The Sentinelese are probably peace-loving people. They don’t seek to attack people. They don’t visit nearby areas and cause trouble. T. N. Pandit
The Sentinelese tribe are one of the few mostly “uncontacted” groups left in the world, and they owe that isolation partly to geography. North Sentinel is a small island, off the main shipping routes, surrounded by a shallow reef with no natural harbors, partly to protective laws enforced by the Indian government, and partly to their own fierce defense of their home and their privacy. The population of the the Sentinelese is between 50 to 500 people, though no accurate figure can be given as it is almost impossible to penetrate and do a proper census.
The Sentinelese people are related to other indigenous groups in the Andaman Islands, a chain of islands in India’s Bay of Bengal, but they’ve been isolated for long enough that other Andaman groups, like the Onge and the Jarawa, can’t understand their language.
The Sentinelese live in lean-to huts with slanted roofs; a group of huts, built facing one another, with a carefully-tended fire outside each one. They build small, narrow outrigger canoes, which they maneuver with long poles in the relatively shallow, calm waters inside the reef. From those canoes, the Sentinelese fish and harvest crabs.
Surveys of North Sentinel haven’t found any evidence of agriculture. Instead, the community seems to be hunter-gatherers, getting food through fishing, hunting, and collecting wild plants living on the island, they probably live on fruits and tubers that grow wild on the island, eggs from seagulls or turtles, and small game like wild pigs or birds. They carry bows and arrows, as well as spears and knives, and unwelcome visitors have learned to respect their skill with all of the above. Many of those tools and weapons are tipped with iron, which the Sentinelese probably find washed ashore and work to suit their needs.
The Sentinelese weave mesh baskets, and they use wooden adzes tipped with iron. Salvage crews anchored near the island in the mid-1990s described bonfires on the beach at night and the sounds of people singing. But so far, none of the Sentinelese language is known to outsiders; anthropologists usually make a point to refer to people by the name they use for themselves, but no one outside North Sentinel Island actually knows what the Sentinelese call themselves, let alone how to greet them or ask what their view of the world and their role in it really looks like.
The experience between Sentinelese and outside world
During the late summer monsoon of 1867, the Indian merchant-vessel Nineveh foundered on the reef off North Sentinel. All the passengers and crew reached the beach safely, but as they proceeded for their breakfast on the third day, they were subject to a sudden assault by a group of naked, short-haired, red-painted islanders with arrows that were probably iron-tipped.
The Nineveh’s passengers and crew responded with sticks and stones, and the two sides formed an uneasy detente until a Royal Navy vessel arrived to rescue the shipwreck survivors.
In 1880, a young Royal Navy officer named Maurice Vidal Portman captured 6 Sentinelese, and then carried them off to Port Blair, the colonial capital on South Andaman Island. Soon, all six of the kidnapped Sentinelese became desperately sick, and the elderly couple died in Port Blair. Portman somehow decided it was a good idea to drop off the four sick childen on the beach of North Sentinel along with a small pile of gifts. We have no way to know whether the children spread their illness to the rest of their people, or what its impact might have been.
But the experience definitely didn’t leave the Sentinelese with warm fuzzy feelings toward foreign visitors. In 1896, an escaped convict tried to flee the Great Andaman Island Penal Colony on a makeshift raft. In an excellent illustration of the concept of “out of the frying pan and into the fire,” he washed ashore on North Sentinel Island. A colonial search party found his remains a few days later, full of arrow wounds, with his throat cut. The British wisely decided to leave the Sentinelese in peace, at least for the next century or so.
The Adventure of T. N. Pandits
In 1967, a group of 20 people, comprising the governor, armed forces and naval personnel, were led by T. N. Pandit, an anthropologist working for the Anthropological Survey of India, to North Sentinel Island to explore it and befriend the Sentinelese. This was the first visit to the island by a professional anthropologist. Through binoculars, the group saw several clusters of Sentinelese along the coastline, who retreated into the forest as the team advanced. The team followed their footprints and after about a kilometer, found a group of 18 lean-to huts made from grass and leaves that showed signs of recent occupation as evidenced by the still-burning fires at the corners of the hut. The team also discovered raw honey, skeletal remains of pigs, wild fruits, an adze, a multi-pronged wooden spear, bows, arrows, cane baskets, fishing nets, bamboo pots and wooden buckets. Metal-working was evident. The team failed to establish any contact and withdrew after leaving gifts.
The government was aware that leaving the Sentinelese (and the area) completely isolated and ceasing to claim any control would lead to rampant illegal exploitation of the natural resources by the numerous mercenary outlaws who took refuge in those regions, and probably contribute to the Sentinelese’s extinction. Accordingly, in 1970, an official surveying party landed at an isolated spot on the island and erected a stone tablet, atop a disused native hearth, that declared the island part of India.
In 1991, the first instances of peaceful contact were recorded in the course of two routine expeditions by an Indian anthropological team consisting of various representatives of diverse governmental departments and Madhumala Chattopadhyay.
During a 4 January 1991 visit, the Sentinelese approached the party without weaponry for the first time. They collected coconuts that were offered but retreated to the shore as the team gestured for them to come closer. The team returned to the main ship, MV Tarmugli. It returned to the island in the afternoon to find at least two dozen Sentinelese on the shoreline, one of whom pointed a bow and arrow at the party. Once a woman pushed the arrow down, the man buried his weapons in the beach and the Sentinelese approached quite close to the dinghies for the first time. The Director of Tribal Welfare distributed five bags of coconuts hand-to-hand.
Those present in the defining moment of physical contact now wished to extract professional mileage from the fact of being actually ‘touched’ by the Sentinelese during the gift giving exercise. Every participating member of the contact party wanted to take the credit of being the first to ‘touch the Sentinelese,’ as if it were a great mystical moment of transubstantiation wherein the savage hostile reciprocated a gesture of civilized friendship. Who touched and who was touched during the contact event became an emotionally charged issue within various sectors of the administration where claims and counter-claims were sought to be established with earnestness and vigor…it is interesting to note the range of political and cultural significance invested in this specific event of contact.
Pandit and Madhumala took part in a second expedition on 24 February. The Sentinelese again appeared without weapons, jumped on the dinghies and took coconut sacks. They were also curious about a rifle hidden in the boat, which Chattopadhay believed they saw as a source of iron.
The Murder of the Missionary who visited the Island
In November 2018, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American, trained and sent by the US-based Christian missionary organization All Nations, travelled to North Sentinel Island with the aim of contacting and living among the Sentinelese in the hope of converting them to Christianity. Chau did not seek the necessary permits required to visit the island and traveled illegally to the island by bribing local fishermen. He expressed a clear desire to convert the tribe and awareness of the risk of death he faced and of the illegality of his visits, writing,
Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name? The eternal lives of this tribe is at hand, and I think it’s worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed…Don’t retrieve my body.
On 15 November, Chau attempted his first visit in a fishing boat, which took him about 500–700 metres (1,600–2,300 ft) from shore. The fishermen warned Chau not to go farther, but he canoed toward shore with a waterproof Bible. As he approached, he attempted to communicate with the islanders and to offer gifts, but he retreated after facing hostile responses. On another visit, Chau recorded that the islanders reacted to him with a mixture of amusement, bewilderment and hostility. He attempted to sing worship songs to them, and spoke to them in Xhosa, after which they often fell silent. Other attempts to communicate ended with them bursting into laughter. They apparently communicated with “lots of high pitched sounds” and gestures. Eventually, according to Chau’s last letter, when he tried to hand over fish and gifts, a boy shot a metal-headed arrow that pierced the Bible he was holding in front of his chest, after which he retreated again.
On his final visit, on 17 November, Chau instructed the fishermen to leave without him. The fishermen later saw the islanders dragging Chau’s body, and the next day they saw his body on the shore.
Police subsequently arrested seven fishermen for assisting Chau to get close to the restricted island. His death was treated as a murder, but there was no suggestion that the Sentinelese would be charged and the U.S. government confirmed that it did not ask the Indian government to press charges against the tribe. Indian officials made several attempts to recover Chau’s body but eventually abandoned those efforts.
The Indian government believes that letting the tribe without intrusion is best as they do not pose harm to anyone if they are left on their own, This was also supported with the fact that the Sentinelese have continuously shown that they are not interested in an contact or friendship as they are doing fine on their own at least for now.