Print this page

From John Chau to Captain Cook: The fatal attractions of Missionaries and other Colonising Zealots Part One – John Chau’s Folly.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018 00:00;
Published in Blog;

Recent news reports have covered the dramatic story of a young, idealistic American man, John Chau; a Christian missionary, who while attempting to bring his particular brand of faith to a remote, off-limits tribe, was killed by the very people he was trying to save. The case aroused considerable international interest and controversy. Highlighting as it has, the plight of remote, uncontacted peoples and the potential dangers such encounters raise for these tribes. It would appear that his misplaced enthusiasm for evangelising blinded him to the risks that he, as an outsider, posed to the peoples of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Archipelago. Contact with such tribes poses a very real and immediate threat to their continued existence, wherever they are found, as they have no immunity to the diseases of the outside world. In previous encounters, even the common cold has been responsible for wiping out large portions of such tribes. It’s a sensitive issue. Millions of people died upon first contacts with adventuring and exploring Europeans over the centuries. The Andaman Islands were no exception. Many groups of indigenous people died there from Western introduced diseases during the course of the 19th and 20th century British occupation of the archipelago. Furthermore, in this case, the tribe have for many years made it abundantly clear they do not wish to be contacted by the outside world, killing all who attempt to land there. So remote are they, that scientists, postulate they have been there for perhaps as long as 60,000 years. Anthropologists don’t even know the name they have for themselves, so little is known about them. Their language is unintelligible, even to similar tribes on nearby islands. They have however, made it abundantly clear to all visitors, that they do not wish to be disturbed. 

In 2006, a similar event occurred on the same island. Two fishermen from one of the other islands, had had too much to drink and fell asleep. In-spite of their friends in other boats calling out desperately to them, trying to warn them of the impending danger they were in, their boat drifted onto a beach where the Sentinelese attacked and killed them, burying their bodies on the beach. Attempts at retrieving the bodies by helicopter failed when the natives again attacked with bows, arrows and spears.

Despite the well-known aggression of the North Sentinelese to outsiders, and we do know that Chau was very aware of both the tribe’s violent reputation, and that there were strong legal prohibitions against outsiders like him trying to make contact with them, he still insisted on breaking the law to reach his goal of going there to convert them.  By doing so, he put not only himself, the fishermen he had had to bribe to take him there, but more importantly, the islanders themselves, at great risk. On his first attempt to land on the 15th November, a young Sentinelese boy fired a metal tipped arrow at him, penetrating his bible, upon which, Chau fled terrified back to the fisherman waiting for him off-shore. The next day, 16th December, 2018, he went back onto the island in a further attempt. This time he instructed the fishermen not to wait for him, that no matter what, he would be staying on the island this time. That decision was to cost him his life! The next day, the fishermen in fact did go back to try and check on him but instead, saw a group of Sentinelese men dragging Chau’s body across the beach where they proceeded to bury him.

John Chau - martyred missionary or dangerously naïve fool?

It’s easy to write John Chau off as an arrogant and foolhardy zealot, who got the end he deserved for transgressing the Tribe’s boundaries. Many have, condemning his Christian proselytising as a form of modern-day religious Imperialism and it’s easy to agree with that view. Particularly since he broke Indian civil laws just by entering the country as a missionary without the appropriate visa, knowing he was going to be trying to preach to the Sentinelese.  Further, he deliberately bribed the fishermen to take him to the island and put the seriously off-limits tribe at considerable risk of contracting any pathogens, he might be carrying. Given their total lack of any immunity to such diseases, this alone was an incredibly selfish and ill-considered thing for him to do. 

In spite of the clear risks he posed to the tribe, some of the more fervent American Christian missionary groups, have demanded his body be recovered and his killers be brought to justice. Fortunately, the Indian civil authorities have responded in a far more measured and rational way. They have both declined to extract his body; knowing that any such attempt would only endanger more lives and further distress the people of North Sentinel. Neither are they pursuing the arrest and charging of the defenders of the island with murder. Quite rightly so too! In all of this, none of these Christian groups seem to have considered the damaging impact all of this is likely to have had on the islanders themselves. The consternation, they no doubt felt at yet another unwanted, uninvited intruder daring to land on their island, the turmoil his arrival must have caused them and the worry some may have felt at his death. Were they then in turn concerned about outside retribution for his killing? 

So, what are we to make of this sort of situation? After all, John Chau is not the first intruder to be killed by hostile indigenous groups, defending their territories from unwanted interlopers. The pages of history are littered with stories of missionaries and other trespassers ending up killed by angry and indignant defenders. 

What was it about this otherwise, seemingly intelligent, personable young man that so convinced him to risk everything in trying to preach his particular brand of religion to these unwelcoming people? What made him think that he was to be the one to get through to them, when all other approaches had been repelled so vehemently? Was it the arrogance of his beliefs? Or was he just a naïve young fool, rushing in where older, wiser heads knew not to tread? We have some insight to his own inner torment on those last couple of days, from the pages of his diary in which he asks two very revealing questions, which show both his naivete and his cognitive dissonance. In the first, he asks why the Sentinelese are so angry. Had he really wanted to comprehend the history of these islands, and North Sentinel in particular, he would have had no need to ask that question. He would have known the answer. 

With the arrival of the British on the Andamans and the setting up of their penal colony there, a very young (20yrs old) colonial administrator by name of Maurice Vidal Portman, in 1880 is supposed to have taken a large and heavily armed party onto South Sentinel, seeking to pacify the natives. However, the islanders simply retreated into the thick forests that cover it and hid. Eventually Portman’s party found two elderly people, too old and feeble to run away, and several children with them. He proceeded to kidnap the entire group and took them back to Port Blair, whereupon the two elders soon sickened and died, having, unsurprisingly, succumbed to the diseases so rampant amongst the British, but to which they had no immunity. Portman, is then supposed to have regretted his actions and returned the children back to North Sentinel. But in what by today’s standards, was a bizarre set of ongoing attempts to civilize the group, he repeatedly kidnapped members of the Sentinelese and applying what seems to have been an early form of eugenics, fanatically measured their bodies from head to toe, with a particular emphasis on the genitalia, studying every conceivable part of them. We can only imagine how traumatising this must have been for these people. This appalling contact with the island seems to have stopped after Portman retired and returned to England. It is now suspected that these abductions and bizarre actions of measuring every intimate inch of their bodies and photographing them in every conceivable format, may lie at the heart of their desire to protect themselves from any intrusion from the outside world. Can we blame them? 

That was the last serious attempt made by the British to establish further contact. The risk of isolated native tribes dying out completely by our introduced pathogens, is so real, in fact, that many other similar groups in the Andamans have simply died out completely. John Chau most certainly would have been aware of this, and the danger therefore, that any approach made by him to the North Sentinelese. Yet he still chose to deliberately put himself, and more significantly, the Sentinelese in the path of harms way from the diseases he might have been carrying. Time alone will tell us perhaps if the people in North Sentinel did actually contract any illness from him. It is probably far too soon for us to know just yet. 

In the second of his questions, he asks in bold capitals, ‘WHO WILL REPLACE ME?’ Here we see the contradiction of faith, in which having committed himself to doing his god’s work, he then question’s the certainty of that god’s plan. Cognitive dissonance at its best. 

From a modern Western perspective, the dilemma is one in which the rights and wrongs of it will no doubt be argued over for years to come. It’s a situation that seems to arouse strong emotions in people. The ethics that surround the situation demand discussion and wise, considered responses, especially in light of the vast and incalculable harm that has been wrought all over the world, wherever colonisation has been enforced. And with it, Christian missionaries always followed, proselytising and demanding allegiance to their particular versions of the divine. It seems completely relevant for us to examine such cases today, especially given what a mess of the environment our present way of life has created and the devastation that such intrusions on indigenous peoples the world over have wrought. 

It is with this in mind that I think there is merit in examining the John Chau case through the eyes of the ancient Chinese system of Destiny Analysis, better known as the Four Pillars of Destiny. This approach is unique in that it looks at time and events through the perspective of Yin Yang Five Element theory. It is the only system that does this.

Go to Part Two:  From John Chau to Captain Cook: The fatal attractions of Missionaries and other Colonising Zealots Part One – John Chau’s Folly.

The System: If you would like more information on how to have your own Four Pillars drawn up, please feel free to contact me. Thank you for taking to time to read this article. 

Danny Thorn

Owner/Director

Feng Shui Consultants New Zealand

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

+64 (0)21 1993 888

Dec 2018 

© All international copyrights apply and are the preserve of L D Thorn