Among the classic fairy-tales which passed like shooting stars across those dark hours of our boyhood in which we wrestled with the grim rudiments of Latin and Greek, and which abide in the memory after nearly all that they helped to brighten has passed away, there was one which related to a contest between Neptune and Minerva as to which should confer the greatest benefit on the human race. Neptune first struck his trident on the ground (or was it on the waves? "Eheu fugaces"—no, that also is gone), and there sprang forth a noble steed, pawing the ground, terrible in war and no less useful in peace. Then the watery god leaned back and smiled as if he would say, "Now, beat that." But the Goddess of Wisdom brought out of the earth a modest, dark tree bearing olives and, in classic phrase, "took the cake," Oriental mythology is more luxuriant and fantastic than that of the West, but I do not know if it has any legend parallel to this. If it has, then I am sure the palm is awarded to the deity who gave to the human race the tree that bears the coconut.
Passing a confectioner's shop, I saw a tempting packet labelled "Cokernut Toffee." I bought a pennyworth and gave it to my little girl, and
"I laye a-thynkynge, a-thynkynge, a-thynkynge."
How many boys and girls are there in this kingdom to whom the word coconut connotes an ingredient which goes to the making of a very toothsome sweetie? And how many confectioners and shop girls are there whose idea is no broader? Again:
"I laye a-thynkynge, a-thynkynge, a-thynkynge,
And merrie sang the Birde as she sat upon the spraye."
And I said, "Little Bird, what do you know of the coconut?" And it made answer, "It is a cup full of food, rich and sweet, which kind hands hang out for me in winter," How narrow may be the key-hole through which we take our outlook on things human and divine, never doubting that we see the whole! In our own British Empire, only a few thousand miles away, sits a mild Hindu, almost unclad and wholly unlettered, to whom the tree that bore the fruit that flavoured the toffee that my little girl is enjoying seems to be one of the predominating tints of the whole landscape of life. It puts a roof over his head, it lightens his darkness, it helps to feed his body, it furnishes the wine that maketh glad his heart and the oil that causeth his face to shine, and time would fail me to tell of all the other things that it does for him. As a type and symbol, it is always about him, spanning the sunshine and shower of life with bows of hope.
The coconut tree is a palm, and has nothing to do with cocoa of the breakfast table. That word is a perversion of "cacao," and came to us from Mexico: the other is the Portuguese word "coco," which means a nut. It is what Vasco da Gama called the thing when he first saw it, and the word, with our English translation added, has stuck to it. The tree is, I need scarcely say, a palm, one of many kinds that flourish in India. But none of them can be ranked with it. The rough date palm makes dense groves on sandy plains, but brings no fruit to perfection, pining for something which only Arabia can supply; the strong but unprofitable "brab," or fan palm, rises on rocky hills, the beautiful fish-tailed palm in forests solitarily, while the "areca" rears its tall, smooth stem and delicate head in gardens and supplies millions with a solace more indispensable than tobacco or tea. But the coconut loves a sandy soil and the salt breath of the sea and the company of its own kind. The others grow erect as a mast, but the gentle coconuts lean on the wind and mingle the waving of their sisterly arms, casting a grateful shade on the humble folk who live under their blessing.
To the mariner sailing by India's coral strand that country presents the aspect of an endless beach of shell sand, quite innocent of coral, on which the surf breaks continually into dazzling white foam against a dark background of pensive palms. He might naturally suppose that they had grown up of themselves, like the screw-pines and aloes which sometimes share the beach with them; but that would be a great mistake. Everyone of them has been planted and carefully watered for years and manured annually with fresh foliage of forest trees buried in a moat round the root. And so it grew in stature, but not in girth, until its head was sixty, seventy or even eighty feet above the ground, and a hundred nuts of various sizes hung in bunches from long, shiny, green arms, each as thick as a man's, which had thrust themselves out from between the lower fronds.
There is no production of Nature that I know of less negotiable than a coconut as the tree presents it. The man who first showed the way into it deserved a place in mythology with Prometheus, Jason and other heroes of the dawn. There is a crab, I know, which lives on coconuts, enjoying the scientific name of Birgus latro, the Burglar; but it seems to be a special invention, as big as a cat and armed with two fearful pairs of pincers in front for rending the outside casings of the fruits, and a more delicate tool on its hind-legs for picking out the meat. Other animals have to do without it, as had man, I opine, in the stone and copper ages. With the iron age came a chopper, called in Western India a "koita," with which he can hack his way through most of the obstructions of life. When, with this, he has slashed off the tough outer rind and the inch-thick packing of agglutinated fibres, like metal wires, he has only to crack the hard shell which contains the kernel.