On January 26, 2006, two Indian men, Sunder Raj, 48, and Pandit Tiwari, 52, were killed while fishing for mud crabs near a crop of small islands in the Indian Ocean.
A few days later, when the Indian coast guard tried to retrieve the men’s bodies, which had been buried in shallow graves on the beach, the helicopter being used in the recovery exercise was chased off volleys of spears and arrows.
Raj and Tiwari were illegally fishing in the waters off of North Sentinel Island, which is supposed to be protected by a three-mile exclusion zone buffer to prevent just such encounters between people living in the modern world and the Sentinelese people, who have resisted the influence of outsiders for a thousand years.
North Sentinel Island is roughly the size of Manhattan and is technically a part of the Andaman Islands, located hundreds of miles from the nearest mainland shore in the Bay of Bengal. The island has managed to remain isolated, in part, thanks to a coral reef that surrounds its sandy shores, making it difficult to approach by any boat much larger than a dinghy.
The island actually grew in size in 2004 when the Indian Ocean Earthquake and subsequent tsunami occurred. The seismic shift raised the island some three to seven feet higher above sea level than it had been previously, connecting the main island to a smaller one that had—until that point—been a few hundred feet off shore.
“Initially thought to have been badly affected by the tsunami…,” shares a report from NorthSentinenlIsland.com,” it was soon revealed that the islanders had moved to higher ground before disaster struck – almost as if they knew the giant tidal wave was coming.”
While India claims the island as their own, the government in New Delhi isn’t exactly eager to send representatives to the isolated island—not that they and others haven’t tried.
The Andaman Islands, including North Sentinel Island, have been explored and documented since the dominant Chola dynasty conquered the territory in the eleventh century. British sailors observed the island in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, even trying to survey the island and communicate with the Sentinelese peoples, which went about as well for the island natives as other British imperial visits, including the kidnapping and accidental killing of some of the islanders.
From the 1960s into the mid-1990s, the Indian government attempted semi-regular “Contact Expeditions” to the island, which were generally greeted with varying degrees of hostility.
One visit to North Sentinel Island in 1981 was completely accidental when the MV Primrose became grounded on the island’s protective coral reef. The ship and its crew of 28 men were stranded for two weeks just off shore.
A few days after the shipwreck, according to Wikipedia, crewmen “noticed that small dark-skinned men carrying spears and arrows were building boats on the beach. The captain of Primrose radioed for an urgent drop of firearms so his crew could defend themselves. They did not receive any because a large storm stopped other ships from reaching them. However, the heavy seas also prevented the islanders from approaching the ship. One week later, the crewmen were rescued by a helicopter.”
While peaceful encounters with the Sentinelese did occur in the early 1990s, the practice of visiting the island was formally ended in 1996, allowing the islanders to continue to practice their traditional way of life—away from the technology and disease that affects the rest of the world.
It’s estimated that there are some 50-400 individuals living on North Sentinel Island today.