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Tongan Castaways

Location: Tonga, 1965. The scene: six teenage boys - bored with school and looking for an adventure - steal a boat and shove off into the Pacific Ocean with their sights set on Fiji. What could go wrong? Well, a whole hell of a lot apparently.


The six boys - Sione, Mano, Stephen, Kolo, David and Luke - ranged in age from 13 to 16. With little preparation, they commandeered a boat, stocked it with limited supplies, and set off on their adventure. On the first night, a storm caused irreparably damage to the boat and left them floating adrift for several days. Without food or water, the boys made the difficult choice to abandon their ship and swim for the nearest shore. They ended up on the small uninhabited island of ‘Ata located in the South Pacific Ocean at the southern end of the Tonga archipelago - which would become their home for the next 15 months.


‘Ata was not always uninhabited - it would be more accurate to call it a depopulated island. In 1863 the island lost nearly half of its population due to slave raids in the region. After which, the King of Tonga moved the remaining peoples to nearby islands.


So how did this group of children manage to survive for 15 months without devolving into pure chaos like in Lord of the Flies? The simple answer is they worked together. After regaining their strength on the shore, the boys set off to explore their new home. The previous inhabitants of the island had left behind chickens and taro - which became a staple of their diet, and key to their survival. The boys devised shelters, set up a food garden, created a permanent fire and even built a makeshift gym for themselves. They worked in pairs and drew up a strict schedule of duties. Of course, they weren't without their squabbles, but everyone agreed to take a 'cooling off period' whenever fights occurred - often retreating to the other side of the island to keep the peace.


In 1966, an Australian fisherman named Peter Warner was passing 'Ata when he spotted some peculiar signs of life on the island - burned patches across the green landscape. The boys saw Warner's ship and leaped into the water shouting after him. Once on board, and after the initial commotion had calmed, Warner radioed the mainland to let them know the boys (who had been given up for dead - their families had even held funerals) had been found alive and in good health! 


What happened upon their return? Of course their families were overjoyed, but not everyone was as enthused. The owner of the boat they commandeered decided that 15 months shipwrecked on an island wasn’t a harsh enough punishment, so he pressed charges and the boys were thrown in jail. But Warner quickly stepped in and secured their release, rescuing the boys once again.


Learn more:

The true story of six Tongan teenage castaways in 1965

Image by Fairfax Media Archives

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