In 1964 six schoolboys survived 15 months on a remote, uninhabited island. The southernmost in Tonga, it is no tropical paradise, writes Matt Vance.

Ata Island was the first landfall I ever made as a sailor. It is an uninhabited speck of rock that juts out of the ocean like a tooth. It is also the southernmost island of the Tongan group and it loomed out of the dawn of our seventh day at sea from New Zealand. Even now it still seems like a miracle that you can conjure an island out of the sea. We spent a few hours anchored in the island’s lee and I distinctly remember its vertical peaks had a foreboding presence, but little did I know then of its dark and quirky history.


At each island we visited further north I had a habit of going ashore as a break from the close quarters of the boat. The Tongans I would meet on my wanderings ashore would invariably ask, “Where’s your family?” My only reply was to smile and point south to New Zealand. They would dart looks of concern to each other over the palagi with no family and insist I visit their village where I would be overfed and become an excellent source of entertainment for their grinning kids. It was with those three words I got my first glimpse of the Tongan way and as it turns out, the key to one of the great survival stories of our time.

It is estimated the Tongan Islands were first populated around 2,500 years ago as part of the Lapita expansion into the Pacific. The Polynesians and their Lapita ancestors were able to populate the world’s largest ocean and most remote collection of islands with their unique naval architecture, ingenious navigation methods and a strong sense of community. By the time Captain Cook arrived in the Pacific he noted the Friendly Islanders, as he called them, had a well-developed culture, trading routes and a far superior naval architecture than his own coal barge.


Even by Tongan standards Ata island is remote. It is 85 nautical miles southwest of Tongatapu and was settled in the late 1500s. However, there is evidence of previous sporadic occupations as far back as 2,000 years ago. When a whaling ship called the Grecian anchored off the island in 1863 around 300 people lived on its high plateau, growing bananas and sugarcane to sell to passing boats.

The Grecian’s skipper, Thomas McGrath had had no luck hunting whales and so he turned to the much more lucrative business of hunting humans for slavery. Having squandered the small amount of whale oil he had managed to procure on food, booze and a lick of paint for the Grecian, McGrath was looking for a quick dollar in order to repay the ship’s owners back in Hobart. He revealed his plan to his crew once they were at sea. Eight of his men wanted nothing to do with slaving and were dumped ashore on the Samoan island of Tutuila before Grecian headed south to Ata Island.

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McGrath managed to lure 144 of the Atans aboard to trade and added a complementary feast below decks to sweeten the deal. Mid-feast he locked them in the hold and up-anchored with the intention to sell his captives to the Peruvian slave trade. After a visit to Tonga’s northernmost outpost Niuafo’ou to collect more potential slaves, McGrath happened upon the Peruvian slaver General Prim which was working for the plantation owners of Peru. All 174 slaves were sold and transferred on the spot and a cashed-up McGrath continued his wanderings of the Pacific, ending up in Stewart Island. He was eventually arrested in Bluff and found guilty of a raft of charges in the local court. Ironically, none of them included his most despicable crime of slavery.


By the time the stolen Atans arrived in the port of Callao the Peruvian government had just abolished the law that allowed the enslavement of Pacific Islanders. Both the pressure from other governments and the fact that without the social cohesion of their broad family structure Pacific peoples fell to despondence and sickness finally convinced the government to abolish the trade.

The Atans were kept in a waterfront warehouse in Callao where many quickly died of smallpox and despair. Those that survived were dumped on Cocos Island near Costa Rica with a small chance that a few may have made it to Paitia in the far north of Peru. When Tonga’s first King Tupou heard the news of McGrath’s brazen act, he ordered the remaining inhabitants of Ata to be relocated to Eua Island where their descendants can be found to this day.

Bar the occasional visit from archaeologists and ornithologists, Ata remained uninhabited until June 1965. Six Tongan teenagers, Tevita Siola’a, Sione Fataua, Luke Veikoso, Fatai Latu, Kolo Fekitoa and Sione Totau, were boarders at Catholic secondary school Saint Andrews College in Nuku’alofa. Having had enough of the place, they devised a plan to escape by boat to Fiji. After purloining a 24-foot yacht from the Nuku’alofa harbour basin they set sail with two sacks of bananas, a few coconuts and a small gas burner.

Image: John Carnemolla.

Back row left to right- Luke Veikoso , Fatai Latu , Sione Fataua. Front row left to right- Tevita Siola’a , Kolo Fekitoa , Mano Totauflore. Picture copyright John Carnemolla

After a rough first night, they found themselves with torn sails, a snapped rudder and very little hope of survival. After eight days of drifting, Ata Island raised its sharp form above the horizon. This was no tropical paradise of white sand beaches but rather a steep volcanic outcrop on which vegetation clung to near-vertical faces. More importantly, had they missed it, it was a 400-nautical-mile downwind drift to Fiji.

After surviving for the initial months foraging around the coastline for raw fish, seabirds and their eggs, the boys plucked up the courage to climb the cliffs to the central plateau where they came upon the ruins of the original village abandoned when the Atans were taken off the island by order of the king. At the site of the abandoned village, they found an ancient rock water reservoir, an old machete, domesticated taro plants and a flock of chickens that had survived the generations since the Island had been abandoned. One of the castaways, Kolo Fekitoa, even managed to fashion a guitar from some driftwood and six wires he salvaged from the wreckage of their boat.

This all makes it sound easy, like it was some kind of school camp, but it was not. They had to stay fit and healthy, and most importantly, one foot in front of the twin demons of hunger and despair. They prayed together and worked together using skills that their ancestors had developed over thousands of years of colonising remote Pacific islands. They created a community in the best traditions of Anga fakatonga (the Tongan way).

Fifteen months after they arrived on the Island a passing Australian fisherman, Peter Warner, noticed patches of burnt vegetation on the island. This was enough to encourage him in closer for a look. It was then that he noticed some figures heading down a cliff and into the sea, where they started swimming toward his boat. He remained sceptical of their story until he radioed Nuku’alofa where a tearful radio operator confirmed that the boys had been given up for dead and their funerals had already been held!

The Tongan boys on the Island of Arta ate raw fish after being marooned for months on the island. Photo: John Carnemolla

Whenever the story of the Ata Island castaways comes up in modern times, it is usually followed by the description ‘A modern Lord of the Flies.’ This is a reference to the novel written in 1954 by William Golding that nearly every fifth form (Year 11) English student has been forced to study since. The core message of the book is that, marooned on a desert island with limited resources, even the nicest schoolboy will turn into a selfish, cruel murderer.

It is clear William Golding never sailed to Tonga, nor was he asked, “Where is your family?” by the locals, which may have shown him the beauty of the Tongan way and allowed him to discover the key to colonising the vast Pacific centuries before anyone else dared.