A story about Tonga in the Guardian last week prompted a viral storm. Scott Hamilton reports on the strange tale of the castaways on the island of ‘Ata.

Last week Rutger Bregman wrote an exciting story in the Guardian about six teenage castaways on the tiny and uninhabited Tongan island of ‘Ata. In 1965, the teenagers crashed a stolen boat into the island. They’d been trying to sail to the bright lights of Australia; they ended up spending more than a year on ‘Ata, where they tended gardens, built fale for shelter, and improvised an outdoor gymnasium. The boys were happy, healthy, and very hairy when an Australian fisherman rescued them.

Bergman’s piece has been shared thousands of times on social media, and prompted hundreds of conversations. Depressed by a pandemic, a recession, and a blundering and sinister American president, many readers have been cheered by the story of the castaways on ‘Ata.

About the only readers who haven’t enthused over Bregman’s article are Tongans.

The writer Vika Mana complained that Bregman and the article’s fans “are talking about us, without realising we can lead this conversation”. Mana faulted Bregman for relying on Peter Warner, the fisherman who rescued the castaways, for an account of the teens’ adventures. She wondered why Tongans couldn’t tell their own stories.

Nicholas Sowizral, a brilliant young linguist who pores over proto-Polynesian word lists from his academic perch in the cold city of Detroit, asked whether the readers of the article “realise Tongans aren’t some uncontacted tribe”. Another Tongan critic of Bregman accused him of telling a “white saviour story”, in which a group of feckless natives are rescued by a white interloper.

Bregman’s critics have a point. The Polynesian forebears of today’s Tongans crossed and settled the Pacific, following seabirds and stars all the way to Chile, where they left skulls in the earth and words in the mouths of the local Mapuche people.

And Tongans can tell and analyse stories, as well as sail. Tongan literature is ancient, and includes long, baroque poems as well accounts of the creation and growth of the universe. Tonga has the highest number of PhD graduates per capita; Tongans teach in universities around the world.

But the sort of castaway story Bregman tells is in many ways a creature of Western, rather than Pacific, culture. Since Defoe birthed Robinson Crusoe, the dream of life on a desert island has been a response to the pressures and perplexities of life in the West.

In Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays a stressed-out company man tossed up on a tropical island. The movie shows Hanks struggling to make fire and discoursing to a beach ball named Wilson; audiences, though, have envied rather than pitied him, and the Fijian island where Hanks laboured has become a tourist attraction. Like Robinson Crusoe and hundreds of other fictional castaways, Hanks’ character is purified by isolation from the buzz and drone of an urban Western world; his true, chthonic self emerges, and he gets insights into the universe that would have been denied him in an office cube or on a psychoanalyst’s couch.

Paul Theroux’s travel book The Happy Isles of Oceania describes a journey from New Zealand north through the tropical Pacific. He has little enthusiasm for the peoples of the region. He describes Samoans as stupid, and Tongans as “late, unapologetic, envious, abrupt, lazy, mocking, quarrelsome”.

Again and again, on island after island, Theroux draws an unflattering contrast between the behaviour of contemporary Pasifikans and his vision of their ancestors. When he spots a Tongan with a paunch eating corned beef from a tin, or a Cook Islander revving an outboard motor, or an American Samoan attaching a satellite dish to a tiled roof, Theroux sighs, and pines for the ancient Polynesian, who sweated off his feasts in the taro plot, and travelled by motorless vaka, and used the stars rather than GPS to navigate.

Tom Neale is nowadays a forgotten figure, but 40 years ago he could reasonably have claimed to be one of New Zealand’s most successful authors. An Island to Oneself, Neale’s account of the seven years he spent living alone on Suvarov, a coral atoll in the northern Cooks, was a critical and commercial hit in Britain. After growing up in the South Island, Neale escaped the Great Depression by taking a series of jobs as a petty colonial bureaucrat in the Cook Islands. He yearned to live alone on an island. Neale got his chance in 1952, when a ship dropped him on Suvarov.

An Island to Oneself is a sort of how-to guide for solitary survivalists. Like Theroux, Neale tries hard to present himself as a sort of modern incarnation of the noble Polynesian savage. The photo on the cover of his book shows him standing under a coconut tree on one of Suvarov’s beaches. His darkly tanned skin is naked except for a painful-looking loincloth, and he awkwardly holds a long spear. If the photo were not in colour it might be mistaken for a nineteenth century ethnographer’s portrait of a ‘primitive’ South Sea Islander.

It’s ironic that misanthropes like Theroux and Neale should try to associate themselves with traditional Polynesian culture, when that culture was, and indeed is, so social.


An old whaling pot on the uninhabited island of ‘Ata. Photo by Alvaro Cerezo. 

‘Ata is fringed with cliffs and fanged rocks. It’s about a hundred kilometres south of the rest of the Tongan archipelago. It was settled in the late Middle Ages. By 1863 about 300 people lived on the island’s high plateau, growing bananas and sugarcane to sell to passing boats. Then a whaling ship called the Grecian anchored off the island. The ship’s captain was a Tasmanian; most of his crew had been recruited in New Zealand. Unable to find whales, they had begun to hunt humans for the slave markets of Peru. The Grecian sailed away from ‘Ata with half of the little island’s people; the rest were soon evacuated by Tonga’s king.

The slave trade of the 1860s offered tragic proof of the sociability of Tongans and other Polynesians. The ‘Atans who were kidnapped in 1863 joined several thousand other Pacific Islanders in Peru. But these captives did not prove good slaves; instead, they began to die almost as soon as they had arrived on the estates of their masters. Peruvian newspapers filled with complaints about the fatalism and homesickness of the slaves. Ripped from their islands and communities, deprived of the guidance their chiefs and priests could provide, the Polynesians found it hard to live, let alone toil.

Tongan and many other Polynesian cultures still emphasise sociability. Albert Wendt has talked about growing up in the midst of a perpetual crowd of relations and neighbours in Samoa, and has explained that the barren lava fields along the coast of Savai’i were virtually the only place he could go to feel solitude. In her funny and useful book Making Sense of Tonga, Mary McCoy notes that inhabitants of the Friendly Islands are so accustomed to company, and so fearful of solitude, that they will often refuse even to go a short distance on an errand without having at least one companion to stroll and chat with. McCoy chuckles at the frustration that white employers often feel in Tonga, when their workers disappear without warning for a church feast or a wedding. In Tonga, she observes, family and church and chiefs are more important than work. An employer is less feared than a disappointed maternal aunt, or a chief who has not received his share of the harvest.

Rutger Bregman is not a misanthrope, like Paul Theroux or Tom Neale. His article for the Guardian is excerpted from a forthcoming book called Humanity, in which he will apparently argue that people are inherently good rather than bad, and that cooperation rather conflict is our species’ default mode. Bregman thinks the successes of the ‘Atan castaways show what all humans could achieve, if only they could be liberated from cultures and situations that encourage fear and aggression.

But Bregman’s optimistic worldview cannot hide his lack of interest in Tongan culture. His story could have happened on a deserted island in the Atlantic or Indian Oceans, or in some remote alpine valley. If humanity has an essential nature, that emerges when local culture is stripped away, then the culture of the castaways is at best an irrelevance, and at worst an encumbrance.

And yet it is Tongan culture, and not some universal quality, that can explain the survival of the ‘Atan castaways.

In 1962, 18 adult Tongans on a trading vessel called the Tuaikepau were cast up Minerva Reef, a half-submerged atoll south of ‘Ata. Led by their captain David Fifita, the crew and passengers found shelter on a Japanese fishing trawler that had been abandoned years earlier on the reef. They caught fish and seabirds, purified saltwater over a fire, and eventually built a tiny but seaworthy ship from the remains of their old boat and pieces of the Japanese trawler. Fifita sailed this improvised craft all the way to Fiji; the men he had left behind on the reef were rescued by a flying boat he had summoned.

In his 1963 book Minerva Reef: fourteen desperate weeks with the Tongan castaways, adventurer and writer Olaf Ruhen showed how much the triumph of Fifita’s men relied on Tongan culture, with its emphasis on hierarchy, obedience, sharing, and piety. Like some tropical Shackleton, Fifita ordered, encouraged, counselled, and consoled his charges. He was their chief and their pastor, as well as their captain. Like the castaways on ‘Ata, the Tongans on Minerva held regular religious services, in which they sang hymns and heard Fifita’s sermons.

In Things That Matter, a memoir about his time as the director of Middlemore hospital’s intensive care unit, David Galler revealed that Tongan and other Pacific Island families often coped much better with emergencies and deaths than their white counterparts. Extended families comforted the ill and bereaved, and pooled resources to help cash strapped members; decisions were made swiftly and firmly by senior family members, rather than being fudged.

The same culture that helped castaways survive on ‘Ata and on Minerva keeps Tongan families and communities together today.

Scott Hamilton is the author of The Stolen Island: Searching for ‘Ata (Bridget Williams Books, $14.99).

Scott Hamilton did a PhD in sociology at the University of Auckland. He has published six books, including The Stolen Island: Searching for 'Ata and The Crisis of Theory, a study of British revolutionaries....

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