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In 1966, when Sheikh Zayed Bin-Sultan Al Nuhayyan became Ruler of Abu Dhabi and England beat West Germany in the World Cup at Wembley Stadium in London and in Beijing Chairman Mao began China’s Cultural Revolution and in cities and universities across America there were protests about the war in Vietnam – when all these events were happening more or less simultaneously during that tumultuous year, half a world away on a remote uninhabited island in the South Pacific, an extraordinary drama of its own was unfolding.
In June 1965 six boys between the ages of 13 and 16, fed up with life at a strict boarding school on the island of Tonga, decided to escape. They stole a fishing boat and with the most basic of provisions headed out to sea, hoping to make it to Fiji or even New Zealand. It was to be more than a year before they were seen again. A search proved fruitless and back in Tonga their families presumed they had perished at sea and funerals were held. Only they were still alive.
Unbeknownst to the world, the boys had survived a storm that had torn away their sail and then spent eight days drifting until they spied a rocky island looming out of the water. This was the island of Ata – it means ‘dawn’ – some 100 kilometres miles south west of Tonga. They didn’t know it but this was be their home for the next 15 months.
They made it ashore and so began their amazing story of survival, one that has been dubbed ‘the real life Lord of the Flies’ (William Golding’s famous novel, published in 1954, about a group of shipwrecked children which ends in disharmony and bloodshed).
Their adventure began with a prayer, thanking God for leading them to this island. The group survived through cooperation, organisation, religious faith and practical skills. They established a garden and a kitchen and even a rudimentary badminton court. They started a fire that they kept in for more than a year and they developed a roster so that all tasks were shared.
Though they missed their families their faith and application ensured their survival. Then, on Sunday, 11 September 1966, Peter Warner the Australian captain of a fishing vessel, saw smoke from the island and sailed closer. He was amazed to be greeted by the sight of naked, long-haired youths waving and shouting.
This story had all but been forgotten, until Rutger Bregman retold it in his recently published Humankind: a Hopeful History, published by Bloomsbury. His book argues that human beings are basically good, the exact opposite of the conclusion of Golding’s book.
An extract in the Guardian went viral and has led to a scramble for rights to the stories of the three remaining survivors. There will almost certainly be a book too. The Spanish film-maker Alvaro Cervezo, who runs a company that specialises in holidays on remote islands, has made a documentary with one of the survivors, and says he is publishing a book later this year. Nasher has reached out to him but has not heard confirmation yet. Certainly, the story of these real life castaways deserves a much bigger audience – particularly with their message of faith, cooperation and sharing.