In the late 19th century, a British naval officer described stepping onto a remote, coral-fringed island in the Andaman Sea and encountering one of the world’s most enigmatic hunter-gatherer tribes, an extraordinarily isolated group of “painfully timid” people who ate roots and turtles and stored a heap of wild pigs’ skulls.
Fascinated, the officer, Maurice Vidal Portman, basically kidnapped several islanders. He took them back to his house on a bigger island, where the British ran a prison, and watched the adults grow sick and die. After returning the children to the island, he ended his experiment, calling it a failure.
“We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers,” Mr. Portman wrote in his 1899 book.
Over the next century, few outsiders ever returned. The island, called North Sentinel, was a bushy, hilly world unto itself, about the size of Manhattan. Just about anyone who dared to visit was greeted by flying arrows. In the 1970s, the director of a National Geographic documentary took one in the leg.
Maybe the islanders were traumatized by that original kidnapping. Maybe they feared foreign disease. No one has ever figured out exactly why they are so hostile to outsiders and their language remains a mystery.
Over the years, North Sentinel faded back into obscurity. That is until Wednesday, when the Indian government revealed that a young American had paddled to shore in a kayak and tribesmen killed him with bows and arrows.
The episode appeared to be a culture clash between an adventurous foreigner, who may have been trying to spread Christianity, and one of the most impenetrable communities in the world.
Last week, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old from Washington State, paid a group of fisherman $350 to take him to North Sentinel under the cover of darkness. Fishermen had warned him not to go.
Nevertheless, Mr. Chau paddled to shore with a kayak and a Bible, according to Dependra Pathak, the police chief in the area.
He tried to speak to the tribespeople, who were small in stature and wore yellow paste on their bodies, in their own language. Some were friendly, others were not, according to Mr. Pathak, who cited a long note Mr. Chau gave the fishermen just before he set out in his kayak in case he did not come back.
In it, he wrote that Jesus had bestowed him with the strength to go to the most forbidden places on Earth, police officials said.
His father, Patrick Chau, said Thursday that his Christian faith provided solace after hearing of his son’s death. He said he was particularly comforted by a biblical passage: “There’s time and seasons for everything under heaven.”
Missionary organizations said Mr. Chau died for the ultimate cause and friends called him a martyr.
“John was a gracious and sensitive ambassador of Jesus Christ,” said a statement from All Nations, an international Christian missionary group. “The privilege of sharing the gospel has often involved great cost. We pray that John’s sacrificial efforts will bear eternal fruit in due season.”
According to the fishermen who helped Mr. Chau, they motored for several hours from Port Blair to North Sentinel. Mr. Chau waited until the next morning, at daybreak, to try to get ashore. He put his kayak in the water less than half a mile out and paddled toward the island.
The fishermen said that tribesmen had shot arrows at him and that he had retreated. He apparently tried several more times to reach the island over the next two days, the police say, offering gifts such as a small soccer ball, fishing line and scissors. But on the morning of Nov. 17, the fishermen said they saw the islanders with his body.
The seven people who helped Mr. Chau reach the island have been arrested and charged with culpable homicide not amounting to murder and with violating rules protecting aboriginal tribes. In an Instagram post, Mr. Chau’s family asked for the release of the seven and said he had “ventured out on his own free will.”
India strictly monitors access to tribes, which are given protected status and the indigenous groups living on the islands of Andaman and Nicobar are some of the most carefully guarded.
The islands are more than 700 miles from the mainland. And the Indian government has made the decision that any contact with these islanders, whose lifestyle has changed very little over the centuries, could destroy their culture and maybe even their lives. Their immune systems may be no match for modern microbes.
But some officials say this approach is outdated and paternalistic.
The islanders, whom Mr. Pathak described as a cultural treasure to be protected, wear loin cloths and live in simple huts. They are thought to number between 50 and 100, and hunt with spears and arrows fashioned from scraps of metal that wash up on their shores. Their island is heavily forested.
T.N. Pandit, an Indian anthropologist who visited North Sentinel several times between 1967 and 1991, said their hostility is simple: they want to be left alone.
“They are not wanting anything from you. We are coming to them,” he said. “They suspect that we have no good intentions. That’s why they are resisting.”