Last week, Alabama native John Allen Chau bribed fishermen to take him to the protected Andaman archipelago in the Indian Ocean, where he wished to “establish the kingdom of Jesus on the island.” In a particularly American spin on first-contact narratives, Chau brought a football to the Sentinelese, among the last pre-Neolithic tribes on Earth protected from contact. He was ultimately killed by Sentinelese armed with bows and arrows, an end that raises profound questions about “first contact” moments in history.
For centuries, colonists and conquistadors, missionaries and explorers, have demanded things of native peoples in a language and faith completely foreign to them, almost always with tragic consequences for the natives. Tales of first contact often have certain commonalities: depictions of natives as “noble savages,” lists of trinkets given to the “credulous” aborigines and a condescension that assumes a profoundly foreign people will be conversant with the intricacies of the invading culture.
First contact is the most enduring trope of the discovery narrative of travel writing. For centuries, explorers (or colonizers) have penned their initial interactions with the indigenous people who are always configured as part of the environment more than humans in their own right. The most famous example happened when Columbus arrived among the Caribbean Arawak. In his “Journal of the First Voyage,” Columbus (with his own interest in mind) wrote that the Arawak were “very friendly to us” and he “perceived that they could be … easily converted to our holy faith.” He claimed that the natives were “much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us.”
But this “translation” of the Arawak language reflects the cultural context and language of Columbus’s own medieval Catholic imagination, not how the Arawak actually saw the Spanish. Columbus described the Caribbean as an unspoiled paradise — an Eden. The English Protestant colonists in what would become the United States deployed similar language, not just comparing the New World to an Eden, but configuring themselves as the new gods of this paradise. In his 1590 “A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia,” Thomas Harriot wrote that the Algonquin who approached the settlers of the Roanoke Colony felt the goods of the English “were rather the works of gods than men.” As with Columbus, we have no sense of what the Algonquin may have actually thought.
Chau’s “martyrdom” recalls these tales from centuries ago. His experience evokes Ferdinand Magellan, who in 1521 died in an almost identical manner when Filipino natives “rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses,” as a witness wrote. Chau’s “gift” of a football and fishing hook parallels Columbus presenting to the Arawak “red caps … strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value,” or of the “plate of brasse” that Francis Drake left behind in “Nova Albion,” somewhere north of San Francisco Bay in 1579.
Colonizers’ belief in the native desire to barter has repeatedly — and erroneously — led to the “conclusion that they would be easy to convert,” as literary critic Stephen Greenblatt notes. Such an attitude displays both an incredible narcissism and an inability to empathize with the profoundly foreign worldviews of uncontacted peoples.
This fascination with first contact remains part of the public imagination. And like stories from Columbus and Harriot before, they reveal more about our modern culture than they tell us about these indigenous cultures.
In describing her travels among the !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote that she felt as if she had “voyaged into the deep past through a time machine.” Here among the Namibian hunter-gatherers, she felt that she “saw the Old Way, the way of life that shaped us, a way of life that now is gone.” It’s this sense of loss, and of our culture’s role in that loss, that shapes our fascination with uncontacted peoples, and it explains some of the Schadenfreude on social media that accompanied Chau’s death. In celebrating the ever-dwindling numbers of people who’ve had no contact with modernity, we in part mourn the loss of the “Old Way” that Thomas wrote about, but we also mourn a more complex loss: the sense of wonder that once accompanied the mystery of other people, the knowledge that there were entire continents of humans whom we knew nothing about.
Save for the Andaman Islands, the world has become disenchanted. There are no new lands to discover. A Yahi Indian named Ishi was the last uncontacted North American native when he walked into Oroville, Calif., in 1911. The last uncontacted Australian aborigines were discovered in 1984. There are several uncontacted tribes in Brazil whose existence is threatened by new President Jair Bolsonaro’s horrific policies in the Amazon. Chau’s death should remind us that there are reasons some groups don’t want to be contacted, and we should be content with their decision.
Unchecked modernity will soon complete that process initiated by Columbus. Some time not long from now, there will be no uncontacted peoples left. Lost will be the enormity of their small worlds to which we are not privy, worlds into which we were never meant to be welcomed. Gone will be the wisdom that there are realities that are not always ours to acquire, people whom we shall not always impose our faiths onto.
Chau’s death is certainly a personal tragedy, the account of a man who potentially threatened the continued existence of these people. But the greater tragedy of Sentinelese extinction has been avoided for now. In a deluge of arrows, we witnessed a counterfactual version of colonial history. In this telling, Columbus and Harriot were repelled by natives. Because of that temporary fantasy, we know that the Andamanese inhabitants are safe, at least for now.