'Adventurist' American Killed by Protected Andaman Tribe on Island Off-Limits to Visitors

The North Sentinel Island is home to the Sentinelese community, who allegedly killed the American identified as John Allen Chau after he was illegally ferried there by fishermen.

Port Blair: An American visiting one of the islands in India’s remote cluster of Andaman and Nicobar has been killed by a group of hunter-gatherers who live there isolated from the outside world, two police officials said on Wednesday.

The North Sentinel Island is home to the Sentinelese community, who allegedly killed the American, identified as John Allen Chau, after he was illegally ferried there by fishermen, the officials added.

“A murder case has been registered,” one of the officials told Reuters. Both officials sought anonymity as they are not authorised to speak to the media.

According to the Andaman and Nicobar police, seven people, including five fishermen, have been arrested for taking Chau to the island. Police said the American had paid the fishermen Rs 25,000 to transport him.

In a statement late on Tuesday, Deepak Yadav, a senior police officer, said authorities in the island chain in the Bay of Bengal had launched an investigation.

The investigation began after police were contacted by the United States consulate in the southern city of Chennai, which has been in touch with Chau’s mother, the statement said.

“We are aware of reports concerning a US citizen in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” a consulate spokeswoman said in an email.

“When a US citizen is missing, we work closely with local authorities as they carry out their search efforts,” she added, but declined to provide further details over privacy concerns.

An image from John Allen Chau’s Instagram feed. Credit: Instagram

While initial reports said that Chau was a preacher who wanted to preach to the Sentinelese community, the director general of police, Andaman and Nicobar, Dipendra Pathak said that the American was on a “misplaced adventure”.

Also read: The Trials and Tribulations of the Andaman Fisheries

“People thought he is a missionary because he had mentioned his position on God and that he was a believer on social media or somewhere online. But in a strict sense, he was not a missionary. He was an adventurer. His intention was to meet the aborigines,” Pathak told The News Minute.

“They [Chau and those who were helping him get to the island] started on 14.11.2018, around 8 pm… and reached there by midnight. On 15.11.2018 morning, John (Chau) moved to shore using his kayak which he got towed with the fishing boat,” Pathak said in a statement. The fishermen had been told to pick him up later. “In the morning of 17.11.2018, the fishermen saw a dead person being buried at the shore which, from the silhouette of the body, clothing and circumstances, appeared to be the body of John Allen Chau,” the statement continues. The fishermen then returned to Port Blair and told Chau’s friend, who called a friend of his in the US. This friend got in touch with Chau’s family “They didn’t inform the police or any government authority,” Pathak said.

Reports have said that on December 15 evening, Chau rejoined the fishermen, and then went back to the island the next morning. UK-based Daily Mail reported that it had accessed Chau’s field notes from the first day, written as a letter to his friends and family. “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people,” Chau reportedly wrote. “Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed.

The American also said that Sentinelese men had shot an arrow at him on the first day. “They had two arrows each, unstrung, until they got closer. I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you’,” Chau wrote. “I regret I began to panic slightly as I saw them string arrows in their bows. I picked up the fish and threw it toward them. They kept coming. I paddled like I never have in my life back to the boat. I felt some fear but mainly was disappointed. They didn’t accept me right away.”

North Sentinel Island is about 50 km west of Port Blair, the capital of the island cluster. The Times of India reported in August this year that the Ministry of Home Affairs had relaxed the restricted area permit foreigners needed to travel to 29 islands in Andaman and Nicobar – including North Sentinel Island.

Survival International, a global tribal rights movement, has issued a statement saying holding Indian authorities responsible for Chau’s death. “This tragedy should never have been allowed to happen. The Indian authorities should have been enforcing the protection of the Sentinelese and their island for the safety of both the tribe, and outsiders. Instead, a few months ago the authorities lifted one of the restrictions that had been protecting the Sentinelese tribe’s island from foreign tourists, which sent exactly the wrong message, and may have contributed to this terrible event. It’s not impossible that the Sentinelese have just been infected by deadly pathogens to which they have no immunity, with the potential to wipe out the entire tribe,” the statement says.

In 2006, two fishermen, whose boat strayed onto the 60-sq-km island, were killed and their bodies never recovered.

An Indian Coast Guard helicopter sent to retrieve the bodies was repelled by a volley of arrows from the community, believed to be the last pre-Neolithic tribe in the world.

(With Reuters inputs)