As technology continues to advance and expand its reach, it has become almost impossible for people to live genuinely isolated lives — unless you’re part of the Sentinelese, a tribal community that resides on North Sentinel Island.
North Sentinel Island is a small tropical island and Indian territory located near the Andamans (another Indian territory) in the Bay of Bengal. It is home to the Sentinelese people, who have spent centuries almost completely isolated from the rest of the world.
The Indian government has even gone so far as to pass a law preventing unauthorized access to the island and its people, who aren’t afraid to attack people who arrive on their shores.
Although it’s practically impossible to visit North Sentinel Island (at least legally), there are other ways to learn about the location and the Sentinelese. Below, you’ll discover the island’s history and find some essential facts about its residents.
The History of North Sentinel Island
North Sentinel Island has a unique history, with the earliest records dating back to the 1700s. Here is a timeline highlighting some of the recorded interactions people from across the globe have had with the Sentinelese people over the years.
In 1771, a British surveyor named John Ritchie sailed past the island. He wrote in his journal that he saw many lights on the island while he was aboard an East India Company exploration ship.
Ritchie never visited the island in person. However, he is one of the first known people to testify about seeing it.
Nearly 100 years later, another Briton named Jeremiah Homfray sailed to North Sentinel Island. He was searching for prisoners who had fled the nearby Andaman Islands.
When Homfray and his crew approached the shore, they saw a group of Sentinelese people fishing with bows and arrows, rather than fishing poles.
Due to the perceived aggressive attitude of the Sentinelese people, Homfray and his crew chose not to disembark from their ship.
In the same year, an Indian merchant ship called the Ninevah crashed on the shore of North Sentinel Island. Three days after the crash, the ship’s 86 passengers and 20 crew members were attacked by the Sentinelese (although they had seen them approaching before the attack).
Fearing for their lives, the captain and some of the crew left in a lifeboat and were later rescued by a passing ship. Another ship was sent later to rescue the remaining crew, who had used sticks and stones to defend themselves against the Sentinelese.
In 1880, a 20-year-old explorer named Maurice Vidal Portman landed on the island. While there, he discovered a series of paths and abandoned villages. He also observed the Sentinelese people and compared them to the Onges, another tribe from a nearby island.
During Portman’s visit, he kidnapped four children and an elderly couple, taking them to the nearby Andaman Islands. The six Sentinelese people fell sick almost immediately. When the elders died, Portman decided to send the children back to North Sentinel Island (along with gifts for the island’s people).
Despite his crimes, Portman still visited the Sentinelese multiple times between 1885 and 1887. In his records, he said that he feared the Sentinelese people’s extinction because of their refusal to engage with foreigners.
Despite his actions, Portman still visited the Sentinelese multiple times between 1885 and 1887. In his records, he expressed concern about the potential extinction of the Sentinelese people due to their refusal to engage with foreigners.
In 1896, an escaped convict from the nearby Andaman Islands landed on North Sentinel Island. He was almost immediately killed by members of the Sentinelese tribe.
Over 50 years passed before North Sentinel Island showed up in historical records again. In 1947, India gained control of the island after winning independence from the UK. The Indian government chose not to contact the Sentinelese people, however.
Twenty years later, in 1967, the Indian government organized an expedition to the island led by Triloknath Pandit, an anthropologist.
When the Sentinelese saw the visitors, they retreated into the forest. Pandit and his crew left gifts on the shore and took several native artifacts with them.
Another group of anthropologists arrived on the island’s shores in 1974 to film a documentary called “Man in Search of Man.”
A police team accompanied the filmmakers for protection. However, the anthropologists couldn’t entirely avoid the Sentinelese attacks, and the director was wounded by an arrow.
Later that year, another expedition from India took place. Several Onges natives from the nearby Andaman Islands were brought to North Sentinel Island to attempt to learn the Sentinelese language. However, the hostile behavior of the tribe prevented the Onges from getting close enough to hear them.
A few years later, in 1981, a cargo ship called MV Primrose wrecked in the coral reefs surrounding the island. Several days later, while waiting for rescue forces, the Sentinelese attacked the crew, but the crew managed to fight them off.
Triloknath Pandit returned to North Sentinel Island in 1991 and managed to establish friendly contact with the Sentinelese. This is the last recorded peaceful encounter any visitor had with the tribe.
After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, a helicopter approached to survey the island and determine if the Sentinelese survived. Members of the tribe spotted the aircraft and shot arrows at it.
Two years later, in 2006, two fishermen arrived on the island and attempted to catch crabs. They were killed, and the Sentinelese made it impossible for the bodies to be retrieved.
An American missionary named John Allen Chau landed on North Sentinel Island in an attempt to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity. The tribe killed him, and his body was dragged into the forest to prevent it from being retrieved.
The most recent reports about North Sentinel Island resulted from an attempted organized attack. Members of a Facebook group began planning to invade the island and kill the Sentinelese as revenge for Chau’s death.
Several users denounced the group after learning about it, and Facebook shut it down soon after.
About the Sentinelese People
The Sentinelese people are technically Indian citizens. However, their citizenship is in name only.
The tribe operates according to its own customs, does not recognize India’s government, and doesn’t know what happens outside the island.
In 1956, the Indian government declared the island a tribal reserve.
It’s unclear how many people reside on the island. Outside observations place the number between 20 and 500.
Those who have been seen on the North Sentinel Island shores appear to be strong and healthy. Observers have also noted seeing many pregnant women and children.
The Future of North Sentinel Island
North Sentinel Island and the Sentinelese people have a complex and often violent history. What lies ahead for this remote tribe?
India’s policy of prohibiting visitors to the island is expected to continue for the foreseeable future, safeguarding the Sentinelese and anyone attempting to approach the island’s northern shores.
While many people support the ban on visiting the island, opinions on the Indian government’s decision to cut off contact with the Sentinelese are divided.
Some critics express concern about the potential abuse of women and children by male members of the tribe, who may have nowhere to turn for assistance. Others believe that modern agricultural and sanitation systems could benefit the Sentinelese people.
Despite these conflicting views, the Indian government’s current approach appears to be the most viable solution for all parties involved.