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After the Shipwreck

Stephen Derwent Partington



FROM: Mr Steve, Principal, Lukenya British Curriculum



TOPICS: The type of young person you are; Young people as examples and ‘heroes’.


Good Morning, Pupils,

And congratulations for the week that has ended.

Recently, a number of my old friends from Britain sent me an article from ‘The Guardian’, the newspaper that I used to read there, and which I still read online. Indeed, my mother sometimes reminds me of how I used to read this newspaper very seriously, even when I was six years old. It really is a wonderful newspaper, both in terms of the news it offers and its feature articles, which still make me think, these forty-plus years later!

The article that was shared with me was a story about six Tongan boys who had been shipwrecked alone on a tiny South Pacific island for about a year in the 1970s. The link to this long article appears at the end of my ‘Chat’.

Now, there are many ways in which adults view younger people, but there are two extremes, both of which can be illustrated by me referring to two books that I read when very young, and which I equally admired. (You have to remember that I’m a Literature teacher.)

The first book, ‘The Coral Island’, was very old even when I was young. Published in 1857, it has just three core characters, the British schoolboys Ralph, Jack and Peterkin, who basically undergo all sorts of adventures, including fighting off ‘cannibals’ and pirates, and who survive effortlessly well until they are rescued. On reflection, the book is racist in many parts, and is clearly designed to show how Britain deserved to conquer and own its Empire. On that level, it’s a terrible book of political propaganda, like the sort of ‘biased sources’ our History students are studying with Ms Mutuku. But it portrays young people as capable of getting along with each other and creating some sort of society in the absence of adults.

The second such book that I read when equally young, was ‘Lord of the Flies’, published almost a hundred years later in 1954. It won its author William Golding the Nobel Prize for Literature. By this time, Britain’s view of ‘humankind’ and especially of children, had changed. The very convincing, evidence-based biological Theory of Evolution proposed by Charles Darwin had been taken and twisted by some of his more vehement followers to mean ONLY ‘The Survival of the Fittest’, which meant that all creatures are only always at odds with each other and wanting to fight over resources.

Some commentators then went further and tried to apply Darwin’s biologically appropriate Theory to HUMAN SOCIETY, and created a ‘Theory’ of Social Darwinism which argued that all people are always selfish and desire to struggle against each other selfishly in order to achieve any success in life. Your parents might be aware that President Nyerere once accused the Kenyan system of being too much like this, of being a ‘Man Eat Man Society’. Many adults think this way about children.

Now, Darwin’s innocent ‘Theory’ when applied to HUMAN SOCIETY by Europeans was typically racist, Imperialist and horrible. It foolishly proposed that white people were somehow ‘superior’ to other ‘races’, that the British way of conquering the rest of the world was justified and proved Britain’s supremacy, and it further argued that the British Class System was the correct way to divide people within a country, into the few wealthy (who were somehow ‘better’) and the many poor (who somehow deserved to be poor and controlled). This was a very unpleasant view of society – Darwin’s admirable biological Theory of Evolution had been ‘stolen’.

Also by the 1954 publication of ‘Lord of the Flies’, the world had passed through some terrible times, caused by Europe – two World Wars had seen humanity at its worst, killing people in their millions, not just in war, but in concentration camps run by the German Nazis. At the very time he was writing (and Golding would then not have known this), Britain was running similar camps in Kenya.

These shifts since 1857 meant that Golding’s view of humanity, and the view of many of his British readers, had become more negative – there was, he believed, a selfish cruelty in the hearts of each of us that was likely to bubble up into violence if we are not somehow controlled. Children especially needed ‘controlling’. And so in ‘The Lord of the Flies’, when a group of British schoolboys are stranded alone on a desert island, they don’t have fun adventures like Ralph, Jack and Peterkin in ‘The Coral Island’ – instead, they turn on one another, form gangs, fight, murder, and torture animals and other boys from the same school. Only at the end are they rescued by an adult, whose arrival makes everything good again.

According to Golding, children without adults are likely to regress to violence, and are unable to cope.

‘The Coral Island’ and ‘Lord of the Flies’ are very different books, then, with different views about children’s ability to be good or bad. But they are both works of FICTION, of imagination – unlike Darwin’s biological Theory of Evolution, they’re not based on evidence, but on their authors’ beliefs about the world, about society, about Britishness and about CHILDREN.

But that article in ‘The Guardian’, which I mentioned at the beginning of this chat, is based upon a TRUE story of what really happened when six REAL Tongan schoolboys were marooned for about a year on a ‘desert island’. And what happened was amazing. Contrary to Golding’s fears and the beliefs of pretty much every adult in Britain who has read ‘Lord of the Flies’, these six children coped.

They made a pact not to quarrel or ever fight; they found fresh water; they lived on fish and found fruits and vegetables; they helped each other medically; they created a system of play and work. In short, they formed a functioning society based on selflessness, NOT selfishness.

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Peter Warner, third from left, with his crew in 1968, including the survivors from ‘Ata.'

Like those Thai schoolchildren who in 2018 found themselves stranded underground for about three weeks, and who coped, these real Tongan children demonstrated what we all hope humanity can be when at its best.

Shipwrecked on ‘The Coral Island’; stranded on the island in ‘Lord of the Flies’; marooned on a REAL island near Tonga for a year or so; trapped underground for three weeks; locked-down in our Kenyan homes for a few months…

Er, well, this then is the perfect time for us to ask ourselves a big question: ‘WHO AM I?’ Or, rather, ‘Which of these various groups of children do I think I could be or would wish to be?’ Would you form a fair, functioning society in which you together took care of everyone, keeping the more selfish, lazy or bullying pupils in check, and supporting our most dependent pupils? Think, even now as you sit in your house, about who our most dependent pupils are – would you work to help them, too?

Personally, I as your Principal have high hopes in you all and a positive view of you all, and of young people in general – from time to time, individual pupils or clusters of pupils disappoint, but generally I have and will continue to have a positive view of young people, ALL young people.

I LIKE to think you’d cope like those REAL Tongan children, despite the many challenges, and not like those fictional children created by the critical Golding in ‘Lord of the Flies’! I don’t believe the Kenya media myths or the wider international myths that young people left alone will only ‘degenerate’ into selfish creatures who turn on each other – no, because that would be to fall into the racism, classism and ageism of old.

Plus, I’ve seen how our boarding school functions with just a little guidance from teachers and parents – you elect sensible leaders, you form great teams, you help each other. Hey, even the biological supporters of Darwin’s excellent evolutionary theory are more positive these days, suggesting that actually, yes, the natural world provides us with many examples of interspecies and intraspecies cooperation and ‘selflessness’, and not ONLY competition and conflict.

And this is all related to what I’ve mentioned before: the choices you make; the way you ‘cope’; the way you’re given ‘advice’, not orders-and-harsh-punishment; the way you view society.

And so, as you study and attempt to have a little fun alone in your house during this period of school closure and lockdown at home, keep thinking about your schoolmates, the institution of our school, your teachers and the way we’ll be when we return, and keep asking these questions:

‘Who am I, and who are we together?

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What does it mean to form a society, a community?

How will I contribute towards school and towards the wider world?


Yes, there’ll always be some adults such as your teachers who will happily tell the world that they’re wrong to think young people useless until they’re ‘Grown Ups’, and yet…the best evidence of your brilliance will always come from YOU, from your example as young people. Good luck with this – it’s not easy showing adults that we’re sometimes wrong as adults, as we’re quite often set in our ways. So, BE BRILLIANT, be excellent, be kind.

Finally, this is Sunday, and as always let’s recall what Christianity says about children and their relationship with adults and the world. In Matthew 18: 1-3, we read that, “At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’

And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”

If indeed those Tongan children’s example is anything to go by, then on this very Earth, too, we have real children whose example is such that, if we followed it as adults, we might have some practical kindness and genuine society right here, right now. And so, in some ways, you can be the teachers to adults, too.

Pupils, whenever you are asked who your heroes are, you invariably choose famous adults. That’s fine. But don’t forget that amongst you in our school and out there in the wider world, there are countless young people who are NOT famous but who you COULD, yes, choose as ‘heroes’.

Have a great week, and know that we look forward to you returning soon,

‘Mr Steve’, Principal.

The story from ‘The Guardian’ - "The Real Lord of the Flies"