Arte palmarica, a 17th Century Text on the Cultivation of Coconut Trees
Dr. Ines G. Županov
“One of the most interesting Jesuit agronomical treatises, the Arte palmarica, reflects their economic approach to cultivation of coconut trees. Although the text survived in transcriptions from a later period, and given the ongoing Jesuit custom of “improving” and “updating” (or expurgating) their texts, it is a remarkable document of that particular moment in the late seventeenth century, when the Jesuits espoused “scientific” methods in farming. This scientific experiment was closely connected with commercial exploitation. The work of an anonymous Jesuit, it is a manual on selecting, planting, and tending coconut palm trees in order to obtain the most fruit possible from each tree.
Divine intervention is absent from the text, except for a fleeting analogy between the coconut tree and the tree that St. John saw in the Apocalypse, an analogy drawn, the author claimed, because those trees yielded twelve harvests a year, each time with “a bunch of fruit.” “And there are palm trees that produce fifteen or sixteen bunches (cachos) a year, as I saw, and in a single harvest gave 196 coconuts, all good and well grown.”
The utility of this plant is then described in detail, followed by advice on how to cultivate it and on what soil, how to protect it from vermin, how to choose the best seeds and the best species of coconuts, and so on. “If they [the cultivators] observe the rules,” he wrote, “that I suggested here, there is no doubt that their farms will be very fruitful and remunerative and that they would give fruit in a short time and be preserved and known as good, as experience has shown me.”
And this is precisely the content of the book — the rules for producing the best and most ample crop of coconuts. In nine chapters, every aspect of cultivation is considered, with all necessary technical detail, but for this Jesuit coconut farm manager, local knowledge was neither sufficient nor appropriate.
“I was not guided in this matter,” he wrote in the closing lines, “by the customs of the natives but by the dictate of reason, based on observation and experience. God, who is the author of all good, has provided that everything succeeds with prosperity for the major glory and the universal good of us all.” There is no reason to distrust the author’s assessment. As he stated at one point, he had been a manager of a few Jesuit farms in Goa and had a larger sample for observations than an individual cultivator would have. Of interest is the Jesuits’ modern approach to technological progress in agriculture, which went against traditional methods.
This text gives us a taste of the Jesuit style of economic management, in this case the management of farming — intensive labor, under strict organisation and control.”
Ines G. Županov and Ângela Barreto Xavier, Catholic Orientalism. Portuguese Empire, Indian Knowledge (16th -18th Century), OUP, 2015, 104–105] Printed here with due permission of the author. (Editor)
Ines G. Županov is a committed historian and well-acquainted with the Jesuit archives. Her publications include Disputed Mission (OUP, 1999) — about de Nobili; Missionary Tropics. The Catholic Frontiers in India. (16th-17th Centuries) 2005; The Oxford Handbook of the Jesuits (Ed.) 2019.