Lessons from North Sentinel Island

The Sentinelese are in the headlines again. As per the norm though, when a prefer-to-mind-their-own-business indigenous tribe is making headlines, the news is rarely positive – be it for the native people in question or their encroachers.

This time, in a remarkably naive example of proselyte adventurism, a young American Christian missionary figured it was a good idea to breach the Indian naval cordon around North Sentinel in order to spread the word of Jesus.

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Predictably, and in keeping with the history of North Sentinel – where trespassers are usually greeted with lethal violence – John Allen Chau, 26 years old, was tragically murdered by the Sentinelese.

Also predictably, some of the media commentary surrounding the murder is almost as awful as the murder itself.

News organizations, for one, seem to be unsure of how to describe the Sentinelese.

Are they a “Stone Age tribe” or a “pre-Neolithic tribe“? The ABC has gone with “pre-Neolithic” (the “last” one, apparently) – an adjectival monicker that is both inaccurate and insulting.

Why? The reasons are obvious. If we agree that the currently-news-breaking Sentinelese are our contemporaries, then it follows that Chau’s killers are members of a modern-day tribe. A hold-out of hunter-gatherers in a weird, whacky world.

Second, using the prefix “pre-” assumes that cultural change is a teleological process – a unilinear progression, from “savage” to “civilized” (as opposed to a process of adaptation and mutation in response to the specifics of an environment, as Darwin intended evolution – both biological and cultural – to be understood).

Neither is there any indication that Sentinelese culture is anything like it was during the pre-Neolithic period. No ethnographic or archaeological studies have been conducted on North Sentinel (in my view, a good thing). There is simply no available data to tell us anything about the history of cultural change. Or lack thereof.

Thus, the Sentinelese are not a “pre-Neolithic” tribe in the same way that they are not a “savage” tribe.

So how do we then describe the Sentinelese? Are they “uncontacted”, as Sky News – following Survival International’s lead – describes them?

Well, no. Apart from Chau’s own sorry contact with the Sentinelese, the islanders have a long history of less-than-fortuitous contact with outsiders. Starting with British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman’s rape-and-kidnapping rampages during the Victorian period, the Sentinelese have rarely got along well with foreigners.

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A Sentinelese tribesman taking aim at an Indian Navy helicopter, during post-tsunami relief operations

So they’re not “pre-Neolithic” and they’re not “Stone Age” and they’re not “uncontacted”. So what are they? They are just a tribe of modern-day hunter-gatherers living in elective isolation.

In the commentary sphere, some awful person at The Spectator, in advocating for colonial settlement of North Sentinel (I thought we were past this stuff), has suggested it’s time we “civilized” the Sentinelese. Any other policy move – like, say, leaving them alone – would simply pander to “the eco-leftists and other luvvies”, apparently.

It’s an argument you’d be hard-pressed to come across these days (excluding fictional characters in The Poisonwood Bible or a Rudyard Kipling poetry recital), but there you go.

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MV Portman and captives

Even more surprising though, is the response from Pauline Hanson, notable non-friend to indigenous people. Rather than hoisting her sails behind The Spectator’s Kurtzian talking points, she’s taken to praising the Sentinelese for what she sees as their admirable “strict zero gross immigration policy”.

This brings us to the issue of what we can actually learn from this story and from the Sentinelese more generally, because as Jared Diamond and Wade Davis have argued, there is much we can learn from the simple, domestically-focussed modes of living common among hunter-gatherer peoples.

In some respects, Hanson is right about the Sentinelese’s right to isolation. The Sentinelese are vulnerable inhabitants of an island chain which for centuries was subject to the depredations of colonial immigration. They have a right to be left alone. Their palpable isolationism – which they enforce with bow and arrow – is justified when we take into account the longue durée of Andamanese colonial history.

Beyond the coral reef barriers of North Sentinel, the geostrategic maelstrom that is the Indian Ocean makes for a tumultuous neighbourhood – what with India and China competing for primacy and last year’s genocide of an indigenous minority in Myanmar. The Sentinelese are doing well to stay clear of developments in the outside world.

More yet, there is plenty we can learn from the Sentinelese about how to live and be in the world, as I opined for ABC News a few years ago.

A decade and a half of feckless interventionism in the Middle East, rather than improving the lot of those we avowed to help has, in many ways, prolonged and exacerbated the immiseration of local people.

Otherwhere, our patterns of consumption are leading us towards ecological collapse – in contrast to the Sentinelese’s sustainable relationship with their surroundings. In short, we need to be less militarily adventurous and more content with living simply. Less homo geopoliticus, more homeostasis.

Unlike North Sentinel Island and a few pockets of the Amazon rainforest however, the rest of the geopolitical world which we inhabit, as the geographer Halford Mackinder predicted, has become a “closed system” – a highly-networked, deeply-enmeshed mess which can no longer be pried into its separate parts.

This is where the Brexiteers, the wall-building nativists and the Hanson One Nationalists get it wrong. Unlike the Sentinelese, it is too late for the rest of us to disengage completely from the world system. We are now living on the “World-Island”, whether we like it or not.

The ticket therefore, is to embrace a new kind of isolationism – an outlook that sees the world as it is, not as we want it to be. An isolationism that is one part domestically-focussed (so as not to create more Iraqs and Afghanistans), one part selfish (to proffer from the common market), but still one part humanitarian – in order that we can live up to the Enlightenment values we claim to profess.

Where policy-making is concerned, this means honouring a sustainable refugee intake, promoting peace building efforts on the world stage and, where mass atrocity events do occur (as they did in Myanmar last year) doing more to stand up for the most egregious human rights violations.

The humanitarian isolationist must still be willing to be coaxed, tortoise-like, from the shell, supporting the legitimate application of military force where it exists.

Such expeditions though, before launch, should be carefully scrutinized – perhaps with the Powell Doctrine in mind. Fewer “coalitions of the willing”, more “coalitions of the reticent but able”. Canada’s offer of aeromedical airlift capability to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali is a good recent case study of this principle in practice.

To our shame though, last year’s Rohingya genocide was an example of where military force in the form of a peace-enforcement mission could have been positive for the stability of the World-Island. Instead however, we remain mired in our own culture wars (see Hanson talking points for more)… as well as the ongoing, unwinnable forever wars.

Let’s change the way we do stuff.

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