Study sheds more light on killing of American by the Sentinelese

Anthropological Survey says preservation of American national John Allen Chau’s diary crucial.

September 08, 2019 11:13 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 10:14 am IST - Kolkata

Sentinelese tribals guard a boat after killing two fishermen in the North Sentinel island of Andaman and Nicobar in 2006.

Sentinelese tribals guard a boat after killing two fishermen in the North Sentinel island of Andaman and Nicobar in 2006.

Almost nine months after American national John Allen Chau was allegedly killed by the Sentinelese on the North Sentinel Island of Andaman and Nicobar islands, a recent publication by the Anthropological Survey of India (AnSI) throws more light on the incident and also the ways of one of the most isolated tribes in the world.

Titled The Sentinelese of the North Sentinel Island: A reprisal of Tribal Scenario in an Andaman Island in context of Killing of an American Preacher, the paper published in the journal of AnSI discusses in detail the “mission” of the American national, the possibility of retrieval of the dead body and also the charge of murder which the police in the Andamans have pressed against “unknown tribal members of Sentinelese Community”.

“The tragic death of Chau is a matter of grief, but what is equally distressing is the report that the Andaman police have registered a criminal case for murder against the unknown tribesmen,” M. Sasikumar, the anthropologist who heads Maulana Abul Kalam Institute of Asian Studies (MAKAIS), wrote in the paper.

Dr. Sasikumar, in the paper running over 10 pages, stated that Mr. Chau’s death was not the first time that “blood was spilled on North Sentinel Island.” He pointed out that in March 1896, three convicts escaped from Andamans and drifted to the North Sentinel Island where they tried to escape in a raft made of bamboo. While two of them drowned, the third person was speared to death by the tribal people. The second incident took place in January 2006, when two fishermen, Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari, were reportedly killed by the Sentinelese when they were illegally collecting mud crabs in the protected area.


The publication states that there were attempts to reach out to the Sentinelese in the 1970s, which turned out to be futile. On one occasion the contact party had released some pigs on the island, in the hope that the tribesmen would accept them. However, the pigs were immediately killed and buried in the sand. Even a doll left for them met with the same fate.

“The chain of incidents, including the latest, clearly shows their (Sentinelese) attitude towards the outsiders, that the so-called ‘ civilized’ are no more welcome to their island. They expressed it once again as emphatically as they could,” the paper states.

Chau’s Journal should be preserved and studied

V.K. Srivastava, Director of AnSI, however, feels that Mr. Chau was guided by some kind of “pathological curiosity” which led him to visit the island despite knowing the consequences. Explaining that the earlier recorded visits to North Sentinel Island have been mostly for observational purposes (observation from a distance), and none of the visits were truly interactional, Dr Srivastava said that Mr. Chau was the only person to have spent an entire day on the island, and saw the tribesmen from very close proximity, may be from an arm’s length.

“On November 14, Chau left Port Blair and reached the island at night. He spent the entire day of November 15 with the Sentinelese and on the night when he met the fishermen who had transported him to the island, he gave them the dairy in which he had recorded his experience of the day,” the director said. Some bits of Mr. Chau's diary, written in illegible handwriting, are in the public domain. It not only records his experiences with the Sentinelese, but also contains some sketches he had done of their huts, said Dr. Srivastava.

He also emphasised that Mr. Chau’s journal was an extremely important anthropological document, which should be preserved. “An insightful study of the journal should be carried out,” he said. The journal is at present in the possession of the Andaman Administration.


In the AnSI publication, Dr. Sasikumar also refers to the 13-page diary entry of Mr. Chau and quotes from it. “Well I have been shot by the Sentinelese... By a kid probably 10 or so years old, may be a teenager, short compared to those who looked like adults… The little kid shot me with an arrow directly into my Bible which I was holding at my chest... His high pitched voice still lingers in my head,” the publication states. “I don't want to die. Would it be wiser to leave and let someone else to continue? No I don’t think so,” Dr. Sasikumar quotes from Mr. Chau's journal.

Hands off, Eyes on approach

Dr. Sasikumar emphasises on the “Hands off, Eyes on” approach of the administration towards the Sentinelese. He recommends that circumnavigation of the island should be carried out to keep a vigil to ward off and report on any attempt by outsiders to stray into the territory. It is important, he feels, to make systematic observations of the Sentinelese and their territory from a distance.

“The policy of non-intervention should continue and at the same time the ‘eyes-on’ policy has to be implemented strictly. More than what is essentially required is a rigorous conscientisation programme among the fishermen of Wandoor, Chidiyatapur and Port Blain areas,” Dr Sasikumar said. Interestingly, Mr. Chau took the help of local fishermen to reach the island. Subsequently those fishermen were arrested by the police.

Another interesting aspect that the paper looks into is the repeal of the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) in August 2018, when the Home Ministry dropped the restrictions for visiting the 29 inhabited Islands, including the North Sentinel Island.

Dr. Sasikumar said that the repealing of the RAP created some confusion regarding the restrictions for foreign nationals in visiting the islands. The anthropologist refers to a report carried out by a travel news agency titled “Dangerous Tribe Islands to open to tourists for the first time despite previous murders”. In the context of the repealing of the RAP, the question raised was what will happen to the government's own policy of “Hands off, Eyes On”. Later it was clarified that “Separate approvals from the competent authority continue to be required for visiting reserve forests, wildlife sanctuaries and tribal areas,” the publication states.


Dr. Sasikumar also refutes claims by so-called experts who have apparently told television channels after the incident that anyone wanting to open a dialogue with the Sentinelese had to show that “they were of the same level. Don’t wear anything.” Such a practice, claimed the anthropologist, has never been recorded. He also dismisses the misconception that the Sentinelese population is declining. “Based on my own observation during two of my visits around the North Sentinel Island... it can be assumed that their population might be around 50 to 100 individuals,” Dr. Sasikumar writes.

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