Australia Today

Police Fear Giving the Flu to the Tribe that Killed an American Missionary

It's illegal to make contact with the Sentinelese people who "are not immune to anything."
Gavin Butler
Melbourne, AU
North Sentinel Island
Image via Shutterstock

This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Last week, an American missionary was killed while trying to convert the world’s last pre-Neolithic tribe to Christianity. The Sentinelese people of the Andaman Islands fired arrows at 27-year-old John Allen Chau and left his dead body on the beach of North Sentinel Island, where they have lived untouched by modern civilisation for thousands of years.


It’s illegal to travel to North Sentinel for this reason: not only do the Sentinelese have a reputation for violent resistance, they are also thought to be catastrophically susceptible to outside viruses and diseases. Something as simple as a common flu could threaten to wipe out their ancient tribe of 50 to 150 people altogether. For that same reason, retrieving John’s remains is proving difficult for authorities.

"It's a difficult proposition," said Dependera Pathak, director-general of police on India's Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the ABC reports. "We have to see what is possible, taking utmost care of the sensitivity of the group and the legal requirements."

Police are currently consulting with tribal welfare experts, anthropologists, and scholars to come up with the best means of approach. They are yet to arrive at a decision as to how the American’s body should be retrieved.

"They [the Sentinelese] are not immune to anything,” said PC Joshi, an anthropology professor at Delhi University. “A simple thing like flu can kill them.”

Professor Joshi has studied the islands where the Sentinelese people live, and described John’s religious mission as "a foolish adventure.”

“He invited that aggression,” he said.

Extracts from John’s diary, released by his family, have revealed details of his final days before being slain by the tribespeople, The Australian reports. One entry describes his first attempt to come ashore, the day before his death, and tells of how the Bible literally saved him as an incoming arrow pierced the book.


“I heard the whoops and shouts from the hunt,” he wrote. “I made sure to stay out of arrow range… I tried to parrot their words back to them. They burst out laughing… I hollered, ‘My name is John, I love you and Jesus loves you’.”

Far from worrying about the dangers he might pose to the tribespeople, John reflected on how noble his quest to indoctrinate them into the Christian faith was.

“This is not a pointless thing. The eternal lives of this tribe is at hand and I can’t wait to see them around the throne of God worshipping in their own language,” he wrote. He did express fear for his own safety, however, admitting that his mission “almost seems like certain death” and telling God that “If you want me to get actually shot or even killed with an arrow then so be it.

“I think I could be more useful alive, though,” he added.

In a letter to his parents, John urged that they should “not be angry at them [the Sentinelese] or at God if I get killed”.

“You guys might think I’m crazy but I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people,” he wrote. “God, I don’t want to die.”

Within hours of writing this he was dead. Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.