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Friday, July 17, 2015

Gone (coco)nuts!

You can read the book online by clicking here and signing up for a free account and "borrowing" it.


Imperium is a 2012 satiric novel by the Swiss writer Christian Krach about a German who in the early 20th century travelled to German New Guinea where he founded a religious order based both on nudism and a diet consisting solely of coconuts.

Sounds nutty? Well, the man existed and his name was August Engelhardt. He was born in 1870 at Nuremberg and left school early to become a pharmacy assistant. By 1899 he developed an interest in healthy living, vegetarianism and later nudism. In 1902 he bought the small island Kabakon. close to Neu-Lauenburg, which is now the Duke of York Island, with a small plantation. Kabakon is about 28 miles from Herbertshöhe, today’s Kokopo, the place of German administration at that time. From October 2, 1902 Engelhardt lived on Kabakon, at first the only white man among 40 Melanesians. He was always naked and a complete vegetarian, living mainly on coconuts. He worshipped the sun as the central spring of life, as well as coconuts, because they grew nearest to the sun; and he them the most natural food for men. He was convinced that by eating only coconuts he would achieve a higher almost divine state of mind and a place in a kind of paradise.

He then tried to convince other people about his lifestyle, by his writings in which he developed his philosophy of ‘kokovorismus’ which stated that the constant eating of coconuts led people into a god-like state of immortality. Engelhardt seems to have been wealthy, as he could support financing the passage of followers to the island. His second follower, Max Lützow, wrote after two months on Kabakon an enthusiastic letter to the most-read vegetarian magazine in Germany. Then a lot of followers came; it is said, that for some time 30 nudists lived on Kabakon. After a short time disillusion and frustration set in, there were diseases and accidents, and all followers including Max Lützow, left the island, some of them only to die shortly afterwards of the diseases they had got on Kabakon.

August Engelhardt (standing) and Max Lützow

At this point an old friend of Engelhardt, the writer August Bethmann, came to Kabakon. He was soon convinced by Engelhardt and started to send reports to Germany about the new paradise. Then Engelhardt became ill. When he reached the hospital in Herbertshöhe, he weighed only about 85 pounds. His skin ulcers and scabs were cured at the hospital and Engelhardt came back to Kabakon. He now stated that the ulcers, the last impurity, had left his body, and he would be ready for the highest state of mind. In the meantime Bethmann had started to have doubts about the nudist life on Kabakon, and by June 1906, he was waiting to leave for Germany. But before that date, Bethmann died. There seems to have been a quarrel between Engelhardt and Bethmann: suicide, manslaughter, murder, nobody knows, but it was not due to disease, and Engelhardt was again alone on the island.

August Bethmann, Bethmann's fiancée Anna Schwab and August Engelhardt

Engelhardt again started a publicity campaign to find followers, but now the German government was cautious. All civil servants were requested to warn every newly arriving settler of Kabakon. Once again everything on Kabakon became quiet, but Engelhardt became ill again, and the German doctor at the hospital in Herbertshöhe judged Engelhardt to be "a paranoid wreck". In 1909 Engelhardt closed down his "Order of the Sun" cult and only attended to his plantation, but he became a point of interest for tourists in German New-Guinea. The composite map below shows Rabaul, New Britain (red arrow) and Kabakon (blue arrow) in the Duke of York group of islands.

During WWI Engelhardt was for some time in an Australian camp in Rabaul, then he was able to return to Kabakon. Engelhardt now started to study the flora of the island and sent a lot of specimens to the Botanic Gardens of Brisbane and Sydney. He also started to paint plants in watercolors, and a lot of his paintings remained after his death and in the 1930s, they were obtained by a friend of Engelhardt. August Engelhardt died May 6, 1919 and his grave is unknown. The coconut plantation had been operated as Engelhardt & Co., Kabakon from the early 1900s, as shown in the cover.

One of the last people Engelhardt met was the Australian Captain Jones, who wrote, after leaving Kabakon, "Is it Engelhardt who is mad or is it we? And yet – could the world do without living examples in self-sacrifice – even if their ideals are wrong? And would we not all fall asleep, if it were not for a sprinkling of extremists?"

Imperium has been translated into several languages. While the narrative is sometimes as nutty as Engelhardt's prized foodstuff (and not always historically correct: in the book, Engelhardt continues to live alone on Kakabon and is discovered decades later by American troops at the end of the Second World War), in terms of both theme and language, it's reminiscent of Conrad’s 'Heart of Darkness' and Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'.

Few records have survived. Perhaps they were destroyed because the whole thing was too much of an embarrassment to the Kaiser. I ate the odd coconut when I lived and worked in Rabaul in the early 70s but never heard of the odd August Engelhardt and his 'kokovorismus' until now when it may even become a movie.

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P.S. Another book dealing with Kabakon Island is "The Sun is God" by Adrian McKinty. Based on true event, it's dark, outrageous and hugely entertaining - historical crime fiction at its best. It is 1906 and Will Prior is in self-imposed exile on a remote South Pacific island, working a small, and failing, plantation. He should never have told anyone about his previous existence as a military foot policeman in the Boer War, but a man needs friends, even if they are as stuffy and, well, German, as Hauptmann Kessler, the local government representative. So it is that Kessler approaches Will one hot afternoon, with a request for his help with a problem on a neighbouring island, inhabited by a reclusive, cultish group of European 'cocovores', who believe that sun worship and eating only coconuts will bring them eternal life. Unfortunately, one of their number has died in suspicious circumstances, and Kessler has been tasked with uncovering the real reason for his demise. So along with a 'lady traveller', Bessie Pullen-Burry, who is foisted on them by the archipelago's eccentric owner, they travel to the island of Kabakon, to find out what is really going on. For more, read here.

You can read the book online by clicking here and signing up for a free account and "borrowing" it.