The Last Days of John Allen Chau

Posted by on Jul 30, 2019 in Articles | No Comments

In the fall of 2018, the 26-year-old American missionary traveled to a remote speck of sand and jungle in the Indian Ocean, attempting to convert one of the planet’s last uncontacted tribes to Christianity. The islanders killed him, and Chau was pilloried around the world as a deluded Christian supremacist who deserved to die. Alex Perry pieces together the life and death of a young adventurer driven to extremes by unshakable faith.

Part One

On November 21, 2018, Dependra Pathak, director general of police in the Andamans and Nicobars, an archipelago of paradise islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, issued a press release headed “Death of US National.” Pathak, a short, mustached man with the paunch of 28 years’ service in the Indian police, wrote that his office in the island capital of Port Blair had received an e-mail two days earlier from the U.S. consulate in Chennai, 850 miles away on the mainland. The consulate, Pathak said, had been contacted by an American woman, the mother of “one Mr. John Allen Chau … about her son’s visit to North Sentinel Island and attack by the tribesmen.” Upon receiving the e-mail, “a missing report was immediately registered” and a “detailed enquiry was initiated.” Within hours, Pathak’s detectives reported back that Chau “allegedly got killed at North Sentinel Island during his misplaced adventure in the highly restricted area while trying to interact with the uncontacted people who have a history of vigorous rejection towards outsiders.”

What Pathak did not say, because Port Blair’s small press corps already knew, was that, aside from Chau, almost no outsider had ever set foot on North Sentinel. That in itself did not make the island unusual. The Andamans and Nicobars are a lost world, 836 islands of mangroves, rainforests, and crescent-moon beaches stretching for 480 miles where the Bay of Bengal meets the Andaman Sea in the warm waters between India, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia. Only 31 islands are inhabited. Living alongside Indian settlers are six protected indigenous tribes that for thousands of years have existed apart from the rest of humanity, spearing fish and turtles and shooting wild pigs with bows and arrows. This includes the people of North Sentinel, whose reputation for killing anyone who lands on their tiny island ensures that they are the world’s most isolated people.

Almost nothing is known about the Sentinelese. From their appearance, they are African. The theory is that, like three other black tribes on the Andamans, they are descended from people who migrated from the Cradle of Humankind in Africa tens of thousands of years ago. Some of them settled on a mountain range that once connected to Myanmar. Around 10,000 B.C., when the ice caps melted and the sea rose, those mountains became islands, sealing the tribes off from the world. For anthropologists, the existence of black hunter-gatherers in Asia is a wonder. For the religious, it’s a miracle: Adam and Eve, living as God created them.

john allen chau
Chau in Washington’s North Cascades in 2017 (John Allen Chau/Facebook)

Pathak wrote that he had directed the coast guard to fly over North Sentinel and a second group of officers to sail past in a patrol boat. Neither saw any sign of Chau. The evidence of the American’s death came from statements by five fishermen who first reported him missing. The men said that they had dropped him off close to shore on November 16. Returning a day later, they saw “a dead person being buried at the shore which from the silhouette of the body, clothing and circumstances appeared to be the body of John Allen Chau.” Pathak had arrested all five fishermen, plus two more men from Port Blair, all of whom, he wrote, helped Chau travel to North Sentinel despite knowing “fully well about the illegality of the action and the hostile attitude of the Sentinelese tribesmen to the outsiders.” In their defense, the fishermen stated that “the deceased … without any pressure or undue influence from any corner, had volunteered to visit North Sentinel Island for preaching Christianity to the aboriginal tribe.”

Pathak headlined his release URGENT. Still, he was probably surprised by its impact. Within a day, journalists around the world were mesmerizing the public with the story of how a 26-year-old American missionary had been killed by a Stone Age tribe on a remote island. Thousands of commentators weighed in, with a near unanimous verdict. The idea that people still lived seminaked in the forest, sustained by what they could hunt with bows and spears, was enchanting. The idea that missionaries were still venturing into the jungle to convert them was outrageous and probably racist. Stephen Corry, director of the indigenous-advocacy group Survival International, warned that whole populations of remote people “are being wiped out by violence from outsiders who steal their land and resources, and by diseases like the flu and measles to which they have no resistance.” Chau might have infected them even in death. No wonder the Sentinelese, Corry said, had “shown again and again that they want to be left alone.” 

In a stream of tweets, takes, and TV segments over the months that followed, Chau was characterized at best as a dumbass backpacker and at worst as a Christian supremacist indifferent to genocide. His ignoring the tribe’s wish to be left alone and the risks he posed to them were attributed to imperialist arrogance. His attempt to “save” the Sentinelese was ascribed to delusion and brainwashing. In a post on his Instagram page, his family expressed forgiveness for his killers, saying that Chau “had nothing but love for the Sentinelese,” while in the family’s only other public comment, his father, Patrick, seemed to support comparisons between his son and suicidal jihadis, telling The Guardian that “extreme Christianity” led his son to his “not unexpected end.” Twitter reckoned that Chau deserved to die. Others found humor in his demise. Four thousand Google reviewers wrote spoof travel posts about North Sentinel, praising the island’s beauty but questioning the cuisine (“my right leg was … still a bit raw”) and service (“we kept being interrupted by arrows”). In late December, comedian Frankie Boyle wrapped up his prime-time show on the BBC with a monologue imagining a Sentinelese warrior splitting Chau’s penis in half, speculating that his rib cage was now being used as “a monkey’s xylophone,” and suggesting that John Allen Chau would achieve immortality as “the patron saint of daft cunts.”

Lost in this festival of scorn was much sense of the young man who journeyed to the edge of the world only to die there. Who was John Chau? What was he looking for? What did he find? 

Journal entry

November 14, 2018

Port Blair

I’ve been in a safehouse in Port Blair since returning from Hut Bay, Little Andaman, for the past 11 days! I hadn’t seen any full sunlight till today and my nice tan I had acquired started to fade, as well as my thickly callused feet. The benefit of that is that I was essentially in quarantine. I met last night with the fishermen who are all believers and who agreed to drop me off. The meeting went well—I trust them. The drop-zone was pointed out on the map as being a cove on the SW of the island and I depart in three or so hours. The plan is to link up with the crew and depart tonight, arriving at the shore around 0400. From there we make progressive contact with fish as gifts over the next few days, then send me off. Depending on the darkness, I might land briefly and bury and cache a pelican case for later. We might even send the kayak laden with gifts towards shore.

Soli Deo Gloria!

John Chau was the son of an unlikely couple, Patrick Chau and Lynda Adams-Chau. Patrick is a Chinese American success story. Born in Guangzhou in 1952, he had been training to be an artist when, in 1968, amid the turmoil of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, he was forced onto a communal farm and made to work ten hours a day, seven days a week, for six years. In 1974, Patrick’s father secured his son’s passage to Hong Kong. Two years later, Patrick emigrated to the United States, working odd jobs in Los Angeles and learning English from the radio before being accepted to study chemistry at the University of Southern California.

In 1983, Patrick won an Army scholarship to attend medical school at Oral Roberts University, an evangelical college in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Patrick applied himself to his new religion as assiduously as his studies, reading the Bible, learning how to construct religious arguments, and declaring himself a Christian. Though never quite comfortable with ORU’s evangelism, he found that at its medical school “no one cared about your religion as long as you do your work.” In Tulsa he met Lynda Adams, an ORU professor who taught social work, at a Christmas party. The couple married in 1985, and Lynda gave birth to Brian in 1986. Patrick graduated from med school at 35 in 1988. Marilyn was born in early 1989 around the time that the family moved to Alabama for Patrick to begin his psychiatric residency. In 1991, Patrick deployed to the Gulf War as an army reservist. Soon after he returned, Lynda gave birth to John.

While Lynda was devout, Patrick’s faith had more practical foundations. He retained an attachment to Confucianism, but Christianity had given him an education, a profession, and a family, and he was happy for it to guide his wife and children. When Patrick opened a psychiatry practice in Vancouver, Washington, Lynda became an organizer for the Christian fellowship Chi Alpha at Washington State University’s local campus, and their three children attended a private school, Vancouver Christian. Patrick saw no conflict between faith and science, and he enjoyed debating religious doctrine the same as he would a medical text. Brian and Marilyn inherited their father’s pragmatic conformism and, in near identical careers, studied premed at ORU, then medicine at Loma Linda University, a school founded by Seventh-day Adventists in Southern California. They both became disability specialists focusing on veterans.

John took after his father’s more wistful side. Patrick still painted, filling the family home with idyllic landscapes: a single cabin in the mountains with smoke pluming from its chimney, or a lone figure in a canoe paddling through the wilderness. Years later, John wrote about a picture of a three-masted ship on a stormy sea that his father completed the year he was born. “When I was a kid, I used to gaze constantly at this,” he said. “After reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the first thing I did was to put my hand on the painting to see if I could enter into the world of Narnia. … I think this painting helped spark adventure in my young soul.”

On weekends, Patrick and Lynda took their children camping and hiking in the hills and woods around Vancouver. In a memorial essay that he distributed to friends after John’s death, Patrick said that when his son was younger, he was obsessed with BB-gun war games, forming his own team when he entered high school. But as John grew older, he was increasingly drawn to the sense of the divine that he felt when surrounded by untrammeled wilderness. “Why do I hike?” he wrote years later. “To see but a brief glimpse of the Glory of the Creator.”

Patrick remembers John first mentioning living on a desert island at the age of ten. It was 2002, John had read Robinson Crusoe, and the family was on vacation in Hawaii when John announced that one day he wanted to live in a place exactly like that, swinging through the trees, jumping into the water, and spearing jellyfish. Patrick had laughed. But the notion of island life stuck with John, and over the years Patrick watched his son refine and reinforce his ambition. 

In 2008, as a junior in high school, John traveled to Mexico on a school mission to help build an orphanage. He enjoyed meeting new people, and the experience made him wonder what the ultimate version of such a trip might be. On his return to Vancouver, John began a search for the most remote tribes on earth, which soon turned up a string of islands in the Indian Ocean. John read how for thousands of years, the tribes on the Andamans and Nicobars had cut themselves off from the world. As far back as the second century A.D., the Egyptian geographer Ptolemy wrote about “an island of Cannibals” in the archipelago. In the 13th century, Marco Polo called the islanders “no better than wild beasts … heads like dogs and teeth and eyes likewise … a most cruel generation [who] eat everybody that they can catch, if not of their own race.” 

After establishing a settlement on the Andamans in the mid-19th century, the British identified five separate “Negrito” tribes and, on the more southern Nicobars, two “Mongoloid” groups from Asia. Inevitably, the colonialists devastated the tribes’ numbers along with their solitude. By the 1930s, one Andamanese tribe, the Jangil, was extinct. Three others—the Great Andamanese, the Onge, and the Jarawa—had suffered a population collapse from several thousand to a few hundred. The only people to survive untouched were the hundred or so souls thought to be living on North Sentinel, the name that Britain gave the small square island, just five miles long and four miles across, that marked the northern sea approach to its new administrative capital, Port Blair. That a people had managed to live alone in the wilderness for so long was a marvel to John. Patrick described how when John “finally found the last frontier of unexplored land and people untouched by Christianity, he was excited, as if the place and the people were specifically left for him.”

Journal entry

November 15, 2018

North Sentinel

Rendezvoused successfully last night with the friends. Currently on the boat, waiting to make contact. Left around 2000 and arrived around 2230 but as we went north along the eastern shore, we saw boat lights in the distance and turned around, headed south and evaded them. All along the way, our boat was highlighted by bioluminescent plankton—and as fish jumped nearby, we could see them like darting mermaids shimmering along. The Milky Way was above and God Himself was shielding us from the coastguard and navy patrols. At 0430, we entered the cove on the western shore and as the sun began to light the east, me and two of the guys jumped in the shallows and brought my two pelicans and kayak onto the northern point of the cove. The dead coral is sharp and I already got a slight scratch on my right leg. Now we see a Sentinel islander house and are waiting for them to come out. We also saw three large fires on the eastern shore last night.

Soli Deo Gloria

Seventeen years ago, I also went looking for the tribes of the Andamans. Like John, I’d been a backpacker in my twenties. In my thirties, I became a foreign correspondent as a way to stay on the road and get paid for it. In 2002, I moved to India and met an anthropologist who told me an astonishing story about a group of Neolithic tribes still living on remote Indian Ocean islands. Meeting them became my obsession.

As John had, I hoarded information about the Andamans. Like him, I was less interested in the science or history of indigenous peoples than in the adventure they promised. For several years, I made repeated furtive attempts to reach them. I was questioned by officials in Port Blair, had a shoving match with a policeman who was following me, and was eventually asked to leave the islands. I gave up only after I moved to Africa in 2006.

One reason, I think, that Patrick and a handful of John’s friends spoke with me in the months after his death, breaking a silence they imposed in the face of the coverage he received, was that I had my own experience with the islands. I recognized the giddiness in John’s journal, the way the islands seemed to offer something big and difficult and dangerous and extraordinary.

Where John and I differed was that while I had been a reporter pursuing a story, John wanted to be the story. By his late teens, he had progressed far beyond Robinson Crusoe. He devoured books on iconic missionaries like David Livingstone in Africa. Jim Elliot, speared to death at age 28, along with four other Americans, by the Huaorani people in Ecuador in 1956, was a particular role model. The missionary was raised within walking distance of the Chau family home, just across the Columbia River in Portland, Oregon. As John grew up, the legend of the local hero killed by savages swelled. Elliot’s story was told in several books, a documentary in 2002, and a movie in 2005.

There were parallels, too, between the Huaorani and the Sentinelese. Both tribes had almost no contact with the outside world. Both seemed to have ambiguous attitudes toward outsiders. Before killing Elliot and his friends, the Huaorani exchanged gifts with them, and one tribesman even took a ride in their plane. The Sentinelese reputation for aggression was reinforced in 1981 when dozens of armed warriors tried to surround a beached freighter that had run aground, forcing the crew to radio for an airlift. (Metal salvaged from the ship is thought to be the source of the iron tips on the Sentinelese’s arrows and spears.) In 2004, a lone bowman tried to shoot down a coast guard helicopter, and two years later the Sentinelese killed a pair of Indian crab fishermen who drifted ashore. But John also knew that since 1967, Indian anthropologists had been enjoying brief, nonviolent excursions, pulling up close in boats and dropping coconuts in the surf. The Sentinelese would approach unarmed, scoop up the coconuts, and even briefly board the boats.

Despite these encouraging signs, there was no doubt that an expedition to North Sentinel could be fatal. There was no question, either, that this was what made the idea so heroic. The power of Elliot’s legacy stemmed largely from his murder. A passage from his journal in 1949 is taken by many missionaries as proof that Elliot knew the risks and went anyway, regarding self-­sacrifice as virtuous and even logical. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose,” he wrote

John found such sentiments inspiring. To Patrick, they were alarming. One day in 2009, when Patrick overheard his 17-year-old son telling friends that reaching North Sentinel was his calling and his mission, Patrick’s heart sank. He knew that his son’s calling was based on fantasy.

Journal entry

November 15, 2018

North Sentinel Island, Southwest Cove

Around 0830, I tried initiating contact. I went back to the cached kayak and built it up, then round to the boat and got two large fish—one barracuda and one half GT/tuna. I put them on the kayak and began waving to the house we had seen. As I was about 400 yds out, I heard women looing and chattering. Then I spotted two dugout canoes with outriggers. I rowed past one, then saw movement on shore. Two armed Sentinelese came rushing out yelling at me—they had two arrows each, unstrung, until they got closer. I hollered “My name is John. I love you and Jesus loves you. Jesus Christ gave me authority to come to you. Here is some fish!”

I regret I began to panic slightly as I saw them string arrows in their bows. I picked up the GT/tuna and threw it toward them. They kept coming. I slid the barracuda off. It started to sink but my thoughts were directed toward the fact I was almost in arrow range. I backpaddled. When they got the fish, I turned and paddled like I never have in my life, back to the boat. 

I felt some fear but mostly was disappointed they didn’t accept me right away. I can now say I’ve been nearly shot by the Sentinelese and I’ve walked and cached gear on their island. Now I’m resting in the boat and will try again later, leaving gifts on shore and in rocks. Lord protect me and guide me.

As John entered his twenties, Patrick had reasons to hope that his son would change course before it was too late. John followed the family example by heading to ORU to study health and physical education, and he hinted to his parents that he was considering a career in medicine. 

But John’s preoccupation was hiking, climbing, fishing, and kayaking. In Tulsa he would escape whenever he could, fishing on his lunch break and on weekends bouldering, trekking, and paddling around the Ozarks. Some trips took him farther afield. In 2012, John had traveled to Cape Town as part of an ORU mission trip, and in 2013 he returned for three months. After graduating in 2014, John traveled to Kurdistan with More than a Game, a Christian soccer charity, then headed back to Cape Town for a third stint there. By the summer of 2015, John seemed to have decided to live as much of his life outdoors as possible. He qualified as a wilderness medic. He led trekking expeditions around Mount Adams in Washington. For three years, beginning in 2016, he worked for six months as a park guide in Northern California, basing himself at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area, where he lived in a one-room cabin owned by the National Park Service.

More and more, John was choosing to experience the outdoors alone. He backpacked solo around South Africa and India. Back in the U.S., he made treks around Whiskeytown and along California’s Lost Coast, spending days by himself. At times, John complained of loneliness. “One thing I learned for certain: man was not made to be alone,” he wrote after an 11-day hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2014. But his compulsion for the wilderness often found him heading out unaccompanied. He started a blog called That Solitary Path. He filled his Instagram feed with pictures of empty tracks heading into the hills, tiny tents in vast landscapes, and one-man campsites high up in the snow, his hiking gear artfully arranged in the foreground.

To his few hundred followers, John’s life appeared to be that of a bold outdoorsman. He called himself an explorer, and his posts depicted an existence almost continuously on the road, chasing down a new peak or trekking route or ice-cold swimming hole in a hidden mountain ravine. He liked to pose for selfies as if roaring and tell stories of close escapes, such as making it off the Cascades as a wildfire closed in and recovering from a rattlesnake bite. His descriptions of his ethnicity—he wrote “part Irish, part native American (Choctaw), part African, and part Chinese and southeast Asian” in his journal—suggested he was experimenting with a more complex and worldly identity. On Instagram, he presented himself as the consummate trail bro. He was almost always “super stoked” by the prospect of a “super rad” hike with a fellow “wildman” or “legends.” “Dang,” his followers would comment. “Legit, bro.” 

Only rarely did the mask slip. “Ah man, don’t envy it,” he replied to one admirer. “It’s hard, and the pics only show the good parts.” In truth, John was censoring more than his moods. In his first posts, he quoted psalms and missionaries. But after his first trip to the Andamans in 2015, he cut back on references to his beliefs, mostly confining himself to the cryptic Latin hashtag #SoliDeoGloria, “Glory to God alone.” On the Andamans, his posts of beaches and scuba dives suggested that his trip was just one more adventure. In Chennai, en route to his first stay on the islands, he met Elkanah Jebasingh, 25, a machine-learning specialist for Amazon’s Alexa program. The pair would connect whenever John passed through, a total of four times by October 2018. John appeared “quite open,” Elkanah recalls. “He showed his face to people.” After John’s death, when Elkanah read about his friend’s true reason for being on the islands, he was stunned. All that John had told him was that he had friends in the Andamans. “He never told me anything about his mission.”

John’s reticence reflected a conscious hardening of his faith. From his late teens, Patrick wrote, his son countenanced no “questioning or criticizing” of “this adventure of evangelism.” Patrick felt “excluded from any input.” In his journal, John asked God to “please continue to keep all of us involved hidden from the physical and spiritual forces who desire to keep the people here in darkness.” John’s rad life wasn’t exactly a front, but it hid his clandestine objective. Patrick concluded that John’s prior exploits were all in preparation for Sentinel Island.

By late 2016, Patrick felt that time was running out to try and stop his son. John had made a second trip to the Andamans and seemed more determined than ever. Brian, who found his brother’s single-mindedness just as disturbing, told his father that there was “no way to change his stubborn mind.” Patrick decided that he had to try. He confronted his son, telling him that what to him might seem like righteous commitment was evidence to anyone else of a trapped and blinkered mind. “In my observation, he was selectively collecting whatever preacher’s doctrines were in favour of his self-directed, self-governed, self-appointed plan,” he wrote.

John stuck to his belief that it was his duty to go to North Sentinel. The islanders were damned to “eternal fire” if they never heard the Gospel, and as an outdoorsman with a knack for making friends in new places, John was one of the few souls in Christendom who could save them. It felt ordained, John said, like God was calling him. Patrick believed his son was deceiving himself. This wasn’t just about helping the Sentinelese or obeying God. This was about John’s Messiah complex. He described his son as a victim of fantasies, fanatacism, and extremism.

The argument ended without resolution, and Patrick never raised the matter again. But for the next two years he was haunted by their quarrel—and by John’s certainty. He was never able to shake the feeling that he was watching his son walk calmly and confidently toward his own death.

Part Two

To reach the Andamans, you fly to India’s east coast, then continue toward the horizon. The islands appear out of the ocean after two hours over open water—first one, then five, then dozens of dots of dark jungle ringed by bright halos of shallows. Only when the plane banks does a small settlement of rusted roofs and dusty roads appear at the end of a forested headland, the one sign of human habitation where otherwise there is only water, mudflats, beaches, and trees.

On the ground, Port Blair initially resembles any provincial Indian town. The slums are squeezed onto its highest, most distant hills. From there, tight alleys tumble down past orphanages and temples, past the A1 Chicken and Mutton Centre, past gold traders and haberdashers, before emerging at the wharves and open sewers of Junglee Ghat, where the last of the Great Andamanese warriors, defeated and ruined by ­disease, lived out their days. A closer look reveals a town struggling to impose itself. The roads are buckled. The walls are cracked and crumbling under black mold. The jetties have splintered under the assault of the dozens of cyclones and storms that roll in off the Bay of Bengal every year. The sense is of a place that could disappear at any moment.

Anyone researching the islands soon comes across the Hindi term kala pani, which translates as “black waters” and originates in a Hindu taboo on ocean voyages. The injunction contends that long-distance travel does not broaden the mind, as commonly supposed, but putrefies the character by exposing it to impurity. This view of exploration as corruption—either because what the traveler finds infects them, or perhaps because finding themselves so far from home, they hang up their moral compass—finds support in the long history of foreigners showing up on the islands and behaving abominably. Anthropologists speculate that the ancient hostility recorded by Ptolemy and Marco Polo was a reaction to slave raiders. That reasoned xenophobia was reinforced by British colonialists, who turned their muskets and cannons on the islanders, stole their land, then stood back as pestilence carried off most of the population. 

A particularly grim example was Port Blair’s Cellular Jail, opened in 1906 to house Indian freedom fighters shipped off to rot. Built on a spur above town, the prison’s design was based on a panopticon, allowing wardens and doctors to see into every cell—the better to monitor medical experiments they conducted on inmates, such as measuring the efficacy of different malaria medicines. Among Indians, kala pani came to refer to the jail itself. 

Perhaps no one fell so deeply under the islands’ spell as Maurice Vidal Portman, a minor English aristocrat and amateur anthropologist who was made Royal Navy officer in charge of the islands in 1879 when he was just 19. For two decades, Portman made ceaseless expeditions to find the various Andaman tribes, who he would kidnap and transport to Port Blair. Portman was an enthusiastic practitioner of “race science,” believing that intelligence could be gauged by measuring a subject’s cranium with calipers. Poor science cannot explain Portman’s additional recording of the size of islanders’ penises, breasts, and testicles; his evaluation of their “lustfulness” (which he equated with willfulness); and his photographs of naked tribesmen in classical poses. But his ambivalence about whether his subjects lived or died is explained by the view, common in Europe at the time, that the beings before him were so distantly of his species, they were best categorized as fauna. “They sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents,” Portman wrote of six Sentinelese he took to Port Blair. “This expedition was not a success. … We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers.”

The end of colonialism was accompanied by evolving ideas about indigenous peoples. Among the theories gaining currency were those of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, a British researcher who visited the Andamans from 1906 to 1908, whose study of the tribes was foundational to the new discipline of social anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown rejected the notion that all societies followed the same path to progress and that the tribes were less advanced and thus inferior to Europeans. He proposed that the tribes’ hunter-gatherer lifestyle was best explained not by backwardness but by superior adaptation to their environment. Such ideas spelled the end of a consensus that racism had scientific justification, and the emergence of the notion that all human beings are of equal worth.

john allen chau
The North Sentinelese (Creative Commons)

Against this history, a Westerner setting off into the jungle to find a lost tribe presents a uniquely unfortunate image. Once, that figure had been me. Reading John’s journal as I retraced his footsteps around Port Blair, I recognized his sense of virtuous, selfless mission. This, I began to think, was the essence of the kala pani curse: obsession, arrogance, self-deception, even moral rot, all of it buttressed by an almost inhuman absence of doubt. At the time I was going after the tribes, I never questioned myself. Portman and the Cellular Jail torturers carried on undisturbed for decades. The words Patrick used to describe John’s state of mind—“reckless,” “banzai,” “like an arrow on a pulled bow string”—suggested a kind of mania.

Looking for a missionary who had changed course, I found Daniel Everett, who ventured into the Brazilian Amazon in 1977 to convert a tribe called the Pirahã but lost his resolve, and his faith, when he confronted their unshakable contentment. Everett’s story, told in his book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, is partly about breaking free of a way of thinking that values steadfastness so highly that the protagonist is all but unable to accommodate a new or different perspective—or even sometimes plain common sense.

When we spoke, I asked Everett about the adulation that many evangelists still heap on Bruce Olson, a missionary contemporary of his in South America who John mentioned as a hero. In his 1973 memoir Bruchko, Olson recounts how, in 1960, in the library at the University of Minnesota as a 19-year-old freshman, God gave him a new calling, ordering him with the words: “Bruce, I want you in South America.” 

Flying to Venezuela on a one-way ticket with $70 in his pocket, Olson walked alone into the jungle and found his way to the Bari tribe, who shot him through the leg with an arrow, then accepted him as their savior. To a lay reader, Olson’s story hovers between narcissism and fabulism by way of some crass stereotyping. He eats “squirming grubs … about the size and shape of a hot dog,” observes how the natives “love bright things,” and finally triumphs when he confronts the Bari’s fear of a mythical tiger. 

Those who knew Olson were unsparing. A French anthropologist who lived with him for a year in the Amazon denounced him as a mythomaniac and charlatan. Everett told me: “I know Bruce Olson. I think he’s telling a lot of untruths in those stories.” Yet for half a century, fellow charismatics have hailed Olson as an idol. Everett observed that it wasn’t that Olson and his fellow missionaries rejected the truth. It was that they couldn’t hear it. Whatever happened in life, Everett said Olson’s disciples knew—with absolute certainty—that “if it is good, then it is God, if it is bad, then it is Satan.”

Journal entry

November 15, 2018

North Sentinel Island, Southwest Cove

Well, I’ve been shot by the Sentinelese. After that initial contact, some of the guys went spear fishing and caught what they call “cutt-a-la,” a grouper or sea bass with big lips—they caught two and each weighed about 30lbs. After first going poop in the water, I built the kayak and we put the two fish on top and, inside, my small pelican. [That] contained pencils, my contact response kit (for arrow wounds), abdominal pads, chest seal, dental forceps for arrow removal, picture cards, multivitamins, multitools (including one my brother gave as a groomsmen gift that has my name engraved on it) and, unfortunately, my passports. I had my waterproof Bible and some gifts: scissors, tweezers, safety pins, fishing line, hooks, cordage, rubber tubing and my new Speedo towel. 

I set off toward the north shore. As I got closer, I heard whoops and shouts from the hut. I made sure to stay out of arrow range and as they (about 6) yelled at me, I tried to parrot their words back to them. They burst out laughing. Probably were saying bad words or insulting me. Then two dropped their bows and took a dugout to meet me. I kept a safe distance and dropped off the fish and gifts. At first they poled their dugout past the gifts and were coming at me, then they turned and grabbed the gifts. I paddled after them and exchanged more yells. 

Here’s where this nice meet and greet went south. A child and a young woman came behind the two gift receivers with bows drawn. I kept waving my hands to say “no bows” but they didn’t get the memo, I guess. By this time the waves had picked up and the kayak was getting near some shallow coral. The islanders saw that and blocked my exit. Then the little kid with bow and arrow came down the middle. I figured that this was it, so I preached a bit to them, starting in Genesis and disembarked my kayak to show them that I too have two legs. I was inches from [an] unarmed guy (well-built with a round face, yellowish pigment in circles on his cheeks, about 5ft 5″) and gave him a bunch of the scissors and gifts. Then they took the kayak. Then the little kid shot me with an arrow, directly into my Bible which I was holding in front of my chest. 

I grabbed the arrow shaft as it broke on my Bible (on pp 933, Isaiah 63:5–65:2). The head was metal, thin but very sharp. They left me alone as I half-waded, half-swam through the broken coral to the deep where I knew their dugouts couldn’t reach [then] swam almost a mile back to the boat. Although I now have no kayak nor my small pelican and its contents, I’m grateful that I still have the written word of God.

LORD is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have even had a chance to hear Your Name?

John first met Casey Prince in Cape Town in 2012 as part of a group of ORU volunteers helping Prince’s soccer outreach program for fatherless boys. Every few years after that, John would fly to South Africa to stay with Prince, his wife, and their two children at their bungalow in Ocean View, a windswept township on Cape Town’s Atlantic coast. It was here that John spent his last weeks before the Andamans. Prince calls John’s plan for North Sentinel “so extreme” in its audacity. But he says it was also something John arrived at through sober reflection. Leaving college, Prince says, John confronted the usual questions: What to do with his life? What was he best at? What did he enjoy? His answers followed conventional Christian logic. “Our way of looking at it would be God sort of birthed all these interests in John,” Prince says. “He gave him a heart for the outdoors, this love of adventure. He prepared him by him going to these places around the world. He gave him this way of connecting with people.”

There were also abundant signs pointing John to North Sentinel if, like him, you were looking for them. ORU’s creation myth was that its founder, Oral Roberts, was told by God to send his students “even to the uttermost bounds of the earth.” That sounded a lot like the Andamans. On one of his scouting trips, John realized that his mixed-race heritage would help disguise him as a fisherman from the Karen community, Christian seamen originally from Myanmar who were his best bet for getting a ride to North Sentinel. “God, I thank you for choosing me before I was even formed in my mother’s womb,” he wrote in his journal. 

Ocean View, meanwhile, turned out to be a ten-minute drive from a regional hub of All Nations, a missionary group specializing in converting remote tribes. While in Cape Town, John would drop by for advice and encouragement. He also met a South African missionary, Pieter V., who had reached the Jarawa by sea. It all fit. Even John’s initials, J.C., pointed to a holy purpose. 

John Middleton Ramsey, who met John on an evangelical tour of Israel in 2015, concedes that whether you buy John’s reasoning comes down to whether you share his faith. Speaking from his home in Cologne, Germany, Ramsey says: “If you don’t believe, then what he did seems ludicrous.” In a missionary context, however, Ramsey insists that John’s plans were more rad than crazy. He describes a subculture among young American missionary men that combines piety, celibacy, and Indiana Jones. Ramsey says he has spent weeks illegally handing out Christian flyers and proselytizing on trips to the Middle East and Asia. He has other friends who have made expeditions to meet isolated tribes. When John told Ramsey he had to go to North Sentinel because the Sentinelese were the most difficult people on earth to reach, Ramsey replied that it sounded awesome. “I’ve moved in those circles all my life,” he says. “And I won’t lie—it is fun.”

Ramsey and Prince point to John’s meticulous preparation as further evidence of a sound mind. He persuaded an All Nations chapter in Kansas City, Missouri, to train him how to meet remote tribes and to act as his support base. He took a nine-week course at the Canadian Institute of Linguistics on learning unknown languages. Before his departure, according to All Nations, he tried to immunize himself against 13 infectious diseases. In Cape Town, Prince says he watched John “preparing himself mentally, physically, and spiritually. He was aware of where he was headed and appreciated the dangers, and he was quite measured and cautious and doing his homework. He had read a ton. He took his physical health very seriously, eating well, exercising, trying not to bring disease there.” 

One afternoon, Prince says, John went out in the freezing Cape Town swell, rolling his collapsible kayak over and over, ­making sure he could survive a wave. Another time, John told him he wanted to go jogging but was worried about being mugged. “He is about to go someplace that’s completely wild and unmapped,” Prince laughed, “and he’s anxious about running down to Kommetjie and back.” Prince saw John’s concern as symptomatic of his fastidiousness. “He did not want anything to interfere with his plans,” he said.

Nor, John’s friends say, was he a colonizer, as later caricatured. His decision to go alone to North Sentinel derived not from machismo, Ramsey says, but a desire “to be as unthreatening as possible.” Prince says the same approach was behind his decision to make his trip to North Sentinel one-way. John reckoned that “success looked like being there for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years—however long it took to learn the language, to learn the culture, to build trust.” 

“He was not invincible,” Prince says. “John was not a forceful person or an invader or a fearless person. He was, like, a five-foot-six Chinese American guy. How’s he going to force you to do anything?”

Journal entry

November 15, 2018

The plan now is to rest and sleep on the boat and in the morning to drop me off by the cache and then I walk along the beach toward the same hut I’ve been giving gifts to. It’s weird—actually no, it’s natural: I’m scared.

There, I said it. Also frustrated and uncertain—is it worth me going on foot to meet them? Lord, let Your Will be done. If you want me to get actually shot or even killed with an arrow, then so be it. To You, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens. I DON’T WANT TO DIE! Would it be wiser to leave and let someone else continue? No, I don’t think so—I’m stuck here anyway without a passport. It almost seems like certain death to stay here, yet there is evidential change in two encounters in a single day.

Watching the sunset and it’s beautiful—crying a bit … wondering if it’ll be the last sunset I see before being in the place where the sun never sets. Tearing up a little. 

God, I don’t want to die. WHO WILL TAKE MY PLACE IF I DO? OH GOD I miss my parents, my mom and my dad and Brian and Marilyn and Bobby (even though he was just here!) and Christian and someone I can talk to and be understood. None of the guys on the boat know much English to ask their opinions and tell stuff like this to. I’ve never felt this much grief or sorrow before. WHY! Why did a little kid have to shoot me? His high-pitched voice still lingers in my head. Now that I think about it, after I got shot by that arrow, I gave it BACK! Man, I should have snapped it. Father, forgive him and any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially forgive them if they succeed! What made them become this defensive and hostile? Why does this beautiful place have so much death?

Last night I had what I’d call a vision as I’ve never had one before. My eyes were shut but I wasn’t asleep. I saw a purple hue over an island-like city as a meteorite or star fell to it, and it was a frightening city with jagged spires and I felt disturbed. Then a different, whiteish light filled it and all the frightening bits melted away.

LORD strengthen me. Whoever comes after me to take my place, whether it’s after tomorrow or another time, please give them a double anointing and bless them mightily.

Back from the Port Blair seafront, up a side alley paved with small rainbows of litter, is the Hotel Lalaji Bayview, a turquoise building where rooms with a bed, a fan, a shower, and clean sheets start at 800 rupees ($11.50). On the roof is a restaurant with clear views of the bay, offering curries, pizza, and all-day American, English, Israeli, and Spanish breakfasts. Hanging on a wall is a Warhol-style print of Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Kurt Cobain over the words FOREVER 27. Behind a bamboo bar is a calendar whose cover features a silhouette of a lone hiker at dawn: John Chau.

The Lalaji was John’s favorite place to stay in the islands. Manager Nirwan Lall says John’s gift, a calendar featuring 12 of his pictures, was typical of the thoughtfulness of a client who stayed with him four times between 2016 and 2018. But as I flip through the months, I realize that the photographs are also a record of John’s preparations. Two are of small fishing villages close to North Sentinel, one of which John ended up using as a launch spot. Another, of a village called Mayabunder, suggests that John was following the advice of one of the only men known to have landed on the island and survived: Maurice Vidal Portman.

In A History of Our Relations with the Andamanese, Portman concludes his passage on his abduction of the Sentinelese with the words: “It would have been better to have left the Islanders alone, until the Onges of the Little Andaman were tamed, and then to have approached them with the assistance of the latter.” 

Mayabunder adjoins the Jarawa reserve. One of Pathak’s detectives, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that John traveled there on a previous trip to try to persuade a Jarawa to accompany him. His failure, the detective said, explains why four days after arriving in Port Blair on October 16, John caught a ten-hour ferry to the island of Little Andaman, where he stayed for two weeks, attempting several times to visit the Onge reserve at Dugong Creek. “He wanted to befriend the Onges and persuade them to join him on his expedition,” the detective said. For whatever reason, the officer added, “he was not successful there, either.”

On November 3, John returned to Port Blair. Now into his third week on the islands, and with his plans no further advanced, evidently John decided to proceed alone. For the next 11 days, according to the police, he stayed not at the Lalaji but secretly—and illegally—at a first-floor apartment (the safehouse mentioned in his journal) belonging to a friend, K. S. “Alex” Alexander, in a slum called Dairy Farm. Alex’s flat enjoyed a wide view of Port Blair and the ocean. But to try to avoid leaving a trail for anyone who might come looking for a missing American backpacker, John spent his time indoors, reading, praying, and practicing a punishing set of exercises. 

In his journal, John described how his spirits were boosted by the arrival of two U.S. evangelical friends, a hiking buddy named Christian Vaughan and Bobby Parks, his old boss at More than a Game. The pair helped John assemble the supplies he imagined he would need, including trauma dressings and gifts for the Sentinelese, and provided last-minute encouragement. John’s morale lifted again one day when Alex announced that, through a Karen watersports operator he knew in Port Blair, he had located a crew of fishermen willing to take him to North Sentinel for 25,000 rupees ($360). “He hired the best,” the detective said. “That captain is a very expert sailor. He can sail a little wooden dinghy right across the ocean.”

What truly impressed the police was the thoroughness of John’s research. Vaughan, Parks, Alex, and the fishermen all declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. But according to a second detective who investigated John’s death, the group told officers that John was “fascinated” by the story of John Richardson. Richardson was born Ha Chev Ka, the son of a Nicobarese chief, in 1896. Baptized, rechristened, and educated at a Christian school in Myanmar, Richardson returned to the Nicobars to teach, translate the New Testament, lead the community during the Japanese occupation in World War II, and, in the 1950s, become a bishop and an Indian parliamentarian. 

Missionaries habitually claim that Christianity offers indigenous tribes a gateway to the modern world. In the Nicobars, it turned out to be true. Richardson’s legacy today is a thriving community of Nicobarese lawyers, doctors, businessmen, and politicians who steer their people through the modern world while also preserving their culture.

To John, the parallels to how Christianity had assisted his own father’s progress in America would have been clear. In the islands, missionary success in the Nicobars also contrasted with secular failure in the Andamans. Despite half a century of effort by anthropologists and conservationists, the extinction of the Andamanese remains an ever present threat. The Jangil disappeared a century ago. The Great Andamanese now number 54, the Onge 101, and the Jarawa 510, while the Sentinelese number between 50 and 200. All four tribes are sequestered into their own small reserves where all but the Sentinelese are, to varying degrees, welfare dependent and in danger of losing their culture. The last speaker of any of the ten original Great Andamanese languages died in 2010, at age 85. The best hope for the Onge at Dugong Creek seems to be a handout-dependent stasis. As for the Jarawa, after two decades of contact with outsiders, a Port Blair anthropologist who has watched their dress, food, and language change predicts that they are also doomed. 

Against that record, how long can the Sentinelese expect to last on an island 30 miles west of a city of 140,000 people, in an archipelago earmarked by tourism developers as the new Thai islands? Not long, says the anthropologist. “What we are doing with the Sentinelese, we have already done with other tribes,” he says. “Only the Nicobarese escaped, and only because of the missionaries.” In other words, to those who know the tribes best, John’s mission did not spell the end of the Sentinelese. To them, he represented a possible means of survival.

Part Three

My pursuit of the Andamanese had a resolution of sorts. Over time, I narrowed my obsession to an interview with En-mei, the one Jarawa tribesman who spoke Hindi. He had picked up the language during the six months he spent in a Port Blair hospital being treated for a broken leg. Vishvajit Pandya, the anthropologist who first told me about the Andamans, described En-mei as the only person alive to have lived as both a tribal hunter-gatherer and a modern man. I had been trying to meet him when I was ushered from the islands. Before I left, I scribbled down four pages of questions and handed them to Denis Giles, editor of the Andaman Chronicle. Eight months later, Giles e-mailed to say that En-mei had emerged from the forest to take one of his children to a medical clinic, and Giles had gone to meet him with my sheets of questions. Giles attached a transcript of En-mei’s replies, the first interview with a Jarawa tribesman. 

En-mei’s initial answers were predictable, if eloquent. He hadn’t liked the hospital in Port Blair because “I did not see my people.” The Jarawas fought intruders because “no one should come to our house. [Jarawas] fall sick. They die. We cry a lot and we are annoyed. Earlier there were a lot of them. Now they are limited in number.” At other times, En-mei’s replies were more unexpected. He enjoyed outsider innovations like buses and jeeps. He appreciated modern medicine. He liked logging. “Cutting trees is good,” he said. “It cleans the place.” Still, he preferred the forest. “There is a nice breeze,” he said.

When I met Pandya again, I told him how the interview seemed to offer a glimpse of a nuanced, complicated man. Pandya said he had also discovered that there was more to En-mei’s story. En-mei had not broken his leg by accident, as Pandya once thought, but had been beaten half to death by the father of a girl he fancied. His long convalescence was also no happenstance but a strategy by Indian officials who hoped that by filling En-mei’s mind with wonders like curry, Bollywood, and even a meeting with the Indian president (which they arranged), then releasing him back into the forest, he would persuade his fellow Jarawa to lay down their bows. The plan worked for a while. The Jarawa stopped attacking Indian settlers. They began climbing on buses and taking tours of Port Blair. But after a couple of years, contact fizzled and En-mei disappeared. The authorities were mystified. Pandya said he had now worked out what had happened.

john allen chau
A fisherman pulls MV Halen, the boat Chau used to reach North Sentinel. (Saumya Khandelwal)

Initially when En-mei failed to return from the forest, Pandya said the Jarawas assumed he was dead. Six months later, when he came back from the grave with stories of worldly adventure, he became such a celebrity that he was able to marry not the girl he originally desired but the most desirable Jarawa girl of all. Once the match was sealed, En-mei and his wife retreated deep into the forest and started a family. Apparently equally tired of the bright lights of Port Blair, other Jarawas also returned to their previous existence.

Pandya related the story as a revelation. The Jarawa had moved effortlessly between two worlds. More than that, they were ambivalent about ours. En-mei, in particular, had shown an interest in the outside world only as long as it served his central aim, which was marriage. To achieve that, he had manipulated everyone, from his fellow Jarawas to officials at the highest levels of the Indian state. Pandya’s conclusion was that En-mei was an intelligent, ambitious, selfish schemer. In other words: one of us. 

Pandya said En-mei had forced him to reexamine his entire professional life. “It’s not the differences that are so remarkable,” Pandya said, “it’s the similarities.” I realized I needed to do some introspection of my own. The exotic Stone Age warrior and rainforest romantic I had pursued was a phantom. En-mei was a 21st-century husband and father making his way in the same world, and in the same messy human manner, as the rest of us. After speaking to Pandya, I remember wondering what I was doing with my life.

John had been presented with a similar opportunity to rethink. He had journeyed to the edge of the world to find a tribe whose existence was almost beyond belief, only to discover a terrifying world beyond comprehension. All the study that had brought him to this point turned out to be meaningless when confronted by a reality that obeyed none of the rules and shared none of beliefs that had shaped his life. John had traveled to see another world. He had ended up seeing his own from the outside, perhaps for the first time.

My experience suggested that the moment your presumptions were exposed as ignorance—the moment you admitted you were lost—was the instant you passed through the kala pani veil and the real learning could begin. In his journal, however, John confessed to no second thoughts. He had nearly died, but the Christian way of looking at it was that he had been saved. (Isaiah 65:1–2, the verses that stopped the arrow, read: “I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me. To a nation that did not call on my name, I said, ‘Here am I, here am I.’ All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations.”) Nor did John regard the decision of whether to go on or pull out—of whether to live or die—as his to make. 

“I think I could be more useful alive,” he wrote. But the matter was out of his hands.

Journal entry

November 15, 2018

The plan for tomorrow is to drop me at the cache and then the boat will leave for the day, returning at night. I’m at peace with that plan because a) Pieter V. from South Africa said the reason the Jarawa didn’t kill him was that he got dropped with no boat nearby and b) if it goes badly on foot, the fishermen won’t have to bear witness to my death.

Alternative is to wait another time: go back to Port Blair without any documents and stay in the safehouse again and put all at risk (why are we so afraid of death?) or get deported. If I leave, I believe I’ll have failed the mission.

When I asked Daniel Everett to list traits that are common among missionaries, he mentioned one that generally doesn’t make it into the books: personal catastrophe. “I came from an alcoholic father, and my mother died when I was young, and these are the traumatic experiences that very often lead people to religion,” he said. “If you accept faith, and it does for you what you hope it will do, you’re willing to give everything to that faith.”

Scrolling through John’s Instagram, I realized that he had lost his home in the months before he set off for the Andamans. “Super grieved by the devastation in Shasta County,” he wrote on July 29. “83,800 acres burned, 526 structures destroyed. 5 lives lost. Oh, Whiskeytown … the park where I’ve worked the past three seasons and lived alone in a cabin.” Then, on August 9, India dropped the requirement for most foreigners to have permits to visit 30 of the 31 inhabited islands in the Andamans and Nicobars, including North Sentinel. (A ban on meeting the tribes remained.) It wasn’t hard to imagine how John would have interpreted his old life going up in flames only for a new door to open.

Soon afterward, confirming details of Patrick’s medical career, I found evidence of more tumult in an online notice from the DEA’s Diversion Control Division headlined “Patrick K. Chau, M.D.; Decision and Order.” The document, dated June 15, 2012, revoked Patrick’s certificate to prescribe controlled drugs and preempted any pending applications to renew his doctor’s registration. As justification, the DEA stated that on two separate occasions, February 20 and March 27, 2009, Patrick prescribed Xanax to two undercover agents “without a legitimate medical purpose and outside the usual course of professional practice.” Patrick wasn’t dealing, exactly. But the two agents, posing as patients, told Patrick that they had previously obtained Xanax from friends and on the street, and had no legitimate medical complaints but wanted the drug because, as one put it, it “makes me feel good.” The DEA also noted that for many years, Patrick had prescribed addictive opioids, including OxyContin, sometimes handing over enough for three months. In addition, according to the DEA, Patrick failed to recognize that the doses he was prescribing were addictive and failed to refer his patients to rehab. 

When I asked Patrick about the DEA bust, he was expansively candid. He said he had a history of run-ins with state licensing boards and medical authorities over unprofessional conduct, and that he had been placed on probation as a licensed doctor as far back as November 2006. (His probation ended in 2017.) Patrick said he had switched from child patients to more lucrative adult psychiatry to help put his kids through college, but he hadn’t realized that the treatments he prescribed for adults were outdated and insufficient to guard against drug-seeking behavior. 

Patrick was just as open about how badly the episode had affected John. “My positive career modeling for Brian and Marilyn … started a cliff-drop like deterioration,” he wrote. His two elder children, he said, “are a gang of two.” After they left for college, “baby brother John was left to search and form his own … outlook on life.” That was how it happened that John was the only one at home “to fully witness my struggle.”

Comparing dates, I saw that the year Patrick’s career collapsed was around the time John had started escaping to the mountains. When I reread Patrick’s essay, this also looked like the precise moment when Patrick said he began losing influence over his son. Like Whiskeytown, John’s old plan, the family business, had gone up in smoke. What took its place was a brighter, better future where he depended only on himself. “I was like a drowning man, busy [with my own] self-rescue,” Patrick wrote. “Unwittingly [I] let John be sucked towards a whirlpool—the radical to fanatic extreme Christian faction.” From that moment on, Patrick said, his son’s path was “glamorized” exploration and “reckless” and “suicidal heroism.”

This, finally, felt like the heart of John’s story. “He never needed a single penny from his parents for his adventuring project,” Patrick wrote. “He was totally independent of us.” Everywhere I followed John, from India to Cape Town to Washington, people talked about how easily he made friends. Now I wondered whether it was easy because he never really gave himself away. He didn’t tell most of them about the mission he’d dedicated his life to. He didn’t tell any of them about his father’s disgrace. Mostly, day after day, year after year, he took another selfie in the wilderness or read another book in his cabin or wrote a few more lines on Instagram or in his journal in his endless retelling of the fable of the solo adventurer. John was the lone ship on the sea. There was no part in this tale for a girlfriend or a best friend to confide in. There was no room for a father, mother, brother, or sister to call him back. He did get lonely. He did miss friends and family at the end. But God, the One, had reserved for John the mission of reaching the loneliest people on earth, and as he wrote in a goodbye note to Alex on his last morning, it was always a one-man, one-way trip. “I think I might die—tomorrow even,” he wrote. “I wish I could have had more time to express my thanks to you.… I’ll see you again, bro—and remember, the first one to heaven wins.”

John had been alone in the world. Now he was alone at the end of the world. He knew how the story ended. And on the morning of November 16, after writing a few last words, he stepped off.


November 16, 2018

Brian and Marilyn and Mom and Dad,

You guys might think I’m crazy in all this but I think it’s worth it to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or God if I get killed—rather please live your lives in obedience to whatever He has called you to and I’ll see you again when you pass through the veil. Don’t retrieve my body. 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 as Revelations 7:9-10 states. 

I love you all and I pray none of you love anything in this world more than Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria

John Chau


Written from the cove on the southwest-ish (more like west) of North Sentinel Island.

Journal entry

November 16, 2018

Woke up after a fairly restful sleep, heading to island now. I hope this isn’t my last note but if it is: to God be the glory—I’m heading back to the hut I’ve been to. Praying it goes well.

Alex Perry (@PerryAlexJ) is the author of five books, including The Good Mothers: The True ­Story of the Women Who Took On the World’s Most Powerful Mafia.