Perhaps the idea of a tribe that rejects contact with the outside world and continues to live enclosed in its own world, culture, and customs was not something so far fetched throughout the 20th-century, but with the massive globalization on the planet today, it’s not only rare but estranged.
But then there is the North Sentinel Island, one of the Andaman Island in the Bay of Bengal, where the Sentinelese people, often violently, reject any contact with the outside world. As different accounts suggest these are some of the last people worldwide to remain literally untouched by modern civilization.
That is the reason why our understanding of the Sentinelese is so limited. Anyway, Indian authorities acknowledge the islanders’ desire to be left alone, therefore only remote monitoring is conducted on the island from time to time. The entire island and its surrounding waters are designated as an exclusion zone.
Coral reefs surround the North Sentinel Island, and there doesn’t seem to be any natural harbors. Forests entirely cover the island and are the shelter of between 50 and 400 Sentinelese indigenous people, however, nobody can really be certain about the population numbers. As this community rejects contact with other people, they also face potential threats of contracting diseases they are not immune to, as well as violence from intruders.
The Onge, that is one of the Andamanese indigenous peoples of the Andaman Islands, traditionally hunter-gatherers and designated as Scheduled Tribe of India, has been acquainted of the North Sentinel Island’s existence. The traditional name the Onge had for this place is Chia daaKwokweyeh, and the two groups have slight resemblance culturally speaking, a conclusion brought by what has little been remotely observed among the Sentinelese.
There have been several instances throughout history when the Andaman islands have been the subject of annexation, either as strategic points or naval bases, and intricating are also the British visits during the 18th century. According to British surveyor John Ritchie, the island had “a multitude of lights” when it was observed in 1771 by a ship of the East India Company.
In 1867, an Indian merchant vessel had wrecked on the reef near the island and 106 surviving passengers and crewman had reportedly faced an attack by the Sentinelese, thus they were unable to progress inside the island. The survivors of the wreck were eventually saved by a Royal Navy party.
An expedition conducted by Maurice Vidal Portman, a government administrator who had looked forward to learning more about this indigenous group and their customs, had successfully reached the North Sentinel Island in the beginning of 1880, however, the islanders had abandoned villages by using a network of pathways. Several days later, six Sentinelese were captured though, an elderly couple and four children. The colonial officer in charge of the operation reportedly wrote that the entire group, “sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents“.
The modern times at the North Sentinel Island
Portman would conduct a second visit in 1883 following an eruption of Krakatoa that was mistaken for gunfire and interpret as a distress signal of a ship. Before leaving the island, Portman’s group had again left gifts.
The first peaceful contact with the Sentinelese had been made by Triloknath Pandit, a director of the Anthropological Survey of India and his colleagues, back in January 1991. Indian visits to the island had continued until 1997 when activities had ceased.
An important more recent event for the Sentinelese was certainly the violent 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, that had managed to tilt the tectonic plate under the island, lifting it by 1 to 2 meters (3 to 7 ft), hence large tracts of coral reefs were exposed. As the earthquake has slightly extended the island’s boundaries, it has also disturbed the fishing ground around the island, but the Sentinelese appear to have adapted well to that change.
Three days following the earthquake, an Indian government helicopter was sent to observe the indigenous group, but reportedly, several Islanders have shot arrows and stone at the hovering craft.
The latest violent response was on 26 January 2006, when two fishermen were killed by the Sentinelese, as the fishing boat had accidentally drifted too close to the island as the fishermen were illegally going after mud crabs.
A 2011 census done by Indian authorities suggests there are 39 people estimated to live on the island which is thrice less than a census done in 1921.
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