At the age of just 27, John Allen Chau from Portland, Washington was a man with a mission; and that mission was from God. When he received the calling that an isolated Indian tribe needed him to give them the word of God, he employed a local fisherman to help him get to the secluded tribe on the North Sentinel Island of India’s Andaman islands.
Chau, who was working as an EMT at the time, had been to the four corners of the Earth already helping people in need. He was even transported to help with relief efforts following the devastating Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. But when Chau went to the secluded island he thought he would be made to feel a lot more welcome than he was.
Chau was convinced that this remote Indian tribe needed to have their souls saved through Christ. He may have been confused from the get-go, but this man was full of love and good intentions. His mission, after he claimed God spoke to him directly, was to make his way to the Sentinel Island in order to share the word of God and Jesus Christ with the indigenous people there.
The inhabitants of this island are indigenous and extremely secluded and cut off from the rest of the world. Most of the islanders had never even met a white man, let alone be converted to a different religion by one. Chau bravely took a boat ride from a fisherman he paid before reaching the island alone in a canoe.
As soon as the canoe hit the beach a flurry of arrows were sent in Chau’s direction by the suspicious islanders. He kept walking, almost oblivious to the fact his life was in danger until one arrow connected. That arrow dealt a fatal blow to this missionary and he was killed on the spot, according to the fisherman who had taken him to the island.
According to the fisherman who was off the coast when the incident took place, the tribesmen then tied a rope around the dead man’s neck and dragged him into the island before returning him to the seashore. The police in India immediately opened a murder investigation against “unknown tribesmen” as well as other people like the fisherman who took him to the island. However, the tribesmen cannot be charged officially as contact with them is technically illegal.
According to friends of the deceased, Chau was “committed” to reaching the remote island to preach his version of Christianity to the tribesmen and had been planning the trip for three years, according to the Daily Mail. “I had heard of these islands and I know how dangerous they are, so I was surprised by that,” said the friend.
The friend, who wished to remain anonymous explained that Chau knew that his mission was a risky one. “He recognized the dangers of traveling there, but I think he had a sense of call,” said the friend. “This was something he was working on for three years. He was committed to going there. In his view, he was trying to help these people. There are islands that are nearby and he was making relationships and connections to help him get to the islands,” he added.
According to the friend, who was in email contact with Chau during the time he was in India, Chau was a “magnetic” and “charming” character. “He was a lovely character and wanted to help people. The thing that came across was what a delight it was to be in his company,” he said. “He was such a warm and engaging and friendly kind of fellow. You might have an idea of what a missionary might be like, he was a million miles from that.”
As a qualified EMT, Chau had traveled the world helping to save the lives of people caught up in natural disasters. As the friend explained, “He was a freewheel so he would go to incidents, like major incidents around the world and look to help,” he said. “He had worked with FEMA when he went down to Katrina. He was working there. He’s worked in some pretty rough places.” There were also other people who were saddened by Chau’s murder, especially as he had been on a mission from a “higher authority” in his words.
One friend of Chau took to Instagram, paying tribute to his friend who had been tragically murdered. “You were a real explorer out to understand the boundaries of terrestrial human travels,” they wrote. “Those boundaries are seemingly electric at first touch … and you were the first to touch.” Others dubbed him a “true hero” and thanked him for his passion.
Proud of You
Another person who was a friend of Chau from the church back home also reached out on social media to honor his deceased friend. “So proud of you John. You are a true hero and it was such an honor to know you. Thank you for your obedience and passion, it’s inspiring,” they wrote. International Christian Concern also spoke out about the brutal murder.
While Chau had already visited the nearby islands of Andaman and Nicobar to preach, he was most excited about meeting the people of the North Sentinel Island. William Stark, ICC’s regional manager, paid tribute to Chau and condemned his killing, saying, “We here at International Christian Concern are extremely concerned by the reports of an American missionary being murdered in India’s Andaman and the Nicobar Islands. Our thoughts and prayers go out to both John’s family and friends.” But Stark wants the perpetrators brought to justice even if contact with them is technically illegal.
Stark is clearly not in the “turn the other cheek” mood when it comes to the murder of John Chau. “A full investigation must be launched into this murder and those responsible must be brought to justice,” said Stark. “India must take steps to counter the growing wave of intolerance and violence,” he added.
Even though Chau’s body was spotted on the island, police to date have been unable to access it for autopsy and burial. Deepak Yadav, a police official on the island chain in the Bay of Bengal, confirmed that a limited investigation is underway. “He tried to reach the Sentinel island on November 14 but could not make it,” said Yadav. “He was attacked by arrows but he continued walking. The fishermen saw the tribals tying a rope around his neck and dragging his body,” he added.
While Chau’s family and friends are desperate to have him home so they can give him a Christian burial, Dependra Pathak, the Andaman Director General of Police, explained why the body still hasn’t been retrieved. “His body has not yet been retrieved because we have to strategize keeping in mind the nuances and sensitivity of other cultures,” he said. “We are working on that, and are in contact with anthropologists and tribal welfare experts. We will figure out some strategy.”
The Outbound Collective is an organization promoting world travel and adventure around the globe. Back in 2014, when Chau was involved with them, he spoke about what was on his “must-do adventure list” at the time. He noted that his top priority was “Going back to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India is on the top – there’s so much to see and do there!” He also revealed his motto on life which was to: “Make the most of every good opportunity today because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow!”
Survival International is a London-based organization that campaigns to protect and assist indigenous tribes who want to be left alone. While the group’s international director Stephen Corry said, ‘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.” He also noted that the Sentinelese are a tribe who don’t want outside interference. “The Sentinelese have shown again and again that they want to be left alone, and their wishes should be respected,” he said.
The Sentinelese have never hidden their desire to be left alone by outsiders, and have shown aggressive behavior to visitors in the past. Back in 1974, a film crew who went to film the islanders were greeted with a hail of arrows and never made it to the island. Then, in 2006, two Indian fishermen who had moored their boats near to the island were killed when their vessels drifted to the shore of the island.
These days, the island is totally out of bounds for Indians and tourists alike. While the Islanders are only thought to be around 150-strong, the Indian government has abandoned plans to make meaningful contact with the Sentinelese, noting that they have been secluded on that island for the best part of 55,000 years. While Chau’s intentions may have been noble, he was foolhardy to attempt to try to make contact with the remote Islanders.
According to Corry, the British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands “decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survive.” For that matter, said Corry, “The Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable.” Many feel that Chau’s mission visit to the island was unwarranted and a mistake.
Protect the Tribe
“Tribes like the Sentinelese face catastrophe unless their land is protected,” said Corry. “I hope this tragedy acts as a wake-up call to the Indian authorities to avert another disaster and properly protect the lands of both the Sentinelese and the other Andaman tribes, from further invaders.” For now, the relevant authorities in India are doing what they can to locate the body of John Chau, as his family awaits his return for burial as soon as possible.