The Shipwreck Started Iron Age On North Sentinel Island


Many know about the infamous North Sentinel Island and the outsiders killed trying to contact its inhospitable inhabitants. As I was viewing the island on Google Maps, I came across a shipwreck and subsequently learned about its role in commencing the North Sentinel Island Iron Age.

Quick Review

North Sentinel Island is one of the most mysterious places in the world. The island is inhabited by the indigenous Sentinelese people who are among the most isolated people in the world. The Sentinelese have been rejecting exposure to the outside world and give blatantly aggressive responses to any outsiders who attempt to contact them.

The North Sentinel Island is located in the district of Andaman and Nicobar Islands which is a part of India. Scientists assume that the population of the island is between 50 and 400. The Indian Government passed The Andaman and Nicobar Islands Protection of Aboriginal Tribes Act of 1956, which forbids anyone to approach the island any closer than 10km.

The Mysterious Shipwreck: The Primrose

On the night of 2nd August, 1981, a Hong Kong freighter called The Primrose ran aground, hitting a coral reef a couple of meters away from the northeast beach of the North Sentinel Island. A day after, a crewmember started noticing over 50 indegenous people with spears and arrows building boats on the beach.

When the Sentinelese tribesmen noticed the ship, they approached it with suspicion. The crew members were terrorized by the small, bare-naked natives who waved spears, bows and arrows as warnings. Captain Liu Chunglong radioed for urgent help, requesting weapons for the crew to protect themselves from a possible attack. However, due to heavy storm, the ship that was sent for help could not approach the island. Wild waves caused by the storm also prevented the Sentinelese to come near The Primrose with their canoes. As the crewmembers of The Primrose stated, the Sentinelese attempted several attacks with their bows and arrows. However, on account of their primitive bows which had a firing range of around 40 meters, the arrows fell into the water, unable to reach the ship.

As soon as the storm abated, a rescue helicopter came to the island and rescued the sailors.

The Remains of The Primrose Started The Iron Age

In 1991, the only friendly contact between the Sentinelese and the outside world happened. Archeologists who went to the island observed that the Sentinelese had used metals in their weapons and other artefacts. It is assumed that the Sentinelese people finally reached The Primrose and acquired metal from the remains of the vessel. This began the Iron Age in North Sentinel Island sometime between 1981 and 1991.

Another incident documenting the Sentinelese’s discovery of metal came after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. The Indian goverment sent a helicopter to the island to ensure that the Sentinelese were unharmed but, to their surprise, the Sentinelese responded by firing arrows with metal spearheads up at the helicopter. Naturally, these arrows caused considerable damage and the helicopter retreated promptly.

Encounters With The Outside World

North Sentinel Island first appears in history in 1771. John Ritchie, an East India Company officer, reported seeing lights on the island as he was passing by. He later identified them as lit fires.

The next encounter with the outside world happened in 1867. The Indian merchant ship Nineveh wrecked on the island due to a heavy storm. Its 106 crew members landed on the beach and the Sentinelese promptly attacked them. Luckily, they were rescued soon after.

In 1880, Maurice Vidal Portman, a British officer, set foot on the island in hopes of learning about the culture and customs of the Sentinelese. His expedition crew discovered some primitive abandoned villages. They captured six Sentinelese and took them to Port Blair (the capital city of modern day Andaman and Nicobar Island District of India). Two of the captives died rapidly due to disease, so Maurice Vidal Portman ordered the rest of them to be returned back to the island.

In 1883, Maurice Vidal Portman came to the island again after the eruption of Krakatoa volcano was thought to be gunfire coming from a stranded ship asking for help.

In 1974, a National Geographic film crew approached the island with boats in order to shoot some footages. The adventure ended before it began, with the director taking an arrow in his leg.

In 1991, a group of Indian anthropologists made the first and last peaceful contact with the Sentinelese. This group of anthropologists brought some gifts to offer to the Sentinelese who amicably accepted them. In 1996, the Indian government banned any further researchers from visiting the island.

In 2006, the Sentinelese killed two Indian fishermen who were fishing too close to the island beach. Later, the Sentinelese attacked the helicopter and the crew who came to recover the bodies of the fishermen. Indian authorities cancelled the operation and no one ever saw the bodies of the fishermen again.

Death Of The Young US Missionary

And finally, the event that brought global attention to the island was the murder of a young American missionary, John Allen Chau, who went to North Sentinel Island to convert the Sentinelese to Christianity. The Sentinelese killed him soon after he set foot on the island. However, given the special status of the island, nobody was prosecuted and any attempts to retrieve the body were disisted.

Argun Konuk
Argun Konuk

I am a 24 year old Turkish travel & history enthusiast, sharing my travel experiences both in Turkey and different parts of the world!

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