Andaman and Nicobar islands has been known for being home to many tribal groups. While Andaman houses four of "Negrito" tribes namely, Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Sentinelese, Nicobar Islands are home to two 'Mongoloid' tribes – the Shompen and Nicobarese. The Negrito tribes came from Africa nearly 60,000 years ago. The Mongoloid tribes on the other hand migrated from Malay-Burma coast several thousand years ago.
While most of these tribes have had some exposure with the outside world, there is one which has refused to leave their life of solitude. The Sentilenese, also known as Sentineli or North Sentinel Islanders, have hidden themselves from the light of civilisation for ages. As the name suggest they are the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island. They are hostile to outsiders and often have been known to kill those who have landed on their shores.
POPULATION AND LIFE STYLE
There is no exact data regarding the population of Sentinelese but studies suggest that their number ranges somewhere between 50-400.
The Sentinelese are hunter gatherers mostly known to survive on coconuts and nearby aquatic fauna. Although they are commonly described in the media as stone age people this is not true. Their weaponry is sharpened with metals obtained from wreckage of ships. It is thought that the Sentinelese live in three small bands. They have two different types of houses; large communal huts with several hearths for a number of families, and more temporary shelters, with no sides, which can sometimes be seen on the beach, with space for one nuclear family. The women wear fibre strings tied around their waists, necks and heads. The men also wear necklaces and headbands, but with a thicker waist belt. The men carry spears, bows and arrows.
ATTEMPTS OF CONTACT
1) Colonial Era:
The first record of the Sentinelese dates back to 1771 when a East India Company hydrographic survey vessel named 'The Dilligent' observed what was described as "a multitude of light... upon the shore". However the crew did not investigate.
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 crew somehow managed to fend off the attackers using sticks and stones and were later rescued by a Royal Navy rescue party.
The late 1800s also marked the biggest attempt to establish contact with the Sentinelese in the British era although the methods used remain quiet controversial even today.In the year 1880 British 'Officer in Charge of the Andamanese' Maurice Vidal Portman appeared on the shores of North Sentinel Island with a large search party.His team included trackers from Andamanese tribe whom the British managed to make contact with by that time, some officers and convicts. Initially they found abandoned villages and paths but Sentinelese were nowhere to be seen. After a few days the team discovered an elderly couple with two children, who were abducted and were brought to Port Blair, the island's capital. However the events that followed were not the ones expected; the elderly couple soon fell ill and died. It is still unknown which disease they succumbed to although researchers claim that it was Measles or Small Pox or some other disease of the modern world which the islanders have no immunity against. The children were sent back to the island with a lot of gifts as a compensation. It is a mere conjecture, but an experience like this probably scarred their minds so deep that the tribe opted to hostility and rejection of outsiders as the means to protect themselves.
2) Post Independence:
In 1956, the Government of India marked North Sentinel Island a tribal reserve and prohibited outsiders from entering a 3 miles radius. A constant armed patrol prevents intrusion from outsiders.
During the 1970s, the Indian government made occasional visits to North Sentinel Island to make contact with the inhabitants of the area. Most of these expeditions were led by T.N.Pandit an anthropologist working for Anthropological Survey Of India. Their tactics involved leaving gifts at the shores. On rare occasions the Sentinelese accepted the gifts with friendly gesture but most of the times it ended either with a more violent response with arrows and spears or with some obscene gestures such as swaying of penises. In the year 1974, a National geographic film crew visited the island to film a documentary named "Man in Search of Man". The crew also consisted of some anthropologists (including Pandit) and armed forces. The expedition although ended with an arrow in the director's thigh, also led to the publication of first picture of the Sentinelese by Raghubir Singh .
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 visit on 4 January 1991, 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'. They 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. But later 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.
In 1996, the gift dropping missions stopped. Many officials were beginning to question the wisdom of attempting to contact people who were healthy and content and who had thrived on their own for up to 55,000 years. Continuing such efforts would amost certainly have tragic consequences.
Following this only two major expeditions have happened till date. One was after 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami which changed the tectonic structure of the island and also forced the Sentinelese to change their fishing regions and the other was an aerial observation in 2014, to study the effects of a forest fire.
Despite the Indian Government's strict prohibition there had been attempts of trespassing in the area.
In January 2006, two fishermen fishing illegally in prohibited waters were killed by the Sentinelese when their boat drifted too close to the island. There were no prosecutions.
In November 2018, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old US missionary, was killed during an illegal trip to the restricted island, planning to preach Christianity to the Sentinelese. Seven individuals were taken into custody by Indian police on suspicion of helping Chau's illegal access to the island. However, no attempts were made to arrest the sentinelese.
PRESENT DAY SCENARIO
The Sentinalese are designated as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group and a Scheduled Tribe.They are continuing to live a life of seclusion. The rest of the world have decided that not interfering with their way of life is in the best interest of the islanders since the British attempt to bring Andamanese tribe to rest of the world nearly led to their extinction. Observers can tell that they are very proud people, healthy and thriving .
Sentinelese tribesmen on North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman archipelago, fiercely resist contact by outsiders. This photograph was first published in the July 1975 issue of National Geographic.
PHOTOGRAPH BY RAGHUBIR SINGH, NAT GEO IMAGE COLLECTION