Isolated tribespeople believed to have killed US missionary who trespassed on remote island
NEW DELHI (AP) — An American adventurer who kayaked to a remote Indian island populated by a tribe known for shooting at outsiders with bows and arrows has been killed, police said Wednesday. Officials said they were working with anthropologists to recover the body.
Dependera Pathak, director-general of police on India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands, said seven fishermen have been arrested for helping the American reach North Sentinel Island. The Sentinelese people are resistant to outsiders and often attack anyone who comes near, and visits to the island are heavily restricted by the government.
Pathak identified the American as John Allen Chau and said he told a hotel he was 26 years old. Chau was apparently shot and killed by arrows, but the cause of death can’t be confirmed until his body is recovered, Pathak told The Associated Press.
“It was a case of misdirected adventure,” Pathak said.
Chau arrived in the area on Oct. 16 and stayed in a hotel while he prepared to travel to the island. It was not his first time in the region: he had visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2015 and 2016, Pathak said. North Sentinel is in the Andaman Islands at the intersection of the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea.
Chau organized his visit to the island through a friend who hired seven fishermen for $325 to take him there on a boat, which also towed his kayak, Pathak said.
The American went ashore in his kayak on Nov. 15 and sent the boat with the fishermen out to sea to avoid detection, Pathak said. He interacted with some of the tribespeople, offering gifts such as a football and fish. But the tribespeople became angry and shot an arrow at him, hitting a book he was carrying, Pathak said.
After his kayak was damaged, Chau swam back to the fishermen’s boat, which was waiting at a prearranged location. He spent the night writing about his experiences on pages that he then gave the fishermen, Pathak said. He set out again to meet the tribespeople on Nov. 16.
What happened then isn’t known. But on the morning of the following day, the waiting fishermen watched from a distance as the tribesmen dragged Chau’s body. They left for Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where they broke the news to Chau’s friend, who in turn notified his family, Pathak said.
Police charged the seven fishermen with endangering the life of the American by taking him to a prohibited area.
Chau had lived in Oklahoma, where he attended Oral Roberts University, and in southwestern Washington state, where he attended Vancouver Christian High School. Phone messages left with some of his relatives were not immediately returned Wednesday.
Kathleen Hosie, spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Chennai, the capital of India’s southern Tamil Nadu state, said she was aware of reports concerning an American in the islands but could not comment further due to privacy considerations.
Survival International, an organization that works for the rights of tribal people, said the killing of the American should prompt Indian authorities to properly protect the lands of the Sentinelese and other Andaman tribes.
“The British colonial occupation of the Andaman Islands decimated the tribes living there, wiping out thousands of tribespeople, and only a fraction of the original population now survives. So the Sentinelese fear of outsiders is very understandable,” Stephen Corry, the group’s director, said in a statement.
Shiv Viswanathan, a social scientist and a professor at Jindal Global Law School, said North Sentinel Island was a protected area and not open to tourists. “The exact population of the tribe is not known, but it is declining. The government has to protect them,” Viswanathan said.
Poachers are known to fish illegally in the waters around the island, catching turtles and diving for lobsters and sea cucumbers. Tribespeople killed two Indian fishermen in 2006 when their boat broke loose and drifted onto the shore.
One of Chau’s friends, Casey Prince, 39, of Cape Town, South Africa, said he met the adventurer about six years ago, when Chau was a manager on the soccer team at Oral Roberts University in Oklahoma. Chau and others on the team traveled to South Africa to volunteer at a soccer development and social leadership program Prince founded, Ubuntu Football Academy.
Since then, Chau had been back to visit Prince and his family or tutor and coach boys in the program about four times. Most recently, he was there from mid-September to mid-October, Prince said.
Prince described him as easy to like, kind, joyful and driven by twin passions: a love of the outdoors and fervent Christianity.
“He was an explorer at heart,” Prince said. “He loved creation and being out in it, I think having probably found and connected with God that way, and deeply so.”
Prince declined to discuss what Chau had told him about his plans for traveling in India or the islands, saying instead he wanted to focus his comments on who Chau was. But he said Chau, who previously spoke of having been bitten by a rattlesnake, accepted the dangers that came with his adventures.
“If he was taking a risk, he was very aware of it,” Prince said.