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Tongan Teens Marooned on a Pacific Island

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Half a dozen teenage boys who were enrolled in a boarding school in Tonga decided to run away. They stole a boat with the plan to sail to Fiji or New Zealand, but their adventure went horribly wrong.

Isolated Ata Island rises from the gloom in the Pacific Ocean.

Isolated Ata Island rises from the gloom in the Pacific Ocean.

Setting Sail for Fiji

Fed up with the regimentation and strict discipline of the Catholic boarding school they attended, the six Tongan teenage boys conspired to escape. In June 1965, they stole a 25-foot sail boat and set off. Their names were Sione Fataua, “Stephen” Tevita Fatai Latu, “David” Tevita Fifita Siola’a, Kolo Fekitoa, “Mano” Sione Filipe Totau, and Luke Veikoso.

They had no compass, no nautical maps, and only one of them had any knowledge of sailing. The first night out, they were hit by a storm that took away their sail, rudder, and much of the small amount of food they had. They were adrift in the vast Pacific Ocean and the situation looked grim.

They survived for eight days before smacking into the rocks of an island called Ata, 100 nautical miles to the southwest of Tonga. The boys, weak with hunger and dehydration, swam ashore and pondered their future. It didn't look good.

Survival on Ata Island

The teens had arrived on a rocky island that covered an area of just 1.5 km2 (0.58 sq mi). Most of the land was a plateau between 60 and 100 metres (200 to 330 feet) above sea level.

The youths had two pressing needs, food and water. Of the former, there were fish, seabirds, rats, coconuts, and figs, but water was a problem. There was only intermittent rainfall and nothing much with which to capture and store water. Initially, they drank the blood of seabirds and swallowed their raw eggs to get some liquid.

But, the boys turned out to be amazingly resourceful. They discovered the remnants of an ancient village located in the volcanic crater on the top of the island. They found wild bananas and taro―a starchy root―and feral chickens.

They also discovered a rusty machete with which they were able to hollow out logs to capture rainwater. They built a hut to provide shelter and eventually they started a fire so they no longer had to eat their food raw. They were to live like this for 15 months.

Back on Tonga, the teenagers had been given up for dead and their symbolic funerals had been held.

Lord of the Flies Comparison

All accounts of the shipwrecked Tongans eventually come round to contrasts with William Golding’s novel about stranded British schoolchildren on an uninhabited island. In the Lord of the Flies the boys descend into violence and chaos suggesting that civilized behaviour is a thin veneer that falls away under stress.

The experience of the boys on Ata Island challenges that thesis.

Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi is a Tongan storyteller who says comparison with Lord of the Flies is completely invalid because the subjects of the novel were English schoolboys raised in a culture that values individualism. She says the survival of the six teens is rooted in Tongan culture that stresses the strength of the community over the individual: “When we find other Tongans we stick together; that is very much in our value system and it’s very different to how those fictional boys would have been raised.”

Community Survival

The marooned Tongans chose the two oldest teens to be leaders; one was in charge of practical matters, the other oversaw spiritual needs. They divided into three work teams for garden, kitchen, and guarding.

Rutger Bregman is a Dutch historian who researched to story of the Tongan castaways for his 2020 book Humankind: A Hopeful Future. In an article in The Guardian he wrote that “Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.”

Fifty years later, Sione Filipe Totau told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation “A group of people . . . don’t know where they are and don’t have enough food and water . . . maybe they don’t agree on the same thing, but they have to try to get together and work together and make everything work so they can survive.”

Occasionally, they spotted a ship so they lit signal fires, but they weren’t seen until September 11, 1966.

The Ata Castaways Returned to the Island to Take Part in Documentary Recreation of Their Ordeal

Skipper Peter Warner to the Rescue

Aboard his fishing boat, Just David, Peter Warner was sailing by Ata Island when he noticed some patches of burned grass. This seemed peculiar as he knew the island was uninhabited. Then, through his binoculars he saw the boys and they saw him and swam out to the Just David.

When he heard what seemed an implausible story, he radioed to Tonga with the names the boys had given him. Twenty minutes later, he got a tearful reply, “You found them . . . If it’s them, this is a miracle.”

The joyous a tearful reunion on Tonga was marred only by one thing―the boys were arrested and jailed for stealing the boat. That issue was quickly dealt with as Warner made restitution for the lost vessel.

Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV, the king of Tonga, gave Peter Warner a royal license to catch spiny lobsters in Tongan waters. The two men remained friends until the king’s death in 2006. Warner has also been close to “Mano” Sione Filipe Totau who had settled in Australia.

Bonus Factoids

  • Ata Island had once supported a population of about 350 people. But, in the 1860s, Captain Thomas McGrath arrived at the island. He tricked almost half the islanders to come aboard his vessel, the Grecian, where the crew overpowered them and locked them in the ship’s hold. The unfortunate Tongans were then sold into slavery in Peru. The rest of the islanders abandonned their homes and moved closer to the main island of Tonga over fears they might too be enslaved.
  • In October 1972, a Uruguayan airplane crashed in the Andes Mountains. Twenty-nine people, many of them members of a rugby team, survived the crash, but faced a precarious existence. They were at an elevation of 3,570 metres (11,710 feet) in deep snow and frigid temperatures. Searches for the missing aircraft failed to locate it and the survivors began dying. Two men went in search of help in an epic climb and descent that took ten days. When finally rescued after 72 days there were just 16 still alive; they survived by resorting to cannibalism.

Sources

  • “The Real Lord of the Flies: What Happened when Six Boys Were Shipwrecked for 15 Months.” Rutger Bregman, The Guardian, May 6, 2020.
  • “Pacific Islanders Say Tale of Tongans Shipwrecked 50 Years Ago Is not Like Lord of the Flies.” Jordan Fennell and Tahlea Aualiitia, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, May 15, 2020.
  • “Tongan Robinson Crusoes Gaoled after 13 Months (sic) on Lonely Isle.” Dorothy Lav, Pacific Islands Monthly, October 1966.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 16, 2021:

Rupert, although the story is very interesting like any moroon tale, it is pitious and shameful that the surviving souls should be jailed for stealing the sailing boat while they were just teanagess and under age. Thanks.

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