Bay of Bengal, some parts not safe for strangers
Bay of Bengal, some parts not safe for strangers iStock / Getty Images Plus

A Christian missionary was killed last week during an attempt to contact the inhabitants of North Sentinel Island, a remote Indian island in the Bay of Bengal. That missionary, John Chau, was a native of Vancouver, Washington.

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According to an interview with the Outbound Collective, a community of outdoors enthusiasts, Chau loved hiking in the North Cascades and adventuring in the Pacific Northwest. He got into the outdoors through the book Robinson Crusoe, which he read as a kid. Chau, who was soon to turn 27, was a graduate of Oral Roberts University, a Christian college in Oklahoma, and it was there that he got into Covenant Journey, a Christian missionary group.

In a statement after Chau's death, Covenant Journey referred to Chau, who broke Indian law by trespassing on the island and attempting to contact the tribe, as a "martyr."

"When I heard the news of John’s death, I couldn’t believe it. I was numb. John loved people, and he loved Jesus. He was willing to give his life to share Jesus with the people on North Sentinel island," said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Covenant Journey, in a statement. "Ever since high school, John wanted to go to North Sentinel to share Jesus with this indigenous people."

Covenant Journey described what they believe happened to Chau in a blog post:

Based on information that has become available since his death, it is now known that John went to Port Blair where he reportedly hired fishermen to take him near North Sentinel. About one-half mile from the island, he left the boat and paddled ashore in his kayak. Last Thursday, November 15, a Sentinelese boy shot John with an arrow, but it hit his Bible which he was holding to his chest. The tip barely penetrated the Bible but saved him from the attack.

John left the island and returned the next day on Friday, November 16, to make contact with the people. Because of their isolation, no outsider knows the language of the Sentinelese. He took gifts seeking to befriend them.

On Saturday, November 17, the fishermen returned to take John back to Port Blair. They reportedly saw that John was shot by arrows but kept walking. He was killed by the Sentinelese. The tribals placed a rope around his neck and dragged him along the shore where they would bury his body. The fishermen turned their boat around and informed authorities upon their arrival in Port Blair. Helicopters dispatched to North Sentinel to investigate John’s murder were unable to land.

Chau, according to media reports, knew what he was doing was both dangerous and illegal—the Sentinelese have a reputation for shooting arrows at people who try to land on their island and have not accepted any attempt at contact from the outside world.

The Sentinelese are one of the last uncontacted populations of humans on Earth. Their territory is protected by Indian law, which prohibits anyone from going within 5 nautical miles of the island. The people are thought to have been in the area for over 55,000 years, and their language is completely unknown to outsiders.

There are only an estimated 15 Sentinelese left on the island, according to the Indian government's 2011 census, and because they've been completely isolated, any contact with outsiders is an existential threat. They just don't have the immune systems for outside contact. John Chau may have thought that bringing the word of Jesus to the Sentinelese people would save them, but he wasn't a savior, he was an intruder. His death, of course, is tragic, but even Jesus couldn't save John Chau from himself.