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.

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.

North Sentinel Island, India: The Last Island You’ll Ever Visit

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

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands make up an archipelago of 572 islands situated in the Bay of Bengal. Around 550 are under the Andaman Group and the remaining 22 islands under Nicobar. Only a total of 38 islands are inhabited by man, 28 in the Andaman islands and 10 in Nicobar. In a census from 2011, India estimated the population on the islands to be a little under 380,000.

Of the whole lot, the most interesting island is probably North Sentinel Island. It’s a small island (about 28 sq miles) and it lies 50 KM away from Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands.

By Jesse Allen for NASA Earth Observatory 

North Sentinel Island is home to one of the most isolated tribes in the world, the Sentinelese (or Sentineli). They have lived on the island with minimal contact with the outside world, and anyone who dares to venture close are often treated with arrows and spears.

by Christian Caron for Survival International

Their hostility towards visitors have been recorded through history, beginning from the 1800s.

Treacherous Waters For Ships

Surrounding the island is a ring of coral reef that made access by sea very dangerous and difficult, if not impossible. The

In 1867, an Indian merchant ship, Nineveh was stranded on the coral reef off North Sentinel Island. After three days on the beach, the passengers and crew (a total of 106) were ambushed by the Sentinelese. They manage to fend off the attack and survive long enough for the Royal Navy to rescue them.

In 1970, a wreck was reportedly spotted (it was not mentioned by whom) on the coral reef on the southeast side of the island. The only other info about this wreck that I can find was that it’s been there for around 8 months. 1977, the cargo ship MV Rusley ran aground on the reef. Nothing much was known or mentioned about the cargo or the crew for both ships.

In 1981, the freighter Primrose got stranded on the reef during a storm. The choppy waters kept the 28-man crew on board while they await rescue. A few days later, they would find the same dangerous waters as the only thing keeping fifty Sentinelese men from successfully attacking the ship.

Their flimsy boats and rudimentary arrows kept any real danger out of range. The crew was eventually airlifted to safety (you can read about the rescue here as told by the helicopter pilot), leaving behind the Primrose and its cargo of chicken feed on the island and on Google Maps until today.

Beginning in 1991, five ship-breakers (the brothers Mohamed) would head to the island every few months with police escorts to salvage iron, for days at a time, from the wreck. While there, they would stay on their boat, never descending upon the shore.

The Sentinelese had also been scavenging metal from the wreck since it landed on their shores a decade prior. Hence, it was not surprising that the tribespeople shot at the ship-breaking crew when they first landed on the island. After their police escort fired warning shots into the air, the ship-breakers got to work in peace for the remainder of their task until 1997.

Up Next:

In the next part of this North Sentinel Island series, we’re going to look at how visitors to the island were treated (spoiler alert: not very well).