North Sentinel Island & The Primrose Ship - India's Isolated Tribe

Mysterious Island

Welcome to the Bay of Bengal, the largest bay in the world to be precise. Within the Bay lays North Sentinel Island, home to the Sentinelese, who have resided in isolation for around 60,000 years! With over 28 square miles nestled among the Andaman Islands, southwest of Myanmar in the Bay of Bengal, this island falls under India’s governance. They have banned all travel to the island because it's too dangerous. As a result, we know very little about this place and its Sentinelese inhabitants, as this tribe has resisted attempts by authorities, and anthropologists, to study their culture and integrate them into the modern world.

North Sentinel Island is well suited to support an isolated tribe like the Sentinelese. It's too small to interest settlers or colonial powers in past history, especially when there were bigger and better islands within a few hours' sailing time. North Sentinel has no natural harbors, so there's no ideal spot for a ship to take shelter from in a storm, and furthermore, the island is surrounded by a ring of submerged coral reefs that prevent large ships from approaching. The Sentinelese are assumed to be direct descendants of the first humans who emerged from Africa. They have lived on the tiny island for almost 60,000 years. Crazy! This does not mean, however, that they live just as they did 60,000 years ago. They don't live in the ‘Stone Age’, they do in fact make tools and weapons from metal, which they recover from ships wrecked on the island’s reefs. If they are like the other Andamanese, they eat monitor lizards, berries, pigs and seafood that they catch in the surrounding reefs.

Several ships have been attacked by Sentinelese people, including a ship called the Nineveh, which was stranded near the island in 1868, and the cargo ship Primrose, whose crew members narrowly escaped after being stranded in 1981. In the year 1879 for example, when the British Empire was attempting to invade the island, they kidnapped elderly members of the tribe and children. The elderly died almost immediately, which spawned the legend that the North Sentinelese couldn't survive outside their home island. The children that were kidnapped were eventually returned to the island, and the British invasion was unsuccessful.

The first peaceful contact with the Sentinelese was made by Triloknath Pandit, a director of the Anthropological Survey of India, and his colleagues on January 4th, 1991. Mr. Pandit, an Indian anthropologist, made several visits to the island to study the people, and even left gifts for the tribe, including a live pig. The tribes people slaughtered the animal, refusing Pandit’s peace offering and rejecting his presence on their land. Wouldn't really call that peaceful but lets go with it. There is now a three-mile exclusion zone was implemented to protect both the outsiders and the tribes people from each other.


One late August night in 1981, a cargo ship Primrose ran aground on a coastal reef near North Sentinel. As the ship wasn’t in an immediate danger of sinking, the Captain called in for assistance and left it at that. It is unknown whether the following morning Captain suspected which island was in sight just a few hundred yards away, or whether the extremely choppy waters made any attempt to reach the sandy beaches through shallow jagged coral reef too dangerous. Whatever the case may be, he gave the order for the crew to remain on board.

Rescuing a freighter crew is normally not something that happens quickly, so the crew settled in. A few days came and went by without any incident. Then, one day, a crew member was overjoyed when a group of men emerged from the island’s thick forest – the rescue party was finally here.

As the group made their way towards the freighter, joy quickly turned to horror because it became evident this was anything but a rescue in progress. It was a group of buck-naked indigenous men, armed with wooden spears, bows and arrows, and they looked like they meant business. Numbers said to be around 50 by the accounts. Panic set in on the crew, and the captain radioed for help again, this time clearly in distress.

Lucky for the crew, the choppy waters that ran the ship aground made it near impossible for the islanders to make it on board the ship. Having never developed oars, the islanders propelled their rudimentary boats by pushing against the sea floor with long sticks. That made it difficult for them to remain steady in the depths which, for the time being, sheltered the Primrose crew. The standoff went on for days until the weather permitted a helicopter to airlift the crew.

Below Is Captain Robert Fore's Account Of The Rescue Of The Primrose

Read Captain Robert Fore's account of the rescue mission of the Primrose rescue mission. Thanks to "Captain Robert Fore & Dennis".

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