Although the spice is now very commonly available, cinnamon once was the most sought after spice in the world. It was a gift fit for kings. Gods even. Not only that, it also was a determining factor in Sri Lankan history.
In the past cinnamons primary use was to mask bad smell. Particularly in food, but also in funerals and embalming bodies. Emperor Nero is said to have burnt a year’s stock of Rome’s cinnamon on the funeral pyre of his second wife Poppaea Sabina, after he had killed her.
The Arabs were the only ones to trade cinnamon. They managed to keep the origins of this spice -that could only be found in Sri Lanka- a mystery for centuries. There were stories of cinnamon being fished up from the end of the world. Others claimed that cinnamon was used by giant, mythical birds, to build their nests on top of insurmountable mountains.
In the 16th century it was cinnamon that shaped Sri Lankan colonial history. The Portuguese who, by accident, landed on cinnamon covered shores of Sri Lanka, were the first to realize what treasure they had stumbled upon. The established good relations with the Singhalese at first, but soon after took matters in their own hands.
By turning to the Dutch for help at the end of the 16th century, the Singhalese hoped to be better off. Unfortunately the Dutch were no more congenial than their Portuguese predecessors. Reason for the King of Kandy to wage frequent wars on them; killing thousands of Dutch soldiers.
The Dutch responded by starting their own plantations to safeguard supplies in the future. Labourers caught in acts of rebellion had their hands cut off. Those caught stealing cinnamon or buying the stolen goods were punished by death. In order to keep prices up, the Dutch even went so far as to burn cinnamon at the stake when production was too successful.
In 1796 the British took over from the Dutch, quickly seizing their profitable cinnamon plantations. By then the Ceylon monopoly was already declining however. The Dutch had managed to take cinnamon seedlings with them and exported these trees to other colonies. This prevented the British from enjoying the same profits from cinnamon as their European cousins before them.
Cinnamon may be a common spice to us; it was literally to die for in the past.