Commentary: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

D.Zhu/The Phillipian

On November 17, missionary John Allen Chau decided to journey to a remote island off the coast of India, a trip he had been meaning to take for a while.  This wasn’t the utopic vacation island you may already be picturing by now, however; this was North Sentinel, home to a nearly uncontacted stone-age tribe whose 150 inhabitants do not seem to have even discovered fire yet.

Just like two men who were illegally fishing near North Sentinel Island in 2006, Chau was met by a volley of arrows and killed. A massive wave of subtlety arrogant condescension followed, saying that the North Sentinelese should be “forgiven” and that it’s “not their fault,” according to social media posts As a civilization that is much more complex and technologically advanced than they are, however, we should move beyond uttering the common platitudes of forgiveness and, instead, take concrete actions to make sure incidents like these do not happen in the future.

First, let’s look at the direct consequences of Chau’s death. The Indian government has arrested several individuals who had been paid to take Chau to North Sentinel and stated that they will not charge any of the island’s inhabitants for the killing. Similarly, they have decided after deliberation not to remove Chau’s body out of fear that new pathogens will be exposed by the rescue team and pose a danger to the North Sentinelese. Chau’s family issued a statement wherein they portrayed Chau as a benevolent missionary “who had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people” and said that they would “forgive those reportedly responsible for his death.” They also called for the release of his “friends,” the fishermen who illegally took him to the island in the first place.

K. Lim/The Phillipian

This statement has been controversial for many reasons. To be sure, the loss of human life is irreparable and deep condolences are due to Chau’s family. The attitude within their statement,             however, clearly portrayed Chau as a superior, benevolent person who had tried to enlighten and help the Sentinelese. This idea of a white man providing knowledge to savage tribes is the mark of archaic colonialism, an anachronism that stands in stark contrast to today’s more liberal world. Chau’s death was lamentable, but at the same time, by staying on the island, he would have endangered all 150 members by exposing them to foreign and potentially fatal pathogens.

The media has taken a similar approach, presenting Chau as an innocent victim despite his reckless endangerment of one of the last tribes without human contact. For example, a CNN article depicted Chau as a god-loving man who “fell victim to” the violence prone tribe. It was rarely mentioned that Chau had in fact been killed on his third visit to the island, having been warned on the previous trips by arrows (one of which pierced his bible). He had written in his diary that the island was “Satan’s last stronghold” and that he had shouted to the tribesmen “My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you.” Despite acknowledging that the trip he was about to undertake was illegal, Chau nonetheless decided to carry forward and endangered both his own life and the life of the Sentinelese.

This story as a whole has an uncanny resemblance to the colonisation of Africa and the Americas by European conquerors who had similarly tried to forcefully impose their ideology upon their “subjects.” Take, for example, the cultural assimilation of Aboriginal Canadians through residential schools, a move explained by parishes as a way to “integrate them into Canadian culture.” And whereas even these colonists had the excuse that they didn’t know about modern pathology, a similar excuse would not have worked for Chau.

John Chau’s act was one that disregarded the safety and the livelihood of the North Sentinelese, one that selfishly placed his own ideology above those of the tribesmen, one that saw the Sentinelese as savages waiting to be enlightened. Currently, the Indian government has outlawed all contact with the North Sentinelese — their only mode of monitoring the safety of the tribes is through periodic airplane flights, which disturb the North Sentinelese and are infrequent enough that we won’t be able to do anything until it’s too late should some crisis befall the group. As such, this system could be adapted to better protect the North Sentinelese by using less intrusive drones or by simply better patrolling the coastal waters around the island. If we are to preserve the last pre-Neolithic tribe on earth, we ought to redouble our efforts.