Escapists, cocovores and the search for utopia

Upolu, Samoa (Formally German Samoa from 1900 to 1914)

A classic example of German Imperialist excentricism has to be August Engelhardt and his ‘Brothers of the Order of the Sun’ (Sonnenbrüder). Engelhardt was born in 1875 in Nuremberg. After studying physics and chemistry, he worked as a pharmacy assistant but quickly developed an interest in alternative lifestyles especially vegetarianism and the ‘back to nature’ movement. In 1898 he published A Carefree Future, setting out his ideas for a colony of vegetarians, especially cocovores, that he planned to create in the South Pacific. Around the same time he also joined the 'Just Brothers’ Jungborn (Born Young or Fountain of Youth) in the Harz Mountains, described in their prospectus as

"All those at the Jungborn can at once re-enter into full harmony with nature, who can here for a time live pure nature-life, quite removed from the world of artificiality, civilisation and science […]. 

At the Jungborn civilised man has the opportunity to lead a pure nature-life with all its true delights, and its wonderful curative effects, such as never has been the case since the fall of man from nature."

Rejecting modern society and its trappings, Just, as well as Engelhardt, sought salvation in a ‘natural life style’ that included a raw fruit and vegetable diet, as well as nudism. Engelhardt, combining this with exotic escapism, believed he had found the answer in the South Sea.

Since the discovery of the Pacific islands in the late eighteenth century, Polynesia and Tahiti especially had come to embody the long pursued earthly Paradise. Especially Samuel Wallis and Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s accounts stimulated a wide range of literary and artistic interpretations that sparked a wave of South Sea enthusiasm in Europe. Europeans thought they had found an almost biblical ‘Paradise on Earth’, still out of reach for most, but full of promise and potential. Like the original Eden, this earthly paradise was believed to be inhabited by Noble Savages, innocent children of nature, who, crucially, were often described as ‘almost white’ in order to be able to transfer Ancient Greek ideas of Arcadia and the Island of the Blessed to the islands of Polynesia.

Historical image of Upia, Samoa

Not surprisingly, Polynesia soon became an escapist utopia, a fantasy that generated a South Sea Romanticism that would prove remarkably durable. The promise of a ‘simple but happy’ life on islands that were geographically, physically and mentally removed and cut off from the trappings of society and civilisation, was a popular trope in German South Sea literature, and would have been most appealing to Engelhardt, who dreamt of a ‘drop-out’ existence, in harmony with nature and nurtured by its bounty.

In 1902 Engelhardt bought Kabakon Island to create his own Edenic utopia for himself and any disciples willing to follow him and live there according to Engelhardt’s mantra of coconuts and sun worship. Coconuts, so Engelhardt argued, were the only food ever needed, and provided a cure for all ailments. Kabakon is a small island near German New Guinea in the Bismarck Archipelago, which was considered to belong to Melanesia. As such it was not part of the Edenic Polynesia, and Melanesians, quite contrarily, were considered to be ‘hostile to outsiders’, ‘cannibals’, ‘less civilised’ and ‘darker skinned’. For Engelhardt, however, the island, which was both uninhabited and available to purchase, was close enough to Paradise. He set sail to make the island his home, to grow coconuts there and become a ‘child of the sun’ who would not have ‘a care in the world.’ Rejecting civilisation and modernity, he understood his beliefs to be religious, his writings a new evangelism (which was the subtitle to his work A Carefree Future). To further his messianic mission, he advertised for followers, urging like-minded fruitarians to follow him to reap the benefits of both coconuts and the sun and ultimately spread the cult across the entire Pacific and the rest of the tropical southern hemisphere. To reap the full benefits of the sun, clothing (in the form of a loincloth) was only required if outsiders visited the island.

The German colonial authorities watched the ‘coconut apostles’ with caution, but took no measures other than imposing a bond in form of a cash payment on new disciples, just in case they needed medical treatment or repatriation. Livia Loosen calculated that at its height the Sun Order had perhaps 30 members, including apparently some women, although she cautions that the figure might be an overestimate since it would have included more temporary visitors to the island. Many did not stay long; the initial euphoria was often quickly replaced by disappointment - and the realisation that this lifestyle resulted in detrimental effects to one’s health. Apart from nutritional deficits, malaria quickly became an issue, according to Margrit Davies. Eventually, only Engelhardt himself was left, and when he died in May 1919 on the island, aged just 43, the cocovore Sun Order died with him.

While it is questionable if Engelhardt found the Paradise he was longing for, he at least found lasting infamy as a Wilhelmine eccentric who apparently believed that the sun was able to feed the human brain through one’s hair follicles. His life has been subject to a range of novelisations, including Christian Kracht’s Imperium (2015) as well as Adrian McKinty’s The Sun is God (2019). Like Engelhardt, many continue to dream of an escape to a tropical paradise, probably more so at the moment than usual, although Engelhardt’s experience makes it abundantly clear that a more balanced diet and sunscreen, as well as malaria prophylaxis, are strongly advisable.

 

Bibliography

Adolf Just, Return to Nature. Paradise Regained (English Translation by Benedict Lust, published by the author, New York, 1903), p. 283

Anja Hall, Paradies auf Erden? (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2008), p.5

See for example Monique Layton, The New Arcadia. Tahiti’s Cursed Myth (Victoria: Friesen Press, 2015); Alexander H. Bolyanatz, Pacific Romanticism. Tahiti and the European Imagination (Westport and London: Praeger, 2004); Gabriele Dürbeck, Stereotype Paradiese (Tübingen: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2007), Anja Hall, Paradies auf Erden? (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2008); Ter Ellingson, The Myth of the Noble Savage (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001)

Anja Hall, Paradies, p.16

Margrit Davies, Public Health and Colonialism. The Case of German New Guinea 1884-1913 (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2002), p. 70.

Georg Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), p. 246

August Engelhardt and August Bethmann, Eine sorgenfreie Zukunft (1906), p. 13

Livia Loosen, Deutsche Frauen in den Südseekolonien des Kaiserreichs (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2017), p.138

Margrit Davies, Public Health, p 71

Livia Loosen, Deutsche Frauen, p. 139

Margrit Davies, Public Health, p 70