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The Mysterious Tribe of North Sentinel Island

CULTURE | June 7, 2019

North Sentinel Island. Source: (Wikimedia.org)

The idea of modern-day societies encountering cultures and people who have not met outsiders may seem like a throwback to the Age of Discovery. However, there are still approximately 100 uncontacted tribes throughout the world with most being in the Amazon Rainforest and on the island of New Guinea. Curiously, the most well-known and notorious tribe of isolated people is in on an island in the Indian Ocean a short boat ride from a city of over 100,000.

North Sentinel Island is a part of the Andaman archipelago, a chain of islands in the Bay of Bengal between Myanmar and India. The island is home of the Sentinelese, an indigenous tribe that has inhabited the island by what some experts think might be up to 60,000 years. Nobody knows their language thus no one knows what the Sentinelese call themselves. Experts cannot agree on how many Sentinelese there are (from a few dozen to several hundred). Most attempted contact from the outside world has been greeted by hostility and violence. India, which has nominal control of the island, strictly controls any attempt to land on the island by law.

Andamanese Islanders, related tribe to the Sentinelese. Source: (gettyimages.com)

North Sentinel escaped the waves of colonization that washed the world in modern times mostly because of its location. While most of the rest of the Andaman Islands fell victim to British colonization North Sentinel went untouched because it was out of the main byways of the archipelago. It was also small being just over 24 square miles and without a good harborage. The entire island is covered in forest with the exception of a narrow beach.

The first record of the Sentinelese occurred in 1771 when an East India hydrographic survey ship, the Diligent reported seeing bonfires on the shore. No contact was made and the Diligent sailed on. Nearly a century later in 1867 an Indian merchant ship, the Nineveh, crashed into the reefs about the island. One hundred and six passengers and crew safely evacuated on boats to the North Sentinel beach. The castaways stayed on the beach for three days when on the third morning they were suddenly attacked by the natives. The captain of the Nineveh wrote, “The savages were perfectly naked, with short hair and red painted noses, and were making sounds like pa on ough; their arrows appeared to be tipped with iron.”

The captain managed to escape in a boat and get assistance. When he returned he found that the castaways had fended off the Sentinelese with sticks and stones. 

Maurice Vidal Portman (1860-1935) with Andaman Islanders. Source: (wikimedia.org)

Purposeful contact was attempted in 1880 when the British administrator Maurice Vidal Portman, who was unusually curious about native peoples and their customs, led a large expedition onto the island. They discovered a village, but the people had vanished into the forest. Eventually, they captured an elderly Sentinelese couple and four children who they brought to Port Blair for observation.

The older couple sickened and died in days. As for the children, an abashed Portman returned them to the island with large amounts of presents. Portman, who was an imperialist (he compared the Andaman Islanders to an “average lower class English country schoolboy[s].”), nevertheless regretted his interactions with the Sentinelese and the other natives of the Andaman Islands. “Their association with outsiders has brought them nothing but harm,” he wrote, “and it is a matter of great regret to me that such a pleasant race are so rapidly becoming extinct. We could better spare many another.”

Contact efforts were halted. It was obvious the people of North Sentinel Island rejected outsiders. In 1896 a convict from a penal settlement on Great Andaman Island drifted to the North Sentinel shore and a search party found his body pierced by arrows and his throat cut.

This map shows the decline in indigenous tribal influence in the Andaman Island. Source: (wikipedia.org)

The Sentinelese were left alone for roughly a century. Then in 1967 T.N. Pandit, a 31-year old Indian anthropologist with the Anthropological Survey of India made the first expedition on behalf of his government to contact and befriend the Sentinelese. On his first trip, Pandit was accompanied by about 20 police, administrators, and naval staff. From a distance, they saw the Sentinelese on the shore, who soon hid in the forest. Pandit’s team went into the forest and found their village – there wasn’t a person there, but the fires were burning and the lean-to huts they used were all in good condition. Some of the party took souvenirs, much to Pandit’s consternation and objections.

The Indian government took “official” possession in 1970 by placing a stone tablet atop a native hearth on an isolated spot on the beach. It was thought that because the Andaman Islands were often a haven for outlaws and poachers, it would give India the right to intercede on the islander's behalf.

Andamanese Islanders. Source: (gettyimages.com)

 A National Geographic expedition to film an episode of “Man’s Search for Man,” occurred next in 1974. The crew, which brought Pandit as a guide, set off in a dinghy to the shore blaring through a speaker “We are friends. We come in peace.” The Sentinelese, who naturally could not understand what they were saying, reacted by shooting arrows. The crew took the little boat back and found an isolated spot. They dropped off gifts such as coconuts, a doll, aluminum cookware, and a tethered pig. The Sentinelese responded with arrows and pierced the thigh of one of the National Geographic crew. The native who fired the shot laughed. The Sentinelese meanwhile were delighted with the gifts. An article was published in the July 1975 issue of National Geographic under the title, “Arrows Speak Louder Than Words.”

The public image of the Sentinelese as hostile, but “noble savages” became cemented after a 1981 incident when a freighter, the Primrose, ran into the coral reef off the island. The ship was in no immediate danger, so he stayed put while waiting for help. Within a few days, the crew saw the Sentinelese on the shore waving spears, bows, and arrows at them. Shortly after, they began building boats.  The Primrose sent a dispatch, "Wildmen, estimate more than 50, carrying various homemade weapons are making two or three wooden boats.  Worrying they will board us at sunset. All crew members’ lives not guaranteed.”

But winds and tide prevented the natives from attacking the Primrose. The crew was eventually evacuated by helicopter.

Sentinelese islanders on the beach . Source: (A-NC-SA)

In the 1980s, Pandit attempted to cultivate friendship with the Sentinelese. Their strategy was to drop gifts on the beach. This would include coconuts, metal, mirrors, rubber balls, bead necklaces, etc. Sometimes they would see the Sentinelese, sometimes not. Sometimes the Sentinelese would wave at them, at other times they would turn their backs. Sometimes they would erupt out of the jungle, seize the gifts, and then shoot volleys of arrows at the contact party.

This behavior went on until the morning of January 4, 1991, when a regular contact party (without Pandit present) went ashore to drop gifts (bags of coconuts). This time, however, the Sentinelese were weaponless and motioned for the gifts. That afternoon, members of the contact party went back to the beach. The Sentinelese again rushed out, but this time were directly handed the gifts.

When Pandit next arrived on North Sentinel Island, he found that contact had expanded to the point where the Sentinelese were actually going aboard the contact party’s dinghy. Pandit would return a number of times to the island before retiring from the Indian Anthropological Survey in 1992.

Sentinelese taking aim at an Indian helicopter. Source: (ndtv.com)

The gift giving operations of the Indian government ceased in 1996 for unspecified reasons. There had been more friendly encounters, but also hostile ones with the Sentinelese nearly destroying a contact party’s boat. The Sentinelese limited their contact and seemed to be sending a message that they did not want deeper relations. Regardless of the reasons, the official policy had become a hands-off approach and that is the policy today. This does not mean there are not incidents, with the most notable being in 2006 and 2018.

In January 2006, the Sentinelese killed two fishermen who were illegally fishing for mud crabs off of the island. The fishermen, who had anchored for the night offshore had fallen asleep (it is thought they were intoxicated). By morning, the boat had drifted ashore. The Indian government attempted but failed to collect the bodies.

Then in November 2018, a 26-year old American evangelical Christian missionary, John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese after he illegally journeyed to the island with the intent on converting them to Christianity. Five fishermen were arrested for smuggling Chau to the island.

Members of an unspecified Andaman tribe fishing, c. 1870. Source: (wikipedia.org)

There is genuine concern over the future fate of the Sentinelese. In an ever diminishing world, there are fears of development and the possibility of North Sentinel Island becoming a victim of ecotourism with the tribe becoming some sort of “human zoo.” There are also real concerns over the encroachment of the island and its people by well-armed poachers and others who live outside the law. Then, of course, there is the potential impact of climate change and its long term impact on the island. But for the present, the Sentinelese seem to be doing fine by themselves and the public generally agrees. The question is for how long will the outside world leave them be?

Tags: North Sentinel Island | tribes of sentinel island

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Joseph A. Williams

Writer

Joseph A. Williams is the author of Seventeen Fathoms Deep: The Saga of the Submarine S-4 Disaster and The Sunken Gold: A Story of World War I, Espionage, and the Greatest Treasure Salvage in History. He is currently the Deputy Director of Greenwich Library (CT).