All spices were considered highly valuable throughout antiquity, having their own specific road and sea transport routes across the globe, utilised to introduce exotic spices to far-flung nations. So far, however, I haven't come across any as hotly (yes) contested as Cinnamon. This flavoursome little bark was the subject of years of what I like to call (drumroll please)... THE CINNAMON WARS! He who controlled the cinnamon trade would become very wealthy indeed, such was its value in ancient times. It was a spice quite literally worth dying for, and quite a few countries wanted a piece (or more accurately, complete dominance) of the action.
Both 'true' cinnamon and cassia, its perhaps unfairly named cousin 'bastard cinnamon', since it is cheaper to produce, have been used since ancient times, and were among the first spices ever traded.
Arab traders originally brought cinnamon into Egypt, where it was pounced upon first by the Venetians, who were the prime traders of spices in Europe at the time. They held control of this trade in the 13th and 14th century, and Venice, as a result, grew very wealthy, as many spices were considered more valuable than silver or gold - certainly cinnamon was of such value. However, the value was perhaps somewhat inflated by the original Arab traders, who would make up wild stories about the origin and procurement of cinnamon, in order to protect the original source for themselves, create a mystical aura around their product - and thus charge exorbitant amounts for it. Grant states that:
"The reason for the exorbitant cost of the spice has much to do with the secrecy surrounding the origin of cinnamon. Cinnamon traders came up with many fantastical stories about the origin of the precious spice, leading buyers to assume that there was something mystical involved in its production.
One such tale involved giant cinnamon birds whose duty it was to collect cinnamon sticks from an unknown land where the cinnamon trees grew. These birds used the sticks to build their nests. The wily Arab traders had to trick the birds to get the sticks from them, no doubt at great peril to their lives and, thus, great cost. This outlandish tale was deemed the true story of cinnamon’s origin into the Byzantium era"
I can just imagine how coming up with those stories would have kept these traders entertained during their journeys over the deserts, and then telling them with relish to their unsuspecting buyers, trying to keep a straight face.
Perhaps eventually skeptical of these tales, the Europeans sent out explorers over the seas to discover routes to Asia and the 'spice islands' (the north-east islands of Indonesia) for themselves, in order to find the original source, unveil the secrets of the Arab traders and gain some of the riches for themselves. In the 16th century, it was the Portuguese who were the first to find the largest source of cinnamon at the time, growing in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). They took control of the trade, even building a fort to protect 'their' property. For over a century, they aggressively held this claim, thus ensuring their monopoly and the wealth it furnished them with.
As cinnamon increased in popularity and thus became ever more lucrative, other nations tried to break this monopoly held by the Portuguese. It was the Dutch, who were colonising the East Indies at the time, who confronted the Portuguese. Fights erupted between them, with the Dutch eventually wresting control in the 17th century. At great cost, however, with these battles claiming the lives of many. The Dutch did whatever it took to hold this win and ensure their true monopoly. To that end, and in order to capitalise further on their claim, they burned huge quantities of cinnamon in Amsterdam, thus creating a shortage of supply, enabling them to inflate the price. When they found out large plantations also existed in India, they bribed a local king to have them destroyed, thus ensuring they were the sole supplier of this now increasingly valuable spice. The Dutch were the ones to begin commercially distilling the essential oil from this plantation.
They weren't to hold their dominance, however, as others sought to wrest some of this treasure from their hands. Eventually, they lost control firstly to France, and then to England.
The anticlimax to this story, however, is that all of this fighting was perhaps quite unnecessary, as cinnamon plantations were eventually also found in Indonesia, and it was discovered that the trees could be successfully planted in other locations, such as South America. The exclusivity was broken, and cinnamon became more affordable and widely-available.
Growing the trees in other locations is something I would have thought might have been tried earlier on in the piece, which leads me to wonder whether the hot, fiery, stimulating and aggressive nature of cinnamon itself had some influence over these nations when they traded in such huge amounts. The distillation of the oil surely put enough molecules into the air that inhaling them would have been unavoidable! Perhaps cinnamon was exerting its influence over these vying parties.
The cinnamon tree belongs to the Laurel family. True Cinnamon quills are curled like a tube, whereas the aforementioned 'bastard cinnamon', cassia, is curled inwards from both sides like a rolled-up scroll. Historically, it was used by the Egyptians in their embalming practices (perhaps because the cinnamic acid has antibacterial actions). There are many references to cinnamon in the Bible, and Pliny confirms its valuable status in his first century A.D writings, stating that 350 grams of cinnamon was as valuable as more than five kilograms of silver.
It was traditionally used as a medicine in the middle ages for sore throats, colds and coughs. Before refrigeration was invented, it was used to preserve meats, masking the smell of decay and inhibiting bacteria.
An extreme skin sensitiser, a trick was played on me once to put one single drop of cinnamon on my lips, to the great mirth of those around me as my lips puffed up like I'd had expensive fillers! That was enough to make me respect the highly sensitising nature of this oil - it is generally not one to be used topically.
Hot, invigorating and stimulating in energetics, it is unsurprisingly related to the Fire element. In this action it helps to dispel conditions of cold and damp. Holmes sums it up beautifully -
'What makes cinnamon... essential is the very fundamental nature of the spice remedy itself: supporting human warmth in all its aspects - physical, emotional and spiritual. Cinnamon is nothing less than the iconic aromatic that has fostered and sustained human warm-bloodedness since prehistory and is thus totally embedded in our collective warmth psyche both conscious and unconscious'.
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