×

The Little-Known History Of North Sentinel Island, Untouched By Modern Civilization

historical landmarks | August 18, 2019

Don't plan a visit to North Sentinel Island. The island is off limits to visitors and the inhabitants have been known to kill intruders. Source: (jonistraveling.com)

It is hard to fathom that in today's modern world—with space travel, amazing medical breakthroughs, and smartphones in every pocket—that there are still tribes of people in the remotest parts of the planet that have had little to no contact with the outside world ... and they like it like that. They work hard to maintain their ancestral way of life amid the encroachment of modernity. This is the story of one such tribe, the Sentinelese people of North Sentinel Island and their overwhelming desire to be left alone that sometimes becomes violent

DigitalGlobe Imagery of North Sentinel Island, India. Source: (Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

Where is North Sentinel Island?

If you've never heard of North Sentinel Island, don't feel bad. Not many people have. That's because it's a tiny speck of land in the Andaman Island chain. North Sentinel Island is actually one of the largest islands in this cluster of islands in the Bay of Bengal, an arm of the Indian Ocean. The 572 islands of the Andaman Island chain are located between India and Myanmar. North Sentinel Island is roughly the size of Manhattan, while most of the other islands that make up the Andaman Island chain are much smaller. Technically, North Sentinel Island and most of the Andaman Islands fall under the rule of India and form what is called the Union Territory of India. A few of the islands on the northern edge of the island chain, however, belong to Myanmar. These countries take a hands-off approach to the native people of the islands, respecting their right to privacy. 

Ancient people from Western Africa settled North Sentinel Island thousands of years ago. Source: (nairaland.com)

Settling North Sentinel Island

It is quite possible that the Sentinelese people have occupied North Sentinel Island for tens of thousands of years. Anthropologists and researchers believe that the Sentinelese are more closely related to the people of Africa than they are the people of India, leading to theories that the island was settled by travelers from the west coast of Africa. Linguists have not yet pigeonholed the Sentinelese language into known dialects, but they have determined that the native people living on the southern islands of the Andaman Island chain are ethnically Austroasiatic. Their language is related to the Vietnamese tongue. The Great Andamanese people, another of the indigenous tribes of the island chain, eventually assimilated into the Indian way of life, and in the process, they lost their native traditions, rich culture, and language. 

During Britain's Golden Age of Exploration, colonists brought disease to the people of North Sentinel Island. Source: (en.wikipedia.org)

Colonization Brought Disease

While the island chain has been known since antiquity, the islands were not regularly visited by outsiders until the British Golden Age of Exploration. Between about 1450 to the early 1600s, British explorers, adventurers, and missionaries traveled to many previously unexplored places. Their purpose was three-fold: to glean riches from foreign lands, to expand the holdings of the British Empire, and to spread Christianity.

They inadvertently spread one more thing: disease. European diseases, to which the native populations had no natural immunity, decimated the once-thriving population of the Sentinelese people as well as many other native tribes that came into contact with the British explorers. Measles, smallpox, influenza, and pneumonia spread like wildfire through the vulnerable native tribes living near the British colonists. 

Neighboring islands were used a penal colonies. Source: (staffblogs.le.ac.uk)

Further Encroachment By Colonists

During its history, the Sentinelese people were subjected to even more encroachment and contact with outsiders, which only reinforce the tribe's desire to remain isolated. For example, in the late 1700s, when the Andaman Islands were controlled by the British, the Indian government built a penal colony on Great Andaman Island near North Sentinel Island. A regular stream of convicted inmates flooded the island from Burma and India, adding to the plight of the native people. 

Like the Sentinelese people, their neighbors, the Andaman people, were a curiosity for anthropologists. Source: (asiangeo.com)

A Novelty for Anthropologists

Although the Sentinelese people survived the encroachment of settlers, explorers, and prisoners as well as the diseases they brought with them, they were still impacted by visitors from the outside world. An incident in 1880 left an indelible mark on the Sentinelese people and set up the policy by which they deal with outsiders to this day.

In 1881, a British expedition led by Maurice Vidal Portman traveled to North Sentinel Island to study the native tribe. The first thing that the members of the expedition did was capture six of the Sentinelese people, so things were already off to a bad start. They were kept confined at Port Blair while they were being studied, and the captives did not farewell. Two of them, an elderly couple, died in captivity. The four others, all children, became sick and weak. Fearing that they, too, may die, the members of the expedition released them back to the island. Since then, the Sentinelese people have strongly resented outsiders who attempt to land on their island, greeting visitors with a volley of arrows. Most outsiders who have stepped foot on the island have been killed by the native Sentinelese. 

The Sentinelese people have a long history of violence towards outsiders. Source: (patheos.com)

Protected by the Indian Government

You may think that the Indian government, which technically controls North Sentinel Island, would be shocked by how violently the Sentinelese people interact with outsiders, but they've adopted a strict policy of "not our business." In 1956, India established the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act, which officially recognizes the wishes of the Sentinelese to be left alone. It notes the desire of the tribe to maintain their traditional way of life and also protect themselves from Western death-pox. The Indian navy, which regularly patrols the Andaman Island chain, has an official policy called "eyes on, hands-off." Military members watch the island to ensure that no outsiders venture to its shores while themselves staying clear of the Sentinelese people. 

John Allen Chau was an American adventurer and missionary who was killed by the Sentinelese people just last year. Source: (news.sky.com)

A 2018 Incident Sheds Light on the Sentinelese People

On November 17, 2018, an American missionary was killed by the Sentinelese people on North Sentinel Island, and the ensuing news coverage of the incident put the Sentinelese people in the spotlight—a place they definitely don't want to be. By all accounts, the missionary, John Allen Chau, had violated the Sentinelese's no-visitors policy when he bribed a couple of local fishermen to take him to North Sentinel Island.

With the same misguided goal of the 17th-century British missionaries, Chau wanted to make contact with the native tribe so that he could convert them to Christianity. According to his friends and family, Chau planned to bring salvation to the tribe, which he believed was besieged by Satan. If Chau expected to be welcomed onto the island by eager islanders longing to hear about Jesus Christ, he was sorely mistaken. By all appearances, he was killed very shortly after stepping foot on North Sentinel Island.

The Sentinelese have even been known to fire arrows at planes and helicopters that fly overhead. Source: (indiatoday.in)

The Repercussions of Chau's Murder

When news broke of Chau's murder at the hands of the isolated Sentinelese tribe, media coverage split into factions. One group viewed Chau as a Christian martyr who died at the hands of godless natives. The other group questioned Chau's wisdom in venturing onto an island that is known for killing visitors. The first group chided the Indian government for their refusal to step in and punish the Sentinelese people for the murder. They even questioned the morality of the Sentinelese, throwing around accusations of cannibalism, polygamy, and incest without any evidence to support their claims. Still, others stated that allowing isolated tribes to remain isolated was preventing them from enjoying the benefits of modern society and keeping them from knowing about the tools and innovations that would enrich their lives. In short, the incident sparked an ongoing debate

More isolated tribes can be found in the Amazon Rainforest and in Papua New Guinea. Source: (washingtonpost.com)

The Sentinelese Are Alone, But They Are Not Alone

The Sentinelese tribe is not the only group of people on the planet that remain isolated from the modern world. In fact, as of the early 2010s, there were as many as 100 groups of uncontacted, isolated people living mostly in the Amazon rainforest, in New Guinea, and on remote islands.

Some groups were previously unknown until recent times. For example, the Lacondon tribe of the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula were first contacted by outsiders in 1924, and the Pintupi tribe of Western Australia were not known until 1984.

By far, the largest number of uncontacted tribes are in Papua New Guinea and in Brazil. Both of these counties follow India's example by enacting policies that protect these native people from unwanted attempts to modernize them.

The lesson that can be learned from the murder of Chau and the history of the Sentinelese people is that the spread of modern life, for all its conveniences, into isolated regions, and to native people should not be viewed from one side. While it may be tempting, even noble, to want to introduce these native people to things like modern medicine, religion, and Angry Birds, if doing so upsets the long-held traditions of the people, then it may be best to take a hands-off approach.

Tags: North Sentinel Island

Like it? Share with your friends!

Share On Facebook

Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.