Sometimes, truth is even stranger than fiction. While most people know the dark and frightening tale of Lord of the Flies, many do not know about the true story of what happened when six teenagers were left stranded on a deserted island in the South Pacific. But now, finally, the story is out — and what actually happened is far more unbelievable than any storybook.
An Unexpected Detour And An Unexpected Discovery
Peter Warner was getting sick of living in the shadow of his wealthy father. All his life, he had been expected to carry on the family name by taking over the family business. But if Peter was being honest with himself, it was the sea that really called his name. Every chance he could get, he was on the water, and his latest expedition had taken him to the small Polynesian island of Tonga.
It was 1966, and the route home to Australia was one that Peter knew well. It included a pass by the tiny, uninhabited island of ‘Ata. The island had been deserted for decades, and it was even rumored to be cursed. And then, that’s when he saw it.
Something Strange In The Distance
To be fair, Peter first heard his discovery before he saw it. There were strange shouting noises and they seemed to be coming from the uninhabited island. He grabbed his binoculars and tried to make out what he was hearing. Peter immediately saw smoke and a small fire. Maybe it was a bush fire, he thought to himself.
Spontaneous bush fires were totally normal, but what he saw next was unlike anything he had ever seen. From the brush out onto the beach, the silhouette of a young man emerged. He was naked, with hair down to his shoulders — and he was running to the water as if for his life.
Who Was Coming For The Boat?
Peter was definitely intrigued. But as the figure jumped in the water and swam for his boat, he could not help but feel a little bit concerned for his own safety. Had he upset some indigenous people by sailing too close to shore? He looked back at the shore and saw there were five more bodies diving into the water and heading towards him.
But when the first boy reached the boat, he immediately cried out in perfect English something that Peter will never forget. “My name is Stephen,” the boy screamed as he paddled. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here for 15 months.”
Too Unbelievable To Be True
As Peter looked on worried, the boy Stephen climbed up the side of his small boat, quickly followed by the five other boys. They all seemed overjoyed to see him. Once they were all safely on the boat, they explained to the ship’s captain that they were students from a boarding school in Tonga’s capital.
The entire scenario seemed to be too insane to actually be true. Who were these boys? And what were they doing on this deserted island? Peter took his radio and contacted Nuku’alofa, the Tongan capital. “I’ve got six kids here,” he said. “Stand by,” the operator responded.
“It’s A Miracle”
Once Peter spoke to the radio operator, there was nothing left for him and the boys to do but wait for a response. For what felt like the longest 20 minutes of his life, Peter heard nothing on the other end of the radio. What would they do if no one replied? And then, suddenly, the operator radioed back.
Peter could not believe what he was hearing. “You found them!” the operator said. “These boys have been given up for dead. Funerals have been held. If it’s them, this is a miracle!” Peter looked around at the six boys in front of him. He wondered to himself: what on Earth was going on?
How It All Began
The story that was unfolding in front of Peter’s eyes sounded like it had been torn from the pages of the William Golding book Lord of the Flies. And in many ways, the stories were very similar. But this story began in June of 1965, according to the book Humankind by Rutger Bregman.
That is when the six boys — Mano, Stephen, Sione, Kolo, David, and Luke — all made the mistake that almost cost them their lives. The youngest was 13 years old and the oldest was 16, but all of them were bored in their Tongan town and were seeking adventure. They had their hearts set on sailing over 500 miles away to Fiji. But things clearly had not gone as planned.
Packing Up All The Wrong Things
If everything would have gone as planned, the teenagers had even considered sailing beyond Fiji and over to New Zealand. First came the small problem of addressing the fact that none of them even had access to a boat. But they did know someone who did.
A fisherman named Mr. Taniela Uhila lived nearby and was “disliked” by most of the boys. So one day, all six of them packed up “two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts, and a small gas burner,” according to Humankind, pilfered Mr. Uhila’s boat, and set sail. According to an interview, at the time “it didn’t occur to any of them to bring a map, let alone a compass.”
Setting Sail On A Doomed Voyage
So as not to be seen stealing Uhila’s boat, the boys decided to start their journey at night. That first night, the water remained calm, even as the boys themselves felt the opposite. They all had wanted to leave their “boring” lives and do something exciting, and they were doing just that.
But as the hours dragged on and the teens were running on little sleep, they made the mistake that would nearly kill them. They hadn’t thought to plan out a sleeping schedule, so over time all of them drifted off to sleep as their boat drifted into open water. But they did not sleep long before they were all suddenly awoken.
Traveling On A Broken Ship
As the boys slept, a wave had come and crashed onto the small fishing boat. The boys could barely see what was happening in the pitch black of nighttime on the high seas. They tried to gain control of the boat, but the sail ripped and the rudder had broken.
“We drifted for eight days,” Mano told Bregman for his book. “Without food, without water.” According to Bregman, the boys used coconut shells to collect rain water to drink. The rain water only produced enough for the boys to take just two sips for every day spent sitting in the sun. Their already small rations of food were quickly running out.
For eight long days, the six Tongan boys were drifting in completely open water. Without a compass, there was no telling where they were heading. But on the eighth, the boys saw a small island coming into focus. It was a miracle, but it was not exactly the kind of island they had hoped for.
“Not a tropical paradise with waving palm trees and sandy beaches, but a hulking mass of rock, jutting up more than a thousand feet out of the ocean,” Bregman wrote. The boys had drifted 102 miles southwest of Tonga and landed on the shore of the deserted island of ‘Ata. It was desolate. How would they make do?
Inhabiting the Uninhabitable Island
Since 1863, when the last indigenous people of ‘Ata had left, the rocky island of ‘Ata had been considered to be uninhabitable. The six boys became the first people to live on the island for over 100 years, which meant they had to build everything from the ground up.
The rocky shores were almost impossible to live on, and so they tried to venture further inland. But they were quickly met by steep cliffs that were difficult to climb. Until they could figure out a way up the mountains, they were be forced to try to live on the shores of the mysterious island.
A Difficult Summer
The boys quickly established a roster that included responsibilities like guard duty or kitchen duty. They all agreed that they would work in teams of two in order to keep each other safe. At the time, they had no idea what else or even who else existed on the island.
The summer was hot, and the boys were working to try to establish shelter as best they could. They were starving, as well as struggling to find any clean water. Their boat had broken to pieces. At times, the conditions obviously led to fights, tears, and a feeling of hopelessness. How would they keep themselves alive?
Finding A Way To Survive
There was no way of knowing how long it would be before anyone found the boys, and they were starting to worry about how long they could last living on the shores of ‘Ata. But living in the hot sun with little food and water left them exhausted each time they attempted to climb the island’s sharp cliffs.
Still, every day they would look for ways to travel further into the island. And little by little, the six boys made their way to the top of a volcanic crater. Finally, they said, they were able to see a path to survival.
Setting Up Shelter
The landscape at the top of the mountains was much different than what was down below — in a good way. At this new location, the boys were able to find coconuts and hunted wild birds. Soon, they even found treasures left behind by the people who had lived on ‘Ata a century ago.
The former residents had left behind banana plants and wild taro that they had cultivated. The boys even found old knives left in the dirt. And while the boys had been mostly existing off wild birds and fish on the shores below, they quickly learned that the people who had lived there before had bred chickens. They’d found their new camp — but trouble lay ahead.
A Medical Emergency
The boys began to adjust as much as they could to life on the abandoned island. They had even found a fresh water source by boring holes into trees. By day, pairs of them would go and hunt for birds. But on one of those expeditions, Stephen was injured.
As he chased after a wild bird, Stephen slipped and fell onto the rocks. The fall broke his leg, and the boys had to make him a splint out of branches they found nearby. At the time, Sione joked that the injury meant Stephen could live like a king without having to hunt. Little did they realize the danger up ahead.
Alone and Afraid
Living on a deserted island as six best friends definitely was an adventure, but it was not the adventure that any of them had hoped for. They had set up a shelter, and Kolo had managed to fashion his own guitar that the boys would use during their daily prayers.
But there were also nights where the boys were kept awake by rain until the morning. When it rained, rats would rush into their dry shelter to keep warm. One night, a 40-foot tree crashed mere inches away from their heads. Months had passed since they had become stranded, and there were days when they feared that they would live out the rest of their lives on ‘Ata.
It had been 15 months since the boys had left Tonga heading for Fiji. The months had dragged on, as they realized that truly no one knew where they were, and that no one may ever find them. But one fateful Sunday, September 11, 1966, one of the boys saw something coming their direction.
“Boat coming! Boat coming!” he screamed. Stephen began running down their path to the shore. The rest of the boys began yelling from the mountains for their lives and following Stephen to the shore. Finally, after more than a year in total isolation, they were about to be free — or so they thought.
What They Were Leaving Behind
Before Peter and the six castaways made their way back to Tonga, Peter asked to see their campsite. He was not nearly prepared for what he was about to see. “By the time we arrived, the boys had set up a small commune,” Peter wrote in his memoir.
Peter saw that from the ground up the boys had set up a campsite that included “a food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens, and a permanent fire, all from the handiwork of an old knife blade and much determination.” But back at home, others would not be as impressed.
A Not So Happy Homecoming
After 15 months, the boys were assumed dead by the people of Tonga, and their funerals had already been held. They had left behind families, and a few mentioned that they had had girlfriends before they set sail. Some had new family members born while they were away. Everyone expected a happy and triumphant homecoming, but that is not exactly what transpired.
While the boys were gone, Mr. Taniela Uhila was still upset that his boat had been stolen. He was a fisherman, and the boys had threatened his livelihood. When he realized it had been them, he pressed charges. By the time the boys reached Tongan shores, they were immediately arrested.
Coming Up With A Plan
Peter Warner had just seen the most unbelievable thing in his life. Unwittingly, he had rescued six stranded boys from an abandoned island. He couldn’t fathom that this incredible story of survival would end with their arrest. He had to do something, and he knew exactly how to take action.
From working with his father’s business, Peter had come into contact with some people in the TV and film industry. He scrambled to get the story’s film rights and presented an idea to the government. He would pay for the boat, and the boys would be let free in order to participate in the movie. The plan worked. At last, the boys were free to see their families.
Finally Coming Home
The boys were finally released from arrest, free to go home and see their families. The community was ecstatic to see that the six boys they presumed to have been dead were healthy and alive. Almost every single person from the small island of 900 where the boys had grown up came out to celebrate.
The boys were greeted by their families and others, brimming over with tears of joy. Music played as the island sat down for a gigantic celebratory feast, and Peter Warner was welcomed and honored as a hero for saving the boys. Even the King of Tonga himself requested to see him. And Peter knew that would be the perfect time to discuss his new plan.
An Audience With The King
After a day spent celebrating, singing, and dancing, Peter Warner was brought to the capital to meet personally with King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, the leader of Tonga. According to Peter himself, he remembers the king saying “thank you for rescuing six of my subjects.”
Peter was flattered to get this sort of hero’s welcome. “Now, is there anything I can do for you?” His Royal Highness asked. Peter decided to ask the king if he could start a business and trap lobster on the island. He would finally live out his dream, and he had one more idea in mind for his new life path.
Hiring His Crew
Peter quit his father’s company and was able to finally chase his dream of working on the water. But there were other dreams he wanted to help make into realities. He shared something in common with the boys he’d rescued: all of them had stolen onto the fishing boat that started it all in hopes of living a new life of adventure as well.
Peter did not need any time to decide that he wanted all six of the boys to come work with him as fishermen. And all six of them signed on to become his newest crew members. Finally, they would be able to see the world beyond their small island home.
Disappearing Once Again
Long gone were the days that the boys would set sail without a map or a compass. Peter taught them all everything they needed to know in order to sail safely and finally explore the world. For years, the Tongan boys all worked as his crew members, to great success.
The boys had returned to the island in order to film their documentary about their unbelievable story. Unfortunately, the documentary itself never took off and the story was mostly forgotten. Everyone had moved on with their lives. Overtime, the boys would disappear once again — but this time was entirely different.
The Real Life Lord Of The Flies
Unlike the story of the Lord of the Flies, the story of the six Tongan boys who were left on an uninhabitable island remained relatively unknown for years. And while the stories are similar, those who know them both say they are different in a very fundamental way.
In real life, a tale of a handful of young boys stranded on an island without parents was not filled with chaos and fights for power. Instead, these six young men were able to band together in friendship and support, create a shelter, and keep each other safe by working together to survive.
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