A tribe has been thrust into the spotlight over a missionary's death. But if it wasn't for one man's creepy acts more than a century ago, it might never have happened.

A horrific legacy of bizarre sexual photographs, kidnappings, death and disease at the order of a British naval officer more than a century ago has been thrown into the spotlight after the recent death of a Christian missionary.

Though Chau's death is officially a murder case, anthropologists say it may be impossible to retrieve his body and that no charges will be made against the protected tribe. Photo / Supplied
Though Chau's death is officially a murder case, anthropologists say it may be impossible to retrieve his body and that no charges will be made against the protected tribe. Photo / Supplied

John Allen Chau's bow and arrow slaying at the hands of one of the world's few remaining truly isolated tribes has polarised opinion around the world.

The 26-year-old was killed by Sentinelese tribesmen, desperate to keep him from setting foot on their remote island home off the coast of India.

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And, while some Christians believe the American missionary was martyred doing what he was born to do, many also believe he put himself and others at unnecessary risk by trying to enter a hunter-gatherer community notoriously suspicious of outsiders.

But this debate may not have happened at all if it wasn't for the actions of one man from Canada who sailed the world in an attempt to pacify Andamanese islanders — including the Sentinelese people — between 1879 and 1901 at the command of the British Royal Navy.

It became a bizarre obsession for Maurice Vidal Portman, a naval officer, and his colonial cronies whose attempts to "civilise" the tribes turned into vile series of kidnappings, death, disease, and disturbing photographs.

In one of his books, which is available to read for free online, Mr Portman describes how he and his men stumbled across the North Sentinel Island's people more than a century ago.

He describes the first time one of his cronies — Mr Homfrey — saw the Sentinelese people on their remote island home.

"He did not land, but saw ten men on the beach who were naked, with long hair, and were shooting fish with bow and arrows," he wrote.

The Sentinelese are one of the world's last
The Sentinelese are one of the world's last "uncontacted" tribes whose language and customs remain a mystery to outsiders. Photo / Supplied

Other Andamanese islanders from a nearby island said their neighbours were "not friendly" to them due to an inter-island conflict many years ago.

This encounter and Mr Portman's observation that the Sentinelese were different from nearby island cultures, in terms of weapons and dialect sparked a dark obsession.

"There is a tribe on North Senital Island, about which very little is known, though it is suspected to be quite a recent offshoot from the Little Andaman people, if indeed all communication between the two islands has actually ceased," he writes later in the book.

He decided to pay the island a visit in January 1880 with his band of British, Indian, and Burmese convicts. The first trip went by without too much trouble, but a second visit just a few days later, was a disaster.

They ended up spooking the "timid" islanders, who reacted by aggressively driving him and his men away.

"This expedition was not a success …" he wrote. "We cannot be said to have done anything more than increase their general terror of, and hostility to, all comers."

This was because Mr Portman and his crew came across a family in a thick forest — who were freaked out by the sudden appearance of the strange visitors. A Sentinelese man drew his bow and a mass scuffle broke out.

"We caught three unhurt and brought them on board," Mr Portman wrote.

The remote North Sentinel islanders who killed 27-year-old John Chau. Photo / Supplied
The remote North Sentinel islanders who killed 27-year-old John Chau. Photo / Supplied

The kidnapped group was then taken to the South Andaman Island capital of Port Blair "in the interest of science".

"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," wrote Mr Portman.

It is likely that, like other isolated tribes and indigenous visited by colonisers, they had succumbed to diseases given to them by their kidnappers.

The experience failed to deter Mr Portman and it got much weirder.

According to an incredibly detailed Twitter thread by an anonymous and widely-followed lawyer, RespectableLaw — which has been shared more than 44,000 times on Twitter — it's been suggested that Mr Portman became "erotically obsessed with the Andamanese".

"He indulged his passion for photography by kidnapping members of various tribes and posing them in mock-Greek homoerotic compositions," RespectableLaw wrote.

"During his 20 years in a sexualised heart of darkness, Portman measured and catalogued every inch of his prisoner's bodies, with an obsessive focus on genitalia."

He wrote that Mr Portman returned on a couple occasions, but the Sentinelese hid from him each time — but the story was "certainly passed down among the 100 or so inhabitants of the island".

Survival International, a human rights organisation that campaigns for the rights of indigenous tribal people, has suggested the impact of Mr Portman's antics might have driven the Sentinelese tribe's hostility to outsiders to this day.

"It is not known how many Sentinelese became ill as a result of this 'science' but it's likely that the children would have passed on their diseases and the results would have been devastating," according to its website.

"It is mere conjecture, but might this experience may account for the Sentinelese's continued hostility and rejection of outsiders?"

Since Mr Portman touched down on the island, brief visits have been paid but the Sentinelese remain untouched by modern civilisation.

Starting in the 1960s, anthropologists succeeded in exchanging gifts and conducting field visits but abandoned their efforts some 25 years ago in the face of renewed hostility.

An Indian Coast Guard helicopter that flew over the island after the 2004 Asian tsunami was attacked with arrows.

The authorities then declared that no further attempts would be made to contact the Sentinelese.

They do make periodic checks, albeit from a safe distance, to ensure the tribe's wellbeing, following a strict "eyes on, hands off" policy.

Veteran anthropologist T. N. Pandit who visited North Sentinel 50 years ago believes there should be no rush to make contact with the Sentinelese.

"Of the four Andaman tribal communities, we have seen that those in close contact with the outside world have suffered the most. They have declined demographically and culturally," he told Down To Earth magazine in a recent interview.

The Sentinelese "are a highly vulnerable population and would disappear in an epidemic," he added.

Rare footage shows isolated Sentinelese Tribe reacting to outsiders. Photo / Survival International
Rare footage shows isolated Sentinelese Tribe reacting to outsiders. Photo / Survival International

"The government's responsibility should be to keep a watch over them in the sense (that) no unauthorised people reach them and exploit them. Otherwise, just leave them alone."

The nearby Jarawas were the earliest tribe in the Andamans to be contacted by the British. The 2011 census estimated their population to be around 400.

They fiercely resisted contact with outsiders before opening up gradually in the 1970s. Some travel companies were accused of organising "human safari tours" so that tourists could catch a glimpse.

Some say the younger generation has even learnt bits of the Hindi language from frequent interaction with tourists. Some have taken up drinking and smoking.

A new spotlight has been cast Maurice Vidal Portman's bizarre activities in the region. Photo / Supplied
A new spotlight has been cast Maurice Vidal Portman's bizarre activities in the region. Photo / Supplied

In 2012, a video of a naked Jarawa woman dancing for tourists set alarm bells ringing and led to tightening of rules and enforcement.

And, in 2016, there were reports of a fair-skinned baby, assumed to have been fathered by an outsider, being killed by Jarawa men according to a custom of the tribe.

— with AFP