North Sentinel Island
|Area||72 km2 (27.8 sq mi)|
|Highest elevation||122 m (400 ft)|
|Union Territory||Andaman and Nicobar Islands|
|Population||250 to 300 (as of 2005)|
North Sentinel Island is one of the Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal. It lies to the west of the southern part of South Andaman Island. Most of the island is forested. It is small, located away from the main settlements on Great Andaman, surrounded by coral reefs, and lacks natural harbors.
A group of indigenous people, the Sentinelese, live on North Sentinel Island. They speak the Sentinelese language and their present numbers are estimated to be between 50 and 400 individuals. They reject any contact with other people, and are among the last people to remain virtually untouched by modern civilization.
The Onge were aware of North Sentinel Island's existence and their traditional name for it is Chia daaKwokweyeh. They also have strong cultural similarities with what little has been remotely observed amongst the Sentinelese. However, Onge who were brought there by the British during the 19th century could not understand the native language, so a considerable time of separation is likely.
The earliest known recorded mention of North Sentinel Island was made in 1771 by the British surveyor John Ritchie, who observed "a multitude of lights" from an East India Company hydrographic survey vessel, the Diligent, as it passed by the island. Homfray, an administrator, travelled to the island in March 1867. Toward the end of the same year's summer monsoon season, the Nineveh, an Indian merchant ship, was wrecked on a reef near the island. The 106 surviving passengers and crewmen landed on the beach in the ship's boat and fended off attacks by the Sentinelese. They were eventually found by a Royal Navy rescue party.
An expedition led by Maurice Vidal Portman, a government administrator who hoped to research the natives and their customs, accomplished a successful landing on North Sentinel Island in January 1880. The group found a network of pathways and several small, abandoned villages. After several days, six Sentinelese were captured and taken to Port Blair. They soon became sick, and two of them died. The other four were returned to the island.
A second landing was made by Portman on 27 August 1883 after the eruption of Krakatoa was mistaken for gunfire and interpreted as the distress signal of a ship. A search party landed on the island and left gifts before returning to Port Blair. Portman visited the island several more times between January 1885 and January 1887.
Indian exploratory parties under orders to establish friendly relations with the Sentinelese made brief landings on the island every few years beginning in 1967. In 1975, Leopold III of Belgium, on a tour of the Andamans, was brought by local dignitaries for an overnight cruise to the waters off North Sentinel Island. The cargo ships MV Rusley and MV Primrose ran aground on coastal reefs in the summer of 1977 and August 1981 respectively. The Sentinelese are known to have scavenged these wrecks for iron. Settlers from Port Blair also visited the sites to recover cargo. In 1991, salvage operators were authorized to dismantle the ships.
The first peaceful contact with the Sentinelese was made by Trilokinath Pandit, a director of the Anthropological Survey of India, and his colleagues on 4 January 1991. Indian visits to the island ceased in 1997.
On 2 August 1981, the ship Primrose grounded on the North Sentinel Island reef. A few days later, crewmen on the immobile vessel observed that small black men were carrying spears and arrows and building boats on the beach. The captain of the Primrose radioed for an urgent airdrop of firearms so the crew could defend themselves, but did not receive them. Heavy seas kept the islanders away from the ship. After a week, the crew were rescued by a helicopter working under contract to the Indian Oil And Natural Gas Commission (ONGC). A more detailed account of the helicopter rescue (with photos), can be found at: http://www.eternalidol.com/?p=8593
The Sentinelese apparently survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and its after-effects, including the tsunami and the uplifting of the island. Three days after the event, an Indian government helicopter observed several of them, who shot arrows and threw stones at the hovering aircraft with the apparent intent of repelling it. Although the fishing grounds of the Sentinelese were disturbed, they appear to have adapted to the island's current conditions.
On 26 January 2006, two fishermen were killed by Sentinelese when their boat drifted near the island.
Before the 2004 earthquake, North Sentinel Island had about 72 km² and a roughly square outline. All around the island, behind a narrow beach the ground rose abruptly by 20 m, and then more gradually to 98 m near the middle. Reefs extended around the island to between 800 and 1300 meters from the shore. A forested islet, Constance Island, was located about 600 metres off the southeast coastline, at the edge of the reef.
The 2004 earthquake tilted the tectonic plate under the island, lifting it by 1 to 2 metres. Large tracts of the surrounding coral reefs were exposed and became permanently dry land or shallow lagoons, extending the boundaries of the island all around — by as much as 1 km on the west and south sides — and uniting Constance Island with the main island.
Apart from the narrow original beach and the uplifted reefs, the island is densely covered by forest.
Officially, the island has been administered by India as part of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Union Territory since 1947. However, because there has never been any treaty with the people of the island, nor any record of a physical occupation whereby the people of the island have conceded sovereignty, the island exists in a curious state of limbo under established international law and can be seen as a sovereign entity under Indian protection. It is, therefore, one of the de facto autonomous regions of India.
The Andaman and Nicobar Administration has stated in 2005 that they have no intention to interfere with the lifestyle or habitat of the Sentinelese and are not interested in pursuing any further contact with them.
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- Pandya, Vishvajit (2009). In the forest: visual and material worlds of Andamanese history (1858-2006). University Press of America. ISBN 0-7618-4153-9.
- National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (2005). Prostar Sailing Directions 2005 India & Bay of Bengal Enroute. ProStar Publications. ISBN 1-57785-662-7.
- Great Britain, Hydrographic Dept (1887). The Bay of Bengal pilot.