Friends and acquaintances recall American citizen Chau’s obsession with the Sentinelese, as Andaman authorities make last-ditch effort to retrieve his body.
New Delhi: American citizen John Allen Chau, who was allegedly killed by a secluded tribe in the Andamans, had convinced himself of many things. Foremost among them was his white man’s burden — the need to spread the love of Jesus in “Satan’s last stronghold”, the North Sentinel Island, as he described the place in his diary.
Delusions often take root in a fleeting moment, and Chau’s came when he was barely a teen skimming through the pages of Robinson Crusoe. It didn’t help that around the same time he began reading about the Sentinelese. It was a fatal attraction.
“He lost his mind, definitely,” Remco Snoeij, who owns a dive shop on Havelock Island, told The Washington Post.
“But ask any adventurer. You have to lose your mind a little bit, otherwise you don’t do it.”
A senior police officer in the Andamans had earlier told ThePrint that Chau’s journal read like the ramblings of a “crazed man”. “If you read his journal, it is like he is hallucinating. He writes things like, ‘I’ve been chosen by God’,” the police officer said.
A deadly obsession
Snoeij first encountered Chau when he came to purchase diving equipment in 2016. He wanted to learn scuba diving. Although islanders thought of him as any other adventurer snapping pictures of corals for his Instagram account, and swimming with parrotfish, Chau’s motives were different.
He began enquiring about the North Sentinel Island. Snoeij made sure to tell him that the island is off-limits — the Indian government has created a 5-km exclusion zone around it. However, at the same time, he played the raconteur.
He told Chau about the fate of the two fishermen who swam too close to shore in 2006 and regaled him with folklore about the community.
“He shared a keen interest in researching and knowing more about them. It must have struck a chord,” Snoeij said.
Chau even decided to avoid romantic attachment because of the “mission he had planned”, said his friend John Middleton Ramsey. Chau bunked up with the 22-year-old during his time in Bellingham, Washington.
“He knew of the dangers of this place,” Ramsey told The Washington Post. “He didn’t want any hearts to get broken should something go wrong. He was very much aware of what he was doing. He also knew it wasn’t exactly legal.”
Chau’s next stop was a missionary group based out of Kansas, known as All Nations. The group sends Christian missionaries to 40 countries. Mary Ho, the group’s international executive leader, claimed to have been surprised by the “soft-spoken, very gentle young man” who had a very “radical call” to find “unreached groups”.
The Sentinelese, one of the few surviving pre-Neolithic tribes, have avoided contact with the outside world for over 10,000 years now. The only anthropologist to have made friendly contact with them, T.N. Pandit, told ThePrint that their hostility towards outsiders has been passed down through generations.
According to Ho, Chau planned to integrate himself with the community, live on North Sentinel for years and learn their language.
He decided to travel to India on a tourist visa, because a missionary visa is harder to obtain. Despite repeated claims by the Indian authorities, Ho continues to believe Chau didn’t break any laws.
Retrieving his mortal remains
It seems his adventure or rather misadventure was meticulously planned, from circumventing the patrol to carrying gifts for the community. However, despite the risks and a volley of warning arrows, Chau convinced himself that no one other than him would dare venture onto the island.
The Andaman police, accompanied by anthropologists and experts, have conducted four reconnaissance patrols to the North Sentinel Island, the last one was conducted Tuesday. According to sources, the team hopes to determine the patterns of the community so that they can retrieve the body.
“We are trying to see if the Sentinelese move to a different part of the island for festivals or celebrations,” said a senior police officer.