Subraj, my friend calls him, but the newspapers name him Sunder Raj. They say he was a fisherman, but my friend, who spent time drinking toddy and smoking ganja cheroots with him, says Subraj wasn’t quite familiar with boats. He made his living scamming bits of semi-precious sea life that other people stole from the ocean: nautilus shells, corals, bêche-de-mer and turbo shells inlaid with swirls of mother-of-pearl. Subraj’s lack of seafaring experience, said my friend, was due to his having spent years in prison for
battering to death his first wife and her lover (ironic, given the Andamans’ long history as a penal colony, that he’d done his time on the mainland). Upon returning to the islands he had married again. He was a charming, jolly man with a huge muttonchop moustache. Everyone liked him. It came as quite a shock to hear that he had been eaten by the North Sentinelese.
Tales of fierce cannibal islanders have drifted for millennia on the currents of the Indian Ocean. The west first heard them from the Venetian Marco Polo. Locked in a Genoese jail, he entertained his cellmate Rustichello da Pisa with yarns of a far off islands whose people had protruding muzzles and jaws and teeth like mastiffs. ‘They are terribly cruel,’ Polo told the wide-eyed Pisan, ‘and dine on every foreigner they can catch.’ His information likely came from sailors’ legends retold in Rialto taverns, but Rustichiello’s account of Polo’s travels, ‘Il Millione’, was a fourteenth-century besteller. Its success ensured that the slur on the character of the Andamanese has survived to our own day.
When the British arrived in the Andamans in 1858 they were greeted by showers of arrows fired by small black-skinned people with tight peppercorn curls who closely resembled African pygmies. How had they got there? One theory was that an Arab slave ship from the Congo must have run aground. But colonial officials were meeting ‘negrito’ peoples in the forests of Thailand, Malaya, the East Indies and New Guinea. We now know that these peoples are as genetically distant from Africa as it is possible to be, because they were among the first to leave it. Starting some 70,000 years ago, bands of dimunitive people might have been glimpsed from time to time on beaches around the northern rim of the Indian Ocean. They carried water in nautilus shells and hunted with bows and long arrows they had not yet learned to fletch, and spears tipped with flint or hardened in fire harvested from lightning strikes. Year by year these folk ventured further, staying near the coasts, entering the forests of India and Burma and, as ice-ages dropped the ocean, moving along the forest-covered mountain range that joined Burma to Indonesia. The returning ocean submerged the mountains leaving groups of people marooned on a necklace of islands, among them the Andamans. By the time the British arrived in 1858, the Andamanese had lived perhaps 60,000 years in almost complete isolation.
In my library, rubbing covers with such useful things as A Comparitive Vocabulary of the Gondi Dialects and Colonel Kesri Singh’s Hints on Tiger-Shooting, is an 1887 first edition of A manual of the Andamanese Languages by Maurice Vidal Portman, a British ICS officer who for twenty years was charged with civilizing the Andamanese. It was ‘work of extraordinary difficulty,’ said his obituary, ‘for most of them were as shy as wild animals – he would frequently have to land on their beaches, standing up in an open boat, amid a shower of poisoned arrows. He won them by sheer personal magnetism. He doctored them; they were very rapidly dying out from venereal disease. He judged them and, if necessary, he hanged them.’
Surviving photos of Portman show a tall, aristocratic Englishman hemmed about by small dark folk. An adventurer in the Burton mould, secret agent, Grand Hierophant of his own mystical order, Portman claimed fluency in a dozen Indian languages and knowledge of at least four Andamanese dialects. His Manual contained every phrase an English official might need in his dealings with the natives.
– Give me a nautilus shell to drink from. (Tín kórlá éné pai lébé – A’ka Bojigiab)
– That woman is wearing his skull. (Kát ápail lá ót chetta ngããrók-ké – A’ka Bea)
– Pick these ticks off me. (Kélétom chíbá ngó tut boichal kau jérlup –A’ka Chariar)
–A centipede has bitten him. (Koróbító num píó – A’ka Kédé)
Of the hostile Onge speech he gives few examples A’ku gaibí, ‘Don’t shoot them,’ being one. Of Jarawa and Sentinelese nothing. No point, he wrote, making an Andamanese-to-English version of the Manual, because before any of the aborigines could learn English they would be extinct. And so it has proved. The Great Andamanese tribes are all but gone. The last of the Bo, Boa Sr., died in 2010. Eighty five years old, she knew enough Hindi to confide that she was lonely because no one was left to share her people’s songs and stories. The Onge are much reduced. Threatened by a new trunk road, the Jarawa have recently begun emerging from their forests. Of the original twelve tribes, only the Sentineli remain aloof, uncontacted and remote.
On Google Earth, North Sentinel Island is a blob of emerald jungle lost in blue ocean thirty miles west of the southern tip of Great Andaman. The first report of the island comes from the East India Company ship Diligent which in 1771 passed close to the island and sighted ‘a multitude of lights’ burning on shore. In 1867 a merchant ship, the Nineveh, was driven by a monsoon storm onto the reef off North Sentinel. Eighty-six passengers and twenty crew got safely shore in the ship’s boat but their thanksgiving were ended when arrows began falling around them. ‘The savages were perfectly naked, with short hair and red painted noses,’ the Nineveh’s captain reported. ‘They were opening their mouths and making sounds like pa on ough; their arrows appeared to be tipped with iron.’ The besieged passengers and crew fought off the attack with stones and were eventually rescued by the Royal Navy.
Portman, in his capacity as ‘father of the Andamanese’ was fascinated. As the Sentineli had no knowledge of metal he assumed the iron for their arrows had been scavenged off the beach. On other islands the Jarawas used iron tipped arrows to hunt pig. The captain spoke of short hair and red noses, but Portman and many others had observed that the Sentineli wore their hair long. Like the Onge they used yellow ochre, but did not possess a red pigment.
In 1880 Portman began a series of expeditions to North Sentinel. Over twenty years, the results were invariably the same. The islanders vanished into the jungle. Portman and his team found leaf shelters, cooking pots and implements similar to those used by the Onge. He reported that the people scooped water holes in the dry season, that they wore the lower jawbones of men ornamented with a fringe of twisted fibres. He brought back trophies: two-, three- and four-pronged fishing arrows with barbed bone tips. On one occasion he found a number of children and two adults, whom he took to Port Blair. Other Andamanese could not understand their speech.The adults sickened and soon died. Portman returned the children to the island laden with gifts. His visits ceased near the turn of the century and the island and its people returned to obscurity.
In the 1970s some Indian anthropologists began attempting to contact the Sentineli. A film crew visiting in 1974 to shoot a piece called Man In Search of Man fled when arrows whistled down around them. The director was hit in the thigh, throwing the successful marksman into fits of laughter. To add to the farce, police wearing cricket pads left gifts of a pig and a plastic doll which the Sentineli promptly speared and buried in the sand.
At midnight on August 2, 1981, the motor-vessel Primrose ran aground on on North Sentinel. It was too rough to lower the lifeboats and as the ship was in no danger the captain decided to keep his crew on board. Two days later the Primrose’s owners in Hong Kong received a frantic distress call. ‘Wild men, estimate more than 50, carrying various home-made weapons are making two or three wooden boats. Worrying they will board us at sunset. All crew members’ lives not guaranteed.’ A Sikorsky helicopter eventually rescued the crew. Keen Google Earthers can spot the rusting hulk still lying on the island’s north-west reef.
Recent pictures shot from Indian boats show handsome, healthy people with perfect smiles. When we look into their faces we are looking back, through unimaginable deeps of time, at ourselves. We still know nothing about the Sentineli, but once among the Onge Portman met a man said to have canoed from North Sentinel. From him he learned the island’s real name. On Chiö-tá-kwö-kwé, endlessly circled by sea, sand and stories, nothing changes. Life continues day to day, tending fires from past lightning strikes, hunting wild pig, gathering fruits, tubers, fish, crabs, honey, grubs and the eggs of turtles and seagulls. On Chiö-tá-kwö-kwé time moves in loops, the future flows ever back into the past and death has little meaning when over 40,000 years every great-great-grandsire and great-great-great-granddam will return in the genes to live again and again.
In the deep time inhabited by the islanders, even gigantic natural disasters seem insignificant. In May 1883 Portman recorded odd phenomena on Great Andaman island. Mountain streams stopped flowing, the sea was strange. The Krakatoa tsunami was about to hit. Somehow the tribes already knew.
The tsunami of December 26, 2004 hit North Sentinel Island with two waves about ten meters high. The earthquake hoisted the island ten feet in the air, exposing wide stretches of reef. On Great Andaman Boa Sr. was alerted by warning signs, the behaviour of birds and the sea. She climbed a tree and survived. Fearing the worst for the Sentineli, an Indian coast guard helicopter was despatched to the island and was met with a hail of arrows. The news was greeted with cheering and celebration in Port Blair.
Subraj lived in Wandoor near the Mahatma Gandhi Marine National Park, a stretch of coast hit hard by the tsunami, which wrecked his house and boat. My friend returned to the Andamans not long afterwards to find Subraj building a new house, paid for by the government. He and all the other fishermen had large new motorboats.
‘Come,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you. We’ll go to Cinque.’ Cinque Island is strictly off-limits, but Subraj was not averse to slipping over now and again to poach a spotted-deer. My friend was not keen, so Subraj offered to take him and his companion to see manta rays. ‘We were doubtful,’ said my friend. ‘He didn’t seem to know much about the timings of the sea, or about the mantas. Near certain reefs every day the current is black with them. You snorkel looking into depths full of great lazy-winged monsters. But Subraj hadn’t got the right reefs.’
My friend was travelling elsewhere in the Andamans when news came that someone from Wandoor had been battered to death on North Sentinel and was presumed eaten by the Sentineli. ‘Stone Age Tribe Kills Fishermen,’ yelled front pages all over the world. Various reports, quoting fishermen, told a tale of surprised innocence. Subraj, or Sunder Raj (his proper name) and his friend Pandit Tiwari, were fishing for mud crab, or else lobster, or maybe prawn. After the day’s work the pair got drunk on toddy and fell asleep. During the night their stone anchor dragged loose and despite the best efforts of men in other boats to waken and warn them, they drifted towards the fatal shore. There are obvious flaws in this. How did their boat drift five kilometers, the island’s exclusion limit? Why didn’t another boat simply take them in tow?
On his return to Wandoor my friend learned the truth, banal as only truth can be. Subraj had heard over the grapevine that a large plastic container, worth perhaps ten thousand rupees, was bobbing about just inside the reef on the north-east coast of North Sentinel. He hatched a plan to retrieve it and recruited Tiwari, someone he’d once shared a cell with in Port Blair jail (according to the police the pair were always in and out for various minor misdemeanours). They drank a great deal of toddy – for courage, it might be supposed – and set off at night, arriving off North Sentinel at dawn. The uplifted and rapidly bleaching reef was some 200 meters wide, but there was a little inlet beyond which the container was bobbing between the coral and the beach. News reports would claim they had been shot with poison arrows, or else axed to death, or maybe hacked to pieces by machetes. No one really knew, said my friend, because it was two days before Subraj’s wife reported him missing and by then, although the boat was on the beach being inspected by the Sentinelese, the bodies were gone, presumed eaten. Thus the centuries old slur launched by one pair of convicts in a Genoa jail found renewed expression in the deaths of another pair.
Then a helicopter hovering over the boat saw the downdraft from its rotors blow sand off two bodies which, like the 1974 pig and plastic doll, had been buried in the beach. Subraj’s wife pressed for compensation and a murder enquiry, raising some interesting questions. No one witnessed the killings, besides, how do you prosecute a tribe? Can Indian law apply to a territory which has never been conquered nor ever ceded its sovereignty? Tiwari’s parents took an enlightened view. Their son knew what he was doing. He knew the dangers and had decided to take the risk. The Sentineli were not to blame. They should be left alone. The authorities agreed. ‘In fact,’ said my friend, concluding his narrative, ‘given how the rest of us are trashing the planet, leaving the Sentineli alone may represent the best hope for the survival of humanity. They have a right to protect themselves against us bringers of disease, alcohol and greed. It is we who are the savages.’