An excerpt from Adam Goodheart’s The Last Island about an elusive tribe in the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
In November 2018, the remote North Sentinel island in the Andamans archipelago hit the headlines when John Chau, an American missionary determined to take the light of Christ to the inhabitants, was killed there. Following this, the mystery surrounding the North Sentinelese people, one of the particularly vulnerable tribal groups who have consistently refused any contact with the outside world, deepened manifold. Apocryphal stories, which either demonised or infantilised the tribe, proliferated, even as the debate over whether they should be left alone or assimilated with the mainstream, was revived.
Twenty years before Chau’s visit, the American historian and journalist, Adam Goodheart, had ventured close to North Sentinel and seen some of the Sentinelese from fairly close quarters. It was a life-changing moment, which made him return to the Andamans. The Last Island is a work of history as well as a travelogue, which documents the stories of people drawn to North Sentinel through the centuries, from imperial adventurers to an eccentric Victorian photographer to modern-day anthropologists. What emerges through these encounters is the tragic tale of the tribe, on whom the net of modernity is inexorably closing in as pollution reaches their shores and the sea level rises with climate change.
Historian and author Maya Jasanoff describes the book thus in the blurb: “The Last Island has the elegance of a spiraling seashell. In the fascinating tale of one small island caught in the mesh of modern imperialism and technology, Adam Goodheart has crafted a narrative that winds outward from a personal obsession to a broad interrogation about the value and purpose of human contact. This beguiling book holds within it the echo of vast historical tides.”
This extract from the book encapsulates the theme of discovery and first contacts, where the “discovers” have invariably interpreted the gestures of their baffled audience in terms advantageous to them.
It is difficult—perhaps impossible—for us to know exactly how the moments of contact were perceived by the Sentinelese themselves.
Throughout the five centuries since the Age of Discovery began, Western travelers’ fascination with first contacts has inspired them to chronicle, in great detail, their own experiences of such encounters. These accounts usually follow formulaic patterns, always self-flattering ones: Sometimes the brown-skinned savages, shouting war whoops, rain down volleys of arrows and spears upon the stout-hearted explorers. More often, natives are portrayed bowing down before the strange apparitions as if worshiping new gods, and marveling at the newcomers’ vastly superior technology.
Yet some rare accounts from an indigenous perspective survive. Nearly all were transcribed by Europeans, interviewing members of a native group after they had established a means of mutual communication. Sometimes this happened several generations later. Still, the tendency of non-literate groups to preserve their histories carefully through oral tradition means that we can probably tease out some threads of authentic experience.
For instance, a missionary in the 1770s interviewed native elders whose primeval island had been “discovered” by Europeans in the previous century, when it lay at a remote edge of terra incognita. Tribal memory still preserved the details of that first contact.
Also Read | Great Nicobar: Whose land is it?
One day many years ago, the elders told the missionary, some native fishermen were out in a canoe when they saw a dark, hulking shape drifting—or perhaps swimming—across the surface of the water. They hurried back to shore and alerted their countrymen, who gathered on the beach to watch the apparition drawing closer. Some thought it must be a sea creature; others, a very big canoe or house. Finally, the thing arrived and they saw that it was indeed a floating house full of whiteskinned people dressed in strange colors, including a man clad all in red to whom the other strangers seemed to defer. The natives decided that this man must be “Mannitto”—which, the missionary parenthetically noted, meant “great or Supreme Being.” Moreover, they decided that the other white men must be lesser gods accompanying the brightly clothed deity. They worshiped the Europeans accordingly, bringing offerings of food and other gifts.
That primeval island was Manhattan. (One thinks of Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, watching the sun sink low above London: And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.) The natives were a subgroup of the Algonquian Indians, who inhabited much of the region that is now the Northeast Seaboard of the United States. The year was 1609, and the man in red was Henry Hudson.
It appears that the missionary scribe in the 1770s misunderstood certain key details of what the Indians told him. In Algonquian cultures, the word manitou (which he recorded as “Mannitto”) does not translate as “Supreme Being.” Rather, it denotes, in the words of one historian, “the manifestation of spiritual power, a manifestation that could occur in almost any form.” Manitou also means a numinous, all-pervasive force that can bring about sudden changes, for good or ill. The natives of Manhattan, then, were not worshiping Hudson and his companions, so much as greeting and welcoming them—probably with a degree of apprehension—as spirit-visitors.
In fact, scholars studying first contact experiences around the globe have observed that members of many indigenous cultures believe they inhabit a world teeming with supernatural beings that arise from the earth or sea, often in the shape of humans, animals, or the bleached corpses of the dead. Perhaps it is even misleading to call such apparitions “supernatural” in the way that Western cultures use the term, since the spirits are believed to be as real and as integral to the natural environment as any common rock or tree.
This human tendency to shape unfamiliar experiences into familiar narratives is probably universal. Think of the European explorers themselves, for whom each new land was another Eden; each fresh colony a rebuilt Jerusalem; each foreign culture a lost tribe of godless heathens, ready to receive the Book and the Cross.
One English anthropologist who worked among the Great Andamanese a century ago reported that they believed in various special classes of spirits, known collectively as lau, who had originated from the souls of dead men and women. More specifically, the different groups included lau of the jungle, lau of the sky, lau of the sea. The lau of the sea, the natives told the Englishman, were grotesque creatures with pale skin, long arms, and bushy beards, who carried mysterious lights that could sometimes be glimpsed across the water in the darkness. Thus, the sudden appearance of light-skinned strangers with floating houses and fire sticks often does not challenge or overturn the natives’ cosmology, but rather confirms it. The spirits are made visible; the shamans were right.
By now, a skeptic might note, it is unlikely that the Sentinelese—after so many contacts and near-contacts—would perceive intruders (whether John Chau, T.N. Pandit, or anyone else) as anything but fellow human beings, rather than apparitions from some realm of gods and magic. Certainly they have observed the outside world as intently as the outside world has observed them; more so, probably, since our boats and flying machines have by now become familiar parts of their surrounding world, and since hunter-gatherers are famously perceptive observers. They may not know exactly what helicopters or jet planes are, nor how they stay aloft—but, for that matter, how many of those jet planes’ passengers could explain exactly how a million pounds of metal, plastic, and refined petroleum are able to lift them into the sky?
Still, this point of view is based on our own, rather arbitrary, distinctions between the natural and the unnatural, the human and the divine. Vishvajit Pandya, the present-day scholar who lived among the Onge tribe of Little Andaman, has noted that even after generations of frequent contact with British colonizers and Indian settlers, both they and the Jarawa refer to outsiders as Ineny, a term deriving from ineny-lau, the spirits who come from the sea. In the traditional Andamanese understanding, the spirit world is inseparable from the mortal world: Humans and animals, natives and strangers, the living and the dead, all inhabit a shared space. What changes constantly are the power relationships among them. Just as humans hunt and gather animals, spirits—moving invisibly on the wind—hunt and gather humans. Human life is absorbed by the spirits; The death of one is the birth of the other.
Extracted with permission from The Last Island: A Story of the Andamans and the Most Elusive Tribe in the World by Adam Goodheart, published by Juggernaut Books in October 2023.