NEW DELHI — An American missionary trying to meet and convert one of the most isolated hunter-gatherer tribes in the world offered them fish and other small gifts before tribesmen killed him and buried his body on the beach, journals and emails show.
John Allen Chau, 26, of Vancouver, Wash., an Instagram adventurer who also led missionary trips abroad, traveled to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands — an Indian territory in the Bay of Bengal — this month to make contact with members of the tiny Sentinelese tribe, police said. The tribe, which has remained isolated for centuries, rejects contact with the wider world and reacts with hostility and violence to attempts at interaction by outsiders. The island is off-limits to visitors under Indian law.
Chau’s riveting journal of his last days, shared with The Washington Post by his mother, shows a treacherous journey by night in a small fishing boat to the area where the small tribe lived in huts. The men — about 5 feet 5 inches tall with yellow paste on their faces, Chau wrote — reacted angrily as he tried to speak their language and sing “worship songs” to them, he wrote.
“I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you,’ ” he wrote in his journal. One of the juveniles fired an arrow that pierced his waterproof Bible, he wrote.
“You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people,” he wrote in a last note to his family on Nov. 16, shortly before he left the safety of the fishing boat to meet the tribesmen on the island. “God, I don’t want to die,” he wrote.
Fishermen saw the tribe burying his body on the beach the following day, a fellow missionary wrote in an email to Chau’s mother, Lynda Adams-Chau of Vancouver, Wash.
“I believe he is still alive,” she said in a short email to The Post. Asked why, she replied, “My prayers.”
“He was a beloved son, brother, uncle, and best friend to us,” his family wrote on Instagram. “To others he was a Christian missionary, a wilderness EMT, an international soccer coach, and a mountaineer. He loved God, life, helping those in need, and he had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”
Chau maintained a lively Instagram feed of his travels in Africa and other locales — including photos of leech and snake bites — and led missionary trips for youth from Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma, his alma mater, and others. He spent at least part of the year living in a remote cabin in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California, according to his posts. In his bio, he said he was a follower of “the Way” — often used as a description for followers of Christianity — as well as a wilderness emergency medical technician and explorer.
He had made four prior trips to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, starting in 2015, and arrived in Port Blair in mid-October on a tourist visa, according to police. He paid five fishermen to take him to North Sentinel Island, said Deepak Yadav, a senior police official in Port Blair.
A fellow missionary told his mother that Chau’s plan was “not to tell anyone” what he was up to and avoid putting friends at risk, emails show.
Yadav said that Chau and the fishermen arrived at the island about midnight Nov. 14. The next day, Chau used a kayak to approach the island and attempted to speak with the islanders, who have been known to fire arrows at interlopers. The fishermen told police that they last saw Chau alive on Friday.
The next morning, they saw his body “being dragged and then buried,” Yadav said.
Police sent a helicopter to conduct reconnaissance on Tuesday, and a separate team traveled to the area Wednesday. An investigation is underway, and the fishermen involved have been arrested, as has a friend of Chau’s in Port Blair who helped organize the boat trip to the island, the police official said.
“They were very well aware of the situation, but they still arranged for a boat and everything,” said Yadav, a move he described as “pushing [Chau] in the mouth of death.”
No one knows exactly how many Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island. Attempts by Indian census officials to count them from a distance have put their number at fewer than 100. The Indian government adopted a policy of “isolation with minimal intervention” toward the Sentinelese and several other tribes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which are in the Bay of Bengal off the eastern coast of India.
Chau, in Instagram posts and in journals, had found its remote beaches both inspiring but frightening, he wrote in his journal.
“Why does this beautiful place have to have so much death here?” he wondered hours before his death. “I hope this isn’t one of my last notes but if it is ‘to God be the Glory.’ ”
Correction: An earlier version of this story described Chau as a follower of the Christian group “the Way.” In fact, it is unclear whether he was part of the group or if he was describing himself in his Instagram bio as other Christians do, as followers of “the Way.” The story has been updated.
Gowen reported from Washington.