cinnamon trade under portuguese and dutch.



In the 16th century, cinnamon, a plant indigenous to Sri Lanka, grew wild over an extensive area along the sea coast, starting from south of the Deduru Oya near Chilaw and extending along a strip of territory up to about Matara. Pethiyagoda notes that the best cinnamon came from the south west, around Negombo, Colombo, Kalutara and Galle. Cinnamon grown in the Udarata kingdom was more pungent and biting. Ten varieties of cinnamon were identified, rasse kurundu, naikurundu, capuru kurundu, cahatte, saevel, dawul, nica, caturu, mal, and tanpat kurundu.

Abeyasinghe notes that the Sinhala king had been trading in cinnamon long before Sri Lanka came under foreign occupation. Sri Lanka’s cinnamon, considered the world’s finest, went to European markets at a high price. There was open trade in cinnamon. The Portuguese were aware that Sri Lanka was an important source for fine cinnamon, elephants and gems. King Manuel of Portugal (1495-1521) had instructed Dom Francisco Almeida, who was going out as the first Viceroy of the Portuguese possessions in India, to send a mission to Sri Lanka.

For the Sinhala king, areca and elephants ranked above cinnamon in export value. Land was the chief source of royal revenue. For the Portuguese and Dutch however, cinnamon was all-important. It was their main export and it went to Lisbon via Cochin and Goa. From Lisbon it went to Antwerp for distribution to Europe. CR de Silva says Portuguese established the first state monopoly of overseas trade in cinnamon. The Portuguese were satisfied with the cinnamon available in the Kotte kingdom. The trade was initially in private hands but in 1615, it became a royal monopoly. The Portuguese then increased cinnamon collection. Each cinnamon peeler had to provide a specified quantity of cinnamon. The various cinnamon workers, such as collectors and peelers, were tightly organized. Welitara and Kosgoda were specially reserved for the Chaliyas, who were obliged to collect cinnamon. According to CR de Silva Batgam and Karawe were made to peel cinnamon. Cinnamon was so important than during the 1617 rebellion, when soldiers were sent from Goa, one set were sent to Galle to look after the cinnamon areas.

When the Dutch took over from the Portuguese, the cinnamon trade came under the control of the Dutch East Indies Company. This company demanded high volumes of cinnamon. The Dutch in Sri Lanka had to provide ten thousand bales of cinnamon every year. The profits that were made from these exports were not credited to the Dutch administration in Sri Lanka. They were entered directly into the company’s account at its headquarters in Batavia, (Jakarta) and the money went direct to Holland. This created a problem for the Dutch in Sri Lanka, because the revenue that remained was not sufficient to cover the expenses of their administration. The situation in Holland was no better. The company’s expenditure always exceeded income and there was a recurring budget deficit. Profits from selling the cinnamon in Europe were used to clear this deficit and that reduced the company’s dividends.

The cinnamon available in the villages and jungles under the Dutch was insufficient. It had to be supplemented by cinnamon from Udarata. Peelers would be sent in with the permission of the Udarata king to peel the cinnamon growing wild in his kingdom. Some of the best cinnamon came from the Pitigal and Katugampola korales of the Udarata. From 1679 peelers were allowed to take cinnamon from Pitigal korale. Since the Udarata was an important source of cinnamon, from the time of governor Pyl (1680-92) the Dutch sent an embassy annually to the Udarata king, with presents, asking permission for the peelers to enter the Udarata kingdom.

The Dutch tried to control cinnamon production through several rigorous measures. They prohibited the destruction of cinnamon trees, unauthorized peeling of its bark, private trading and transport of cinnamon. These became offences punishable with death. In 1757, the Dutch decided to claim as much land as possible for cinnamon cultivation. The company got first preference when any land suitable for cinnamon was put up for sale. Rajakariya lands for which claims could not be proved reverted to the Dutch. Rajakariya lands, for which title could be proved, would be taken back on the death of the current holder, if suitable for cinnamon. The heirs would be given land unsuitable for cinnamon. In Colombo where cinnamon could grow almost anywhere, no service tenure or other holdings were safe. These measures led to widespread rebellion in 1758 and the Dutch had to discontinue them.

The Dutch initially thought that cinnamon could not be cultivated. It only germinated in the wild. Eventually, in their desperation to increase cinnamon production, the Dutch decided to establish cinnamon plantations. The first experimental plantation was at Maradana in 1769. Mistakes were made initially in the type of ground used and often the distance between the trees/bushes was too small; as a result of which the trees/bushes stood in each others way. In a short time there were cinnamon plantations everywhere. Company servants and local chiefs planted cinnamon and sold the gardens to the company. Many planted cinnamon in their private gardens and had these peeled by the peelers. Cinnamon production in private holdings grew by leaps and bounds by the 1780s. The Dutch could now do without the Udarata cinnamon. But these plantations needed constant maintenance to prevent them from being overgrown. Further, they needed additional labor to peel the cinnamon. There was also illicit trade in cinnamon. The Dutch could not prevent this. Batavia wrote that the expense for these plantations was too much and to stop any further expansion in plantations.

K.M. de Silva has pointed out that the natives of Sri Lanka did not benefit from the export of their cinnamon. The profits went to the Portuguese and Dutch. The cinnamon was not sold to incoming traders and the natives did not get anything. Instead, the native inhabitants, specially the cinnamon peelers, were made to work like bonded labour. Arasaratnam declared that the cinnamon trade of the Dutch was a classic case of the colonial exploitation of a cash crop, without the country of origin seeing any of the benefits of its sale.

The writings of T.B.H. Abeyasinghe, S. Arasaratnam, C.R. Boxer, C.R .de Silva, K.M. de Silva, D.A. Kotelawele, R. Pethiyagoda, P.E. Pieris, A. Schrikker, and G.V.P. Somaratne were used for this essay.

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