people and shared with them his plans to contact the Sentinelese. None of them was able to convince him it was a bad idea – if not for him, then for the Sentinelese. History suggests they would be unlikely to survive contact with modern ‘civilisation’.

It’s a long way from Washington State to North Sentinel Island. But between Vancouver and Port Blair, Chau faced no travel restrictions. He wanted to go to a place where no one had ever been before (apart from the people who already live there). He wanted the world to know his name. The journal he left behind – published by the Washington Post – is a testament to his ambition. He believed that God was guiding his way. But it wasn’t God that helped him get so far: it was his money and the privilege of being a US citizen. The American man is free to go almost anywhere on earth.

Since Chau’s death, several American newspapers have aligned themselves in defence of that freedom, presenting Chau’s ignorance as not dangerous but benign. A writer in the Washington Post compared him to St Patrick; the New York Times quoted from the Bible to explain his actions. Is there nothing stopping the American man?

Chau was oblivious to the restrictions he actually had, like that of language. If he was planning ‘to declare Jesus to these people’, in which language was he hoping to do so? We don’t know anything about the language the Sentinelese speak. As it turned out, Chau could not communicate with them at all, and resorted to yelling and mimicry. ‘I tried to parrot their words back to them. They burst out laughing,’ he wrote. He shouted at them in English and Xhosa, a language native to South Africa and Zimbabwe and lately to the fictional kingdom of Wakanda in the movie Black Panther. Chau apparently prepared for a hostile reception by going to a missionary boot camp in Kansas where fake tribesmen, holding fake spears, charged at him. The responsibility for his death should lie in part with the organisation that trained him to break the law and enter a restricted area in another country.

Since North Sentinel Island is a restricted area, at least five pages of Chau’s 13-page journal amount to illegally procured sensitive information. But do you hear the Indian government make a row about it? The right-wing administration in Delhi in India does not care about indigenous people (it’s hardly alone in this). In recent years, both the settlers and the government in the Andamans have realised the commercial value not only of its white beaches and blue sea, but also of the indigenous population. Anthropologists such as T.N. Pandit, who first contacted many of the tribes in the 1970s, and later persuaded the Jarawas to give up arms, were not independent scholars but bureaucrats who helped advance the Indian government’s agenda of development in the islands. The more habitable they became for the settlers, the less habitable they became for the tribes.

In order to attract even more tourists, the government is on a reckless path to build two more airports, two bridges connecting the islands and new luxury beach resorts.

For as little as 800 rupees (less than £9), you can board a government-run bus from Port Blair to the Jarawa Tribal Reserve in the Middle Straits. In June 2013, I went on one of these buses on a reporting trip. It didn’t stop inside the reserve but kept moving. The purpose of the trip is for the passengers to take part in an entertaining sport: spot the naked tribespeople in the forest through the window. Entering the reserve is illegal according to a Supreme Court decision in 2002. But settlers, tourists and tour operators flout this court order every day. It was only a matter of time before a tourist went looking for another uncontacted tribe.

Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    Chakraborty says, “But it wasn’t God that helped him get so far: it was his money and the privilege of being a US citizen. The American man is free to go almost anywhere on earth.” I thought he would talk about visa restrictions on other nationalities, but no. I do know I, as a Canadian, had no trouble getting into Australia last year, but a Russian friend had a six-week ordeal to get a visa. That’s why there’s no Russian tourists in Australia, but lots in Phuket, Goa, etc.

    • FoolCount says:

      Actually, there are many Russian tourists in Australia. Fewer than in Phuket or Goa for sure but still quite a lot. Getting a visa is but a small inconvenience for most, including the Chinese tourists in Australia, who outnumber any other nationality by a wide margin there.

    • Timothy Rogers says:

      There’s a hint of the current instant-gratification syndrome here. When I started traveling abroad in the 1960s, the “lead time” you gave yourself to organize a trip (overseas and intercity transportation, hotels, hostels, etc.) was at least 6 weeks and often longer, depending as you did on transoceanic mail, getting traveler’s checks or converting currency (no ATMs then, just folks dealing with banks), etc. If you wanted to go on the cheap (“Europe on 5 dollars a day”) or with an improvised itinerary, you still had to pick up bread-and-breakfast registries, car-rental information, etc., all much more time-consuming in the pre-internet days. None of this was considered onerous by most travelers.

      A six-week wait for a visa doesn’t seem like such a big deal. US and European travelers can get fast-tracked for a visa into Russia, but they have to pay more for it.

  2. ralph wortley says:

    With all respect, I think he got no more than one would expect or indeed than he deserved, unless you think, as I do, that he was mentally unbalanced and should have been in care. Regarding the attitude of the Indian government I know too little to comment. Perhaps other missionaries will leave well alone in the interest of their own safety.

    Xhosa is a language belonging to the Nguni group and is spoken as a native language by those who live in the Eastern and Western Cape Provinces. It is reasonably understood by Zulu speakers and even as far north as parts of Mozambique and southern Zimbabwe but is it not the local language. (Note for purists: I am using the English names for these languages).

    Ralph Wortley, PhD Chartered Psychologist. AFBritPsySoc

  3. kynolover says:

    I regard myself as second to none in my disgust over the actions of Mr. Chau in trespassing on North Sentinel Island, and of the governments of India and the Andamans in planning to develop the islands. And I have long held mindless nationalism and patriotism as both dangerous and stupefying. However, I believe the important message of this blog post–the urgent need to protect these islands and their indigenous inhabitants from outsiders and development–is marred by the wholly unnecessary snark relative to the “American man[‘s]…free[dom] to go almost anywhere on earth” thanks to “his money and the privilege of being a US citizen.”

    First, I daresay that anyone from anywhere could do what Chau did so long as he or she possesses a passport and sufficient funds to travel to Port Blair and pay a few locals to drop him or her off at North Sentinel Island. The fact that Chau was American has only marginal relevance at best.

    What is far more relevant is his status as a Christian missionary and the zeal by which he carried out those “duties”, which clearly bordered on, if not constituted, madness. Indeed, Christian missionaries have been both a plague on the body indigenous of the world, and at times a source of useful secular accomplishments, such as providing medical care to and feeding starving locals. But on balance it’s reasonable to say the bad Christian missionaries have done throughout the world has substantially outweighed the arguable good they’ve done.

    Lastly, Mr. Chakraborty dismissive comment about the freedom of a person “to go almost anywhere on earth” is truly unfortunate, in that it suggests we hominids would have been better off remaining in the African plains 60,000 years or so ago instead of exploring new and different lands in Europe and Asia. Human evolution beyond homo erectus would have been far different, and I daresay far less advanced than it is today. While it’s possible that if humans had remained a sedentary, incurious species in Africa the rest of the planet’s flora and fauna would be better off, it’s also possible that a less evolved species would have decimated wildlife and nature even more so than we and our ancestors have done and continue to do.

    In any case, getting the hell out of America to meet and converse with others of different cultures has been an edifying experience for me. If only all of my fellow Americans could and would do so, I seriously doubt we’d have a xenophobic, racist moron as our current president. I suspect the same is true elsewhere around our world these days. So I wouldn’t be so glib about one’s freedom “to go almost anywhere on earth” Mr. Chakraborty, even if one is an American wanker.

    • Thomas Jones says:

      Some passports permit more extensive travel than others; you’d find it a lot harder to travel as widely as you have if you were a citizen of, say, Afghanistan. Perhaps one day you’ll travel far enough to discover that Ankita isn’t a man’s name, and that one species can’t be ‘less evolved’ than another.

      • Stu Bry says:

        I have a photograph somewhere of a sign at a border crossing into Laos which lists which nationalities are not entitled to a tourist visa on arrival. It’s pretty much every country in Africa and Suriname and they were all majority black.

        All countries want foreign visitors with money.

    • Ivan Chtcheglov says:

      My (lay) understanding is that we were already Sapiens (as opposed to Erectus) when we first migrated from Africa. This post seems to conflate the particular social and cultural developments that occurred among this primal diaspora in non-African locations (mixed in benefit as they have been for the species and for the planet) with a process of evolutionary genetic development. This could lead those so minded to draw racist conclusions, namely that the sapiens descended from early emigrants from Africa are in some way more evolved than the sapiens that stayed.

      • kynolover says:

        I did not state or suggest that hominids evolved from Erectus into Sapiens after the first migration from Africa. Nor did I intend to suggest that had Sapiens remained in Africa, they would have been less genetically evolved. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

        One could reasonably argue that had Sapiens remained in Africa, humanity would be more evolved genetically today given recent reported findings that our DNA was compromised by interbreeding with Neanderthals in Europe 60,000 or more years ago. Then again, those who are more Neanderthal among us may be the most genetically advanced, whatever that might mean, if we assume that Neanderthals were more evolved than Sapiens. But that does not appear to be a valid assumption by anyone save those who are neo-Nazis, racist skinheads, and the rest of their white-skinned, smaller-brained ilk, who I’m guessing possess more Neanderthal DNA than most of us.

        That said, what I meant to say was that I believe humanity’s propensity to wander from home, to seek new vistas, and to explore the unknown has resulted in a more culturally diverse and developed, probably over-developed and overly-complex, world than would have occurred had Sapiens remained in Africa, where they first appear to have evolved. That should be self-evident to anyone who has a basic knowledge of world history and science, and/or who has traveled outside the nation or tribe in which he or she was raised. I certainly don’t mean to say that the world is necessarily better off because of human curiosity and restlessness.

        There are good arguments that can be made that the planet and flora and fauna on it would better off had we remained in Africa. However, the older I get and the more I see our species fuck up the beauty and uniqueness of planet Earth and the other species that have survived humanity’s onslaught, the more I think we should never have left Africa. Maybe we would have destroyed far less. Or even ourselves long ago! If someone draws a racist interpretation from such an outlook, all I can say is he or she is an idiot.

    • freshborn says:

      “It’s also possible that a less evolved species would have decimated wildlife and nature even more so than we and our ancestors have done and continue to do.”

      That’s rather difficult to imagine.

      I do think it’s an interesting contrast, though. If a native of a first world country wishes to preserve their culture from globalism, they are, without exception, considered to be little more than a racist bigot with a closed mind, backwards and provincial. (Usually accurately.)

      Could it be that 48% of the citizens of North Sentinel desperately wish to join a customs union with freedom of movement, hoping to expose themselves to wider cultures (pun retroactively intended), and condemn daily the inbred Little North Sentinelese who impose closed borders? Do they like to point out how their insularity limits the growth of their GDP? Do the business leaders of North Sentinel like to circulate scornful articles written by Indian press about their foreign policy? Did they demand their compatriots respect Chau’s freedom of religion? Did they castigate the hatemongers who spoke of him as though he were an invasive species, and passionately affirm the benefits of multiculturalism?

  4. kgbadami says:

    Sad but, in the end, everyone got what they wanted or needed to get.

    John Chau became a martyr. The Sentinelese got their message across clearly. Indian and other tourists, who are, mostly, decidedly not after martyrdom, the salutary reminder to stay well away.

  5. ccmdiva@yahoo.com says:

    I guess the naives weren’t interested in the fact hitherto unknown to them that Jesus loved them.

  6. Cleombrotus says:

    It’s unfortunate that a few commenters will seize upon Mr. Chau’s Christianity as the underlying cause of his fruitless and misguided adventure rather than his youthful naïveté. Not a few other Western young people have met with similar fates in foreign countries due to an unrealistic view of the world influenced largely by our present cultural insistence that all cultures are equal.

  7. themos says:

    As Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders remind us this week, on the 50th anniversary of their voyage, there is indeed nothing stopping American man and he is free to go to any place off earth, too. Also, nothing stopping the rest of us from learning how it’s done and doing better. Have a lovely Christmas!

  8. ralph wortley says:

    It seems that this conversation is now well off theme. Any non-expert getting onto paleoanthropology is on dangerous grounds.

    But I want to comment on the view of “Cleombrotus” that Chau was youthfully naive. We’ve all been youthfully naive sometime. Chau, unfortunately,had a mental disorder and needed help. And if I may fill in a previous reply, he may have thought he had spoken Xhosa to the islanders, which is evidence of his ignorance of the world, but actually I doubt it, as I can tell you that it is more difficult to learn than Latin. A few words — maybe.


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