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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Tongan castaways and the Lord of the Flies

The Guardian's most-shared story today is an extract of a book about the experiences of a group of Tongan boys, who were stranded on an small, uninhabited island.  The book is Humankind, by Rutger Bregman, which relates not just the adventures of the young fellows, but the author's odyssey to find out what really happened.

There were six boys, who got tired of the meals at their boarding school in Nukualofa (the capital city of the Tongan archipelago), and borrowed a boat so they could make their escape.  But, instead of getting to some dream destination, like Fiji or New Zealand, they were overtaken by a storm, and drifted helplessly for the next eight days.  Then, at last, they spied land -- a tiny, uninhabited islet called 'Ata.  Nothing could have looked less promising.  Instead of sporting lush, tropical vegetation, the little island was barren. Even fresh water was scarce.  But they managed to survive  -- for fifteen months, before rescue by an Australian sea captain.

They had managed very well indeed. To the Australian's amazement, the boys had made a garden, built huts, hollowed tree trunks to store rain water.  They even had a small gymnasium, where they could indulge in the Tongan sport of wrestling and boxing.  As Bregman says, these brave, resourceful boys proved the famous William Golding classic, Lord of the Flies, wrong.

But did they?  Really?

Golding's novel tells the story of a group of English public school boys, after they are stranded on an island when their plane mysteriously crashes.  They start out well, by electing a leader, but their little society soon falls apart, as the evil lurking in the human heart prevails.  As Bregman relates, 'By the time a British naval officer comes ashore, the island is a smouldering wasteland. Three of the children are dead. “I should have thought,” the officer says, “that a pack of British boys would have been able to put up a better show than that.” At this, Ralph bursts into tears. “Ralph wept for the end of innocence,” we read, and for “the darkness of man’s heart”.'

Even the title carries the message that man carries a darkness in his heart:  "the Lord of the Flies" is Beelzebub, a manifestation of the devil. 

Bregman's aim, in researching and writing the story of the Tongan boys, is to illustrate a much more hopeful vision of the human spirit.  In a nutshell, to prove Golding wrong.  But in this, he is doing the Tongan boys -- and, indeed, all Polynesians -- an injustice.

Polynesians have a long and fascinating history of turning uninhabited, rocky and uninviting islands into the tropical paradises we know today.  When their remote forebears sailed eastward from New Guinea they demonstrated not just great courage and spirit, but remarkable resourcefulness, as well.  

Tahiti, for instance.  Tahiti, when the first Polynesian explorers arrived, had only two edible plants -- coconut palms, which had floated to the island and taken root on the beaches, and a herb that was a kind of borage.  There were birds, which were remarkably tame, having not been predated by humans before, but that supply was limited.  But, of course, there was the sea, the great pantry of Polynesia.

The Polynesian explorers did not stay there.  Instead, displaying their immense grasp of navigation, they returned to their home islands with the news.  And more canoes set out, this time loaded with the makings of a better-fed existence, determined that with hard work, cooperation, and obedience to good leadership, they could turn the distant target into something much more like home.

It was part of a long history of colonizing the tropical Pacific. Everywhere they went, the Polynesians carried their landscape with them -- chickens from Asia, taro and breadfruit and banana sprouts, edible rats and dogs, and domesticated pigs.  And not just food -- there was kava, for ceremonies and recreation, and saplings of trees that would eventually provide timber for building canoes.  And paper mulberry, to make tapa cloth for clothes, with pandanus for thatching houses, and weaving sails. 

So the six Tongan boys had both cultural background and personal experience to bolster them in the challenge.  It is no wonder they did so well.  And no wonder, either, that Golding's fictional castaways did so badly.  They did not have the same resources.

Island of the Lost is a very apt illustration of this contrast.  In this true account, two sailing ships wrecked on the same bleak, uninhabited island on the same year -- 1864.  Because of the terrain, the two sets of castaways were not aware of each other.  And, because of this utter isolation, the two sets of castaways embarked on two very different stories.

One was the Invercauld.  Nineteen men struggled on shore, to meet what turned out to be, for them, an impossible challenge.  Leadership was shockingly poor, and only one lowly seaman had any idea of living off the land, because of years he had spent on the Australian goldfields.  The group rapidly descended into a Lord of the Flies situation, despite finding a hut from an abandoned settlement, for a readymade shelter.  There was at least one documented case of cannibalism, and several probable murders.  By the time a passing ship came to the rescue, only three had survived -- including, of course, the seaman who had learned to manage on the goldfields.

The other wreck was the Grafton.  All five men of the crew came through the ordeal, at least partly because of the fine leadership of their captain.  One of their number, an engineer, put the skills he had learned in his own stint on the Australian goldfields to good use.  Under his guidance, they built a sturdy hut, complete with hearth and chimney, then over the months added tanning pits, latrines, a forge, and a garden.  They even adopted two birds, as pets.  A critical factor was their sense of brotherhood.  They read the Bible, taught each other their specialist skills, and had a hunting, cooking, and cleaning roster.  Eventually, they built a getaway boat, and three of them sailed to New Zealand, where the captain set out again, to rescue the other two.

Like the Tongan boys, they coped, and they survived -- because of mutual cooperation, a sense of brotherhood, and outstanding leadership, as well as a background of resourcefulness.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Island of the Lost, 13 years after publication

Back in the year 2007, which now feels like a totally different era, Algonquin Books published my strange account of two shipwrecks on the same uninhabited sub-Antarctic island.

Since then, it has gone into several different editions, been translated into the Ukraine language, was a bestseller in New Zealand and Australia, and was optioned for a film.  To everyone's surprise, it has kept on selling, now called a classic.  I think about the story often now, as it is a record of good and bad leadership, something that calls the attention of many columnists.  It is also used as a text in college leadership courses.

And there have been hundreds of Amazon reviews.  This is the latest, just published.  It was written by Carrie V., who gave it five stars.

Island of the Lost is a meticulously researched and dramatically recounted tale of seafaring tragedy in the Southern Ocean. The story is also the true account of a social experiment in human survival that would turn Mark Burnett green with envy (and terrify a research ethics committee)! Savvy storyteller and obsessive historian Joan Druett opens this tale of fortune-hunting turned maritime disaster with a shopping trip for a boat. Within a few pages, I’m picking out which Oscar winning actors will bring Raynal and Musgrave, the leaders on the Grafton ship, to life on the big screen. Druett’s seafaring yarn is spun with thousands of fascinating details about maritime life, but the real story is a strange coincidence that sets the stage for this social experiment. In 1864, two ships crash on different parts of Auckland island, within six months of each other. But their stories diverge from the moment each crew crawls up on the beach—one crew buoyed by innovation and strength of character and the other sunken by despair and stubbornness.

The plight of the people stuck on this desolate, foul-weathered island is grim and nearly hopeless. There is little to eat among the strange flora and the animal population is seasonal. Despite their aligned circumstances, the leadership and crew of each ship take completely different paths in their struggle for survival. The first stranded group begins immediately to carve out a plan to heighten their chances to stay alive for a rescue. The crew of the second ship, which had crashed ashore just twenty miles north of the first shipwreck, quickly surrenders to fear and hunger. The difference in process and outcome under the same dire circumstances makes for a terrifying and fascinating book. Author Joan Druett pulls from the personal diaries of the captains, the first-person accounts written post-rescue, newspaper articles and historical archives to construct a story that is both an instructive parable and a nail-biting adventure.