The Real 'Lord of the Flies' Turned Out Very Differently For The Young Boys Trapped on an Island

When six boys were stranded on a remote Pacific island, no one got killed by a boulder and mankind's supposed inherent savagery didn't express itself, offering an alternative to the grim view of humanity in Lord of the Flies, William Golding's 1954 novel.

In his upcoming book Humankind: A Hopeful History, Dutch historian Rutger Bregman pushes back against what he describes as a "cynical image of humanity" that has permeated Western culture for centuries. Drawing on research from recent decades in biology, sociology, psychology and archaeology, he offers "a more hopeful view of mankind."

In a passage published by The Guardian, Bregman challenges the lessons of Lord of the Flies, using a real-life story with surprising parallels to demonstrate how the multigenerational best-seller may not have as much to say about human nature as is commonly credited to it.

"I began to wonder: Had anyone ever studied what real children would do if they found themselves alone on a deserted island?" Bregman asks, introducing his search for the real thing. It began with a blog post that soon led to an October 1966 article in Australian newspaper The Age.

William Golding's 1954 novel "Lord of the Flies" has been adapted into movies and stage plays, including this production at the Open Air Theatre Regent's Park in London. But does it accurately reflect human nature? Photo by robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Image

In Lord of the Flies, a group of young British boys are stranded on an island in the Pacific after surviving a plane crash. Their brief unity soon breaks down into factionalism and, eventually, murder. In the incident Bregman uncovered, six boys were stranded for more than a year on a small island south of Tonga, also in the Pacific. Bregman tracked one of the boys, Mano Totau, and the fishing fleet captain who saved them, Peter Warner, to Australia, where they recounted the original incident.

In 1966, Warner took a detour from his fishing routes to the island 'Ata, which had once been inhabited until the natives were kidnapped by slave traders in the 1860s. He was surprised to see, through his binoculars, burned patches on the cliffsides. He was even more surprised when a naked boy with long hair swam out, introduced himself as Stephen and said, "There are six of us, and we reckon we've been here 15 months."

Just spoke to captain Peter Warner over the phone. He and Mano Totau - one of the real Lord of the Flies 'boys' - are very happy with all the interest in their story. After 50 years, they're still the best of friends.

— Rutger Bregman (@rcbregman) May 11, 2020

Stephen, Mano, Sione, Kolo, David and Luke—all between the ages of 13 and 16—had been students at a Catholic boarding school in Nuku'alofa, the capital of Tonga. They made plans to sail to Fiji, 500 miles away, and provisioned themselves with two sacks of bananas, coconuts and a small gas burner before stealing the boat of a local fisherman they disliked. That night they encountered high seas and whipping winds, which tore apart their sail and snapped their rudder. After drifting for eight days and collecting rainwater in coconut shells, they landed on 'Ata.

In his memoir, Ocean of Light, Warner described what they had accomplished on the island while stranded for 15 months. "The boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination," he wrote.

They also tended a signal fire for more than a year, in direct contrast with the boys of Lord of the Flies, whose infighting led to their signal fire dying out. But it was more than just a fire that separated the Tongan schoolboys from Ralph, Piggy and Jack in the novel. The real castaways maintained a roster of garden, kitchen and guard duties; imposed time-outs during arguments; and ended each day with music, with Kolo playing a guitar made from driftwood and steel wire. They experienced many hardships—scarce water and even a broken leg—and had their failures, as when their raft broke apart. But they survived for 15 months and were rescued on September 11, 1966.

"While the boys of 'Ata have been consigned to obscurity, Golding's book is still widely read," Bregman writes. "It's time we told a different kind of story. The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other."

In a separate interview with The Guardian, Bregman sees Humankind: A Hopeful History and its argument for humanity's cooperative potential as providing support for specific policy proposals, notably a universal basic income, which he argued for in his previous book, Utopia for Realists.

"I collected a lot of evidence that this idea could actually work," Bregman said. "You could actually give people free money and they wouldn't waste it on drugs or alcohol; you know, they would actually come up with wonderful ideas and maybe start a new business or move to a different job."

But while Bregman argued for specific policy proposals, famously calling out millionaires and billionaires during a panel debate at the 2019 World Economic Forum ("I hear people talking the language of participation and justice, and equality and transparency, but then almost no one raises the real issue of tax avoidance, right? And of the rich just not paying their fair share"), he found people often countered with their skepticism about human nature.

It's a skepticism Bregman now believes to be unwarranted, one that has been used to justify designing defensive social institutions that expend effort and resources guarding against human self-centeredness but could be better used to help people, who will provide mutual aid and cooperate to their shared benefit if empowered to do so.

It's a message Golding himself might not have disputed, even if Lord of the Flies has become a central pillar in a negative outlook on human nature. In an audio recording available on YouTube, Golding introduces Lord of the Flies by describing it as more about the civilizations we've built than fundamental human nature, with the boys serving as "scaled-down society."

"If you, as it were, scale down human beings, scale down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be," Golding said, describing why he chose boy characters, whom he saw as more suitable as symbolic stand-ins to illustrate aspects of modern human civilization.

"This is nothing to do with equality at all. I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down, so to speak, into a set of little girls who will then become a kind of image of civilization, of society."

Golding used Lord of the Flies as a mirror of civilization in the aftermath of World War II. In Stephen, Mano, Sione, Kolo, David and Luke, Bregman finds an example that suggests we are not always bound to those same horrors by our natures. Rather than extrapolate dire conclusions from Lord of the Flies, we can choose better paths. But even Golding believed that humanity was not damned to distrust and to tearing itself apart.

"I think I'm an optimist because I think in fact, ultimately, there is that nobility. There is Simon, who will go up the mountain even though he's killed for it. There is Ralph, who will go on trying to keep society together. There are people who will be loyal as long as they can. One's got to remember always about human beings is that they're like a truss in the ceiling. They're all right for the job they're used for, but anything will break given sufficient strain," Golding said in another interview, released by British publishing house Faber and Faber in 2019 to celebrate the book's 65th anniversary. "He can still be a noble creature, although he breaks."

Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman, translated by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore, will be out June 2 from Little, Brown and Co.