Nearly three thousand years ago, cinnamon had become a coveted condiment with its exotic flavour and fragrance.
In ancient Egypt, it was used for embalming the bodies of the rich. All over Europe, the royal families sought cinnamon for gifting and as an offering to Gods.
Cinnamon was sold for nearly 4,500 denarii a kilogram, roughly equal to half a year’s wages of a labourer of those times. Compare that with its price today, at about Rs 1,000 a kilogram—a few days’ wages in developing countries and less than a day’s in Europe.
The Byzantine Secret
While cinnamon’s demand was high, nobody except a small coterie of Venetian traders knew of its origins. The cinnamon trade used to move through the ancient Greek city of Byzantium (known as Constantinople later on, and Istanbul now). Venetian traders used to bring cinnamon from there into Europe through the Nile River and the Red Sea. But no one knew that the cinnamon originally came from the jungles of Indonesia and Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Constantinople held the best-kept secret of the Spice Trade.
This continued for two thousand years.
The Fall of Constantinople
In 1453 AD, Constantinople was run over by the Ottoman forces. This was a watershed of the medieval period and is considered the end of the 1,500-year-old Roman Empire.
The Europeans had to cede control over the spice trade and therefore, cinnamon. The secret of cinnamon’s origin was exposed.
But the trade was so lucrative that the colonial powers of Europe started searching for an alternative route, through the sea, to reach Asia.
Portuguese Maritime Explorations
The King of Portugal was the first to move. He asked his sea explorers to find a route around Africa.
In 1482, Portuguese mariner Diogo Cão explored the East coast of Africa to reach the mouth of the Congo River and present-day Namibia.
In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias followed the path shown by Cão to reach the southern tip of Africa. He named it the Cape of Storms, which was later renamed by the Portuguese king as the Cape of Good Hope—hope that this would be a new sea route to the East.
In 1498, Vasco da Gama built upon the successes of his predecessors to head further to the Indian subcontinent going around Africa. Finally, on 14th June 1498, the ships of Vasco de Gama sailed into the Indian port of Calicut.
The Portuguese Imperialism
This charting of the oceans started the age of global imperialism by the European superpowers. Avoiding the risky Arabian Peninsula, and the contentious Mediterranean, the Portuguese established a commercial monopoly over the spice trade to Europe.
Cinnamon (and pepper) boosted the Portuguese economy at the expense of India for nearly a century.
The British Raj
Then, the Dutch followed, with the British not too far behind. French and Danish ships came to the Indian coasts, too. Each of them established their trading posts in India and their rivalry led to multiple skirmishes over the decades. Eventually, the British forces prevailed over the Indian subcontinent.
The unmasking of the secret cinnamon trade in Constantinople laid the grounds for India to become a British colony, changing its modern history.
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First Published on: 15th August 2023
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