In the waters off the Pacific island of Tonga, six boys are caught up in a violent storm. After eight days drifting listlessly through the waves, they wash up on a deserted island, with no means to contact the outside world. Will they manage to work together and survive? Or will a real-life Lord of the Flies play out as hunger and madness take their toll?
It was June 1965 when the boys set out from the island of Tongatapu, the main island in the sprawling Tongan archipelago. Aged between 13 and 16 years old, Fatai Latui, Sione Fataua, Kolo Fekitoa, Tevita Fifita Sioloa, Luke Veikoso and Mano Totau had their hearts set on a wild adventure. But they would end up getting far more than they bargained for.
Driven from their intended course, the boys wound up on the shores of ‘Ata, a depopulated outcrop in the far south of the islands. Over 100 miles from home, they were forced to depend on their wits – and each other – to survive. And before long, a scenario eerily similar to the one depicted in William Golding’s famous novel began to unfold.
But did the Tongan boys succumb to the same fate as the characters in Golding’s fictional story, turning against each other as they struggled to survive on their island home? Or does the truth say something a little more hopeful about the nature of mankind? What really happened on ‘Ata, in the end, might surprise you.
Published back in 1954, Lord of the Flies tells the tale of a group of British schoolboys marooned on a Pacific island after an airplane crash. At first, the children are delighted to find themselves in what looks like paradise, with no adults around to tell them what to do. But, of course, the fantasy does not last.
Having installed a primitive form of democracy, the boys in the story set out a plan to survive and get rescued. Before long, though, they grow lazy and neglectful, more concerned with having fun than with being part of a functioning society. And when a rebel faction begins to grow in power, violence soon breaks out, with the boys quickly descending into savagery.
Eventually, the book concludes with a British officer arriving on the island. Stumbling upon the tribe of feral boys, he expresses his disgust that his fellow countrymen have descended to such levels. But as the story ends, he is shown gazing back towards his own battleship, suggesting that it is not only children who are capable of such uncivilized behavior.
Since its publication, Lord of the Flies has served as a strong indictment of human nature, suggesting that evil lurks within us all. But for decades, many have wondered just how realistic Golding’s scenario is. In similar circumstances, would a group of unsupervised children really descend into violence and chaos? Or would they choose to cooperate instead?
For a long time, it seemed that the experiences depicted in Lord of the Flies were merely hypothetical. And that there were no real-life child castaways with which to make a comparison. But recently, a story has emerged that has offered an entirely different narrative up for consideration.
This tale began to unfold in June 1965 in Nuku‘alofa, the capital city of Tonga on the island of Tongatapu. There, the six protagonists of this remarkable story were attending a boarding school run by the Catholic church. But after a while the boys grew tired of their education and began to plot a dramatic escape.
Of course, many young people dream of running away – but few make good on their outlandish schemes. These six, though, were different. And one day, they stole a boat from a local fisherman and set sail, hoping to reach New Zealand or Fiji, where they would start new lives.
With Fiji around 500 miles away, and New Zealand even further, it was not a voyage to be taken lightly. Surely then, the boys, being from a seafaring community, would have packed accordingly? Apparently not. If reports are to be believed, they set off with just a gas burner, some coconuts and a pile of bananas to sustain them.
And that wasn’t the only drastic error that the six schoolboys made. With neither a compass nor a map between them, they drifted out into the Pacific Ocean, leaving their island home far behind. At first, things seemed to be going well, with fair weather blessing the first stage of their ambitious voyage.
But then, lulled into a false sense of security, the boys drifted off to sleep. When they awoke hours later the sun had set – and they were in the grip of a violent storm. As waves smashed down on the tiny boat, they struggled to raise the sail, only for it to be quickly torn apart by the vicious wind.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the rudder then broke, leaving the boys unable to plot a course across the raging seas. With no other option, they could do nothing as the currents carried them even further from home. In a 2020 article for U.K. newspaper The Guardian, Dutch writer Rutger Bregman recalled one of the boys, Totau, telling him about the experience.
“We drifted for eight days,” Totau told Bregman. “Without food. Without water.” In a desperate attempt to stay hydrated, the boys collected rain in coconut shells and shared it among themselves. And with little hope left, People magazine reported in 2020, the castaways began to pray.
Eventually, it seems, their prayers were answered. After eight days at sea, the boys spotted a tiny island looming on the horizon. Unlike the desert islands of Hollywood movies, this was a jagged, brooding rock, its high cliffs soaring hundreds of feet above the Pacific Ocean. But compared to their ailing boat, it must have seemed a welcome paradise.
What the boys could not have known at the time, of course, is that they had arrived at ‘Ata in the extreme south of the Tongan archipelago. Home, on Tongatapu, was almost 100 miles away – but it may as well have been another world. And if the castaways had been hoping for rescue on this remote island, they were about to be disappointed.
By the time that the boys arrived, you see, ‘Ata had been completely deserted for a century. At one point, in the mid-19th century, the island had supported a population of hundreds. But then, in June 1863 a slave ship arrived, tricking almost 150 natives on board under the pretense of a trading opportunity.
With the islanders on board, the ship upped anchor and sailed off, never to return. And for those remaining on ‘Ata, life would never be the same. Their population decimated, they lived in fear of the slave traders, until King George Tupou I of Tonga ordered an evacuation. As the last inhabitants fled to the neighboring ‘Eua, the remote outcrop was left abandoned.
It was this ghost island, then, that the boys spotted after eight days of drifting at sea. But by the time that they got there, night had fallen. Weak from lack of food and dehydration, Totau nevertheless made the brave decision to jump ship and swim ashore. Speaking to The Guardian in 2020, he explained his ordeal.
“When I reach the shore, I tried to stand up but when I stand up the whole world is spinning, so I laid down and crawl ashore and when I touch the dry grass, then I lay down,” Totau said. Eventually, the other five boys got to the isle, falling into a deep sleep on the welcome dry land. But when they awoke, the reality of their situation must have begun to sink in.
Stranded on ‘Ata with no immediate hopes of rescue, the boys soon realized that they would need to find a way to survive. But unlike the antiheroes of Golding’s book, they made a promise to each other that they would live together in peace. Back on Tonga, you see, they had been raised as part of a tight-knit community. So why should things be different here?
“We all come from close and poor families where, whatever you get, you share,” Fataua told People. So the boys worked together to create a functioning society on their new island home. Over the next few months, they constructed an impressive array of facilities on ‘Ata, armed with little more than a simple knife.
At first, the castaways sustained themselves by eating coconuts and fish as well as the flesh and eggs of seabirds. But as they explored the island, they discovered an abandoned settlement where the people of ‘Ata had once lived. There, they found a population of chickens as well as edible taro and banana plants.
Over time, the boys developed a system for growing food and built pens to domesticate the semi-feral chickens. To keep a steady supply of drinking water, they collected rain inside hollowed-out trees, while a rudimentary badminton court helped them to stay fit. And if that wasn’t enough, they also constructed a gym complete with weights.
In Lord of the Flies, the characters struggle to maintain a signal fire which might alert passing boats to their predicament. But on ‘Ata, the Tongans did not have the same problem. In fact, they kept a blaze going permanently, using it as a focal point for their makeshift community.
Whenever the boys encountered a problem, Fatau recalled, they would gather around the fire and attempt to find a resolution. He said, “If anybody had something they didn’t like, they talked about it, and we say ‘Sorry’ and then pray and everything’s okay. If someone got really mad – like, if I planned something and they didn’t do it – you disappear for a few hours, look at the ocean and clear it out your mind.”
Working in groups of two, the boys shared out the various responsibilities that came with running their camp, from standing guard to kitchen duty. And in the mornings and evenings, they gathered together to pray. According to The Guardian, Fekitoa used repurposed steel wires to fashion a coconut-shell guitar, which he played to keep them entertained.
But despite the successes of their makeshift camp, the castaways never lost sight of their ultimate goal: to return home. In fact, at one point, they even managed to build a raft, although it broke up before they could set sail. Then, one day, Latui suffered a bad fall, breaking his leg as he tumbled from a cliff.
Undeterred, the boys came to Latui’s rescue, setting his broken limb with leaves and sticks. Speaking to The Guardian, Fatua recalled reassuring the injured boy. He said, “Don’t worry. We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!” But while the Tongans were coping remarkably well on ‘Ata, their families back home were beginning to lose hope.
As weeks and months passed with no word of the boys, funerals were arranged. But then, on September 11, 1966, a sea captain by the name of Peter Warner was sailing past ‘Ata when he noticed something strange. There, on the supposedly uninhabited island, he spotted the signs of a fire.
Knowing that such blazes do not usually start spontaneously in this part of the world, Warner took a closer look. And that’s when he saw it: a naked boy, wild hair flowing to his shoulders, standing at the top of a cliff. All of a sudden, the figure threw himself from the rock, landing in the water and beginning to swim towards the boat.
Before long, the rest of the boys followed suit, screaming as they swam towards a startled Warner and his crew. According to The Guardian, Latui was the first to reach the boat, introducing himself in flawless English. He is reported to have said, “There are six of us, and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”
As it turned out, Latui was right – the boys had been stranded on ‘Ata for well over a year. But it took a while for them to convince the sailors that they were not a threat. Speaking to the Guardian, Totau recalled, “They were so scared, because we were all naked, long hair… Mr Warner did not put the ladder down because they were all scared about us…”
After quizzing the boys about Tonga, Warner decided to welcome them on board – although he remained unconvinced about their real identity. So, he undecided to radio Nuku‘alofa, informing the operator that he had picked up six alleged castaways. After a tense 20-minute wait, their incredible tale was confirmed.
According to The Guardian, the operator was in tears when they returned to the line. They said, “You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle.” Finally convinced, Warner took the castaways home to Tonga, where they would be reunited with their families at last.
But first, there was another obstacle for the intrepid survivors to overcome. On their return to Nuku’alofa they were promptly arrested, charged for the theft of the boat that they had borrowed all those months ago. Eventually, Warner was able to sell the rights to the boys’ story, using the money to pay back the disgruntled fisherman and secure their release.
As the people of Tonga celebrated the boys’ miraculous return, Warner was hailed a hero. And as a thank you for his actions, he was awarded a license to fish for lobster and run a business in the archipelago. Purchasing a fishing boat, he hired all six of the castaways as his crew – finally granting them their wish to see the wider world.
Over time, the incredible story of the six castaways was largely forgotten. But in September 2019 Bregman included the tale in his book Humankind, catapulting the boys, now men in their 60s and 70s, into the spotlight once more. According to the author, the difference between these Tongans and their fictional counterparts in Lord of the Flies is a significant one. Speaking to People, he said, “We’ve been telling ourselves cynical stories about humanity for decades. A more hopeful view of human nature is exactly what we need right now.”