It was November 2018 when an American missionary paid a small group of fishermen in the Indian city of Port Blair to ferry him somewhere that was forbidden. The fishermen were skeptical but accepted his payment of $335.47 American dollars.
This missionary wanted to visit North Sentinel Island, the home of the Sentinelese, some of the most isolated people on the face of the Earth. They are one of just a handful of uncontacted tribes left in the world, but one thing that we do know about them is that they are not fond of visitors.
Two visits were somewhat of a success for the missionary, at least in his eyes, but on the third visit, he gave his diary to the fisherman who had brought him there and instructed them to leave him there. His ultimate goal was to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity. Instead, he was killed with a bow and arrow.
This death was the most recent in a series of efforts by the Sentinelese to maintain their isolation, often violently. To better understand the motivations of this tribe, we need to look back into the history of North Sentinel Island.
Geography of North Sentinel Island
Part of the Andaman Islands, North Sentinel Island, and its counterpart South Sentinel Island, aren’t anything extraordinary geologically. The island is surrounded by coral reefs, and these reefs are the reason for a number of shipwrecks on North Sentinel Island.
North Sentinel Island is roughly 56.67km in area, and almost all of the island is heavily forested. There is a thin, sandy beach that rings the outside of the island.
Indigenous North Sentinel Islanders: The Sentinelese Tribe
Inarguably, the most interesting and mysterious part of North Sentinel Island is the Sentinelese themselves. There is a long history with the tribe, but contact is still very limited.
North Sentinel Island is considered part of India and is protected by The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956, which forbids travel to the island.
Historical Background of the Sentinelese Tribe
There are a large number of visits to North Sentinel Island, from the 1700s up until the aforementioned 2018 missionary tragedy.
The first mention of the Sentinelese was in 1771, when the crew of the Diligent, a hydrographic survey vessel owned by the East India Company, spotted something on the shore of the small island. The Diliigent noted that they saw “a multitude of lights upon the shore”, but there was no further investigation.
The best-recorded contact of this era was by Officer Maurice Vidal Portman of the Royal Navy. Andamanese trackers joined him and his armed group of Europeans when they traveled to North Sentinel Island. Once there, they captured a group of six islanders.
Two were older, a man and a woman, and the other four were children. Portman took the captured Sentinelese back to Port Blair in India, where they quickly became ill. The two adults died, and Portman swiftly sent the children back to North Sentinel Island with gifts when they showed signs of illness as well.
The 20th Century and T.N. Pandit
In 1967, the first professional anthropologist visited North Sentinel Island with a group of twenty people. This anthropologist, T.N. Pandit, was himself Indian and worked for the Anthropological Survey of India. His first expedition saw the Sentinelese and discovered many indications of their lives and culture, but ultimately didn’t make contact.
Pandit and the Indian Government knew that to protect North Sentinel Island, they needed it to officially be part of India to avoid exploitation. In 1970, a government-sanctioned surveying party landed on an isolated point of North Sentinel Island and erected a stone tablet that declared the island part of India.
Four years later, National Geographic sent a film crew, along with anthropologists including Pandit, to the island to film a documentary called Man in Search of Man. As expected, the Sentinelese weren’t thrilled to see the crew, and when they got close enough to leave gifts for the islanders, an arrow promptly struck the director of the documentary in the thigh. While no friendly contact was made, and the director was wounded, this expedition led to the first photograph of the Sentinelese being published in National Geographic.
Pandit would visit the island many more times, with more success than anyone else thus far.
1991 Expedition and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami
It took until 1991 for there to be any recorded instances of peaceful contact with the Sentinelese. This expedition was also the first to include a woman, anthropologist Madhumala Chattopadhyay.
Gifts of coconuts were given, and for the first time, the Sentinelese approached the group with no weapons.
North Sentinel Island was affected, like many other parts of India, by the 2004 Tsunami. There was concern for the people of the island, and aerial expeditions were launched to see how the island and the Sentinelese had fared.
There were geological changes to the island. It merged with smaller nearby islands and the ocean floor surrounding the island had risen, exposing the deadly coral reefs and all but eliminating the swampy fishing ground of the Sentinelese.
Islanders were spotted and reacted in a hostile manner, which experts took as a sign they had weathered the tsunami relatively unharmed.
The killing of Indian Fishermen and John Allen Chau
After 1991, public opinion was more positive towards the Sentinelese. That is until January 2006, when two fishermen who were illegally fishing off the North Sentinel Island coast were killed.
The fishermen anchored for the night, but the anchor failed, and their boat drifted into the shallows. Before they could correct their mistake, they were attacked and killed by the Sentinelese. Some reports stated the islanders put the bodies on display, and attacked the helicopter that was sent to retrieve them. Ultimately, any efforts to retrieve the deceased fishermen were abandoned.
Finally, there is the 2018 killing of John Allen Chau, the missionary from the Christian organization All Nations. John’s efforts to communicate with the Sentinelese were unsuccessful, and over these three attempts to make contact, they became more and more hostile, eventually resulting in his death.
Again, after repeated attempts to bring his remains home, the mission was abandoned. This decision was because of the danger it posed to the people deployed on the recovery mission and Sentinelese attacks on the Indian officials who attempted to bring the American’s body home.
North Sentinel Island Today
The history of North Sentinel Island is fascinating and full of attempts to better understand the Sentinelese and the mysterious island they inhabit. Something about an uncontacted tribe, alone on an island, visible but never able to be interacted with, sticks in the human mind like a burr.
It is still highly illegal to visit North Sentinel Island, but anthropologists are not done with the Sentinelese yet. While they may never choose to approach the shores of North Sentinel Island again, the Indian government still cares for and observes the Sentinelese with new “hands off, eyes on” policy. They will anchor their boats a safe distance from the island, and from there, observe the islanders and gather what information they can.
It’s easy to view the Sentinelese as violent, but the truth may be that they are just people, like anyone else, who intensely desire to be left alone. For a time, there was a hope that we could come to know these people better. Of her 1991 expedition, Madhumala Chattopadhyay says,
“One can’t explore if scared. And the Sentinelese are human beings, they understand who will harm them. When our contact party sailed again on February 2, they were more welcoming and turned up without weapons. They recognized us.”
“First contact: The woman who softened the Sentinelese”
“North Sentinel Island”
“Why North Sentinel Island Is Barred to All Visitors”
“Hands Off, Eyes on the Sentinelese”