NEW DELHI: The young American, paddling his kayak toward a remote Indian island whose people have resisted the outside world for thousands of years, believed God was helping him dodge the authorities.
“God sheltered me and camouflaged me against the coast guard and the navy,” John Allen Chau wrote before he was killed last week on North Sentinel Island. Indian ships monitor the waters around the island, trying to ensure outsiders do not go near the Sentinelese, who have repeatedly made clear they want to be left alone.
When a young boy tried to hit him with an arrow on his first day on the island, Chau swam back to the fishing boat he’d arranged to wait for him off shore. The arrow, he wrote, hit a Bible he was carrying.
“Why did a little kid have to shoot me today?” he wrote in his notes, which he left with the fishermen before swimming back the next morning. “His high-pitched voice still lingers in my head.”
Police say Chau knew that the Sentinelese resisted all contact by outsiders, firing arrows and spears at passing helicopters and killing fishermen who drift onto their shore. His notes, which were reported Thursday in Indian newspapers and confirmed by police, make clear he knew he might be killed.
“I DON’T WANT TO DIE,” wrote Chau, who appeared to want to bring Christianity to the islanders. “Would it be wiser to leave and let someone else to continue. No I don’t think so.”
Indian authorities have been trying to figure out a way to recover Chau’s body after he was killed last week by islanders who apparently shot him with arrows and then buried his body on the beach.
Even officials don’t travel to North Sentinel, where people live as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. The only contacts, occasional “gift-giving” visits in which bananas and coconuts were passed by small teams of officials and scholars who remained in the surf, were years ago.
Police are consulting anthropologists, tribal welfare experts and scholars to figure out a way to recover the body, Dependera Pathak, director-general of police on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where North Sentinel is located, said Thursday.
Chau paid fishermen last week to take him near North Sentinel, using the kayak to paddle to shore and bringing gifts including a football and fish.
Scholars know almost nothing about the island, from how many people live there to what language they speak. The Andamans once had other similar groups, long-ago migrants from Africa and Southeast Asia who settled in the island chain, but their numbers have dwindled dramatically over the past century as a result of disease, intermarriage and migration.
Chau estimated there were about 250 inhabitants on the island, with at least 10 people living in each hut.
“The tribe’s language has a lot of high pitched sounds like ba, pa la and as,” he wrote.
It’s not clear what happened to Chau when he swam back to the island the next morning. But on the morning of the following day, the fishermen watched from the boat as tribesmen dragged Chau’s body along the beach and buried his remains.
Seven people have been arrested for helping Chau, including five fishermen, a friend of Chau’s and a local tourist guide, police say.
In an Instagram post, his family said it was mourning him as a “beloved son, brother, uncle and best friend to us.” The family also said it forgave his killers.
Authorities say Chau arrived in the area on Oct. 16 and stayed on another island while he prepared to travel to North Sentinel. It was not his first time in the region: he had visited the Andaman islands in 2015 and 2016.
With help from the friend, Chau paid fishermen $325 to take him there, Pathak said.
After the fishermen realized Chau had been killed, they left for Port Blair, the capital of the island chain, where they broke the news to Chau’s friend, who notified his family, Pathak said.
Police surveyed the island by air Tuesday, and a team of police and forest department officials used a coast guard boat to travel there Wednesday. It was not clear if they have returned since then.
Chau, whose friends described him as a fervent Christian, attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Before that he had lived in southwestern Washington state and went to Vancouver Christian High School.
For thousands of years, the people of North Sentinel island have been isolated from the rest of the world.
They use spears and bows and arrows to hunt the animals that roam the small, heavily forested island, and gather plants to eat and to fashion into homes. Their closest neighbors live more than 50 kilometers (30 miles) away. Deeply suspicious of outsiders, they attack anyone who comes through the surf and onto their beaches.
Police say that is what happened last week when a young American, John Allen Chau, was killed by islanders after paying fishermen to take him to the island.
“The Sentinelese want to be left alone,” said the anthropologist Anup Kapur.
Scholars believe the Sentinelese migrated from Africa roughly 50,000 years ago, but most details of their lives remain completely unknown.
“We do not even know how many of them are there,” said Anvita Abbi, who has spent decades studying the tribal languages of India’s Andaman and Nicobar islands. North Sentinel is an outpost of the island chain, which is far closer to Myanmar and Thailand than to mainland India. Estimates on the group’s size range from a few dozen to a few hundred.
“What language they speak, how old it is, it’s anybody’s guess,” Abbi said. “Nobody has access to these people.”
And, she said, that is how it should be.
“Just for our curiosity, why should we disturb a tribe that has sustained itself for tens of thousands of years?” she asked. “So much is lost: People are lost, language is lost, their peace is lost.”
For generations, Indian officials have heavily restricted visits to North Sentinel, with contact limited to rare “gift-giving” encounters, with small teams of officials and scientists leaving coconuts and bananas for the islanders.
Any contact with such isolated people can be dangerous, scholars say, with islanders having no resistance to diseases outsiders carry.
“We have become a very dangerous people,” said P.C. Joshi, an anthropology professor at Delhi University. “Even minor influences can kill them.”
Because of this, Abbi said scholars who visit isolated peoples are careful to limit their visits to a few hours a day and to stay away even if they have minor coughs or colds.
Many of the island chain’s other tribes have been decimated over the past century, lost to disease, intermarriage and migration.
Survival International, an organization that works for the rights of tribal people, said Chau may have been encouraged by recent changes to Indian rules about visiting isolated islands in the Andamans.
While special permissions are still required, visits are now theoretically allowed in some parts of the Andamans where they used to be entirely forbidden.
“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,” the group said in a statement.