History of Ceylon Spices
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 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.
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 monopolized 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.
In 1640, 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 colonized 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. The prominence and glory of bygone days is still 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.