Asia Life

The Sentinels of the Sentinelese

India was right to deny access to one of the world’s last unresearched tribes.

The Sentinels of the Sentinelese

A Sentinel tribal man aims with his bow and arrow at an Indian Coast Guard helicopter as it flies over their island for survey in India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago (Dec, 28, 2004).

Credit: AP Photo/Indian Coast Guard, HO

The “last stronghold of Satan” has still not been conquered. On November 17, John Allen Chau, an American, was murdered on North Sentinel island, one of the last unexplored areas of the earth. The island is a part of the the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago, which belongs to India, and is home to a tribe which we, after the island’s name, call the Sentinelese.

Chau was a devout Christian and was apparently intent upon converting the enigmatic, virtually unknown community. Passages from his diary, as shown in the press, reveal that the apparently self-appointed missionary thought of the North Sentinel island as the “last stronghold of Satan,” the only place on earth when Jesus Christ’s name is not yet known – and his chosen mission was to change this. “I love you and Jesus loves you,” Chau reportedly shouted to the Sentinelese while they were trying to chase him away. This was during one of his earlier attempts to contact the group. The last attempt ended with his death, apparently at the hand of the island’s inhabitants.

While his death is a tragedy, I find Chau’s behavior indefensible. The precious little we know about the Sentinelese confirms that they have nearly always treated foreigners with hostility. An Indian anthropologist, Triloknath Pandit, may be one of the select few to manage to contact them without courting violence. Otherwise, the Sentinelese, by shooting their arrows at nearly everything and everyone that comes near their remote island – a man, a boat, or even a helicopter – made it clear that they do not want any outsiders on their land. Moreover, the Indian government has made it illegal to go to the island. The Indians who smuggled Chau there (most possibly because he paid them) have reportedly been arrested.

The Sentinelese are as fascinating as they are unknown. We do not know the language they speak, what customs they have, or how many of them are left on the island. North Sentinel seems to be their only abode and the whole world they know. They seem to be a tribe frozen in time: They use wooden tools strengthened with metal scraps and sustain themselves with hunting and gathering (or perhaps, given the island’s size, rather fishing and gathering).

With so little to work from, the few instances of Sentinelese behavior that people have observed seem eerie. A 1974 National Geographic expedition gifted the tribe with a pig, a doll, a toy car, cooking utensils, and coconuts. The Sentinelese killed and buried the pig and the toys, but reportedly took the cooking supplies and the coconuts (according to Adam Goodheart’s article “The Last Island of the Savages”). Other researchers, after being chased away from the island, saw the locals having sex on the beach in plain eyesight.

It is easy to judge people whom we do not know. But don’t they judge us the same way? Moreover, they may have good reasons to protect themselves from us. In the last decades of the 19th century Maurice Vidal Portman, a British naval officer who was tasked with administering the archipelago, not only undertook research on the Andamanese but also had them pacified violently. Portman also betrayed a suspicious fascination with the bodies of the tribal islanders, and his notes reportedly contain alarming sections, such as comparisons of their penis lengths. Portman also reportedly abducted a few Sentinelese children and an elderly couple. The children were later released back into the jungle but we can only speculate on what Portman could have done to them before then.

Before judging the violent reaction of the Sentinelese to all researchers, let us think: what does Portman’s behavior say about our world? In the isolated, limited information system of the North Sentinel tribe, the little sample of experience with the outside world – such as the children’s account of their captivity under Portman – could have grown to a general, horrifying story that may have been taken to represent our entire civilization, just like our scant contacts with the Sentinelese are often interpreted as representing them in general.

In my view, the Indian government was right to deny access to the uncharted island. The one mistake could have been announcing that the Restricted Area Permit, so far needed by foreigners to access the Andamanese islands, was no longer needed. Indeed, the list of protected areas on India’s Ministry of External Affairs’ website does not include the Andaman islands anymore. The decision was made known in August this year but we do not know if Chau’s visit was related to the government’s decision. While the change was interpreted as allowing foreigners to travel to the tribal areas, after Chau’s death the Ministry of Home Affairs clarified that approvals to go to places such as North Sentinel island are still needed.

Does the New Delhi government have any other options? It is easy to say that it is washing its hands in this case by not providing the islanders with any facilities or help anymore. But any contact with the Sentinelese would have to be enforced, and perhaps inevitably violently. The tribe does not want us and our civilization – should we compel them to think otherwise? Moreover, would they survive such contact?

Some speculate that a man from the Middle Ages, if teleported to our times, would soon die because of the air difference. For the Sentinelese, being forced to accept our civilization would symbolically be like being teleported across thousands of years. This could be disruptive, if not destructive for them. The elderly couple which had been forcibly taken away by Portman died because of the diseases of our world, to which they were not immune. Most of the tribes of the Andaman and Nicobar archipelago are extinct already. Their population was decimated by the illnesses and encroachments brought by the British colonial era. And it is not only the lack of immunity – though this could have been enough – but the overwhelming technological, social, economic, and mental transformation brought about by being suddenly immersed in the modern civilization.

Concluding that it is better to leave the Sentinelese alone does not mean that it is necessarily a good option. Their population level is only an estimate based on rare observations from a distance. The last time, the number of the Sentinelese was believed to be 15, while it had been claimed to be over a hundred decades ago. Forced contact would have probably killed all or most of the population but perhaps the Sentinelese are dying anyway. If the estimate is true, the tribe is on its way toward either extinction or becoming one big family and thus facing genetic degeneration (which will also mean eventual extinction). There are no easy or moral choices here, and perhaps no good solutions at all.