The man responsible for the uncontacted Sentinelese tribe's hostility to outsiders. 

The death of 26-year-old American missionary John Allen Chau, killed by bow and arrow by one of the world’s last isolated tribes, has captured the world’s interest.

It’s also put a spotlight on the uncontacted Sentinelese tribe who live on the remote North Sentinel Island in India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

While described as ‘uncontacted’, this is not strictly true.

The Sentinelese have been contacted multiple times in history, and their dealings with British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman provides a harrowing look at why they remain hostile to outsiders.

Portman was made Officer in Charge of the Andamanese in 1879 and for more than 20 years he documented the pacification of tribes in the area. Typically – this was, of course, the time of the British empire – Portman set out to “civilise” the tribes, even if this meant using force.

This desire quickly spiralled into disturbing kidnappings, death, disease and very creepy photographs.

In his book A History of our Relations with the Andamanese, Portman wrote about a trip with Europeans and a group of convicts to North Sentinel Island in 1880.

After days of searching, Portman’s men captured six islanders – an elderly man and woman and four children. The kidnapped group were taken to Port Blair, the capital of South Andaman Island “in the interest of science”.

“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,” he wrote in his book.

Such isolated tribes have no immunity to modern diseases, meaning even something as minor to us as a cold could kill them.

It is also not clear how many Sentinelese fell ill as a result of this ‘science’, but it’s likely the children would have passed on what they were exposed to upon their return to the island.

And the story gets even weirder according to an extremely detailed Twitter thread by RespectableLaw, an anonymous but widely followed account, which suggested Portman was “erotically obsessed” with the Andamanese.


He also had a passion for photography, which he indulged by kidnapping members of various tribes and posing them like classical Greek sculptures, and catalogued their bodies with “an obsessive focus on genitals”.

As Survival International writes, it is “mere conjecture” to say Portman is the reason the Sentinelese tribe is so hostile, but it would make sense.

“Might this experience may account for the Sentinelese’s continued hostility and rejection of outsiders?”

Indian authorities made occasional trips to North Sentinel during the 1970s-90s to give gifts and attempt to befriend the Sentinelese.

In 1996 the missions stopped as officials became concerned with the potential devastating impact sustained contact could have on the tribe.

The Sentinelese’s fierce defence of their island and resistance to the outside world was made extremely clear by photographs of a tribe member firing arrows at a helicopter that was overhead to check on the tribe following the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.

We have FIVE $100 gift vouchers up for grabs. Take our survey now for your chance to win.

Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. You click, we help. Shooting star illustration.

Mamamia is funding 100 girls in school, every day.

So just by spending time with Mamamia, you’re helping educate girls, which is the best tool to lift them out of poverty.

Thanks for helping!

Light blue and pink butterfly illustration. Girl with pigtails sitting at desk writing in notebook. Row of four books.
Three hands holding books
00:00 / ???