For thousands of years, the coconut palm has entwined itself in history, from tropical coasts to typical shelves in global groceries. Called the “tree of life” by the many cultures that have depended upon it through time, it provides sustenance, succour and shelter. While it now grows on every subtropical coastline around the world, genetic testing underwritten by the National Geographic Society in 2011 showed the coconut originated in India and Southeast Asia. From its original home, the nut—which can float—made its way independently, traversing both hemispheres.
But historians also agree that coconuts travelled at the hands of men, and it was most likely seafaring Arab traders who carried coconuts from India to East Africa as much as 2,000 years ago. Even the name they conferred on the fruit— zhawzhat al-hind, which means “walnut of India”—survives in Arabic today.
BIBLIOTECA ESTENSE / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
The cocuruto (“crown of the head” in Portuguese), from which the South Asian drupe takes its modern name, was hinted at in the illustration at left printed in a 15th-century edition of Dioscorides’s Tractatus De Herbis; the merchant’s scales allude to the coconut’s value in Europe.
These mariners encountered coconuts as they traded with their Indian counterparts who sailed small, nimble dhows, coast-hugging boats made from teak or coconut-wood planking lashed together with coconut fibre (coir). The dhow was adopted by Arab merchant mariners themselves, and the boats continue to be made today, but with modern materials.
These same traders also introduced coconuts to Europeans, first along the trans-Asian Silk Roads. Among them was the Venetian adventurer Marco Polo, who encountered the tree in Egypt in the 13th century, calling its fruit “the Pharaoh’s nut.”
Beginning in the early 16th century, the coconut came to Europe through the “maritime Silk Road” following explorer-colonizers like Vasco da Gama, who pursued a direct trade route between Portugal and India, guided by maps and navigational information charted by the famed Arab navigator Ahmad ibn Majid a half century before.
From da Gama and other Portuguese traders came the coconut’s contemporary and most recognised international name: They called it coco-nut because it resembled a cocuruto, or skull, with three dots on its ends like two eyes and a mouth and coconut ﬁbers that resembled hair.
G. DAGLI ORTI / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
Carried much earlier by Arab traders into Mesopotamia, a coconut palm was depicted in a bas-relief, in the Aleppo Archaeological Museum.