The Remote Tribe We Still Haven’t Been Able to Contact
Why we still haven’t managed to communicate with the people of North Sentinel Island
North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal, is home to the Sentinelese people. Located between India and the Malay Peninsula, the island forms part of the Indian Andaman Islands. Being so close to other inhabited land masses, North Sentinel is hardly what we would describe as remote. In fact, the surrounding islands are home to five other tribes that we’ve known about for hundreds of years: the Great Andamanese, the Jarawas, the Onge, the Shompen, and the Nicobarese. The only difference in the Sentinelese case is that they don’t want to know about us.
The first recorded contact with the tribe was way back in 1867 when an Indian merchant ship called Nineveh drifted too close to the island and sank. All one hundred or so passengers safely made it to shore where they awaited rescue. On the third day, as they began to eat breakfast, the stranded crew were subject to a sudden assault from a group of ‘naked, short-haired, red-painted savages’ with arrows that were likely iron-tipped. The captain fled in the ship’s boat and was found days later by the Royal Navy. They sent a search party to the island and discovered that the ship’s crew had successfully repelled the attackers with sticks and stones and they had not reappeared. Everyone was rescued and no casualties were reported.
Thirteen years later, the British Royal Navy embarked on an expedition to North Sentinel Island, a British Territory at the time, led by Maurice Portman. The group explored the island and came across six Sentinelese people — two elders and four children. Portman took them prisoner and brought them to a neighbouring island. However, due to the fact that the tribe had been isolated for so long, they had not built up immunities to our modern-day diseases. Therefore, all six tribespeople became sick and the two elders died. Portman then returned the children to their home along with gifts in an attempt to build a friendly relationship with the tribe. He visited three more times during the course of the 1880s.