Tale of two islands

Given the removal of meta-systems of morality, is the collapse into anarchy an inevitable part of the human condition? Or is it just a Trumpian or Somalian thing?

One writer, Rutger Bregman, fascinated by the story of Lord of the Flies, which we all know so well, wondered if there was a real-world version of the allegorical descent in the novel. Turns out there was. Turns out, too, its story was diametrically different.

Maybe Bregman wanted to prove it so. After all, his first book, Humankind – a Hopeful History is a broad-sweep look at human existence which argues that, despite all our self-made problems, most people are basically good at heart.

So to the real world Lord of the Flies story, which Bregman recounts in Humankind. What happened was this. In June 1965, six Tongan boys, Sione Fataua, Fatai Latui, Tevita Fifita Sioloa, Kolo Fekitoa, Mano Fotau, and Luke Veikoso, aged between 15 and 17, got bored. They yearned for adventure. So they ‘borrowed’ a 24 foot boat, and set out for Fiji, or maybe New Zealand – somewhere, anywhere, just so long it was beyond the limited horizons of the community on their home Haʻafeva Island. Their supplies were a bunch of bananas, some coconuts and a gas burner, presumably to cook fish. No maps or compass. But after a day of fishing, a storm broke their anchor and disabled the boat’s rudder and shredded the sail. They drifted for 200 miles to the southwest, bailing all the time, until they spotted the cliff-fringed island of ‘Ata. They abandoned ship and swam ashore (it took them 36 hours), using planks salvaged from the wreck as improvised liferafts.

The island had been completely depopulated. The people there had lived in a village in the island’s crater called Kolomaile. But in June 1863, Captain Thomas James McGrath of the whaler Grecian, reckoned he’d try his hand at slaving, since whaling wasn’t paying so well. He invited the islanders on board for trading. But once half island the population was aboard, they were locked in, and the ship sailed away to Peru. The Tongan King George Tupou I, heard of the kidnapping, and sent three schooners to ʻAta to resettle the remaining population to another island ʻEua, where they would be safe from slavers. Bad Captain McGrath was later arrested in Bluff for tax evasion; and the ship’s owners also charged him for using the ship illegally.

Back to the six castaways. They found they could live on ‘Ata, in the remnants of the old village. There were fruit trees and chickens. They stored rainwater in the boles of hollowed-out trees. The two oldest became their leaders: one on the spiritual side, the other practical. Yes, the group argued on occasion, but they had a plan of time out, after which they would always reconcile. They kept a fire going constantly, and around it they sang, accompanied by a home-made guitar. They composed five new songs during their exile of more than a year. They prayed a lot. They fashioned a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, and chicken pens. At one point, one of the boys slipped down a cliff and broke his leg. His mates mended it with splints and it set just fine.

On 11 September, 1966, an Australian fishing boat Just David anchored offshore, after having noticed burned patches on the green cliffs of the supposedly uninhabited island. The Tongan lads immediately swam out to the boat. “My name is Stephen,” the first to arrive called out in perfect English. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”

When they got back to their home island Haʻafeva, the bloke whose boat had been ‘borrowed’ was grumpy. He charged them with theft. They were held in jail for a while. But the fishing boat captain Peter Warner paid Taniela Uhila out for the lost boat - $150, and he was sweet. And Warner asked for the film rights to the boys’ story. The King of Tonga Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV asked to meet him. How can I thank you for rescuing the boys? he asked. Give me fishing rights for lobster in Tonga, said Peter. Deal done. The lost boys then worked for Peter on his fishing boats.

So, it all turned out alright. Granted, the boys were much older than the Lord of the Flies mob. And they were devout Christians. But, unlike the adult, so-called ‘Christians’ of Pitcairn Island, they showed that isolation need not mean implosion.

In between the novel and the real story, there lies the odd netherworld of reality TV, and that has a bearing here. According to Bregman, the creator of the hit TV series Survivor was obsessed with the story: “I read and re-read Lord of the Flies,” he once said in an interview.

In the novel, the British naval officer who comes ashore to discover that the boys’ island had become a smouldering, anarchic wasteland, remarked acidly: “I should have thought that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that.” Well, the Tongans did. I prefer the story of the Real Lord of the Flies.