Inside the Story of John Allen Chau’s Ill-Fated Trip to a Remote Island

Questions abound about the ethics of the missionary’s trip and what will happen next

An aerial shot of North Sentinel Island (Associated Press)
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The news reports, when they began to emerge, seemed like something from another time, or perhaps a Conrad novella: young Christian missionary, 26, killed on remote island by hostile islanders armed solely with bows and arrows. And yet, in their seeming anachronism, the reports were entirely in keeping with the place where American missionary and adventurer John Allen Chau had chosen to go preach the Gospel: North Sentinel Island, a 20 square-mile speck of Indian territory in the Andaman archipelago, 30 miles west of Great Andaman in the Bay of Bengal, and home to one of the world’s least-contacted and least-understood groups of indigenous people, known as the Sentinelese. The island’s population, unique genetically, linguistically and culturally, isolated for millennia, is notably unfriendly to outsiders. It is one of the small pockets of mystery remaining in our increasingly known world.

The entire island sits within a protected zone patrolled by the Indian government, and it is illegal to approach from as far as six miles away, let alone visit it. Last month, Chau paid five local fishermen 25,000 rupees—about $350—to break the law and take him close to the island on November 14 under cover of darkness in their 30-foot-long wooden boat. On November 15, he assembled his foldable kayak and headed ashore, only to be met with arrows and forced to retreat; the next day, he paddled in again. On November 17, the fishermen saw the Sentinelese dragging his apparently dead body along the beach.

The story quickly gained momentum and fanned out digitally across the globe, interest heightened by the outlandish exoticism of it, by the details of Chau’s grisly fate and by the sheer number of unknowns, many stemming from just how little we know about the Sentinelese. (In a morbid metric of its popularity, Chau’s Instagram account has been racking up followers; it had previously hovered at about 1,000, but at press time, it was nearly 22,000.) In the days since, some questions have been answered, but many others emerged.

Questions remain about Chau and his motivations, and of course questions about the island and the islanders: Was he a missionary or an adventurer? A pure-hearted emissary or an arrogant colonialist? Many readers, encountering mention of North Sentinel Island and its inhabitants for the first time, were left scrambling to understand a place seemingly sprung from the mists of history. Where and what is it? And who are these people? And could such a place really still exist in the 21st century? And if it does, why would someone risk not just his own life, but the lives of the Sentinelese, their isolation meaning that they have little built-up immunity to disease; a common cold could wipe out the population? Particularly given their demonstrated history of not wanting to be contacted?

Much of the coverage came to focus on that last issue, and many outside the evangelical Christian world reacted harshly, seeing Chau as hubristic, his visit an arrogant act of neocolonialism. On the other hand, such a reaction must have seemed cruel and nearly unintelligible to his fellow evangelicals, including his friends and family. “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people,” reads part of a statement his family posted to Chau’s Instagram account shortly after reports began to emerge.

John Middleton Ramsey, a friend who has also done missionary work, posted an Instagram tribute as well, a photo of the two of them with a caption that reads, “Our dear friend John was martyred on the Andaman Islands, killed by bow and arrow. Still can’t believe you were taken. It’s a comfort to know you’re with the Lord, but we’ll miss you.” The post has attracted nearly 800 comments, many of them critical. One typical comment from a critic: “A martyr???? An asshole who endangered people.” Another one: “Arrogant/self-centred/naive/deluded - the list of adjectives that could be attributed to this guy are endless and none of them complimentary. Trying to promote a false god to an ancient tribe and he gets killed - the irony of it.”

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The Sentinelese were unaware of such conversations, but after the news broke of Chau’s death, as police boats circled the island and helicopters buzzed overhead, they must have sensed they’d created some sort of disturbance. “They really are the most isolated tribe in the world,” says Sophie Grig, senior researcher and advocacy officer at Survival International, which has run a campaign specifically helping to protect North Sentinel Island since the 1990s. “They must be terrified, and they clearly tried to warn him off twice and still he came back, so you can’t say they didn’t warn him.”

Their home island, a densely forested speck in the Bay of Bengal, closer to Myanmar than to India, is about five miles long and four-and-a-half miles wide, ringed by forbidding coral reefs, with no natural harbor. This 20 or so square miles represents their entire known world, though we have no idea what the islanders call it, or themselves. The name North Sentinel was likely bestowed by a British surveying team that passed by in 1771 and reported seeing lights on its shore. The Sentinelese, short and dark-skinned, have long been thought to have arrived with the other Andaman islanders in one of the earliest migratory waves out of Africa, perhaps 50,000 years ago, with the islands serving as a waypoint for migration to southeast Asia and eventually Australia.

Most of what we know of them has been surmised based on the scant facts of limited encounters and reports over the years. They are hunter-gatherers, surviving on what they find in the forest and surrounding sea. They fish with bow and arrow, from dugout canoes that are just seaworthy enough to ply the placid, protected waters within the reef and seem uninterested in going farther. Though they use fire, they are thought not to know how to make it, instead relying on keeping alive embers from lightning fires. They have a language that few have heard and none know and that apparently is unintelligible even to native residents of nearby islands. Estimates vary, but it’s likely they number just 90 or 100 at this point, according to Survival International.

“I think a lot of people just had no idea they existed,” says Grig. “People have a vague idea of uncontacted tribes in the Amazon, but I think people have been surprised to find that they exist in India, as well.”

The idea of “lost“ tribes, unknown to the outside world, is a romantic fallacy at this point, and even those labeled as “uncontacted” might be more accurately called “unmolested.” Many of the hundred or so uncontacted tribes that Survival International monitors have some awareness of the outside world, or have had clashes with it, as is increasingly common in places like the Amazon, where resource-extraction economies intrude deeper into the jungle each year. Those who work to protect such tribes would argue that they have seen or sensed what contact might bring and have chosen to stay away. The Sentinelese seem to fall into this camp. They are entirely self-sufficient, but their material lives are not untouched by the outside world. All sorts of things wash up on an island, among them the metal scraps that now tip their arrows and other tools, and over the years they have had some limited contact with, and received gifts from, a string of outsiders.

“This island has attracted many people for many reasons over the centuries,” says Adam Goodheart, a historian at Washington College who wrote one of the most extensive accounts of the island’s history and went to the Andamans himself during his research. “It seems to exert a strange pull on people’s imaginations, to the point where it’s made people do pretty irrational and foolhardy things to get there, including me.” But though it’s long attracted visitors, there’s a good reason why none have stayed very long.

The history of the other Andaman tribes is a case study in the dangers of contact. Visited infrequently since the time of Marco Polo, the islanders always had a reputation for being hostile and wary of outsiders. But in spite of that, in the mid-19th century the British, with colonial authorities in India in need of a place to ship their undesirables, established Port Blair, a penal colony at a harbor on the east side of Great Andaman. Soon disease ravaged the island, and the indigenous population dwindled, from an estimated 5,000 in 1858 to fewer than 500 in 1931, the last time the British counted. Only two groups remained intact: the Jarawa, who retreated to the jungles on Great Andaman and the Sentinelese, who had the good fortune to live on North Sentinel Island, which was too small and out of the way to attract colonizers.

“The place never had much appeal,” writes Goodheart, “until it came into its own as a historical curiosity—the last place in the world where all the tragedy and farce of the Age of Discovery could still be played out, if on a miniature scale.”

The British made early attempts at contact in the late-19th century, led by the officer in charge of the Andamans outpost, M.V. Portman. He landed on the island, captured an elderly couple and some children, and absconded with them back to Port Blair, where the couple soon died. The children were taken back to the island with gifts. In the 1970s, Indian authorities attempted a friendly approach to the tribe. A 1974 visit by a National Geographic film crew ended with an arrow lodged in the thigh of the film’s director, but through the 1980s and early ’90s, relatively peaceful visits by Indian authorities became regular occurrences, under the guidance of anthropologist T.N. Pandit. Pandit remains one of the few people with firsthand experience of the Sentinelese who lived to tell the tale.

In general, as Pandit told the Economic Times of India following Chau’s death, killing is not their first impulse, and their aggression is mostly meant to communicate that they want to be left alone. “They are not hostile people. They warn; they don’t kill people, including outsiders,” he said. “They only say, ‘Leave us alone.’ They make it amply clear that outsiders are not welcome in their habitat. One needs to understand that language.”

Though their first impulse is to warn, miscommunications have typically had dire results. Before Chau, the most recent incident of note occurred in 2006, when a boat carrying two Indian fishermen, who were likely poaching within protected waters, drifted ashore on North Sentinel, where, according to other fishermen who saw it, they were killed by axe-wielding warriors and then buried in shallow graves on the beach. A helicopter from the Indian Coast Guard sent to investigate was shot at with arrows, and attempts to recover the bodies went similarly poorly. In the end, they were left there.

And though the Indian government ceased contact in 1997 and shifted into a hands-off monitoring of the island, those early encounters, particularly the gift-laden ones led by Pandit in the 1980s and early 1990s, were important, according to Goodheart. “He sort of made it clear to them what they were missing out on, and made it clear that there were people from the outside ready to interact with them in a friendly manner, who could bring them things they might want to have, but still they decided ultimately that they did not want to engage,” Goodheart says. “They’ve seen it all and they’ve said no thank you, consistently, for centuries. And with arrows—it’s a pretty direct message.”

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When I first started looking into this story, the available personal details offered only a sketch of who John Allen Chau was. He was, at times: a youth soccer coach who worked with a soccer nonprofit in his hometown of Seattle; a former AmeriCorps volunteer in Tulsa, Oklahoma; a certified Wilderness EMT and avid outdoorsman who seemed intent on adding to the long list of adventures already under his belt.

Some early reports suggested he was a missionary, but I thought, cynically, that perhaps it was just a cover. Judging from his online presence, he seemed to be more adventure-bro than anything else, perhaps a young wanderluster who had read about this remote place and its people, failed to consult or ignored accounts cataloging their long history of aggressiveness, and decided to go. His Instagram bio mentioned “Following the Way,” short for “Following the Way of Jesus,” but beyond that, the photos and everything else were standard adventure-Instagram fare. Kayaking with his packable #orukayak, waterfall hikes, mountain vistas, beach picnics, an overnight in a fire tower. This impression was reinforced on his personal site, The Rugged Trail, and his profile on the millennial-oriented adventure website The Outbound Collective, which featured a typical array of summit hikes and backpacking trips, diving and snorkeling adventures and beach camping. In a 2014 interview posted on that site, he calls himself “an explorer at heart.”

Even his last couple Instagram posts before his disappearance were fairly typical. A series of kayaking images from October 21 was captioned, “Kayaking the tropics in this endless summer,” and his final post, from the Andamans, featured a shot of a waterfall and another of a leech burrowed between his toes. The caption: “Adventure awaits. So do leeches.” But close readers would have noticed that this one had a new hashtag at the end of a typical string of adventure-oriented ones: #solideogloria. “Glory to God alone.”

In a statement posted above Chau’s Outbound Collective interview after his death, the site’s editors express their shock and sadness over the loss of their “kind and energetic” contributor:

According to multiple reports, it appears John was killed while pursuing Christian missionary work off the coast of India. We had no prior knowledge of John’s intention to visit North Sentinel island and do not condone visiting prohibited areas or breaking local laws.

The collective seemed equally under the impression that he was a normal young adventurer. But appearances could be deceiving: according to Ramsey, Chau’s friend, his fellow missionary’s online persona was a cover, an attempt to keep a low profile and not draw any unwanted attention from Indian authorities. “He wanted to look more like an adventurer than a missionary to keep a low profile,” says Ramsey. “This trip was very mission driven, and the adventure component was secondary, but he wanted to make it look the other way around on social media.”

But clues of what was to come were there if you looked closely. Chau made no secret of his Andamans obsession: his Instagram shows posts from Port Blair in January of this year, and in the 2014 Outbound interview, when asked what’s on the top of his adventure list, he replies, “Going back to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in India is on the top—there’s so much to see and do there!”

Evidence of his devout Christianity and covert missionary zeal can be found in that same interview, though in mostly subtle and offhanded ways. In response to a question about road trip soundtracks, he ticked off a list that included a few Christian rock bands, and when asked about his favorite spot to get a beer after an adventure, he pivoted the answer to root beer. Perhaps most revealing was Chau’s answer to the question of who inspires him: “Adventurers like John Muir, Bruce Olson, and David Livingston [sic] inspire me to go travel and explore, and I definitely get my inspiration for life from Jesus.”

The Jesus reference jumps out in retrospect, but on first read I skipped over it as something any Christian might say. Muir is an expected answer for any well-read young adventurer, but the other two not so much. Livingstone, of course, was the renowned 19th-century explorer and seeker of the source of the Nile who disappeared for six years in Africa before eventually being found by journalist Henry Morton Stanley with the famous—though likely apocryphal—line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” What often gets lost in the retelling of the Livingstone story, though, is that he was also a devout Christian and the founding father of Christian missionary work in Africa. But the biggest clue was Chau’s other hero, Bruce Olson.

In 1961, Olson, then 19, dropped out of college after being rejected for missionary work and set out on his own to Venezuela, eventually finding his way to the remote Motilone tribe (also known as the Bari) along the Colombian border. After initially being met with flying arrows, one of which struck his thigh—an eerie echo of Chau’s first attempt to land on North Sentinel—Olson was eventually accepted and has successfully lived with or near them ever since—except for 9 months in 1988, when he was kidnapped and tortured by a Colombian guerilla group. He wrote a memoir that has sold more than 300,000 copies and has become a handbook of sorts for ministering to the uncontacted. It’s a touchstone of missionary literature that seems to suggest that if approached with humility and patience, uncontacted people will eventually be receptive to the Gospel. It helps that Olson’s work seems to have been, by missionary standards, a success: one missionary site estimates that 70 percent of the Motilone are now Christian.

The Praying Hands statue at Chau's alma mater, Oral Roberts University (Dustin M. Ramsey via Wikicommons under CC BY-SA 2.5 license)

Did Chau imagine himself as an Olson-figure for the Sentinelese? The more complete picture of him that’s emerged in the weeks since his death suggests so. He was steeped in missionary culture, a graduate of Oral Roberts, a fundamentalist Christian university in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He’d been involved in student missionary groups, done missionary work in South Africa and Kurdistan, and in 2015 visited Israel on one of the initial tours sponsored by Covenant Journey, a group backed by the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame and geared towards young evangelicals with leadership potential.

“[Chau] was a really chill, down to earth kind of guy, what you see is what you get,” says Ramsey, 22, who met his friend on the Israel tour. The two quickly grew close, as both lived in Seattle at the time and both had participated in missions around the world. “I guess I would say he’s a calculated risk taker,” says Ramsey. “He was a good planner.”

Chau had put those planning skills to use as he prepared extensively, over the course of years, for a mission that seems to have become the central focus of his life. Subsequent reporting by The New York Times and others has fleshed out the degree to which nearly every decision Chau made in his short adult life was calibrated around missionary work. His public persona might not have revealed his intentions or the depth of his preparations, but Ramsey and other friends knew about the four scouting trips to the Andamans since 2015, about the medical training meant to make him more useful as a missionary, and about the arduous outdoors trips he took to toughen himself up.

They knew about his conscious decision to forgo full-time employment to stay ready for his mission and to remain single to avoid both distractions and, Ramsey says, “any hearts being broken” should things go wrong. And it was a long-term plan. “He wanted to go alone, just to seem as unthreatening as possible,” Ramsey says. “He wanted to befriend the people, bring some gifts, learn the language, and then eventually when he knew it well enough, share the Gospel with them.” Eventually, he hoped to translate the Bible into their language.

Last year, the Times reported, Chau ramped up his preparations. He attended an advanced linguistics training course in Canada followed by a three-week missionary bootcamp with a missionary group called All Nations, based in Kansas City, Missouri, complete with people role-playing the part of unfriendly tribesmen. It culminated in his arrival in Port Blair in mid-October, where he hunkered down in a local hotel and was aided by two fellow Americans.

Missionary work takes its charge from what’s known as “the great commission,” Matthew 28:19, in which Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” All Nations, whose stated aim is to prepare missionaries “to share the gospel and establish churches in parts of the world where the name of Jesus Christ is little or not known,” seems to be part of a small but potent sliver of the missionary world placing a renewed emphasis on the “all” part of it. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 440,000 active Christian missionaries in 2018, and while the idea of converting uncontacted tribes is outside of the missionary mainstream, it’s long been a presence. “Since the 1990s, most of the mainstream missionary organizations are no longer targeting uncontacted tribes,” says Grig of Survival International, but she still hears stories of it happening, though never, in recent memory, on North Sentinel.

Chau seems to have tapped into a resurgent network pursuing the idea and latched onto the Sentinelese partly because they were a great prize: the most uncontacted of the uncontacted. Websites like the Joshua Project and PeopleGroups.org tabulate, map and categorize what they call “unreached peoples," those who have not yet been converted and might not ever have heard of Christianity. The Times reported that it was through the Joshua Project site that a high-school-aged Chau first learned of the Sentinelese.

The long duration of his obsession was confirmed in the wake of his death, when All Nations issued a statement that said Chau “had studied, planned and trained rigorously since college to share the gospel with the North Sentinelese People.” Earlier this week, the group’s executive leader, Mary Ho, published an op-ed in the Kansas City Star reiterating that point. “He did not go to North Sentinel Island on an adventurous whim. In fact, he prepared deliberately for almost a decade,” she writes, noting that while her group was not involved in the final execution of Chau’s plan, they supported it and helped him prepare. “[W]e did not try to talk him out of his plan, but we cautioned him clearly that he was putting his life on the line.”

Chau’s diary of his final days, which he left with the fishermen who ferried him to the island, came to light soon after he died. It leaves little doubt as to his reason for being there, his knowledge of the risks, or his commitment to the idea of preaching to the Sentinelese. In an entry addressed to his parents, he wrote, “You guys might think I’m crazy in all this, but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people… Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed.”

In the wake of Chau’s death, another point of reference began to surface, one as well-known to evangelicals as Olson, though perhaps just as obscure to outsiders. “I see him as a kind of modern Jim Elliot,” says Ramsey. Elliot was part of a mission to evangelize the Huaorani in Ecuador in the 1950s and was one of five missionaries killed by the tribe in 1956. Since his death, Elliot has become a well-known and important figurehead in the Evangelical movement, with schools named after him and films and books about his life. “The kind of person,” says Ramsey, “who makes a statement to the world that this is a faith that’s worth dying for if push comes to shove, and the sort of person who may be able to make a greater impact in his death than he might have in life.”

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On his first approach to North Sentinel Island, the day before he was killed, Chau paddled ashore and tried to offer gifts of fish and a ball. According to his account in his diary, he at first stayed out of “arrow range,” but could not hear, so crept closer, eventually close enough to hear six or so tribesmen yelling at him. “I tried to parrot their words back to them. They burst out laughing most of the time, so they probably were saying bad words or insulting me.”

“I hollered: ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.’” At that point, the men began to string arrows in their bows and Chau, by his own account, “began to panic slightly.” One of the men, who Chau thought was a younger boy or perhaps a teenager, shot an arrow at him that apparently struck the bible he was holding. “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.”

How you view his decision to return to the island the next day after that demonstrative rejection by the islanders seems to depend partly on which side of the belief divide you sit. “Even if these people don’t want outside contact, I think it’s important to at least give them the opportunity to hear the Gospel,” says Ramsey. “For me, it’s easy to understand why he went because I share his faith, but for those who don’t, it seems ridiculous at best, and you know, some people accuse him of imperialism, and then there’s the issue of diseases and other factors that come into play.”

In this view, Chau’s mission wasn’t a case of trying to impose Western thought; it was an attempt to save these innocents from going to hell with the rest of the nonbelievers. “That’s what gave him the courage to do it, I believe,” says Ramsey. And from that point of view, his death is less a failure of his mission than evidence of divine inspiration. “Such personal sacrifice is a deep thread running through Christian history,” writes Ho, of All Nations, in her op-ed. “From the beginning, followers of Jesus have laid down their lives that others may hear the good news.“

Even among the evangelical and missionary communities, a robust debate continues about Chau’s actions and a criticism of the martyr complex that he seems to have embraced. “From all accounts, Chau’s actions demonstrated some serious missiological shortcomings,” wrote Scott Hildreth, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, in an opinion piece for the Religious News Service. “His zeal for evangelism seems to have clouded his judgment.”

And what Chau saw as an attempt at salvation has, for some, sown the seeds of destruction, as the collateral damage of his single-minded mission has begun to play out. First, the five fishermen and two other locals have been charged as accomplices for helping him get to the island. Chau’s family has made its stance clear. “We forgive those reportedly responsible for his death,” their statement says. “We also ask for the release of those friends he had in the Andaman Islands. He ventured out on his own free will and his local contacts need not be persecuted for his own actions.”

For the Sentinelese, it may be harder to escape the ramifications of those actions, no matter how well-intended they were. They have survived much, and may yet face natural threats that can’t be mitigated, from climate change or disease or weather events. But they are resilient people and self-sufficient—you don’t last tens of thousands of years on an island otherwise—as was proven resoundingly when the tsunami swept through the region in 2004. Thousands died on nearby islands, but the Sentinelese survived. In fact, one of the most famous photos of a Sentinelese man, and one that has accompanied many of the stories about Chau’s misadventure, was taken from a helicopter sent to check on the population after the tsunami. It shows a lone warrior on a white sand beach, bow drawn and arrow pointed up at the helicopter with defiance.

As in most cases of contact, if there’s a real threat, it is likely from us—missionaries, journalists, documentarians, adventure travelers, and anyone else currently contemplating whether they could get close enough to fly a drone over the island. There have always been those who wanted to see them, and the Sentinelese have always rebuffed them. Their hostility and isolation have been their insurance policies, but perhaps these can no longer hold. Which is why for those who know these kinds of places best, and who have experience with uncontacted tribes, the idea of contact is bound to evoke, at the very least, a deep ambivalence.

“The people who have really seen the effects of contact firsthand come away and realize what a disaster it usually is,” says Grig of Survival International. “That’s why it’s so important that the policy of not making contact is upheld and policed.”

Indeed, it’s a belief held by some of the people most knowledgeable about the Andamans. M.V. Portman, the British officer who visited North Sentinel in 1879, lamented what had happened to the Andamanese. According to Goodheart, he told the Royal Geographic Society, “Their association with outsiders has brought them nothing but harm, and it is a matter of great regret to me that such a pleasant race are so rapidly becoming extinct.”

T.N. Pandit came to a similar conclusion after witnessing what became of the Jarawa, who only began to emerge from the jungle in the late 1990s. Once fierce, proud, and wary, unbowed and unwilling to come out of the forest and into civilization, he found their subsequent diminishment appalling, the “gifts” of the modern world unequal to what had been lost. “Over the years, we have not been able to get the Jarawa any [of the] benefits [of the modern world],” Pandit told the website DownToEarth last year. “Their food supply like honey, crab, and fish are being taken away in exchange for biscuits. They don’t need biscuits. They have learned to smoke and drink. In my opinion, we should not be in any great hurry to make contact with the Sentinelese.”

Goodheart, the historian, agrees. Twenty years ago he, like Chau, hired a fishing boat to take him close to the island, though he never got closer than a few hundred yards from shore. “I felt and still feel a lot of ambivalence about deciding to go there,” he says now. “I felt I was becoming one of those curiosity seekers, adventurers, profiteers. So I felt very much implicated.”

But such responses aside, it seems clear that there is a support network out there for missionary work such as Chau’s and that North Sentinel is on their radar. “I do believe other people will follow in his steps sooner or later,” says Ramsey. In her op-ed, Mary Ho from All Nations agreed. “So, even as we grieve,” she writes, “our hope and our prayer is that one day John’s dream for the Sentinelese will be realized beyond his lifetime.”

To observers like Grig of Survival International, this would be a disaster. “Historically, it was a big problem, and you still hear stories of missionaries trying to reach uncontacted groups,” she says. “For any tribe that’s uncontacted, of course, such efforts can be incredibly dangerous.”

Perhaps Chau’s death will dissuade other missionaries, or maybe they’ll look at the daunting practical hurdles and decide it’s not worth it. Because even if all had gone perfectly, one is left wondering what Chau’s end game was, what sort of bridges he imagined God would build for him to these people. Even if he could master a language spoken by nobody else in the world, and find a way to explain the concept of organized religion to a group of animists, and from there manage to find the words to explain Christianity, he would still, at most, have reached fewer than a hundred people.

Survival International is lobbying the Indian government to redouble its policing efforts around the island and clarify its protected status, both to keep out other would be tourists and missionaries, and to stop incursions by fishermen poaching in the island’s rich but protected waters. Poaching is more than an issue of trespassing: if their waters get overfished, it could be a matter of life or death for the Sentinelese, given the proportion of their diet that fish represent.

In the near term, Chau’s death has opened a Pandora’s box of problems for the Sentinelese and the Indian government, beginning with the question of whether to pursue criminal charges against the killer or killers, if such a thing is even possible. The fishermen who helped Chau remain imprisoned. There’s also the question of what to do about his body. As in the case of the two fishermen whose bodies were never recovered, substantial logistical and ethical hurdles impede the retrieval of the body. Survival International and others have come out strongly against claiming the corpse, citing the danger such a recovery effort would pose to both Indian officials and the Sentinelese.

Goodheart agrees. “We have to think about the Sentinelese as having their own foreign policy, which they’ve made clear through their actions; they don’t want anyone to land there,” he says. “If they felt like they wanted to make contact, there have been many, many opportunities for them to do so. The Indian government periodically say that maybe they could use the benefits we could bring them, modern medicine or technology, but I feel strongly that until the Sentinelese start asking for that, we owe it to them to keep away.”

They have made themselves as clearly understood as they are able. Their mistake, perhaps, was in thinking that we would listen.

Timothy Sohn is a writer based in New York. Examples of his work can be found at www.timsohn.com.

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