After news of 26-year-old American John Allen Chau’s death at the hands of the Sentinalese tribe in the Andaman islands, there are many questions about the tribe, and why they behave with outsiders the way they do. John Chau, a missionary based out of Alabama in the United States had travelled to Andaman in October (for the sixth time) and had travelled to the North Sentinel island to meet the tribe to preach about Jesus and Christianity.
According to Survival International, a global movement for tribal peoples’ rights the Sentinelese are believed to be direct descendants from the first human populations in Africa and are thought to have inhabited the North Sentinel island of the Andamans for about up to 60,000 years. They are known as the ‘uncontacted’ people – very little is known about them, mostly through distant observation, for they continue to resist all contact with the outside world and other civilisation. As per Survival International, the Sentinelese have changed their ways a little, but like people in the Stone Age, they still make “tools and weapons from metal, which they recover from ships wrecked on the island’s reefs.”
There have been several attempts to make contact with the Sentinelese with little success. In fact, two fishermen who had unknowingly strayed into their territory met with fate similar to John’s in 2006. Sunder Raj (48) and Pandit Tiwari (52) were drunk on palm wine and their boat drifted to a shore of the Sentinelese’ island.
They were reportedly killed by the tribesmen. Even when an Indian coastguard chopper went to the area to investigate and recover the duo’s bodies, the aircraft was attacked with bows and arrows by the Sentinelese warriors. Sunder and Pandit’s bodies were visible to the crew when the wind from the chopper’s blades blew away the sand from their shallow grave.
The Sentinelese determination to remain secluded in their island is so great that even when rescuers and boats went to their island to check for casualties after the 2004 tsunami, they were met with the hostility of bows and arrows, Andamans' then police chief, Dharmendra Kumar, told The Guardian.
Tribespersons photographed at the North Sentinel island. Photo: Indian Coast Guard
The earliest mention of the Sentinelese is from the 1700s, as per Atlas and Boots’ detailed blog on the tribe. There have also been accounts of outsiders being attacked by the Sentinelese from the 1800s too.
After this, the first major attempt at friendly contact happened in 1967, led by anthropologist Triloknath Pandit, who is also the author of the only book written on the tribe, The Sentinelese. It was unsuccessful, although the visiting party left ‘gifts’ of cloth and candy in empty huts, for the Sentinelese had retreated into the forest.
The first and last peaceful contact with the tribe was established in 1991. For the first time in history, the Sentinelese greeted the visiting dinghy without weapons, and apparently indicated that they wanted gifts.
“As usual, the dinghy moved down the beach to a safe spot, and a crewman jumped out to drop off a bag of coconuts. As usual, the Sentinelese rushed down to grab it. But for the first time ever, the aborigines brought no weapons with them when they approached the water’s edge—only mesh baskets and the iron-tipped wooden adzes they sometimes used to chop apart the coconuts. Emboldened, the dinghy’s passengers tore open another sack of coconuts and threw them into the water. Five of the Sentinelese swam out to collect the nuts, and a few others brought out one of their canoes,” an account reads.
Despite the Sentinelese’ violence towards outsiders, there are several who argue that they should be left alone, and that their actions are justified, given the violence and condescension they have faced from outsiders due to their lifestyle. Even RK Tiwari, the father of Pandit Tiwari, the fisherman killed by the Sentinelese in 2006, argued similarly.
The hostility of the islanders towards outsiders could also be because of a traumatic incident from the late 1800s. A British colonial officer Maurice Vidal Portman ventured into the North Sentinel Island and captured six tribespersons, identified as Jarawas by Maurice in his book A History Of Our Relations With The Andamanese Vol 2. The people captured were an elderly couple and some children. They were brought to Port Blair, where Maurice kept them confined in his home. Otherwise healthy and thriving, the group ‘sickened rapidly’, the colonial officer noted. This ultimately resulted in the death of the elderly couple, prompting for the children to be sent back to the island.
Despite being responsible for the deaths of at least two people, and exposing the islanders to germs and diseases they would have no immunity against, Maurice expressed no remorse, but merely remarked on the tribals' ‘peculiarly idiotic expression of countenance, and manner of behaving, reports Survival International, which has also campaigned for letting the Sentinelese maintain their isolated status quo.
There are also arguments against the so-called benefits of civilization that some say the Sentinelese are missing out on. Sita Venkateswar, an anthropologist, argued that another Andaman tribe, the Jarawa, with whom similar attempts were made to establish contact. The Jarawa, who were earlier opposed to contact as well, ultimately gave in, and are now plagued by alcoholism, sexual exploitation and diseases such as measles
“What happens immediately with contact is the use of tobacco, the use of betel nuts, abuse of alcohol and sex. The fruits of civilisation never reach them. There will be several generations of suffering before they are able to get a foothold in the fruits of civilisation and set the terms of it for themselves,” Sita told Atlas and Boots.
The Andaman police say that the North Sentinel island is a tribal and forest reserve and hence, protected against visitors including foreign nationals unless they have specific permission. Even if someone has permission, they are barred by law from collecting or carrying any forest produce, books, maps, photographs, films religious or scientific artefacts to and from these areas as per the Protection of Aboriginal Tribes (Regulation) Act. They are also not allowed to introduce substances like weapons, drugs or any intoxicants into these areas.