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  • Writer's pictureFiona Prior

Serendipity – when reality beats fiction, hands-down

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

In case anyone missed it, last week marked the death of Peter Warner, the Australian who rescued six Tongan schoolboys who were shipwrecked on a deserted island. Their story is fascinating for many reasons, not least because their reality ran contrary to the premise of author Willian Golding (who wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’), that civilisation quickly falls away when faced with hardship and scarcity.

Six naughty schoolboys:

In September 1965, six athletic Tongan boarding school boys were champing at the bit in their very strict Catholic boarding school. They decided to steal the fishing boat of a local fisherman they disliked and have an adventure. A naughty bunch but also – as are most groups of teen boys – collectively as bright as the lowest IQ in their group, they didn’t think about the practicalities of their plan, specifically that none of them could sail.

The Storm:

After travelling five kilometres they anchored and settled down for the night. As they slept a ferocious storm took them by surprise, damaging their vessel and leaving them floating dangerously with little food or water. The boys stayed alive by sharing their limited water and catching additional rain water in coconut shells, each having a sip in the morning then a sip in the evening – hoping the supply would last till they were rescued. After floating for eight days they sighted the tiny island of Ata. They decided that is could well be their only chance for survival and spent the next 36 hours swimming towards its shore, arriving exhausted and just alive. They managed to kill small fish and this food helped them to regain strength. Water was still almost non-existent. They collected it in the trunks of trees and also drank the blood of birds they hunted.


Over a period of three months they explored the island and serendipitously discovered the remains of an abandoned 19th century village. Along with discarded utensils they found wild chickens, wild growing taro crops and bananas. They managed to create fire and carefully guarded this treasure so that it remained alight. They paired for chores and managed to keep each other in food, water, shelter and optimistic spirits; singing round their fire in the evening accompanied by a makeshift guitar made from salvaged wood.

Enter our hero:

September 11 1966, the Australian Peter Warner was sailing past Ata when strange burn marks on some island flora caught his attention. He soon spied six boys jumping from the rock and swimming towards him. He heard their breathless story, radioed the boys' home island of Haʻafeva, and found that not only were the boys telling the truth but also that their funerals had been held as the village population believed they must be dead.


The boys' reception was tearful and joyous but unfortunately one wronged fisherman (remember the boat the boys stole?) had notified the police that he wanted them charged for theft. The boys were arrested.

A king’s gift:

King Tāufaʻāhau Tupou IV asked Peter Warner what he could do for him in gratitude for the return of their beloved (and naughty) boys. Warner asked for the rights to fish for Pacific Spiny lobster in Tongan waters and was granted his request.

And happily ever after …

Warner did a deal with the disgruntled owner of the stolen craft who dropped the charges against the boys. Warner promptly employed the boys as staff for his new project.

More of this fabulous tale here.

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