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Are these remote island natives having the last laugh?

SHUT OFF: North Sentinel inhabitants have fought off outside intrusion

LET’S imagine for a moment that when Europeans came to Africa, passing out Bibles in Jesus’s name that, instead of welcoming them with open arms, Africans picked up their bow and arrows and fired volley after volley after volley of poisoned-tipped missiles at their uninvited guests and, on top of that, launched their spears in the direction of the Lord’s emissaries too.

Imagine if that was the response to the incursion into the heart of Africa by some of these missionaries like David Livingstone (I presume) and his ilk, who took it upon themselves to come and preach the gospel at Africans whether they liked it or not. When you imagine it, even for a moment, you cannot help but wonder how very different the trajectory of African history would be today and how, perhaps, unrecognisable the black condition would be.

I couldn’t help but wonder when I heard the other day about the fate of the US missionary John Allen Chau who died in the name of Jesus last week, trying to force-feed the Bible into the mouths of the aboriginal people of North Sentinel.

North Sentinel is an island in the middle of nowhere in the Indian Ocean. It’s closer to Malaysia and Thailand but falls under the jurisdiction of India. Interestingly enough, though, the peoples of the island, who have fought off any intrusion into their lives and affairs for thousands of years, are ethnically African. Yes, they look more like you and I than you and I do. These are the originals, Africans who have never mixed and never want to mix and will spear anybody who sets foot on their island.

But Chau wouldn’t take no for an answer. With the righteous indignation of the 18th and 19th Century missionaries who felt that they had a God-given right to subsume original culture with some Johnny-come-lately divine words about fathers, sons and holy ghosts, Chau thought he could see the light and that he could shine it on pre-historic man and overturn the culture of tens of thousands of years with words like, ‘In the beginning there was the word and the word was God…’

DOOMED: Missionary John Allen Chau tried to convert the natives of North Sentinel

He barely survived the first time he set foot on the island and, as foolhardy as he was and determined to evangelise, he returned to North Sentinel to meet his doom – the same fate awaits anyone else who wants to disturb the natural history of the peoples who inhabit the island.

Apparently there are only a handful of these North Sentinelians on an island the size of London, but nobody really knows for sure. How they got there, thousands of years ago, is also a mystery. It’s such a long way from Africa that it would have taken much skill by foot or by sea.

Unsurprisingly, as we know, do we not, that when it came to the sciences, Africans were not as ‘primitive’ as Western judgment concludes of any peoples who decline to wear a three piece suit and tie. We know also that Africans can be found as far away as Fiji, Papua New Guinea and among the aboriginal peoples of Australia. But whereas those other African communities have been corrupted by Western intervention, the people of North Sentinel have remained pure.

So pure in fact that they are in danger of being wiped out by the merest contact with the outside world because their bodies have not built up any immunity over many generations to the common cold, let alone viruses like measles, mumps and rubella. So is it any wonder that they guard their isolation so jealously?

We may well laugh at these primitive people who launched a flight of arrows into the sky the last time a helicopter flew overhead 14 years ago to conduct some kind of airborne census after the tsunami, but I can’t help wondering whether or not they are having the last laugh. After all, they are living their lives, the lives they want to live. They don’t care for our champagne or cocaine or our finger-lickin’ fried chicken. They don’t nyam our hamburgers or frankfurters and they don’t drink our rainbow coloured sodas. They exist without a colour telly or an iPad or an iPhone or whatever else technology we “can’t live without”. And, crucially, they have never been enslaved, so they don’t have to free their minds of mental slavery.

They are not overly impressed with Europeans and Western society the way we often are, and do not feel themselves inferior. On the contrary from their extreme actions it would seem that they feel their culture is far superior and worth preserving on pain of death. And that has got me wondering whether the rest of us – you and I – would be better off today, if our African ancestors had equally repelled any incursion onto African soil be it Arab or European.

Would there, for example, be more unity among us today if we hadn’t been so hospitable to visitors? Would the necessity of cooperation in a closed society have stuck us together as it has the people of North Sentinel? Would we have worked together a lot more, as these North Sentinelians seem to do, or would we have been bickering and fighting among ourselves nevertheless? And for how long would Africans have been able to fight their corner with bows and arrows and spears, before they succumbed to aggressors and oppressors?

Also, would we still have been the scholars and scientists that true history shows us to be if we had closed Africa’s borders to incumbents as Donald Trump has to the human caravan of migrants from Honduras who are gathered in Tijuana on the northern Mexican border, looking to enter the US by hook or by crook to start a new life. Would we still have been the godfathers/mothers of modern mathematics? Would we still have been the first peoples to perform open heart surgery?

Or am I asking the wrong questions? Should we not be considering how barren the West would be now if Africans had shut themselves off from the outside world?

Had it not been for its appropriation of mathematics from the once great libraries of so-called Alexandria in north Africa, would there be any internet today? If it was not for that original African calculation that one plus one must always equal two, bridges would collapse houses would tumble and London Bridge would be falling down, my fair lady, and man (white man) would never have made it to the moon.

But would black people be better off? Are the North Sentinelians better off having repelled all efforts at intrusion? It makes you ponder, doesn’t it?

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