North Sentinel Island: What A Rare Sentinelese Welcome Looks Like

As notorious as the Sentinelese’s were with their guest reception, there were various academicians who tired to land on the island and study them up close. One of the more widely known was Triloknath Pandit who visited North Sentinel Island from the 1960s up until the 1990s.

Triloknath Pandit Visits

Like Portman, he visited the island regularly, bearing gifts. Unlike Portman, he wasn’t a total jerk about it. He took cues from the Sentinelese: if they were up in arms, he would stay a safe distance.

Interesting fact: In 1970, India had claimed the island as one of their land — by dropping a stone tablet onto the beach (ta-da!).

Every visit to the island, Pandit brought with them gifts varying between coconuts, bananas, iron rods, metal cookware, a live pig and even toys, just to name a few. Some were received well, others were discarded or buried in the sand (they killed the pig then buried it).

It would take 24 years of coaxing before they would make the first recorded friendly visit with the Sentinelese. And it was theorised that this was due to the presence of the first woman anthropologist in the visiting team on January 4 1991, Madhumala Chattopadhyay.

(Strangely enough, this piece of literature about her was greatly under-reported. I only stumbled upon it because someone raised it in a massive Twitter thread about Portman’s questionable obsession with photographing the Sentinelese’s nether regions.)

Need a reminder of who Portman is? You read about or will read about him in North Sentinel Island’s battered history.

Madhumala Chattopadhyay Visits

Madhumala’s presence tipped the dynamics of the visiting crew on that fateful day on January 4, 1991. Pandit was away on a family emergency and had missed that visit. His much more reported visit would come a few weeks later in February.

Madhumala had made her mark earlier when she became the first woman outsider to make in-roads with the Jarawa mixing in with the women folk and being allowed to actually carry a Jarawa child. Her presence in the group of 13 people visiting the island that morning seemed to ease tension.

This sharing by Sudipto Sengupta relayed details about what transpired that day. An interview with Madhumala with National Geographic dated December 2018 would reveal a similar albeit truncated version of the same event.

That morning, the team had dropped coconuts in the water and for the first time ever, the Sentinelese came into the water to collect them. Coconuts were not found on the island and in fact Portman had wanted to turn the island into a coconut plantation but the idea was not pursued for reasons unknown.

This was a breakthrough, a change from their usual show of aggression. It is theorised that it had something to do with having a woman among the visiting crew.

This coconut delivery continued for four hours. When they ran out, the crew left to restock and returned with more coconuts. Round 2 saw a young “youth wade up to the boat and touch it with his hands”. More men followed suit.

The meeting was not without problems though.

A lone youth on the shore was not as trusting. He had raised an arrow at the direction of the group. Madhumala held her ground, refusing to budge. It was a standoff. Had it not been for a Sentinelese woman pushing the youth and causing the arrow to land far off the mark, things could have ended up far worse. (A different report mentioned that a woman pushed the bow down and the man holding the bow and arrow buried them in the sand.)

Instead, Madhumala took the cue from the woman, and initiated contact by jumping into the knee-deep water. She began handing over coconuts in person, and surprisingly, the Sentinelese men reciprocated by taking the coconuts by hand.

The first friendly contact had been made with the Sentinelese.

The team would return with Pandit in February. This time, the Sentinelese climbed onto their boats to receive the coconuts, with no bows, arrows or spears in tow. However, when Pandit found himself separated from the rest of his crew, he was given a cut-across-the-neck gesture by one of the Sentinelese man on the shore. They had overstayed their welcome. Pandit retreated to safety and rejoined his crew.

Stopping Future Visits

The Government of India would eventually stop these friendly visits in 1994. It was decided that contact with the outside world brings more harm than good to them (e.g. modern-day illnesses they have no immunity against).

Many of the other Andamanese tribes had succumbed to diseases like syphilis and measles, as well as addiction to alcohol. Some have been driven to extinction. Take for instance the Bo tribe. Originally estimated to have a population of around 200 in 1858, the Bo tribe lost most of its people to warfare, loss of territory, being moved around, illnesses and alcohol. The last speaker of the Bo language died in January 2010, aged 85.

Perhaps the Sentinelese got it right all along all these centuries. Maybe the descendants on the island got constant reminders by their elders, of the instances when their ancestors (such as Portman’s abductees) were taken away from the island only to come back sickly, or not come back at all.

Maybe refusing to make contact with the outside world is what’s been keeping them going for tens of thousands of years, and maybe we should agree with the anthropologists and the Indian government on this and just leave the Sentinelese alone.

More Reading:

This is the last part of the North Sentinel Island series. Follow the link to check out the other posts in the same series.

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