Memos from Asia

North Sentinel: India’s Uncontacted Island of India

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When you think of isolated places, you might think of North Korea, but do you know about the island that has no contact with modern civilization? Let us tell you about the uncontacted people in North Sentinel of the Andaman Islands, an Indian archipelago in the Bay of Bengal.

It is the island of the Sentinelese tribe that doesn’t like visitors and has lived for thousands of years in isolation.

The Sentinelese Tribe

The tribe consists anywhere between 15 to 500 people according to estimates. Little is known about them as there has never been any meaningful contact.

Tribesmen are known for their fierceness due to their aggressive attitude towards visitors. These bow-wielding people have even fired arrows on occasions.

During a forced visit in 1967 by anthropologist Triloknath Pandit and Indian police, the tribals went to their hiding places inland. Pandit described that the people lived in huts with slanted roofs. Each house had a fire burning outside as well.

Whatever is known about Sentinelese people is known mostly due to observation from boats. Even the name Sentinelese is a given name as what they call themselves remains unknown.

The period of isolation is expected to be very long because the tribes in nearby islands didn’t understand Sentinelese. Still, it is thought that they might have a lifestyle similar to tribes in area.

Both, the males and females, have been seen wearing ornaments made of fibre around neck, waist, and head.

The History of Contacting

Multiple efforts have been made to contact the tribe but none have been much fruitful. Mostly since the tribe has shown aggression when efforts have been made to establish contact.

The first recorded landing by outsiders was in 1868 when a merchant ship Nineveh ran around on the reef. The passengers and crew swam to the island and after three days fought natives with sticks and stones. Later a Royal Navy vessel rescued them.

In 1880, British officer Maurice Vidal Portman decided to visit North Sentinel with some of the convicts from other islands. He took six prisoners including four children and an elderly couple but they all became sick and the couple died. Children were returned with some gifts.

In 1896, three prisoners on the run went on a boat and ended up near the island. Two drowned and one’s body was found pierced with arrows with a slit throat on the island.

After independence in 1947, Indian government claimed the island in 1970. A contacting effort was started where officials gave coconuts, fish, and metal to the tribe hoping to establish friendly contact.

The efforts took place mostly peacefully with Sentinelese accepting gifts but were sometimes met with aggression for no apparent reason. The visits were indirect and gifts were left in the water to float towards the islanders.

The visits were continued for years even though there was no invitation or gesture to establish friendship from the tribe. In 1974 when a National Geographic crew joined the contact effort, the director was hit by an arrow.

1991 was the most fruitful year. TN Pandit was on a regular visit when the islanders arrived without weapons to accept gifts. Some even came upon the boat and took a bagful of coconuts.

Later that day, around 25 Sentinelese gathered on the beach when the anthropologist visited. A man pointed an arrow at the visitors and a woman then pushed down the bow. The bow and arrow were buried in the sand in a gesture, the exact meaning of which only the tribe knows.

The visits were halted in 1996 considering the obvious wish of the Sentinelese people to remain isolated. Also, the fear of spreading diseases that the tribe might not have immunity to has always been a big factor.

Now, the island is closed to visitors to protect the tribe. Even filming the people has been made illegal by the Indian government to respect the wish of Sentinelese.

When the island made news

In November of 2018, an American Christian missionary named John Allen Chau was killed by the Sentinelese people after trying to contact them multiple times. It is believed that Chau wanted to preach Christianity to the islanders. (BBC, 2018)

Two fishermen were killed in 2006 after their boat was pushed to the island by waves.

After the 2004 tsunami, a helicopter was sent to have a look at the island and it faced some arrows. The signal proved the islanders had managed to survive even a tsunami, something you’d expect knowing they’ve survived for thousands of years.

In 1986, a cargo ship named Primrose ran around on the coral reef near the island. After islanders started building boats and had bows with them, the crew was airlifted.

Leaving the Sentinelese alone

The Indian government after its efforts has decided to respect the choice of Sentinelese people. They have been asked by Survival International as well to leave the islanders alone since such tribes usually get harmed when they’re introduced to the modern civilization.

The Sentinelese have survived in isolation for thousands of years, including a recent one with a tsunami, which should be enough for us to not worry about their safety. The main danger might be a deadly disease transmitted by us wiping out the whole tribe.

Want to know more about North Sentinel and it’s people? Read this book by Madhusree Mukerjee.

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