The Isolated People Of North Sentinel Island



At the end of November 2018, the death of an American tourist who had illegally visited the North Sentinel Island attracted the world attention to the small island. It seems that many people had never had of that small isolated island and its inhabitants. This is one of the few mostly uncontacted groups left in the world and they their isolation has to do partly with the geographical position of the North Sentinel Island. The location of the island is off the main shipping routes as it is surrounded by a shallow reef while having no natural harbors. The other reason for its isolation is the tied to the protective laws that are enforced by the Indian government, and lastly due to their fierce defense of their home as well as their privacy. But the island is not entirely uncontacted as over the last 200 years, several people have visited the island several times and things got out of hand for both sides.

According to the census that was conducted back in 2011 and based on the anthropologists’ estimates of how many people the island is capable of supporting, it is estimated that the island has a population between 80 to 150 people, although the number can also be more than 500 or as few as 15. The Sentinelese share the same origin as other indigenous groups within the Andaman Islands, which is also a chain of islands that are found in Bengal Bay which is owned by India. Unlike other Andaman groups like the Onge and the Jarawa, the Sentinelese have been isolated for such a long time that their language differs entirely from other Andaman groups and they cannot understand each other.

Upon a single visit back in 1967, where Pandit was among the visitors, we know that the Sentinelese live in lean-to huts that contain slanted roofs. Their huts are built in such a way that they face each other, where they careful tend fire outside each one. Besides, the Sentinelese were seen to have skills of building small, narrow outrigger canoes, that they use long poles to maneuver in shallow. Calm waters within the reef. Using those canoes, the Sentinelese are able to fish as well as harvest crabs. They hunt and gather wild fruits, and in case their lifestyle is identical to that of any related Andamanese peoples, they is no doubt that, they live on tubers and fruits that grow in the wild upon the island. Besides, they feed on eggs from seagulls as well as tortoise while they get meat from small game such as birds and pigs. They are seen to carry bows and arrows together with spears and knives. They are hostile to visitors who have learned to respect their skills with using the above-mentioned weaponry. Their weapons are tipped with iron which we think the Sentinelese pick up from the debris washed ashore and forge them to their needs.

The Sentinelese are known to weave mesh baskets, and they also use wooden adzes which are tipped with iron. Salvage crews anchored near the shores of the island in the 1990s and describe to have heard bonfires on the beach during the night and the sound of people singing. As of now, no Sentinelese language is known to the outsiders. Anthropologists normally make a use in referring people by the name they use themselves, but no one has an idea what name do the Sentinelese use for themselves. The group is so isolated to the extent that no one even knows how they greet each other. We have no idea about the view of the world and how do they contribute to it.

But what is so clear about them is that they do not care about us and they have expressed that loudly and clearly even without having to use a common language, but we did understand their message.

You might be wondering at why the Sentinelese hate visitors, but it all began back in 1771, an East India Company vessel was sailing past the Sentinel Island and were attracted by the gleaming lights on the shore. The ship was on hydrographic survey program and there is no way that they could have stopped. The Sentinelese still remained uncontacted for nearly a century, until when an Indian merchant ship by the name of Nineveh unfortunately got stuck on the reef. The 86 passengers together with 20 crew were able to swim and head towards the beach. The crew stayed there on Island for three days and eventually the Sentinelese came to a decision that the visitors had overstayed and they attacked them with bows and iron tipped arrows. The western history just mentions the Nineveh’s side of the story, but who knows what really would have happened inside the Sentinelese villages while the intruders were there. Was there any debate regarding on how these visitors should be handled? By any case did these visitors break the rule or go beyond the set boundary hence prompting the Sentinelese to fight back? Did the Sentinelese just decide to attack them after three days of their stay?

The Nineveh’s passengers and crew decided to fight back using sticks and stones, and the two sides went on fighting each other until a Royal Navy vessel came to their rescue. While they were still in the neighborhood, the British declared Sentinel Island as being part of Britain’s colonial islands, and this is a decision that only mattered to the British until 1880. During the 1880s a young Royal Navy officer by the name of Maurice Vidal Portman, was put in charge of the Andaman as well as the Nicobar colony. Portman himself fancied anthropology, and in 1880 he set ashore on the North Sentinel Island accompanied by a large army of navy officers, convicts from the penal colony on Great Andaman Island as well as Andamanese trackers.

They just found abandoned villages, and this meant that the inhabitants had spotted the intruders while they were coming and decided to flee and hide further within the island. But behind they left one elderly couple as well as four children. Portman and his team captured them and took them off to Port Blair, which was the colonial capital on South Andaman Island. Arriving there, the six kidnapped Sentinelese just became very sick and the elderly couple passed away in Port Blair. Sentinelese decided that it would be better if he dropped off the remaining four sick children on the beach of North Sentinel accompanied with a small pile of gifts. No one knows what happened to the inhabitants as we are not sure if the children went on to spread illness to the rest of the people on the island or what was the impact of Portman’s decision.

But this experience had a huge impact to the Sentinelese as it left them with a grudge towards foreign visitors. In 1896, one escaped convict fled to the Great Andaman Island Penal Colony using a makeshift raft. He never could have predicted what was waiting for him ahead. He was washed ashore of the Sentinel Island. A colonial search party came across his remains just a few days later, where his body was full of arrow wounds, and his throat was cut. The British made a decision to leave the Sentinelese in peace, and they never contacted them for at least another century.

After hundred years since the wreck of Nineveh, a team of anthropologists led by Trinok Nath Pandit were sent by the Indian government, and they landed on the North Sentinel Island. Just like it had happened when Portman visited the area, the came across abandoned huts and it was clear that the people had fled so quickly that the fires were still burning outside their homes. Pandit and his team just left gifts such as bolts of cloth, plastic buckets, and candy. But the naval officers and the Indian police who had accompanied Pandit and his team also stole from the tribe. They took their bows, arrows, baskets and many other items from their unguided homes despite anthropologists’ protests and asking them not to do so.

For quite a long time Sentinel Island had been in a state of legal debate since India acquired its independence from the British back in 1970, where India claimed the tiny island and a survey positioned a stone table on the beach to rectify its claim. There is no any record that outlines the Sentinelese response toward this move.

Pandit and his team did not give up and they kept doing their best trying to make any contact with the tribe, and mostly they tried that by pulling a dinghy onto the beach, and dropping coconuts as well as other gifts off the shore while beating a hasty retreat. It became clear to them that the Sentinelese did not care much about live pigs, as they speared them and buried them while the plastic toys also got the same treatment. But they were pleased with the metal pots and pans, and they eventually became so much interested in coconuts, as the coconuts do not grow on their island. Pandit and his team delivered them using bagful and normally the Sentinelese were armed with bows and arrows until the Pandit and his group left. Then 25 years passed again with no any direct contact, but Pandit hoped that the visitors had gained a little trust to the Sentinelese.

The visits to the island were sporadic, until back in 1981. During this time a National Geographic film crew tagged along in 1974, while the direct caught an arrow in his thigh for his trouble. The exiled King Leopold III of Belgium once passed close to the island while he was on his boat tour back in 1975, and the Sentinelese just warned him to dare sail toward their home by firing arrows towards his boat. No one knows what made the King so delighted by the entire scene.
Back in 1981, a cargo ship by the name of Primrose with a crew of 28 people ran aground on the reef, at the same spot as the Ninevah. But this time the sailors were lucky as their were rescued by helicopter. They later claimed that it seemed that the Sentinelese had salvaged metal from the ship as raw materials for making their tools and weapons. You can imagine as they were used on working with scraps of metal that were washed ashore, now they had the entire ship to work on. That same year Pandit with his team increased their efforts, as they started dropping to the island every month or two.

A decade later, just one year before Pandit retired, their regularity and persistent paid off. That unforgettable day in the early 1991, the team of islanders came to the beach to pick up their gifts and they were not carrying weapons, but all they had were woven baskets and the adzes that they used in cutting the coconuts even though later some of the intruders claimed that those adzes were well used for self-defense by the tribe. The group of Sentinelese ventured closer to the outsiders and this had never happened before. Later that day when the anthropologists came back to the island they found a dozen Sentinelese people waiting for them at the beach, and it seemed that things were working out and they had gained their trust. A man raised his bow aiming at the visitors and a woman pushed his bow down. The man then responded by dropping the bow and arrow and burying the weapons into the sand. No one knows whether this was a negotiation or it was a ritual display, but as soon as the weapons were hidden, the group rushed to the visitors to collect their gifts.
But the Sentinelese hospitality has its boundaries. On one of the following visits, just a few weeks later, a Sentinelese man made a signal to Pandit informing him that it was time for the guests to leave the island. He did that by drawing a knife and making a cut gesture displaying trouble.

Pandit stated that whenever they attempted to venture into their territory without adhering to their wishes or in case they tried to get too close for comfort, they Sentinelese would turn their backs on them and sit down on their haunches, as to defecate. That display was meant to mean an insult. So they had to pay heed and stop, otherwise they would be attacked by arrows. This is what stated in his interview with the Indian Express.
The encounter and friendship between the islanders and the anthropologists never went beyond coconut handouts, as the Sentinelese never offered gifts to the visitors or even tried to invite them to stay or venture beyond the shores. Besides, never side ever learned to speak with the other. And the Sentinelese seemed to be unpredicted as sometimes the anthropologists were greeted by armed men on the shore. In 1996, the Indian government called off the anthropologists visits.

After the 2004 Tsunami, the Indian Cost Guard helicopters flew over the island to check on the Sentinelese, and they found them in good shape and it seemed that they were not pleased to see them, and they started throwing arrows and bows attacking the helicopters. Then in 2006, an Indian crab harvesting boat was unfortunately drifted ashore, and the fishermen met their fateful deaths, as they were killed by the Sentinelese and buried on the shore.

In November 16th, 2018 an American tourist was killed by the Sentinelese after he illegally ventured on their island home. John Allen Chau, who was 27 by the time was welcomed with a volley of arrows as soon as he set foot on the North Sentinel Island. Chau was a missionary and he had travelled to the island with a mission of converting the inlands to Christianity. The Indian government, via its police officer Dependra Pathak argued that Mr. Chau was on a misplaced adventure in a prohibited location with the aim of meeting uncontacted people.

When the news went viral on the internet, it drew the attention of the world towards the island, as few had an idea of that particular untouched island. Mr. Chau had paid the local fishermen to transport him to the island. He was then attacked by arrows but he kept walking and the fishermen who were in the boat saw the tribals tying a rope around his neck and then dragging his body. The fishermen were scared and fled the scene to return next morning where they found his body on the shore
The Fishermen went on to tell one of the preachers in Port Blair which is the main town of Andamans, about what had happened who then went on to contact Chau’s family back in America.
The incident led to a huge debate about how to protect relatively uncontacted groups such as the Sentinelese. Pandit has always been clear that the tribe should be left undisturbed, as they Sentinelese have always made it clear that they do not need any contact and are just doing fine with their way of life.
Chau’s body was never recovered as the Indian government had no plans for that.

Mwijage Prince

For me travelling is a hobby, and I enjoy writing about the adventures that I discover in my journeys.


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