Part one of a series on academics who specialise in subjects you may never have heard of.

There was once a bizarre South Pacific colony of German vegetarian nudist sun-worshippers who lived on coconuts. Really. And Northland's Sven Monter, 30, has written a Masters thesis about it - all 62,000 words, not counting the appendix.

The coconut cult, known as the Sonnenorden, or Order of the Sun, settled in 1903 on the island of Kabakon, in what was then German New Guinea (today's PNG).

They were following August Engelhardt, who had bought the island claiming to have found a way to a pious and natural life. By worshipping the sun - the image of God, he believed - and living only on coconuts, one could find salvation from dissolute European ways and a life closer to God. "The coconut," he wrote, "is the philosopher's stone." He also made good money from copra - dried coconut flesh.

The long-haired, naked vegetarians, thought to number no more than 30, were a stark contrast to Kaiser Wilhelm's rigid turn-of-the-century Germany - and modern-day perceptions of German colonisers in the Pacific as military men, traders or administrators.

On Kabakon, Engelhardt's idealistic lifestyle and the tropical environment eventually proved deadly to a number of his followers: sunstroke, drowning, malaria, fever and even falling coconuts all took their toll.

After Engelhardt fell seriously ill, the group's numbers dwindled; by 1913, before the outbreak of World War I, he was alone. He turned his attention to the cultivation of plants and their healing powers, interviewing many of the local people on the subject. He continued to advocate sun worship and coconuts until his death on the island in May 1919, in his mid-40s.

Germany-born Mr Monter, who lives in Ngunguru but did his thesis through the University of Auckland, says he came across one line about the colony in a book and was motivated to uncover more.

"I don't think these people were ever taken too seriously by historians before," says Mr Monter, who emigrated to Northland in 1998 with his wife, Judith, 32; they now have two young children.

"But I think they give a new perspective on German colonial rule in the Pacific and illustrate a diversity in German society and culture at the turn of the century not well recognised." His research uncovered never-before-published letters by Engelhardt.

The thesis also provides a glimpse into the German natural health movement from which the Sonnenorden sprang. Many of those principles are embraced around the world to this day.

Mr Monter hasn't been able to go to Kabakon to see what's left of the Sonnenorden, but he hopes to visit one day. And he's about to embark on his doctorate, studying another German colonial figure in the Pacific, Augustin Kramer. A medical doctor and anthropologist, Kramer wrote a two-volume tome called The Samoa Islands (1901) which is still being reprinted.