If we succeed in harnessing nuclear fusion, coconuts will be at the heart of our energy supplies for years to come. Electric buses in China already rely on coconuts. So does the mining of gold. The coconut saves lives daily as the paramedics’ first response to ingested poisons, including those taken as overdoses. And in the second World War it saved the life of a young naval officer who was to become the president of the United States.
But, life-saver though the nut has been, it also helped to kill thousands of people during the second World War fire-bombing of Tokyo – napalm contained palmitic acid from coconuts. Of course today we cook with coconut oil, use coconut water as the new health drink and smear creams containing the oil on our skin. ( A bitter turf war broke out on the streets of New York between the two sets of entrepreneurs who brought coconut water to market.) And we use coconut charcoal in a number of key industrial processes beyond mining and nuclear research.
Which means the lives of all of us are touched in some way by the coconut. No other plant on our planet can make such a bold claim. And while the shelves of supermarkets and health-food shops are today stocked with coconut-based products, my book uncovers and explores the coconut’s role in shaping our lives over the past 700 years.
Coconuts made the exploration of the South Seas possible as those early mariners used its pure water and its energy-rich white flesh to quench their hunger and thirst. The Manila galleon trade, the beginnings of globalisation, relied on coconuts not just as food and drink but for the caulking of the ever-leaking ships. It brought light to post-industrialised Britain (everyday candles were made from coconut oil) and it cleaned the grime off the industrial workforce (that same oil was used in Lever Brothers’ first soaps, and underpinned the formation of Unilever).
The coconut triggered an art movement in 14th-century northern Europe as craftsmen and silversmiths used the nut to fashion extravagant goblets decorated with gold and silver.
Forrest Mars developed the Bounty bar to rival the Mounds coconut bar that was part of every GI’s rations. The candles that lit every front window for the coronation of Queen Victoria were made from coconut oil; and the matting on the stone floor of St George’s Chapel at Windsor for the baptism of Victoria’s eldest son was made of coir (coconut husk).
One billion Hindus use the coconut in most of their rites and rituals. For these they turn coconuts into richly decorated works of art. The mutiny on the Bounty was triggered by coconuts and it was coconuts that sustained Capt Bligh and his loyal followers on their perilous 4,000-mile launch journey to safety.
And the book explores coconuts and the contemporary arts. It looks at the life and work of Frida Kahlo and specifically at her Weeping Coconuts. Clement Siatous and his paintings that reflected his forced exile from the Chagos islands are part of this chapter along with Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Doormats ( made with coir) which are now in the collection of Tate Modern. It considers the time spent by Paul Gauguin on Tahiti and features his Thatched Hut Under Palm Tree. Many Indian string instruments use the coconut shell as a sound box. The Keralan Lyra is a prime example.
But it was the craftsmen of 14th-, 15th- and 16th-century Europe who made the most striking use of the coconut. They carved the nut and then embellished their carvings with gold and silver to form exquisite drinking cups. The V&A has such a cup in the form of a falcon, and the German National Museum has the famous finely-carved Holzschuher goblet of 1535. The universities of Oxford and Harvard have similar coconut goblets in their collections.
The song I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, inspired by the cries of the fairground workers who manned the coconut shies, was a hit for the Billy Cotton band, and in America reached the top 10 in 1950 with a recording by Merv Griffin with the Freddy Martin Orchestra. For 50 years Cambridge United Football Club has played the Billy Cotton version every time the team wins at home.
And when the Monty Python team went in search of the Holy Grail, it was the coconut that stole the show.
Coconut: How The Shy Fruit Shaped Our World by Robin Laurance is published by The History Press