Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Last Island of the Savages

The lumps of white coral shone round the dark mound like a chaplet of bleached skulls, and everything around was so quiet that when I stood still all sound and all movement in the world seemed to come to an end. It was a great peace, as if the earth had been one grave, and for a time I stood there thinking mostly of the living who, buried in remote places out of the knowledge of mankind, still are fated to share in its tragic or grotesque miseries. In its noble struggles too—who knows? The human heart is vast enough to contain all the world. It is valiant enough to bear the burden, but where is the courage that would cast it off?

                                                                            —Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

Shortly before midnight on August 2, 1981, a Panamanian-registered freighter called the Primrose, which was traveling in heavy seas between Bangladesh and Australia with a cargo of poultry feed, ran aground on a coral reef in the Bay of Bengal. As dawn broke the next morning, the captain was probably relieved to see dry land just a few hundred yards from the Primrose’s resting place: a low-lying island, several miles across, with a narrow beach of clean white sand giving way to dense jungle. If he consulted his charts, he realized that this was North Sentinel Island, a western outlier in the Andaman archipelago, which belongs to India and stretches in a ragged line between Burma and Sumatra. But the sea was too rough to lower the lifeboats, and so—since the ship seemed to be in no danger of sinking—the captain decided to keep his crew on board and wait for help to arrive.

A few days later, a young sailor on lookout duty in the Primrose’s Watchtower spotted several people coming down from the forest toward the beach and peering out at the stranded vessel. They must be a rescue party sent by the shipping company, he thought. Then he took a closer look at them. They were small men, well-built, frizzy-haired, and black. They were naked except for narrow belts that circled their waists. And they were holding spears, bows, and arrows, which they had begun waving in a manner that seemed not altogether friendly.

Not long after this, a wireless operator at the Regent Shipping Company’s offices in Hong Kong received an urgent distress call from the Primrose’s captain, asking for an immediate airdrop of firearms so that his Island crew could defend itself. “Wild men, estimate more than 50, carrying various homemade weapons are making two or three wooden boats,” the message read. “Worrying they will board us at sunset. All crew members’ lives not guaranteed.”

If the Primrose’s predicament seemed a thing less of the twentieth century than of the eighteenth—an episode, perhaps, from Captain Cook’s voyages in the Pacific—it is because the island where the ship lay grounded had somehow managed to slip through the net of history. Although its existence had been known for centuries, its inhabitants had had virtually no contact with the rest of humanity. Anthropologists referred to them as “Sentinelese,” but no one knew what they called themselves—indeed, no one even knew what language they spoke. And in any case, no one within living memory had gotten close enough to ask. Whether the natives’ prelapsarian state was one of savagery or innocence, no one knew either.

The same monsoon-whipped waves that had driven the Primrose onto the reef kept the tribesmen’s canoes at bay, and high winds blew their arrows off the mark. The crew kept up a twenty-four-hour guard with makeshift weapons—a flare gun, axes, some lengths of pipe—as news of the emergency slowly filtered to the outside world. (An Indian government spokesman denied reports in the Hong Kong press that the Sentinelese were “cannibals.” A Hong Kong government spokesman suggested that perhaps the Primrose’s radio officer had “gone bananas.”) After nearly a week, the Indian Navy dispatched a tugboat and a helicopter to rescue the besieged sailors.

The natives of North Sentinel must have watched the whirring aircraft as it hovered three times above the great steel hulk, lowering a rope ladder to pluck the men safely back into modernity. Then the strange machines departed, the sea calmed, and the island remained, lush and impenetrable, still waiting for its Cook or its Columbus.

Epochs of history rarely come to a sudden end, seldom announce their passing with anything so dramatic as the death of a king or the dismantling of a wall. More often, they withdraw slowly and imperceptibly (or at least unperceived), like the ebbing tide on a deserted beach.

That is how the Age of Discovery ended. For more than five hundred years, the envoys of civilization sailed through storms and hacked through jungles, startling in turn one tribe after another of long-lost human cousins. For an instant, before the inevitable breaking of faith, the two groups would face each other, staring—as innocent, both of them, as children, and blameless as if the world had been born afresh. To live such a moment seems, when we think of it now, to have been one of the most profound experiences that our planet in its vanished immensity once offered. But each time the moment repeated itself on each fresh beach, there was one less island to be found, one less chance to start everything anew. It began to repeat itself less and less often, until there came a time, maybe a century ago, when there were only a few such places left, only a few doors still unopened.

Sometime quite recently, the last door opened. I believe it happened not long before the end of the millennium, on an island already all but known, a place encircled by the buzzing, thrumming web of a world still unknown to it, and by the mesh of a history that had forever been drawing closer. (...)

This is how you get to the most isolated human settlement on earth: You board an evening flight at JFK for Heathrow, Air India 112, a plane full of elegant sari-clad women, London-bound businessmen, hippie backpackers. You settle in to watch a movie (a romantic comedy in which Harrison Ford and Anne Heche get stranded on a desert island) and after a quick nap you are in London.

Then you catch another plane. You read yesterday’s Times while flying above the corrugated gullies of eastern Turkey, watch a Hindi musical somewhere over Iran. That night, and for the week that follows, you are in New Delhi, where the smog lies on the ground like mustard gas, and where one day you see an elephant—an elephant!—in the midst of downtown traffic.

From New Delhi you go by train to Calcutta, where you must wait for a ship. And you must wait for a ticket. There are endless lines at the shipping company office, and jostling, and passing back and forth of black-and-white photographs in triplicate and hundred-rupee notes and stacks of documents interleaved with Sapphire brand carbon paper. Next you are on the ship, a big Polish-built steamer crawling with cockroaches. The steamer passes all manner of scenery: slim and fragile riverboats like craft from a pharaoh’s tomb; broad-beamed, lateen-rigged Homeric merchantmen. You watch the sun set into the Bay of Bengal, play cards with some Swedish backpackers, and take in the shipboard video programming, which consists of the complete works of Macaulay Culkin, subtitled in Arabic. On the morning of the sixth day your ship sails into a wide, sheltered bay—steaming jungles off the port bow, a taxi-crowded jetty to starboard—and you have arrived in the Andamans, at Port Blair.

In Port Blair you board a bus, finding a seat beneath a wall-mounted loudspeaker blaring a Hindi cover of “The Macarena Song.” The bus rumbles through the bustling market town, past barefoot men peddling betel nut, past a billboard for the local computer-training school (“I want to become the 21st century’s computer professional”). On the western outskirts you see a sawmill that is turning the Andaman forests into pencils on behalf of a company in Madras, and you see the airport, where workmen are busy extending the runway—out into a field where water buffalo graze—so that in a few years, big jetliners will be able to land here, bringing tour groups direct from Bangkok and Singapore. A little farther on, you pass rice paddies, and patches of jungle, and the Water Sports Training Centre, and thatched huts, and family-planning posters, and satellite dishes craning skyward. And then, within an hour’s time, you are at the ocean again, and on a very clear day you will see the island in the distance, a slight disturbance of the horizon.

by Adam Goodheart, American Scholar |  Read more:
Image: Ana Raquel S. Hernandes/Flickr