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by Troy David Osborne

Cinnamon does not instantly spring to mind when one thinks of the spices that spurred European expansion into Asia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Usually, the trade in cloves, nutmeg and mace dominates discussions of the luxury goods that allowed sailors and merchants to amass fortunes and encouraged further European domination of the Indian Ocean trade routes and the production of spices. In addition to the aforementioned spices, the capture of the cinnamon trade was also a goal for the early modern Europeans.

The consumption of cinnamon already had a long history in Europe by the time that the Portuguese arrived at Ceylon, the source of the spice, in the early years of the sixteenth century. Cinnamon is mentioned in several books of the Bible, for instance as an ingredient in Moses' anointing oils and as a token of friendship between lovers or friends.1 In ancient Rome, mourners burnt cinnamon in funeral pyres in order to cover the scent of burning flesh. Emperor Nero consumed a year's worth of the spice in the pyre for his wife Poppaea in 65 AD.2 Most often, however, the spice found its primary use as an additive to food, and in the Middle Ages it was a status symbol for Europe's elites.

Those people who could afford the spice used it in meals for flavor and to impress those around them with their ability to purchase a condiment from the "exotic" East. Some scholars speculate that the upper crust of European society consumed large quantities of spices during the Middle Ages in order to cover up the taste of cured meats, which began to spoil during the winter.3 Only the wealthy could afford large quantities of meat; therefore, it is not surprising that consumption of spices in general occurred in the top layers of society. At a banquet, a host would offer guests a plate with various spices piled upon it as a sign of the wealth at his or her disposal. The social rank of hosts was revealed by the excess or moderation with which they offered spices to their guests.4 Cinnamon also was reported to cure various ailments during the Middle Ages, including coughs and indigestion.5 Beyond its importance as a status symbol and curative, cinnamon was used by those who could afford it for the enjoyable flavor it added to food and drink.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the burgeoning middle class began to desire the trappings of the elites, including their ostentatious consumption of spices. The Venetians had controlled the spice trade throughout the previous centuries. Delivered by Arab merchants, who closely guarded the secret of the source of the spice from potential rivals,6 shipments of cinnamon arrived at Alexandria via an overland trade route from India to the Mediterranean. Traders from the Italian entrepôt sailed to Egypt to purchase their supply of cinnamon, then returned to Venice, from where the spice traveled to the estates of Europe's upper class. Because the overland trade route allowed for only small quantities of the spice to reach Europe and because Venice had a virtual monopoly of the trade, the Venetians could set the price of cinnamon exorbitantly high.7 Trade expanded in order to meet the growing demand for spices, but the overland trade routes made spices too expensive to meet the needs of the growing market. Furthermore, once the Mamlukes rose to power in Egypt and the Turks in Asia Minor, the free trade that had previously existed in those regions essentially ceased to exist.8 Increased demand for spices, spiraling customs duties, and the inadequate capacity of overland trade caravans spurred the search for new routes to Asia by Europeans eager to take part in the lucrative spice trade.9

Seeking the high profits promised by the cinnamon market, Portuguese traders arrived at Ceylon toward the end of the fifteenth century.10 Before Europeans arrived at that island, the state had organized the cultivation of cinnamon. Members of the salagama caste peeled the bark off young shoots of the cinnamon plant in the rainy season, when the wet bark was more pliable.11 During the peeling process, they curled the bark into the "stick" shape still associated with the spice today.12 The salagama caste then gave the finished product to the king as a form of tribute.13 When the Portuguese arrived, they wanted to increase production significantly, which meant that they had to change the traditional patterns of cinnamon cultivation by introducing new groups into the harvesting process.14 In 1518, the Portuguese built a fort on the island, which permanently changed the trade of cinnamon by allowing the Europeans to develop a monopoly in it.15 This allowed the Portuguese to generate very high profits in the exchange of the spice. In the late fifteenth century, for example, they enjoyed a tenfold profit when shipping cinnamon over a journey of eight days from Ceylon to Calicut. Profits were sixfold on shipments from India to Hormuz.16 In order to protect their monopoly, the Portuguese enslaved the Sinhalese, sank Arab dhows, and hanged the agents of their European competitors.17

When the Dutch began to arrive off the coast of southern Asia, they set their sights on displacing the Portuguese from their cinnamon throne. The Dutch allied themselves with Kandy, an inland kingdom on Ceylon. In return for payments of elephants and cinnamon, they protected the native king from the Portuguese. By 1640, the Dutch broke the Portuguese monopoly when they overran and occupied their factories. By 1658, they had permanently expelled the Iberians from the island, thereby gaining control of the lucrative cinnamon trade.18

In order to protect their monopoly and to meet European demand for cinnamon, the Dutch, like the Portuguese before them, treated the native inhabitants harshly and guarded their lock on the market with armed force. In order to increase production even further, the Dutch began to change the cultivation practices of the Ceylonese. Originally, only wild cinnamon trees were available for harvesting. Under the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC), the natives had to meet such high demand that the supply of cinnamon trees was nearly exhausted, due to systematic stripping of their bark. The Dutch had been shipping 270 tons of spice a year but began to wonder whether they could continue to keep up with the ever-increasing demand in Europe. Eventually, a VOC employee named De Coke settled on the idea that the Company should cultivate the cinnamon tree, which must grow for eight years before it is large enough to be harvested. Eight years after De Coke's suggestion, it appeared as if European demand was beginning to collapse. In order to maintain price levels, the Dutch burned stocks and delayed delivery of the spice to Europe. This was an odd action, considering the fact that the Dutch had the monopoly on the commodity.19

In 1796, the English arrived on Ceylon, thereby displacing the Dutch from their control of the cinnamon monopoly. Ceylon allowed England to regain some of its economic health due to the latter's loss of its American colonies and its absence from Mediterranean trade. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the market in Europe was larger and more democratic than it had been in the Middle Ages, when only the ruling elite could afford spices in large quantities. Production of cinnamon reached 1000 tons a year, after a lower grade quality of the spice became acceptable to European tastes. By that time, cinnamon was being grown in other parts of the Indian Ocean region and in the West Indies, Brazil, and Guyana. Not only was a monopoly of cinnamon becoming impossible, but the spice trade overall was diminishing in economic potential. Eventually, coffee, tea, chocolate, and sugar dethroned cinnamon and other spices from their domination of European palates and wallets.


   1. Charles Corn, The Scents of Eden: A Narrative of the Spice Trade (New York: Kodansha International, 1998), p. 202.
   2. Richard M. Klein, The Green World: An Introduction to Plants and People (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), p. 306.
   3. Sidney W. Mintz, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History (New York: Viking, 1985), p. 81.
   4. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Tastes of Paradise: A Social History of Spices, Stimulants, and Intoxicants (New York: Pantheon Books, 1992), pp. 6-7.
   5. Mintz, p. 103.
   6. Corn, p. 202.
   7. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, Anthea Bell, trans. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992), p. 488.
   8. Schivelbusch, p. 11.
   9. Schivelbusch, p. 11.
   10. M.N.H. Pearson, ed., Spices in the Indian Ocean World (Brookfield, VT: Variorum, 1996), p. xxv.
   11. C. R. de Silva, "The Portuguese Impact on the Production and Trade in Sri Lanka Cinnamon in Asia in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries" (Indica 26 (1989): 25-38), p. 27.
   12. Corn, p. 202.
   13. De Silva, p. 28.
   14. De Silva, p. 29.
   15. De Silva, p. 31.
   16. Carla Rahn Phillips, "The Growth and Composition of Trade in the Iberian Empires, 1450-1750" in James D. Tracy, ed., The Rise of Merchant Empires: Long-Distance Trade in the Early Modern World, 1350-1750 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 51.
   17. Toussaint-Samat, p. 489.
   18. Corn, p. 50.
   19. Toussaint-Samat, p. 489.

Trade product essays have been contributed by graduate and advanced undergraduate students in the Bell Library’s Expansion of Europe seminar (Hist 5962), unless otherwise indicated. Essays without author attribution were contributed by staff. For information on the Expansion of Europe seminar, contact the curator at