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.