Friday, July 16, 2010

Are Coconut Palms Native to Australia?

James Cook, Matthew Flinders, Philip King, Owen Stanley, 1770, 1830, 1848, North Queensland, Chinchilla, the Frankland Islands, Russell Island…Names, dates, places it’s all a bit of a mess and at first glance and it all appears to have very little to do with coconuts!

I will explain.

I’m about to introduce you to some amazing Australian history that will hopefully have you examining your ideas about the humble coconut palm on our Australian shores but before we begin this story let me make a couple of points clear.

Firstly I have nothing but the very highest regard for the explorers I will be talking about and the courageous men who served under them. It is not my wish in any way to criticise their actions as their courage, self sacrifice and commitment simply cannot be praised highly enough, they were extraordinary men.

Secondly, I am not a coconut hater.

The massive coconut tree at the start of this story is one of five that grow in our garden and I eat the nut and drink the milk of these trees and can assure you I bear absolutely no malice towards them!

This is no mean feat considering the bombarding that the coconuts give to the gardens below them and the nocturnal gnawing of the giant white tailed rats that dine on the nuts on a regular basis!

I appreciate all that is good about the coconut palm but that does not blind me to the fact that they are an exotic species in Australia and my studies have convinced me that they cannot be described as an Australian native species.

Lately there has been a bit of a debate raging about the status of coconuts in Australia and whether they are native to our Australian shores.

I recently received an email from Mr Geoff Satchell titled “World Expert Reveals - Coconuts are Native to Australia (sic) Tropics” which directly stated to all recipients that “Coconuts are native to our tropical shoreline” and included an attachment from Dr Mike Foale, Honourary Research Consultant (Coconuts) University of Queensland, St Lucia.

On 24 June 2010 I received another email from Truus Biddlecombe-Sanders from the Mission Beach Community Association that stated…“Thought it might be worth circulating amongst members along with the terrific article about our prized native coconuts. World recognised experts are declaring coconuts as native to our tropical shoreline”. This had the same article by Mike Foale attached.

Let’s have a look at what Dr Mike Foale has to say in his story, “Coconut palm is a valued resource”
Dr Mike Foale states “coconut palms are a native species of the Australian tropical coast”

Something I will challenge in this story as a thorough examination of the evidence that is available does not appear to support Dr Foale’s opinion.

Dr Mike Foale of course has a commercial interest in the coconut industry as a consultant, author and the inventor of the “coco split”, a product he sells for a little over $150 each (delivered) and he demonstrates it on YouTube.

Hmm think I will keep it simple and continue using my knife and pocket the change but if you want to buy one check out

Mike Foale also directly admits on his video that Australia is not coconut country... no Kidding!

He says “I wasn’t raised in coconut country I come from Australia” …check the video.

I wish he would make his mind up!

Dr Mike Foale states that coconuts were sighted on Russell Island near Gordonvale…. Well Russell Island is absolutely nowhere near Gordonvale.

I know this as I look at Russell Island nearly every day from our home at Bramston Beach near Innisfail!

Here is a photo of Russell Island taken from our home at Bramston Beach.
Even better here is a photo of Russell Island with our coconut palm trunk in the foreground!
I hope Dr Mike Foale’s coconut knowledge is better than his geography but as a professor of coconuts I think it must.

I will talk a lot more about Russell Island and the Frankland Island group to which it belongs later on so I won’t go into much detail now.

Dr Mike Foale wrote a nice book called “The coconut odyssey bounteous possibilities of the tree of life” which you can download is a very good book!

In this book Dr Mike Foale states:
“Although the coconut was to be found on tropical coasts worldwide before European settlers came to Australia in the late 18th century, it was, remarkably, absent from the tropical coasts of the continent”
Yet Dr Mike Foale totally contradicts himself in a recent internet posting by stating:
“Coconut palms are actually a native species of the Australian tropical coast.”
In the same book Dr Mike Foale states the following:
“The early European mariners in the Pacific were very ‘coconut conscious’, having been introduced to the practice of carrying stocks of coconuts for food by the indigenous peoples of tropical islands and southern India. There is, however, not one precolonial mariner who refers in his journal to coconuts on the Australian mainland coast.”
Dr Mike Foale’s words …not mine!

Not one single coconut tree on the whole of the Australian continent was recorded pre settlement yet Dr Mike Foale wants us to believe they are native to Australia?

Sorry Doc but that’s a tough nut to swallow!

Dr Mike Foale and P Roebeling wrote a paper titled "Potential for profitable coconut production in northern Queensland" that can be found here

In the introduction on page 67 you will find the following:

The coconut (Cocos nucifera) palm, which is prominent
in the food and trade economies of all peoples
located in humid tropical coastlands and islands
throughout the world, has a curiously low profile in
Australia. Except for the Melanesian peoples of the
Torres Strait Islands close to Papua New Guinea,
there were no significant numbers of palms growing,
and no coconut tradition, among the indigenous
inhabitants of tropical northern Australia. While
coconut seeds undoubtedly washed ashore in great
numbers on the north-east coast of Australia, in particular,
those that were not opened by the voracious
native white-tailed rat were consumed as fortunate
gifts from the sea by the human hunter-gatherers of
the region. Any young palms that did become established
on less-frequented strands provided a delicious
meal of ‘cabbage’ when eventually discovered.
With very few exceptions the coconut palm was
absent from tropical Australia before European settlement
began in the early 19th century.
During the early settlement period mariners operating
in the vicinity of the tropical Australian coast
were encouraged to plant coconut palms as a potential
source of emergency food in case of shipwreck.
Later, missionaries on Cape York planted coconuts
for food, to help support settlements of Aboriginal

Dr Mike Foale was right on the money when he said the following in his newspaper story "Coconut palm is a valued resource":

“Because the white tailed rat loved to eat nuts washed ashore, as did the Aboriginal people of Cape York, the palm was not widespread before European settlers came”

I take it that “not widespread” means “absent” as Dr Mike Foale stated in his book!

Here is the white tailed rat Uromys caudimaculatus, a creature that can certainly be classed as a coconut busting machine.
Here is a small one I found dead on the road for scale and these native rodents get to a good kilogram in weight.
Here are some photos of some white tailed rat nut busting handy work that I recently recorded on the beach at Ella Bay.
Australian Aboriginal people not only ate any nuts that washed ashore but would also eat the cabbage and I found mention of palm hearts being eaten by Innisfail Ma:mu aboriginal people in this newspaper article from The Brisbane Courier in 1899.
You can read the whole story here.

Of course the Aboriginal owners of Australia had to be quick to beat the rats to any coconuts that washed onto Australian shores!

Dr Mike Foale was incorrect when he said:

“Any mosquito breeding would be due to careless leaving of split nuts by consumers who need to be reminded that any free water comprises such a risk during summer”

The following photos are of coconuts from the Cowley Beach esplanade that were converted by white tailed rats into perfect mosquito breeding receptacles (without any human intervention).
and the site they came from mere metres from a picnic table and houses.
Aedes egypti, Aedes notoscriptus and Culex quinquefasciatus are just 3 dangerous mosquitoes capable of using these coconuts as breeding receptacles.

Between them these 3 mosquitoes are capable of carrying serious arbovirus including Dengue, Ross river fever and Barmah forest virus.

I’m not even going to mention that the White tailed rat is a recognised vector for the lethal disease leptospirosis in this region…oops I just did!

Another great “coconuts are native” article is, “A brief history of the coconut palm in Australia” which can be downloaded here.

This PDF by Dowe and Smith contains some superb sketches of the Russell Island clump of coconuts and some interesting information regarding a 2 million year old fossilised coconut from Chinchilla.

In fact these two items form the basis of their suggestion that coconuts may be native to Australia!

I will start with the fossilised coconut as that is an easy one to sort.

Dowe and Smith state:
“Similarly, in Australia, there is compelling evidence in the fossil record for the previous occurrence of coconuts on the continent. Rigby (1995) described a silicified coconut fruit from the Chinchilla sands in southern Queensland and dated it to the late Pliocene, about 2 mya. Chinchilla is situated about 250 km west of Brisbane, and the area is otherwise rich in fossils of semi-aquatic animals such as crocodiles and tortoises, thus suggesting a previously more tropical and humid climate than at present.”
Call me crazy if you want but a solitary 2 million year old silicified coconut can hardly be proof that coconuts are native to Australia!

Australia has at least 6 species of flamingos in its fossil record but I can guarantee that that does not make flamingos native to Australia. I think we can safely cross the silicified coconut off the list of relevant evidence!
Now for the big one which is the Russell Island coconut clump which was discovered well and truly post settlement in 1848 by the crew of the HMS Rattlenake.

By the way this discovery has been well known for many years as this article from the Argus from 15 August 1919 proves!
After reading “A brief history of the coconut in Australia” by Dowe and Smith one would think that Russell Island was freshly discovered and rarely visited way back in 1848 but a search of historical records proves that that is far from the case!

Before I expand on this have a guess at how many years have people been importing large amounts of coconuts into Australia on ships?

Almost 200 years is the correct answer and may be even more!

This Auction notice from 1816 lists a few thousand coconuts for sale in the Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser.
A few thousand isn’t bad but I found this advert from the Sydney Morning Herald 16 October 1837 listing 8000 coconuts for sale which tends to suggest our early settlers were almost tripping over imported coconuts!
Ok I’m starting to drift here so let’s look at the Frankland Island group and in particular Russell Island where the coconuts were found by HMS Rattlesnake in 1848.

There are 5 islands in the Frankland group going south to north we have Russell, Round, Mabel, Normanby and High Island.

Here is a great map that has been put together by The Great Barrier Reef Marine Parks Authority.
And here is a not so great map put together by yours truly!
This is a photo of Russell, Round, Mabel and Normanby Islands going from right to left.
And finally High Island
Following is a time line for you starting with James Cook who named this island group.
1770 Captain James Cook in HMS Endeavour passed this group of islands at 6 am on 9 June and named them the Frankland Islands. There was a full moon and the ship was traveling in uncharted waters yet Cook’s lookouts who would have certainly been scanning ahead looking for hidden reefs did not spot the coconuts on Russell Island (perhaps they weren’t there).

1802 Captain Matthew Flinders mapped the coast in HMS Investigator in company with HMS Lady Nelson but didn’t map the Frankland Islands as he went out to sea before reaching the Frankland Islands.

1812 Captain Cripps in the Brig HMS Cyclops was one of the first ships to follow the Inner Route used by Cook but left no chart to show his route. He did not report coconuts growing on the Frankland Islands.

1815 Lt Charles Jeffreys in HMS Kangaroo took inner route from Sydney to Ceylon and the story was published in the Hobart Gazette 11 May 1816. No coconut trees reported.

1816 Captain Thomas Stewart in the merchantman Lady Elliot travelled from Sydney to Batavia. No coconut trees reported.

1819 Capt Philip Parker King in the Cutter HMS Mermaid left Port Jackson on a northern expedition in May.

In the Book “Ships in the coral” page 33 Hector Holthouse writes:
“It soon became obvious many vessels were already using the inner channel as the best route north. At the southern end of the Whitsunday Passage. King found evidence that trees had been cut down to make spars large enough to provide masts and Bowsprits for vessels up to 400 ton.”
On 22 June 1819 King thoroughly examined the coast between Double Point Mourilyan and the Frankland islands. HMS Mermaid passed Russell Island at 1 pm and no coconut palms were seen/reported.

1819 King found the wreck of the Frederick at the mouth of Princess Charlotte bay.

1820 King went on another northern voyage and again surveyed between Double point and Fitzroy Island on 26 July. King did not see/report coconuts on nearby Russell Island.

1821 May 26 King in HMS Bathurst cleared Sydney Harbour in company with the Merchantman Dick and on 17 June the San Antonio joined the convoy near Russell Island. None of these three ships saw /reported coconut trees on Russell Island!

1824 HMS Tamar, Countess of Harcourt and HMS Lady Nelson stopped off the Frankland Islands and lowered boats to hunt turtle on the islands and explore. None of the 3 ships saw/reported coconut trees.
1829 HMS Mermaid was wrecked near Frankland islands and wreck sold for 15 pounds to wreckers who came from Sydney in a schooner in 1830.
These wreckers may possibly have camped on the Frankland islands whilst salvaging the wreck of the Mermaid and part of HMS Mermaid was found on the Frankland Island by the crew of HMS Rattlesnake in 1848.

It is possible that these wreckers may have planted coconuts on Russell Island as they would have well known the value of such trees to shipwrecked sailors and were in the area for a good period of time no doubt.

1830 HMS Crocodile witnesses wreckers from Sydney salvaging the Mermaid and the Swiftsure. HMS Crocodile did not report coconut trees on Russell Island.

1839 Captain Wickham in HMS Beagle passed the Frankland Islands but it was midnight when he passed the islands.
1848 HMS Rattlesnake under command of Captain Owen Stanley stops at Frankland islands and finds coconuts growing there.

One of the lesser known but more interesting accounts of their stay is by Charles James card which can be found here.

Card’s notes state that they:
“did not want to cut down the trees as the fruit would be very useful in case any ship should be wrecked here.”
HMS Rattlesnake was hardly alone on a barren ocean as on the 14 June the brig Gazelle dropped in on them on its way north to Madras.

8 Days later on Thursday 22 June they met the yacht Will of the wisp that had been hunting sandalwood and was heading south after being attacked by natives.

Strewth it was like a highway out there!

In his book “Ships in the coral” Hector Holthouse states that:
“In the 10 years from 1840 to 1850 Sixty Four shipwrecks had been reported and many more small craft had disappeared without a trace.”
How do I think the coconuts got onto Russell Island?

My opinion is that they were probably planted as food for shipwreck survivors possibly some time in the 1830s.

There is documented evidence of people planting coconuts on Australian Islands and the mainland as well way before 1848.

That’s what responsible mariners did in those days.

The captain of HMS Rattlesnake, Owen Stanley, planted coconuts on Australia’s Albany Island less than 2 years after “discovering” coconuts on Russell Island. They were planted next to the graves of Nesbit and Wall as a mark of respect. Nesbit andWall perished during the ill fated Kennedy expedition.

Stanley had a few hundred coconuts on board the Rattlesnake that he had bartered for in New Guinea waters.
Another gentleman mentioned in the account of the Russell island coconuts by Dowe and Smith is Walter Hill who was also a bit of a coconut planter himself as told in The Queenslander in 1904

What about earlier coconut planters?

In 1844 HMS Fly and the colonial revenue cutter Prince George spent 3 months building a beacon on Raine Island and they released goats and planted coconuts to help shipwrecked sailors.

This report makes good reading:
In January 1845 (Sweatman's manuscript says February), during the Heroine's visit, Mackenzie (1845, 494) planted "cocoa-nut and various other seeds, hoping they might be a benefit to some unfortunates hereafter”; four months later the coconuts were reported "growing very fast “(Anon. 1846, 549). Sweatman (MS, 91) then described them as four feet tall but choked with weeds which had already obliterated the paths and gardens. The Bramble party cleared the weeds from round the young .trees, built fences around them, and planted four more brought from the Murray Islands (Sweatman MS, 9 6 ) , but in spite of this these introductions did not long survive. When the Challenger called in 1874, Moseley (1879, 300) planted pumpkins, tomatoes, water melons, Cape Gooseberries, and Capsicum, but no later visitors mentions any of these surviving either.
A fellow called “Jack Afloat” says he planted coconuts on Nassau Island in 1862

Its pretty scrappy looking type so here is a transcript of the relevant section of the article:
According to the present rate of pushing northwards on this const, the inner route through Torres Straits will soon become a highway for shipping ; indeed, it Is now increasing in importance daily. The northern portion of the route is thickly studded with Islets, sandbanks, and reefs, on many of them cocoanut trees would grow luxuriantly, although scarcely anything else would. If cocoanuts were planted on them, in seven or eight years the trees would enable the navigator to steer for them with confidence in a tolerably clear night. Beacons have been erected on some, and on one the beacon is still lying where it once stood. Where could you got abettor beacon than a living cocoanut tree or a grove of them! I have passed through several times from Breaksea Spit to Booby Island, and wondered why it is that on only one island, Frankland Island, are the cocoanuts visible They flourish there and increase, and so they would on most islands from Breaksea Spit to Cape York. During 1872, whenever I anchored for the night, I planted cocoanuts, and I know that some others have done so, but I am convinced that it would be a boon to many in the future if every one who could would plant them. In 1862 I assisted to plant 28 cocoanuts on Nassau Island. There is now a nice grove of them I believe. And who knows how soon they may afford relief to shipwrecked men, as the trees on Suwarrow's Island did quite recently. No one who has not seen them would believe how little actual soil the cocoanut requires to grow on. Many thousands of human beings are living on mere reefs and sandbanks in the North and South Pacific. But the cocoanut tree is growing there, and scarcely anything else. On some of them there is not a drop of fresh water to be had, except what falls from the clouds.

JACK AFLOAT. 19 February1874 Sydney Morning Herald
This doesn’t sound that amazing until you check where Nassau Island is!
Yes that’s right the little red dot in the middle of the ocean.

Makes planting some coconuts on Russell Island look dead easy doesn’t it!

John Evans also recommends planting coconuts as living beacons and sustenance for shipwrecked sailors and claims to have planted coconuts on Queensland islands in 1846 and the whole article is worth a read.
Again this is a difficult one to read so here is a transcription
Letters to the Editor.

Cocoanut and Bread Fruit Trees for the North.

JNO. LAXINGTON EVANS. Melbourne, May 9 1876

SIR,—Few countries can boast of so large an extent of coast as Queensland—her products are tropical, and also those of the temperate zone ; her islands dot the sea; her reefs extend for hundreds of miles, thus rendering navigation very difficult and dangerous to the mariner, and although much has been done in buoying crooked passages, yet wrecks still take place, and the unfortunate crew and passengers placed in extreme peril, as witness the late wreck of the Isabella, on her passage from Sydney to Hong Kong. Now, having all these islands and coasts how best can they be turned to account ? As long ago as 1846 I brought with me from one of the South Sea Islands the bread fruit tree and cocoanuts for the purpose of having them planted on some island in the far north. I fear the work was not well done, for I have never heard of either the bread fruit or the cocoanut being met with in any place along our coasts, or on any of the islets.

It is not too late, however, to have the experiment carried out now. The value of the produce of the cocoanut tree can pretty well be estimated. In Ceylon it is calculated at a dollar each annually— perhaps a little over the mark. I think, however, that each tree will net yearly three shillings in copra or cocoanut oil; it becomes therefore just a question of numbers planted to arrive at results. The yearly income derivable, say from 1,000,000 trees, would be £ 150,000—a sum that would go to defray the vote on immigration. The judicious planting of the trees on the islands on the coast would be the means of saving many a good ship from being wrecked, as they can be seen at a good distance, and are capital land-marks. And if by any unfortunate mistake a ship is placed in extreme peril, the crew and passengers, if they have cocoanuts at hand, would be able to subsist for months—who otherwise placed must have had to succumb to hunger.

There are islands in the South Seas which must be known to many of the island traders in Queensland, producing a cocoa nut tree, which grows to about ten or twelve feet, the clusters of nuts hanging so low that the sand has to be cleared away to make room for the bunches. These are the trees I recommend should be generally planted, although on some of the islands I would suggest the taller tree, which frequently reaches the height of from fifty to eighty feet. Thus an excellent object would point to danger. The short tree however is the European's friend :no climbing is necessary to secure the nut, nor is there any danger of the tree being blown down by hurricanes and hard gales. A cocoanut tree will begin to bear at the end of the fifth year, and continue for many, many years. It is estimated the gross value got for the nuts of a single tree up to the time of decay is about £80—the labour of converting the produce to be deducted —so that it lives to a good old age.

And then with respect to the bread fruit tree. As our commerce extends northerly, the wood of this tree will become exceedingly valuable for' sheathing ships' and boat’s bottoms, when copper is not to be had. It protects them from the ravages of the toredo navalis and is a capital wood for house-building purposes. It is the only known wood that will resist the borings of the destructive marine insects alluded to. The bread fruit, to those habituated to eating it, is considered a great luxury, and in a more matured state it is packed away in caves, and, after the lapse of some months, it is much used by the pearl divers as the best food they can make use of while carrying on the arduous operations of searching for shells fathoms deep. The diver says he can remain twice as long under water when fed on old bread fruit, than if on rice and biscuit. As there are miles of pearl banks yet undiscovered on our coast, who shall say the useful bread fruit will not be the means of bringing to light the riches of the vast deep, in enabling the diver to penetrate to a greater depth than he otherwise would. I shall be glad if these suggestions occupy the attention of those in authority, and be the means of having graceful trees planted on your shores and on the islands on your coast
I bumped into this record of people sprouting Coconuts from Java at Bowen in 1867

Of course the coconut had been cultivated in Australia well before that and this article from the Hobart Town Courier 1832 mentions the progress of coconut plants in Perth gardens.

Of even greater interest is the fact that W C Wentworth imported 100 coconut plants into Australia in 1833 as mentioned in the Sydney Herald on 23 December 1833.

Mr Wentworth was an explorer, politician and a very wealthy and influential man in the colony and one has to ask where did those Mauritian coconut plants go to as the climate in Sydney would have been too cold for them?

Was their final destination some island in the north of Australia?

One must take into account that as an explorer and a man who had taken part in the island sandalwood trade in 1814 Mr Wentworth would have well known the value of the coconut tree for both navigation and the preservation of shipwrecked mariners. (From Australian Dictionary of Biography).
On the mountain journey, according to his father, he had developed a severe cough; to recover his health and to help his father secure valuable sandalwood from a Pacific island he joined a schooner as supercargo in 1814. He was nearly killed by natives at Rarotonga while courageously attempting to save a sailor whom they clubbed to death. The captain died, and Wentworth, with knowledge gained on his earlier voyage from England and no mean mathematical skill, brought the ship safely to Sydney.
What is that you say …you want even earlier records of coconut planting etc in Australia?

Not a problem.

Let’s jump back in time a couple of centuries and look at the records kept by one of the world’s greatest navigators Matthew Flinders.I will refer to his comments within his “1803 Voyage to Tera Australis Vol 2”.
Flinders produced some magnificent maps of Australia and was shipwrecked on his return to England only to finally gain passage on a ship that stopped at Mauritius where he was kept prisoner for over 6 years.

He was a brilliant mariner with an eye for detail but he suffered great misfortune and a premature death like so many of his peers.
Matthew Flinders makes his feelings regarding coconut planting on Australian islands very clear within his journal!

Being shipwrecked on an Australian reef definitely influenced his thoughts on this matter!
Oats, maize, and pumpkin seeds were planted upon Wreck-Reef Bank, as also upon Bird Islet; and the young plants had come up, and were in a tolerably flourishing state; some of these may possibly succeed upon the islet, but upon the bank it is scarcely to be hoped. The cocoa nut is capable of resisting the light sprays of the sea which frequently pass over these banks, and it is to be regretted that we had none to plant upon them. A cluster of these majestic and useful palms would have been an excellent beacon to warn mariners of their danger; and in the case where darkness might render them unavailing in this respect, their fruit would at least afford some salutary nourishment to the shipwrecked seamen. The navigator who should distribute ten thousand cocoa nuts amongst the numerous sand banks of the Great Ocean and Indian Sea, would be entitled to the gratitude of all maritime nations, and of every friend to humanity. I may be thought to attribute too much importance to this object in saying, that such a distribution ought to be a leading article in the instructions for any succeeding voyage of discovery or investigation to these parts; but it is from having suffered ourselves that we learn to appreciate the misfortunes and wants of others. and become doubly interested in preventing or relieving them. "The human heart," as an elegant author observes, "resembles certain medicinal trees. which yield not their healing balm until they have themselves been wounded."*

[* Le coeur est comme ces sortes d'arbres, qui ne donnent leur baume pour les blessures des hommes que lorsque le fer les a blessés eux-mêmes. Chateaubriant's Génie de Christianisme, Episode d' Attala.]
Between 1818 and 1822 another brilliant explorer and navigator Philip King made some interesting coconut observations.
King was a mighty map maker too!
King travelled around Australia extensively in HMS Mermaid and later in HMS Bathurst and the map below will give you a rough idea of how far this amazing man traveled and below that is an illustration of HMS Mermaid.
King was fortunate to be traveling with one of Australia’s finest Botanists Allan Cunningham.
Fortunately King kept a journal of his travels.
Which you can read here: Volume 1 and Volume 2

Here are some interesting coconut extracts from these journals

On March 28 1818 King reported finding coconuts on a northern Australian beach that had apparently been left behind by a Malay fisherman.
The morning after our arrival a baseline was measured upon the beach for the survey of the bay, and whilst we were thus employed our people found and brought to me several traces of Malays, who, as we are informed by Captain Flinders, make annual visits to this part of the coast in large fleets, to fish for beche de mer.

Among the relics were old broken joints of bamboo, which the Malays use to carry their water in, some worn out cordage and a coconut, which had perhaps been left behind by accident. The traces appeared to be of so recent a date, that we conjectured the fleet was but a short distance to the eastward of the islands, and as the easterly monsoon had commenced, we were naturally in daily expectation of being overtaken by them.
On April 7 1818 Cunningham planted the coconut on the Australian mainland along with other seeds making him one of the earliest recorded coconut planters in Australia!
Mr. Cunningham took the advantage of a good spot of soil in the vicinity of our wooding-place to sow every sort of seed that we possessed, namely, peach, apricot, loquat (a Chinese fruit), lemon, seventeen sorts of culinary seeds, tobacco, roses, and a variety of other European plants; and in addition to these, the coconut was planted, which we had found upon the beach of South-West Bay, but it is very doubtful whether any have succeeded, on account of the custom that the natives have when the grass is dry, of setting fire to it, so that there is little doubt but that all the annual plants have been destroyed.
It’s a good thing the crew of HMS Rattlesnake were not following on their heels or people would be running around saying peaches and apricots are native to Australia!

On 16 June 1819 King reported that no Coconut trees have been found in Australia.
We remained at the anchorage the following day in order to obtain some lunar distances; and in the evening Mr. Bedwell sounded across the bay towards the south end of Magnetical Island, and also the channel between that island and the main. The soundings therefore laid down are from his report, from which it appears that there is a good and clear passage through, and excellent anchorage upon a muddy bottom all over the bay.

No natives were seen during our visit, but the remains of nine huts were counted in different parts of the bay, near the edge of the beach. The inhabitants were not however far off, for the tracks of human feet as well as those of a dog were noticed very recently imprinted on the gravelly bed of the fresh-water stream; and we were probably watched by them in all our proceedings. Near the extremity of the Cape some bamboo was picked up, and also a fresh green coconut that appeared to have been lately tapped for the milk. Heaps of pumice-stone were also noticed upon the beach; not any of this production, however, had been met with floating.

Hitherto, no coconut trees have been found on this continent; although so great a portion of it is within the tropic and its north-east coast so near to islands on which this fruit is abundant. Captain Cook imagined that the husk of one, which his second Lieutenant, Mr. Gore, picked up at Endeavour River, and which was covered with barnacles, came from the Terra del Espiritu Santo of Quiros;* but, from the prevailing winds, it would appear more likely to have been drifted from New Caledonia, which island at that time was unknown to him; the fresh appearance of the coconut seen by us renders, however, even this conclusion doubtful; Captain Flinders also found one as far to the south as Shoal-water Bay.**

(*Footnote. Hawkesworth volume 3 page 164.)

(**Footnote. Flinders volume 2 page 49.)
The planting of seeds by explorers was not uncommon and King reported on another captain’s Australian garden in January of 1818

Oyster Harbour is plentifully stocked with fish, but we were not successful with the hook, on account of the immense number of sharks that were constantly playing about the vessel. A few fish were taken with the seine, which we hauled on the eastern side of the small central island. At this place Captain Vancouver planted and stocked a garden with vegetables, no vestige of which now remained.

No marks were left of the ship Elligood's garden, which Captain Flinders found at the entrance of Oyster Harbour;* but a lapse of sixteen years will in this country create a complete revolution in vegetation; which is here so luxuriant and rapid that whole woods may have been burnt down by the natives, and grown again within that space of time; and it may be thus that the Elligood's garden is now possessed by the less useful but more beautiful plants and shrubs of the country.

(*Footnote. Flinders Terra Australis volume 1 page 55.)

Excepting the sea-fowl, which consisted of geese, wild ducks, teals, curlews, divers, sea-pies, gulls, and terns, very few birds were seen, and those chiefly of the parrot and cockatoo tribe; a species of the latter was noticed of a rich black plumage, and very like the black cockatoo of New South Wales. Kangaroos from their traces must be numerous, but only a very few were noticed; the only reptile that was found was a black snake, which Mr. Cunningham saw for a moment as it glided past him. This gentleman made a large collection of seeds and dried specimens from the vast variety of beautiful plants and flowers with which nature has so lavishly clothed the hills and plains of this interesting country.

A small spot of ground near the tent was dug up and enclosed with a fence, in which Mr. Cunningham sowed many culinary seeds and peach-stones; and on the stump of a tree, which had been felled by our wooding party, the name of the vessel with the date of our visit was inscribed; but when we visited Oyster Harbour three years and a half afterwards, no signs remained of the garden, and the inscription was scarcely perceptible, from the stump of the tree having been nearly destroyed by fire.
You will see Mr Cunningham was busy planting seeds again!

The interesting thing is that King was under direct written orders to conduct this planting of ANY plants that may be useful to succeeding navigators and what could be more useful to a shipwrecked mariner than a coconut palm!

Here is an extract:
Admiralty Office, 4th February, 1817.

Kings orders

You will provide yourself at Port Jackson with the seeds of such vegetables as it may be considered most useful to propagate on the coasts you may visit, and you will take measures for sowing or planting them in the fittest situations, with a view not only to their preservation, but to their being within the observation and reach of succeeding navigators.

You will remain on this service till you shall have examined all parts of the coast which have not been laid down by Captain Flinders, M. De Freycinet, or preceding navigators, or until you shall receive further orders.

I am, Sir,

Your very humble servant,

(Signed) J.W. CROKER.
His other set of written orders contained similar content and here is an extract:

To Lieutenant P.P. King.

Downing-street, 8th of February, 1817. From Bathurst

You will exercise your own discretion as to landing on the several parts of the coast which you may explore; but on all occasions of landing, you will give every facility to the botanist, and the other scientific persons on board to pursue their inquiries; and you will afford them such assistance in the pursuit as they may require. If the place selected for landing be in any way remarkable in itself, or important from being at the mouth of a river, or a harbour, you will take care to leave some evidence which cannot be mistaken of your having landed, either by erecting a flagstaff, or sowing some seeds, or by resorting to any other means which may at the time present themselves.
Keep in mind that when King visited Timor (1818 and 1819) he probably purchased coconuts in 1818 and definitely purchased them in 1819 so goodness knows where he planted coconuts on his travels!

Prior to the “discovery” of coconuts on Russell Island I have shown there was planting of coconuts on Australian islands and the mainland both in the performance of a civic duty and as an observance of military/government orders.

I strongly suspect the coconuts on Russell Island were planted during the 1830s which would explain why they were not discovered by the many earlier visitors to Russell Island.

Let’s return to the present day and check out the “Coconuts aren’t native camp” and Dr Hugh Spencer’s name comes to mind.

Dr Spencer has waged a war against invading coastal coconut palms in the Daintree for many years now and he doesn’t even flinch when people call him a “coconut killer”. See here and here and here.

My personal research has found that such fine organizations as Stanford University are backing up the assertions of Dr Spencer regarding the negative impacts of invading coconuts on coastal ecosystems.

Here is a bit of a video from Stanford University

and some reports about the same issue: here and here and here.

Forest and Sea consulting certainly have strong concerns about the feral nature of the exotic coconut palm on Australian coastal ecosystems.

Community for Coastal and Cassowary Conservation (C4) have a pretty good handle on the coconut situation and place a very high value on our natural coastal tree species rather than non native coconut palms.

This is an attitude which I support and find to be both sensible and highly commendable.

Check out their story “Going Coconuts" on page 17 of their C4 bulletin.
The Australian invasive species council has this to say about coconuts in their newsletter “The Feral Herald”:
“However, the DVD is not comprehensive, with a few glaring omissions such as the coconut (Cocos nucifera), a serious weed of north Queensland beaches, and tall wheat grass (Lophopyrum ponticum), an emerging problem in wetlands in Victoria.”
Well I think I have pretty much spent enough time talking about coconuts today

In conclusion I must state that there simply is not enough evidence available at this moment in time to state that coconuts are native to Australia and the pre to early settlement evidence points to the fact that coconuts are not native to Australia.

The arguments put forward by the “pro coconuts are native” lobby simply are not strong enough when one takes into account all the available evidence.

I have based my conclusions on the documented scientific facts and historical evidence available rather than being inspired by fantasies and romantic notions of what an Australian tropical shore should look like.

Our Australian beaches don’t need an introduced exotic palm tree to be special and beautiful places.
I prefer Australian native vegetation for obvious reasons!

Cheers Russ


  1. A great piece, Russell! I'm completely gobsmacked that one of the arguments in favour of retaining coconuts is that they make the tropical coast look tropical. *shakes head*

    And a coconut splitter? For $140 plus postage? There's one born every minute.

  2. Thanks snail I won't mention how many hours went into this but it was a fascinating journey and was a bit like a book that you just can't put down!
    The courage of our earliest mariners is mind blowing and sadly many of the historical figures I mentioned had their lives shortened due to the strains and dangers of the projects they undertook.
    The whole "coconuts make the place look tropical" issue must be a real pain for North Queensland councils. I note it was recently published in the Cairns Post that the Cairns council spent a quarter of a million dollars maintaining de-nutting etc. their coconut trees. Imagine how many wonderful native trees could have been planted on Cairns beaches alone with those wasted dollars!
    To be fair Dr Foale's nut splitter looks very shiny and handsome but like you I don't see myself rushing out to get one!
    Thanks for your comments Snail, you are always a welcome visitor and it's about time I trawl through your site and see what your cheeky rufous pademelons and tree kangaroos have been up to!

  3. Hi Russell
    Great piece of research there.
    Many early explorers were trained as transplanters of tropical plants of economic value.
    One of Captain Bligh's official tasks was to introduce Breadfruit from Tahiti to Jamaica - under direct instructions from Sir Joseph Banks. See "Plant Explorers":
    The Australian Plant Names Index is ambiguous, suggesting India as the real home of Coconuts.
    But the earliest references are from 1860 - well after the records you cite.
    I think your case is as water-tight as a floating Coconut shell.

  4. Thank You Denis for your kind comments.

    I have researched the Bligh breadfruit story in the past. The irony of the whole story is that the slaves they were being collected to feed refused to eat breadfruit according to a few sources I have found including wikipedia !

    Oh well looking at positives if it wasn't for Bligh we wouldn't have the wreck of the Pandora to treasure!

    All coconuts sink eventually so who knows, new evidence might get discovered that shoots me down in flames but at the moment I'm pretty happy with the story.

  5. Very impressive Russell; its nice someone has time to do all that research and I am glad you came to the same conclusion I had.

    However, speaking as an ecologist specialising in seed dispersal, it seems clear to me that it was only a matter of time until they did get established here. The fact that human animal's made it happen first is quite a normal occurrence in seed dispersal; animals and stochastic events (e.g. big storms) often bridge the gap to hard to get to places for plants.

    In addition, a plant ecologist would probably look at the distribution (at small and large scale), competitive interactions with other plants and age structure of cocos populations and quickly determine it was in an early colonising phase.

    Of course the coconut story doesn't end there; they interact quite strongly with other introduced pests. Many beach communities sustain significant populations of black rats thanks to the shelter and food provided by coconuts - especially when Uromys make the breaking in job easier...


    Andrew J. Dennis

  6. Thank you for your comments Andrew and I am sincerely looking forward to the release of your book on our threatened Australian animals. I got a lot out of your talk on threatened species in Cairns last year.

    The removal of traditional owners from their coastal homes and massive post contact mortality from European diseases, reduction of white tailed rats in some coastal areas and increased populations of farmed coconuts on nearby land masses would certainly have started swinging things in the coconut palms favour post European contact that's for sure!

    If we are to accept Rigby's fossilised coconut from Chinchilla as evidence then that would suggest that coconuts have had at least 2 million years to colonise Australia and still had not managed to do so so prior to first contact. I could ask of the plant ecologists how many more hundreds, thousands or millions of years would we have had to wait if the pre European status quo had remained?

    I think it is fascinating that the very feature that encouraged our species to cultivate coconut palms all over the tropics was the very same feature that prevented it from colonising Australia. That is it was too damn edible! I would hazard a guess that if coconuts were highly poisonous they may well have colonised Australia prior to European contact/settlement.

    I had not considered the fact that coconuts provide shelter for other non native rat species and thanks Andrew for bringing this to my attention.

    Again I look forward to your book and if the quality of the presentation you gave is indicative of the quality of your book it will be a winner!

  7. Very interesting article - I'd never given any thought to whether or not coconut palms were exotic! But I do find it bizarre that while coconuts are apparently responsible for more deaths than sharks (sorry, can't recall where I saw this), we are yet to see a movie called 'Husk'! 'Jaws' has, of course, been around for ages.

    Look forward to more about your area!

    Red Nomad OZ

  8. Hi Red nomad
    I think a lot of the coconut death stuff is a bit of a beat up to be honest but that is not to say I don't have a very healthy respect for the coconuts on the trees in my own garden! They certainly come down with a thud.
    I certainly enjoyed your story re the Frankland Island trip that you posted on your blog. It has made me determined to follow through and take the tour one day soon!

  9. Hi Russell,

    Great bit of historical research and tracking. I really enjoyed the read.

    New Guinea has rats the equal of the White Tailed Rat at cracking coconuts but the difference there was that the coastal and island people greatly valued the fruit produced by mature trees - and no doubt ate the rats. Torres regularly collected/bartered for coconuts on his exploration along at least the south eastern coast of New Guinea in 1606 so there would have been plenty of source for coconuts to drift to the tropical Australian coast at that time. Your research has provided some valid explanations as to why the coconut did not flourish on the Australian east coast prior to European colonization. Thanks for that clue.

  10. Thanks Peter for your comments. So many people get all emotional about coconuts and the goal of my research was primarily to sort out for myself what the truth was by going to the source of the historical data rather than relying on the opinions of others. Took a lot of research but I must say I enjoyed the hunt and the courage of men like King and Cunningham deserves to be acknowledged, cheers Russ


Related Posts with Thumbnails