Cinnamon Sticks


Title Page of "Beschreibung der Ostindischen Kusten Malabar und Coromandel"

Titelblatt_Baldaeus - Copy.jpg

Detail image of the cinnamon quills.

Compared to many other spices and ingredients that became prevalent in international trade around the 16th to 18th centuries, cinnamon, also referred to as cassia, is much older.  It had been known to Mediterranean and later European cultures since as early as 600 B.C as it appears in the poetry of Sapphos and in parts of the Bible.[1]  The spice was used for a variety of purposes, from food seasoning to fragrance in pyres or anointing oils to medicine.  For instance, cinnamon is listed as one of the spices to be mixed into an oil Moses is ordered by God to use to anoint the ark and the temple[2] but is also referenced as a major ingredient in a poison antidote made for Marcus Aurelius by the Roman imperial physician Galen.[3]

As time went on the spice took on a more decidedly culinary use in Medieval Europe.[4] Though cinnamon was known to Western cultures, its origin remained a mystery for many years as the trade of it was tightly controlled by Arab traders who obscured its source with myth and legend as reported by Herodotus.[5]  With expanded exploration in the Early Modern period, the cinnamon-rich island of Sri Lanka (also known as Ceylon) was found by the Portuguese in the 16th century who used it to create a monopoly of the cinnamon trade.  However, the Dutch eventually aided the indigenous Kandy kingship in expelling the Portuguese in the 1658, resulting in total Dutch control over the Sri Lankan cinnamon until the British took control in 1796.[6]

It is within this period of Dutch control when the image above is printed in 1672.  This is an engraving from the title page of the Dutch minister Phillipus Baldaeus's book Beschreibung der Ostindischen Kusten Malabar und Coromandel" (Description of the East Indian Countries of Malabar, Coromandel, Ceylon, etc.).  This book, a sort of travel log detailing the geography, peoples, and culture of Sri Lanka, became rather popular in Europe and was one of the earliest European accounts of Indian culture.[7]  The engraving, depicting the exotic wealth and peoples of the region, contains a particularly enlightening depiction of bundled cinnamon quills (shown in the detail image).  The animals and objects leave no doubt to the region being depicted as the south Indian coast, as native creatures like jaguars or the small-eared Asian elephant are depicted.  Especially significant is the fact that the elephant is being ridden, which definitively places it as an Asian elephant since those had been domesticated and used as transport as early as the Harappan civilization.[8]

Before delving into this image, it is perhaps best to go into how cinnamon quills are produced.  Cinnamon is made from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, which is a type of laurel.  After the rainy seasons, when the bark is softest, branches are stripped of their outer bark, revealing the inner layer.  This is separated and then layered on top of other strips of inner bark to form long quills.  These quills are then left to dry in the sunlight and form the yellow-reddish-brown sticks with curled edges that are familiar to us.[9]  

So it is in this image that one can clearly see two bundles of these cinnamon quills in the bottom left corner.  While the cinnamon is not the main focus of the engraving, its inclusion speaks a lot to the importance of cinnamon for the Dutch.  The image shows the native people of Ceylon bringing forth the most important resources of the land, the most valuable items they have to offer.  This solidifies cinnamon's importance as it appears alongside such expensive and exotic commodities as leopards, elephant tusks (ivory), sumptuous fabrics, and jeweled necklaces.  Cinnamon is one of the chief sources of wealth from this land and it is recognized as such by the Dutch engravers Johannes Janssonius van Waasberge and Johannes van Someren.  A bundle of cinnamon also appears in one other place in the engraving on the right as a man with his back turned and hunched over is holding a bundle, probably in the act of bringing out the bundle of cinnamon quills to present to the audience.

The cinnamon is depicted realistically, owing in part to the objective and descriptive purpose of the book the engraving appears in.  It is supposed to give an accurate sense of the items found in Sri Lanka and the people themselves.  This realistic element also reinforces the sense that cinnamon is a good of great value to Sri Lanka and the Dutch since the image appears to have an objective portrayal in mind and presents the cinnamon quills next to the other luxury items.  However, while the scene is depicted with an air of objectivity, it is inherently subjective since it was made by Dutch artists and for a Dutch audience.  The fact that the indigenous people are depicted as so willing to bring forth their great bounty and wealth shows an implicit Dutch understanding of this place as a colony to be used to their advantage.  Despite the fact that the Dutch historically fought with and were at constant odds with the native Kandy kingship, in this image there is no hint of conflict and instead presents the native people as lavishing gifts upon the European viewer, giving a sense that the Dutch felt like this land was theirs rightfully.  When viewed with this in mind, the cinnamon in the image just comes to represent colonial authority and European exploitation of India.  Cinnamon was just one resource of many that could be squeezed out of the land for the benefit of the colonial rulers.

Cinnamon serves as a fantastic example of an exotic commodity that entire colonial structures and relationships were created to ensure a steady supply of.  Its development through history from an exotic trade commodity of unknown origin into a valuable resource that Europeans seize control of shows the growth and expansion of European nations like the Netherlands into colonial powers.  This image really conveys both the importance and value of cinnamon to the Dutch and also how they viewed their obtainment of it, and in doing so serves as a good case study for European nations’ attitudes towards the resources found in their colonies and by extension the colonies themselves that produced those resources.

~Patrick D. Hood

[1] Dalby, Andrew. "Christopher Columbus, Gonzalo Pizarro, and the Search for Cinnamon."Gastronomica 1, no. 2 (2001): 40. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[2] Exodus 30:23

[3] Dalby, 42.

[4] McCune, Shannon. "Sequence of Plantation Agriculture in Ceylon." Economic Geography 25, no. 3 (1949): 241. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[5] Dalby, 40.

[6] McCune, Shannon. "Sequence of Plantation Agriculture in Ceylon." Economic Geography 25, no. 3 (1949): 226-28. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[7] Diehl, Katharine. "The Dutch Press in Ceylon, 1734-96." The Library Quarterly 42, no. 3 (1972): 337. Accessed November 20, 2014.

[8] McIntosh, Jane. The Ancient Indus Valley New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2008. 131.

[9] Ratwatte, Florence. "THE SPICE OF LIFE: Cinnamon and Ceylon." THE SPICE OF LIFE: Cinnamon and Ceylon. May 1, 1991. Accessed November 20, 2014.


Cinnamon Sticks