A few days ago, I stumbled upon a Reddit post about someone taking a photo as they flew over North Sentinel Island. I can’t recall hearing about this particular island at all, so I popped into the comments to see what the big deal was.
As it turns out, this island has one of the last remaining un-contacted tribes on Earth. Oh! Now this is interesting. It’s especially relevant, because a recently released book dives into the history of this island.
The Last Island, by Adam Goodheart, documents the author’s journey to the Andaman Islands in the late 90’s and his attempt to see the island with his own eyes.
It’s a very quick read (272 pages) and I went through it in about 2 days. After the author sharing his initial experience with visiting the Andamans, he explores the history of British colonization of the archipelago, the attempts to convert (“save”) local tribespeople, and some of the exploitation and abuse that happened as well.
More recently, attempts to interact with native tribespeople in other parts of the Andaman Islands has given insight into various issues the tribes face as they integrate with modern society. Disease is obviously the biggest, but alcoholism plays a part as well:
They live now in a restricted tribal reserve at the southern end of the island; these onetime hunter-gatherers now depend largely on food supplied by the Indian authorities. Malnutrition rates, alcoholism, and infant mortality are reportedly high. In 2008, at least eight Onge men and boys—almost a tenth of the tribe’s remaining population—died after drinking the contents of a bottle that they had found on the beach, which they believed to be an alcoholic beverage; it was actually a toxic chemical solvent.
Through it all, a tiny little island located 20 miles off the coast seemed to defy these attempts. It’s partly due to the treacherous reefs around the island, and partly due to the fact that British colonizers saw nothing of value on the tiny island.
Calling the Sentinelese an “un-contacted” tribe is a bit of a misnomer, since there were various expeditions throughout the last 100 years or so that involved kidnapping (!), dropping off various gifts (coconuts, pots and pans), a shipwreck in 1981 (check it out on Google Maps!), and the misguided attempts of an American evangelical who illegally landed on the island in 2018 and was quickly killed by the inhabitants.
In 1956, the Indian government passed a law that prohibited visitors from coming in contact with the island (though as seen above, this has not been strictly enforced). In more recent times, the Sentinelese have taken a more protective approach (rightly so, considering recent history).
The Sentinelese have repeatedly attacked approaching vessels, whether the boats were intentionally visiting the island or simply ran aground on the surrounding coral reef. The islanders have been observed shooting arrows at boats, as well as at low-flying helicopters. Such attacks have resulted in injury and death. In 2006, islanders killed two fishermen whose boat had drifted ashore, and in 2018 an American Christian missionary, 26-year-old John Chau, was killed after he attempted to make contact with the islanders three separate times and paid local fishermen to transport him to the island.
Overall, I thought the book was an interesting look at the history of this area, and an exploration into our fascination with un-contacted tribes that still exist in the modern world and the way in which we tend to idealize them (and treat them in a similar way to the animals we see at the zoo or on a safari).