The recent death of the American missionary John Allen Chau, who violated Indian law by traveling to North Sentinel Island in an attempt to convert the native population to Christianity, has brought renewed public attention to the world’s remaining “isolated tribes,” and the risks posed to them through contact with outsiders.
Popular commentary discussing putatively “uncontacted” small-scale societies such as the Sentinelese often emphasizes their presumed naiveté and ignorance of the outside world, while also prioritizing the role of European colonial contact in descriptions of their historical development. But the histories of contact, and the societies of groups such as the Sentinelese, are deeper and more complex than this image. Europeans were hardly the first outsiders to come to the Andaman Islands.
For an example of the popular image, take a widely shared Twitter thread posted last week by user Respectable Lawyer and quoted in the Washington Post and other media outlets. The thread proposed that the hostility to outsiders displayed by the people of North Sentinel Island can be traced back to the actions of British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman, whose poorly managed attempts at contact beginning in 1880 led to the deaths of two native individuals. This line of speculation was also echoed in a New York Times article.
The thread’s author goes on to discuss a ship named the Primrose, which was wrecked on the island’s reef in 1981, and they offer an exotic description of how they believe the damaged ship would have looked to the “Neolithic eyes” of the natives—as an “alien vessel filled with alien things.” On this occasion they allegedly saw “simple machines for the first time,” and by scavenging the ship they were able to make their first metal weapons.
Information on the Sentinelese is quite sparse, so in many cases inferences can only be made from vague historical reports, or comparisons with neighboring populations. But the evidence suggests that vessels have been wrecked on the reefs around North Sentinel Island for hundreds if not thousands of years. Anthropologist Raymond Kelly notes that, “Although the Andaman Islands are geographically isolated, they are located not far from sea-lanes that have been traversed by sailing ships for over 2,000 years, and they appear on second century A.D. Ptolemaic maps.”
While North Sentinel Island is one small island out of many in the region, and the Sentinelese are the most isolated out of all other contemporary Andaman populations, wrecks have been common in the region in the modern era. Anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown also notes that many individuals from other Andaman Island populations were well acquainted with the value of iron in the 18th century, due to vessels being wrecked near their shores.
The British were hardly the first foreigners in the islands. Numerous historical references, going back to the ninth century A.D., describe the Andaman Islands as a place to be feared and avoided due to the presence of hostile natives. Malay, Burmese, and Chinese pirates visited the region on a number of occasions in the centuries preceding British contact, sometimes abducting Andaman Islanders as slaves. In fact, archaeologist Zarine Cooper attributes the hostility to outsiders among native Andaman populations to this history of slave raids.
But while contact with outsiders almost certainly exacerbated the need to aggressively protect their territory, Andaman Island populations likely fought between themselves well before this more extensive colonial contact, just as the vast majority of human populations throughout history always have. From the time of early contact, Jarawa men of South Andaman Island were known for wearing body armor while out hunting, to protect themselves from chance encounters with rival groups. In 1863, Andamanese men acting as guides for British officials in the region would warn them against getting too close to the territory of their long-standing enemies, due to the risk of being violently attacked.
In 1867, over 100 years before the Primrose was wrecked and 13 years before Portman set foot in the region, an Indian merchant vessel named the Nineveh was also wrecked on the reef off North Sentinel. The captain of the Nineveh is said to have reported that on the morning of the third day after the wreck, he and the other survivors were attacked by “savages” whose “arrows appeared to be tipped with iron.” In his 2009 work In the Forest, anthropologist Vishvajit Pandya notes numerous references to the Andaman Islanders in historical accounts before the 18th century and writes that, “The tribal groups of the Ongee, Jarawa and Sentinelese in particular had the reputation for killing any sailor who landed on the islands, either through shipwreck or while in search of fresh water.”
In contrast, however, Portman himself reports the wreck of the Nineveh but does not seem to mention any attack, and he describes the Sentinelese people he encountered in the 1880s as being timid and shy, which he says is in contrast to earlier reports portraying them as fearsome warriors. Compounding matters, early commentators (including Portman) seem to frequently confuse and conflate different Andaman populations, making any clear assessment of behavior among the Sentinelese specifically before British contact quite difficult.
Yet although they may have a long history of acrimonious exchanges with outsiders, contact between the Sentinelese and outside populations has not simply been one uninterrupted chain of conflict. In 1991, the Indian government authorized salvage operators to dismantle the wrecked foreign cargo ship, the Primrose, as well as a ship known as the Rusley, which was grounded off the coast of North Sentinel Island in 1977, four years before the Primrose was wrecked.
For months, laborers worked only a few hundred feet away from North Sentinel Island. Pandya interviewed the owner of the company with the contract to clear the shipwrecks in 1993, and he describes a surprising period of sustained, peaceful interaction:
After two days [of working at the site], in the early morning when it was low tide we saw three Sentinelese canoes with about a dozen men about fifty feet away from the deck of Primrose. We were skeptical and scared and had no other solution but to bring out our supply of bananas and show it to them to attract them and minimize any chance of hostility. They took the bananas and came up on board of Primrose and were frantically looking around for smaller pieces of metal scrap, much of what our workers had cut up with torch lights. The welding torch was a major scare for them something we discovered every time they visited us. We however would oblige them with small pieces of iron rod but they preferred flat strips, which we did provide them. They visited us regularly at least twice or thrice in a month while we worked at the site for about 18 months, excluding the heavy rain season.
Importantly, this occurred during a period when the Indian government was conducting frequent gift-giving expeditions, where peaceful close contact occurred on multiple occasions and the Sentinelese accepted gifts of coconuts and metal utensils. However, after severe problems occurred in the aftermath of expeditions and tourist activity among other Andaman populations, such as the measles epidemic that spread among the Jarawa people, the Indian government stopped conducting these expeditions by 2000, and began to develop a strong no-contact policy. Then, in 2006, the Sentinelese killed two fishermen when their boat apparently accidentally drifted onto the shores of North Sentinel.
This illustrates some of the difficulties of maintaining a “no-contact” policy. First, contact has already happened: A policy that showers people with gifts after centuries of intermittent violent contact and then abruptly stops the gifts and seems to return to intermittent contact is likely to cause a great deal of confusion on the other side. Second, the sea is a chaotic place, and, as in the case of the two fishermen, accidental contact is almost inevitable. Third, as Chau demonstrated, a single sufficiently motivated individual can severely jeopardize such a policy. If an epidemic happens in the midst of a strong “no-contact” policy, then the government will have no established infrastructure or trusting relationship with the native population to be able to provide effective medical assistance.
Of course, there is no guarantee of a trusting relationship developing at all, even with an effective limited contact policy, and such policies come with their own significant risk of causing the very problems the government is trying to prevent. This is a significant source of debate among anthropologists about how governments should best attempt to protect relatively isolated populations. While “no-contact” policies seem to be the consensus, there is real concern about their long-term effectiveness and viability in some parts of the world, even if there often seems to be little alternative.
While the future is uncertain, the history of North Sentinel Island and the people who live there did not begin with British contact. It’s encouraging to see so much popular interest in protecting isolated populations such as the Sentinelese—but hopefully it will also come with greater attempts to understand the rich history of many small-scale populations the world over, without ascribing to them an unrealistic degree of ignorance and isolation, or overemphasizing the role of European actors in their long and complex history.
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