Last month, a tiny remote island in the Bay of Bengal made headlines when an American missionary was killed by the uncontacted tribe who inhabit it. However the inhabitants of North Sentinel island aren’t uncontacted by accident: there have been numerous attempts to contact and ‘modernise’ the ancient tribe over the centuries, and each time they have violent rejected contact with the world at large. Here’s what happened.
The first recorded encounter with the Sentinelese, as they are often referred to, happened in the mid 19th century, when the merchant ship Nineveh was wrecked near the island. The ship’s passengers and crew made it to shore safely, but after a couple of days were set upon by the Sentinelese. The survivors managed to fend off the attacking tribe, and were rescued a few days later by the Royal Navy.
It wasn’t until later in the century when more significant contact was made by Maurice Vidal Portman, who was serving as a colonial administrator to the Andaman Islands. Portman was a keen anthropologist with an interest in the local Andaman tribes, and he tried to extend contact to the more isolated tribe of North Sentinel island.
However when they organised an expedition to the island, the party found abandoned village after abandoned village, the inhabitants having simply melted away into the forest as they approached. Eventually an elderly couple and four children were found, and kidnapped to be brought to the mainland. The Sentinelese quickly sickened and the older couple died, and Portman decided to return the children to the island with a number of gifts.
The Sentinelese were largely left alone for some time after that, but in the 1960s, the Indian government decided to make an effort to bring the tribe into the modern fold. An anthropologist named T N Pandit was the leader of these expeditions, and made many trips to the island over the years.
The strategy was to drop gifts from the modern world, including coconuts, buckets, modern tools and bits of metal the islanders could fashion into tools and weapons. This strategy had been used to establish friendly contact with other tribes, such as the previously aggressive Jarawa tribe on the neighbouring South Andaman Island. However despite moments when the Sentinelese made gestures that appeared friendly to the Indian visitors, the tribe were still wary and protected their island carefully.
Eventually the Indian Government ceased these gift-giving expeditions, and due to the threat of disease to the isolated tribe, have now made it illegal to visit North Sentinel island. Seeing the fate of the other Andamanese tribes, who have suffered from their contact with the outside world, it’s likely for the best.