- The Sentinelese are getting international attention for reportedly killing the American missionary John Allen Chau.
- Their tribe is almost entirely isolated from the outside world.
- However, they have come into contact with outsiders multiple times since the 1800s and had multiple visits from anthropologists.
The Sentinelese – a small tribe of indigenous people living on India’s North Sentinel Island – have drawn international attention for reportedly killing the American missionary John Allen Chau, who seemed to be visiting the island on a religious mission, writing in his journal, “Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”
It wasn’t the first time the tribe has interacted with people from the outside world, or the first time they have killed an interloper.
The Sentinelese, part of the Andamanese tribes (a group of tribes living on the remote Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal), have a long history of occasional contact with outsiders. Since the 1800s, there have been a number of recorded contacts with the tribe, and anthropologists have made regular visits since the 1960s.
Not all of them have been friendly. In 1880, a British colonizer kidnapped six of the Sentinelese. And in 2006, tribespeople killed two fishermen harvesting crabs off the island’s coast.
Here are 11 known points of contact between the Sentinelese and the outside world – and what happened each time.
In 1867, an Indian merchant ship crashed near the island.
In the summer of 1867, the Nineveh, an Indian merchant ship, was wrecked on a reef near North Sentinel. Eighty-six passengers and 20 crewmen made it to shore.
On the third day on the island, according to survivor accounts, they were attacked by members of the Sentinelese tribe.
The ship’s captain later said the tribespeople were “perfectly naked, with short hair and red painted noses, and were opening their mouth and making sounds like ‘pa on ough’; their arrows appeared to be tipped with iron.”
The remaining crew members fended off the Sentinelese with sticks and stones, and they were ultimately rescued by the British Royal Navy, which then kept the Andaman Islands as a penal colony.
Some claim Marco Polo was the first European to visit the island. In about 1296, Polo wrote about the Andamanese in his diary, referring to them as cannibals and “a most brutish and savage race, having heads, eyes, and teeth like those of dog.” Historians believe that he made those remarks based on hearsay and that he did not visit the islands. There is no evidence that any of the Andamanese were cannibals.
In 1880, a British naval officer kidnapped six tribemembers.
In the late 1800s, India was considered one of Britain’s major colonial outposts. British officers regulated different communities in the region – often violently.
A British naval officer, Maurice Vidal Portman, oversaw the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and documented the Andamanese tribes in the late 1800s.
Portman and his team – which included trackers from other Andamanese tribes he’d already made contact with – ventured to North Sentinel in 1880. They came upon an elderly couple and four children, who they took back to Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. The elderly couple “sickened rapidly” and died, possibly from lack of immunity to diseases the British carried, and the children were sent back to the island with gifts, according to Portman’s account of his trip.
Portman wrote in his account and later discussed that he regretted introducing himself to the Andamanese.
“Their association with outsiders has brought them nothing but harm, and it is a matter of great regret to me that such a pleasant race are so rapidly becoming extinct,” he said in an address to London’s Royal Geographical Society.
A convict fled to the island in 1896, but he didn’t last long.
In 1896, a Hindu convict fled from the main British penal colony on Great Andaman Island on a makeshift raft and landed on North Sentinel. A search party found his body a few days later “pierced in several places by arrows and with its throat cut,” according to The American Scholar.
Starting in 1967, the Indian government organised dozens of surveys of the area.
In the late 1960s, the Indian anthropologist Triloknath Pandit began visiting North Sentinel with the Anthropological Survey of India. With teams of more than a dozen people, he made multiple visits to the island over nearly four decades.
In his first visit in 1967, he participated in a “gift-dropping” expedition with local police.
“They were watching us carefully, and they must not have been happy, because they picked up their bows and arrows,” he told the New York Times. “This whole encounter was so amazing, because here is civilized man facing primitive man in its extreme state, living very simply.”
Pandit and the group didn’t make direct contact with the Sentinelese then, but he tried again multiple times over the course of his career at the Anthropological Survey, ultimately achieving contact in 1991.
It’s not clear how many anthropological trips have been made to North Sentinel. Though Pandit retired in 1992, anthropologists like Vishvajit Pandya have continued to make regular visits.
In 1970, India claimed North Sentinel Island as part of its republic.
While India declared independence from Great Britain in 1947, North Sentinel basically operated as a quasi-independent nation. That changed in 1970, when an Indian surveying party landed on the island and dropped a stone tablet proclaiming it part of India.
A National Geographic documentary crew visited in 1974.
In 1974, a National Geographic film crew, some anthropologists, and a few policemen visited North Sentinel to shoot a documentary about the Andamanese, “Man in Search of Man.”
The Sentinelese shot arrows at the crew as they approached the island. Some of the policemen went ashore wearing armour and left gifts of coconuts and toys, then returned to the boat. The Sentinelese continued to shoot arrows at them, hitting the film director in the thigh.
Belgium’s exiled king dropped by a year later.
Leopold III, then the exiled king of Belgium, toured the Andaman Islands in 1975 with local dignitaries, who brought him near North Sentinel. According to Pandit: “As soon as his boat got too close, they [the Sentinelese] shot an arrow in his direction. The king was overjoyed and said it was the best day of his life!”
In 1981, a cargo ship was wrecked near the island.
One of the most notable events between outsiders and North Sentinel happened in 1981 when the Primrose cargo ship struck a nearby coral reef, shipwrecking 28 sailors for nearly two weeks.
The sailors were later rescued by helicopter, and the Sentinelese scavenged the ship. Later expeditions to the island found the Sentinelese using metal tools, possibly fashioned from the ship’s remains. The wreck can be seen on Google Maps today.
A local ship-breaking company was permitted to scavenge some of the remains of the Primrose in 1991.
Five brothers who worked as ship-breakers went to the island with a police escort every few months until 1997 and sometimes encountered the Sentinelese. One of the brothers found a Sentinelese bow floating in the water and took it home.
The Indian Coast Guard flew a helicopter to check on the Sentinelese after the 2004 tsunami.
After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, the Indian government flew helicopters over the Andaman Islands to see how the different communities fared.
Miraculously, they were largely unaffected.
Two Indian fishermen were killed in 2006 when were harvesting crabs off the island.
Sunder Raj and Pandit Tiwari were killed in 2006 when their boat, which they were using nearby to harvest crabs, drifted to the island.
The Sentinelese buried the bodies, but the Indian Coast Guard ultimately retrieved one, despite being attacked with arrows.