John Allen Chau behaved immorally and recklessly when he approached North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal last week. A Christian from Washington in the US, Chau apparently wanted to convert the Sentinelese people to Christianity. The Sentinelese are a neolithic tribe that has had virtually no engagement with modernity. They’re notoriously hostile to outsiders. So when they saw Chau approaching in a kayak, they took fright and fired arrows at him. Chau died in a ‘hail of arrows’.
He must have known the risks. India, which oversees North Sentinel and surrounding islands, has outlawed contact with the Sentenilese people. As a result of having been secluded for thousands of years, the Sentinelese people probably lack genetic immunity to common ailments like flu and measles. Contact with people from the modern would could prove lethal for them. Chau wanted to save them for Jesus, but he could have ended up harming them terribly. His approach to the island was illegal and a grave moral error.
And yet, there is more humanity in his error, in his clumsy Christian zeal, in his desire to reach out to these people, than there is in the warped response to what he did. People are laughing at Chau. They’re denouncing him as a typical arrogant American. It would be better, eco-leftists and other luvvies insist, if we just left the Sentinelese people as they are. They’re probably happy. What, living brutish, backward lives? I think it is crueller to abandon the Sentinelese people to the fate written for them by the terrible quirks of geography and history than it is to try to contact and civilise them.
Yes, civilise them. ‘Civilise’ is seen as a terribly judgemental word these days. It conjures up images of Victorian colonialists venturing into the ‘heart of darkness’ in Africa and elsewhere and subjugating unwilling peoples to Biblical writ and British rule. But the civilisation instinct needn’t be a forced one. We could find ways to try to encourage the Sentinelese people, and the world’s other lost tribes, to exchange their unforgiving way of life for the more comfortable, knowledgable existences the rest of us enjoy. This may take a very long time, more than a generation perhaps, because it would need to be done patiently, carefully, and with an eye for informing the Sentinelese people of the world beyond their shores, rather than pressuring them or humiliating them in any way. But it is worth trying, surely?
Those laughing at Chau for his missionary folly seem content to leave a very small section of humanity — between 40 and 500 people, according to estimates — living in Stone Age conditions. It is unquestionable that the Sentinelese people live Stone Age lives. They are the world’s most remote tribe. They have remained largely unchanged for millennia. Throughout the Egyptian and Greek empires, the rise and fall of Rome, the emergence of the great religions, and the birth of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and industrialised modernity, they have carried on hunting with spears and living in huts. Through no fault of their own, they, and the rest of the world’s estimated 100 uncontacted tribes, are humankind’s losers. They deserve a chance to turn that around.
But backward-looking bourgeois people in the West, the green-leaning, modernity-loathing types who make up eco-aware circles, want to deprive tribes of that chance. They demand that we ‘leave tribes alone’, which really means abandoning them to a fate conjured up for them by the tectonic shifts or whims of forestation that led to their being cut off from the rest of us. Survival International, for example, a painfully PC campaign group that agitates for the preservation of tribal life, says the Sentinelese people ‘appear well’, and it insists that they, like other uncontacted tribes, should be left free of the ‘disastrous’ impact of progress.
‘Progress can kill’, Survival International says. Progress apparently means ‘HIV/AIDS... starvation... obesity... suicide... addiction’. Starvation and obesity? The message is clear: progress is bad, the tribal way of life is good; modernity rots the soul while living in huts and eking out a meagre existence from the sea and the forest keeps one in good spirits. Which makes you wonder why none of the West’s well-connected, self-elected defenders of tribespeople don’t up sticks and head out to a place like North Sentinel themselves.
There is an ugly streak of the ‘noble savage’ idea in all this. Feeling bored or exhausted with modern life, some eco-Westerners seem intent on bigging up the lifestyles of hidden, obscure tribes as a more authentic form of existence. It is their prejudices — against modernity, against Western civilisation itself — that drives their weird and paternalistic celebration of tribal life. In truth, there is nothing to celebrate in the exclusion of the Sentinelese people and other tribespeople from the gains of modernity, from the human family. Our common humanity demands that we make contact with these peoples and patiently try to convince them to become civilised.