The Primrose shipwreck rests off North Sentinel Island where it ran aground in 1981. Picture: Facebook
The Primrose shipwreck rests off North Sentinel Island where it ran aground in 1981. Picture: Facebook

Tribe island’s haunting shipwreck

Submerged in the crystal-clear waters off North Sentinel Island is a mysterious shipwreck with a truly hair-raising backstory.

It belongs to The Primrose, a 16,000 ton freighter which ran aground in a storm while transporting a cargo of chicken feed from Bangladesh to Australia on August 2, 1981.

The 31 crew members had endured a night of terror as the ship was tossed around the Bay of Bengal for hours before becoming lodged on a coral reef just before midnight.

Two days later, a Hong Kong shipping company would receive a desperate cable from the ship's captain Liu Chunglong, requesting an urgent airdrop of weapons to fight off "wild island people carrying spears and arrows" who were threatening to board the ship.

At first though, there had been no reason to panic, stranded as they were near a stunning and seemingly deserted island paradise.

 

An aerial view of The Primrose shipwreck resting a few hundred metres off North Sentinel Island. Picture: Facebook
An aerial view of The Primrose shipwreck resting a few hundred metres off North Sentinel Island. Picture: Facebook

 

Another image of the wreck as seen on Google Earth. Picture: Supplied
Another image of the wreck as seen on Google Earth. Picture: Supplied

"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," journalist Adam Goodheart wrote in The American Scholar.

"If he consulted his charts, he realised 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.

Slain missionary's final hours with lost tribe

"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."

On or around August 3, a young crew member on lookout duty noticed human activity on the island. People were emerging from the forest and making their way towards the beach.

They looked unlike anybody he had seen before - small and naked with narrow belts around their waists - and they were waving spears, bows and arrows in the direction of the stricken vessel.

 

The Primrose was sailing between Bangladesh and Australia when it ran aground off North Sentinel Island in August 1981. Picture: Supplied
The Primrose was sailing between Bangladesh and Australia when it ran aground off North Sentinel Island in August 1981. Picture: Supplied

 

Crew members are winched to safety after a terrifying stand off with the Sentinelese. Picture: Supplied
Crew members are winched to safety after a terrifying stand off with the Sentinelese. Picture: Supplied

First word of the drama surfaced on August 4, when Captain Liu sent a panicked cable to the Regent Shipping Company, which had supplied the crew, requesting an immediate airdrop of firearms.

"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."

According to The American Scholar, the same treacherous conditions that beached The Primrose on 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 (including) a flare gun, axes (and) some lengths of pipe, as news of the emergency slowly filtered to the outside world."

 

Misguided missionary John Allen Chau was killed on North Sentinel Island on November 16. Picture: Instagram
Misguided missionary John Allen Chau was killed on North Sentinel Island on November 16. Picture: Instagram

 

Slain missionary John Chau with his mother Linda, who has refused to give up hope her son is still alive. Picture: Instagram
Slain missionary John Chau with his mother Linda, who has refused to give up hope her son is still alive. Picture: Instagram

As high sea and gale force winds forced Indian rescue crews to repeatedly put off their mission, the bizarre stand off between the mostly Hong Kong-Chinese crew and a spear- throwing Stone Age tribe made world headlines.

"Those natives are not used to outsiders, they are not used to civilised people," search coordinator Colonel Pritvi Nath told UPI.

The Indian government was forced to deny reports in the Hong Kong media which referred to the Sentinelese as "cannibals" while Hong Kong officials cracked jokes about Captain Liu having "gone bananas".

After several failed rescue attempts, The Primrose crew were eventually winched to safety by helicopter under the watchful eyes of the Sentinelese.

Footage of the tribespeople taken during "friendly" contact with a group of visiting Indian anthropologists in 1991 shows some members carrying metal tools for the first time.

It is believed the tools were forged from metal scavenged from The Primrose, which remains in its resting place atop a coral reef near the island.

Last week a US missionary was killed by Sentinelese tribespeople after several uninvited trips to the island as part of a mission to convert the clan to Christianity.

Indian authorities say John Chau died in a bow and arrow attack but have no plans to lay charges over his murder.

An operation to retrieve his body has been ruled out because of the catastrophic effect it would have on the tribe, who have no immunity to disease and could be wiped out by a virus such as the common cold.