What a pleasant story to read! We’re all familiar with the entirely fictional story of Lord of the Flies, in which ship-wrecked boys revert to the natural savagery of all humans and set up a brutal regime and start oppressing and killing each other. It makes for a good story, I guess. Except that similar events happened for real in 1965, with a half-dozen 13-16 year old boys ‘borrowing’ a fishing boat, a storm disabling the boat, and then the boys were stranded on a rocky island in the Pacific for over a year. It all turned out differently.
Then, on the eighth day, they spied a miracle on the horizon. A small island, to be precise. 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. These days, ‘Ata is considered uninhabitable. But “by the time we arrived,” Captain Warner wrote in his memoirs, “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.” While the boys in Lord of the Flies come to blows over the fire, those in this real-life version tended their flame so it never went out, for more than a year.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer. Kolo fashioned a makeshift guitar from a piece of driftwood, half a coconut shell and six steel wires salvaged from their wrecked boat – an instrument Peter has kept all these years – and played it to help lift their spirits. And their spirits needed lifting. All summer long it hardly rained, driving the boys frantic with thirst. They tried constructing a raft in order to leave the island, but it fell apart in the crashing surf.
Worst of all, Stephen slipped one day, fell off a cliff and broke his leg. The other boys picked their way down after him and then helped him back up to the top. They set his leg using sticks and leaves. “Don’t worry,” Sione joked. “We’ll do your work, while you lie there like King Taufa‘ahau Tupou himself!”
They survived initially on fish, coconuts, tame birds (they drank the blood as well as eating the meat); seabird eggs were sucked dry. Later, when they got to the top of the island, they found an ancient volcanic crater, where people had lived a century before. There the boys discovered wild taro, bananas and chickens (which had been reproducing for the 100 years since the last Tongans had left).
I imagine it could have gone badly if there’d been even one psychopath in the group, but then there would have been a year of chaos and self-destruction instead, and the fishing boat that eventually rescued them would have found nothing but bones and maybe some starving kids. Instead, we see that natural selection favored the population that cooperated, shared labor, and protected the weak and injured.
It’s curious that this optimistic true story of survival fell into obscurity, while the more pessimistic, cynical, and fictional story by William Golding sold 10s of millions of copies.