The History Of Cinnamon
Cinnamon, which is actually the dried bark of the laurel tree, has been used since antiquity. This powerful spice was used in Egypt, Rome, and China. Native to Sri Lanka, cinnamon can be produced from many species of laurel. The “real” cinnamon of old comes from the C. zeylanicum tree, but most modern cinnamon comes from the C. cassia tree.
The history of cinnamon dates back to about 2800 BC where it can be found referenced as kwai in Chinese writings. It was used medicinally for colds and flu as well as problems of the digestive system. One of the worlds most important medicinal spices, it was also mentioned by Pliny, Dioscorides, and Theophrastus.
Historically, cinnamon is even mentioned in the Bible. Moses used it as an ingredient for his anointing oils. In ancient Rome, it was burned during funerals, perhaps partly as a way to ward off the odor of dead bodies. The ancient Egyptians used it in embalming mummies because of its pleasant odors and its preservative qualities.
Today cinnamon is one of the most common of all spices. However, it was once rare and highly sought after. In fact, the quest for cinnamon was a major factor leading to exploration of the world in the 15th century! Sailors from Portugal braved the horn of Africa and famously, Columbus set his sights to the West. Due to the high cost of ship building and the risks inherent in sea voyages, plus a virtual monopoly on the overland trade route by the Venetians, only the elite could afford to use it. Back then, cinnamon's primary use was to mask the smell and taste of spoiled meats. Cinnamon was perfect for the job as it also has phenols which inhibit the growth of the bacteria which causes meat to spoil.
The history of cinnamon goes further than its medicinal and culinary uses. It is also about control and profit. Because cinnamon was so highly sought after and for many years produced in only one place, anyone who controlled its flow would profit immensely. Portuguese traders made their way to Ceylon (around the southern tip of Africa) in the 15th century. They increased production, enslaved the native Sinhalese, and did what they had to do to do away with competitors. Soon the Dutch wanted in on the action, and by 1640, had displaced the Portuguese and gained control of the Cinnamon monopoly. In 1796, English control of the seas allowed them to take Ceylon from the Dutch.
Since 1796 the production of Cinnamon has spread to other areas. Today, cinnamon is cultivated in many places in the tropical areas of the planet. This has led to abundant supply in a free market, making it affordable for most people. While it is still much in demand, the supply keeps up. It is now a commodity much like coffee.
Next Page: How Cinnamon is Grown