In the winter of 1966, Captain Peter Warner peered through his binoculars to the small island of ‘Ata. The Australian fisherman was on his way back to Tasmania from Tonga, and had taken a small detour that brought him alongside this forgotten southern outcrop of the Tongan archipelago.
There was something strange about the island. It appeared to have patches of burnt land; not something that tends to happen naturally in the tropics. Then, through the lenses, he saw him. A teenage boy. Naked, with long hair, scrambling off the rocky shore and into the water. Soon, others emerged behind him, all screaming at the top of their lungs.
Before long, the first boy reached Warner’s boat. “My name is Stephen,” he cried. “There are six of us, and we reckon we’ve been here for 15 months.”
This incredible true story is recounted by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman in his new book Humankind: A Hopeful History.
Bregman happened upon it in an obscure blog while researching the tenets of the classic book, Lord of the Flies.
The 1954 novel, by British author William Golding, tells of a group of schoolboys who find themselves shipwrecked on a deserted island (the film adaptation is pictured above). Their effort to govern themselves sees a descent into anarchy and three among them killed. The book’s final line — one of the most famous in modern literature — tells of one of the surviving boys weeping “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart”.
But is that really human nature, all that darkness and self-interest and selfishness? Bregman wasn’t convinced. He believed in a (sadly) revolutionary idea: that, beneath it all, people are fundamentally good.
And as the ‘Ata story revealed, he may be right.
The castaways of ‘Ata: the real-life Lord of the Flies.
In June 1965, six students ran away from St. Andrews College, the Catholic boarding school they attended in the Tongan capital, Nukuʻalofa.
The boys — Sione Fataua, “Stephen” Tevita Fatai, Kolo Fekitoa, “David” Tevita Fifita Siolaʻa, Mano Totau and Luke Veikoso — aged 16 and 17, stole a small fishing boat and headed out to sea. They left with few supplies, some bananas, coconuts and small gas burner. They had no map or compass, and only one of them knew how to sail.
Rutger recounts on Twitter what happened next.
After a day fishing, they fell asleep on board. A storm rolled through the archipelago. Strong winds snapped their rudder, tore the sails and broke the anchor, casting them adrift for eight days with no food or water.
Sanctuary came when they sighted ‘Ata.
The towering, rocky island had been inhabited long ago until a Peruvian slave ship arrived in early 1863 to round up the locals. Signs of the stolen community remained in a crater at the top of the cliffs: wild taro, banana trees, even chickens that had continued breeding for a century since the island was deserted, Rutger wrote in The Guardian.
Before they found these, the boys lived off fish, coconuts and seabird eggs. It was an unforgiving landscape, but they made the best of it.
In Captain Warner’s memoir, which he gave to Rutger, he recalled, “By the time we arrived, the boys had set up a small commune with 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 handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.”