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Caribbean Coconuts – A Surprising Fact I Bet You Don’t Know!
Before you read the rest of this article about Caribbean coconuts, I want you to do me a favor:
1. Take a comfortable position
2. Close your eyes
3. Let yourself be nice and relaxed, almost to the point of sleep
4. Imagine you are a warm Caribbean beach
5. Explore that image in your mind for a while
6. After you have memorized your image, open your eyes
Now, what exactly did you see in your mental image of a warm Caribbean beach?
Did your image include coconut palms? Do you smell coconut oil?
I bet you did because that’s what most people think of when they think of a Caribbean beach. Powder white sand, blue-green water glistening in the sunlight and those iconic coconut palms lining the length of the beaches.
Coconut palms are so much a part of everyone’s vision of a Caribbean landscape that they assume they were always there.
But… guess what?!
They are actually NOT native to the Caribbean and they have been there less than 500 years!
They were introduced to the Caribbean region by the Spanish and other European colonizers during the first half of the 1500s. However, Christopher Columbus and his men never saw a coconut on any of their 4 voyages to the New World. These happened between 1492 and 1504. Coconuts just weren’t there when they got there. They came later.
I know this may sound a little surprising. You might say something like, “But… I thought coconuts could withstand seawater erosion and were alive enough to swim thousands of miles. Right? Isn’t that how they got to Caribbean and around the world They sailed there from somewhere else, didn’t they?
I know, that’s what many people believe. In fact, this is what some historians believed. However, the evidence proves this to be incorrect — and it does so conclusively.
None of the earliest recorded records of the Spanish, and records of other European colonizing nations exploring the Caribbean in the late 1400s and early 1500s, ever mention a coconut. Furthermore, there was no Taino word or Carib word for coconut — these were the native people of the Caribbean islands, and if anyone knew if they were there, they would know. A native word for coconut is missing because coconuts did not exist before the Spanish brought them there. Most linguists believe that the word coconut comes from the Spanish word for “monkey” because they thought the coconut looked like a monkey face with two eyes and an open mouth.
Now, the Spanish actually discovered the coconut on the west coast of Central America. For a long time, history books and other historical accounts mistakenly said that coconuts had spread from the west coast of Central America to the Caribbean. However, genetic evidence proves very convincingly that this is absolutely wrong!
It turns out that when you do DNA analysis on coconuts around the world, they fall into 2 distinct and separate genetic clusters. They are all one species, but the two groups are genetically quite different and can be easily separated.
A group of coconuts originated in the Indonesian Pacific region. The other group of coconuts originated near India in the Indian Ocean. The only place where the two groups seem to have mixed is in Madagascar. It has been very convincingly established that the coconuts found on the western side of Central America are in the Indonesian Pacific group and that the coconuts found in the Caribbean are in the Indian group. Therefore, coconuts in the Caribbean did NOT originate from the west coast of Central America.
If you play historical detective, it seems that coconuts from India were originally taken by people or currents on the east coast of Africa. Then, much later, in the 1500s, they were moved by people on the west coast of Africa, and then soon after that happened, they were taken to the new world by the colonizers and/or missionaries of that time.
As an interesting side note, I want to mention that coconuts on the west coast of Central America are thought to have been brought by seafaring Polynesians more than 1,000 years before Columbus “discovered” the New World. Now, that’s something to think about! Never take something written in a history book as gospel. It is almost certain now that Columbus was NOT the first non-native to “discover” America.
Okay, back to the story of the Caribbean coconut:
Once the Europeans “discovered” the coconut, they quickly realized that it would be a very simple way to transport sterile water (coconut water) and nutrients to ships embarking on long voyages across the salty waters where the water fresh would be scarce and often contaminated. .
Coconuts have been planted in the Caribbean since the mid-1500s, as there are written records. Sometimes they were planted around the edges of sugar plantations to provide water and food to those who worked on the plantations. It was not until several centuries later that coconuts were grown on a large commercial scale as a cash crop.
Now, I know this may sound off-topic, but please indulge me for a moment because I need to tell you about the shipwrecks before I continue with the story about Caribbean coconuts:
There were many shipwrecks in the 1500s, including the very famous incident where an entire fleet of Spanish ships laden with gold sank while trying to pass through the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico during a terrible storm. In fact, the Mona Passage is notorious for shipwrecks, as the sea conditions were difficult to navigate, even in the best of weather conditions. In fact, the Mona Passage can be difficult to navigate even today with modern technology. Many men have lost their lives in this area as many ships have sunk there.
So why am I talking about shipwrecks when I should be talking about coconuts?!
Well, it turns out that coconuts spread throughout the Caribbean pretty quickly because of the ships that moved — ie. the ships moved them much faster than the currents ever could. In fact, when there were shipwrecks, there could be thousands of coconuts thrown overboard in a whole new place for coconuts. As these coconuts washed ashore, some of them must have taken root naturally. However, as it turns out, it was quite common for people in the Caribbean region to deliberately take the bounty of coconuts given to them by the sea and plant them. That way, most of the coconuts would survive to produce another coconut plant. In fact, this is exactly what happened in West Palm Beach Florida and how it got its name. A shipwrecked on the high seas sent several thousand coconuts which the people in the area planted as they came ashore.
The most popular vacation destination in the Dominican Republic is now on the east coast and is called Punta Cana. In fact, not only the original small community of Punta Cana, but the entire 39 miles of eastern coastline is commonly referred to as Punta Cana or the Punta Cana Coast. However, early investors in the area called it the “Coconut Coast”. This was due to the very lush and very mature coconut palm forest that lined the coast of this region and actually extended quite far inland. You will still sometimes see the phrase, “Coconut Coast” used.
I have no definitive proof, but I can’t help but think that those coconut palms that line Punta Cana’s coastline and that vacationers enjoy so much may be the descendants of coconuts lost during a shipwreck long ago. The grove of coconut palms there might even be from an old shipwreck so long ago in the 1500s. In a way, you might be looking at a historical marker for a shipwreck when you look those coconut trees!
The next time you are in the Dominican Republic or elsewhere in the Caribbean and see a coconut palm, remember that you are NOT looking at a plant native to the Caribbean. Try to close your eyes and imagine what the Caribbean landscape would look like without coconut trees. It’s harder to do than you might think! We are so conditioned to think that coconuts are synonymous with the Caribbean. Maybe it’s a good lesson to always keep questioning things, no matter how sure we are that they’re true.
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