Though most of the world’s peoples have been contacted by other cultures, there remains at least one tribe which is cut off from the rest: the Sentinelese. The Sentinelese live on North Sentinel Island among the Andaman Islands archipelago. While contact has been attempted in the past, it has always been met with resistance and violence. Today, the island is legally blocked from visitation and for good reasons.
In 1771, an East India Company vessel (the Diligent) passed the island and surveyor John Ritchie recorded the sight of lights. This is the earliest mention of the Sentinelese, but actual contact was rare due to the reefs around the island making a landing very dangerous in its own right. A monsoon sent the Nineveh, an Indian Merchant ship, to crash on the reef of North Sentinel Island in 1867. While the first two days were spent on survival, for the 86 passengers and 20 crew men, the morning of the third day brought a new concern for survival.
The savages were perfectly naked, with short hair and red painted noses, their arrows appeared to be tipped with iron.
-Captain of the Nineveh
The natives of the island were upon the survivors with a shower of arrows. Days later a rescue party was sent, the crew and passengers having survived using rocks and sticks to fend off the attackers. It wasn’t going to be the last time someone was attacked on the island either. An unlucky, penal-colony escapee, in 1896, built a raft, only to find himself landing at the island. The search party found his body pierced several times with arrows and his throat was cut. After this encounter, the island was left alone for some time.
Although the first encounter in 1867 seems unprovoked, the 1896 killing isn’t entirely surprising. This would be due to the 1880 expedition in which six Sentinelese were kidnapped and brought to Port Blair on South Andaman. A government administrator, one Maurice Vidal Portman, led a group in order to research the people of the island. After discovering a network of pathways, abandoned villages, and eventually villagers, six were taken to Port Blair. Only four survived to make it back to the island, the other two having died of sicknesses their immune systems were unprepared for.
It wasn’t until the 20th century that another expedition would be attempted to the island. Beginning in 1967, the Director of Tribal Welfare and anthropologist T. N. Pandit attempted a series of visits to create a peaceful communication with the Sentinelese (named “Contact Expeditions”). These expeditions would begin with small gifts being left on the beach in the hopes of gaining small amounts of trust from the locals. After several drops of gifts, their goal was to contact the tribe to finally understand their way of life. And they were not entirely unsuccessful, with the project lasting well into the 1990s.
The reason for the project’s end was twofold: homicidal and biological. A similar series of Contact Expeditions at the South and Middle Andaman Islands ended in several deaths within the research team. This was one factor that led to the decision to end all similar projects around the globe. Another factor, and perhaps equally as dangerous, would be the biological difference between the Sentinelese and outsiders. With perhaps thousands of years of separation from the rest of the human population, the Sentinelese have no resistance to outside diseases. Even if peaceful contact were made, the chance of killing all of them was simply to great to continue.
Only one more “contact” has been made since then, after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. The Indian government sent a helicopter around the island to see if there were any signs of survival. Sure enough, the Sentinelese were there to get their photos taken and they were ready to fight for their land again.
Many people have died visiting the island (intentionally and not), and the future of the island is uncertain. But as of now it remains under the Indian government’s protection and they have no plans to bother the Sentinelese.