There's been a lot of talk about the missionary killed by the natives of North Sentinel Island. They're probably so aggressive because of this weirdo, Maurice Vidal Portman. So here's a big thread about this creep and some facts from my decade-long obsession with the island.
The Sentinelese are often described as “uncontacted,” but this not strictly true. They had a very significant contact in 1880 with Commander Portman.
Portman, the black sheep third son of some minor noble, was assigned by the English Royal Navy to administer and pacify the Andaman Islands, a job he pursued from 1880-1900 with the full measure of his own perversity.
Portman spent most of his time in the greater Andaman Islands, but in 1880, he landed on North Sentinel. The natives fled, and his party ventured inland to find a settlement which had been abandoned in haste.
But they located an elderly couple and a few children they were able to abduct. The couple quickly died, likely from ailments to which they had no immunity.
The children spent a few weeks with Portman doing god knows what, after which he returned them to the island. Portman returned on a couple occasions, but the Sentinelese hid from him each time.
The story related by the children was certainly passed down among the 100 or so inhabitants of the island, and even today, Portman’s fatal kidnapping is just beyond a human lifetime.
So when the Indian government attempted contact with anthropologists in the 1960s and 70s, the Sentinelese were understandably hostile to outsiders. The Indian government soon gave up.
In 1981, a cargo ship named The Primrose ran aground on the coral reef surrounding North Sentinel. The crew radioed for assistance and settled in for a long wait. But in the morning they saw 50 men with bows on the beach, building makeshift boats.
Imagine climbing on board that ship. A completely alien vessel filled with alien things. Imagine seeing simple machines for the first time. A hinge. A latch. A wheel. Things that would instantly make sense in a satisfying way. Others would be so incomprehensible to avoid notice.
I have never been able to find out what cargo was on The Primrose in all my years of reading. There was about 100 tons of some sort of consumer product on board, and I’m curious what it was. But even absent the cargo, think about all the things that must have been on that ship.
In the 1990s, when anthropologists returned to the island to make new attempts at contact, they were met with a different attitude. Not friendly, exactly. But they were willing to accept gifts. Many would wade into the water with smiles to accept coconuts.
Here is a video of one of those encounters:
After collecting gifts for a few minutes, a few members of the tribe would approach and make menacing gestures, signaling that it was time for the outsiders to leave. They have never lost their desire for isolation, despite the gifts.
The Sentinelese are lucky they were so effective at preventing contact. The neighboring Jawara weren’t so fortunate. The tribe went from 9,000 to a couple hundred from lack of genetic immunity and only forestalled annihilation due to aggressive segregation. Their future is bleak.
Yet on North Sentinel, they’ve maintained a small community for 60,000 years which is by all indications happy. There is no way to integrate them into the modern world without wiping out nearly every member of their tribe.
And their aggressiveness is not the mark of savagery. It just that their conception of outsiders is mostly framed by some foot-faced English pervert who murdered some old people and did weird things to their kids. So let’s do them a favor and leave them alone.
POST-SCRIPT: One of the great things about doing a thread like this that people show up with even more information. First, the son of the helicopter pilot from the Primrose recuse mission let me know its cargo was chicken feed:
And @dhanyarajendran dug up a memoir written by Portman, and it seems possible that Portman may not have kidnapped Sentinelese after all, as has been reported by every contemporary history of the island.
It’s somewhat ambiguous. On page 726, Portman describes landing on Sentinel, and in the following paragraphs discusses his time there, saying “One day, while walking through the jungle…”
He then describes the abduction as happening “a few days later while crossing the island” (p. 727), and the island he had been discussing was North Sentinel.
But he refers to his captives as Jawara, the name of the neighboring tribe. It’s hard to tell from context if he was using this term for Sentinelese as well. The writing is less than clear. However, my read is that he is talking about North Sentinel. But it's not definitive.
Finally, it seems that Portman in some small way acknowledged his transgressions against these people. Though I don’t feel bad for calling him a foot-faced English pervert.
POST-POST SCRIPT: Since this thread got a lot of attention and will likely be cited in the future, I want to let Portman's full account speak for itself, which I think shows without a doubt that he is guilty of freaking out the Sentinelese. Here's the first part, with my notes:
And here is the end. It's clear that not just one, but two abductions took place on Sentinel. And the Jawara of the mainland were not capable of visiting the island with their shallow water boats. So the captives were the same people who were there for at least a few 1000 years.
And finally, as if multiple kidnappings weren't enough, Portman ransacked through their collection of pig skulls and stole all the tusks, which on the islands is considered a dick move. So yeah, case closed everybody. That guy sucks.
You can follow @RespectableLaw.
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