A True Lord of the Flies: The 50-Year Tale of a Group of Teenagers Stranded on an Island – 60 Minutes
Tonight we have a story of solidarity, hope and ultimately survival in the face of adversity. It took place over fifty years ago, but when it was rediscovered last year, it caused a stir. As we first told you this year, it’s the story of a group of schoolchildren stranded on a remote and deserted island for over 15 months. It might remind you of the famous novel – Lord of the Flies, by William Golding – but as you’ll see, the outcome of this actual story couldn’t have been more different.
The story begins in 1965. Mano Totau and five of his friends were studying at a boarding school in Tonga, an island nation in the Pacific Ocean. Bored, rebellious and hungry for adventure – they stole a traditional whaler – and with reckless abandonment, they set out for Fiji.
Holly Williams: Did he have an engine?
Mano Totau: No, no engine.
Holly Williams: But Mano, isn’t Fiji about 500 miles from Tonga?
Mano Totau: A little less.
Holly Williams: Did you have a map or a compass?
Mano Totau: No. (TO LAUGH)
The teenagers may have been brought up at sea, but they soon realized they had made a terrible mistake. The first night, a severe storm ripped the sails off the mast and tore the rudder off the boat.
For more than a week, their paralyzed boat drifted aimlessly. Sione Fataua, 17, the oldest of the group, told us they were convinced they were going to die.
Sione Fataua: No food, no water. We were just drifting with the wind. And after eight days, we saw the island.
It was a volcanic island, overlooking the sea. As the ship approached, a wave sent it crashing into the rocky shore, leaving it to pieces. The exhausted teenagers struggled on the ground.
Mano Totau: The only thing we do is stick together and say a prayer, “thank you, my God”.
The schoolchildren later discovered that they had drifted a hundred miles from where they had started and had landed on Ata Island – on maps, nothing more than an uninhabited spot.
It was such a remarkable story that an Australian TV crew later brought the teens back to ‘Ata to re-enact their experience. In the film, Sione, Mano and their friends show how they survived.
Movie “The Castaways”: They were able to retrieve an oar and a piece of wire, and with that, they set about catching what they hoped would be their first meal in 8 days.
They show how they ate the fish they caught raw and quenched their thirst by plundering seabird nests, drinking their blood and raw eggs.
Holly Williams: Any food, anything to drink.
Mano Totau: Any food. No matter how horrible and dirty it is, it is a very beautiful thing to have him at this time.
When they regained enough strength, Mano and Sione told us, they climbed to the wooded plateau of the island where they found a clay pot, a machete and chickens, all abandoned by a small Tongan community. who lived on ‘Ata before being torn from home by slave traders a century earlier.
But they told us that everything changed when they finally built a fire and started making hot meals.
Holly Williams: How did you stop him from going out?
Sione Fataua: I tell the guys, everyone has a homework assignment. You got to take care of the fire and you got to say the prayer for that night, and get up in the morning, it still works.
The runaway teenagers showed remarkable ingenuity: they built a hut with palm leaves, created a garden with bananas and beans, and put together a checklist to watch for passing ships. They even built a badminton court and a makeshift gym. They lived in harmony, they told us, most of the time.
Holly Williams: But, come on, Mano. You were teenagers. You must have had arguments.
Mano Totau: We did and we didn’t agree.
They cooled off as they walked to opposite sides of the island, Mano says, though at times things got out of hand.
Holly Williams: So if there was a fight, how did you stop it?
Mano Totau: You slap him or something, and say, “Shut up and calm down, sit down, listen.”
Holly Williams: There must have been times when you were depressed, when you thought you would never see your families again.
Sione Fataua: It was hard. And I was – I pray to God and – and I promise Him, “If you can get me back, I’ll serve you, the rest of my life.”
For over 50 years, the real story of Sione, Mano and their friends was little known outside Tonga … until Dutch historian and best-selling author Rutger Bregman discovered it on the Internet. He flew around the world to meet Mano and made history the cornerstone of his new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History.
Rutger Bregman: And I just couldn’t figure out how it didn’t become, you know, one of the most famous stories of the 20th century. I just couldn’t figure it out, because it’s just amazing, six kids on an island for 15 months. And how did they survive?
Like millions of others, Bregman had read the fictitious A tale of abandoned schoolchildren, Lord of the Flies, which for generations has been taught in high schools around the world.
The novel – later turned into a movie – is a nightmarish tale of a group of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island. They split into two competing tribes and descend into violence, culminating in chaos and murder.
Rutger Bregman: It’s a very old theory in Western culture, that our civilization is just a thin varnish, just a thin layer. And that when something bad happens – let’s say there’s a natural disaster or you get shipwrecked on an island and you have the freedom to start your own company – people reveal who they really are. You know, people deep down are just selfish.
Holly Williams: And you’re saying the basic idea behind the novel, Lord of the Flies, is wrong? You say that will never happen?
Rutger Bregman: Well, if tens of millions of children around the world still have to read Lord of the Flies in school today, I think they also deserve to know that time in world history when real children were wrecked on a real island. , because it’s a very different story.
A story of cooperation, hope and ultimately salvation. In September 1966, after 15 long months, Australian lobster fisherman Peter Warner was sailing near Ata when he spotted a burnt area. When he approached he was shocked to see a human figure.
Peter Warner: And that first figure was swimming towards us doing the Australian crawl, as I call it. And then five other bodies jumped off the cliff and into the water and followed him.
They got on board and told the crew how they escaped from the residential school and were wrecked. Peter radioed Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga, to verify their story.
Peter Warner: And the operator said, crying, “That’s right. These boys were students of this university. They were considered dead. A funeral took place. And now you have found them. So it was a very moving moment for all of us.
Holly Williams: So you knew you were coming home.
Mano Totau: Yes
Holly Williams: How did it go?
Mano Totau: Like crossing the door to paradise.
But heaven will have to wait: on their return to port, they are immediately arrested.
Holly Williams: So Peter Warner saved you and brought you back to Nuku’alofa where everyone thought you were dead. And then you were arrested?
Sione Fataua: Yes. We stopped because we stole the boat. (TO LAUGH)
Peter Warner told us he reimbursed the owner of the stolen boat and ultimately brought the fleeing school children back to their home island, along with the Australian TV crew who came to film their story. They captured the teenagers reuniting with their families.
Film “The Castaways”: Our boys are back …
Sione Fataua: My mother, she was swimming before I got off the boat. I am the first to go to the beach and give myself a hug.
Film “The Castaways”: Never had there been such joy …
Peter Warner: The whole population of this little island was on the beach, hugging the boys. The parents were crying. Then the party started. Six days of feast.
History has never been forgotten in these islands, but when a British newspaper published a chapter of Rutger Bregman’s book last May, the story of Tongan teens went viral – 7 million people read it. in a few days. Hollywood studios have embarked on a bidding war for the rights to the film.
Holly Williams: Why have so many people around the world been surprised and captivated by your retelling of the story?
Rutger Bregman: Maybe we needed to hear it? Perhaps especially at this time, in the midst of a pandemic? Were people looking for a story that gives them hope for another way of living together, that another society is possible. That it’s not just about violence, selfishness and greed in human nature, but that we can build on something different. Maybe that’s why.
It has been 55 years since the shipwrecked schoolchildren were rescued. They never doubted how or why they survived.
Sione Fataua: I think about the culture where we come from. We are close. Really close family. We share everything. We are poor, but we love each other.
The teenagers had no interest in returning to class, they first worked for Peter Warner, who started a fishing business in Tonga. Sione, as promised, later became a minister — he is now the head of the Church of Tonga in America. Mano trained as a chef and moved to Australia. For half a century, he and Peter Warner have been best friends – whenever they can, they go out sailing – forever remote in the Pacific Ocean where their friendship began.
Holly Williams: Why are you getting along so well, you know, all these years after the rescue?
Mano Totau: I think we feel strongly within ourselves that we have something to help each other.
Peter Warner: Yes, and also …
Mano Totau: Teach each other about it.
Peter Warner: And also, we have a common belief that got you through this ordeal on the island, you know, love, compassion and …
Mano Totau: Yes.
Peter Warner: Justice, unity.
Mano Totau: We both believe in the same thing.
The teenagers composed a song when they were on the island of ‘Ata — Siosionoa — seeing nothing every day. It takes Mano back to a time when they yearned for home, and before they could imagine their history could have lessons for all of us.
Produced by Michael H. Gavshon. Associate producer, Nadim Roberts. Broadcast Associate, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Daniel J. Glucksman.