Coconuts: A Tiny History

Coconuts, especially as a trade commodity, offer a startling illustration of global interconnections that have existed for over two thousand years. Thanks to this extensive history, coconuts offer many examples that can assist museums in “decolonizing” — that is, in pushing back against traditional national-temporal contexts as the primary model for organizing various cultural histories that have been built upon violent forms of theft and appropriation. Through coconuts, we can see Europeans seeking out South Asian health food from the Roman era into the Middle Ages. When Europeans introduced coconuts to colonies in the global colonial period, coconut utensils and instruments exerted resistance to cultural extermination even as indigenous peoples were forced to accommodate and adopt European customs.

As a kind of catalog for an exhibit that hasn’t taken place, Coconuts: A Tiny History considers primarily material examples of coconut history: cups, recipes, and ‘ukuleles. Europeans began to craft coconut shells into fine stemware in the Middle Ages, and continued this tradition well into the twentieth century. During the global colonial period they introduced these cups and their drinking traditions to colonies around the world, where the cups underwent unique transformations. Meanwhile coconuts were undergoing their own revolution, from food to industrial commodity. In the nineteenth century, as the US developed an especially coconut-rich cuisine, England turned coconut oil into an important ingredient in the industrial production of candles and soap. Coconut ‘ukuleles offer a final case study that illustrates many of the historical strands traced throughout this book. ‘Ukuleles developed in the Kingdom of Hawai’i from small guitars played by Portuguese migrant laborers. After the Kingdom was taken over by the US, indigenous Hawai’ians and Portuguese-Hawai’ians built small ‘ukuleles made from a unique hardwood, the coconut shell. How each of these inventors designed and marketed their coconut ukes tells us much about coconuts, and even more about indigenous strategies of resistance and assimilation to colonization.

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