Most people have read this famous 1954 book by William Golding or have seen at least one of the 1963, 1973, or 1990 films based on it or have read about it. It is widely used as a text in US high schools. It tells a chilling story about how a group of British schoolboys marooned on a uninhabited island slowly degenerate into monsters, to the extent of torturing and killing. It is of course fiction but has been taken as a cautionary tale about the darkness of human nature and what we can become without the constraints of society, that often leads to an authoritarian view of what society needs to do to keep these terrible human impulses in check.
But it appears that what that story reveals is not about human nature but of Golding’s view of human nature.
Economist Rutger Bregman had also read the book as a young man and as a result had a cynical view of human nature too but on finding out that Golding had a dark view of life, wondered if that might have colored his perceptions. Bregman set to find if anything close to what happened in the book did so in real life and after much searching stumbled across a case that he describes in his book Humankind and in this article about six boys who in 1965 were marooned for 15 months on an island called ‘Ata in the Pacific near Tonga.. That story was very different. The boys, who attended a boarding school in Tonga and were bored and decided to escape from their school by stealing a boat and sailing away to Fiji that was 500 miles away or even further to New Zealand. It was an insane plan but those boys were, like adolescent boys everywhere, idiots and thought they could do it. They got shipwrecked in a violent storm but luckily managed to get to this island. But unlike Golding’s boys, these six worked together cooperatively and created a viable society before being discovered by an Australian Peter Warner who had been sailing by and noticed something odd.
Peering through his binoculars, [Warner] saw burned patches on the green cliffs. “In the tropics it’s unusual for fires to start spontaneously,” he told us, a half century later. Then he saw a boy. Naked. Hair down to his shoulders. This wild creature leaped from the cliffside and plunged into the water. Suddenly more boys followed, screaming at the top of their lungs. It didn’t take long for the first boy to reach the boat. “My name is Stephen,” he cried in perfect English. “There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here 15 months.”
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 were finally rescued on Sunday 11 September 1966. The local physician later expressed astonishment at their muscled physiques and Stephen’s perfectly healed leg.
It is a fascinating story that you have to read for yourself. Incidentally one of the six boys that Bregman managed to speak to is called Mano and he gave an interview too.
We should not rely too much on anecdotes to infer deep truths about human nature but surely real life stories should have greater weight than fictional fantasies. I am not saying that Golding’s book should not be used as a text but I think teachers should also tell their students about this actual event so that they do not get an entirely warped view of human nature.
Some readers may recall that I have written about Bregman before. One occasion was at Davos where he called out the plutocrats there for their hypocrisy in spouting noble sentiments while avoiding paying their fair share of taxes. The other occasion was where he was kicked out of an interview by Tucker Carlson during one of Carlson’s nightly White Supremacist Hour of Power of Fox News when he said that Carlson is essentially a mouthpiece for the oligarchy, so you know that he is on the right side of history. Bregman wrote about the incident later.