Shipwrecked Hong Kong sailors’ brush with Indian island tribe that killed US missionary John Allen Chau
- Crew were being threatened by ‘wild … people carrying spears and arrows’, captain cabled after freighter ran aground off North Sentinel Island
- 31 sailors, most from Hong Kong, were trapped aboard MV Primrose facing attack by hostile islanders who 37 years later slew US missionary
The murder of American missionary John Allen Chau on North Sentinel Island last month at the hands of a so-called uncontacted tribe will no doubt have offered a chilling reminder to the crew of a Hong Kong-registered cargo ship that ran aground on the island 37 years ago.
Chau, 27, was shot with arrows on November 17 when he set foot on the island – part of the Indian-controlled Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal – to spread the teachings of Christianity.
The cargo ship MV Primrose foundered on a coral reef on August 2, 1981, off North Sentinel Island, with 31 crew members aboard – of whom 21 were Hong Kong Chinese.
For a week, the ship was buffeted by the waves, while the crew were spooked by hostile members of the Sentinelese tribe on the beach wielding arrows and spears, and even attempting to board the freighter from canoes.
“I was amazed that this scene of a stranded ship threatened by spear-waving tribesmen wasn’t an episode from the era of Captain Cook’s voyages, but from the late 20th century,” historian and author Adam Goodheart told the Post, describing his reaction to first hearing about the ship’s plight.
“I think people feel similarly about the Chau killing, which is why it has captured the attention of the world,” Goodheart says.
Newcastle University social geography professor Alastair Bonnett wrote about the shipwreck in his 2014 guide to “lost spaces, invisible cities, forgotten islands, feral places”, called Off the Map. He writes that the crew were extremely unlucky to have washed up on the coast of North Sentinel Island, of all places, which is out of bounds under Indian law in part because of the hostility of the natives.
“This unfortunate ship managed to run aground on the last island on Earth solely inhibited by ‘uncontacted’ native people,” Bonnett writes.
He recounts details of the operation to save the crew, describing how a radio distress call was received at the Regent Shipping Company offices in Hong Kong from the captain of the Australia-bound MV Primrose, Liu Chunglong from Taiwan. The ship had hit a coral reef, Liu explained, and was grounded some 100 metres from the shores of the singularly remote, circular, thickly forested island.
“The captain of the Primrose had good reason to worry. The usual response of the Sentinelese to intruders is a hail of arrows,” he writes.
It was incredible, Bonnett adds, “that the crew all managed to get out of there alive”.
By a stroke of luck, the sea was rough and kept the tribesmen’s canoes at bay. Their arrows, “which have a range of only 40 metres, fell into the water. A long week passed before the crew … were lifted off their vessel by civilian helicopters,” he writes.
On August 12 – a few days after the rescue – the UPI press agency quoted Indian navy rescue spokesman Colonel Prithvi Nath explaining how Liu had written a desperate cable while he and the crew were stranded on the ship. In it he wrote that they were being threatened by “wild island people carrying spears and arrows”.
“The captain asked for an urgent airdrop of weapons, saying the crewmen, 21 of whom are Hong Kong Chinese, feared the natives might try to board the stricken freighter using canoes.”
Nath described the Sentinelese as “very primitive” and not used to outsiders.
In a shot on the Weird Google Earth website, the gutted wreck of the MV Primrose can be seen stuck on the coral close to a beach, its prow and stern visible but the mid-section under water, as though it has been blasted by a torpedo.
Although North Sentinel Island had long been out of the news until Chau’s murder last month, there have been occasional encounters – despite the prohibition on visits to prevent the introduction of communicable diseases among the tribespeople.
Rare visitors, such as researchers, have reported an improvement in their weapons-making capacity. Rather than stone, the tips of arrows and spears were seen to have been made from metal.
The likely explanation is that the islanders finally reached the shipwreck and scavenged steel for use in their tools and weapons.
So, in an odd twist to an already strange tale, the Primrose may have catapulted the islanders into an iron age.