May 2020 was something of a whirlwind for Sione Filipe Totau.
The 73-year-old Tongan, who is commonly known as Mano, was living quietly in the Australian city of Brisbane, when he was catapulted into the global spotlight, after the story of how he and five of his friends survived for more than a year on a deserted Pacific island became a runaway hit.
The article, an excerpt from Rutger Bregman’s Humankind, was published in the Guardian and titled “The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months”. It details how in 1965, Totau and his five friends, teenagers who were bored with their life at boarding school in the Pacific nation of Tonga, stole a fishing vessel and set off on an adventure. A huge storm destroyed their boat and after eight days drifting at sea, they washed up on a remote, uninhabited island.
Within four days of its publication, it was read more than 7m times and shared by Russell Crowe, US senator Ted Cruz and former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, to name a few.
“Everything has come up so fast and I don’t know what to say to the people,” says Totau, in his first media interview since the publication of the article. “They’re really happy, very interested to find me still alive.”
While for many, the story sounds like a Boys’ Own Adventure tale come to life, for Totau the memories of the months spent on the island are far more harrowing. When the group first spotted the island of ‘Ata after eight days at sea, Totau risked his life to scout the place.
“We did not get to the island until nighttime, in the dark, so I had to swim ashore,” says Totau. “I had to go first and I told the boys: ‘We have to say a prayer first before I hop in the sea.’”
Despite the fact that the reef was not far from the boat, Totau said he had a “very, very hard time” reaching it because he was so weak from “lying in the boat for eight days without food, without water”.
“When I reach the shore, I tried to stand up but when I stand up the whole world is spinning, so I laid down and crawl ashore and when I touch the dry grass, then I lie down.”
The other boys called to him from the boat to see if he had made it, but he was so weak he could not stand, he could only call out to them that he was alive. Eventually the others made it to the island.
“We were very happy, but the first thing we did, we say a prayer, thank God for what he brought us to,” he said. Then, desperate to quench their thirst, they hunted sea birds, drank their blood and drained their eggs.
“After that, we we all fell down there and sleep until the sunrise the next morning woke us up.”
Totau was interviewed for Bregman’s account, which focuses on the positives of their story – the ability of the boys to cooperate and establish a functioning community that allowed them to survive for more than a year – in contrast with the characters in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. Totau says that in general the boys managed to “settle it down and keep it in peace”, though they did clash occasionally. They were after all six teenagers stuck together in a frightening situation.
“You should be fairly understanding of what could happen in a group of people like that, and also in a situation they are facing,” he says. But he cautions against thinking their experience was a fun one.
“We [were] not happy where we [were],” says Totau. “If you were on a place, you don’t know where it is, and also you did not see any part of your family, I don’t think you’d be happy to be there ... you won’t be happy until you see your family.”
The families had all held funerals for the missing boys, though Totau says when he was reunited with his relatives his father told him he had never given up hope that he was alive.
‘They Were so Scared’
The boys were eventually rescued by Peter Warner, an Australian adventurer who was sailing around Tonga in 1966.
“I could not explain how we feel, all of us, we are full of tears, happy, and like we walk through to heaven,” said Totau of the moment they spotted Warner’s boat. One of the group – Stephen – swam out to meet it, the other boys gathered on the rocks, calling out to each other.
Totau has nothing but praise for Warner, with whom he has since worked and considers a friend. But he says initially, Warner and his crew were fearful of the boys.
“They were so scared, because we were all naked, long hair,” he says. “We all hopped in the water and swim out to the boat … Mr Warner did not put the ladder down because they were all scared about us, but luckily we could speak to him in English and we talk, he give us a few questions, he give us a few photos from Tonga. He showed us the photo of our queen, we said ‘yes that’s our queen, Queen Sālote’… Sort of testing and trying to find out if what we’re telling him is true or not.”
When they returned to Tonga, the boys were imprisoned – the boat they had taken more than a year previously was stolen and the boat’s owner decided to press charges – and it was Warner who helped to secure their release. He discovered they had been locked up when, after returning them to Nuku‘alofa, they had not shown up on his boat for a party he was throwing in their honour.
Totau says Warner walked the streets until 1am before he could find news of the boys and he was eventually able to secure their release from jail by selling the Australian rights to the story to Channel Seven and using the money to pay for a replacement boat.
Since the publication of Bregman’s article, there has been backlash among some Pacific Islanders. A key objection is the fact that the story of the boys was told largely from the point of view of the white Australian who rescued them. There was also anger at the explanation of why ‘Ata was uninhabited – “The island had been inhabited once, until one dark day in 1863, when a slave ship appeared on the horizon and sailed off with the natives,” wrote Bregman – which some felt was too cursory a reference to the the devastating reality of the Pacific slave trade, which saw tens of thousand of people from the South Pacific kidnapped, tricked or coerced into slavery around the world.
Others have strongly objected to the revelation in the article that Warner owned and then sold the rights to the story of the boys’ rescue.
Bregman made the point that the article was an extract from a chapter of his book, Humankind, in which he interviewed Mano and Sione, the oldest of the six boys, and made use of never-released interviews with the group.
“Everything I write about what happened on the island of ‘Ata in 1965-66 is based on their accounts. I devote a lot of attention to the horrible Pacific slave trade, not only on ‘Ata but also on Easter Island,” he said.
“My account from what happened on ‘Ata comes from Mano: ‘The real Lord of the Flies, Mano told us, began in June 1965.”
Bregman said the notion that Warner benefitted financially from the story was “ridiculous”. “The most important storyline in the chapter is of the deep bond that developed between Peter and Mano. As Mano said later: ‘He’s like a father to me.’”
For Totau’s part, he would love to make some money from the story if he can, saying he is only prepared to share “highlights” of his story at this stage.
“I don’t want anybody to tell my full story until I publish a book from it, maybe make some living for my grandchildren,” he says. But he is unhappy that anyone is blaming Warner.
“I know a lot of people say to me things about ‘Mr Warner makes a lot of money from our story’. Who cares?” he says. “If no Mr Warner, we never survive, if no Mr Warner we won’t be here to tell our story. If Mr Warner makes some money from it, good luck for him, that’s my opinion. I would tell everybody please shut up.”
Kate Lyons is Guardian Australia's Pacific editor.