The death of an American missionary on North Sentinel Island recently made this remote island within the Andaman group in the Bay of Bengal back in the news. Officially, the island has been off-limits to outsiders for decades, but the incident has brought the islanders’ future, the Northern Sentinelese, into question again. As far as is known, these hunter-gatherers have rejected contact with the outside world throughout their history.
North Sentinel Island belongs to the Indian union territory (a province governed directly from Delhi) of the two island groups Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
Composed of approximately 150 to 200 individuals, the tribe which resides there, “the Sentinels,” rejects all contact with the outside world.
The precise origin of the different populations that inhabit the Andaman Archipelago remains quite mysterious. According to some specialists, these peoples could come from Asia, but from Africa, following a migration carried out some fifty millennia ago.
Small in size, these populations have very dark skin and curly hair. Their physical features do not match those of Asian peoples.
The first Spanish settlers called them “negritos”. They find in several areas in Southeast Asia.
Hunter – gatherers
Living in community huts, the Sentinels make a living from hunting and fishing. They mainly feed on fish and turtles. Their social organization, the precise functioning of which is difficult to define, does not seem to include a leader or a sorcerer.
Their way of existence has hardly changed for 60,000 years. Over time, however, they perfected their tools by collecting various materials, particularly on the island’s shores.
A first meeting
In 1880, India was a British colony. Maurice Vidal Portman, a young British naval officer, leads an expedition to study the Sentinels. His men capture members of the tribe, a child and an older couple.
Shortly after, the couple died. Then the child is brought back to the island, totally traumatized. Then notice that many members of the tribe die unexplained.
These deaths are actually due to the lack of immune defenses in the Sentinels, making them particularly vulnerable to external contact.
After this disastrous episode, the world leaves them alone for a hundred years. For their part, the Sentinels very probably kept this event in mind, which could also partly explain their aggressive behavior towards strangers.
New attempts at contact took place in the 1970s. The Sentinels, however, remain wary, and interactions are very brief.
The sinking of the Primrose
In 1981, the boat Primrose ran aground off Sentinel Island. Seeing members of the tribe building rafts meet them, the crew gets scared.
Luckily, bad weather conditions prevent the tribe members from joining them. The crew rescue, the shipwreck, is still off the island.
In 1991, Indian anthropologist Trilokinath Pandit managed to get to the island with a team of researchers. Provided with offerings, he established contact with the Sentinels. However, the exchanges are terse.
After a few minutes, the members of the tribe, initially friendly, show signs of nervousness and aggression. Since then, the Indian government has decided to end this expedition by prohibiting access to the island.
The 2004 tsunami
In 2004, the tsunami that ravaged the Indian Ocean raised fears of the worst for the island’s inhabitants. To assess the damage, an Indian helicopter dispatch to the site.
As he flew over the island, the pilot saw an inhabitant threatening to shoot an arrow in his direction. Everything, therefore, suggests that the Sentinels, for the most part, survived the tragedy.
The Christian missionary
In 2018, a young American, John Allen Chau, landed on the island to evangelize the Sentinels. According to reports from nearby fishers, his body was riddled with arrows and later buried on the beach.
“You might think I’m crazy doing all this, but I think it’s worth bringing Jesus to these people,” he wrote in his diary on the morning of his death.
His arrival on the island could have had catastrophic consequences on the Sentinels, and his body’s recovery represents a real headache for the Indian government.