The Tribe That Killed An American Missionary Are Deeply Hostile To Outsiders. This Is Why

In the wake of the 2004 tsunami, this member of the Sentinelese tribe was photographed firing arrows at a helicopter. © Indian Coastguard/Survival

A week has passed since US-born missionary John Allen Chau was killed with bow and arrows by an isolated community of hunter-gatherer people living on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. This attack was not, as some have unsoundly suggested, the symptom of these people’s so-called “savagery”. Their hostility towards outsiders is very, very well-founded.

Much of this paranoia can be traced back to a certain Maurice Vidal Portman, a British naval officer, and his colonial cronies who struck up a toxic obsession with the indigenous people of the Andaman Islands, including the Sentinelese, towards the end of the 19th century.

Portman documented his run-ins with the people of North Sentinel Island in his 1899 book “A History Of Our Relations With The Andamanese,” which you can read in full here.

Through his work with the Andaman Civil Service, contact with the locals started as a naive attempt to document and “civilize” the indigenous people; however, the relationship quickly slipped into a downward spiral of kidnappings, death, disease, and creepy photographs.

Maurice Vidal Portman (1860 to 1935) sits on a chair alongside the Andamanese people. Copyright Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One paragraph specifically talks about his visit to the North Sentinel Island with a group of British, Indian, and Burmese convicts in January 1880, where he describes the villages, weapons, and tools of the Sentinelese. All appears faintly quaint until he details his second trip to the island a few days later, where they came across a family in the thick of the forest. Understandably freaked out by these unexpected invaders, the native man drew his bow and a fight broke out. 

“We caught three unhurt and brought them on board,” Portman wrote. The group was then taken back to Port Blair, the South Andaman Island's capital, "in the interest of science." 

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