By Logan Monteleone
Elm Staff Writer
Nearly half an hour prior to the event’s commencement at 2:30 p.m. on Sat., Oct. 28, every seat at the Sultana Education Foundation’s Hardwood Nature Center was occupied by readers eager to receive WC’s Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Adam Goodheart, the author of “The Last Island: Discovery, Defiance, and the Most Elusive Tribe on Earth.”
“The Last Island” interweaves personal experience, recent history, and the little-known past of contact with the indigenous people of North Sentinel Island in the Andamans, a remote archipelago in the Indian Ocean.
Upon request of journalist and Chestertown resident Fernanda Moore, who moderated the talk, Goodheart began by reading the opening passage of “The Last Island,” which begins with a detailed rendering of the running-aground of a Panamanian freighter just off the coast of North Sentinel Island, which prompted the Sentinelese people to show themselves in defense.
The Sentinelese are the central subject of the book, and the fascination of people worldwide for their isolated culture.
As a 28-year-old journalist who studied first contacts extensively in college, Goodheart explained that when he heard about North Sentinel Island, he was excited by the notion of a completely isolated, unknown civilization.
“I just knew that I had to go there,” Goodheart said.
Goodheart explained that he has wanted to write a book about the Sentinelese ever since his first journey to its shores in 1998, but was discouraged by a publisher who feared interest in the obscure island would be limited.
In 2018, however, Goodheart was inspired to pick up the project again when the death-by-arrowshot of John Chau, a young American who ventured to North Sentinel Island with the intention of converting the Sentinelese to Christianity, made national headlines. Chau, as Goodheart noted, had read Goodheart’s article on the Sentinelese that was published in “The American Scholar” over two decades prior to Chau’s fatal journey.
“It was apparent that tens of millions of people around the world were interested in this little previously unknown spec of land,” Goodheart said. “In our more hyperconnected-than-ever era [the world seems] more interested than ever in the idea that there could still be one last unconnected place.”
Goodheart and his research are featured heavily in “The Mission,” the National Geographic documentary on Chau’s story, which was released earlier this month.
Moore noted that many people are obsessed with the history of interaction with North Sentinel Island, and asked Goodheart to describe his own fascination with the remote island and its inhabitants.
“I think part of the obsession has to do with that feeling of when you’re reading about these people, or during those brief moments — 25 years ago, exactly this month — when I was seeing them with my own eyes, standing there on the beach with their bows and arrows and spears, that you’re sort of looking through a wormhole in time,” Goodheart said.
To supplement his description of the Sentinelese, who as he explained have a distinctly unique language, genetic makeup, and culture from the rest of the world, Goodheart held up the open pages of his book to show listeners a photograph of a Sentinelese.
“I think there is definitely a lot of history we are not privy to,” Goodheart said. “I would love to know the story of the Sentinelese themselves, because of course their voices are missing from my book and it’s an enormous gap.”
Goodheart explained that when he ventured back to the Andamans in early 2020 in preparation for “The Last Island,” it was not the picturesque, Conradian landscape he recalled from his first voyage. Citing the plastic debris along the island’s shore, and noting the larger environmental threats the island and its hunter-gatherer people face, Goodheart said, “We have encroached on this island without even setting foot there.”
Moore cited Goodheart’s seeming knack for those triumphant moments in the archives of which all researchers dream, where some overlooked or miscataloged document is discovered that dispels mystery and provides insight into what the historian is pursuing. Goodheart had such an experience researching one of the main figures of the book, Maurice Vidal Portman.
Despite the belief among historians that Portman had no “paper trail,” in The British Library in London Goodheart discovered Portman’s personal journal. “It turned out, very quickly, I realized, that it was the private diary of [Portman] who I had been spending years chasing after.”
Goodheart considers the book an opportunity for reflection. “[Writing “The Last Island” was] an opportunity to reassess and reconsider, and to perhaps look at my youthful exploit through not-so-youthful, but perhaps to some degree of greater wisdom.”
A reader asked Goodheart how he deals with conveying heavy subjects like imperialism, which include historical figures who behave in morally offensive ways and use politically incorrect language, to a sensitive modern audience, while also being faithful to historical truth.
“I hope that by this point in the book its clear to my readers that the entire book is really decrying of racism and imperialism and colonialism, that’s the core of the book and that’s the core of the project, and even when I went in 1998, that is what it was about.”
Goodheart’s was the final of various book talks sponsored throughout the day by the Bookplate, whose manager Tess Jones helped organize the event and sell copies of the author’s works.
After the talk, attendees were invited to a book party at 103 North Queen Street, where they enjoyed free oysters, cold drinks, and the opportunity to get signatures, ask questions, and share conversations with Goodheart.