History of Spices in Sri Lanka – by E F Mac Intosh

The History of Sri Lanka and the History of Spice are interwoven to the extent that it leaves one to wonder whether Sri Lanka was discovered because of spice, or whether Spice was discovered because of Sri Lanka. Whatever the answer, historians generally agree that Sri Lanka is the cradle of the ancient spice trade. And with regard to cinnamon, which originated in Sri Lanka, it is certainly the predominant cradle.

Famous historian and author, John Keay, mentions Sri Lanka in the opening paragraph of “The Spice Route – a history” wherein he describes the “clashing aromas” of a spice market in Hambantota as “rasping the sinuses with the olfactory equivalent of an aural assault of massed brass bands attuning their instruments”. The Arab traders must have had an even keener olfactory sense than Mr Keay, for they arrived in Galle on the Southern coast of Sri Lanka in the 7th century AD. The purpose of their expedition was to establish a trading post dedicated primarily to spices, gems, and ivory. Later many of these traders migrated to Jaffna and established another flourishing port on the northern coast of the Island. It is said that all of the Moorish Muslims who live in Sri Lanka today are descendants of those early spice traders.

Archaeology also alludes to an Arabic spice trade with Sri Lanka long before the 7th century. Cinnamon, which is native to Sri Lanka, has been found in archaeological digs in Egypt and it is believed that the cherished spice was used as an embalming agent more than two thousand years ago. There is also Biblical reference (Proverbs 7, 16 – 19) of cinnamon being used as fragrance in Jerusalem sometime during the 3rd or 4th millennia BC.

Historian Keay also wrote in colourful detail about the expeditions of Chinese explorer Cheng-ho, apparently a Muslim naval commander of great renown, who was a eunuch. Cheng-ho served as Commander of a fleet of three hundred and seventeen ships with twenty eight thousand men. They made several voyages from the Fujan Province of China, sailing to Sri Lanka by way of Vietnam and Java. The expeditions began in 1409 and continued until 1420, all during the reign of Ming Dynasty Emperor Yung Lo. Although the spice trade may not have been the only purpose of Cheng-ho’s expeditions, Keay mentioned that silks and porcelains were traded for gems and spices.

Sri Lankan spice has been available in Europe for centuries, albeit in conservative quantities and extremely expensive; making it out of reach of most of the commoners. The spice trade was monopolised by the Arabic and North African traders who demanded as much as seven fattened oxen for a pound of the exotic commodity; as a matter of fact a pound of spice was considered more valuable than a pound of gold.
There is an old adage that “the last straw broke the camel’s back” and in reference to the Arabic spice caravans it was the great Master Mariners of Europe who provided that last straw.

By the 1400’s the European mariners had convinced their Royal Masters that flotillas could replace camels, and unbeknown to the ruthless traders, the mariners began to hone their knowledge of sextant navigation. As a result, spices would ultimately be transported by sea from the Indies to Europe, and the Arab middlemen would ultimately be rendered obsolete.

It was probably the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama in 1498 (and on into the early 16th century) who is most credited with discovering a sea route from the Indies back to Europe; a sea route that also connected the fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia and the Port of Galle in Sri Lanka. Vasco de Gama’s success as an explorer led to the Portuguese invasion of Sri Lanka in 1536; the invasion later influenced a treaty between Portugal and Sri Lanka that included a tribute of 110,000 pounds of cinnamon paid each year to Portugal by the Sinhalese King.

One hundred years later the Dutch captured Sri Lanka and are said to be the first settlers to systematically cultivate cinnamon, a practice that is apparently still in use today. The Dutch eventually granted autonomy to parts of Sri Lanka but not before securing a monopoly of the precious spice trade. By 1796 the Dutch ceded any control they had in Sri Lanka to the British and the British colonised the Island in 1802.

During British rule, coffee, and later tea plantations, were introduced particularly in the higher elevation areas of Sri Lanka, most notably the Kandy area. There was a flourishing coffee industry until the 1870’s when blight destroyed the entire coffee crop. The British thereafter lost interest in coffee cultivation and turned their agricultural attention to tea plantations.

By the late 1800’s there was a flourishing tea industry on the Island which has been sustained till the present day. The thriving tea industry has perhaps been a detriment to the spice industry, but whatever the reason it was during British rule that the spice industry in Sri Lanka began to lose its prominence.

Sri Lanka gained independence from Britain in 1948, but the spice industry never managed to recover. Post independence, there was a civil war raging in Sri Lanka between the minority Tamil’s and the majority Sinhalese. During the war much of Sri Lanka’s industry was jeopardised, including and perhaps more particularly, the agricultural industry; and commerce in general was reduced to a trickle.

However the war ended in about 2010 and areas of the country that were inaccessible have become accessible to Sri Lankans and foreigners alike. Industries are growing, and commerce is on an upswing. The present government has done a credible job in providing policy and impetus to help revitalise many of the war-torn industries, and in steering the country toward fiscal stability. Tea production is an example of a Sri Lankan industry that is “second to none” in the world, and the government has prudently invested heavily in the tea industry.

A common comment is that the spice industry could also be revitalised, perhaps surpassing the productivity of tea, however the government is criticised for paying only rudimentary notice to the spice industry, despite the fact that 80% of spice cultivation is attributed to small farmers.

Despite the near demise of the spice industry in Sri Lanka, the prominence and glory of bygone days is remembered with worldwide recognition as an exotic destination famous for exquisite spices. Many international businessmen who travel to Sri Lanka are reminded by their wives and paramours “don’t forget to bring back spices”. Such requests remind us of the exoticism of Sri Lankan spice that continues even after so many centuries have passed.

Gourmand visitors to Sri Lanka, particularly the uninitiated in ultra-pungent cuisine, should be wary when indulging in Sinhalese and Tamil specialties. The generous mixture of “exquisite” spices which is an inherent part of the Island’s dining tradition, prudently requires the accompaniment of a likewise generous supply of drinking water, lest one should experience an “oral assault” equivalent the “aural assault” that John Keay described in the Hambantota spice market.