The Spectator just published what must be one of the worst articles this year

Spectator logo and glasses on newspaper
John McEvoy

The Sentinelese people inhabit one of the remote Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal, east of India. And although they are notoriously hostile to intruders, US Christian evangelist John Allen Chau recently decided to go to the island and “declare Jesus” to them. Chau entered the island with a Bible and some gifts on 17 November, and was killed shortly thereafter.

In response to the event, Spectator columnist Brendan O’Neill declared: “It is time we civilised the Sentinelese people”. But centuries of colonisation in the region – nay, worldwide – suggest that the Sentinelese people have good reason to fear intruders. This is especially true of people like O’Neill, who speak unironically of ‘civilising’ missions.

“Satan’s last stronghold”

“Lord”, wrote would-be missionary Chau in his diary, “is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?”

The Sentinelese people are often described as one of the last uncontacted tribes. But this isn’t quite accurate. And like Chau, it seems O’Neill is unaware of prior attempts to ‘civilise’ them.

O’Neill wrote, for instance:

Our common humanity demands that we make contact with these peoples and patiently try to convince them to become civilised.

In the late 1800s, British naval officer Maurice Vidal Portman arrived on the island. He then “abducted an old couple and four children, and sailed off to Port Blair with them”. And he reportedly “betrayed a suspicious fascination with the bodies of the tribal islanders, and his notes… contain alarming sections, such as comparison of their penis lengths”.

This thread looks at Portman’s legacy on the island in greater detail:

The Washington Post also described the islands’ various tribes as “unprepared for foreign diseases and vulnerable to the explorers who saw them as specimens of primeval man – subjects for zoological study, not human compassion”. As a whole, the Andaman Islanders have suffered greatly from foreign intrusion.

“Yes, civilise them”

According to O’Neill:

I think it is crueller to abandon the Sentinelese people to the fate written for them by the terrible quirks of geography and history than it is to try to contact and civilise them… Yes, civilise them.

This quote is astounding: the terrible quirks of history are found in exactly the type of ‘civilising’ intervention O’Neill proposes. The Sentinelese, moreover, have managed to survive for roughly 50,000 years despite such apparent “terrible quirks of geography”.

Unsurprisingly, critics soon destroyed his article. History lecturer Charlotte Riley wrote:

PhD candidate Michael Docherty wrote:

And another Twitter user said:

Reflecting on the ‘civilised world’

The rhetoric of bringing “civilisation” to those living “brutish, backwards lives” (yes, these are real quotes from O’Neill’s article) reflects centuries of shameful discourse about the noble white man’s burden of civilising far-away regions.

It is instructive to note, meanwhile, that O’Neill’s comments came just as US border agents fired tear gas at refugee children. So as the Sentinelese people attacked someone representing a historical and actual threat at their border, US border forces attacked innocent children. Is this the type of civilised behaviour that O’Neill expects to bring to the Sentinelese people?

As many have since suggested, if O’Neill thinks the Sentinelese people should be ‘civilised’, perhaps he should go and do the civilising himself.

Featured image via pxhere

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