This real life ‘lord of the flies’ story is very different from the book

You probably read this book in junior high school or at some point while you were young. Lord of the Flies by William Golding tells the story of a group of boys who are stranded on a remote island after a plane crash. Initially they rally and make plans to stay alive until they can be rescued, but soon the boys form factions and a power struggle leads to murder. The idea behind the novel isn’t hard to miss. Left alone, children would quickly revert to a semi-feral and warlike state because that is the true nature of mankind.

Today the Guardian published an excerpt from a book by Rutger Bregman which reveals that something very much like the premise of Lord of the Flies actually happened once in the 1960s. A group of boys “borrowed” a boat and wound up stranded on an island for 15 months:

The real Lord of the Flies, Mano told us, began in June 1965. The protagonists were six boys – Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano – all pupils at a strict Catholic boarding school in Nuku‘alofa. The oldest was 16, the youngest 13, and they had one main thing in common: they were bored witless. So they came up with a plan to escape: to Fiji, some 500 miles away, or even all the way to New Zealand.

There was only one obstacle. None of them owned a boat, so they decided to “borrow” one from Mr Taniela Uhila, a fisherman they all disliked. The boys took little time to prepare for the voyage. Two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts and a small gas burner were all the supplies they packed. It didn’t occur to any of them to bring a map, let alone a compass.

The journey didn’t go as planned. A storm hit. Their sail was shredded. After drifting on the sea for a full week they saw the island of ‘Ata, the remnant of an ancient volcano, which had been uninhabited by humans for about 100 years at that point.

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 quarreled, 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 lived on fish, coconuts and birds but eventually discovered that settlers who had been taken from the island decades earlier by a slave ship had left behind chickens and bananas. The boys survived from June of 1965 when they “borrowed” the boat until September of 1966 when they were spotted by Peter Warner from his boat which happened to be passing near the island.

The boys, after their rescue, were arrested because the owner of the boat they’d stolen was still angry. But Peter Warner, who happened to be the son of a wealthy electronics manufacturer, used his connections to make a film about the boys’ story. He sold the Australian TV rights to a station in Sydney and used that money to pay off the boat owner.

When the rescued boys returned home to Tonga, they were greeted like heroes. Peter Warner was too and the king of Tonga granted him the right to start a company trapping lobster near the island. Peter quit working for his father and became a fisherman. He hired all six of the boys he rescued as his crew.

Bregman, the author of the book from which this excerpt was drawn argues that Lord of the Flies may tell us more about author William Golding than it does about humanity:

I first read Lord of the Flies as a teenager. I remember feeling disillusioned afterwards, but not for a second did I think to doubt Golding’s view of human nature. That didn’t happen until years later when I began delving into the author’s life. I learned what an unhappy individual he had been: an alcoholic, prone to depression; a man who beat his kids. “I have always understood the Nazis,” Golding confessed, “because I am of that sort by nature.” And it was “partly out of that sad self-knowledge” that he wrote Lord of the Flies.

Lord of the Flies has been made into a movie three times and plans are underway for a fourth adaptation. It’s a shame this real life version of the story has been forgotten.

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