Book Title: The Last Island: A Story of the Andamans and the Most Elusive Tribe in the World
Author: Adam Goodheart
Meera Anna Oommen
For passengers on flights approaching Port Blair from one of the southern Indian cities, as the plane descends through the clouds, North Sentinel is the first of the Andaman Islands that comes into view. If the weather obliges and you know where to look, one can hope for a fleeting glimpse of the hull of the Primrose, submerged in the shallows. Adam Goodheart’s ‘The Last Island’ begins with the incident that brought the Primrose to its current resting place and the fright that its marooned crew received when approached by the not-so-friendly Sentinelese with their bows and arrows.
While the ship crew was extricated without incident, nearly 40 years later, fate was not so kind to John Allen Chau, the young American on a mission to ‘bring Jesus’ to the most isolated human community on earth. His death at the hands of the Sentinelese brought this enigmatic island and the mysteries of the Andaman once again into the limelight.
Through a number of historical vignettes that move back and forth in time, Goodheart retraces the history of contact with the island’s inhabitants. Motivated by accident, curiosity, or more often plain foolhardiness, these fleeting encounters nevertheless add to our knowledge in spurts and starts. Yet, we wonder at how a small population on a tiny island could have staved off intruders for so long. Was it hostility or isolation or both? The larger story of the indigenous communities of the archipelago, including the fate of the once numerous Great Andamanese groups, as well as the Jarawa and the Onge of Little Andaman, is also woven into the narrative. Though most groups were initially hostile, over the centuries, time wore them down. The Great Andamanese have been reduced to a handful of individuals corralled on Strait Island, the Onge are confined to a reservation, and the Jarawa are more cordial, though with occasional skirmishes with the settlers living on the fringes of their forest.
A significant interlude in the book deals with the colonial encounters, especially the life and work of Maurice Vidal Portman, an interesting albeit controversial British officer, who obsessively studied various Andamanese communities for 20 years, and launched several forays on North Sentinel. In addition to drawing attention to the disturbing and perhaps moral and ethical ambivalence of the individual himself, Goodheart demonstrates effectively that anthropological pursuits of the time, though immensely informative about indigenous communities (till date, Portman remains a valuable resource for scholars), were nevertheless complicit in racial discrimination, violence, and the promotion of eugenics. The pervasive commonalities in colonial violence — the decimation of populations by disease, executions, kidnappings of both children and adults, and the takeover of indigenous territories — are common features in European colonial spaces across the world, and the Andamans are no exception. The paternalistic hold of the post-colonial state on communities is also a shared feature.
The engaging quality of the narrative of ‘The Last Island’ lies in the masterful blending of Goodheart’s own personal journeys to the islands with that of archival work, careful readings of existing scholarship and insights gleaned from interviews and correspondence with anthropologists like TN Pandit and Vishvajit Pandya. Given that the information on the Andamans, especially that inhabiting the Internet, is an unholy mix of fact and fiction, Goodheart makes a fruitful effort to stick to the facts. Overall, the book is eminently readable, and strikes the right balance, being neither overly romantic nor cynical. At the same time, Goodheart’s surreptitious visit, not unlike Chau’s own and as that of several others before and after, to the waters off this forbidden island raises several questions. Is North Sentinel as isolated as it is claimed to be? When the islanders want isolation, do we, as outsiders, respect that? What is responsible contact and where do we draw the line? On the whole, raising more questions than answers, the book is much more than about a small group of islanders holding out on their own, and leaves us with plenty of food for thought.