North Sentinel Island

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North Sentinel Island
North Sentinel Island.jpg
North Sentinel Island in 2009
North Sentinel Island is located in Andaman and Nicobar Islands
North Sentinel Island
North Sentinel Island
LocationBay of Bengal
Coordinates11°33′25″N 92°14′28″E / 11.557°N 92.241°E / 11.557; 92.241Coordinates: 11°33′25″N 92°14′28″E / 11.557°N 92.241°E / 11.557; 92.241 [1]
ArchipelagoAndaman Islands[2]
Adjacent bodies of waterBay of Bengal
Total islands2
Major islands
  • North Sentinel
  • Constance
Area59.67 km2 (23.04 sq mi)[3]
Length7.8 km (4.85 mi)
Width7.0 km (4.35 mi)
Coastline31.6 km (19.64 mi)
Highest elevation122 m (400 ft)[1]
Union territoryAndaman and Nicobar
DistrictSouth Andaman
TehsilPort Blair Tehsil[4]
DemonymNorth Sentinelese
Population39[5] (2018)
actual population highly uncertain – may be as high as 400
Ethnic groupsSentinelese[2]
Additional information
Time zone
ISO codeIN-AN-00[7]
Avg. summer temperature30.2 °C (86.4 °F)
Avg. winter temperature23.0 °C (73.4 °F)
Census Code35.639.0004

North Sentinel Island is one of the Andaman Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal which also includes South Sentinel Island.[8] It is home to the Sentinelese, a tribe who have rejected, often violently, any contact with the outside world. They are among the last uncontacted people to remain virtually untouched by modern civilisation.[9][10]

The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956[11] prohibits travel to the island and any approach closer than five nautical miles (9.26 km) in order to prevent the resident tribespeople from contracting diseases to which they have no immunity. The area is patrolled by the Indian navy.[12]

Nominally, the island belongs to the South Andaman administrative district, part of the Indian union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands.[13] In practice, Indian authorities recognise the islanders' desire to be left alone and restrict their role to remote monitoring; they do not prosecute them for killing people.[14][15] The island is in effect a sovereign area under Indian protection. In 2018, the Government of India excluded 29 islands – including North Sentinel – from the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) regime, until 31 December 2022, in a major effort to boost tourism.[16] In November 2018, however, the government's home ministry stated that the relaxation of the prohibition was intended only to allow researchers and anthropologists, with pre-approved clearance, to visit the Sentinel islands.[17]

The Sentinelese have repeatedly attacked approaching vessels. This resulted in the deaths of two fishermen in 2006 and an American missionary, John Allen Chau, in 2018.[18][19][20]


North Sentinel lies 36 kilometres (22 mi) west of the town of Wandoor in South Andaman Island,[2] 50 km (31 mi) west of Port Blair, and 59.6 kilometres (37.0 mi) north of its counterpart South Sentinel Island. It has an area of about 59.67 km2 (23.04 sq mi) and a roughly square outline.[21]

North Sentinel is surrounded by coral reefs, and lacks natural harbours. The entire island, other than the shore, is forested.[22] There is a narrow, white-sand beach encircling the island, behind which the ground rises 20 m (66 ft), and then gradually to between 46 m (150 ft)[23]:257 and 122 m (400 ft)[1] near the centre. Reefs extend around the island to between 0.93 and 1.5 kilometres (0.5–0.8 nmi) from the shore.[1] A forested islet, Constance Island, also "Constance Islet",[1] is located about 600 metres (2,000 ft) off the southeast coastline, at the edge of the reef.

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake tilted the tectonic plate under the island, lifting it by 1 to 2 metres (3 to 7 ft). Large tracts of the surrounding coral reefs were exposed and became permanently dry land or shallow lagoons, extending all the island's boundaries—by as much as 1 kilometre (3,300 ft) on the west and south sides—and uniting Constance Islet with the main island.[24]:347[25]


The Onge, one of the other indigenous peoples of the Andamans, were aware of North Sentinel Island's existence; their traditional name for the island is Chia daaKwokweyeh.[2][24]:362–363 They also have strong cultural similarities with what little has been remotely observed amongst the Sentinelese. However, Onges brought to North Sentinel Island by the British during the 19th century could not understand the Sentinelese language, so a significant period of separation is likely.[2][24]:362–363

British visits[edit]

British surveyor John Ritchie observed "a multitude of lights" from an East India Company hydrographic survey vessel, the Diligent, as it passed by the island in 1771.[2][24]:362–363[26] Homfray, an administrator, travelled to the island in March 1867.[27]:288

Towards the end of the same year's summer monsoon season, 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.[24]:362–363

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, an elderly couple and four children, were captured and taken to Port Blair. The colonial officer in charge of the operation wrote that the entire group, "sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents".[2][26][27]:288 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.[2][27]:288 Portman visited the island several more times between January 1885 and January 1887.[27]:288

After independence[edit]

Landsat map

Indian exploratory parties under orders to establish friendly relations with the Sentinelese made brief landings on the island every few years beginning in 1967.[2] In 1975 Leopold III of Belgium, on a tour of the Andamans, was taken by local dignitaries for an overnight cruise to the waters off North Sentinel Island.[26] The cargo ship MV Rusley ran aground on coastal reefs in mid-1977, and the MV Primrose did so in August 1981. The Sentinelese are known to have scavenged both wrecks for iron. Settlers from Port Blair also visited the sites to recover the cargo. In 1991, salvage operators were authorised to dismantle the ships.[24]:342

After the Primrose grounded on the North Sentinel Island reef on 2 August 1981, crewmen several days later noticed that some 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, but the heavy seas also prevented the Islanders from approaching the ship. One week later, the crewmen were rescued by a helicopter under contract to the Indian Oil And Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).[28]

The first peaceful contact with the Sentinelese was made by Triloknath Pandit, a director of the Anthropological Survey of India, and his colleagues on 4 January 1991.[27]:289[29] Indian visits to the island ceased in 1997.[2]

The Sentinelese survived the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and its after-effects, including the tsunami and the uplifting of the island. Three days after the earthquake, an Indian government helicopter observed several islanders, who shot arrows and threw spears and stones at the helicopter.[2][24]:362–363[30] Although the tsunami disturbed the tribal fishing grounds, the Sentinelese appear to have adapted.[25]

In January 2006, two fishermen fishing illegally in prohibited waters were killed by the Sentinelese when their boat drifted too close to the island. There were no prosecutions.[14]

In November 2018, John Allen Chau, a 26-year-old American missionary[31] trained and sent by Missouri-based All Nations,[32] was killed during an illegal trip to the restricted island, planning to preach Christianity to the Sentinelese.[33] Seven individuals were taken into custody by Indian police on suspicion of helping Chau's illegal access to the island.[32] Entering a radius of 5 nautical miles (9.3 km) around the island is illegal under Indian law.[34][35] Fishermen told police that they had seen the tribespeople dragging Chau's body around but the authorities had not been able to independently verify his death as of 25 November 2018.[12] The case is being treated as a murder but there has been no suggestion that the tribesmen would be charged.[36]

Chau's journal indicated he was aware of the risks he faced, having been shot at by an islander with a bow and arrow on a previous attempted visit, and of the illegality of his visits to the island. In a final note to his family sent via the fishermen, Chau wrote "You guys might think I'm crazy in all this but I think it's worthwhile to declare Jesus to these people. Please do not be angry at them or at God if I get killed ..."[12] The family is not insisting on the return of the body to the US.[37][38]


North Sentinel Island is inhabited by the Sentinelese. Their population was estimated to be between 50 and 400 individuals in a 2012 report.[2] India's 2011 census indicates 15 residents[39] in 10 households, but that too was merely an estimate, described as a "wild guess" by the Times of India.[11]

They reject any contact with other people, and are among the last people to remain virtually untouched by modern civilisation.[26]

The population faces the potential threats of infectious diseases to which they have no immunity, as well as violence from intruders. The Indian government has declared the entire island and its surrounding waters extending 5 nautical miles (9.26 km) from the island to be an exclusion zone.[40]

Political status[edit]

The Andaman and Nicobar (Protection of Aboriginal Tribes) Regulation, 1956 provides protection to the Sentinelese and other native tribes in the region.[41] The Andaman and Nicobar Administration 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 or governing the island.[42] Although North Sentinel Island is not legally an autonomous administrative division of India, scholars have referred to it and its people as effectively autonomous,[43][44] or independent.[43][45]


  1. ^ a b c d e Sailing Directions (Enroute), Pub. 173: India and the Bay of Bengal (PDF). Sailing Directions. United States National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. 2017. p. 274.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Weber, George. "Chapter 8: The Tribes; Part 6. The Sentineli". The Andamanese. Archived from the original on 7 May 2013.
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