Colonialism Cultural Anthropology Discussion

Excuse Me, Could You Spare a Moment to Talk About Anthropology?

In the wake of the death of missionary John Allen Chau, I talk about the history of colonialism, its effects on indigenous peoples, and the need to respect their wishes.

Ok so if you’re aware of Pedal Powered Anthropology, I’m gonna go ahead and assume you’re aware of the guy that was just killed by the Sentinelese.

You’ve probably heard all about him being a missionary, how he paid the fishermen to take him close enough to paddle to shore, how they saw the start of the attack, how they saw his body the next day. Maybe you’d heard that this wasn’t his first attempt at contacting the Sentinelese (although it was apparently his first “success,” if you wanna call it that).

It’s an unfortunate situation at best, and a tragedy at work. But honestly…the outcome was probably best case scenario for the Sentinelese, for a variety of reasons.

Keep in mind that this isn’t a post to bash religion or Christianity. This dude happened to have been a missionary, but any colonialist endeavor carries serious danger to indigenous groups, and in any event there’s a lot more at stake for the indigenous group than the colonial group. And that’s a scenario we see played out again and again throughout history.

You may also have read by now (or assumed as much) that the Sentinelese have no immunity to any diseases the missionary or those who would have followed him may have been carrying. But it’s far more complex than that.

Yes, a colonial group may very well introduce infectious disease to which an indigenous group have no immunity. But once introduced, the restructuring of a society that has historically followed a colonial effort changes the density of a population, meaning that an indigenous group is much more likely to come across a carrier of a contagious disease.

And once a society has been restructured–in ways that revolve around the goals of the colonial group–it’s incredibly unlikely the indigenous group has the means to move out of the cycle of poverty and disease that tends to follow such an upheaval.

The link in the above paragraph gives two examples and has a load of references at the bottom of the page. But it isn’t nearly restricted to the two primary examples given as “Case Studies” by Unite For Sight.

AIDS made it’s jump to humans in Cameroon during the Belgian occupation of the Congo with trade through Kinshasa being the flashpoint for epidemic spread. It had likely done this before, but the ways colonialism had reshaped society and created highly concentrated populations based on trade had in turn created an infectious disease superhighway.

A laundry list of diseases were transmitted to Native Americans after Europeans showed up. To name a few, these included chicken pox, cholera, typhus, malaria, influenza, smallpox, and the bubonic plague. They got wise pretty quickly to the fact that Europeans carried some pretty gnarly bugs, and did their best to avoid contact and trade. But that didn’t always work as for some people the risk was worth the reward, and also Europeans got wise to it, too…and used their infectious disease as biological warfare against the Native Americans.

But enough about infectious diseases and colonialism. Let’s suppose for a second that the Sentinelese weren’t susceptible. No danger at all that they’d all die. Let’s just make believe and entertain that.

Well. They still have the right to say “no.” Think about it. When people come to your house to proselytize, or to get you to vote for some schmuck, or to sign up for the latest scam in energy service providers. You can tell them you’re not interested. And that’s more or less the end of it.

But like…Imagine being in your back yard and some dork comes up to your fence and is like “Hey. I think I know a better way for you to live. You’ve got it all wrong.” And you’re like “sorry dude, I’m happy how things are. I’ve got a good thing going on.” And then imagine this dweeb then opens your gate and proceeds to come into your yard and be like “No you don’t understand. You’re ruining everything about your life by how you’re living.”

27 American states have Stand Your Ground Laws. You’re allowed to defend your life with lethal force if that’s what it comes down to. There will probably be a court case but if someone is running at you with a chainsaw and you side step him and he screams he’s gonna kill you and runs back at you and you push him and he saws his face off…chances are the jury is gonna side with you. But stand your ground laws allow you to use potentially lethal force in the face of a PERCEIVED threat.

That’s all the grey area ever.

So really, these people, living on a sovereign island are exercising the same caution allowed to over half of the United States. They have a right to defend their culture from perceived threats. And the Indian government and Andaman/Nicobar Island Association affords them their sovereignty.

We don’t know a whole lot about the Sentinelese. There are apparently records dating back to the 13th century, when explorer Marco Polo had nothing good to say about them.

In the 1880s, British Naval Officer Maurice Vidal Portman, the officer in charge of overseeing the Andaman Islands, led an expedition to attempt to make contact with the Sentinelese. Before the decision to attempt contact, it was discussed whether or not to just go and kill them all, citing them as “savages beyond the pale.

His expedition resulted in the kidnapping of 6 Sentinelese and taking them back to Port Blair, where they immediately started dying of disease. The survivors were given gifts and returned…but it’s unlikely the kidnap of several of your friends, two of which were murdered, would have sat very well.

More recently, anthropologist Triloknath Pandit visited North Sentinel Island. Early attempts (as early as 1967) weren’t successful, and nothing was found but empty villages. More recent visits were incrementally successful. There was no direct interaction with the villagers, but they were able to leave “gifts” on the ground near the Sentinelese, who remained facing away from them.

On one expedition, Onge people came along. Little was known about the Sentinelese, but what had been observed suggested at least some cultural overlap. But really it just seemed like the presence of the Onge pissed off the Sentinelese, and the Onge couldn’t understand anything they said anyway.

The last official contact with them was in 1996, after some less than fun encounters with them and also the Jarawa led the Indian government to acquiesce and finally just leave them be. It is strictly prohibited to go to the island, and apparently a jailable offense.

These restrictions are not for our sake or safety. They’re for the protection of the Sentinelese, who as we’ve just read have a lot more to lose than one schmuck who headed there for any reason.

The last attempt at contact was in 2004, after an earthquake caused a Tsunami to hit the Andaman Islands, a helicopter flew over to see if any assistance was needed. The helicopter was met with a man firing arrows and turned back.

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The Coast Guard took this photo before leaving well enough alone.

They’re an isolated bunch, and they should stay that way. Because they want to. We have absolutely no right to impose upon them our society, our Big Macs and movie theaters. I want everyone to know the joys of Star Wars and bicycles, but I can’t break into your house and tell you that your life is awful without them.

Does that mean I’m not curious? FXCK NO! I’m incredibly curious. I’m an anthropologist!

I want to know everything about them. I want to learn their language and document it. I want to know the plants and animals that may be indigenous to their island. I want to know their customs and jokes. I want to know their knowledge of the medicinal properties of the plants on their island and how that may be applied to our own medical sciences.

But that curiosity gives me neither the right nor enough arrogance to think that I should interfere with them against their wishes and subject them to a society that they’re not interested in and are even hostile towards. It’s kinda like the Prime Directive (and it’s unsurprising that Picard had training as an archaeologist)

Anthropology may have its roots in the curiosity of European colonists, but I’d like to think that as a science, we’ve grown past that, even if as a society we’re not quite there yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have a degree in anthropology from Rhode Island College. My focus was in biological anthropology but I also have a broad interest in cultural anthropology, archaeology and linguistic anthropology. Pedal Powered Anthropology is an anthropological educational initiative that seeks to bring profound travel experiences to a local level while encouraging others to get out and explore the world around them. This blog details all aspects of my work as Anthrospin, including my take on topics within four fields anthropology as well as bits about a lot of different aspects of culture, primarily race, gender, privilege, the environment and my own personal relationship with anxiety.

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