If you value your life you will stay far away from North Sentinel Island inhabited by the Sentinelese, a pre-Neolithic people, that have inhabited the island for more than 55,000 years without any contact with the outside world. There is no way to sugar coat it: if you dare approach and land on their island there is a 100% chance that they will kill you with their primitive weapons: spears, arrows, and stones. And get this — because they are a protected Aboriginal tribe, they will not be prosecuted for killing you. Since the Sentinelese have rejected all contact with the outside world, and have killed anyone who has tried to land there, the Indian Navy patrols the area and keeps all vessels and people away. Individuals who wander into the exclusion zone, which extends five nautical miles from the island’s perimeter, will be arrested.
The tiny island, covering roughly 23 square miles (about the size of Manhattan), may look inviting because it is completely forested and surrounded by pristine narrow white-sand beaches; however it is not easy to land there because it is surrounded by coral reef; moreover it lacks any natural harbors. North Sentinel Island is a part of the Andaman Islands that neighbors Nicobar Islands, an archipelagic island chain, located about 415 miles west from the Myanmar coast and more than 800 miles southeast of the Indian subcontinent. North Sentinel Island is not as remote as it should be — it lies just 31 miles west of Port Blair, the largest city on South Andaman Island. Using aerial photography taken in 2012, the population of North Sentinel Island is estimated between 50 and 400 natives. In contrast, the neighboring Nicobar Islands has a population of 36,844 according to a 2011 census. Both of these islands located in the Bay of Bengal (the northern part of the Indian Ocean) are territories of India. The Indian government considers North Sentinel Island completely autonomous and independent, allowing the inhabitants to eschew the impact of modern civilization, including any diseases to which they have no immunity. For example, the current coronavirus that is spreading all around the globe would wipe them out in a matter of weeks.
North Sentinel island and its inhabitants were first noted by British surveyor John Ritchie in 1771. Despite the natives’ aggression over the past century, there was a time when individuals did land on the island and survived to tell the tale. Most notable, was British naval officer Maurice Portman who led a small group of intrepid explorers to land on the island in 1880 to study the natives and their culture. They found a network of pathways that led to a few small abandoned villages. Eventually they encountered and captured six natives, an old couple and their four children. They were taken to Port Blair (talk about invasive and unethical research tactics!) where the couple quickly succumbed to illness and died. Soon after, the children were returned back to their island along with consolation gifts (“So sorry we killed your parents, but here is a food basket with our compliments — good luck with everything!). Despite the disastrous results of his research, Portman returned to the island several times between 1883 and 1887 and survived.
One fellow who was not so fortunate was American John Chau, a 26-year-old missionary that traveled to North Sentinel Island, on behalf of All Nations, to bring Christianity to the tribespeople and translate the Bible into Sentinelese. Based in Kansas City, the vision of All Nations is “to see Jesus worshipped by all the peoples of the earth. Our mission is to make disciples and train leaders to ignite church planting movements among the neglected peoples on earth.” According to one of their executive leaders, Chau was uniquely suited for this mission: “A seasoned traveler, John had previously taken part in mission projects in Iraq, Kurdistan and South Africa. He joined All Nations in 2017 and trained at our North American Hub in Kansas City. John was one of the most well-equipped young missionaries we’ve ever seen. He read books on cultural anthropology and missiology at the rate of one every three days. He was also trained in linguistics so he could learn the language of the Sentinelese people. He was a certified wilderness EMT, so that he could serve the Sentinelese in practical ways. He was also delightful, kind, and funny. Small children felt at ease with him, and everyone who met him felt his warmth.” Fellow missionary, Mat Stavers, shares that introducing Jesus to the Sentinelese was one of Chau’s lifelong dreams: “John loved people, and he loved Jesus. He was willing to give his life to share Jesus with the people on North Sentinel island. Ever since high school, John wanted to go to North Sentinel to share Jesus with this indigenous people.”
Chau made an initial try on the evening of November 15, 2018 and was greeted with an onslaught of arrows, one which hit the Bible he was carrying. In his journal he wrote, “Why did a little kid have to shoot me today.” He returned the following night, but the natives got a hold of canoe and destroyed it, forcing Chau to swim back to the boat. Those incidents did not deter the well-intentioned missionary. In his journal he wrote to his parents: “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. God, I don’t want to die. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed — rather please live your lives in obedience to whatever He has called you to and I will see you again when you pass through the veil.” On November 17, Chau finally succeeded in landing on the island. Apparently, the Sentinelese were perfectly happy with their religion and therefore not very receptive to the story of Jesus. Tragically, the hostile natives proceeded to kill Chau; the natives dragged his along the beach and buried his body there. Subsequently, the Indian police arrested seven individuals who used a wooden boat with motors to get Chau on the restricted island (Chau used a canoe to reach the shore from the boat. In the canoe he carried gifts, including fish and a football.) Days later, the police marine unit attempted to retrieve the body, but faced a very fierce and heavily armed group of tribesmen that were protecting their beach. Faced with insurmountable obstacles, Chau’s family made the difficult decision to leave their son’s body on the island; they stated that they forgave the tribe for their actions and were not insisting for his remains to be returned to the U.S.
The Sentinelese are not the only isolated tribes in the world — there are about 100 others around the globe, with most found in the Amazon and New Guinea rainforests. Many of them are hostile to outsiders, explains Jonathan Mazower of Survival International, that protects these isolated tribes: “Often, they are very fearful of outsiders — with very good reason. Sometimes they will have in their collective memory a massacre, a violent incident, or a disease or epidemic — so very often, there are well-founded reasons for these tribes to not want to have anything to do with the outside world.”
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For further information: Contemporary Society Tribal Studies by Georg Preffer and Deepak Behera