A Short Biography of Bokonon
He was christened Lionel Boyd Johnson.
He was the youngest of six children, born to a wealthy family. His family's wealth derived from the discovery, by Bokonon's grandfather of one quarter of a million dollars in buried pirate treasure, presumably the treasure of Blackbeard, or Edward Teach.
Blackbeard's treasure was reinvested by Bokonon's family in asphalt, copra, cacao, livestock and poultry.
Young Lionel Boyd Johnson was educated in Episcopal schools, did well as a student, and was more interested in ritual than most. As a youth, for all his interest in the outward trappings of organized religion, he seems to have been a carouser.
Lionel Boyd Johnson was intellectually ambitious enough, in 1911, to sail alone from Tobago to London in a sloop named the Lady's Slipper. His purpose was to gain a higher education.
He enrolled in the London School of Economics and Political Science.
His education was interrupted by the First World War. He enlisted in the infantry, fought with distinction, was commissioned in the field, was mentioned four times in dispatches. He was gassed in the second Battle of Ypres, was hospitalized for two years, and then discharged.
And he set sail for home, for Tobago, alone in the Lady's Slipper again.
When only eight miles from home, he was stopped and searched by a German submarine, the U-99. He was taken prisoner, and his little vessel was used by the Huns for target practice. While still surfaced, the submarine was surprised and captured by the British destroyer, the Raven.
Johnson and the Germans were taken on board the destroyer and the U-99 was sunk.
The Raven was bound for the Mediterranean, but it never got there. It lost its steering; it could only wallow helplessly or make grand, clockwise, circles. It came to a rest at last in the Cape verde Islands.
Johnson stayed in those islands for eight months, awaiting some sort of transportation to the Western Hemisphere.
He got a job at last as a crewman on a fishing vessel that was carrying illegal immigrants to New Bedford, Massachusetts. The vessel was blown ashore at Newport, Rhode Island.
By that time Johnson had developed a conviction that something was trying to get him somewhere for some reason. So he stayed in Newport for a while to see if he had a destiny there. He worked as a gardener and carpenter on the famous Rumfoord Estate.
During that time, he glimpsed many distinguished guests of the Rumfoords, among them J.P. Morgan, General John J. Pershing, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Enrico Caruso, Warren Gamaliel Harding, and Harry Houdini. And it was during that time that the First World War came to an end, having killed ten million persons and wounded twenty million, Johnson amongst them.
When the war ended, the young rakehell of Rumfoord family, Remington Rumfoord, IV, proposed to sail his steam yacht, the Scheherazade, around the world, visiting Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, India, China, and Japan. He invited Johnson to accompany him as first mate, and Johnson agreed.
Johnson saw many wonders of the world on the voyage.
The Scheherezade was rammed in a fog in Bombay harbour and only Johnson survived. He stayed in India for two years, becoming a follower of Mohandas K. Ghandi. He was arrested for leading groups that protested against British rule by lying down on railroad tracks. When his jail term was over, he was shipped at Crown expense to his home in Tobago.
There, he built another schooner, which he called the Lady's Slipper II.
And he sailed her about the Caribbean, a idler, still seeking the storm that would drive him ashore on what was unmistakingly his destiny.
In 1922, he sought shelter from a hurricane in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which country was then occupied by United States Marines.
Johnson was approached there by a brilliant, self educated, idealistic Marine deserter, Earl McCabe. McCabe was a corporal. He had just stolen his company's recreation fund. He offered Johnson five hundred dollars for transportation to Miami.
The two set sail for Miami.
But a gale hounded the schooner onto the rocks of San Lorenzo. The boat went down. Johnson and McCabe, absolutely naked, managed to swim ashore. As Bokonon himself reports the adventure:
It was a rebirth for him:
There is a legend made up by Bokonon, that the golden boat will sail again when the end of the world is near.
When Lionel Boyd Johnson and Corporal Earl McCabe were washed up naked onto the shore of San Lorenzo, they were greeted by persons far worse off than they. The people of San Lorenzo had nothing but diseases, which they were at a loss to treat or even name. By contrast, Johnson and McCabe had the glittering treasures of literacy, ambition, curiosity, gall, irreverence, health, humour, and considerable information about the outside world.
In 1922 every piece of arable land on the island was owned by Castle Sugar. Castle Sugar's San Lorenzo operation never showed a profit. But, by paying labourers nothing for their labour, the company managed to break even year after year, making just enough money to pay the salaries of the workers' tormentors.
The form of government was anarchy, save in limited situations wherein Castle Sugar wanted to own something or to get something done. In such situations the form of government was feudalism. The nobility was composed of Castle Sugar's plantation bosses, who were heavily armed white men from the outside world. The knighthood was composed of big natives, who, for small gifts and silly privileges, would kill or wound or torture on command. The spiritual needs of the people caught in this demoniacal squirrel cage were taken care of by handful of butterball priests.
The San Lorenzo Cathedral, dynamited in 1923, was generally regarded as one of the man-made wonders of the New World.
That Corporal McCabe and Johnson were able to take command of San Lorenzo was not a miracle in any sense. Many people had taken over San Lorenzo - had invariably found it lightly held. The reason was simple: God, in His Infinite Wisdom, had made the island worthless.
Hernando Cortes was the first man to have his sterile conquest of San Lorenzo recorded on paper. Cortes and his men came ashore for fresh water in 1519, named the island claimed it for Emperor Charles the Fifth, and never returned. Subsequent expeditions came for gold and diamonds and rubies and spices, found none, burned a few natives for entertainment and heresy, and sailed on.
When France claimed San Lorenzo in 1682, no Spaniards complained. When Denmark claimed San Lorenzo in 1699, no Frenchmen complained. When the Dutch claimed San Lorenzo in 1704, no Danes complained. When England claimed San Lorenzo in 1706, no Dutchmen complained. When Spain reclaimed San Lorenzo in 1720, no Englishmen complained. When, in 1786, African Negroes took command of a British slave ship, ran it ashore on San Lorenzo, and proclaimed San Lorenzo an independent nation, an empire with an emperor, in fact, no Spaniards complained.
The emperor was Tum-bumwa, the only person who ever regarded this island as being worth defending. A maniac, Tum-bumwa caused to be erected the San Lorenzo Cathedral and the fantastic fortifications on the north shore of the island.
The fortifications have never been attacked, nor has any sane man ever proposed any reason why they should be attacked. They have never defended anything. Fourteen hundred persons are said to have died while building them. Of these fourteen hundred, about half are said to have been executed in public for sub-standard zeal.
Castle Sugar came into San Lorenzo in 1916, during the sugar boom of the First World War. There was no government at all. The company imagined that even the clay and gravel fields of San Lorenzo could be tilled profitably, with the price of sugar so high. No one complained.
When McCabe and Johnson arrived in 1922 and announced that they were placing themselves in charge, Castle Sugar withdrew flaccidly, as though from a queasy dream.
There was at least one quality of the new conquerors of San Lorenzo that was really new, McCabe and Johnson dreamed of making San Lorenzo a Utopia.
To this end, McCabe overhauled the economy and the laws.
Johnson designed a new religion.
Everyone on San Lorenzo is a devout Bokononist, the hook notwithstanding. Bokononism is outlawed on San Lorenzo, punishable by the Hook. This is a gallows, two posts and a cross beam, from which a great big kind of iron fishhook is hung, The hook is put through one side of the condemned's belly and out the other and then he's let go.
When Bokonon and McCabe took over San Lorenzo they threw out the priests. And then Bokonon, cynically and playfully, invented a new religion.
When it became evident that no governmental or economic reform was going to make the people much less miserable, the religion became the one real instrument of hope. The Truth was the enemy of the people, because the truth was so terrible, so Bokonon made it his business to provide the people with better and better lies.
He asked McCabe to outlaw him and his religion, too, in order to give the religious life of the people more zest, more tang. Bokonon suggested the hook as a proper form of punishment for Bokononists. It was something he'd seen in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud's. That was for zest too.
At first it was all make believe. Rumours were cunningly circulated about executions, but no one really knew anyone who had died that way. McCabe had a good old time making bloodthirsty threats against the Bokononists - which was everybody.
And Bokonon went into cosy hiding in the jungle, where he wrote and preached all day long and ate good things his disciples brought him.
McCabe would organize the unemployed, which was practically everybody into great Bokonon hunts.
About every six months McCabe would announce triumphantly that Bokonon was surrounded by a ring of steel, which was remorselessly closing in.
And then the leaders of the remorseless ring would have to report to McCabe, full of chagrin and apoplexy, that Bokonon had done the impossible.
He had escaped, had evaporated, had lived to preach another day. Miracle!
McCabe and Bokonon did not succeed in raising what is generally thought of as the standard of living. The truth was that life was short and brutish and mean as ever.
But people didn't have to pay as much attention to the awful truth. As the living legend of the cruel tyrant in the city and the gentle holy man in the jungle grew, so, too, did the happiness of the people grow. They were all employed full time as actors in a play they understood, that any human being anywhere could understand and applaud.
The drama was very tough on the souls of the two main actors, McCabe and Bokonon. As young men they had been pretty much alike, had both been half-angel, half-pirate.
But the drama demanded that the pirate half of Bokonon and the angel half of McCabe wither away. And McCabe and Bokonon paid a terrible price in agony for the happiness of the people - McCabe knowing the agony of the tyrant and Bokonon knowing the agony of the saint. They both became, for all practical purposes, insane.
And then people really did start dying on the hook.
But McCabe never made a really serious effort to catch Bokonon. It would
have been easy to do. McCabe always realized that without the holy man
to war against, he himself would become meaningless. He executed one Bokononist
every two years, just to keep the pot boiling.