Before you read the rest of this article on Caribbean coconuts, I want you to do me a favor:
1. Get into a comfortable position
2. Close your eyes
3. Allow yourself to feel nice and relaxed, almost to the point of napping.
4. Imagine that you are one of a warm Caribbean beach
5. Explore that image in your mind for a while
6. Once you have your image memorized, open your eyes
Now, what exactly did you see in your mental image of a warm Caribbean beach?
Did your image include coconut trees? Have you smelled coconut oil?
I bet you did because this is what most people think of when they think of a Caribbean beach. Powder-white sand, blue-green water that sparkles in the sunlight, and those iconic coconut palms that line the beaches.
Coconut palms are such a part of everyone’s vision of a Caribbean landscape that they assume they were always there.
But guess that?!
They are NOT actually native to the Caribbean and 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 16th century. However, Christopher Columbus and his men never saw a coconut on any of his 4 voyages to the New World. These took place between 1492 and 1504. The coconuts just weren’t there when they got there. They came later.
I know this may sound a bit surprising. You might be saying something like, “But…I thought coconuts could resist erosion from seawater and were buoyant enough to float thousands of miles. Right? Isn’t that how they got to the Caribbean and all over the world?” the world? ? They floated there from somewhere else, right?
Well, I know this is what a lot of people believe. In fact, this is what some historians believed. However, the evidence shows this to be wrong, and it does so very definitely.
None of the earliest recorded records of the Spanish, and the records of other colonizing European nations that were exploring the Caribbean in the late 1400s and early 1500s, mention a coconut. Also, there was no Taíno word or Carib word for coconut – these were the natives of the Caribbean islands and if anyone knew if they were there they would have known. There is no native word for coconut because coconuts did not exist before the Spanish brought them there. Most linguists believe that the word coconut comes from the Spanish word “mono” because they thought that the coconut resembled a monkey’s face with two eyes and an open mouth.
Now, the Spanish DID discover coconuts on the WEST coast of Central America. For a long time, history books and other historical accounts wrongly said that coconuts had spread from the west coast of Central America to the Caribbean. However, the genetic evidence shows very convincingly that this is absolutely wrong.
It turns out that when you do a DNA analysis on coconuts from around the world, they fall into 2 distinct and separate genetic pools. They are all one species, but the 2 groups are genetically different enough that they can be easily separated.
A group of coconuts originated in the Pacific region of Indonesia. 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 proved very convincingly that the coconuts found on the WEST side of Central America are in the Pacific Indonesian group and that the coconuts found in the Caribbean are in the Indian group. Therefore, Caribbean coconuts did NOT originate on the west coast of Central America.
If you play historical detective, it seems that coconuts from India were first carried by people or by currents to the east coast of Africa. Then, much later, in the 1500’s, they were moved by people to the west coast of Africa and shortly after this happened, they were taken to the new world by the settlers and/or the missionaries of the time.
As an interesting side note, I’d like to mention that Polynesians are believed to have brought coconuts on the west coast of Central America over 1000 years before Columbus “discovered” the New World. Now, that’s something to ponder! Never take anything written in a history textbook as gospel. It is now almost certain that Columbus was NOT the first non-native to “discover” America.
Well, let’s go back to the story of the Caribbean coconut:
Once the Europeans “discovered” the coconut, they quickly realized that this would be a very simple way to transport sterile water (coconut water) and nutrients aboard ships embarking on long voyages through salt water where fresh water was scarce and often polluted. .
Coconuts have been planted in the Caribbean since at least the mid-1500s, as there are written records of this. Sometimes they were planted on the margins of the sugar mills to provide water and food to those who worked on the mills. It was not until a few centuries later that coconuts were commercially cultivated on a large scale as a cash crop.
Now, I know this may sound off topic, but please allow me a moment because I need to tell you about the shipwrecks before I continue with the story of the Caribbean coconuts:
There were many shipwrecks in the 1500s, including the very famous incident where an entire fleet of Spanish gold-laden ships sank while trying to pass through the Mona Passage between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico during a terrible hurricane. In fact, the Mona Passage is famous for ship wrecks, as the sea conditions were difficult to navigate, even in the best of weather conditions. In fact, 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 been shipwrecked there.
So why am I talking about ship wrecks when I should be talking about coconuts?
Well, it turns out that the coconuts spread throughout the Caribbean very quickly because of the ships moving, I mean, the ships moved them much faster than the currents could have. In fact, when there were shipwrecks, there could be many thousands of coconuts thrown overboard in a new coconut spot. As these coconuts came ashore, some of them surely took root naturally. However, it turned out that it was quite common for people in the Caribbean region to intentionally take the bounty of coconuts given to them by the sea and plant them. In this 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 ship capsized offshore sending a few thousand coconuts which local people planted when they reached land.
The most popular vacation destination in the Dominican Republic is now located on the east coast and is called Punta Cana. In fact, not only the small original community of Punta Cana, but the entire 39 miles of the east coast are commonly known as Punta Cana. Cana or the Costa de Punta Cana. However, the first investors in the area called it “La Costa del Coco”. This was due to the very lush and very mature coconut palm forest that lines the coast in this region and actually extended quite a bit inland. You will still sometimes see the phrase “Costa del Coco” used.
I don’t have definitive proof, but I can’t help but think that those coconut palms that line the coast of Punta Cana and are so enjoyed by vacationers may be descendants of coconuts lost during a shipwreck long ago. The grove of coconut palm trees could even be from an old shipwreck as far back as the 16th century. In a way, you may be looking at a historical marker of a shipwreck when you gaze at those coconut palms!
The next time you are in the Dominican Republic or anywhere else in the Caribbean and see a coconut palm, remember that you are NOT looking at a native Caribbean plant. Try to close your eyes and imagine what the Caribbean landscape would be like without the coconut plants. It’s harder to do than you think! We are so conditioned to think of coconuts as one with the Caribbean. Perhaps it is a good lesson to always keep questioning things, no matter how sure we are that they are true.