The real ‘Lord of the Flies’ – a story of community survival

Did you read Lord of the Flies in school? I did, and it seemed so real, even though it was a novel. It was a depressing imagination of how people would behave if all societal structure was gone, and it became a popular cultural reference.

But it wasn’t true. There was a real story, far more amazing and inspiring than anything Golding had imagined. It was a story of what happened when schoolboys used their local indigenous knowledge to help themselves survive together, co-operatively, creatively and sustainably.

The story had made a splash in Australia in 1966, when the boys were rescued after an Australian sea captain visited the island, ‘Ata, looking for new crayfish grounds. By then, the boys had been missing for a year and their families thought they had died.

But the story was otherwise forgotten untl Rutger Bregman got curious and went looking for it. As he explained in his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, he had begun to wonder about what would actually happen if schoolboys were marooned on a desert island. He wrote an article, suggesting the results would be quite different from Golding’s imagined version. But because he was writing about kids at home, school or summer camp, people were somewhat skeptical.

Daily Mercury picture tweeted by Rutger Bregman in May 2020. It shows Peter Warner on the left, Mano Totau on the right

So he set out to see if there was a real life version of the story to be found anywhere.

“After trawling the web for a while,” he said, “I came across an obscure blog that told an arresting story: ‘One day, in 1977, six boys set out from Tonga on a fishing trip … Caught in a huge storm, the boys were shipwrecked on a deserted island. What do they do, this little tribe? They made a pact never to quarrel.’ But the blog didn’t give a source.

Then, sifting through a newspaper archive, he typed a year incorrectly and found a headline in the 6 October 1966 edition of an Australian newspaper, The Age: “Sunday showing for Tongan castaways”. The story was about six boys found three weeks earlier on a rocky islet south of Tonga, and rescued by an Australian sea captain after being marooned on the island of ‘Ata for 15 months.

However, he was still stuck on how to find them until he came across the headline, “Mates share 50-year bond”, in the Daily Mercury, a tiny local paper in Mackay, Australia. Printed alongside was a small photograph of two men, smiling – Peter Warner and Mano Totau, who had met on a deserted island.

So Rutger and his wife Maartje went to Australia to find Captain Peter Warner, the mariner who had rescued six lost boys half a century earlier, and hear the story first-hand.

Photo by Jean-Paul Geindre on Panoramio, shared on Reading the Maps blog.

He summarized the story in tweets:

In June 1965. Mano and his friends – Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David and Luke – were pupils at St Andrew’s, a strict catholic boarding school in Nuku’alofa. Bored, they ‘borrowed’ a boat from Mr Taniela Uhiela, a fisherman they disliked. They didn’t pack many supplies, and even forgot a compass. 

After a storm tore the sail to shreds and broke the rudder, they drifted for eight days, until they spotted the island of ‘Ata: a hulking mass of rock jutting more a thousand feet out of the ocean…….

“In pretty much every way, the Real Lord of the Flies is the opposite of the fictional Lord of the Flies. The kids worked together in teams of two, got a fire started and never let it go out, and stayed friends this whole time.

Sure, sometimes, there were fights, but then one of them would go to one side of the island, the other to the other side, they would cool their temper, and say sorry. ‘That’s how we stayed friends,’ Mano told me.”

When Rutger told the story in Dutch, it didn’t make much of a splash, he explained recently on the Future Crunch podcast, Hope is a Verb. But then, the Guardian published an excerpt from his book Humankind: A Hopeful History, entitled The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. He was not prepared for how popular this story would be – and still is. Millions of people have read it.

Among some Pacific Islanders, the story sparked questions about who should tell the story and how it should be told – as an example of indigenous culture and community vs a story of a rescue by an Australian ship captain. Some also felt that the reason the island was uninhabited – the Pacific slave trade, which saw tens of thousand of people from the South Pacific kidnapped, tricked or coerced into slavery – should have been better explained. Others objected to the revelation that Warner sold the rights to the story of the boys’ rescue.

But it is a bit more complex, as it turns out. After their return to Tonga, the boys were arrested for stealing the wrecked boat. To get the money to secure their release from jail, Warner sold the Australian rights to the story to Channel Seven and used the money to pay for a replacement boat.

But while the story does tell an inspiring story that is so different from the fictional Lord of the Flies, being marooned on the island was harrowing for six teenaged boys who missed their families. It was not a Boy’s Own adventure.

But it wasn’t William Golding’s world, either.


Rutger Bregman- Why we’re better than we think we are. Hope is a Verb podcast by Future Crunch.

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months. Guardian, May 9, 2020

Pacific Islanders say tale of Tongans shipwrecked 50 years ago is not like Lord of the Flies. ABC Pacific Beat, May 15, 2020

The ‘real Lord of the Flies’: a survivor’s story of shipwreck and salvation. Guardian, May 11, 2020

Six Tongan Castaways in Ata Island | OLD DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL 7. You Tube, May 16, 2020

The Tongan Castaways making fire on Ata Island. Docastaway video, Feb. 8, 2021

Cover image: This amazing photograph of ‘Ata Island, where the boys were stranded for 15 months, was taken by Alvaro Cerezo, who founded and runs Docastaway, the first company in the world to specialize in holidays to undiscovered island. His purpose was to help people escape from civilization and be alone on their own deserted island. He has made a series of videos about the ‘Tongan castaways’. The photo was shared as a tweet by Rutger Bregman.