The German Coconut Cult
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August Engelhardt was born in Germany on the 27th of November 1875. He grew up in the city of Nuremberg, later known for the post world war two Nuremberg Trials. He was the son of a wealthy factory owner who specialised in producing paints and varnish. Engelhardt grew up and went on to study physics and chemistry, and from this developed an almost obsessive interest in health, specifically following the teachings of a group known as the Lifestyle Reform Movement. He studied a book named “Fruit and Bread: A Scientific Diet”. This book posited the theory that the most natural and rational diet for man was one simply consisting of fruit. Engelhardt however took this one step further after hearing about an even newer philosophy coming from America called Cocovorism.
In 1899, Engelhardt joined a group known as the Fountain Of Youth. The group was based in the mountains and subscribed to two basic principles. Vegetarianism and Nudism. It was here that Engelhardt began to push his Cocovorism ideology, and in doing so solidified his own beliefs and principles on the topic. He gave public lectures in some of the bigger German cities but was hounded out of the lecture halls and publicly ridiculed for his outlandish ideas and seemingly crazy theories.
Shortly after his failed tour of the lecture circuit, the Fountain of Youth movement he was a part of, was dissolved amongst legal troubles and the founder, a man named Adolf Just, was convicted of improper activities as nudism was considered both illegal and immoral. Finding that his homeland was not at all receptive to his new way of thinking and living, Engelhardt began plans to construct his own utopian society away from Germany where he and anyone else could live freely, the way that, he believed, nature intended.
So what exactly was cocovorism, and how did this fit into Engelhardts obsessive thinking about health and the human body? In it’s simplest form, cocovorism is the belief that man can survive solely by eating coconuts and consuming the water that’s found inside.
Engelhardt however took his healthy living beliefs significantly further. He believed that early humans had originated close to the equator and in their adventurous folly had wandered too far North from their original African homelands. Europe, he declared, was no place for homo sapiens. In his mind, all he needed to be happy and healthy was to get away from Germany and start his life again somewhere close to the equator, especially if that place was full of naturally occuring coconuts.
It was now 1902 and Engelhardt had recently come into a rather large inheritance. Having just turned 24, he left his homeland aboard the mail steamer Empire in July of that year. Two months later on the 15th of September, he arrived in German New Guinea, what we now know as Papua New Guinea.
After landing on shore with just two changes of clothes and the frankly staggering number of 1200 books, he set about putting his inheritance to good use. Just two weeks later on the 2nd of October he purchased a 75 hectare coconut and banana plantation on a small coral island called Kabakon. The rest of the island was a protected nature reservation inhabited by a local native tribe. He was ecstatic, he could get away from the trappings of the modern world and live life as he’d always dreamed.
He was now the only white man among 40 Melanesians, and from the start they were happy to leave each other well enough alone. To start with, he built himself a three-room hut for shelter and almost immediately began to implement his ideology for living. Now that he was near the equator and the weather was so much warmer, he felt that clothes were a useless luxury that only served to stifle him. He ate his fill of coconuts each day and over time began to develop a philosophy whereby the sun itself was a benevolent God figure. To him it represented the source of all life, and only served to reinforce his choice to not wear clothes as he believed that we must never block the sun's influence on our bodies. The eating of coconuts tied in nicely to his new philosophy as well, as he understood that our heads were the closest parts of our body to the sun and therefore were of special significance. In the same way he believed that coconuts were of special significance because of all fruits this one grew closest to the sun, and had the added benefit of being shaped like our heads. In his mind, it was just all too obvious, how had he missed this connection before? In his writings he describes how the human brain receives energy directly from the sun with our hair follicles transforming sunlight into nutrients that were then pumped directly into the brain itself. Wearing a hat was apparently tantamount to blasphemy.
Engelhardt genuinely believed that the constant consumption of coconuts would lead a man to immortality.
He spent his days roaming in the sun and reading through his library of books but soon began to feel the gnawing loneliness of his island isolation. He wanted to spread the good news of his sun and coconut worshipping philosophy and so began writing promotional literature which he sent back to Germany aboard the outgoing mail ships. He received a few replies from people eager to join him in his new movement that he was calling The Order Of The Sun. Due to his inheritance he was able to pay the boat fare for his followers to join him on his island. By the middle of 1903, just over 6 months after he had bought his island, the first newcomers joined him on Kabakon. In the first wave of followers was the renowned nature writer August von Bethmann.
Two central figures to this story joined not long after, one was a 24 year old vegetarian named Heinrich Eukens and the other was a Bavarian music student named Max Lutzow. Lutzow was a conductor, violinist and pianist with a well known orchestra in Berlin and once on the island he would write gushing letters back home to his friends and family about his life on Kabakon.
An article in the New Zealand Herald at the time wrote: “The long haired, naked vegetarians are thought to number no more than 30, and stand in stark contrast to the rigidity of Kaiser Wilhelms modern Germany.”
For a while the Coconut Cult lived simply, farming coconuts and living wild and free in the tropical South Pacific. Soon however, disillusionment began to set in with the overly restrictive lifestyle, and with diseases breaking out amongst them, many of the inhabitants started talking about leaving the seemingly idyllic island. Just six weeks after Eukens had arrived he became severely ill, first with a cold which then quickly progressed to a fever and without proper medical care, he was dead within a few days.
A short while after this, Max Lutzow, the musician, was out on a boat, presumably fishing away from Engelhardts judgemental gaze. A freak tropical storm swept in and he was caught in his boat in the open ocean for two days before he managed to make it back to shore. He was dehydrated, and had developed a temperature. He tried to gain passage to a nearby island called Lamassa whereby he would attend a hospital but before he could get there, he too passed away. By mid 1905 almost all of Engelhardt’s followers had one by one trickled away back to Germany. It was in this same year, however, that two more men joined the group, Heinrich Conrad and Wilhelm Heine, the latter however, passed away just two months after arriving.
The small remaining group of devout followers was starting to seriously question the validity of their cocovoristic lifestyle and the sanity of staying in what was quickly becoming a death trap.
The acclaimed nature writer, August von Bethmann, who had arrived in the first wave of immigrants to the island, was helping Engelhardt with his promotional writings, trying to attract more followers to the island. These writings paid off and in 1906, a woman named Anna Schwab arrived on the shoreline, ready to start her adventure. She and Bethmann fell instantly in love and they were married soon after. Within months, however, Bethmann himself seemed to have soured on the whole idea after years of devoutly following in Engelhardts footsteps. He declared that he and his new wife would be leaving on the next steamer bound for Germany. Unfortunately, steamers weren’t a daily or even weekly occurence in those parts and just a month later, Bethmann was dead. Officially the reports say that he died of malaria but Engelhardt insisted it was the doing of his new wife who had encouraged him to supplement his purely coconut diet with other tropical fruits. It was this, Engelhardt said, that was the catalyst for Bethmanns demise.
Bethmans death was the final tipping point and Anna Schwab left the island along with the last few remaining members of Engelhardts Order of the Sun. Upon their return to Germany they directed heavy criticism towards the movement and campaigned for the government to shut it down. Word of this reached the local governor of the south pacific region overseeing Kabakon and he declared that no new immigrants would be allowed to live on the island, and so once again, Engelhardt found himself alone.
Things would only get worse for Engelhardt in the years that followed. An unforeseen drought struck the island and reduced the fruit crop to almost nothing. Then the following spring a massive storm rolled through and wiped out what little crops there had been left. Engelhardt was starving and managed to get himself to a neighbouring island where he was immediately admitted to the hospital. The doctor who attended him was shocked with what he saw in front of him. Engelhardt was in alarmingly poor health and while he stood at 5ft5, he weighed a mere 39kgs (that’s equivalent to just 86lbs).
His whole body was covered in skin ulcers and he itched everywhere. His condition had worsened to the point that he was unable to even walk. He was placed in intensive care where over the next few months he slowly began to recover. Once he had regained enough strength to walk and move freely again, he made a break for it, fleeing from the hospital back to his beloved Kabakon island. The doctor who had been treating him gave an interview to the New York Times shortly afterwards, wherein he dubbed Engelhardt the Coconut Apostle and said that in his opinion, the man had become a paranoid wreck.
One day, a canoe paddled by two natives of Kabakon arrived in the bay at Herbertshohe, a nearby island under German control. They told the authorities there that they had become afraid of the crazy white man on their island who was in their words “sick and possessed of the devils”. He was wandering around the island preaching his doctrines to the trees and scaring the native population with his loud shouts and ranting.
The authorities had had enough, and sent a team to collect him. He was now no longer just a danger to himself, but was threatening the protected people group on his island. When they arrived at Kabakon they found Engelhardt raving wildly and looking like a walking skeleton. They tried to calm him down and offer him some medicine but he refused, accusing them of interfering with his convictions and religion. He became so worked up into a frenzy that his body could no longer take it and he collapsed. Before the sun set below the horizon on that very day, August Engelhardt was dead. His body had wasted away to just 29 kgs (or 66lbs) by the time he finally passed, and for all of his belief in immortality he died in his early 40s a distressed and lonely man.
It might be easy to write Engelhardt off as a crazed and ideological madman, but many years after his death a box full of his diaries was found in a New Zealand library. He wrote of a deeply unhappy childhood filled with physical and mental abuse at the hands of his parents. It's maybe no wonder then, that he sought to move as far away as he could from those cold, bleak memories. Even as the leader of a short lived movement, he was constantly battling his shy and insecure nature, believing he was irredeemably ugly and hopelessly awkward around women.
So it might be kinder to remember him as a misguided visionary who set his heart on something he believed to be truly beautiful. He gave it his all in the pursuit of what he believed would lead to a life filled with happiness. There’s a little bit of him in all of us when it comes to that, and I think on some level, we could all learn a small lesson from August Engelhardt about following through on what we believe in. The only caveat I’d like to add, is that it’s just as important to know when to stop.