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The Sentinelese: The Death of a Missionary and the Lost Tribe of the Andamans

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The death of an American evangelist in the Andamans brings one of the world’s most isolated tribes to global attention

LATE ONE NIGHT back in August 2nd, 1981, a ship got caught in a typhoon and hit a coral reef. They were stuck. Primrose, about 16,000 tonnes in weight and somewhere in the Bay of Bengal, was on a run from Bangladesh to Australia. It was rumoured to be carrying chicken feed. There were around 31 sailors on board.

It’s not known whether the sailors knew where they had reached. But day- break must surely have made them wonder. There was water around them that went over the horizon. And just in front of them, about 500 or less yards away, stood a dream-like island with a clean white sandy beach. Beyond it lay a thick forest with tall impenetrable trees.

The storm had not subsided, and the vessel’s captain, a Taiwanese named Liu Chunglong, decided to stay onboard.

It is not quite clear what immediately followed. Many accounts suggest a few days went by, whereas the news agency United Press International (UPI), which covered the story, claims the following incident occurred in the morning right after the mishap.

What is verifiable is that an SOS was received by the shipping company’s office in Hong Kong from Captain Chunglong. ‘Unfriendly wild men, estimate more than 50,’ it read , ‘carrying various home-made weapons are making two or three wooden boats. Worrying they will board us at sunset. All crew members’ lives not guaranteed.’ He wanted an evacuation immediately, or at least an airdrop of weapons.

The scene might appear like a moment from another century, but the place forgotten by the rest of the world that Primrose had reached was North Sentinel Island.

In front of the ship’s crew, a large group of dark-skinned men had assembled on the beach. They wore very little other than waist belts and didn’t look welcoming. In their hands were spears, bows and arrows. And now they were putting together boats that could carry them to the sailors.

The rescue took a while coming. The standoff lasted for almost two weeks. The storm ensured that neither the naval vessel and tugboat trying to rescue them nor—mercifully—the islanders’ little boats could get close enough to the Primrose . Raymond Pao, an executive of the Hong Kong Regent Shipping Company, explained to UPI then: “If a tugboat and a navy ship can’t get close to the Primrose, it is all the more difficult for canoes and rafts to set to sea.” Eventually, a chopper had to be used, making three airlifting trips, to get the crew to safety. The pilot of that helicopter, Robert Fore, would later call it “the most unusual helicopter mission I have ever flown” in a YouTube video. “I have seen many strange and mysterious things... but none more so than that fateful day,” Fore said.

The Primrose stands at the spot till this day, stuck on the reef just to the northern side of the island. One can still see its half-sunken hull so many years later on a desktop computer, through zoomed-in satellite images courtesy Google Earth, and realise just how close it had come to the tiny homeland of Sentinelese tribals.

John Allen Chau, the American missionary who was killed there last week, of course, went a lot closer than the Primrose. He reached the shore, knowing fully well how dangerous it was and unwittingly joined a list, not particularly long, of all sorts of people, from British raj voyagers, Indian Government officials, well-meaning anthropologists, writers and filmmakers to drunk fishermen and adventure tourists, who have tried or got to North Sentinel Island. Others have offered gifts of coconuts (which don’t grow on the island), cloth and other useful commodities of the plastic age. Chau’s main gift was a copy of the Bible.

SENTINELESE TRIBALS—named by us, of course, since we do not understand their language and do not know what they call themselves— belong to a very special group of people. Geneticists believe that they, along with other Andaman tribals, are genetically closer than any other modern human to the group of Homo sapiens who first moved out of Africa some 60,000 years ago. While that pioneering batch began their trek across the world, a smaller group trekked along the southern coastal route in India to finally settle on the Andaman islands. Here, they lived in isolation, even as the gene pools of the rest of the world’s people mixed with one another’s.

Kumarasamy Thangaraj, a senior principal scientist at The Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology in Hyderabad who was one of the first people to explore the genetic history of the Andaman tribals, says, “They are very special, a very enigmatic group for geneticists.” According to him, if we look at their DNA samples, we would be looking at genetic information that goes back right to the early days of the first humans who moved out of Africa.

Thangaraj, however, has not studied Sentinelese tribals. There’s no way he could ever come close enough to get a swab, he jokes. When he first travelled to the Andaman islands in the early 2000s and began to collect samples, he recalls with warmth about how Great Andamanese tribals at Strait Island would laugh at him as he tried to explain why he wanted a little blood, and how he could only collect samples from the insides of the cheeks of Jarawas who had only recently ceased hostilities with outsiders. Thangaraj remembers being told then about how hostile the Sentinelese were and how he would never manage to get such a sample from them. But he believes Sentinelese tribals would have an equally ancient genetic history. In fact, he says, they have been more isolated than other Andamanese tribes who have now mixed with other populations in recent decades.

Anthropologists believe that Sentinelese in all likelihood belong to the same ancestral group as the Jarawas and Onges of the Andamans. According to the Swiss scholar George Weber’s book The Andamanese, ‘… from the type of [Sentinelese] body decorations and from what little is known of their behavior and handicrafts, they undoubtedly belong to the Onge-Jarawa group and probably also to the enigmatic Jangil of Rutland island [now extinct].’ At some point in the distant past, the Sentinelese are believed to have split from the larger group and established themselves on North Sentinel Island.

The Delhi-based linguist Anvita Abbi—who has spent several years studying the languages spoken on Andaman and Nicobar Islands, even compiling the first-ever dictionary of languages spoken by the tribes within the group recognised as Great Andamanese—was the first to claim that there are two distinct family of languages spoken on the Andaman islands. One set belongs to the Great Andamanese. And the other includes the languages of Jarawas and Onges. This discovery that Andaman islanders speak languages that belong to two different families was supplemented by a genetic finding a few years later. Thangaraj was part of the team that established that the early humans who had migrated out of Africa and reached the Andaman islands had two distinct haplogroups, the Great Andamanese being separate from the Onge-Jarawa.

Each language among the Great Andamanese, according to Abbi, would thus be slightly different from one another but also similar enough to be intelligible to each other’s speakers. Similarly with the languages of Jarawas and Onges. For the last few days, Abbi has been going through video clips that are available of Sentinelese—captured by outsiders on boats trying to approach them—hoping she could catch a word or two that would help her understand if there are any similarities with the words used by Onges and Jarawas. But so far, she has drawn a blank. The words are not audible enough and there is too much background noise in these videos. Abbi, however, believes that the language will, in all probability, be similar to those spoken by Onges and Jarawas. “We could drop something like a microphone there to capture what they speak, but we won’t really be able to understand its grammar—you need to be with the speakers to understand grammar— but yes, you can catch some words. But it would be too intrusive,” she says.

Despite Abbi’s belief that the Sentinelese language will most likely be similar to those spoken by Onges and Jarawas, when the British used the help of Onges to interact with people on North Sentinel Island, they apparently could not understand the language at all.

There are several things that we don’t know at all about Sentinelese. We do not know how many of them there are. Several counts have been put out over the years, from over 200 to 15 (according to the 2011 census). We do not know how long they have been on the island. (Weber argues that since turtles, ‘not among the world’s fastest learners’, have been observed to have learnt to avoid Sentinelese who try to catch them, ‘this must be an argument of sorts for a long-term human settlement on the island.’)

“The Sentinelese are a unique community. No government exists and they have lived off the island for at least 2,000 years. I was not afraid to visit them, although the risk was there,” says TN Pandit, an anthropologist who was part of several exploratory missions to North Sentinel Island

We do not really know if they know how to make fire. Some suggest they depend on embers maintained from lightning strikes. Sentinelese do have canoes but they are not known to use them much and certainly not to go beyond the protective reef around the island. It has been suggested that they probably use these boats to fish in shallow waters and move from one point to another around the island, the densely forested inland journey perhaps being more difficult.

They do have metal blades. They use them as arrow tips and as sharp tools. Researchers believe these could have been acquired from ships. At least two ships have been wrecked nearby in recent years, the Primrose in 1981 and the Rusley in 1977. But this too is a sign of wonder, since people from nearby areas are known to have scavenged these ships.

The 2004 tsunami is also believed to have made a severe impact, tilting at least one part of the island, pushing some parts of the coral reef that surround it, while drowning other parts. We don’t know how the Sentinelese have negotiated this altered geography, how much of an impact this has made on their ways of hunting and gathering.

IF WE LOOK INTO history, there have been some old but dubious accounts of the Andamans. The Greek astronomer Ptolemy is supposed to have mentioned an ‘island of cannibals’ somewhere in the Bay of Bengal in the second century. Marco Polo is believed to have described the Andamanese in the 1290s as ‘a brutish and savage race… [who] kill and eat every foreigner whom they can lay their hands upon’.

According to Weber, the earliest mention of Sentinelese people was first published in 1771 by the British surveyor John Ritchie, who, no doubt observing the island from a passing ship, wrote, ‘... and if we may judge from the multitude of lights seen upon the shore at night, it is well inhabited.’

This relative isolation of the Andaman islands ended in the late 1850s when the British established a penal colony here. In the fights that followed, the British managed to subdue most tribes. Jarawas retreated further into the jungles, continuing their battle with settlers who came close to their territory right uptil the late 1990s. The Sentinelese, however, stayed behind a ring of dangerous coral reefs on an island not deemed particularly important or strategic, certainly not worth the trouble of getting spliced by arrows.

The Sentinelese haven’t really been as ‘unconnected’ as popularly imagined. The British naval officer MV Portman is known to have reached the island with a heavily armed group in 1880 and abducted six of them (two adults and four children). The adults fell sick and died soon after, and the children were immediately sent back. At least one Indian convict, trying to escape from the cellular jail in Port Blair in 1896, is recorded to have reached the island. His corpse was found on the beach later.

After a few attempts at exploration, the British took little interest in the island. After Independence, the Indian Government too didn’t seem to particularly care, content with a policy of leaving tribals to themselves. This attitude began to change in the late 1960s. Small sea expeditions now began to set sail from Port Blair carrying modest modern gifts.

North Sentinel Island is home to an estimated 100 sentinelese. Earlier this year, foreigners were exempted from having to acquire a special permit to visit the island

IN AN UNDATED VIDEO from one gift-giving visit to the North Sentinel Island, a man in a white shirt atop a boat proceeds to perform what he must imagine to be a Sentinelese dance. Arms outstretched, he sways without rhythm or conviction. Metres away, on the shore, two Sentinelese men stand, looking somewhat amused.

“They are showing the genitals,” a man tells another on the boat.

This is a strange statement because all the people on the shore, save for their waist belts, are entirely nude.

“That is always there,” another tells him.

“That is what?” the first one goes on. “They are angry or what?”

“No, no they are not angry.”

From the boat, coconuts are being flung into the water to the cries of ‘dah- ga’ and ‘la-ga’. The people on the boat don’t know if the islanders understand English or Hindi, but they have realised the Jarawa language perhaps has a better chance of success. ‘Dah-ga’ means ‘coconut’ and ‘la- ga’ means ‘come here’ in the Jarawa language. But lo and behold, several minutes later, the Sentinelese leave the shore and enter the water, not necessarily because they understand the Jarawa-language invitation, but perhaps because they have seen the coconuts and the dancing man. They come, first just one or two of them, and moments later, many more, drawing nearer and nearer the boat to pick up the coconuts.

From the 1960s right up to the 1990s, the Indian Government made several attempts to establish ‘friendship’ with the Sentinelese through gift-giving contact missions.

This video is one of the later encounters. It is a confused one. The Sentinelese haven’t appeared with bows and arrows. Neither group, onshore or onboard, really knows what the other thinks. But this being a rare opportunity, no one on the boat wants to fritter it away. Even if it means conducting a terrible dance saved for posterity on video.

“IMAGINE MEETING someone face-to-face after having only seen them through binoculars or at a distance for about 25 years,” says anthropologist TN Pandit, who was part of several of the early contact missions to the island organised by the Andaman authorities and Anthropological Survey of India. “We touched the tribesmen who waded through shallow water to accept coconuts from us. This was the first time they came right up to our boats. They took the coconuts from my hand, but made sure we didn’t land on the island. They wouldn’t invite us to land. It would have been foolhardy to impose ourselves on them uninvited.”

Pandit was stationed in the Andamans for about 25 years, eventually retiring as director of the Anthropological Survey in 1992. A frail 83-year-old now, he lives with his family in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park. When he recounts his experiences, though, he does so in vivid detail.

Pandit arrived at Port Blair in his early thirties. During his first mission to North Sentinel Island in 1967, he along with his colleagues stepped on the island, going right inside the jungle where they came upon a settlement of around 18 huts. There were bows, arrows and spears here, and several small fires protected by a ring of twigs. The tribesfolk, however, did not show themselves. “I don’t remember if I was scared, although the risk was there in hindsight. We had no idea what awaited us. The conditions were such that anyone could be targeted— a tribe member hiding in the thick forest, invisible to us, he or she could have attacked any of us at random if they felt threatened… They saw us, kept watch on us. We went, spent some time around the island, and returned. It was an exciting visit because we didn’t see them but we knew we were being watched.”

At each of those 18 houses, Pandit and his team left a coconut behind. If the purpose of the mission was to befriend the Sentinelese, or even spot them, this first expedition was a bit of a failure. But later, as they were leaving, Pandit, watching through his binoculars, recalls having a brief glimpse of a Sentinelese man who came to the edge of the forest.

For the next two decades, Pandit tried to establish contact several more times carrying various gifts. On one occasion, they brought a doll and a live Yorkshire pig. After depositing the gifts on the shore, when they hurried back to the safety of their boats to gauge the response of the islanders, according to various accounts, the Sentinelese approached the gifts, speared the pig and the doll, and then buried them in the sand.

“They were happiest with coconuts and soon we stuck to that,” Pandit says.

Abbi points out that nobody till date has seen a Sentinelese tribal actually consuming a coconut. “We all know they take them. And we have assumed they like it. But for all you know, they are playing football with it,” she says.

According to her, in her interactions with Great Andamanese tribals, who also did not have coconuts until the British brought it with them, she discovered that all of them disliked coconuts. “They used to really hate it. They used to say it comes from such an ugly looking tree and its meat is not tasty,” she says. They used to hate it also because of how frequently the coconuts dropped from the trees on to the ground, occasionally hitting them.

“How Andamanese tribals look at life, or things like equality, tolerance is very different. They don't have a word for sexual assault or rape, because something like this doesn't happen there,” says Anvita Abbi, a linguist who specialises in languages spoken by the Great Andamanese

Some of Pandit’s visits were greeted with a shower of arrows. While Pandit himself was never harmed, one of his colleagues was once hit by an arrow in the thigh when their boat ventured too close. Pandit is probably referring to the 1974 National Geographic documentary Man in Search of Man, for which some anthropologists and armed policemen accompanied a film crew as they went about meeting various tribes in the Andamans. Towards the end of the documentary, when they try to approach North Sentinel Island, an arrow fired by the Sentinelese from the shore strikes a member.

Recalling his early days with the islanders, Pandit says, “We stayed a safe distance away, usually… On one visit we stayed around 2-3 days in the waters around the island. They reacted by making faces, giving speeches in their own language, making disapproving noises and they had a hostile body language — they sat on their haunches with their backs towards us [as though defecating]. In their own language, they were telling us to go back — even though we couldn’t understand their words, their faces indicated their displeasure.”

Pandit’s daughter enters the room with a bowl of peeled oranges for him. She says her father has had to give several press interviews in the last few days since Chau’s death. “Even if my health does not allow me to talk at length at present, I do enjoy remembering my time with the Sentinelese because I have great respect for them,” Pandit says. “Imagine a small community, in my opinion of about 100 people, maintaining itself for thousands of years without any external aid and living off the forest of that small island of 20 square miles and the sea around it.”

Over the course of their trips to the island, Pandit and his team discovered several things about the tribe. “They are a unique, highly isolated, community. They have small boats which allow them to fish around the island, not in very deep waters. They don’t use salt for anything, salt is not available to them. They don’t wear any garments. They have no artificial means of creating a fire; [this is so] not only the Sentinelese but other tribes of the Andamans as well,” he says.

In the mid-1990s, however, these missions came to an end. The Sentinelese had mellowed sufficiently to allow visitors to come near them. It is not clear why these missions stopped. But there were more pressing matters, especially those of hostile Jarawas with whom skirmishes were common.

THE 26-YEAR-OLD Chau left for North Sentinel Island on November 14th at around 8 pm. He had paid five fishermen Rs 25,000 for the service of escorting him. Trailing behind the boat was Chau’s kayak, attached.

According to Denis Giles, the Port Blair-based editor of the Andaman Chronicles and a tribal rights activist, the crew reached the island by midnight. Chau first ventured to the island on the morning of the next day on his kayak. There were, according to Giles, two Sentinelese on the shore. He was carrying a Bible and gifts of scissors, fish and a soccer ball.

At first, he wasn’t attacked. Later, Giles says, a Sentinelese boy around 10 years old struck the Bible with an arrow. Chau returned to the boat. He ventured again later that day with more gifts. He returned to the boat before sundown.

The next morning, he went to the boat again. “He told [the fishermen] he is not sure he will return,” Giles says. Before he left, he handed them a diary, written in pencil and 13 pages long. The Washington Post, which gained access the diary, has revealed that Chau had written: ‘I’m scared… Watching the sunset and it’s beautiful—crying a bit . . . wondering if it will be the last sunset I see… Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?’

For these two days, 15th and the 16th, Chau made several trips on his kayak from the main boat to the island, aware of the dangers, but emboldened each time, going by his diary, by the conviction that he was acting in God’s name.

The fishermen saw a group of Sentinelese on the shore on 17th. They were burying what looked like Chau’s remains.

The police have made several trips since then, both by boat and helicopters, staying out of the range of arrows, to try and locate Chau’s body. They haven’t succeeded yet.

According to a local expert, the police are under a lot of pressure to act. “By law, you are supposed to arrest anyone who commits a murder. But then you can’t just show up at North Sentinel with a warrant,” the expert says, pointing to a 2006 case in which two fishermen in a boat, drunk according to some, had been killed by Sentinelese after having drifted to the island. “[The police] did not try to retrieve the bodies then. They claim they were able to spot it on the shore,” says the expert.

The big quandary is how the rule of law should be upheld on the island and in its territorial waters. Sentinelese have probably for the first time—or second, after the 2006 case—been mentioned as accused in a murder case. They have been listed as ‘unknown persons’ in this case. How do you enforce the rules of a modern state on one of its most reprehensible crimes in a place whose residents have forcefully kept away from the world? Can a group of people who are unaware of belonging to a country called India be expected to abide by its laws?

According to some media reports, the police have now called off the search for the body. Dependra Pathak, the region’s police chief, did not respond to requests for a comment.

EARLIER THIS YEAR, the Central Government passed a notification exempting foreigners from having to acquire restricted area permits to visit 29 of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This included North Sentinel Island. “What does this imply but that the island will one day eventually be opened for tourism?” Giles asks.

According to some, many foreign tourists often bribe fishermen to take them close to North Sentinel Island. Many now fear that the attention on the islanders after Chau’s death will make adventure tourists all the more curious about it.

After the British left, the Indian Government made efforts to populate the rest of the islands of the archipelago with Indian settlers from the mainland. Now every year, millions of tourists descend here. Port Blair’s cellular jail is a special attraction.

While the Sentinelese have managed to stay away, integration has been disastrous for most of the other Andamanese tribes. The Great Andamanese once comprised of at least 10 distinct tribes. When the British arrived in the 1780s, it is estimated that there were between 2,000 and 6,000 of them. Today there are, according to Abbi, a little over 50 living in a government settlement structure on Strait Island.

Abbi’s dictionary of the Great Andamanese comprises of four languages. Today there are only one and a half speakers, she jokes. This is because, she explains, there are three that belong to the Jeru tribe who speak its language. But the only Sare speaker is now more fluent in the Jeru language because she has nobody to speak the Sare language with.

When Abbi began working on her project, she grew particularly close to an old woman named Boa Sr—the Great Andamanese have the custom of using Sr and Jr with their names because of their early contact with the British—the only surviving member of the Bo tribe. Bo Sr died in 2015 at the age of 85. Abbi would often arrive at the settlement to find her talking to birds. “She would be very happy to see me because even while I was not at all good with the language, my visits would allow her to try and talk in her language,” Abbi recalls.

“When I first began to visit Strait Island, people would tell me all of [the tribals] are beggars and they steal. But when I got to know them, I realised how misunderstood they really are,” she says. “They live life very differently… My life changed when I was staying with them. How they look at life, or things like equality, tolerance is very different. They don’t have a word for sexual assault or rape, because something like this doesn’t happen there. Also, they are not really begging or stealing because there is no concept of personal property for them. Everyone shares. They cook in plenty, or when they hunt, everything is shared. It is all changing now.”

During one of her interviews, Boa Sr told Abbi how lucky she thought Jarawas were. “She believed because they kept their tribe secluded, unlike Boa Sr’s, they would survive,” Abbi recounts.

The Jarawas have now long ceased their hostilities. And by most accounts, they have begun to suffer. Although there are rules to minimise contact between Jarawas and the world that surrounds them, a lot of contact does take place. Giles points out how poachers make their way into Jarawa territory, sexually exploit Jarawa women, and introduce drugs and alcohol to them. Tourists also often take the Andaman Trunk Road that cuts through Jarawa territory to chance upon them. Abbi once came upon a group of people, she says, who used to make Jarawa men hand over 5 kg of honey for a packet of Tiger biscuits worth Rs 5.

Abbi estimates that in a few years, the Jarawa language too will vanish.

Two years ago, a Jarawa man found himself named as an accused in a murder case. An outsider originally from Tamil Nadu, Subramani, had allegedly provided alcohol to a Jarawa man and goaded him to murder a Jarawa infant. The infant is said to have had a lighter complexion, and it is alleged that Subramani had fathered the baby. The infant was drowned.

This was a complex case because for the first time a Jarawa tribal had been registered as an accused in a crime. Furthermore, the police were not able to persuade the tribal elders to give up the body of the murdered infant.

The Jarawa man was not arrested. And although Subramani was initially arrested, Giles points out, he is now out on bail. “The body wasn’t discovered,” says Giles, “So how does one punish him?”

BACK IN PANDIT’S house in Delhi, it is nearly time for lunch. He appears tired. As the conversation draws to an end, Pandit says he has one more thought to share. “As of now,” says the man who spent a lifetime heading contact expeditions and is one of the few recorded people to have survived such a close encounter with the Sentinelese, “I feel we should leave them alone.”

The death of a reckless American citizen and resultant focus on this group of tribals cut off from the rest of the world, has now made this increasingly difficult.

(With Sonali Acharjee)

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