As nourishment for body and mind, the coconut has fed Samoans for millennia. Coconut trees are among the most widespread plants in the South Pacific, providing Samoans and other Pacific Islanders with both calories and canoes. A medium-sized coconut yields more than fourteen hundred calories and is rich in iron, potassium, and saturated fat. Coconut trees are highly versatile plants whose entire organism—from the palm leaves to the roots—can be used for different purposes. Because growing coconut trees (niu) required little attention, Samoans were fond of saying: “Give a coconut a day and it will give you a lifetime.”
An average family coconut grove was less than one acre in size but could yield up to sixty nuts per tree per year. Coconut trees took between five and eight years to mature, but some trees bore fruit for up to seventy years, longer than the average life expectancy of Samoans at the time. Samoans did not plant coconut trees in a particular order or distance from one another, but they made sure to plant them close to taro and yam fields to have quick refreshment available for workers. That way, Samoans knew that no spot on their islands was further than half an hour from the nearest coconut, which could provide food and drink in times of need. While coconut trees were owned by the families on whose ground they stood, passersby had the right to pluck a few nuts to refresh themselves. Fallen nuts were usually left to themselves and were free to be picked up by anyone who found them.
To harvest the fruits while they were still green, Samoan men climbed up coconut trees that grew as tall as a hundred feet. Using only a sling wrapped around their feet as support, they hugged the tree trunk with their arms and scaled the tree like a caterpillar. Once at the top of the tree, the climber plucked the green fruits from their stems and dropped them onto the ground. Mature coconuts could be more conveniently picked up from the ground and collected in baskets, usually made out of coconut leaf midribs. Ripe coconuts also made better copra. Traditionally, young women carried the harvested fruits in two baskets, one in back and one in front of their bodies, connected with a stick across their shoulders.13 Filled to the top, two baskets of coconuts could weigh up to 150 pounds. Young men then processed the coconuts, to make use of their individual components. First, the husk of the coconut was split off and removed by pounding the nut against a sharpened wooden stick (meleʻi) rammed into the ground. Next, the young Samoans straddled a wooden stool (‘ausaʻalo) to scrape the open coconut against the seashell-like part of a coconut shell fastened to the stool’s point. The scraped-off pieces of the coconut kernel were then collected in a vessel or on a leaf placed below the stool. Finally, the scrapings were poured into a strainer and the juice squeezed into a bowl for further mixing with other foodstuffs.
Because coconuts and other food crops required little sustained attention, Samoan labor was sporadic in nature. Experienced in this noncapitalist mode of agricultural production, Samoans gradually seized the new opportunities that presented themselves with the increasing presence of Euro-American missionaries and traders beginning in the 1830s. After the introduction of commercial agriculture by German traders in the 1860s, Samoans fought to maintain their economic and cultural autonomy and to shape the copra economy according to their own values and interests.
This is an excerpt from Coconut Colonialism by Holger Droessler, published by the Harvard University Press. All content and images are reproduced with permission from Harvard University Press, which owns the copyright for this work.