I can’t explain why, but the story of German nudist August Engelhardt (1875-1919) the man who lived on nothing but coconuts fascinates me to the point of darn near obsession. I want to know what drove a man to decide to give everything up for a life of nudity and diet consisting of nothing but coconuts.
I’ve spent the last couple of months looking for information about Engelhardt. Sadly, there isn’t much information out there.; at least in English. Truth be told, I only heard of him when I stumbled upon an Atlas Obscura (another obsession of mine) article about the coconut cult leader. Yes, you read that right; Engelhardt started the Cult of the Coconut. Why hasn’t his story been made into a movie yet?!
August Engelhardt was born in Nuremberg Germany on November 27, 1875. From all accounts he had a normal childhood though later he would complain of abuse and self-doubt. He attended Erlangen University to study chemistry. From there he went on to become a pharmacy assistant. While working in the pharmacy he developed an interest in health. Part of his interest most likely was born from the Lebensreform (life reform) movement popular at the time. A collective of German writers and philosophers, disillusion with Victorian-era Europe, started the movement based on the idea that man should live closer to nature, eat strict vegetarian diets, and abstain from tobacco and alcohol. Oh, and be nudists.
Because there are no books about Engelhart’s early life, it is unclear what caused him to take this philosophy a step to far. But a step to far he did indeed take. He announced his ideas about health publicly in guise of a gospel titled “A Carefree Future”. Sadly the only writing he left behind is not available in English. It’s a shame because we are missing out on his obsession with coconuts with titles like “The Coconut Spirit” and “How to Become a Coconut Palm”. His ideas about his beloved nut stemmed from observation. He said:
“The coconut, with its spherical shape and furry shell, is the fruit that most resembles the human head. Therefore, it is the most ideal fruit for man’s consumption. “We can expect from God that he created our food in the shape of our heads,” Engelhardt reasons. Coconuts are “vegetal human heads, and they alone are the proper human nourishment.” (Atlas Obscura)
Engelhardt’s obsession lead him to abandon his life and profession for a life of a quasi cult leader who preached nudity and coconuts.
Engelhardt converted a few members to his cult and together they set sail for the Island of Papua New Guinea. At the time the island was a victim of colonialism so Engelhardt was not the first to exploit its beauty and economically poor islanders. The island was becoming home to those looking to drop out of European society. Engelhardt and his followers were viewed as welcomed oddities. The group settled in huts and kept to themselves. They wanted for little as coconuts were plentiful as was the sun and water. The very things Engelhardt said man was meant to live by.
For a while the cult experienced paradise on earth eating nothing but coconuts, swimming, and of course, sunbathing in the nude. But, just as no man is an island, no man can live on coconuts alone. Within a year two followers died and as time went on more followers either died or caught malaria. Four years after he established his cult his followers had died or returned to Germany sick and disheartened with their heaven on earth.
Engelhardt also become physically and mentally ill but could not be persuaded to return to society. By this time the German government put a stop to people joining his cult and he was often questioned by island tourists who took pity on him. He lived the remainder of his life on the island, malnourished and in pain. Though there is no grave marker, no real report of when and how he died, it is said when his body was found (under a coconut tree no doubt) he weighed only 66 pounds. Engelhardt lived to be only 44 years old.
We could just as easily take pity on Engelhardt; clearly he was man in need of counseling. Or we look at him through the lens of history as another Victorian-era crank. But given that coconut is being touted now as a miracle cure for everything from bad-breath to dull hair, is it fair to judge Engelhardt as historical crank?
Engelhardt and the followers of the Lebensreform movement were the forefathers of the hippie movement. They believed that nature had all the answers if only men would listen. The New Age movement and the fanatical organic, gluten free devotees of today owe a lot to Engelhardt and those like him. Think of the Grapefruit and cabbage soup diets. Diets that expound the virtues of eating from only a slice of the food pyramid. Given that billions are spent on diet books and diet fads, the question must be asked; how far removed are we from Engelhardt’s view of the “proper human nourishment”? Can we honestly say, that if Engelhart were alive today he wouldn’t be listened to? I doubt it. If nothing else, it is a clear bet that Gwyneth Paltrow would feature him in Goop. And that is just nuts!
If you want to read more about Engelhardt I suggest reading
The Curious Case of August Engelhardt