In India, liberal use has been made of cinnamon for as long as anyone can remember. The Greeks and Romans began to use it as a spice around the 3rd century. Earlier, it was highly rated as an aphrodisiac and tonic. A less noble strain was imported from China – Chinese cinnamon (or kassia). The Taoists regarded it as the food of the gods. The bark was crushed into a pulp and added as an ingredient to an elixir granting the body a divine golden yellow hue and strength – or yang. Carrying it on one’s person kept illness at bay and probably made it easier to bear the stench that reigned on the streets of large settlements.
Curiously, the inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin never fully appreciated where cinnamon came from.
This of course raised its prestige and price. Galen claims that Roman emperors kept cinnamon in cases along with other valuable treasures. When Nero, who has already appeared in the story of pepper, murdered his wife Poppea in a fit of rage, he ordered that during the funeral, all Rome’s reserves of cinnamon should be burned on the funeral pyre. Ancient scholars were in agreement that they owed cinnamon’s appearance in Europe to the Egyptians and that this spice reached Egypt from Ethiopia or Arabia during the time of the pharaohs. From the 3rd century BC, the Silk Trail, which led from China through Iran and Iraq as far as Tyre, was already in existence. Many crusaders, sensing the benefits of trading with the Far East, settled in the ports of Lebanon and Syria.
How the war over cinnamon began
In the 12th and 14th centuries, the cinnamon trade was in the hands of the Venetians. They employed a network of vassals reporting from overseas who dictated prices almost as exorbitant as during the time of Nero. There was a huge demand for it. The Venetians were loath to share information about the sources of their deliveries and were in control of all the land routes and coastal trading posts. And then a Portuguese appeared. He was called Vasco da Gama. As we know from our geography lessons, Vasco da Gama, by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope, discovered an ocean passage to India.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) comes from Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the second largest island in the Indian Ocean, lying just off India’s South East coast. Its original name probably comes from the Malay word kajmanis. It’s easy to imagine how cinnamon, being so in demand in Europe, could cause the Portuguese to undertake mass expeditions. It could be said that they caught “cinnamon fever”. In the year after their arrival on the island (in 1505), over 11 tonnes of cinnamon bark were sent to Lisbon. Over the following years, the name “cinnamon” aroused a feeling of absolute terror. The indigenous people were led into slavery, boats were sunk and trade representatives from Venice were hung whenever the opportunity arose. The Portuguese also ravaged the coast of Mozambique, eventually settling there in order to control the shipping route to the Cape of Good Hope.
The Portuguese monopoly is broken by the Dutch, giving birth to the corporation
In 1640, the Dutch captured the port of Galle on Ceylon. Initially, it was thought that the situation on the island would improve after their arrival, but this is not what happened. Instead, they created the Dutch East India Company. This was the world’s first international concern and the first company to release shares and securities to fund its activities. The expeditions were sponsored by merchants, who made quick profits. The credit for their famous successes fell to the monarchs and taking along a few missionaries in effect gave the Church carte blanche to exploit the indigenous peoples.
At the very beginning, only trees growing in the wild were chopped down – the indigenous population were forced to do this – but demands to deliver progressively larger quantities of cinnamon bark caused the colonists to fear that stocks would be exhausted. At that point, one of the colonists hit on the idea of cultivating cinnamon trees. After eight years, this ended up in them being overproduced, which threatened a collapse in prices. In order to ward off a disaster, the Dutch begin to burn stocks, just as they had done a little before with coffee. There was no competition (the Dutch had a monopoly on cinnamon), so traders began to speculate on prices.
Over the hundred years from their arrival in Ceylon, the Dutch sent about 270 tonnes of cinnamon to Europe. Prices fell, but it continued to be a very popular spice.
The domination of the Dutch ended after they lost wars against the British.
The British arrived in Ceylon around 1796, but were producing cinnamon of an inferior quality. They already possessed their own British East India Company, whose operations had been launched by the English queen, Elizabeth I, who granted it a monopoly over trade with the East Indians. Throughout the territories colonised by the British, this institution had wide-ranging political and administrative powers which went far beyond trade in the traditional sense. While it was active, the British East India Company was one of the main pillars in England’s economic development and exerted a huge influence over imperial policy regarding this country. In the mid-19th century production reached a thousand tonnes.
So the cinnamon war was won by England. The spice also started to be cultivated in other regions around the Indian Ocean. Later, plantations appeared in the Antilles, Brazil and Guyana.
Today, cinnamon is a spice which appears over most of the world in cooking recipes. In France, it improves the flavour of hare or partridge fricassees. It is also serves as an ingredient in spiced wine, apple compote and rice pudding. The Italians add it too bean soup, and the Spanish to chocolate. In the East, it is often used to complement mutton. In Poland, it is added to dishes containing apples. The English actually use it with moderation.