The sentinels and the missionary

In 2018 an American missionary travelled to North Sentinel Island in an attempt to bring Christianity to one of the last uncontacted peoples in the world. He did not return.

North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, is officially administered by India. But the Indian government exerts no leadership or control over the islands’ inhabitants, the Sentinelese, for the very simple fact that no-one has ever successfully communicated with them. The inhabitants of North Sentinel Island are an uncontacted people: they have no ties, links, or connections with the outside world.

For obvious reasons, we don’t know much about the Sentinelese. We don’t know how many people are on the island – it may be as few as twenty or as many as five hundred. The entire island, 7km wide and 8km long, is covered by dense jungle, and that makes hiding from aerial surveys exceptionally easy.

We don’t know what language they speak – there’s plenty of speculation about its connections to the languages of nearby islands but there are no recordings or accounts. The name “Sentinelese” is itself a kind of placeholder, because we don’t know how the inhabitants think of themselves.

We do know what they think of outsiders: they’re not fans. Most people who intentionally land, or accidentally shipwreck, on the island are attacked with spears and arrows. Because of this, the whole island is officially off limits to any outsiders without explicit approval from the Indian government. Attempts have been made to contact the Sentinelese, mostly by leaving gifts on the shore and then retreating to a safe distance, but for the most part everyone leaves them alone. And they seem to like that.

Enter John Allen Chau. In 2017 this American missionary decided that he wanted to bring Christianity to (in his words) “Satan’s last stronghold on Earth.” the next year he bribed some local fishermen to drop him off on the beach at North Sentinel Island with the hope of preaching the gospel.

Chau tried this three times. The first time, he left gifts but fled back to the boat when he saw the inhabitants stringing up bows. The second time, he approached them holding a Bible, and retreated again when one of the islanders shot an arrow through that Bible. The third time, he was killed by the Sentinelese.

Chau’s body remains on North Sentinel Island today, and the Sentinelese remain isolated and (presumably) content with that isolation.

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