2 citations; last updated October 16, 2013

Search the entire database

To send information about your most recent publications,
to report errors, make comments or ask questions,
join the Coconut Knowledge Network

Extracts from Tennent: But the most important fact connected with these recently formed portions of land, is their extraordinary suitability for the growth of the coco-nut, which requires the sea-air (and in Ceylon at least appears never to attain its full luxuriance when removed to any considerable distance from it)[1], and which, at the same time, requires a light and sandy soil, and the constant presence of water in large quantities. All these essentials are combined in the sea-belts here described, lying as they do between the ocean on the one side and the fresh-water lakes formed by the great rivers on the other, thus presenting every requisite of soil and surface. It is along a sand formation of this description, about forty miles long and from one to three miles broad, that thriving coco-nut plantations have been recently commenced at Batticaloa. At Calpentyn, on the western coast, a like formation has been taken advantage of for the same purpose. At Jaffna somewhat similar peculiarities of soil and locality have been seized on for this promising cultivation; and, generally, along the whole seaborde of Ceylon to the south and west, the shore for the breadth of one or two miles exhibits almost continuous groves of coco-nut palms.

[Footnote 1: Coco-nuts are cultivated at moderate elevations in the mountain villages of the Interior; but the fruit bears no comparison, in number, size, or weight, with that produced in the lowlands, and near the sea, on either side of the island.]

The family of trees which, from their singularity as well as their beauty, most attract the eye of the traveller in the forests of Ceylon, are the palms, which occur in rich profusion, although, of upwards of six hundred species which are found in other countries, not more than ten or twelve are indigenous to the island.[1] At the head of these is the coco-nut, every particle of whose substance, stem, leaves, and fruit, the Singhalese turn to so many accounts, that one of their favourite topics to a stranger is to enumerate the hundred uses to which they tell us this invaluable tree is applied.[2]

[Footnote 1: Mr. Thwaites has enumerated fifteen species (including the coco-nut, and excluding the Nipa fruticans, which more properly belongs to the family of screw-pines): viz. Areca, 4; Caryota, 1; Calamus, 5; Borassus, 1; Corypha, 1; Phoenix, 2; Cocos, 1.]

[Footnote 2: The following are only a few of the countless uses of this invaluable tree. The leaves, for roofing, for mats, for baskets, torches or chules, fuel, brooms, fodder for cattle, manure. The stem of the leaf, for fences, for pingoes (or yokes) for carrying burthens on the shoulders, for fishing-rods, and innumerable domestic utensils. The cabbage or cluster of unexpended leaves, for pickles and preserves. The sap for toddy, for distilling arrack, and for making vinegar, and sugar. The unformed nut, for medicine and sweetmeats. The young nut and its milk, for drinking, for dessert; the green husk for preserves. The nut, for eating, for curry, for milk, for cooking. The oil, for rheumatism, for anointing the hair, for soap, for candles, for light; and the poonak, or refuse of the nut after expressing the oil, for cattle and poultry. The shell of the nut, for drinking cups, charcoal, tooth-powder, spoons, medicine, hookahs, beads, bottles, and knife-handles. The coir, or fibre which envelopes the shell within the outer husk, for mattresses, cushions, ropes, cables, cordage, canvass, fishing-nets, fuel, brushes, oakum, and floor mats. The trunk, for rafters, laths, railing, boats, troughs, furniture, firewood; and when very young, the first shoots, or cabbage, as a vegetable for the table. The entire list, with a Singhalese enthusiast, is an interminable narration of the virtues of his favourite tree.]

In the deepest jungle the sight of a single coco-nut towering above the other foliage is in Ceylon a never-failing landmark to intimate to a traveller his approach to a village. The natives have a superstition that the coco-nut will not grow out of the sound of the human voice, and will die if the village where it had previously thriven become deserted; the solution of the mystery being in all probability the superior care and manuring which it receives in such localities.

[Footnote 2: Transactions Linn. Soc. vol. iii. p. 63. It is remarkable, however, that this discovery of Daldorf, which excited so great an interest in 1791, had been anticipated by an Arabian voyager a thousand years before. Abou-zeyd, the compiler of the remarkable MS. known since Renandot's translation by the title of the ”Travels of Two Mahometans”, states that Suleyman, one of his informants, who visited India at the close of the ninth century, was told there of a fish which, issuing from the waters, ascended the coco-nut palms to drink their sap, and returned to the sea. "On parle d'un poisson de mer que sortant de l'eau, monte sur la cocotier et boit le suc de la plante; ensuite il retourne à la mer." See REINAUD, Relations des Voyages faits par les Arabes et Persans dans le neuvième siècle, tom. i. p. 21, tom ii. p. 93.]

There is considerable obscurity about the story of this ascent, although corroborated by M. John. Its motive for climbing is not apparent, since water being close at hand it could not have gone for sake of the moisture contained in the fissures of the palm; nor could it be in search of food, as it lives not on fruit but on aquatic insects.[1] The descent, too, is a question of difficulty. The position of its fins, and the spines on its gill-covers, might assist its journey upwards, but the same apparatus would prove anything but a facility in steadying its journey down. The probability is, as suggested by Buchanan, that the ascent which was witnessed by Daldorf was accidental, and ought not to be regarded as the habit of the animal. In Ceylon I heard of no instance of the perch ascending trees[2], but the fact is well established that both it, the pullata (a species of polyacanthus), and others, are capable of long journeys on the level ground.[3]

[Footnote 1: Kirby says that it is "in pursuit of certain crustaceans that form its food" (Bridgewater Treatise, vol. i. p. 144); but I am not aware of any crustaceans in the island which ascend the palmyra or feed upon its fruit. Birgus latro, which inhabits Mauritius and is said to climb the coco-nut for this purpose, has not been observed in Ceylon.]

The Coco-nut Beetle.--In the luxuriant forests of Ceylon, the extensive family of Longicorns live in destructive abundance. Their ravages are painfully familiar to the coco-nut planters.[1] The larva of one species of large dimensions, Batocera rubus[2], called by the Singhalese "Cooroominya" makes its way into the stems of the younger trees, and after perforating them in all directions, it forms a cocoon of the gnawed wood and sawdust, in which it reposes during its sleep as a pupa, till the arrival of the period when it emerges as a perfect beetle. Notwithstanding the repulsive aspect of the large pulpy larvæ of these beetles, they are esteemed a luxury by the Malabar coolies, who so far avail themselves of the privilege accorded by the Levitical law, which permitted the Hebrews to eat "the beetle after his kind."[3]

[Footnote 1: There is a paper in the Journ. of the Asiat. Society of Ceylon, May, 1845, by Mr. CAPPER, on the ravages perpetrated by these beetles. The writer had recently passed through several coco-nut plantations, "varying in extent from 20 to 150 acres, and about two to three years old; and in these he did not discover a single young tree untouched by the cooroominya."--P. 49.]

The Coco-nut Palm.--It is curious and suggestive as regards the coco-nut, which now enters so largely into the domestic economy of the Singhalese, that although it is sometimes spoken of in the Mahawanso (but by no means so often as the palmyra), no allusion is ever made to it as an article of diet, or an element in the preparation of food, nor is it mentioned, before the reign of Prakrama I., A.D. 1153[1], in the list of those fruit-trees, the planting of which throughout the island is repeatedly recorded, as amongst the munificent acts of the Singhalese kings.

[Footnote 1: Mahawanso, ch. lxxii.]

As the other species of the same genus of palms are confined to the New World[1], a doubt has been raised whether the coco-nut be indigenous in India, or an importation. If the latter, the first plant must have been introduced anterior to the historic age; and whatever the period at which the tree may have been first cultivated, a time is indicated when it was practically unknown in Ceylon by the fact, that a statue, without date or inscription, is carved in high relief in a niche hollowed out of a rock to the east of Galle, which tradition says is the monument to the Kustia Raja, an Indian prince, whose claim to remembrance is, that he first taught the Singhalese the use of the coco-nut.[2]

[Footnote 1: BROWN'S Notes to TUCKEY'S Expedition to the Congo, p. 456.]

[Footnote 2: The earliest mention of the coco-nut in Ceylon occurs in the Mahawanso, which refers to it as known at Rohuna to the south, B. c, 161 ( ch. xxv. p. 140). "The milk of the small red coco-nut" is stated to have been used been used by Dutugaimunu in preparing cement for building the Ruanwellé dagoba (Mah. ch. xxx. p. 169). The south-west of the island, and especially the margin of the sea is still the locality in which the tree is found in greatest abundance in Ceylon. Hither, if originally self-sown, it must have been floated and flung ashore by the waves; and as the north-east coast, though washed by a powerful current, is almost altogether destitute of these palms, it is obvious that the coco-nut; if carried by sea from some other shore, must have been brought during the south-west monsoon from the coast near Cape Comorin, ÆLIAN notices as one of the leading peculiarities in the appearance of the sea coast of Ceylon, that the palm trees (by which, as the south of the island was the place of resort, he most probably means the coco-nut palms) grew in regular quincunxes, as if planted by skilful hands in a well ordered garden. [Greek: ". . ."]--Lib. xvi. cp. 18. The comparative silence of the Mahawanso in relation to the coco-nut may probably be referable to the fact that its author resided and wrote in the interior of the island; over which, unlike the light seeds of other plants, its ponderous nuts could not have been distributed accidentally, where down to the present time it has been but partially introduced, and nowhere in any considerable number. Its presence throughout Ceylon is always indicative of the vicinity of man, and at a distance from the shore it appears in those places only where it has been planted by his care. The Singhalese believe that the coco-nut will not flourish "unless you walk under it and talk under it:" but its proximity to human habitations is possibly explained by the consideration that if exposed in the forest, it would be liable, when young, to be forced down by the elephants, who delight in its delicate leaves. See DAVY'S Angler in the Lake Districts, p. 245.]

One peculiarity in the mode of constructing the native shipping of Ceylon existed in the remotest times, and is retained to the present day. The practice is closely connected with one of the most imaginative incidents in the medieval romances of the East Their boats and canoes, like those of the Arabs and other early navigators who crept along the shores of India, are put together without the use of iron nails[1], the planks being secured by wooden bolts, and stitched together with cords spun from the fibre of the coconut.[2]

Coir and Cordage.--EDRISI speaks of cordage made from the fibre of the coco-nut, to prepare which, the natives of Oman and Yemen resorted to Ceylon[1]; so that the Singhalese would appear to have been instructed by the Arabs in the treatment of coir, and its formation into ropes; an occupation which, at the present day, affords extensive employment to the inhabitants of the south and south-western coasts. Ibn Batuta describes the use of coir, for sewing together the planking of boats, as it was practised at Zafar in the fourteenth century[2]; and the word itself bespeaks its Arabian origin, as ALBYROUNI, who divides the Maldives and Laccadives into two classes, calls the one group the Dyvah-kouzah, or islands that produce cowries; and the other the Dyvah-kanbar, or islands that produce coir.[3]

[Footnote 1: EDRISI, t. i. p. 74.]

[Footnote 2: Voyages, &c., vol. ii. p. 207. Paris, 1854.]

[Footnote 3: ALBYROUNI, in REYNAUD, Fragm. Arabes, &c., pp, 93, 124 The Portuguese adopted the word from the Hindus, and CASTANEDA, in Hist. of the Discovery of India, describes the Moors of Sofalah sewing their boats with "cayro" ch. v, 14, xxx. 75.]