THE COCONUT KING: AUGUST ENEGELHARDT
The nude dude and his attitude to food
In one episode of The Simpsons Lisa developed a crush on an eco-warrior campaigning to save a local forest. She tried to ingratiate herself by stressing her commitment to vegetarianism. He was unimpressed, displaying a low opinion of mere vegetarians. He was a total vegan. And not just any total vegan, but a Level-5 vegan.
Lisa: What’s a Level-5 vegan?
Eco-warrior: It means I won’t eat anything that can cast a shadow.
Food often influences our beliefs. The ancient Pythagoreans avoided beans – something to do with the transmigration of souls – and medieval French Cathars shunned any food resulting from sexual reproduction. Some Hindu sects refuse onions and garlic, believing these arouse sexual passions. And so on.
Fast forward to the late 1800’s and we see dietary gurus everywhere. Some folks now had the luxury of abstaining from meat altogether, like the inventor of corn flakes, John Harvey Kellogg (1852-1943). Taking his ideas from the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Kellogg advocated two meals a day (lots of nuts, no meat), avoidance of coffee (you’ll get diabetes) and tea (you’ll go insane). Plus daily enemas.
He also urged mandatory circumcision – without anesthetic so the pain would be unforgettable – to decrease the pleasures of masturbation. Kellogg was a qualified physician and spoke with unbridled confidence when he decreed that masturbation could lead to “the victim” dying “by his own hand.” How many American lads were terrified into keeping their hands above their waists at all times? They probably looked wistfully at their peckers, saying I’d really like to keep doing that thing you enjoy, but it says here it might kill me. And then they must have looked at their right hands with fear and loathing.
Fin-de-siècle Europe – especially Germany – saw a swing to even stronger vegetarianism. In 1894 The New York Times described an ex-German Army officer named Wäthe and his Fruitarian Society. Their diet was limited to ripe, raw fruit. They embraced compulsory nudity. Wäthe visited San Francisco to arrange a colony of fruitarian nudists in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) . That was the plan, but it never reached fruition.
The most radical food cult started with another German, a pharmacist’s assistant born in Nuremberg in 1875, named August Engelhardt. His family was omnivorous, with no interest in vegetarianism. Young August was a dreamy lad, given to fantasies about distant places. He pored over atlases. This was while Germany was catching up with France and Britain in the acquisition of colonies in Africa and the Pacific. One day, he told himself, I’ll live somewhere exotic, somewhere in the tropics.
By the age of 22 he’d already published a book – A Carefree Future – describing an imaginary society of frugivores living on fruit alone. They held coconuts in esteem. Their lives were healthy and blissful, their bodies sustained by the golden goodness of equatorial sunshine and tropical fruits, their digestive systems untainted by the flesh of dead animals.
Soon central Germany’s the Jungborn (Fountain of Youth) movement attracted Engelhardt’s eager attention. It demanded strict vegetarianism and nudism. Were they winter nudists? Reports are sketchy. In any case, the movement had a short life: the police demolished their compound, arresting the members for public indecency.
Lass uns nackt werden!
August Engelhardt crisscrossed Germany, lecturing on the benefits of nudism and a vegetarian diet loaded with tropical fruits. He preached that humans could live healthily on coconuts alone. How ordinary Germans at the turn of the 20th century were expected to adopt Kokovorismus (a nothing-but-coconuts diet) wasn’t Engelhardt’s problem. His mind was elsewhere. He was planning to put his ideas into practice by leaving Europe and starting a new cocovoristic life in the deep tropics.
But where? Germany owned a colony in West Africa, Togoland (today’s Togo). That might do. Or how about Kamerun (today’s Cameroon) in Central Africa? No, too rainy and too cloudy, and volcanic to boot. German Southwest Africa (Namibia), then? Nein: it was a desert devoid of coconuts. German East Africa (Tanzania, as it later became)? Lots of coconuts, to be sure, but lots of Muslims too. A nudist would be asking for trouble. Yet throughout this period a little voice inside his head kept whispering Südpazifik! Südpazifik! Yes, the South Pacific beckoned. That could be the place where a naked cocovore could live joyfully under the tropical sun.
Germany had recently purchased Micronesia from the Spanish Empire (Spain needed the money and Germany needed a bigger empire). But it also owned Samoa and a big chunk of what is now Papua New Guinea. Intrigued, Engelhardt checked the map. German New Guinea’s almost on the equator, he noted. Lots of coastline. Lots of coconuts. Das ist perfekt!
The gods were kind: Engelhardt’s parents died at a wonderfully convenient juncture, leaving him a substantial inheritance. Nothing could stop him now. To German New Guinea! He’d forsake Europe and live the wonders of cocovorism.
What supported his dietary ideas?
He believed early humans had made many wrong turns. They should never have wandered so far north from their African homeland. Europe was no place for Homo sapiens, he declared. Our natural home is the equatorial belt, with its fruit trees and warm climate. Clothes would be useless encumbrances in such conditions. Agriculture was another serious blunder, he told whoever would listen. Mankind was meant to live free eating wild plants and living outdoors. The sun was the source of all life, so humans needed to “get back to the sun”. They’d then reach their destiny – healthy, happy, frugivorous and as naked as the day they were born.
We must never block the sun’s influence on our bodies, he wrote. Abandon clothes! The head was the body-part closest to the sun, and was thus of special significance. Wearing hats was foolishness: it hindered the sun’s beneficial rays. Not only that, but the energy required by our brains isn’t supplied by the alimentary canal, that dark and dirty area full of Scheiße. No, said Engelhardt, the human brain receives energy directly from the sun. The hair follicles transform sunlight into nutrients.
Meat, grains and vegetables were less dependent on the sun and were therefore inferior to fruit. And what better fruit was there than the coconut? It grew at the top of tall palm trees, and was thus closest to the sun. Not only was it the most nutritious of all foods, he affirmed, but a lifelong adherence to Kokovorismus would inevitably result in a higher state of spiritual consciousness, approaching the divine.
In 1902 August Engelhardt arrived in German New Guinea (the map’s green area). He brought 1,200 books and just enough clothes to avoid arrest. He purchased a 75-hectare coconut grove on a small island and built himself a hut.
Engelhardt was now a wealthy man with few material needs. He could bring in German disciples who wanted to partake of the cocovore experience. The first arrived in 1903. A few stayed for several months. Some left as soon as illness struck. And many left sooner than that, put off by the mosquitoes and sand flies, the mud and the enervating heat.
The European population fluctuated wildly. Engelhardt was often alone (alone if you ignore the 40 or so Melanesians on the island). He was occasionally surrounded by enthusiastic nudist vegetarians. Some adapted, others found the guru’s standards and practices hard to maintain.
One story concerns a noted classical musician from Berlin, Max Lutzow. His enthusiasm for Engelhardt’s ideas was almost embarrassingly strong. Lutzow brought his violin to play tunes by his pet composers, Georges Bizet and Domenico Donizetti. Unfortunately, Engelhardt loathed Donizetti’s music and detested Bizet’s Carmen. He confronted Lutzow about this. A spirited exchange of opinions ensued. Lutzow stormed off to sleep in a boat moored in the lagoon.
During the night the boat slipped its moorings and drifted out to sea. Strong cross-currents prevented the boat’s return, and Lutzow was stranded for two days exposed to the equatorial sun without food or drink. The boat had food but no coconuts, so he abstained. After his rescue he developed a fever. Engelhardt’s medical treatment – based on coconuts – failed. Lutzow died.
Engelhardt himself was in poor health. After years of nothing but coconuts his weight plummeted to 39 kg. His skin was badly ulcerated. He could barely stand. A New York Times reporter from Manila covered Engelhardt’s story. In October 1905 he filed lurid – and bogus – reports of Engelhardt violently defying all attempts by German government doctors to restore his health and of his death while fighting against restraint.
But Engelhardt didn’t die. He remained on his island, usually in splendid isolation. Occasional visitors briefly stayed on, but he was mostly alone. It became “the done thing” for visitors to German New Guinea to have their photos taken with the naked local loony, the mad coconut king (although the conventions of the time obliged him to cover up for the photographer).
In August 1914 the Great War broke out and at Britain’s behest Australian forces seized German New Guinea. August Engelhardt was interned as an enemy civilian, but his captors soon decided he was more of a threat to himself than to the British Empire. They released him.
Engelhardt faded into obscurity, dying in May, 1919. German New Guinea had ceased to exist in September, 1914, and the coconut king spent the war confined to his tiny island, sending botanical specimens to Australian scientists as his life petered out. Throughout the years he stuck rigidly to cocovorism, never yielding to temptation. He couldn’t even bring himself to eat bananas. But instead of attaining a long life, glorious health and higher consciousness, he died a lingering death aged 43.
His last thoughts were probably of coconuts.