Coup D’états and Camaraderie: The Acali Raft Experiment


The psychology of human violence is a question that has fascinated anthropologists for hundreds of years, spawning a slew of research papers, blog posts and articles, experiments, and, of course, deeply unethical studies. Perhaps the most infamous of these studies was the Acali Raft experiment of the 1970s, in which an anthropologist set out to discover the causes of violence and ended up discovering the prevailing concinnity of the human spirit instead.

The anthropologist in question was Santiago Genovés, who possessed many hypotheses on the connections between violence and sexuality that he wished to test. He had observed in monkeys that conflicts most often occurred between rival males fighting over females, and believed this would hold true for humans as well. As an accessory to this goal, he aimed to discover the key to world peace. The parameters of the experiment were thus: ten conventionally attractive young volunteers from all over the world would be selected, screened, and assigned a position on the Acali, which was a 12×7 meter raft that would sail them in utter isolation across the Atlantic Ocean. Each person would be radically different from one another to ensure the most possibilities for conflict. They would be denied any sort of entertainment or privacy besides a single guitar, as well as subjected to weekly interrogations into their mental states for Santiago’s research. The women were intentionally placed in positions of power over the men. Santiago believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the people onboard would eventually resort to primality—meaning both violence and competitive sexual intercourse—under the aforementioned stressful conditions.

The selected participants included Uruguayan anthropologist José Pérez, Servane Zanotti and Rachida Mazani—from France and Algeria respectively, both studying pollution—American navigator Mary Gidley, Israeli doctor Edna Jonas, Charles Anthony and Fé Seymour, Greek and American radio operators, Japanese cameraman Eisuke Yamaki, Angolan priest Bernardo Bongo, and the Swedish captain of the expedition, Maria Bjornstam. All participants were under the age of forty (barring Santiago himself, who was forty-nine).

On May 11, 1973, the Acali Raft set sail. It soon became clear that Santiago’s experiment would not proceed the way he’d expected. Instead of chafing against one another, everyone quickly forged strong friendships, banding together to stave off the boredom with songs, storytelling, and group activities like swimming or cooking together. The men did not revolt against the women being in power. Any disagreements were paltry and did not escalate. In fact, the only person who did not bond with the group was Santiago himself; everyone found themselves actually rather discomfited by his personality, the strange and invasive questionnaires he gave them each week, and his steadfast belief that they would all succumb to their animalistic base natures at any moment.

Santiago was a control freak and the single largest source of conflict and unhappiness on the raft. While everyone else grew closer and developed bonds that would last for a lifetime, Santiago refused to participate in social activities, choosing instead to silently observe and record everyone’s minute habits in his journal. He was closed-off and reticent. He vehemently rejected anything that might jeopardize his control over the ship and the experiment outcome that he wanted; for instance, any time Maria tried to make a call about the ship, Santiago would intervene and assert his authority instead, despite designating Maria the captain at the beginning of the journey. This sort of attitude and behavior led to everyone on the raft taking a deep dislike to him, especially Maria.

At one point, around midway through the journey, the Acali’s rudder broke, and instead of allowing Servane to fix it—a diver who was well-versed in repairing ships—Santiago insisted that he would be the one to fix it, despite not knowing how to fix a rudder. In the middle of the night, Servane went ahead and fixed the rudder in about five minutes, and in the morning, when Santiago discovered this, he lost his mind, claiming that none of them were taking this study seriously and that Servane’s actions were a form of mutiny.

Another example of Santiago’s personality clashing with the crew can be found in the disparities between his journal entries and the way the participants describe the experiment decades later. For instance, at one point, the crew caught a shark with their fishing poles and brought it on board. Tired of eating only rationed cans for weeks, they decided to try their hand at fileting and cooking the shark, and considered the entire endeavor a success that brought them closer together. However, Santiago’s recording of the event portrays the group as bloodthirsty and violent, slaughtering the shark with no remorse and coldly devouring its remains, and he referred to this moment as a flaming indication that the raft would be descending into chaos soon. He even hid the ax they used as a precaution, in case their “bloodlust” wasn’t satiated in the morning.

Of course, nothing of the sort occurred. Despite their differences, everyone got along remarkably well—the Acali experiment had become a sort of vacation for them, a respite from the troubles of everyday life. The journey also held very moving and poignant moments for some of them; Fé Seymour recalls gazing out over the water and being filled with a strange, dreamy feeling that she was making the same trip across the Atlantic as her African ancestors on slave ships: “I would sit on the starboard side and look into the water. I would start to hear voices coming from down there … I would hear my ancestors call me. They could feel my flying over their bodies and their tragedies. It was one of the best things that happened to me.”

The other American participant, Mary Gidley, had been fleeing from an abusive relationship when she joined the Acali, and considered it a safe haven.

Santiago was deeply affronted by what he considered to be a gross misinterpretation of the purpose of his experiment. He began attempting to engineer conflict if conflict would not arise organically. He would interview people about their opinions on one another and weaponize that information as gossip, or call someone out in front of everyone for not contributing as much as they could be. However, the friendships that had formed between everyone meant that no one actually cared. Santiago started being downright provocative, calling Fé Seymour racist names, prompting people to sleep with each other based on race, and randomly splashing water in people’s faces. The only thing this sort of petty and cruel behavior from Santiago accomplished was making the group hate him.

Fundamentally, Santiago believed that the people on the raft could not comprehend the importance of his experiment. He wanted them to get violent with one another so badly, convinced that their friendliness only proved that they were ruining the fine machinations of the scientific method. In actuality, however, he had the answer to his hypothesis right in his hands: simply, that humans will treat one another with kindness if given the opportunity, under the correct conditions. Everyone on the Acali was freed from the regular stresses of societal living, namely their jobs, their bills, and their other legal obligations as citizens, all of which held no sway on a little raft in the middle of the ocean. Gone was the typical litany of distractions and excuses that might keep people from bonding. Santiago had, in the opposite way he’d intended, distilled human interaction to its purest, raw form, and from it flowered warmth and friendship, not violence.

It’s a common conclusion among a rather large percentage of people today that humans are naturally and unavoidably inclined towards cruelty. This idea is perpetuated by a number of things, such as the largest religion in the world teaching that humans are inherently sinful, or extremely popular works of classic fiction like Lord of the Flies being misinterpreted en masse as some nihilistic treatise of human savagery. In actuality, however, humans are not inherently anything—good and bad are constructs reinforced by communities, and certainly not applicable in the stringent sense that people apply them today. Still, despite this, historical and modern social evidence increasingly suggests that the natural heart of human behavior is not violence, but care. Where once we believed that the earliest indication of intelligent culture was a Stone Age spearhead, instead we now believe that it was a healed femur; an individual with a broken bone would have been unable to contribute to their community, and in a society prone to warfare and brutality, they would have been left to die. And yet, the healed bone indicates a hitherto unprecedented level of compassion and minding from what anthropologists consider to be a “primitive” society.

Though it would be erroneous to claim that human history has not been fraught with violence and conquest, it is all too easy to falsely attribute it to some immutable human nature. Santiago Genovés sought world peace, and yet could not look past this preconception to see the truths his experiment was uncovering about people. On the Acali Raft, removed from civilization, completely isolated, those participants rediscovered intrinsic experiences that are sometimes otherwise stifled or subsumed by the bustle and preoccupation of living—singing, storytelling, sharing meals, relaxing and sleeping under the open sky. Conflict on the raft proved to be external and imposed upon them, rather than something that spawned organically. Years later, everyone would look back on the Acali as a respite, not a horror.

Other similar situations expounded in fiction have produced the same thesis as well, such as in the 2016 comedy series The Good Place. In the show, a group of people with opposing character traits are placed together in the afterlife in a specific combination of circumstances and engineered conflict intended to cause friction and make them miserable around one another. However, the show comes to the conclusion that people will only behave poorly because they have not been given the tools and opportunities to choose kindness instead, and that humans will always choose to be good if negative external factors are not imposed upon them.

The Good Place, in turn, is inspired by a 1944 play by Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit, which contains a famous quote that is misinterpreted by most people almost as egregiously as Lord of the Flies: “Hell is—other people!” This is said by one of three characters who are to be locked in a room alone with one another for eternity in the afterlife, and quickly discover that they are to be tormented by each other’s grating personalities. The theme here, however, is not that other people are always tortuous in isolation—but that our lives can become hellish when we do not actively strive to create dignified and warm relationships with the people around us.

This conclusion did not occur to Santiago Genovés, who held the key to world peace in his hands and did not know it. He continued to make his presence a terrible one for the participants onboard the Acali, and in doing so, almost facilitated his own death.

The Acali had sailed into the Caribbean and was nearing the end of its journey when they noticed a tropical storm brewing right over their intended course. Maria, well-seasoned with storms, decided that for the safety of everyone onboard, it was in their best interests to end the experiment early and dock at a nearby port before the storm became inescapable. However, Santiago, fearing the ruin of his experiment, mutinied and took control of the ship, refusing to allow Maria to dock them. In the end, they were forced to shelter for several days inside the cabin while the storm raged around them, until they emerged, luckily, unscathed on the other side.

Soon after this, another harrowing situation arose, except this time Santiago utterly failed to take command of the ship. A large freight ship was bearing down on the Acali, and only Maria’s quick thinking and leadership skills saved their small raft from being plunged into the ocean, while Santiago froze up and panicked. After this incident, Maria was decisively the captain again, and any remnant of Santiago’s authority was lost.

The group’s collective hatred of him reached new heights in the wake of these two events, and though he was never made aware of this, they even began to contemplate killing him. They considered throwing him overboard or poisoning him with medicine from the first aid kit, and Fé recalls suggesting that everyone put their hands on a knife and “plunge it into him so everybody was guilty. We would wrap him in a sheet, carry him over the railing and drop him.” In the end, though they chose not to follow through with any of these plans, the mere fact that they considered it so thoroughly and came up with multiple different plans indicates the true depths of how much Santiago’s harassment had affected each of them.

Meanwhile, Santiago’s situation was made all the worse when he received news via radio that his university was dissociating itself from his name and his experiment. Apparently, while they had been sailing, the true nature of the Acali Raft experiment had come to light in the media, and press was filled with scandalous headlines nicknaming it the “Sex Raft”. This was a whole debacle that the university did not want to be associated with in any way. Santiago collapsed into depressive melancholy at the news and remained in that state for the rest of the journey, retreating below deck to lick his wounds while the rest of the Acali’s crew celebrated, swimming, hanging out, and enjoying their last few weeks of freedom before it all came to end. In a moment of self-awareness amidst his moping, Santiago began to cry and wrote in his journal, “Only one has shown any kind of aggression and that is me, a man trying to control everyone else, including himself.” The Acali docked in Mexico on August 21, 1973, over one hundred days after setting sail.

Although Santiago would go on to consider the raft experiment a failure, many disagree—Fé argues that it was a success, even if Santiago couldn’t see it. “He was so focused on the violence and conflict, but he had it right in his hands. We started out as them and us and we became us.” Marcus Lindeen, who produced a documentary about the Acali Raft in 2018, agrees that Santiago was shortsighted in his conclusions. He saw an uncomfortable amount of himself in Santiago while filming his movie, and comments that, “If only [Santiago] had listened to why people were on the raft—Mary escaping an abusive husband, the racism Fé had suffered—he would have learned about the consequences of violence and how sometimes we can overcome it by overcoming our differences.” In the end, Santiago never did arrive at this realization; his name faded into obscurity after the scandal his experiment caused, his journals and papers insignificant, and his research negligible. He passed away in 2013.

The other members of the Acali, however, remained friends for the rest of their lives. They hosted reunions and gatherings, keeping in touch with one another despite their continental differences, and when Lindeen’s documentary was being filmed, they all willingly came together again onboard his replica raft to reminisce on their unforgettable journey. The Acali had been life-changing for them, bringing them close to each other in a way they had never experienced before. Santiago had anticipated violence, and instead got music, laughter, and peace—everything he sought, yet also everything he failed to recognize, though it had been sown right before his eyes.

The Acali Raft remains a testament to the strength of friendship despite difficulty. Though those aboard the raft suffered boredom, isolation, exposure, and the strain of bearing Santiago’s personality, they proved by remaining steadfast in peace and camaraderie that violence is no more an inherent human trait than kindness; both require work, and hell is other people only we allow it to be so.

Categories: Opinion

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