On November 17, 2018, a peculiar incident occurred on the island of North Sentinel in the Indian Ocean. A man emerged from the sea, clad only in shorts, shouting incomprehensibly and making frantic gestures. The island’s sentry, upon spotting him, warned him to stay away. However, the man persisted, growing more desperate in his pleas and wild in his actions. The sentry, armed with a bow and arrow, took aim at the man. Yet, despite the warning shot, the man continued to advance. The sentry fired again, this time fatally wounding the intruder.
The man in question was John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American evangelical Christian missionary who believed he had been chosen by God to convert the isolated inhabitants of North Sentinel. The tribe, known as the North Sentinelese, is one of the few remaining “uncontacted” tribes left in the world. With a population of around 200, they rely on primitive tools and technology and fiercely defend their remote island.
Chau’s ill-fated encounter with the North Sentinelese thrust them into the global spotlight. The incident has now been adapted into a film titled “The Mission,” produced by National Geographic and directed by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss. The movie delves into the complexities of faith, anthropology, and the allure of the unknown.
Despite the tragic outcome, Chau was not a foolish man. He possessed intelligence and a methodical approach, challenging the notion of him being a mere zealot. However, he also concealed many aspects of his true intentions. Chau, a quintessential millennial, had a passion for outdoor adventures and frequently documented his exploits on social media. He even became a brand influencer for a beef jerky company.
Chau’s religious beliefs evolved over time, influenced by his experiences at school, youth camps, and his attendance at Oral Roberts University, a private Christian institution. During his late teens, he became aware of the North Sentinelese and embraced the evangelical mission of spreading the Gospel to secluded communities.
The history of North Sentinel has been shrouded in myth and misinformation. In the Victorian era, the Andaman Islands, where North Sentinel is located, gave rise to sensational tales of cannibalistic pygmies. However, there is no evidence to support these claims. The islands also gained infamy as King Kong’s distant lair, perpetuating the image of a savage and untamed land.
In reality, the British governors who ruled over the islands during the colonial era treated the indigenous peoples with a mix of condescension, fear, and morbid fascination. Maurice Vidal Portman, an officer in particular, conducted anthropological expeditions among the Andamanese in the late 1900s. However, he also kidnapped children and tribespeople, exhibiting them as curiosities in Port Blair, the provincial capital.
Professor Vishvajit Pandya, an Indian anthropologist with expertise in Andaman Island tribes, debunks the notion of isolated communities on the islands. He asserts that the idea of discovering “uncontacted” tribes is a fallacy perpetuated by the white man’s burden mentality. Pandya’s approach, known as “eyes on, hands off,” has been the official policy towards the indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands since the 1980s.
Chau’s attempt to contact the North Sentinelese violated international law. He bribed local fishermen to evade coast guard patrols and bring him close to the shore. Pandya suspects a broader conspiracy, questioning how Chau managed to infiltrate the island and bypass the Navy’s surveillance. He believes Chau’s romanticized vision of being a hero and spreading the voice of Christ is misguided and disregards the humanity and history of the islanders.
The Mission sheds light on the extensive network of missionary organizations that supported and encouraged Chau’s mission. In 2021, the United States dispatched over 200,000 missionaries, more than any other country. While most missionaries work in communities that have opened themselves to the outside world, certain websites, such as the Joshua Project, focus on “unreached” people and advocate for their conversion.
All Nations, the missionary group that backed Chau, hailed him as a martyr after his death. In 2017, Chau participated in a two-week “missionary boot camp” organized by All Nations, which included role-playing a first contact scenario. The film features footage of this exercise, depicting wholesome Americans shouting gibberish and brandishing sticks at each other in a Kansas City park. In retrospect, it leaves a sour taste considering the tragic events that followed.
The directors of The Mission, Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, explore the fine line between faith and madness, questioning whether Chau was a martyr or a suicidal zealot. They emphasize the importance of not overshadowing the story of the North Sentinelese themselves, who face significant challenges such as climate change and illegal logging.
Chau’s diary entries reveal his fear of the island’s inhabitants but also his unwavering conviction in the righteousness of his mission. He wrote, “If God is with me, who can be against me?” The fate of the North Sentinelese will forever be intertwined with Chau’s tragic story.