The Real-Life Lord of the Flies

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Podcast Transcript

In William Golding’s 1954 novel, the Lord of the Flies, a group of young boys find themselves on a deserted island. Stuck there, they create their own civilization which eventually turns violent and savage. 

The book was a statement on the fundamental nature of humanity.

The book was fiction, but many people have wondered what would happen if such an event actually took place. 

Well, as it turns out, in 1965 it did. 

Learn more about the real-life Lord of the Flies, and if young boys left alone would descend into a state of anarchy, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The Lord of the Flies is considered to be one of the greatest English language novels of the 20th century. It was the first novel written by William Golding who went on to write 12 more works and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983.

The book is about a group of English schoolboys who are evacuated during World War II, and the book begins after they walk onto a beach after their plane has crashed. 

According to Golding himself, he told his wife one day in 1951,  “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave?”

In the book, initially, the boys organize themselves and elect a leader. They create basic rules, begin a rescue fire which was to be kept lit at all times, and build shelters. 

Eventually, however, everything falls apart. The boys descend into factions over a supposed monster on the island. Their sides clash starting a fire, almost engulfing the entire island. Before they are rescued, three of the boys are killed. 

The book was intended to be a meditation on the nature of humans. 

For thousands of years, people have debated if humans were inherently good or evil. At our core, are we savages or are we civilized? 

Golding clearly falls on the savage side of the debate. The entire book posits that when left to our own devices, we will unleash our brutish nature. 

However, Golding’s book is fiction. The events in the Lord of the Flies never happened. 

That hasn’t stopped people from wondering exactly what would happen if such an event actually took place. 

Those types of questions are usually left for thought experiments. There are many questions in the realm of medicine, psychology, and sociology which can never be answered conclusively because it would be highly unethical to conduct such an experiment. 

You can’t really abandon a group of children on an island to see what would happen. 

However, ever so often, something unexpected happens. Something that you could never plan for or do on purpose, but when it does happen it provides an opportunity for study which would otherwise have been impossible.

For example, I’ve done a previous episode on Phineas Gage, the man who had a six-foot steel rod shot through his head. There is no way you could make something like that happen. When it did, however, it gave researchers an insight into how the human brain worked.

Likewise, my episode on Genie the Feral Child documented one of the most horrific cases of child abuse on record. While no one would ever want such a thing to happen, the fact that it happened gave researchers a chance to study early human development. 

So too, in that way, did the Lord of the Flies scenario actually come true. There was an inadvertent real-life test of William Golding’s hypothesis. 

It happened in 1965 in the island nation of Tonga

There were six boys between the ages of 13 and 16, who attended St. Andrews Catholic boarding school in the city of Nuku’alofa in Tonga. 

They were extremely bored and wanted some adventure, so they came up with the “bright idea” of stealing a wooden whaling boat and sailing off to Fiji. 

Fiji by the way is about 500 miles away. They had no provisions, no navigation equipment, and no experience sailing. 

This was a very dumb idea. 

Moreover, while they were out at sea, they all fell asleep.

When they woke up, they found themselves in the middle of a storm. The storm destroyed their sail and the boat’s rudder. It left them helpless in the middle of the ocean.

The six boys drifted aimlessly for eight days. The only freshwater they had to drink was the rainwater that collected at the bottom of the boat. 

On the 8th day, they finally spotted land. They had unknowingly happened upon the uninhabited island of Ata. It is located about 160 kilometers or 99 miles south-southwest of Tonga’s main island of Tongatapu.

Ata is basically a rock that sticks out of the ocean with tall cliffs all around it. At 450 acres it is a decent size island for six people, but there was no beach they could just hang out on. 

Thankfully for the boys, the island had been previously inhabited. It had been abandoned about 100 years before when Peruvian slave ships showed up and took 144 people, which was almost half of the island’s population. 

The subject of the Pacific Islands slave trade is worth of its own episode in the future, as it is a subject that few people have ever even heard of. 

The reason why this was a stroke of luck for the boys is that the island was abandoned so quickly that many of the crops which were grown on the island were left there. Bananas and taro which had once been grown on the island were still there. Likewise, there were feral chickens that were still on the island.

The boys set up a camp in a volcanic crater where the previous inhabitants had lived. 

They created a system where everyone worked in teams of two. They managed to start a fire, and the fire was kept burning for 15 months. 

They managed to collect rainwater in hollow logs. They created their own garden, as well as an open-air gymnasium and a badminton court.

They built a guitar out of parts of their ship to make music. 

Much of this was all built from a 100-year-old machete they found on the island. 

In addition to the foods they found on the island, they also hunted seabirds, took their eggs, and fished. 

While they were on the island, one of the boys broke his leg and they managed to set it. 

They developed a ritual of singing a song every morning and every evening. 

If there were any disagreements or disputes, whoever was arguing would just take a time-out and walk to opposite ends of the island. 

I don’t want you to get the impression that life on the island was easy. It was very difficult, especially during the summer when there was little rain and water became a major issue. 

However, 15 months after they took the boat out to sea, on September 11, 1966, they were discovered by an Australian fisherman named ??Peter Warner. 

Warner was sailing past the island, which he knew had been abandoned a century ago. When he looked at the island he noticed burnt patches on the landscape, which was extremely rare for an island in the tropics.

One of the crew members on the ship said they saw a person, but Warner couldn’t believe it. However, he eventually saw a long-haired naked figure jump into the water and swim towards with boat with several more behind him. 

When the first boy swam up he said “My name is Stephen. There are six of us and we reckon we’ve been here fifteen months.”

He was highly doubtful of their claim, so they radioed Tonga with the names of the boys for confirmation. 

20 minutes later, they got a reply. The boys had indeed been missing. In fact, they had been assumed dead and funerals had been held for all of them. 

When they returned to Tonga, there was a huge celebration….and all six of the boys were immediately put in jail because the man who owned the boat they stole wanted to press charges. 

So much from coming back from the dead. 

Warner, thinking fast, contacted the channel 7 television station in Syndey to sell the rights to their story. With that, he was able to pay for the boat and get the boys out of jail. 

Several months later, the TV crew showed up and took the boys back to the island to reenact the time they spent there. However, they ended up losing most of the footage due to the conditions on the island. They only ended up with about 30 minutes of film. 

You can view the original documentary on YouTube as well as a 2015 documentary where a Spanish filmmaker went back to the island with one of the original boys for 10 days to live as they did.

Peter Warner was given a meeting with the King of Tonga and was granted permission to start a lobster fishing business. He hired as his crew all six of the boys he rescued from the island. The name of their ship was the Ata. 

So, given the real experience of the Tongan castaways, how accurate was William Golding’s portrait of the boys in the Lord of the Flies?

As it turns out, Golding was pretty much wrong about everything. The boys did not descend into savagery. They didn’t fight with each other and there were no incidents of violence. 

They worked together, built a small community, established routines and rules, and when one of the boys was injured, the other pitched in to help him get better. 

Unlike the boys in the novel, the real-life castaways managed to keep their fire burning for over a year, and did so with fewer people.

It is always difficult to extrapolate general principles from a single example, but if this real-life Lord of the Flies has any lessons for us, perhaps it is that humanity’s better side is in fact our dominant side, and that hope, friendship, and survival will win out in the end.


The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

I have several short reviews for you today from over at Podchase. 

The first review comes from listener nikkihughes0315. She writes:

I love this podcast! I learn something new everyday.

Thank you, Nikki. I also learn quite a bit producing the show as well, so it is a win-win for everyone. 

The other review comes from listener ??ladywiththeface who writes:

This podcast sums it up nicely.  What does it sum up… everything everywhere.  It’s not just a clever name. Love it!

Thank you ??ladywiththeface. I sincerely hope nothing embarrassing happens to you in the future that should cause you to lose face. If that happened, then you’d just be….lady.

Remember, if you leave a review over at Podchaser until the end of April, they will make a donation to help feed Ukrainian refugees, which will be matched by several other podcast companies.