International Palm Society LogoThe Coconut Palm in East Africa

Excerpt reprinted with permission from the January 1994 issue of Principes (Vol 38 No 1),
Journal of the International Palm Society

© 1994 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved


National Coconut Development Programme, P.O. Box 6226, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Origin and Diversity

The general consensus has been that the Coconut originated in the southwest Pacific and reached Africa later (Purseglove 1972, Child 1974, Ohler 1984). Purseglove speculated that Malaysian sea-rovers introduced the coconut to Madagascar in the first centuries A.D. and that from there it could have reached the coast of mainland East Africa. Merrill (193-7) mentioned that the words for coconut used in Madagascar also occur in the Far East and the Pacific. However, Sauer (1967) thought that the early presence of coconuts on uninhabited islands like the Seychelles and Mauritius strongly suggested natural dispersal. It follows from this that coconuts could have floated to East Africa (Harries 1978). Subsequently, Harries (1981) showed that the common tall varieties in East Africa are late germinating, with wild type characteristics similar to the coconuts on the Indian subcontinent, while the common tall varieties in peninsular Malaysia are early germinating, domesticated types. Thus the natural dissemination favored by Sauer and the human-aided introduction suggested by Purseglove can be considered as consecutive events rather than competing theories.

It has recently been suggested that the coconut was domesticated in the region between southeast Asia and Australasia (known as Malesia), but that the ancestral coconut may have originated in western Gondwanaland at the time it split up into the present continents (Harries 1990). This raises the possibility that the wild type coconut may have existed on the fringes of the Pacific and Indian oceans since the earliest time. In that case the coconut palm could be considered indigenous over a very large area, including the coast and islands of East Africa (Harries, in press). Indeed, the two closest botanical relatives to the coconut are found respectively in southern Africa, Jubaeopsis caffra (Uhl and Dransfield 1987) and Madagascar, Voanioala gerardii (Dransfield 1989). The presence of coconuts with wild-type characteristics does not prevent the introduction of others with domestic-type characteristics nor the subsequent introgression between the two, with the former characteristics predominating. There is the possibility that when the Polynesians settled in the Pacific, related peoples sailed to Madagascar. They would have been carrying the domestic type of coconut from Southeast Asia and they may have reached the African coastline.

The first written reference to the coconut palm in East Africa is thought to be in the "Periplus of the Erythraean Sea," written about A.D. 60. The Periplus mentioned that the town of Rhapta, believed to have been located somewhere on the coast of present day Tanzania, traded in coconuts (Schoff 1912). It is thought that this town derives its name from the Greek or Arab verb " to sew" (Ravenstein 1898, Schoff 1912), because the local boats were sewn together with fibers. When the Portuguese first sailed to East Africa and India they found Arab boats sewn with coconut fiber (coir) and carrying coconuts as cargo. Although the reference to coconuts in the Periplus has been taken as evidence of the introduction of the coconut to East Africa by Hindu merchant-seafarers sometime in the 7th to 1st century B.C. (Schoff 1912, Hichens 1938, Hourani 1951), it can equally well be explained simply as the opening up of trade between the two regions where coconuts already existed. It is certain that the town Rhapta had an established place in the mercantile system of the Indian Ocean. The Periplus strongly indicates a vigorous commerce between India and East Africa. It is one author's conjecture (HCH) that coastal towns like Rhapta developed where they did because coconuts were already present. Two thousand years ago or more, the coconut palm not only served to identify seashore locations with fresh ground water, but in those places it literally acted as a natural desalination plant. The sweet, uncontaminated drinking water from the immature nut was then, and is still now, an important use of this plant to the local community. This applies to offshore islands and to favorable parts of the African and Indian coast. It is not suggested that the early coconuts were present in large numbers or spread over extensive lengths of coastline and were certainly not found naturally anywhere in the hinterland.

While the earliest history of the coconut in east Africa remains uncertain, there is no doubt that its establishment was not a single event but a continuous affair extending over many centuries. Although the Indian influence appears to have waned somewhat after the times of the Periplus, trade relations between India and East Africa continued to exist until well after the arrival of the Portuguese. Several Arab geographers like Buzurg ibn Shahriyar, Al-Mas'udi, and Al-Biruni attest to such connections in the early Middle Ages (Ingrams 1967, Kirkman 1968, Spencer Trimingham 1975). Marco Polo wrote of ships of the Malabar coast which sailed to the islands Madeigascar and Zanghibar in the late 13th century (Wright 1892). Vasco da Gama met Hindu merchants at the larger ports of East Africa (Ravenstein 1898). Duarte Barbosa observed in the early 16th century that ships from the kingdom of Cambay, the great seaport of Gujarat, were often to be found in the harbors of Mombasa, Malindi and Mogadishu (Stanley 1866).

Early Arab History

The Arab and Persian colonization of East Africa is of even greater importance. It was a long and gradual process which began in remote antiquity and continued more or less steadily for many centuries with at certain times more massive waves of immigration due to political or religious persecution at home (Coupland 1938, Chittick 1975). There is little doubt that many of these traders and settlers brought coconuts independently. In the Khabar al-Lamu, a chronicle of Lamu, the introduction of the coconut palm on the Lamu archipelago (present day Kenya) is attributed to Arab settlers, who came by way of India in the 7th century A.D. (Hichens 1938). They brought coconut seedlings and are referred to in the chronicle as Kina Mti (kinsmen of the trees). In persistent traditions on the coast of mainland Tanzania, Zanzibar and Mafia, the arrival of the coconut is attributed to the Debuli, whose ships reputedly had sails of palm matting (Piggot 1941; Gray 1954, 1962; Chittick 1965; Baumann 1896). It is now believed that the Debuli arrived before the Shirazi and that their name derives from the town of Debul, known to the Arabs who conquered it in A.D. 711-712 as Daybul, a port situated near the mouth of the Indus. It is now identified with the excavations at Bhambor, 40 miles east of Karachi (Chittick 1965). Pemba tradition credits the introduction of the coconut palm to the Wadiba, who according to Gray (1954, 1962) hailed from the Maldive Islands, which were known to 14th century Arab geographers as the Diba Islands.

According to the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta (Gibb 1962), great quantities of cowries and coconut products were exported from these islands. Both the Maldives and the Laccadives were the scene of remarkable shipbuilding activity. The ships, including hulls, masts, ropes, stitches and even sails, were built entirely of the various products of the coconut. The Arabs and Persians from the Gulf used to import coconut products from these islands or go there to have their ships built on the spot. There is evidence that the Maldives were first settled by Singhalese Buddhists who planted coconuts and dug wells (Hourani 1951, Sauer 1967).

The Shirazi, who derive their name from the town of Shiraz on the Persian Gulf, settled in East Africa from the 9th century A.D. onwards. Wild type coconuts may have grown spontaneously around their earliest settlements, but there is no doubt that they have imported coconuts as well. Though the area around the Persian Gulf appears to be unsuitable for coconut cultivation, coconuts did and do grow there. The traveller Nasir-i-Khus-raw observed them in Oman in the 11th century A.D.; Ibn-Battuta found them in the 14th century at Zafari, a port of the Hadramut, in the sultan's garden in the city of Zabid on the Red Sea and in Oman (Gibb 1962). The Arabs and Persians around the Gulf had further easy access to coconut products from India, the Laccadives and the Maldives. The Shirazi have most certainly played an important part in the distribution of the crop in East Africa. They first settled on the Benadir coast (present day Somalia and Kenya), and from the 11th century onwards they remigrated southwards and settled in many towns along the coast as far south as Sofala in present day Moçambique. Such migrations took place as late as the 17th century, witness the settlement of Khatimi-Barawi at ..

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