Mr Peter Warner, third from left, with his crew in 1968, including the survivors from ‘Ata. Photograph: Fairfax Media Archives/via Getty Images

What would happen if a group of poorly equipped, hungry, frightened and lost schoolboys washed up on a deserted tropical island?

Would they manage to survive or would they revert to savagery?

In 1954 British author William Goldman published his first novel, Lord of the Flies, which has become one of the classics of 20th century literature.

Set during a future world war, it tells the story of a group of schoolboys who are evacuated from England are being flown to safety when their aeroplane crashes on an uninhabited island in the Pacific.

The boys make plans about helping each to survive and find food, but their society crumples as they become hungry, are driven mad by fear and isolation and become convinced the island is occupied  by a  monster they call The Beast. Eventually they begin to worship a rotting pig’s head and murder each other.

Now Dutch author Rutger Bregman has found a story which he says proves that Lord of The Flies’ grim  fiction needn’t be reality – and it all hinges on six Tongan boarding school students who tried to sail to Fiji.

Just over a decade later, in 1965, six schoolboys, fed up with life in a strict Catholic boarding school in Nuku’alofa, took a boat with a plan to head for Fiji or even all the way to New Zealand.

The boys packed very little – two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts and a small gas burner. They had no maps or compass. Author Rutger Bregman identifies the boys by their first names –  Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano.

On their first night at sea they fell asleep and woke to find a storm had blown up, with their sail in shreds and their rudder damaged they drifted for eight days, surviving on two sips of water a day until they reached ‘Ata, an island with a grim history.

Once populated, the island was raided by slave traders who kidnapped 140 local people and took them to Peru. It was believed that some eventually made their way back , but the remaining population of the island was moved to ‘Eua.

Once on the island the boys acted in a manner completely the opposite of the Lord of the Flies’ fictional students. Instead of quarreling and killing each other, they drew up a roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Each day began with a song and a prayer. Kolo fashioned a guitar from scarps and they tried building a raft, but it fell apart in the surf,

It barely rained that summer, leaving them dreadfully thirsty. They survived on fish, coconuts, and birds, drinking their blood as well as eating their meat and sucking seabird eggs dry. They eventually reached the top of the island which reaches hundreds of metres above sea level and there they found wild taro, bananas and chickens which had been reproducing  since the last Tongans left.

They stored rainwater in hollowed-out tree trunks, built a gymnasium and a badminton court, chicken pens and kept a permanent fire, all, Bregman writes, “from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’

Eventually, on September 11, 1966, after a year on the island, a passing Australian ship skippered by Captain Peter Warner spotted their signal fire and rescued them. When he managed to contact Nuku’alofa by radio to say he had rescued the boys the radio operator exclaimed: “You found them! These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle!”

Once they were back in Tonga, things took  a turn for the worse when the owner of the boat they had ‘borrowed’ all those  months before pressed charges and had them jailed. Warner solved the problem by using his connections through his father’s electronics empire and arranged to have a film made about them. He paid off the owner and when the king asked what reward he would like he asked for lobster fishing rights, bought a new fishing boatrawler  and took on the boys as his crew.

The main points

  • What would happen if a group of poorly equipped, hungry and lost schoolboys washed up on a deserted tropical island?
  • Would they manage to survive or would they revert to savagery?

For more information

The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months 

The strange story of Tonga’s lost island of ‘Ata

New book tells story of slave raiders who took Tongans to South America


  1. Fakahaofi mo’ui kau ako ‘Apifo’ou ne nau hake ‘i ‘Ata. Na’e ‘i ai ‘a e tohi ‘iloa ko e Lord of the Flies ko e fa’u ‘e he tangata ‘iloa Pilitania ko William Golding pea na’e foaki kiate ia taha e pale mahu’inga taha ‘i māmani ko e Noble Prize. Ko e talanoa ki ha toko ono ko e fānau Pilitania ne nau mavahe ‘i ha vakapuna ‘o iku maumau ‘o tō ‘i ha motu he Pasifiki’. Pehē ‘e ha tangata fa’u tohi Netaleni, Rutger Bregman he uike ni, ko e talanoa o e Lord Of The Flies ne pulusi ‘i he 50 tupu ko ha vavalo pe ki he tu’unga ‘e a’u ki ai ha fānau te nau mole ‘i tahi ‘o hake ha feitu’u kehe. Ka ko hono mo’oni e vavalo ko ia ne fesītu’a’aki ia mo e mo’oni ‘o e mo’ui hili e me’a ne hoko tonu ‘osi ha ta’u ‘e 10 nai mei hono fa’u ‘o e Lord Of The Flies, ki ha fānau ako ‘Apifo’ou ne nau hola vaka ‘o hake ‘i ‘Ata. ‘I he Lord of the Flies ne mate kotoa e fānau Pilitania i he anga e tui ‘a Golding ko e iku’anga ‘o ha fānau ‘e hē ‘i tahi. Ka ‘i he talanoa ki he fānau Tonga’ ko e talanoa mo’oni ia pea ne nau iku hao mo’ui kotoa. Ko e fānau ako ‘e toko ono eni ne nau ako nofoma’u he Kolisi ‘Apifo’ou ne nau hola vaka tahi ko e taumu’a ki Fisi pe Nu’u Sila ‘i he ta’u 1965 ka ne nau iku hake kinautolu ‘i ‘Ata. Ne nau mo’ui ai he motu’ ni pea ‘i he 1966 ne fe’unga hake ha vaka tahi ‘Aositelēlia mo ‘Ata ‘o ‘ilo ai ‘a e fānau’ ni. Na’a’ ne fakafoki ai ‘a e fānau’ ni ‘o ‘ave ki Tongatapu. Ko e vaka ‘eni ‘o e tangata ko Pita Uona ko ha foha ‘o ha tangata tu’umālie ‘Aositelēlia. Na’e mahino ne ‘osi fai putu e ngaahi famili ‘o e fānau’ ni he pehe kuo nau mate ‘i tahi. Ka e hili ‘enau tū’uta ‘i Tonga’ ne iku ‘o faka’ilo kinautolu ‘e he tangata na’e ‘o’ona e vaka ne nau hola ai’. Ka ne solova ‘eni ‘e Pita Uona ‘aki ‘ene totongi honau mo’ua ka nau hao mei he ngāue pōpula’, ‘omai e kautaha hele’uhila ke ‘eti e me’a na’e hoko pea’ ne ngāue’aki leva ‘a e fānau’ ni ko ‘ene kau kauvaka. Ne ‘eke ‘e he tu’i ‘aho ko ia’ kia Uona pe ko e hā ha pale te ne fiema’u koe’uhi ko e ngāue lelei kuo’ ne fai ‘o fakahaofi e fānau’ ni pea kole ‘e Uona ke ‘oange ha’ane totonu ke ne toutai’i ‘a e ‘uo’ ‘i Tonga. Na’e ui’aki pe ‘e Bregman ‘a e kau tangata’ ni ‘a honau hingoa ‘uluaki’ ‘a ia ko : Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke mo Mano.