North Sentinel Island (Photo: DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

Three myths about North Sentinel Island

The recent killing of an American by a North Sentinel tribe has put the isolated island on the map. But there are three myths about the North Sentinelese that have been regurgitated in media. Scott Hamilton sheds some light.

It was a story from another century. A young man landed on a small island, with a Bible in his hand. Men emerged from trees at the edge of the beach. Their skin was dark, unclothed. The missionary greeted them in English; they replied with arrows. Twice the missionary retreated to a ship beyond the island’s reef. His third visit to the island was his last. The heathens buried him in the beach where he had hailed them.

The recent death of John Chau has made North Sentinel Island famous. Journalists and commentators around the world have been busy explaining that the island is part of the Andamans archipelago, that its inhabitants are hostile to all interlopers, and that the Indian government, which has administered the Andamans since the British departed in 1947, has forbidden all contact with them.

But there are three myths about the North Sentinelese that have been regurgitated, in article after article. Here in the South Pacific, we’re in a good position to lance these myths. After all, the same sort of misconceptions were once aimed at the indigenous peoples of our region. Contemporary Pacific scholars can help us see the North Sentinelese in a clearer light.

The myth of unprovoked hostility

Many journalists and commentators have interpreted the slaying of Chau as the work of an aggressive and xenophobic culture. But the Sentinelese have good reason to distrust outsiders.

In 1880, the British colonial administrator Maurice Portman led an armed expedition to North Sentinel. Portman was a paedophile and a pederast who was obsessed by the bodies of young Andamanese men. By 1880, he’d already led raids on several islands in the archipelago, and taken away children and adolescents to photograph and molest. Some of Portman’s pornography survives: his photos show black bodies decorated by jewellery the colonist had imported from Europe. The Sentinelese fled before Portman’s force, but he was able to capture and remove to Port Blair four children and two elderly islanders. The pair of old people died quickly, but the children endured weeks in Portman’s ‘care’ before being returned to North Sentinel.

It’s unsurprising that after the raid of 1880, the Sentinelese resisted visitors to their island. In 1896, a convict escaped from the prison at Port Blair, and was washed ashore at North Sentinel. A search party found him on the beach with his throat cut. An anthropologist who came calling in 1974 got an arrow in his leg.

Indian authorities have declared an exclusion zone around North Sentinel, but fishermen-poachers persist in entering that zone. When Sentinelese shout protests from their beach, or approach in canoes, the fishermen often shoot. In 2006, two drunken Indian poachers fell asleep off North Sentinel Island. Their anchor broke; their boat drifted ashore. The Sentinelese strangled and buried them.

John Chau may have had peaceful intentions when he approached North Sentinel Island, but his mere presence on the island could’ve been devastating. When he climbed into a kayak and paddled through North Sentinel’s reef, Chau made his craft into a rocket, and himself into its warhead. Chau was a healthy young man, but like anyone from the West, he was loaded with pathogens that could swiftly kill the Sentinelese who lack our immunity to a slew of diseases. When they killed Chau, the Islanders were neutralising a biological weapon.

A look at the modern history of the other indigenous peoples of the Andamans suggests that the Sentinelese have been wise to isolate themselves.

Anthropologists believe there were at least 5,000 Andamanese when the British arrived in 1789. Today, there are less than 700. The Great Andamanese, who were once the archipelago’s most populous people, today number about 30 and live on a small reservation island in concrete houses. They no longer speak their language fluently but instead, communicate in an Andamanese-Hindu pidgin. Most of them are alcoholics; many also suffer from diabetes. The Onge people live in another, larger reservation and number about 100.

Andaman Island, India, 2002: One of the warnings posted by Indian authorities along the Andaman Trunk Road (ATR) going along the Jarawas’ territory (Photo: Thierry Falise/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The Jarawa people live in the jungle of South Andaman Island. For centuries they refused all friendly contact with outsiders, preferring to shoot arrows at intruders on their land and to raid the villages on the edge of the forest. In 1996, a Jarawa teenager named Enmei fell out of a fruit tree he’d been robbing in the Indian village of Kadamtala, and broke his leg. Enmei spent six months in the hospital at Port Blair, the capital of the Andamans, where he learned to wear clothes and enjoy television. He went home as an emissary for the Indian authorities and soon persuaded his fellow Jarawa to make peace with the settlers.

Today, a road runs through Jarawa territory; tourists drive it with their windows down and cameras ready, like visitors to a safari park. Survival International, a London-based charity that advocates for isolated indigenous peoples, has published photographs and videos that show Jarawa dancing beside parked vehicles, in return for bananas and other food. Poachers infiltrate the Jarawas’ domain; they take away timber and bushmeat and leave alcohol and venereal diseases.

The myth of ancient isolation

Journalists have correctly noted that the North Sentinelese have in modern times rejected outsiders. Too often, though, they’ve assumed that the Sentinelese have been isolating themselves for tens of thousands of years.

Like other ‘negrito’ peoples of Southeast Asia, from Sri Lanka’s Veddahs to Malaysia’s Semang, Sentinelese are descended from some of the first humans to leave Africa. The ancestors of the Sentinelese walked across what’s now the Bay of Bengal when an Ice Age had created a land bridge.

When seas rose, many of the early arrivals from Africa were left on small islands. It’s likely that, as the media has reported, the Sentinelese have lived on their island for tens of thousands of years. But that doesn’t mean they’ve been isolated all that time.

I recently discussed the Sentinelese with Dr Lorenz Gonschor, a German-born Pacific-resident scholar who’s an expert on indigenous resistance to Christianisation. Gonschor pointed out that the Sentinelese, like other Andamans peoples, developed aquatechnology long ago.

A quick look at a map should’ve shown the world’s journalists that North Sentinel Island is less than 40 km from the large South Andaman Island and less than 60 km from South Sentinel Island. As Lorenz Gonschor pointed out, those are tiny distances for an island people. Gonschor argues that, rather than being isolated, the Sentinelese visited other Andamanese peoples. Their isolation wasn’t ancient, he thinks, but the product of British and Japanese colonialism, and in particular, the British invasion of the island in 1880.

We can use Lana Lopesi’s new book False Divides to understand what the North Sentinelese have suffered. Lopesi laments the way that, in the Pacific as well as the Indian Oceans, colonisation interrupted histories of inter-island voyaging, trade and marriage. ‘Random lines’ were drawn on maps by ‘land-centric’ cultures, dividing the peoples of a vast liquid continent into ‘small colonies and resource bases’. In many parts of the ocean, Lopesi calls Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa, colonial administrators banned inter-island voyaging.

Lopesi’s arguments float on an ocean of data. It’s 20 years since Lisa Matisoo-Smith’s pioneering DNA studies of rat bones showed that archipelagoes like the Cooks, Hawai’i and Tonga were visited again and again by different groups of Polynesians. Matisoo-Smith’s findings were reinforced by an Australian study that found Tongan adzes (a cutting tool) on islands across the Western Pacific. The linguist William Watson has heard Hawai’ian words on atolls many thousands of kilometres from the Sandwich Islands.

1900. India. Bows and arrows are used by the Andamanese for killing land animals and fish, and detachable harpoons in the pursuit of turtle and sharks. These natives are employed by the Port Blair authorities against the wild tribes who have habit of killing the convicts settled on the land for the sake of the iron ring round their neck, which is useful for tipping arrows. (Photo by: SeM Studio/Fototeca/UIG via Getty Images)

The peoples of the Indian Ocean were as mobile as their Pacific cousins. The Indonesian scholar Waruno Mahdi has shown how Austronesian ships sailed west from his homeland to India, Madagascar, the east coast of Africa, and even the Red Sea. Mahdi has discovered Austronesian place names in Iraq, as well as Indian Ocean touches on Phoenician ships. Mahdi emphasises that the negrito peoples, as well as the latecomer Austronesians, were sailors and navigators. He credits negritos with the creation of the first outrigger canoes. Photographs in British museums support Mahdi: they show Andamanese hollowing tree trunks, attaching floats to them, raising sails.

There are some parts of the world where peoples have suffered radical isolation. The indigenous people of Tasmania, for example, were cut off from the rest of the world for about 12,000 years after an Ice Age land bridge vanished. But the isolation of the Sentinelese is a modern, relatively recent phenomenon.

The myth of a static culture

British journalist Brendan O’Neill has responded to the death of John Chau by arguing that the Sentinelese need to be ‘civilised’ so that they can experience the wonders of the West. O’Neill says that groups like Survival International, which campaign against forced contact with peoples like the Sentinelese, have forgotten the delights of modernity and learning and the misery of life in the forest.

Like many other commentators, O’Neill characterises the Sentinelese as suffering from a frozen culture, a culture incapable of innovation. Similar claims have been made in the past for numerous other indigenous peoples by outsiders advocating colonial projects.

The late John Chau wasn’t much of an anthropologist, but one of the notes he scribbled before his demise included a fascinating detail that refutes claims Sentinelese culture is incapable of innovation. Chau described how an arrow with a metal head came flying his way. The metal on the Sentinelese arrow may well have come from the Primrose, a cargo ship that was wrecked on a reef off North Sentinel in 1981. The Primrose’s crew were rescued by chopper before Sentinelese could storm their vessel.

The Sentinelese have brought themselves into the Iron Age, by adapting metal from the Primrose for use on arrows and, in all likelihood, other tools. John Chau was probably killed by the material of his own civilisation after it had been repurposed by an innovative island people.

In another note he made off the coast of North Sentinel, John Chau called the island ‘Satan’s last stronghold’, presumably because of its people’s resistance to Christianisation. As Lorenz Gonschor points out, though, there are other islands where Christianity has been scorned, even in recent times. Most of the Polynesian people of Takuu, an atoll north of Bougainville, still prefer old gods like Tangaroa and Maui to Jehovah.

The ethnomusicologist Richard Moyle landed Takuu in the 1990s, and was able to record scores of religious songs and chants, and video sacred events like seances. Moyle’s words and footage are a door to ancient Polynesia, before the intervention of missionaries and colonial administrators (many of Takuu’s inhabitants have emigrated in recent years, as the seas around the island rise; it’s unclear whether their religion can survive the loss of its sacred landscapes).

The Kwaio people do not worry about rising seas. They live in the mountains of Malaita, a large island in the Solomons. Kwaio villages sit in bush clearings, close to shrines adorned with ancient skulls. Despite the efforts of generations of missionaries, Kwaio still practice their ancestors’ religion.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, there are attempts to resurrect lost gods. On Tahiti, for example, Moana’ura Walker, a veteran anti-nuclear and pro-independence campaigner, has declared himself a pagan, and rebuilt an ancient temple in the forest outside Papeete, where large ceremonies are now held. For Walker and similar activists, North Sentinel is a symbol of a post-colonial future, not some sad remnant of the past.


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