North Sentinel Island and the Paradox of the Modern World


I try to avoid the news these days. ‘News’ as we like to believe it is not news anymore, but an interpretation of facts through the lens of the reporting entity’s worldview, beliefs or worse, ideology. It’s become a propaganda machine designed to make us outraged and sow division. It’s probably always been like this, but this modern, divided world has made it worse.

This has largely helped my level of happiness. Particularly in a South African context. The less I read about all of our problems and the stupidity at large, the better. So I try to stick to stories on culture and opinion pieces. Yet despite all this, every now and then a story pops up that I can’t help looking further into. One such story occurred last week.

A rather moronic American missionary, John Chau, ignoring all the advice and knowledge that he had, attempted to spread the gospel to the people of North Sentinel island. He paid off local fishermen to take him to the island. After a couple of tense and rather futile engagements, the fishermen returned to collect him one morning, only to find the islanders dragging his body along the beach to bury him.

What got my initial interest was that these hostile tribes still existed out there. As I often do I resorted to Twitter to get the general feel for this story. Of course, the usual overreactions and anger were coming from the usual corners. But it was on Twitter that I discovered one or two fascinating threads on the island which led me to dig deeper into this story.

To summarise (it’s all available on Wikipedia), the island has long been feared and avoided. In the 1880’s a European, Maurice Portman made a few trips to the island, probably angering them with his antics of measuring them and abducting them before returning them. In 1981 a cargo ship ran aground on the island. While the crew waited for help to arrive, they noticed, as the days passed that the tribesmen on the beach were building boats and seemed to be preparing to attack them. They got air lifted out just in time. The only thing that saved them were rough waves. In 1991 anthropologists got close enough to give fruit to the tribe. But it was promptly made clear to them by the tribesmen that they needed to leave, and quickly. In January 2006, two fishermen, fishing in illegal waters were killed by the Sentinelese when their boat drifted too close to the island. It’s got to the point that the Indian government has made it illegal to come within 5km of the island. It is worth noting that the murders of John Chau in 2018 and the fishermen in 2006 led to no charges. The tribe literally exists separate from laws. Nobody has come within touching distance of them and lived since 1991. After the tsunami of 2004, a helicopter flew over to check the island, and was met with arrows and rocks. Other than these encounters, nothing is known of them. Literally nothing. Through all of history there are less than 10 accounts of contact or sightings of them.

Here they are. In 2018. A tribe of people that the world has completely and utterly passed by. A people who’ve only interacted with the outside world four of five times in the last 150 years, usually very briefly and violently. A people more cut off and primitive than any tribe of people you’d find in the deepest bowels of the Amazon. This isn’t exactly an island in the middle of the pacific, thousands of miles from anything. It sits snuggly in the Bay of Bengal between India and Thailand, right alongside the larger Andaman Island.

Even their demographic appearance and skin colour is in stark contrast to the Asian region the island is situated in, indicating that the entire demographic development of the region and larger Asian subcontinent over the past couple of millennia has completely passed them by.

The most striking thing for me when thinking about this island is that the entire history of mankind has gone by and they’ve missed it all. The rise and fall of the Greek Empire, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, running water, the dark ages, colonialism, the industrial revolution, the telephone, medicine, electricity, motor vehicles, the two world wars of the 20th century, Hiroshima, the cold war, the age of the internet. Yet here they are oblivious to is all. Not knowing that these events even existed. Somehow the world has left them as is for thousands of years, living their lives as if in the stone age. Do they even know what the concept religion is?

Of course, the next question is what we do with this knowledge. I for one think these poor people should just be left alone. Completely. That seems pretty clear to me. But the deeper question that all my reading on North Sentinel made me consider was what would actually be best for them long term? Ignoring the immediate trauma of introducing them to an alien, modern world, what would benefit them most in the long run?

There’s no clear answer to this, even in my own mind. Twitter was divided, as it always is. The irony about my search on Twitter was that the same people praising the North Sentinelese and pleading us to leave them alone were the same types of people who express disdain at nations attempting to be as autonomous and independent as possible, labeling them ‘nationalist’ or something worse. My wife, on the other hand, somewhat a bleeding heart on certain social causes, surprised me by suggesting they be integrated into the modern world.  Clearly this isn’t an easy one to answer for anyone.

We’re very quick to condemn this modern world of ours. I see this expressed all the time. People lamenting this a ‘toxic world’ or ‘troubled times’, or complaining about all the ‘damage we’re causing to the world’, or suggesting that inequality is worse than ever. Oddly enough I’ve found myself defending this modern world we live in. We’re almost certainly living in the greatest ever period of prosperity, peace and health in the history of the world.

I’ve just read Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, where he makes specific arguments around the astounding progress we’ve made in the last century or two.

Some of the key points Pinker makes are the following:

  • Life expectancy is up. In the 1700’s it was less than 30. It’s now over 70.
  • Globally, inequality of income has been steadily declining over the past couple of decades.
  • The portion of the world living in extreme poverty has declined from 90% of the world in 1820 to just 10% of the world today. This decline seems to be accelerating.
  • Work hours have decreased from over 60 hours per week in both the US and Western Europe in 1870, to around 40 hours today.
  • It’s nearly 80 years since war broke out between great powers. This kind of peace hasn’t existed in centuries. (My suspicion is that you’d have to go back to a period in Roman history called the Pax Romana to find when this last happened)
  • Two thirds of the world now live in democratic societies, compared to one percent in 1816
  • Most of the fatalist predictions through the past few decades about the environment haven’t materialised at all.
  • In addition, hunger and famine have drastically declined. Child mortality and maternal mortality rates have been turned on their head. Deaths from all types of accidents have been reduced. Literacy rates are on the rise. Young women have closed the education gap with men in Western countries, often surpassing men in percentages attending universities.

In addition to this, a point I often make is that knowledge is now easier to attain than it’s ever been before. By far. We’re all walking around with super-computers in our pockets, utilising technologies we didn’t know existed 10 years ago. In 1956 about 6 men were needed to move a 5mb hard drive. Now 128 gigs sit comfortably in your pocket, with all the information we could ever want about any topic.

We live in relative luxury compared to 99,9% of the history of human beings. So why do we all think it’s so shit? Why are we all complaining about how bad humanity is and how toxic our world is?

Don’t mistake me from an optimist. Far from it. I for one don’t see the world with rose tinted glasses. I don’t see it as moving towards this amazing utopia. Not one bit. Yet my reasons for this and causes for concern with the world may be different from the next person. I think to myself, if I were to somehow to engage with these people of North Sentinel (and live to tell), and convince them to stay on their island and reject the modern world (which they seem all too ready to carry on doing), what arguments would I make?

I could easily ask them if they wanted to live in the kind of world that makes them slaves to debt, or to their jobs. Where they have to commute for two hours a day to work 8 hours a day just to survive. I could ask them whether they wanted to work half their waking lives behind a desk, working for somebody else, month after month, year after year, looking forward only to the two weeks at beach at year end. You know, the kind of place where the North Sentinelese live their whole lives. I could ask them if they wanted to live under a government. When they enquired about what a government is I’d explain that, you know, it’s a bunch of people you usually don’t choose to lead you, but who make decisions that you need to abide by. I could ask them if they wanted to live behind gates walls and electric fencing for fear of their fellow man breaking in and killing them (Assuming they don’t kill their own people, and I’m pretty sure they don’t. As a side note, Marco Polo did write that he thought they were cannibals. But I’m assuming they’re not.) Maybe I’d ask them if they wanted lose their edge, become fat and stare at a screen all day, in fascination with celebrities. Would they want to live in a world of people that lost sight of life, death and living to an extent that they spent their time outraged by trivialities they see on the news which don’t apply to them?

Maybe the North Sentinelese are living the dream. Maybe they’re happy. Maybe they wake up in the morning and do exactly what they want to do. Maybe, despite creating a better world, we need to ask ourselves, are we creating better lives? Are we really free people, living lives as we wish, like the North Sentinelese do every day? It feels to me as if we’re slowly but surely eroding one piece of enjoyment after the next, all in the name of protecting ourselves. First it was smoking. Now they’re coming after sugar. How long until our overlords decide red meat is bad for us and start making it harder to attain? Then alcohol. There’s already a move to make comedy so politically correct that it’s no longer funny. Our governments’ are increasingly telling us what they think is good and bad for us. It’s not inconceivable that in 50 years’ time we’ll be living like robots in an utterly joyless society, controlled on what we eat, what we watch, what we say and what we do.

Despite all the progress, we perhaps need to remind ourselves that the progress of humanity does not need to coincide with a declining ability to live life. After all, life exists to be lived, to be savoured, to be experienced. Maybe the North Sentinelese know this better than we do.



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