Recently the news media reported the death of a young Christian evangelical who was killed with bows and arrows by members of a primitive and isolated tribe that lives on an island in the Andaman chain in the eastern Indian Ocean. Many in the media expressed sadness for the young man’s demise but considered that compared to interfering in the lives of the Sentinelese people, the greater social good was allowing them — numbering somewhere between 40 and 500 by best estimates — to exist in blissful ignorance and be independent from the temptations and troubles that come with modern civilization.
The government of India administers the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, though they are geographically much closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland. This is a legacy of the British Empire’s passing of control over the islands to the newly independent government of India in 1947.
Protected Primitives and a Murdered Missionary
Since the 1950s, there have been strict regulations against any outside visitors to North Sentinel Island. Other indigenous groups in the island chain have a history of being misruled and physically abused and experiencing cultural decline due to foreign control. The islands once housed a notorious convict prison in the 19th century that was made famous in Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of the Four. To protect the North Sentinelese from a similar cultural and social fate, the Indian government passed legislation making it illegal to land on the island and make contact with the natives.
Little, it seems, is known about the North Sentinelese, including their language, religious beliefs, or social structures. It is not even known how many of them reside on the island, other than that estimate of between 40 and 500. Aerial photos that have appeared in the press merely show them on the shore, nearly or totally naked, waving bows and arrows at the plane high above them.
In the middle of November 2018, 26-year-old John Allen Chau clandestinely paid some boatman to transport him to North Sentinel Island. A devout Christian, Mr. Chau was determined to land on the island and, with Bible in hand, free the natives from the clutches of Satan. In a diary that he kept aboard the boat that brought him to the island, he recounted that twice he attempted contact and that both times he was shot at with arrows by the tribesmen, was wounded slightly, and returned to the vessel offshore. It was on his third attempt that Mr. Chau was killed, with the crew on the boat seeing the natives drag his lifeless body to the shore and bury him in the sand. From news accounts, the Indian government is still trying to find a way to recover his remains without direct contact with the North Sentinelese.
Imperialist Zeal and Plundered Peoples
Much of the editorializing about the episode and Mr. Chau’s tragic fate has centered on the importance of protecting the few remaining isolated tribes in places like the Andaman Islands, or New Guinea, or the deep rainforests of Brazil from the ravages of interaction with those living in modern Western civilization.
It is certainly the case that over the last several centuries, Western explorers, colonists, and imperialist conquerors gave too little thought to the wider and longer-term impact of their interactions with the indigenous native groups with whom they made contact. Often portraying themselves as the heralds of civilization, in fact brutality, murder, and enslavement often resulted came with the interactions.
The 19th-century British laissez-faire liberal Herbert Spencer once summarized British imperial policy, often rationalized under the cloak of bringing civilization to less developed parts of the world. “The policy is simple and uniform,” Spencer said: “bibles first, and then bombshells.”
How different the world might have been if the extension of global commerce and the intermingling of world cultures had been able to occur without the accompanying impact of imperialist nationalism. As the French liberal economist Francis Delaisi expressed it in his 1925 book Political Myths and Economic Realities:
Let us suppose that the industrial revolution … reached its full development at a period when nations were still young and indifferent to matters economic, and still professing the principle of laissez-faire. In that case, every industrial and commercial concern would have gone in search of raw materials and of markets at its own risk.
If two of them had found themselves competing over a metal deposit or over a market, whatever might have been its nationality, victory would have gone to the better equipped of the two, to the one more able to buy and sell at the best price. Only individual loss, and that generally of a kind that could be repaired, would have resulted. The exploitation of the globe would have proceeded in an orderly and peaceful way.
Actually, however, the national myth was already firmly rooted in the minds of the people when industry [in the West] had reached the stage of seeking expansion abroad.… Everybody had become accustomed to the idea that it is the duty of the State to protect private industry no less than the integrity of the national soil.
When some of the industries began to extend beyond the national frontiers, it was agreed that the flag should follow trade. Thus, when a national industry found itself unable to establish or maintain itself on a foreign market, it called the power of the State to its aid as a matter of course. But foreign rivals acted upon the same principle, and competition between private firms degenerated into State conflicts.
Now, as a number of economic historians in later years highlighted, very often it was commerce that followed the flag, as political motives for conquest, glory, and adventurism guided the imperialist impulse. Historian Eugene Staley detailed in War and the Private Investor (1935) that when looking over the 19th and early 20th centuries, “despite widespread beliefs and convincing theories to the contrary, private foreign investments are found much more frequently as tools of diplomacy than as instigators of diplomatic action in those cases of international friction over foreign investments.” Or as American historian Charles Beard summarized it in 1940, “Loyalty to the facts of historical record must ascribe the idea of imperialist expansion mainly to naval officers and politicians rather than to businessmen.”
But be that as it may, it is certainly the case the in the long history of colonial and imperialist expansion over the centuries, conquerors, whether they were Europeans or Asians or the Incas and Aztecs in the Americas, often subjugated, enslaved, and killed the peoples they overran while destroying their cultures. It is one of the tragedies of the history of the human experience on this planet. (See my article The Inca Elite and the “Communism” of the Common People.)
The Image of the Simple and Noble Savage
I would like to suggest that there is another insight to be had from this news story. The Sentinelese people are a remnant reflecting what human life and social experience was like for all of mankind for thousands of years: small bands of interrelated families living the most bare and primitive existence.
Some commentators have referred to the Sentinelese people’s simple way of life as having none of the “negative” trappings of modern industrial society: no traffic jams, no punching a time clock at work, no worries about school violence, no concerns about meeting a mortgage payment or, as an employer, meeting the payroll for hired employees. Their actions do not cause air pollution with belching smoke stacks, they don’t worry about loneliness (because extended family is always around), and they lack the antisocial possessiveness of private property.
Here is presented the idyllic utopia of humans in harmony with nature and happy with living on the simple things close to the earth. In some people’s minds, the Sentinelese may represent a type of caricature of the noble savage before being chained to the institutions and ways of life of modern society — before a loss of innocence and a paradise on earth.
The Life of the Primitive Is Far From Idyllic
But before falling into nostalgia for an unrecoverable human past that seems so blissful and beautiful, let us remember some of the things that primitive life does not have. Suppose a Sentinelese tribe member, say a young boy or girl, comes down with appendicitis. The surgical knowledge and the anesthetics are not present to save the person’s life through what in modern society is considered a simple and almost always non-life-threatening operation if performed in time. No doubt some in the tribe come down with forms of cancer, but there are no drugs for the pain or chemotherapy to try to bring the illness into remission.
For kidney failure, there is no dialysis or ability to perform a kidney transplant. If a bad injury occurs, antibiotics are not available to prevent infection or to stop the wound from turning gangrenous. If someone experiences an ordinary headache or upset stomach, there is no aspirin to take or antacids to chew.
The variety and types of food are determined by and restricted to the narrow confines of what resources the territory the Sentinelese live on can provide. Their diet is, no doubt, limited to whatever fish they can catch, the fruits and berries that grow on the island, and whatever wildlife may be hunted for meat.
Heat is limited to the sun above and the fire they may be able to start with simple tools. Materials for building shelter or making clothes are based on the luck of geography in a space that is said to be about the size of Manhattan Island.
By all accounts, they have no written language. Intergenerational knowledge and experience is limited to what people have verbally learned from the one or two generations before them, which has been successfully memorized to pass on to the next generation. Abstract thought and conceptualization are, no doubt, limited in development. No higher math or electron microscopes or high-speed particle accelerators here.
Their minds are most likely filled with superstitions about gods who control their world, determine their fate, and need worship and sacrifices so no harm is brought down on them. No Age of Reason has touched them. This includes, clearly, an attitude that “the stranger” is a threat and an enemy, someone to be driven off or killed, as poor Mr. Chau unfortunately experienced firsthand.
Quaint Primitives Only as Exceptions to the Social Rule
It is quaint and cute to think of a handful of different peoples still living their primitive and protected ways in faraway and isolated corners of the planet similar to zoos or wildlife game reserves that one may never visit but which sound so wonderful and caring because some species would have died out if not for their “hothouse” preservation by “enlightened” people.
But it only seems this way because these are exceptions to the rule of how a growing number of people actually live today around the world. The Sentinelese are a reminder of what we as a species on this planet have successfully transcended and left behind. If we had not, that is how all of us — or I should say the small fraction of us who would be alive, since such a primitive way of life cannot sustain the current size of the world’s population — would be living our narrow, restricted, and short lives.
Take the blissful communalism of Sentinelese society that many wax eloquent about, the lack of interaction with others through trade that others wish they could return to, and the innocence of a non-materialistic world that a good number of Western intellectuals admire. All these things kept humanity trapped in that primitive life for thousands of years as nothing more than roving hunters, gatherers, and conquering tribes. There is nothing cute or quaint about that way of living when it is the one in which all exist.
Trade, Property, and Rule of Law Ended Primitive Life
It took a long time for a portion of humanity to escape from this trap, to evolve and reflect upon and institutionalize the forms of human existence that could lift humankind out of that primitive experience. An important step in this process was, no doubt, when tribes began the process of trade. Treating strangers as potential partners rather than as enemies was certainly crucial in this process.
No less important would have been the emergence of forms of individual property rights and a weakening of obligatory sharing of any gains and rewards from a person’s industry and commercial dealings with members of the extended family. Here would have been the beginning of an incentive and opportunity for savings, investment, and capital formation.
Escaping from the tyranny of superstition and the intimidating power and authority of witch doctors and the formal restraints of chieftains and kings was equally essential to slowly moving toward notions of rule of law and individual human liberty.
In saying these sweeping things, it is of course the case that they happened in different ways, at different times, and to different degrees over the last centuries, centuries during which, starting in the West, hundreds of millions, and now billions, of people have been lifted up from the level of existence of the Sentinelese.
In other words, it has been elements of a philosophy of individual freedom, private property, freedom of trade, and rule of law that have freed humanity from the life lived on North Sentinel Island.
Primitive Life Is Not as Attractive If Seen Among Us
The Sentinelese lifestyle seems exotic and appealing only because it’s so far away. Brought closer to our own societies, it becomes less attractive. Imagine that some people decided to form a similar community in, say, Idaho. They retreat to an isolated part of that state. They choose to have no contact with strangers and outsiders, and would threaten and even shoot with bows and arrows anyone that came to their shared land. They give up having a written language, refuse any use of modern medicines or technologies, do not educate their children in a manner similar to what either public or private schools do, and believe in and practice some esoteric version of Christianity or are, instead, Satan worshipers. They practice “traditional” gender roles and marry off their children not long after puberty. Plus, they preach and insist that this is how all of humanity should live and was meant to live.
Most people would consider this not cute or quaint but a throwback to a way of living that was neither desirable nor reasonable. Some social critics might approach the entire matter from a classical liberal perspective and argue they should not be interfered with as long as they remain non-violent in their interactions with any neighbors and do not violate the property rights of others.
But for most people around the world, if offered the chance to live like the Sentinelese or to live in a “modern” society in which greater personal autonomy and respect can be had and in which market-based opportunities offer avenues for material betterment for themselves and their families, history and contemporary experience show that the demonstrated preference is to not return to or remain in the status of the primitive.
The Sentinelese are an isolated example of a disappearing form of human society, not because of political conquest and economic plundering, though certainly in human history there have been enough instances of both, but because men and women have found ways to escape from that way of life and find prosperity and liberty in a social environment based on communication, interaction, commerce, and cross-cultural discovery, which are far more desirable and worth working to have.
So one moral lesson from Mr. Chau’s misfortune is that the Sentinelese live a way of life that is dying out and artificially preserved because it is a way of living that humankind has chosen to leave behind.