If one is to extrapolate anything from Gene Roddenberry’s LSD-fuelled vision of 23rd century humanity as brought to life by the original Star Trek series, it’s that future Americans like James Tiberius Kirk had well and truly expunged their knee-jerk inclination to meddle in other cultures’ business ahead of venturing into contact with other intelligent species across the galaxy.
Conversely, if the killing of American Christian missionary John Allen Chau on North Sentinel Island on November 17, 2018 teaches us anything, it’s that none of us should be hoping for faster-than-light interstellar travel to be invented anytime soon, because quite clearly we’re not nearly mature enough as a species to be trusted with it.
It’s probably safe to say that very few Americans (or much of anybody else) had heard of North Sentinel Island before this story broke. For those unacquainted with it (and with the news story), North Sentinel is a tiny island (less than 60 square kilometers in size — about the size of Manhattan) situated in the Andaman Island chain, which stretches northwards from the Indonesian island of Sumatra and west of Myanmar. The island is home to one of the earth’s few remaining “uncontacted tribes.” Very little is known about the Sentinelese people, with population estimates ranging from between 40 and 500 individuals and their language remaining unclassified, owing to their unwavering hostility to outsiders.
While technically governed by India, along with the rest of the Andamans and the Nicobar island chain, North Sentinel Island has been sealed off from outside contact by the Indian government since 1956 (in accordance with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act) in accordance with the islanders’ well-attested desire to be left alone, but also so as to protect them from diseases to which they likely have no immunity. The Indian navy enforces this maritime prohibition as part of an official “eyes on, hands off” policy, and the government in New Delhi has repeatedly stated it will not prosecute the islanders for murdering non-Sentinelese.
In other words, North Sentinel Island is a perfect test case for science fiction’s most famous piece of interplanetary jurisprudence — Star Trek’s Prime Directive.
For those less immersed in all things Trekkie than I am, the Prime Directive, also known as Starfleet General Order 1 or the “Non-Interference Directive,” is the ethical principle and doctrine enshrined by the United Federation of Planets that dictates that advanced, space-faring civilizations (such as humankind) are not to interfere in the natural development of less advanced planetary civilizations. Of course, the crew of the USS Enterprise and other federation members weren’t always unfailing in their adherence to this principle. Captain Kirk famously violated it on a handful of occasions, while his successor, Jean-Luc Picard, was more of a stickler for it. Nevertheless, it remained an ongoing theme through the entirety of the Star Trek franchise, where it was treated as a more-or-less obvious moral truism.
With this in mind, there was something truly sad about the November 17 story — not just in terms of the event itself but in much of the reaction to it. The story had a perverse predictability to it: a Bible-thumping US missionary shows up on a restricted island, after having bribed a group of fishermen to take him there (all of whom have since been arrested), for the purpose of, in his own words, “saving the tribes” from the “clutches of Satan.” In his possession he had a waterproof Bible as well as an assemblage of gifts for the purpose of luring the inhabitants. (How he imagined he would explain the contents of the Bible, a book that continues to confound modern-day people around the world, to an uncontacted tribe whose language hasn’t even been classified by linguists remains something of a mystery.)
In the aftermath of Chau’s death, his family posted a note on Instagram, reading, “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people,” while admonishing the public to “forgive those reportedly responsible for his death.”
Cue the microscopic violin.
Of course, many public figures have responded in a manner that Captain Picard would have approved of, including noted mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, who put it about as well as anyone possibly could:
However, much of the social media commentary has rallied behind John Allen Chau, with many in the Christian blogosphere heralding him as a “martyr.” In fact, numerous Twitterers chastized Weinstein for his stance on the North Sentinelese, accusing him of apologizing for murderers and applying moral relativism to the North Sentinelese. Others opined that the islanders’ behaviour hinted (without evidence) at a society replete with other social ills such as violence against women, polygamy, communal warfare, and, of course — the favourite piece of libel lobbed at “primitive” tribal people — cannibalism.
Of course, such claims are not limited to the Christian blogosphere. In fact, the chairman of India’s National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes publicly criticized his own government’s policy towards the islanders in 2000, decrying that “no citizen of India can be allowed to live in the wilderness or as savages after more than fifty years of country’s independence,” as was reported in the Andaman Chronicle. Indeed, some have argued vociferously that leaving “uncontacted peoples” in isolation is in fact tantamount to denying them the benefits of modern civilization, and is therefore immoral.
While this argument certainly holds more water than that of Chau’s Bible-thumping defenders, I still truly believe that the North Sentinelese, as with other uncontacted peoples, have every right to be left alone and to administer their own affairs. Moreover, the ferocity with which these islanders have continued to defend their independence decade after decade attests to the unequivocal disaster that colonial intrusion has wrought on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and to the obvious power of oral historical transmission within this pre-literate society.
The Andaman Islands: A Study in Colonial Horror
As a kid who loved maps (and had a gigantic bathymetric map on my bedroom wall growing up) I was probably unusual in knowing where the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were from a very young age.
I distinctly remember reading about the “last of the Andaman islanders” in National Geographic as a child and being fascinated by these mysterious ethnically “African” peoples who had lived in complete isolation from the rest of the world for (it is believed) tens of thousands of years right up until the British showed up and ruined everything in the 19th century. (The Nicobarese people, situated further to the south, are an Austroasiatic people who speak a language distantly related to Khmer and Vietnamese.)
When outsiders first showed up on the shores of the Andaman chain, the islands were home to a population of roughly 7,000, comprised of four different but presumably distantly related ethnic groups: the Great Andamanese and Jarawas of the Great Andaman archipelago; the now-extinct Jangil people of Rutland Island; the Onge of Little Andaman Island, and the now-notorious Sentinelese of North Sentinel Island. It took almost no time at all for the island’s British colonists to virtually wipe out most of the indigenous population by way of pneumonia, measles, and influenza, while alcohol and opium succeeded in ruining the lives of many of the survivors.
In 1789 the Bengal Presidency, which controlled the islands on behalf of the British Crown, established what was to be one of the empire’s most notorious penal colonies on Great Andaman Island (Cellular Jail), and an influx of prisoners from mainland India and Burma further marginalized the indigenous population. The Japanese briefly occupied the islands during the Second World War (placing it under the control of the pro-Axis Provisional Government of Free India headed by Subhas Chandra Bose) before they were returned to British control in 1945.
While the Sentinelese islanders were fortunate enough to be spared most of this colonial onslaught, as a result of their isolation, even they did not escape it completely unscathed — which explains their perpetual hostility to outsiders. In 1880, an expedition led by British administrator Maurice Vidal Portman landed on North Sentinel Island and proceeded to capture six Sentinelese, an elderly couple and four children. After sequestering them to the island chain’s capital, Port Blair, the officer in charge of overseeing the group noted that they “sickened rapidly, and the old man and his wife died, so the four children were sent back to their home with quantities of presents.”
It would appear the Sentinelese have never forgotten this episode. For over a century now, visitors to the island have been greeted with bows and arrows. The only modern instance of outsiders successfully making contact with the Sentinelese has been Indian anthropologist Triloknath Pandit, who made contact with the islanders (very carefully) in 1991. Other than that, all outsiders — deliberate and accidental ones alike — have been attacked, and most have been killed.
Need a further reason to support the islanders’ quest for continued isolation? The plight of the related Jarawa people of the South and Middle Andaman Islands present a further cautionary tale. Like the Sentinelese, the Jarawa long repulsed outsiders but eventually reached out to the outside world in 1997. While the Jarawa experience of contact with the outside world has been more benign than that of the Great Andamanese and others, Survival International (an organization dedicated to safeguarding the world’s remaining uncontacted peoples) describe the resultant boom in “tribal tourism” in the region as a sort of “human zoo,” in which visitors can been seen throwing food to the natives — and more alarmingly offering gifts of alcohol and tobacco. The Andaman Trunk Road highway now bisects their rainforest territory, wreaking serious damage to their traditional hunting practices. Reports of poaching and sexual exploitation of Jarawa women are becoming commonplace.
Meanwhile, the Great Andamanese people, once the island chain’s largest ethnic group, now number no more than 50 and are more or less assimilated into Indian society and their languages are now extinct. Few more than 100 or so Onge have survived to the present day, with alcoholism and other ailments rife among survivors.
In light of the all around net-negative effect that outside contact has wrought on the Andamanese, would any right-minded Sentinelese warrior not fire on a visitor like John Allen Chau? Violently xenophobic they may be, but they’re most definitely not stupid.
What Would Picard Do?
As of 2013 there were approximately 100 uncontacted peoples left in the world, mostly in the Amazonian rainforest and in the highlands of New Guinea. Other groups have only been contacted by outsiders in recent history. Australia’s last uncontacted tribe, the Pintupi of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia, were “discovered” in 1984. North America still had uncontacted indigenous people until 1924, when the Lacondón people of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, joined the modern world.
The vast forested hinterlands of Brazil and Papua New Guinea account for the lion’s share of the world’s surviving uncontacted tribes, each with more than 40 known groups. Like India, both these countries maintain a Prime Directive-esque policy towards these tribes. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation (FUNAI) in particular has done an admirable job protecting that country’s isolated Amazonian tribes, often at great personal risk to its own people when confronted with armed illegal loggers, poachers, and other trespassers. It remains to be seen how the organization, and the people it protects, will fare under new far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro who, among other things, promises to loosen the country’s environmental laws.
None of this is intended as a romanticization of the world’s remaining isolated hunter-gatherer societies. As Steven Pinker and many others have pointed out, rates of violent death among such societies far exceed those in the developed world, even when factoring in the death tolls of both of the 20th century’s world wars. While gory cinematic representations of “cannibal” tribes (most notoriously in Ruggero Deodado’s 1980 splatter film Cannibal Holocaust) do these societies very little credit, it cannot be denied that chilling levels of violence persist in societies like Yanomami, who straddle the forested border zone between Brazil and Venezuela and on whom the aforementioned film is supposedly based. Innocent children of Eden these are not.
With that said, is there any truth to the notion of the North Sentinelese being a bunch of bloodthirsty cannibals, or, in John Allen Chau’s worldview, the last domain of Satan on earth? While very little is known about these people as a result of their shoot-on-sight national defence policy, it would appear not. For one thing, while a good number of isolated tribes have been known to engage in ritual cannibalism (including the Yanomami), the Sentinelese have not once been witnessed cannibalizing any of the trespassers they’ve killed over the years. In any case, a tribe as isolated as the Sentinelese with a population of no more than a few hundred individuals would not last long if they ate one another. Otherwise, what has been witnessed from afar of the Sentinelese would suggest that they are a normally peaceful people who subsist on coconuts, terrestrial animals, and shellfish. Peaceful, that is, until disturbed.
John Allen Chau’s attempt at evangelizing to the North Sentinelese was worse than a foolish act. It was a crime against humanity for which, had he survived, he should have been arrested and jailed. Survival International claims that Chau could easily have infected the tribe with pathogens to which they have no immunity, and that such infection could easily “wipe out the entire tribe.” Helping those in need indeed.
I too stand, not even that reluctantly, with the North Sentinelese. And Chau’s family, while in no way deserving of such tragedy, have no business “forgiving those reportedly responsible for his death.” They should be apologizing to the Sentinelese on behalf of their idiot son. And to the late Gene Roddenberry, who must be rolling over in his grave. In case the election of Donald Trump as leader of the free world wasn’t evidence enough that humankind isn’t ready to be unleashed into the galaxy, the sad saga of John Allen Chau is more than adequate proof.
Shame on you, John Allen Chau. Shame on us all.
For more on the subject of North Sentinel Island, check out my semi-satirical listicle entitled “30 Ways The North Sentinelese Are Better Than Us”.