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Death By Coconut: A Story Of Food Obsession Gone Too Far

German nudist August Engelhardt sits in front of his thatched tent-like hut on the island of Kabakon (in what is now Papua New Guinea) with the books that he brought with him from Germany. In 1902, he moved to the South Pacific to start a utopian cult that revolved around two orbs: the coconut and the sun.

The coconut has developed a bit of a faddish following in the West.

Today, devotees add coconut oil to coffee, dab it on acne and, following Gwyneth Paltrow's example, swirl it around in their mouths to fight tooth decay. Starbucks has launched a coconut-milk latte. And the coconut-water business has surged to $400 million, with a little help from Madonna and Rihanna.

No one would be more delighted at the coconut's rising star than August Engelhardt, a sun-worshipping German nudist and history's most radical cocovore.

From 1902 to 1919, Engelhardt lived on a beautiful South Pacific island, eating nothing but the fruit of Cocos nucifera, which he believed was the panacea for all mankind's woes. Except that a coconut mono-diet proved to be a terrible idea. At the end of his life, der Kokovore was reduced to a mentally ill, rheumatic, severely malnourished sack of bones with ulcers on his legs. He was only 44.

Engelhardt was resurrected from near-oblivion by Swiss writer Christian Kracht's marvelous 2012 novel, Imperium: A Fiction of the South Seas, which fictionalizes the German cocovore's bizarre and poignant story. The English translation by Daniel Bowles was published this year in the U.S. to fine reviews.

Kracht's interest in Engelhardt was sparked by a chance encounter. One day at a yard sale in Murnau, Germany, he came across a sepia-tinted postcard of a scrawny, bearded man in a checked loincloth standing under a palm tree.

"He looked like a proto-hippie, and very modern," Kracht told The Salt. "I really wanted to get to know this person. But there was nothing known about him at the time — no Wikipedia page (there is one now) or anything at all. The only thing I could find was a thesis by a student at the University of Auckland. So I went and met him in New Zealand, but somehow it wasn't enough."

The novelist in Kracht was itching "to embroider Engelhardt's life story," especially "since coconuts are intrinsically funny." Imperium, a stylish satire, invents meetings with Thomas Mann and Kafka, and ends with a leprosy-afflicted Engelhardt eating his own thumb.

But even without a stich of embroidery, Engelhardt's story beggars belief.

Born in Nuremberg in 1875, August Engelhardt was among the disaffected youngsters drawn to the back-to-nature Lebensreform (Life Reform) movement sweeping through Germany and Switzerland at the time. Its proponents yearned after an unspoiled Eden where people ate vegetables and raw food.

Engelhardt was especially taken by Gustav Schlickeysen's 1877 dietary treatise, Fruit and Bread: A Scientific Diet. Influenced by Darwinism, the book claimed that since the natural food of apes was uncooked food and grain, that was also "the proper food for man."

Engelhardt took it even further: For him, even bread and fruit were tainted. In his mind, the only immaculate and mystical fleshpot was the coconut, with its snowy white meat and translucent water.

In 1898, he and fellow vegetarian August Bethmann laid out their vision in a pamphlet called A Carefree Future: The New Gospel.

As the pamphlet's grandiose subtitle makes plain, Engelhardt's ambitions of a Coconut Camelot, with himself as a nude King Arthur, were driven by much more than dietary compulsions: His was a spiritual quest.

"He believed that since the coconut grew high up in the tree, closest to God and closest to the sun, it was godlike," says Kracht. "And since it had hair and looked like a human head, he thought it came closest to being a man. According to his rather crackpot theory, to be a cocovore was to be a theophage – or eater of God."

But being the custodian of these paradisiacal ideas in stuffy steak-and-sausage Germany was no fun. "He chafed against the constraints of Wilhelminian Germany, which was very Victorian," says Kracht. "One can imagine what a misfit a nudist-vegetarian with a very, very long beard would be in this repressive society. He was ridiculed and wanted to get away."

In 1902, Engelhardt boarded a ship with his library of books and sailed to the Bismarck Archipelago (now Papua New Guinea), where he bought a plantation on the island of Kabakon. He built himself a thatched hut, began to trade in coconut oil, and prepared to establish his cult, called Sonnenorden (Order of the Sun).

The short-lived cult revolved around two orbs: the coconut and the sun. Soon, Engelhardt's co-author, Bethmann, joined him, and together they wrote up passionate advertorials that were printed in Germany. Have no fear of malaria, they assured their readers: The coconut is more effective than quinine.

At least 15 young Germans, seduced by the fantasy of a tropical idyll where you didn't have to shave, went out to join them. Among them was a Berlin concert pianist, Max Lützow, seen in the picture at Engelhardt's feet.

It ended calamitously. Several cultists — including Bethmann and Lützow — died, while others returned to Germany malarial and furious. Eventually, the local German governor banned any more adventurers from joining.

Left alone, Engelhardt was unfazed. "The coconut is the Philosopher's Stone," he said. "What are universities in comparison to such a lifestyle?" In 1905, The New York Times carried a story on him titled, "Failure of a Womanless Eden in the Pacific--A Strange Story from the South Seas."

Kracht's title Imperium has an ironic double meaning: the absolute power of the coconut in Engelhardt's philosophy, and the imperialism of Germany. Even a dreamer like Engelhardt must have known that his peculiar lifestyle was enabled only by German colonialism. The privileged status he enjoyed on Kabakon was akin to that enjoyed by the ivory trader Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's great critique of colonialism, Heart of Darkness.

"Engelhardt was ultimately a White colonizer, so the local people were made to accept that and not question his authority," says Kracht. "He couldn't simply be naked in Germany, he would be arrested."

But unlike the ruthless and abusive Kurtz, Engelhardt, whom Kracht calls "a thwarted artist," comes across as a pitiable, even likeable, eccentric.

There is, however, an uneasy resonance between the purity-and-utopia obsessed cocovore and another German, whose insanity, says a sardonic Kracht, "was not in a nutshell but on a larger level." The novel makes the Hitler allegory explicit, stating that if "parallels arise with a later German romantic and vegetarian who perhaps ought to have remained at his easel, then this is entirely intentional."

It's easy to laugh at Engelhardt — and yet, his fixation on eating a dangerously narrow "pure" and healthy diet has echoes in modern times.

At the end, Engelhard weighed just 66 pounds and became a freak show for tourists. Imprisoned by Australian soldiers during World War I, he returned to Kabakon after his release and was reportedly found dead on the beach in 1919, though Kracht says no one knows for sure when or where he died.

When Kracht visited Kabakon for his research in 2010, he found no trace of imperial Germany. "No Lutheran churches, nothing. The Japanese blew everything up in the Second World War," he says.

What survive are the sun, the coconuts, the mosquitoes, and the legend of Le Morte D'August – a cautionary tale on the perils of food fanaticism.

Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist based in Knoxville, Tenn.

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