North Sentinel Island’s Battered History (1880-2018)

This is part of the Unique Islands series. Follow this tag for more.

Visitors to the island have varying degrees of success: few were successful in making contact, most were chased away with spears and arrows, some were ignored while some were taunted from the shores of the island, and an unlucky few were straight-out killed.

Portman Visits the Sentinelese

Maurice Vidal Portman was a British naval officer put in charge of the Andamanese tribes (the Sentinelese are but one of many). Portman would carry out armed expeditions to the island regularly. He would always leave gifts, and only sometimes abduct tribespeople to bring back to Port Blair to study (and photograph).

In 1880, he kidnapped six Sentinelese and took them back to Port Blair, two of them elderly, four of them children. Unfortunately, they all got sick. When the old couple died, Portman quickly returned the children to the island, presumably still sick, carrying disease back to their people. To make up for what he did, Portman left them gifts before he departed, a tradition he would repeat as he continued visiting the island in the following few years until 1887.

In February 1895, Portman visited the island with a new objective: to return a lost Sentineli who had drifted off the island and found his way to an Onges tribe on a neighbouring island. The tribe did not welcome their brethren and chased him away like they did everyone else from then on.

The Sentinelese Defends Their Territory

In 1896, a lone convict made his way to the shores of the island after having escaped from Port Blair 50KM away. Two of his fellow escapees had meet their doom, drowning on the treacherous reefs surrounding North Sentinel Island. He himself met with much more grisly death. His body was found by the British navy with his throat slit and with arrow wounds all over his body.

Two world wars and India’s struggle for independence from the British saw the islanders left to their own defences and glee for three-quarters of a century – until 1967 (but you’ll only read more about this in the next post since I’m continuing the rest of this post with the same running theme.)

In 1974, a National Geographic camera crew ventured too close, and a member of their film crew got an 8-foot-long arrow to the thigh. The resulting documentary would be known as Man in Search of Man. (Note that the documentary will cover more than just the Sentinelese tribe but if you want to fast forward to their part, here’s the link for it. Also note that there is nudity in the video.)

Interestingly enough, some time in 1974, exiled King Leopold III of Belgium tried to visit the island with the chief administrator of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The old King, 73 years of age at the time, considered himself a social anthropologist and had been travelling the world. The overnight tour was cut short when the visitors were shot at by a lone warrior on the shore.

Read More about how the Sentinelese treat the crews of ships that ran aground on the coral reefs surrounding North Sentinel Island.

Indian Ocean Earthquake and Tsunami (2004)

The magnitude-9.1 Indian Ocean earthquake in 2004 and subsequent tsunami devastated fourteen region and left over 230,000 casualties in total.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands were heavily hit due to their proximity to the epicentre, and the aftershocks. The tsunami that hit their area was 15 metres high. One-fifth of the population on the Nicobar islands were injured, dead or missing.

The Andaman and Nicobar islands underwent dramatic lifting and sinking as observed from NASA satellite photos. North Sentinel Island was not spared this. Shown here are satellite photos indicating the drastic change in elevation. In certain places, the elevation changed between 1 to 2 metres.

By Jesse Allen, Earth Observatory Team

Fearing the worst, the Indian government sent a helicopter over North Sentinel island to check on the tribe three days after the Boxing Day tsunami. The helicopter was greeted robustly with arrows and spears. The Sentinelese are managing fine on their own.

Other Andanamese tribes in the area also survived the tsunami by heading inland or to higher ground once the earthquake hit. They suffered far less or no casualties compared to other communities in more densely populated regions.

A little over a year later, in January 2006, two fishermen trying to harvest crabs off North Sentinel island were attacked after their boat drifted, while they were sleeping, into the shallow parts of the island. They were hacked to death and their bodies “put on bamboo stakes facing out to sea like scarecrows.” Attempts to retrieve their bodies even by helicopter failed, and were later abandoned.

More recently, in November 2018, 26 year old John Allen Chau, a missionary who kayaked to North Sentinel Island in the hopes of converting the islanders there to Christianity was shot and killed by the tribe. Authorities also could not retrieve his body from the island.

By this time, it was forbidden by Indian law for anyone to approach the island for any purpose. For their help in getting Chau to the island in the first place, seven people including a local tourist guide were arrested by Indian authorities.

But not everyone is treated with threats and harm. There were a few who succeeded (relatively speaking) in making contact with the Sentinelese.

Up Next:

In the next part of this North Sentinel Island series, we’ll be looking at how two anthropologists tried to study and make contact with the Sentinelese through decades-long island visits.

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