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Niuē-fekai (or Savage) Island and its People

The Coco-Nut (Niu)

The Coco-Nut (Niu)

But of all the trees that grow at Niuē the coco-nut is by far the most important, as it is in all the islands inhabited by the Polynesians. There are four species known to the natives—Niu-tea, with light-coloured fruit and stem; Niu-kula, the fruit of which is dark brown; Niu-hiata, with yellowish fruit, not so dark and smaller than Niu-kula; and Niu-toga, a variety introduced in modern times.

The coco-nut is to be found all over the island, but very sparsely in the interior; it grows to perfection on the lower terrace, and here it forms a dense forest nearly all round the island, overshadowing the roads and villages, and tempering the heat to the inhabitants, whilst at the same time serving as food, drink, and for innumerable other purposes. Every tree on the island has an owner, and they have a considerable value, not only for the purposes named but as forming the principal export of the island in the form of copra, of which about 600 to 800 tons are exported annually, most of it going to Tonga, where it is transhipped to Hamburg, the rest to Sydney, where it is used in the manufacture of Sunlight soap, &c. I need not speak of the beauty of the coco-nut palm, its praises have been sung by far abler pens than mine. It is seen to perfection in the bright moonlight, and especially in Samoa, where it seems to grow with more luxuriousness than elsewhere. For the benefit of our New Zealand members it may be added that the leaf of the coco-nut is so like our New Zealand palm—the Nikau—that at a little distance the two could not be distinguished the one from the other. But the fruit is utterly different. Clustering under where the leaves branch from the stem, the great nuts—brown, yellow, or green—are seen, often over one hundred in number, and in all stages of growth, from the tiny nut no bigger than a walnut to that of the largest size, and they are very large indeed in Niuē—larger, it is said, than anywhere else in the Pacific. In a 35-mile drive in Tonga, I saw nothing to equal the Niuē nut, either in size or prolificness. A large Niuē nut will contain as much as two to three pints of its deliciously cool milk (so called).

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It is amusing to see with what ease the little boys of from eight upwards will walk up a coco-nut tree to break off the fruit from the loholoho, or stem, on which it grows. The nut is thrown down, and then with a stick sharpened at the upper end (often pointed with the teeth) and the lower stuck in the ground, a few blows of the nut on the point serves to detach (, to husk) the thick outer husk (pulu), and a few taps on the end of the nut breaks off (fela, to open) a small portion of the shell sufficient to allow one to drink the delicious contents. The white flesh (kakano) of the nut is largely used by the natives in their made dishes, of which they have several, referred to later on.

For certain purposes the coco-nut trees are often preserved for a time. This is shown by a part of the leaf tied round the stem of the tree. Such a proceeding is termed fono, and is equivalent to the rahui of the Maori and eastern Polynesian. At all feasts and presentations of food the coco-nut is an important adjunct, but in the speech presenting the food it is not referred to by its ordinary name of Niu, nor indeed under similar circumstances are any of the foods alluded to by their common names. This custom is somewhat akin—but not identical—to that of the Samoans, who give honorific names to the individuals forming the kara ring which are not used at any other time. These names in Niuē are:—

  • The Coco-nut, ordinary name Fua-niu; feast name, Ulu-ola*

  • The Talo ordinary name Talo feast name, Tafuna-fonna

  • The Banana ordinary name Futi feast name, Lau-malika

  • The Sugar-cane ordinary name To feast name, Lau-lelēra.

We may probably trace in this observance the old Polynesian idea that everything has a spirit form of its own, and in feasts, &c., the occasion being great, the spirit or honorific names are used.

It is a Niuē custom that on the first visit of a stranger of any note to their villages to present them with a few living coco-nuts, the idea being apparently to give the visitor the “freedom” of the village. Thus on my first visit to Liku an old Patu, or chief, presented me with five young coco-nut trees, which were afterwards duly planted, and the fruit of which could be used by me on subsequent visits.

It may be of use to state, for comparison, the various names of the parts of the coco-nut. The fibrous husk of the nut is called pulu, and it serves a good many purposes, the most important of which is

* In a document written by Fata-a-iki, already referred to, Ulu-lo-tuna is given as another name for the coco-nut. This name is very interesting, as it probably contains a reference to the East Polynesian story of the origin of the coco-nut, which sprung from the brain of the eel (tuna). Lo in the name here given is probably an abreviation of lolo (or roro), the brain. For the full story see Myths and Songs from the South Pacific,” p. 77, by Dr. Wyatt Gill, B.A

The Talo is also referred to as Efu-tu and Efu-mau.

page 18 in rope or sinnet (tona) and string (aho) making. It is of course the “coir” of commerce, a name which is probably derived from the Polynesian name for a rope (kaha). On the occasion of one of the students leaving Niuē in October, 1901, to join the New Guinea band of Missionaries his friends gave him 1,400 fathoms of braided sinnet to take with him for purposes of exchange. The sinnet is very strong and durable. From the shell, after being scraped and sometimes polished, the ordinary drinking vessels (kapiniu) are made, and the whole shell is used as a water-bottle.* Soon after the nut begins to grow the interior is filled with a spongy mass called uho-niu, which is sweet and pleasant to eat. A young coco-nut with but little pulp in it is named kola and pona-niu. The nuts grow on a stem called a loholoho, whilst the flower stem is termed tomē, and the young shoot muka, which is the Maori name for the white scraped fibre of the flax plant. The main midrib of the leaf is palelafe, and the rib of each separate branch leaf is kaniu. The leaf itself is used in thatching, to make baskets (kato), mats (potu), and in various other ways. The kaniu is used in several ways, such as for making brooms, combs, &c. The coco-nut wood is hard and heavy, and when polished makes handsome sticks, &c. From the white pulp of the nut, oil (puke-lolo) is made by scraping and pressing, which is used for anointing themselves with, and it is ofted scented (manogi). Land covered with coco-nuts is said to be niuniu. The tree grows to about 60 or 70 feet high in Niuē, and is very healthy as a rule, though it is occasionally attacked by a disease called pao, but does not appear to be affected by the blight common in Eastern Polynesia, which turns the leaves yellow and prevents the trees bearing. The ground underneath the coco-nut trees is kept clear of scrub, &c., in order to see the nuts when they fall, and the natives usually light fires every year under the trees, which, they say, causes increased productiveness. Probably the same reason induces them to hack the trees about with an axe, causing their otherwise handsome stems to appear unsightly.

* The Niuē people do not possess the gourd (hue of the Maoris) as some other branches of the race do.