Everywhere I go, there is news about the missionary who was recently killed on North Sentinel Island, a remote speck in the Indian Ocean. Generally, I agree with the sentiment: the man was a sanctimonious fool who wanted to bring Jesus to a people who have, over the years, made it absolutely clear that they want nothing to do with outsiders. The missionary didn’t even speak their language — no outsiders do! — so how he expected to teach them weird biblical theology is a mystery.
But another theme is that the natives of that island are totally isolated and haven’t had much exchange with Western culture, so it’s not surprising that they reacted barbarically to a naive visitor. As it turns out, that isn’t even close to true: there have been multiple visits, including by a nasty little colonial administrator for the British Empire, who landed on the island in 1880. He was not killed. The inhabitants didn’t automatically start fling spears at strangers. That behavior was learned.
Portman spent most of his time in the greater Andaman Islands, but in 1880, he landed on North Sentinel. The natives fled, and his party ventured inland to find a settlement which had been abandoned in haste.
But they located an elderly couple and a few children they were able to abduct. The couple quickly died, likely from ailments to which they had no immunity.
The children spent a few weeks with Portman doing god knows what, after which he returned them to the island. Portman returned on a couple occasions, but the Sentinelese hid from him each time.
The story related by the children was certainly passed down among the 100 or so inhabitants of the island, and even today, Portman’s fatal kidnapping is just beyond a human lifetime.
They also looted a grounded cargo ship in the 1980s — they now have metal tools. There were visits from anthropologists and Indian government officials, shown in a video at the above link. The inhabitants are a handsome and healthy-looking people, and it’s not clear what we could possibly do to improve their happiness. Bringing them Christianity doesn’t count.
But most importantly, these aren’t some brutal, primitive tribe.
And their aggressiveness is not the mark of savagery. It just that their conception of outsiders is mostly framed by some foot-faced English pervert who murdered some old people and did weird things to their kids. So let’s do them a favor and leave them alone.