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The Voyage of Francois Pyrard of Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas and Brazil
Francois Pyrard de Laval
translated into English in 1887 from the third French edition of 1619 by Albert Gray assisted by H.C.P. Bell

Vol. 3 Chapter 12

The Coconut Palm
A most particular description of the admirable tree that bears the Indian nut, called Cocos, and alone produces all commodities and things necessary for the life of man.

  Coconuts, Meedhoo island Addu atoll Maldives 1996
Coconuts, Meedhoo island, Addu atoll 1996

In all the Indies there is no tree which serves so many purposes of the nourishment and convenience of man as the tree which produces the cocos or Indian nut.

The Portuguese call this tree Palmero, and the fruit Cocos. The Maldivians call it Roul, and the fruit Care. The Malabars call it Tengua, and the Guzerats Narquilly.

It grows only in countries that are within the two Tropics, because it requires nothing but a warm and humid soil; and yet it is not found throughout the whole Torrid Zone, but only in certain places, where it is a marvel to see it growing all naturally and without cultivation; and one of its chief places is the Maldives, where it is more abundant than in all the rest of the world together.

Dangers of Coconut palms
Such, indeed, is its increase there that the natives have to cut it down to make room for their houses and buildings. Usually, they do not allow these trees to stand too close to their houses, both because the trees are frequently blown down by the wind, thereby ruining the houses and killing the occupants, and because great quantities of nuts are falling every day owing to the rats, and they often cause the death of men by reason both of the height of the tree and the weight of the fruit. I have seen a green fruit to weigh full six pounds.

The rats attack them only when green, both because when dry they are too hard to gnaw, and because the chief desire of these creatures is to drink the water. They are clever enough to make a hole on the upper side, so that the water shall not escape, and they make it of their own size, so that they can enter in to eat and drink. When the fruit is thus empty within, it rots and falls in such wise that in the uninhabited islands the ground is all covered with them; for in inhabited places the people diligently collect them, when dry, for firewood, which purpose they serve better than any other wood.

The people are much troubled by the destruction and ravages of these rats, and even more so by those of the bats whereof I have spoken, which are so big, and a great annoyance both in regard to this tree and to wine-jars, and other vessels used for catching and drawing the wine. These creatures will break and crack the vessels in their desire to drink the wine, most frequently spilling it entirely.

The people are also much molested in all the islands by ants, which make their tunnels beneath these trees, traversing all the roots, and displenishing them of earth so much as to cause them to fall.

Appearance and uses of the Coconut palm
This tree is loftier not only than any tree of these parts, but even than any of the Indian trees, being about twenty fathoms high. It is quite straight, without any branches up to the summit; it is not of proportionate thickness, but very smooth, thicker towards the roots, and diminishing up to the top. I have never seen one quite straight, nor any but was without branches up to the top.

It has but little root, and so has no strong foothold, and a high wind is sure to blow some down; and, as I said, these sometimes fall upon the houses, in whose ruins the people within are overwhelmed, the houses being low and little able to resist so great a weight.

The bark is light in colour, and the trunk very pithy, and full of filament.

The timber is used for building houses, yet but half the tree can be used for the purpose, that is, the lower or thick half, for the rest is only pith, and too tender.

Of the lower part of the tree where it is thickest a length of about three feet is cut, and then hollowed out to make buckets for keeping honey, water, and other commodities.

The best of the timber is used for making ships, which are altogether composed of it; no other is used, nor is a particle of iron employed.

The branches are all aloft, in a bunch at the top of the tree. They are exceeding long, flat, and straight. The leaves grow equally on both sides, and close together, with only the interval of an inch between. They are half a fathom or more in length, finishing in a point, two inches broad on each side; for they are folded in two at the middle, where there is a stalk of wood, very slender, but very strong, giving support to the leaf. They are of a white colour when the leaf first opens, afterwards they become green, and latterly, when dry, brown.

The fruit never grows upon the branches, but only on the trunk of the tree at the spring of the branches. There it grows, and waxes in clusters, each cluster hanging from the tree by a stalk as thick as the arm, of a due length, and very strong. By this stalk hang the nuts or cocos, usually to the number of fifty or sixty, more or less; and what is more wonderful than all, the tree produces a cluster of cocos every month, in such wise that sometimes it is charged with ten or twelve clusters of nuts, some ripe, others half ripe, and others just beginning to set, all in the order of their growth; and they become perfectly ripe in six months. Thus it has ripe fruit all the year round, and is always in season.

This tree requires low, humid, and watery ground, and marshy or sandy places; wherefore it grows well at the Maldives, the ground being low, and water being found at three or four feet deep, so that these trees are always kept fresh and nourished. On the other hand, on the mainland it is some trouble to get them reared, and it is necessary to use water-channels, or to irrigate them by the hand labour of slaves night and morning.

For planting, the fruit must be taken when naturally ripe upon the tree, nor too much so, for if too ripe and dry, the water inside will have dried up; and it is the water alone which germinates, and not the kernel. The whole fruit must be laid in humid soil, with its shell and husk, and it suffices to cover it with earth. Without the husk the tree cannot possibly grow, because otherwise the earth would rot the shell ere the germ and root were nourished, and the plant had sprung above the ground.

It bears fruit at six or seven years. They that would gather this fruit can, by rapping the fingers or other thing against the husk, judge in what condition it is, whether hard or soft, ripe or unripe. When it is becoming ripe the water joggles and stirs within, but when not ripe, or only beginning to ripen, the water gives no sound; and in measure as it becomes over ripe, the water dries up until it is exhausted; the kernel then becomes hard and dry, and when pressed, no longer yields milk, but only oil, and separates from the shell. In place of being white within, it then becomes of a leaden hue, while the outer surface turns brown like the shell.

Raveri restrictions
The trees growing near the close of the royal palace and other houses at the Maldives are ascended only by night: it is forbidden to do so by day, for the climbers would overlook the close, which hath not walls of the height of these trees. Indeed, the gatherers of this fruit, who are called 'raveri', dare not climb them by day at any place where they could overlook the close of the humblest dwelling, ere they have first given a loud shout three times, standing at the foot of the tree. This is done for the sake of the women who bathe and wash themselves, all naked, in their ponds and in the closes of their houses. This rule is observed very strictly amongst them, and it is forbidden to the raveri to climb the tree until the women have done their bathing and have withdrawn.

Many practical uses of the Coconut palm
Marvellous indeed are the commodities drawn from this tree, of which there is no morsel or particle but serves some use. The branches are split in two and are made into laths for roofing the houses, and into close arid well-fitted palisades, wherewith houses and gardens are enclosed. They are put to a thousand other uses which it were tedious to explain.

With the leaves the houses are thatched; they are used for lining and closing up all fences and houses, being very neatly sewn together and plaited over, with several rows of cord run along the whole length to keep them firm. No other material is used for their houses, fences, and screens; and it resists water so well that not a drop passes through: it must, however, be renewed at the end of three years.

While the leaf is still green it is used like paper for writing letters, missives, verses, and ballads, and then is neatly folded up; this is done with knives and iron styles.

Again, the leaves when dry are split into strips or tags, which are woven and interlaced in the fashion of a mat, exceeding well executed; these mats, sewn one to another, are made into sails for ships of any size required, and throughout all the Maldives no other sails are used. The same mats serve as ordinary carpets for sitting upon the ground in the country manner, and throughout all the coast of Malabar, the people use no other, because there they have not the proper reed, as at Cael and the Maldives, of which other mats, much handsomer and prettier, are made.

Also with these leaves, used whole, the people fashion, in very cunning plaited work, all manner of baskets and scuttles, and a thousand other such manufactures, such as we here fashion of osiers or willow; of the same they make sunshades or sombreros, and very pretty hats for use against the rain. I myself always wore the like.

In short, these leaves, when young and white, are worked into a thousand things: being fashioned in birds, fish, and all other animals, such as we here frame by the artful folding of linen.

When they would make a present of flowers, betel, or the like, they put this in a kind of basket made of these leaves very neatly. When it is required to take out the contents, they cut an opening with a knife and cast away the basket. The slender stick in the middle of the dry leaf becomes very hard, insomuch that of it they make besoms (brooms) to sweep with, and use none other. These slight stalks also serve to make boxes and cases; they are plaited together, and are quite strong, and such boxes are fastened with lock and key.

Of these stalks are also made the shafts of weapons, such as small spears, javelins, etc.; they bind together the little stems, which are no thicker than an iron spike, and about a half fathom in length, packing them together to the required thickness, and placing them end to end to the required length. These sticks diminish in size from their thicker end, which is the lower end of the leaf, up to the point, which is no bigger than a little needle. They dispose these little sticks with such art, that the shaft constructed of them is no longer weak, nor stouter in one place than another. Next, when well polished, they cover these shafts with a varnish called by them 'laa', which they possess in all colours, adorning them with numberless figures and patterns at their pleasure; these shafts are called 'ziconti'. They are of the thickness of a good-sized thumb, and are staunch and strong, yet will bend sooner than break. They are made as thick and long as required, and are also used for making bows. When these people want needles they use none other than these little stems, fashioning and pointing them with their knives.

Preparation of Maldive Coir
The nut is covered with a husk or shell; some are of the size of a man's head, and some less. The husk has a yellowish hue over the green when it is ripe, and is three or four inches thick. This husk is composed of fibre, whereof they make their rope. They remove the husk when green, as we should that of a nut, and lay it to steep in the sea, covering it with sand. After it has been there for the space of three weeks they take it out and beat it with wooden mallets, such as we here use for flax or hemp. Thus, having separated the fibres, they expose it to the sun. Next, the women twist and spin it into rope with the hand on the naked thigh, for the men take no part in the labour of rope-making. The rope thus made serves for all uses, and none other is employed throughout all the Indies.

Uses of the husk
The same husk, when dry, serves to caulk the ships withal. Of the same substance, too, are made matches for arquebuses; it keeps alight well and makes good charcoal, better indeed than ours; but in making matches it is prepared differently from the rope: for the husk or shell must be dried with the fruit, and not plucked green, nor steeped, nor beaten, and the fibre is spun and twisted with the whole of the rind, and very finely twined. It is of the colour of tan, wherewith leather is tanned; and all about this fibre is a substance like sawdust.

Moreover, in dwellings, at guard houses, and elsewhere, they employ this dry husk for preserving fire, as it keeps alight for a long while, and a small spark applied to it will convey the fire, which will not go out so long as there is the least substance left.

When they have made their match, they boil it with ashes, as we use here; then they fold it together into thick hanks, like rings, of the thickness of an arm; through these they thrust their arm when they are carrying their arquebuses. They never cut it, but merely snuff it as it burns away, as we do candles. They use no other manner of match, either in these islands or elsewhere in India; in some places, however, where cotton is common and cocos scarce, they make their matches of cotton.

Uses of the Coconut shell
The nut, when separated from the husk, or, as we call it, 'shelled', is still so big that, empty and cleaned out, it will hold two or three pints of water or other liquid; for some of them are of various smaller sizes, and the least are of the size of a lemon. The shell is exceeding hard, and as thick as two testoons, or a whit more.

The Indians use it to make their porringers, pots, pints, and other measures, and also utensils such as spoons and the like. Moreover, of this shell they make charcoal for their forges, and use none other. All around the inside of this shell comes a thick and firm white substance, which is tasty like an almond, and very good; they use it in various ways.

First, the Indians eat it as we eat bread along with other viands, whether flesh or fish. Next, from this same white stuff they extract a milk which is as sweet as our milk sugared, or rather as our milk of almonds. To obtain this milk they pound the kernel into meal, then strain and squeeze it; the milk thus caused to flow is passed through a sieve. This milk is very laxative; it is served with honey or sugar, and drunk fasting; no other purgative is used. From this same milk, oil is obtained, for when boiled it changes and thickens into oil; it is very good fbr frying, and no other is used by the people, whether for seasoning their meats or mixing with their sauces.

The same is used for lamps, and not only at the Maldives, but throughout all the East Indies; even the Portuguese use none other. It is also very good for wounds and ulcers, and is the principal recipe at the Maldives. I myself was cured by it. It is a sovereign remedy against the itch (scabies), which it consumes and causes to fall off a few days after it is rubbed on. The physicians and surgeons that are among the Portuguese use it with their medicines and unguents, though they might use that of Spain, holding this to be more medicinal and the best in certain ailments.

This oil, when kept for about three months, thickens and congeals into a very white butter, though the oil was yellowish; this butter is not, however, delicate or fit to be eaten with bread as ours is. They use it in the same manner as the oil, that is, melted, and thereby it loses not its savour.

Moreover, with this squeezed kernel, or compressed white, after the extraction of the milk, are made excellent comfits and conserves, prepared with the sugar that is produced from the same tree.

Coconut water
Inside the nut, and within this kernel or white, and at the very centre, is found a quantity of water, according to the size of the cocos: the largest have a good pint of very beautiful water, clear as that from the rock, and as good and of the same taste as sugared water, and the fresher the better. It is a very refreshing drink, principally when the fruit is half ripe; but the wine made of it is very fiery.

Finally, the entire cocos, comprised within the husk and shell, can be eaten as we should eat a sweet apple.

Uses of Coconut flower
When the tree begins to blossom and to put forth the bunch or cluster, a pod is produced, long and pointed, in the form of a gherkin, which, when fully extended, opens and expands into a yellow flower, and thence proceeds the fruit. This pod when dry falls to the ground, or is cut off, and made into charcoal for drawing, and also into boxes or pails, also into bushel measures; so indeed that there is no part of this tree but is put to some use; even the flowers are made into most excellent conserves and comfits.

This cocos yields another commodity, namely, a certain tissue found at the base of the branches between the trunk of the tree and the fruit cluster. This tissue the Indians employ to make their sacks. Also, being of fine mesh, it is very proper for strainers to pass any liquids through.

This tree also yields a liquor which serves in place of wine. For when you cut the thick spathe of the cluster, leaving it only of a foot's length, there drops therefrom a liquor passing sweet and luscious, just like hypocras (wine mixed with spices), saving that it is quite fresh. At the Maldives this liquor that flows from these cut branches is drunk instead of wine - for they dare not drink the other sort; but it will not keep sweet without turning sour for more than four-and-twenty hours. Each branch usually yields about a quart a day, though some will yield two or three or more, and this branch, dropping continually, lasts for the space of six months. To receive this liquor, they attach a pot, also of cocos, to the branch or spathe, in such wise that the wind cannot carry the droppings away.

Coconut sugar - Jaggery
With this liquor they make honey and sugar. They collect it in a pan and boil it with certain white porous pebbles that are found in the sea. When boiled for some time it becomes converted into honey, as excellent as ordinary honey, or, rather, as the finest syrup imaginable; it is yellow like wax, but they make it clear or thick as they please.

From this honey also is manufactured sugar, by boiling with other pebbles and then drying it: thus is produced a fine sugar, either white or candy, wherein is much traffic done, both at the Maldives and also at Cael and Ceylon. But this sugar is not by any means so white as cane sugar, though in some places it is whiter than at others.

Also if of this liquor they desire not to make honey or sugar, they put it on the fire and make an excellent brandy, called by them 'arak', which is quite as strong as ours here. This brandy, or arak, the Portuguese use for a beverage, but they add thereto raisins from Persia, putting about 30 or 35 pounds of them in a cask, and mixing the whole together to redden and sweeten it. The Portuguese drink no other wine, and call this 'vin de passe'; it is very good and cheap. Great lords sometimes drink Spanish wine, which is very dear out there. If vinegar be wanted, this liquor is left for ten or twelve days to turn sour, and the vinegar so made is as strong as the best we have here.

Thus from the same tree can be obtained fruit and wine; but, to say truth, the fruit is in that case neither so good nor so plentiful. Wherefore at the Maldives, where these trees are so numerous, they set apart certain of them solely for the production of wine; and then, a single tree cannot have more than two or three of these distilling taps going at once. Nevertheless, some wine can be drawn from a tree which is left to bear fruit, but a small quantity only.

The tree has yet another commodity, namely, that at the top it throws out a tender shoot about two or three feet long, which is very good eating, and as sweet as an almond. I have eaten it many a time. When the trees are felled for the purpose of building, this tendril is promptly cut, but never except then.

Coconut kernels
Another extraordinary thing is that when the cocos is ripe and dry, if you put it in some damp place, or in the ground, for the space of three weeks or a month, the water within forms itself into a kind of apple, yellow on the surface and white beneath; this is as tender and sweet as can be, and melts in the month. The dainty and curious among the inhabitants eat this often, esteeming it most delicate fare, and even give it to their little children.

This apple is the germ of the cocos, which would shoot forthwith and engender a tree were it left a while longer, for the kernel that is all around the shell in manner described has naught to do with the germination of the cocos, but only the water within; this it is which furnishes the substance. The rest of the cocos rots, and is good for nothing more.

Further, the natives make a sort of merchandise out of the fruit of the cocos, which finds a market all over India, and fetches a high price too; they call it 'kufaraa'. They take the fruit, break it in two parts, and dry it in the sun, which causes it to shrink mightily; and it will thus keep as long as they wish. They pack it in sacks and send it to all parts. It is of good flavour, and serves for sauces and soups. It is carried in quantities to Arabia, and the oil extracted from it is much better and will keep longer than that drawn from quite fresh fruit.

Black dyes are obtained from the sawdust of cocos; it is steeped in the water and honey of this same tree, and left in the sun for some days; a very black and excellent dye is thus produced.

Of the stalks of the fruit are made paint brushes for painting their boats, galleys, temples, and houses, which are painted all over, but never (as I have said before) with the figures of men.

I have often seen at the Maldives an infinite number of ships of 100 or 120 tons, built entirely of this timber, without any iron or other wood or material except what this tree produces. The anchors even are made of it, and are very excellent and handy. They have a cross-piece of wood of the same tree, hollowed out and packed with flints and little stones, and then firmly closed. This is to render the anchor heavier, so that it shall catch and keep a better hold. The planks are fastened with pins, and lashed and seamed within with cordage made of the fruit.

Moreover, these ships, entirely built, fitted, and equipped with the timber or fruit of this tree, are loaded with merchandise proceeding from the same tree, to wit, cordage, mats, sails of cocos, comfits, oil, wine, sugar, and other goods, all the produce of this tree. And this is true also of the provisions of the ship, whether of meat or drink; and whether the voyage be to Arabia, 800 or 900 leagues distance, or to the coast of Malabar, Cambay, Sumatra, or elsewhere. These vessels last four or five years, and with repairs and proper treatment will make many long voyages.

Ray skin coconut drums
To make their drums they hollow a trunk of this tree till it be quite thin; then, when they have caught some of the fish, called by us the ray, which they never eat, they skin it, and cover their drums with the hide, as I have already said. These rays are the largest to be seen anywhere.

Cleaning and polishing
They use this wood also as being the best for polishing and furbishing articles of iron or copper, whether arms or household utensils. They also employ powdered porcelain mingled with oil to scrub, clean, and polish their arms and other utensils.

For the rest, I have yet to say that there are two sorts of these cocos trees; the fruit of the one when young being sweet and tender as an apple, that of the other not so. The tender and sweet are very rare, and held in great esteem, but when they are ripe they are not so good as the others.

I have given an extensive description of this tree, as being one of the greatest marvels of the Indies; also because I sojourned five years at the Maldives, where it is the chief source of wealth, food, and all commodities, and where they are better experienced in drawing its produce and in applying it to the various petty amenities of life than elsewhere in India.

Nor have I only seen all this a few times. I have eaten this fruit and lived upon it regularly. I myself possessed a great number of trees, and those of the very best, and myself produced all these commodities which I have described. Wherefore, I have thought it not otherwise than proper that I should describe with all particularity that which I have learnt by an experience so long and so well approved.

Footnotes 1887:

Pamlero, Palmeira
In Portuguese, the expression for 'pamlero' is, more correctly, 'palmeira'.

The origin of the word coco is involved in some obscurity. Col. Yule gives three choice:
(i) the Spanish and Portuguese 'coco', a mask or bogey: 'and we Portuguese, because of those three eyelets, give it the name of coco, as resembling the face of a monkey or other animal,' says Garcia de Orta (f. 66b): this is the accepted Spanish and Portuguese derivation.
(ii) the old Spanish 'coca', a shell = Latin 'concha' and French 'coque': this is Col. Yule's own suggestion, and, except as to gender, seems probable enough;
(iii) the ancient Egyptian 'kuku', found by Goodwin as applied in particular to the fruit; this word seems to appear again in the [Greek script] of Theophrastus, applied to a palm of Ethiopia.

Ruh, Coconut palm
Dhivehi 'ru', Sinhala 'ruk' or 'ruka', tree; the ordinary Maldivian word for tree is 'gas' (Sinhala 'gaha'), but the coconut is 'karhi-ru', the nut tree.

Kaarhi, Kaashi
Dhivehi, 'karhi', cf. Greek ,[Greek script], nut; Cosmas describes coconuts as [Greek script].

Other language names for coconut palm
Tamil 'tengku' or 'tengka-maram' (maram = tree). Sanskrit 'narikela'; whence Persian 'nargil'.

Wild growth of Coconut palms
In Ceylon the coconut tree is rarely seen far from human habitations :-" The natives have a superstition that the coconut will not grow out of the sound of the human voice, and will die if the village where it had previously thriven becomes deserted; the solution of the mystery being in all probability the superior care and manuring which it receives in such localities" (Tennent, Ceylon, i, 119).
The fact is, as De Caudolle shows, that the coconut palm is not indigenous to India and Ceylon; it was not known to the writers of the Mahavanso. In connection with this, it may be noted that, thanks to this wonderful tree, the seaboard of Ceylon now supports a teeming population, whereas in the days of the Mahavanso the mass of the population was centred in the interior, where rice was the staple.

The rats are a terrible plague at the Maldives and Laccadives. At the latter, the islanders have instituted periodical rat-hunts (Allan Hume, Stray Feathers, vol. iv).

Height of Coconut palms
The question as to the greatest height attained by the coconut palm has recently been raised in the Ceylon Observer; the loftiest tree measured was found to be 117 feet.

Productivity of Coconut palms
The produce of the tree in full health and properly tended is much dependent on soil and climate. The average may be put down at 120 nuts in the twelve months, while in a low and sandy soil it will amount to 200, and when planted in gravel and laterite foundations not 60; the most productive months are from January to June, that is for ripe nuts, the heat bringing them quickly to maturity" (All About the Coconut Palm, Colombo, 1855, p. 27).

Coconut leaves woven as screens
These are the well-known cadjans, or plaited coconut leaves, which serve for walls, screens, cart shades, etc. in South India and Ceylon. At the Maldives, where they are called 'fan', they are still used for the sails of sea-going boats, as described by the author.

Coconut brooms
These brooms are called in Dhivehi 'ilorhi-fati', and in Sinhalese 'ila pata'.

Mr. Bell writes: 'I wondered much at the pliancy of their longer javelins; those used in the sports quivering strangely in the hand when ready for use.'

Dhivehi 'laa', Hindi 'lakh', Sanskrit 'laksha', lac, the resinous incrustation produced on certain trees by the puncture of the Lac insect, Coccus lacca (Yule, Gloss.).

Hindi 'senti', javelin.

Coconut mesh tissue (found between trunk and fruit cluster)
Sinhala 'matulla', a remarkable substance resembling coarse cloth or gauze, which arises at the base and outside of the fronds, especially in young trees. 'The length and evenness of the threads or fibres, the regular manner in which they cross each other at oblique angles, the extent of surface, and the thickness of the piece, corresponding with that of coarse cotton cloth, the singular manner in which the fibres are attached to each other, cause this curious substance, wove in the loom of nature, to represent to the eye a remarkable resemblance to cloth spun and woven by human ingenuity.' (Ellis, Polynesian Researches). It is much used for sieves, and also in the South Sea (southern Pacific Ocean) for making cloths.

From Arabic 'arak', perspiration. The toddy is twice distilled, giving one-eighth of its quantity in arrack.

Tender top shoot of Coconut palm
The so-called 'coconut cabbage', Dhivehi 'ruk-kuri', Sinhalese 'pol-bada'. When boiled it is very delicate, with a nutty flavour. The natives preserve it in vinegar and use it as a pickle.

Coconut kernel
Dhivehi 'mudi', Sinhalese 'paela made'.

Ceylon exports annually about 60,000 cwts. of copra, and a small quantity is sometimes exported from the Maldives to Ceylon. Mr. Bell says they make two kinds-(a) 'bohi-deli', charcoal burnt from the soft shell, mixed with coconut oil, and used for painting boats, etc. ; (b) 'narhi-deli', charcoal from the hard shell, mixed with water, and used as ink.

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