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February 2024 Issue [Easy Chair]

The Palm at the End of the Mind


A French activist I know, a person with a flair for assailing the idiocies of modern life, someone who pines, though not romantically, for a trapdoor to a better world, was telling me about a hunter-gatherer tribe that has lived in isolation, some believe, for sixty-thousand years. Called the Sentinelese, they are the lone occupants of North Sentinel Island, in the Andaman archipelago of the Bay of Bengal. For all recorded history they have repelled visitors. Once, to make researchers go away, scores of them, the French activist told me, held an orgy on the sand as anthropologists watched from their boat. “Sex on the beach,” I remembered as the activist described this scene, is also a drink, though I hadn’t thought of it in decades: vodka, cranberry and orange juice, and peach schnapps, that schnapps no doubt the “sex.”

The idea of a rebellion orgy gave me new respect for this silly cocktail, popular in the Eighties, amid a nostalgia for the tropics, in the wake of the decolonization of much of the globe. I tried it in baby sips as a college freshman, accustomed as I was to beer and just weaned off Gilligan’s Island, whose characters are marooned somewhere in the Pacific. Mary Ann the country girl bakes coconut pies, the coconut serving as the basic unit of sustenance, the building block of the castaways’ jerry-rigged technologies, Mary Ann’s pie pan a plot hole never addressed. Hostile tribes pass through, with bone earrings and grass skirts, generating sitcom predicament. That such a show was received as funny and inoffensive is hard to imagine now, but in my childhood its reruns were continuous. An era when colonial-inspired khaki was popular, with an excess of pockets and netting for a canteen or crossbow; tees with block print denoting the most exotic outpost, sold by companies like Acapulco Joe and Banana Republic Travel and Safari. They were getting us ready for something truly wild: Trader Joe’s, where cashiers in Hawaiian shirts would sell frozen or freeze-dried products shipped in, supposedly, from a distant and mind-blowing ethnic plenty.

Another tactic, the French activist recounted, to communicate that outsiders are not welcome: tribespeople turn around and squat as if to defecate. They aim arrows at anyone who gets too close. When a film crew for National Geographic attempted to make contact, the Sentinelese shot arrows toward their boat, hitting the director in the thigh. The tribesman who had shot that arrow jumped for joy upon hitting his mark. “Every tribesperson who shoots an arrow that kills an outsider,” my French friend said to me, “is the most innocent person on earth.

Riveted by the idea that a people now, still, could live in a different world inside this one, I read up on the Sentinelese, and set up a Google Alert. This was in early summer 2018. My alert was not for learning about the tribe, but for tracking how often chatter of them broke to the surface of the internet. I wanted to keep tabs on whether others were keeping tabs. But then I forgot about my alert, because no pings came through.

I located the documentary whose director took an arrow to the thigh, Man in Search of Man, made in 1974. Indian anthropologists, the film crew, and armed policemen attempt to make friendly contact from a dinghy that bobs some distance from the shore. One of the passengers holds up above his head two coconuts in his two hands, like he’s selling ice cream at a ball game. Sentinelese amass at the waterline with arrows and spears. They are slender and fierce silhouettes along the shore, aiming their spears at the crew, whose armed police have placed gifts on a section of empty beach and retreated. The crew’s offering includes coconuts, dolls, and a live pig. The Sentinelese, known to hunt and eat wild boar, instantly kill the gifted pig and bury it right there on the beach, like something foul that must be neutralized and contained. Take your pig and shove it. This is what we think of you and your pig. They do collect the coconuts.

In 1991, the Indian anthropologist T. N. Pandit offered coconuts while standing in shallow water, floating them toward tribespeople who waded out to receive them. Smiles were exchanged. The contact seemed to Pandit triumphant, until a young man scowled, presented an iron-bladed knife, and made a circular motion over his own chest, letting the anthropologist know the man planned to cut out his heart. Pandit retreated. Determined to keep trying, he made a note to bring more coconuts next time.

North Sentinel Island is roughly twenty square miles, a hilly landscape featuring huge trees of tropical hardwood that create a parklike environment, their shade discouraging dense undergrowth. The island lies to the west of the rest of the Andaman archipelago. It has no natural harbors and is surrounded by an upraised coral reef. Rough surf crashes over the reef, which functions as a kind of security perimeter, threatening to destroy boats. There are three small openings in the coral that can be breached by a smaller boat in the mild season, December to April. The Sentinelese use dugouts that they maneuver only in the shallows, using long poles. The natural features of the island have likely contributed to their isolated status as people who don’t venture beyond their reef and who welcome no one. They are technically “uncontacted,” a term that isn’t meant to literally indicate that people have had no contact with outsiders, but instead that they have actively and consistently resisted contact with outsiders.

In a report of hostility from 1867, seamen on a merchant vessel that ran aground on the reef took shelter on the beach, only to be ambushed by fifty or so “wild men.” They managed to flee. A Hindu convict from a penal colony in Port Blair, a British outpost on South Andaman Island, floated to North Sentinel Island on a makeshift raft and was later found pierced with arrows, his throat slit. At the time, the greater Andamans were overseen by a British naval officer, M. V. Portman, a deep riddle of a human who established in Port Blair a disturbing fiefdom of cult rules, opium, and exploitative photography of tribal subjects, people he punished with beatings and took regularly to his bed. Portman appears to have been something like a combination of Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz and the Nobel recipient D. Carleton Gajdusek, who informally adopted fifty-six children from Micronesia and Papua New Guinea and was convicted of child molestation.

Portman, an aristocrat sent away from England under the cloud of some scandal never revealed, was made superintendent in Port Blair at age nineteen and remained there twenty years, during which he wrote a detailed two-volume history of the Andamanese. The volumes include reports by other colonial officers about the Andaman tribes, but with Portman’s own cunty editorializing in brackets, such as “No—M.V.P.” And “Quite incorrect—M.V.P.” In the second volume, Portman speculates that North Sentinel Island is admirably suited for conversion to a coconut plantation, but first its aborigines must be “tamed.” They might be “taught to smoke,” he writes, “thus establishing a craving which intercourse with us can alone satisfy.” As Portman describes, other Andaman tribes warn him of the hostile nature of the Sentinelese, making bow-twanging noises to convey the danger. It’s possible the tribe’s hostility was inflamed by Portman himself, who took by force six Sentinelese from their island, two elderly adults and four children. After the elders fell sick and died, he returned the children to the island, likely sick themselves. Stories get passed down. Perhaps word spread, became a belief system that outsiders augur doom.

In 1981, monsoon conditions caused a Panamanian freighter to hit the reef near the island. Its crew, expecting a rescue party, spotted people on the beach, only to realize they were carrying spears. The captain made a distress call asking for an airdrop of guns. The crew held off the Sentinelese with a flare gun and were eventually evacuated by helicopter, leaving the freighter behind. Ten years later, the Indian government declared a three-mile “exclusion zone” around the island. This seems right, but it’s strange to consider that the government of a country the Sentinelese people are not aware of is making decisions about their well-being, without knowing anything of their nature. The exclusion zone protects them, but it also puts them in a sort of snow globe or petting zoo. It’s illegal to go there, but this doesn’t prevent visitors from petting them with their minds. Like the activist was doing, in declaring them innocent. Like I was doing, with my Google Alert.

In 2006, two fishermen, believed to be drunk on palm wine, accidentally floated toward the island and were killed by tribesmen. The relatives of one of the men wanted the Indian police to press charges against the Sentinelese. Given that they live in a different reality, they would seem to be ontologically unpunishable. The father of the other fisherman understood this, said that his son had violated the law, was illegally poaching mud crabs, and “got his own justice. . . . What more is there to say?”

There is speculation that the tribe sources metal from the ships that have run aground and from flotsam that surfaces on their beaches. In internet photos, the tribespeople’s blades shine. In these same photos, their genitals have been blurred, interdicted by Photoshop. The projection of such bodily shame reminds me of Karana from the children’s book Island of the Blue Dolphins, based on the true story of a woman who lived alone on San Nicolas, the most remote of the Channel Islands, for eighteen years, before American explorers came upon her stripping blubber and wearing a skirt of cormorant feathers. The captain suggested she go with them to Santa Barbara, and she agreed. In Scott O’Dell’s version, the explorers give her, for the journey, a blue dress sewn of men’s trousers. She is sad not to wear her feather skirt but puts on the ugly dress. It is scratchy and hot and goes from her neck to her ankles. The real Karana’s name isn’t known. Her Spanish name was Juana Maria. She lived with the captain and his family for seven weeks before she fell ill and died. The feather skirt was supposedly sent to the Vatican by the priest who had baptized her. It is lost, but still I see it clearly, black and iridescent green, a fetish object in a vitrine.

The historian Adam Goodheart attempted to go to North Sentinel Island in 1998, an experience he described in an American Scholar article he has now expanded into a fascinating and excellent book, The Last Island, built upon decades of scholarship and interviews, such as his ongoing dialogue with T. N. Pandit and his discovery of M. V. Portman’s personal diary. In both the article and the book, Goodheart recounts a scene as he touches a Sentinelese bow. The bow has been shown to him by one of the ship-breakers sent to salvage scrap from the Panamanian freighter, who found it floating in the water. “When I ran my fingertips along the concave side,” Goodheart writes, “they brushed against something rough: several tiny rows of zigzag lines incised into the wood.” He says spontaneously to the man who has shown him the bow, “You know, if you ever wanted to sell this, I would give you, I don’t know, six thousand rupees.” It is a large sum for the scrap dealer, who looks at him steadily, and says no.

To the French activist who spoke of innocence, this bow, an arrow fitted to it, would represent pure orthogonal virtue, a means of preserving life by killing. But the bow is stranger, and what Goodheart describes, as he touches the lines incised in the wood, is an electric moment: he is overcome by the sense he’s touching the seam between two worlds, suddenly able to feel the texture of something he is not meant to apprehend. After the ship-breaker says no, he feels ashamed for having wanted to take possession of the bow.

Goodheart’s bibliography reveals, as an afterthought, the stunning revelation that several photographs by Portman, precisely those that another researcher had reproduced in his own book, are now missing from an archive in Kolkata, having been “neatly sliced” from the album pages. If Portman, who made notes about his subjects such as “Breath sweet. Not very lustful. Penis unusually large,” was a plunderer, to plunder his record would seem yet more theft from the original victims.

Pandit told Goodheart that his strongest memory of the Sentinelese, from a trip in which he had managed to step foot on the island and wander to an empty camp, was of “the way the sunlight fell on the huts as he first emerged into the clearing from the shade of the jungle, filtering down onto roofs of leafy branches.” This is a sense memory not unlike touching marks incised in wood: the promise of a different world. “The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought, rises / In the bronze decor,” the Wallace Stevens poem “Of Mere Being” begins. A gold-feathered bird sings “a foreign song.” The poem is mysterious, but to me it conjures a border between two realities, a lonely glimpse of a world’s edge, and of what lies beyond, seductive and impossible, a different realm that cannot be known. It is about the texture of those incisions in wood. That light on leafy branches.

My Google Alert on the Sentinelese produced nothing relevant the entire summer of 2018, Google’s ocean smooth of their mention. I took this silence as an indication that they were managing to slip the reins of surveillance. The alert suddenly exploded to life that November, when John Allen Chau, a young American evangelical, attempted to visit the island. Chau had trained in Kansas City with a missionary group called All Nations, their actors role-playing tribal encounters—rushing out with mock weapons as a coach monitored Chau’s reactions. How could these missionaries not know: there is no foreign song in a pretend foreign song. As an All Nations coach says in The Mission, a 2023 documentary about Chau, “It’s important to me that we provide them the opportunity to say yes or no to Jesus.” Chau made two attempts with the Sentinelese. But the least contacted and the most innocent people in the world were not going to hold up cards announcing yes or no. They simply killed John Chau with a hail of arrows.

Chau had brought with him a waterproof bible, a “contact kit,” and gifts, including a soccer ball. I picture the tribe inspecting the ball, and then cutting it open as they had the coconuts that outsiders had been gifting them for decades, the single offering they seem always to have liked. In this fantasy, upon hacking open the soccer ball, a not-coconut, they toss its two halves into their version of the trash. The ball is empty inside: a dud!

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