Technology

Plant of the Month: Cinnamon

Today, most medicines are produced by big pharmaceutical companies. The intellectual property rights of these companies, which are intended to safeguard the investments made to produce medicines, can be misused to create monopolies. This frequently causes public debate about the ethical dimension of drug production: how to navigate the thin line between commercial interests on one hand and available and affordable medicines for the general public on the other? In the process of developing vaccines against COVID-19, for example, pharmaceutical monopolies have threatened the equal distribution of vaccines for the global population.

While it would be easy to assume that this kind of monopoly only emerged along with the pharmaceutical industry in the nineteenth century, we can observe the phenomenon, if not in identical form, well before the word “monopoly” came into usage. Because most medicines were produced from natural resources—mainly plants—these early “pharmaceutical monopolies” required full control of the production and trade of a species. Russia successfully managed the rhubarb trade in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while Spain controlled the distribution of natural resources from Spanish America, mainly cinchona from Peru, in the same period. “True” cinnamon grew only on Sri Lanka, so whoever controlled the island could dominate the cinnamon trade. The Portuguese were the first to create a monopoly on the cinnamon trade there in the early seventeenth century. That monopoly was later optimized by the Dutch in the late eighteenth century; it almost collapsed under British rule in the early nineteenth century.

“True” should indeed be in quotation marks here—the term reflects the historically contingent tastes of Europeans, rather than any botanical category: The cinnamon of Sri Lanka was valued for its supreme quality as a spice, but various other Cinnamomum species have been, too, and are still used under the name “cinnamon.” But even today, botanists still call the cinnamon of Sri Lanka Cinnamomum verum (“verum” meaning true). To define something as true implies that “untrue” or “false” varieties exist as well, and this was a pertinent problem in the case of cinnamon. The rarity of cinnamon in the early modern period made it one of the most coveted spices of that era, and European countries without direct access to the cinnamon trade tried to imitate, substitute, steal, smuggle, or transplant the “true” product from Sri Lanka.

The curious thing about cinnamon is that the definition of “true” is still a relevant issue today. The American market prefers cinnamon derived from Cinnamomum cassia, a related species from Southeast Asia, rather than C. verum. While this is only a commercial preference of consumers, the need to distinguish “true” from other cinnamon varieties is much more important in medicine. Many studies have highlighted the medical potential of cinnamon, but the value of these results is hard to assess because species are often not differentiated in scientific studies.

In the early modern period, cinnamon was also important both as an exotic commodity and as an important therapeutic substance. The Dutch East India Company (VOC), which controlled Sri Lanka between 1658 and 1796, was well aware of this. The VOC vigorously exploited the Salagama—a caste of specialized Sri Lankan cinnamon peelers—to supply enough cinnamon, which for a long time was gathered from forests. Only after the peelers rebelled, leading to a war that lasted between 1760 and 1766, did the company revise its production policy. Experiments with “cinnamon gardens” (kaneeltuinen in Dutch) led to enormous successes, and the company eventually grew millions of cinnamon trees on plantations in the final decades of the eighteenth century.

Meanwhile, competitors of the Dutch had come up with their own solutions to meet the demand for cinnamon: Spain had started growing other Cinnamomum species on plantations in the Philippines, while France and Britain succeeded in transplanting cinnamon to islands in the Caribbean. But the Dutch monopoly was not simply threatened by outside competition. Smuggling, by peelers or VOC personnel, was strictly forbidden and severely punished.

The company protected its commercial interests vigorously. But when the medical qualities of cinnamon were in question, the company did not hesitate to protect the reputation of its “true” cinnamon, either.

Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein (1636–1691) was the VOC administrator on India’s Malabar Coast when he started experimenting with cinnamon oil in the 1670s. He concluded that the oil, which he extracted from the roots of local cinnamon trees, was of better quality than oil from cinnamon trees on Sri Lanka. Van Rheede reported these results in his entry on cinnamon in volume 1 of the Hortus Indicus Malabaricus, the twelve-volume book that was produced by a team of local and European scholars, and supervised by Van Rheede himself.

Van Rheede’s assessment of cinnamon—in fact, the very publication of a multi-volume work about the flora of Malabar—infuriated the governor of Sri Lanka, Rijckloff van Goens, who had secured the cinnamon monopoly of Sri Lanka for the Dutch. Van Goens insisted that Van Rheede stop his medical experiments, claiming that the monopoly was at risk if the cinnamon trade was extended beyond the island of Sri Lanka. But Van Goens was not so much concerned about the therapeutic efficacy of cinnamon from either of the two regions. He was motivated by an imperial agenda and regarded the natural products of Sri Lanka as superior to anything similar in the region. The experiments of Van Rheede, who was his former protégé, threatened not so much the botanical quality of the product, or the commercial interests of the Dutch East India Company, but rather the central position of Sri Lanka in the Dutch colonial system and the position of Van Goens as the representative of that system.

Even when Sri Lanka still only produced cinnamon that grew in the wild, the Dutch harvested enough to supply an international market and were able to dictate the availability and price level throughout the world. The monopoly, whether defined in commercial or pharmaceutical terms, was not easily put at risk by efforts like Van Rheede’s. Those involved in the early modern cinnamon trade were motivated by various reasons to defend or undermine the central position of Sri Lankan cinnamon: botanical, medical, commercial, or imperial. These motives often overlapped. It is these kinds of interconnections that the Plant Humanities Initiative aims to uncover.


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