Converting the Natives

John Allen Chau was killed by the protected people, the Sentinelese, on North Sentinel Island on 17 November 2018 when he had gone to preach Christianity to them. He was not the first Christian to do this in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Not by a long shot.

Nicobar island people, primarily on Car Nicobar, met French Jesuit missionaries in the sixteenth century. The missionaries met hostility among the tribes and did not like the adverse climate and left. The Moravian Church made more determined attempts in the eighteenth century, but they, too, failed and 24 of them lost their lives. A Roman Catholic missionary made a another attempt in the early nineteenth century without success. Next to try were the Danes a couple of decades later. All left without success.

When the British took possession of the islands in 1869, proselytisers belonging to the Church of England finally found a way to succeed. The British facilitated the entry of the Christian proselytisers to the islands and provided armed guards to those who ventured into the islands inhabited by the tribes. The Nicobarese were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to attend Bible lessons.

A book, Sons Of The Light: The Story of Car Nicobar, written by Reverend M D Srinivasan, was published in 1962. Srinivasan was based in Port Blair and wrote that the conversions of the Nicobarese to Christianity began in earnest after a Tamil convert to Christianity, V Solomon Thumbuswamy, landed in Port Blair in late 1895. After the British had established a penal colony in the Andamans, the British officials had set up an orphanage for aboriginal boys in 1885. Solomon was entrusted with the task of running this orphanage.

We take the words of Bishop John Richardson Hacherka, to describe the activity: “He (Solomon) used to accompany the (British) Superintendent of the (Port Blair) Settlement on his annual tour for the purpose of collecting (aboriginal) boys from the Nicobar (islands) for his school at Port Blair. As a result of this, parents hid their young boys in the jungle as soon as they detected the smoke of a steamer on the horizon. I was one of those boys. The villages would be emptied of young boys, and only adults would be left behind to look after the huts. As no younger boys could be found, some older lads were seized against their will and taken to Port Blair. After a few years, they were brought back with a few English phrases they had learned by heart and of which they were proud. These Car Nicobarese boys felt their exile; some of them tried to escape in an open boat and were all lost in the sea. To avoid such an occurrence again,. Solomon was sent to open a school at Car Nicobar. A bungalow and a small school were built for him. He collected his old boys and conducted prayers on Sundays. By force, he collected twelve young boys of school age, of whom I was one”.

The reason the proselytisers found it easy to convert the Nicobarese was, quoting Srinivasan in his book, that these aborigines were “of mild disposition”, “easy to manage”, and “gentle”. The other tribes, such as the Great Andamanese (of Strait Island), the Jarawas (of South and Middle Andamans), the Onges (Little Andaman), the Sentinelese (of North Sentinel Island), and Shompens (of Great Nicobar), were all hostile towards outsiders.

How did John Richardson Hacherka become a bishop? The Bishop of Rangoon had a plan. They took away a few boys (including Richardson) from Solomon’s schools to Rangoon to groom them into becoming priests. Richardson returned to his island home in 1912. He was ordained as a priest in 1934 and, in January 1950, was consecrated as a Bishop. Richardson converted nearly all the Nicobarese to Christianity. He was also nominated by the president to represent Andaman and Nicobar in Parliament in 1952.

Srinivasan, in his book, writes that because of WWII, there was no priest there until he reached there in 1955. There was a rivalry between the different organizations: “During this time, in the absence of a resident priest, sects like the Seventh Day Adventists and Pentecostals tried their best to lead our people astray. Nor was the Roman Church far behind in making use of the situation to their advantage”.

Of the estimated 425,000 people in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, only 20 per cent are Christians while 70 per cent are Hindus. Muslims constitute about 10 per cent of the population while Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and the animists (the aborigines) make up the rest. But of the Nicobar group of islands, more than 70 per cent are Christians while only 25 per cent are Hindus (mostly migrants from the mainland and Burma). Yes, 95 per cent of the Nicobarese natives are Christians. But the Christian proselytizers have had zero success with the Onges and the Sentinelese, and limited success with the Shompens, Jarawas, and Great Andamanese. And, thus, the determined efforts to convert them. John Allen Chau was just one among the Christian zealots driven to proselytise.

Evangelist groups like the Joshua Project lists the Sentinelese as a small group that “needs to know that Creator God exists, and that He loves them and paid the price for their sins”. The Joshua Project also has a similar listing for Onges that says: “The primary need of Onge people is to understand that Jesus Christ gave His life to pay the full penalty for their sins. Pray that instead of alcohol and drugs the Onge will turn to Jesus Christ.” Tourists have introduced these things to the people since a new road was built very close to where they live. They had not involved themselves much with outsiders before that.

There are about 400 Jarawas and a couple of them have become Christians. The Joshua Project does not leave them out but says: “We must pray for disciples who will do whatever it takes to reach Jarawa people.” The Joshua Project seeks ‘pioneer workers’ for “spreading the Gospel” to the aborigines of the archipelago.

Another group actively engaged in evangelizing is Finishing The Task (FTT), which describes itself as “an association of mission agencies and churches who want to see reproducing churches planted among every people group in the world”. The FTT says: “Jesus gave us the task of making disciples of all nations, and we know that eventually there will be people from every tribe, tongue, people and nation around his throne. After 2,000 years, it should be unthinkable to us as the church of Jesus Christ that there would be any unengaged people groups left in the world.”

The FTT lists ethnic groups that include the Onges and Sentinelese among them. Ethnic groups that “have no known full-time workers involved in evangelism and church planting” and Christian churches and congregations are urged to donate and volunteer in the task of proselytizing these groups.

The Indian Christian Fellowship (ICF) was started in 1988 by one reverend Varughese Mathew “according to the vision given to him by our Lord, to save the neglected people and plant local churches in all 546 villages of the scattered islands”. It describes itself as “an island ministry established to reach out to the thousands of unreached islanders in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, with the glorious gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”. The ICF website lists the progress made by Mathew, who has received funds from the West. “Many of the Islands are totally unreached with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Before the second coming of our Lord, Rev. Mathew and ICF are attempting to reach all the 546 villages in these scattered Islands using all possible means”.

The Andaman Vision, a Chennai-based evangelical group, is yet another Christian evangelical group that solicits donations and volunteers from around the world to spread Christianity in the archipelago. According to the administrators of the archipelago, the Christian missionaries spend huge sums of money for evangelization. “Allen Chau (the American who was killed by the Sentinelese) gave 25,000 rupees($350) to the fishermen to take him to that island.” An American could live for 10 days on Havelock Island for that. It’s a lot of money for poor fishermen. And those fishermen were arrested for breaking the law.

The zealous missionaries often bring themselves into conflict with others. “We receive many complaints from people about Christian preachers abusing other faiths. Many warnings have been issued and cases registered, but they pay no heed. They have powerful backers in New Delhi. We had standing instructions not to disturb the Christian missionaries and, in fact, help them in reaching out to the aboriginal tribes like the Onges and Jarawas,” said a senior officer, who did not want to be named.

Instructions were also given verbally to officials not to be strict with foreigners visiting the archipelago. That is why John Allen Chau, who came on a tourist visa, could move with such ease in the archipelago and did not even bother to register with the foreigners’ registration office there. “We know of many Western and South Korean missionaries who visit this place multiple times and sail to the islands where they are not supposed to go. But we have instructions not to disturb them and not to even question them,” the officer said.

The government in New Delhi appears to have made it easier for the proselytizers by removing the Restricted Areas Permit (RAP) requirement for foreigners to visit 29 islands, including the North Sentinel Island, where John Allen Chau had ventured. The restrictions were removed in the name of promoting tourism. Administrators of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands say that the ill-advised move will surely pave the way for Christian missionaries, including foreign proselytizers, to set foot on these islands and entice the aborigines and other poor people living there to Christianity through fraudulent means which include giving them money and goods.

John read Robinson Crusoe, a fictional account of a man left on an island who interacts with native people. He read about David Livingston who befriended Africans trying to find a way to stop slave trading by replacing it with the ivory trade. Did he read the works of anthropologists like T N Pandit or Madhumala Chattopadhyay to learn more about the tribe? Did he consult biologists who would have told him he carried in his body pathogens that the natives of that island could have no possible immunity against?

Dr. David Livingstone

Chau may have seen himself as another Bruce Olson who at 19 found his way to a native tribe in Venezuela in 1961. But Olson received permission from the Venezuelan president himself to contact the tribe. And he lived with a nearby tribe for six months before attempting to contact the Motilone. He nearly died from hepatitis. Olson had made his way among the Motilone and learned some of the language by that time. Ironically, without meaning to, he asked to be taken to their chief in their language. But when he arrived before the chief, he was more dead than alive from the hepatitis.

Olson heard a sound and begged to be taken to a clearing with his red tent spread out near him. A helicopter landed and the ‘giant vulture’ spirited him away.

Weeks later, he returned to the surprise of the natives. He was accepted now as a ‘spirit’ man. He helped the medicine woman stem an outbreak of pinkeye with a tube of Terramycin. He grew a small patch of corn which he shared with the chief. Delighted with this new food, the chief taught the tribe how to plant it. His people hailed him as a great benefactor and the chief became his friend and protector. The chief and the medicine woman concurred that Olson had brought only good to the tribe.

Olson had been listening to the stories around the campfire and wove a tale that included their God (Dibo-dibo) as having a son named Jesus who died and rose again with great power. One young man listed closely. Olson realized it was the one who shot him with an arrow upon their first meeting. Kobrydrá Bobarishora evidenced a change in his thinking and said, “I have Jesus talk in my stomach and in my mouth.”

Olson was not satisfied with his spiritual influence on the Motilone. He brought in domesticated chickens, turkeys and sheep. In addition to corn, he taught them to cultivate coconut trees. As a result, the Motilone have not had to move about to locate food, and have settled down more in their jungle life.

With this exciting tale in mind, Chau may have dreamed himself doing what no one had done before. But what about the other tribes on the Andaman Islands? How has contact with outsiders worked for them?

Portman, the British officer who visited North Sentinel in 1879, lamented what had happened to the Andamanese. He told the Royal Geographic Society, “Their association with outsiders has brought them nothing but harm, and it is a matter of great regret to me that such a pleasant race are so rapidly becoming extinct.”

T.N. Pandit came to a similar conclusion after witnessing what became of the Jarawa, who only began to emerge from the jungle in the late 1990s. Once fierce, proud, and wary, unbowed and unwilling to come out of the forest and into civilization, he found their subsequent diminishment appalling. Pandit said in a recent interview, “Their food supply like honey, crab, and fish are being taken away in exchange for biscuits. They don’t need biscuits. They have learned to smoke and drink. In my opinion, we should not be in any great hurry to make contact with the Sentinelese.”

Adam Goodheart, a historian, agrees. Twenty years ago he, like Chau, hired a fishing boat to take him close to the island, though he never got closer than a few hundred yards from shore. “I felt and still feel a lot of ambivalence about deciding to go there,” he says now. “We have to think about the Sentinelese as having their own foreign policy, which they’ve made clear through their actions; they don’t want anyone to land there,” he says. “If they felt like they wanted to make contact, there have been many, many opportunities for them to do so. The Indian government periodically say that maybe they could use the benefits we could bring them, modern medicine or technology, but I feel strongly that until the Sentinelese start asking for that, we owe it to them to keep away.”

If you want to know what John himself thought you can now read his last journal:

The Last Journal of John Allen Chau