The Egyptian Galleries at the Royal Ontario Museum feature a full-scale cast of the wall paintings in the temple of Deir el-Bahri in Western Thebes. These paintings are the most important source of information about Queen Hatshepsut’s famous expedition to Punt during the period of her reign from 1503 to 1482 B.C.E. Located somewhere in north-eastern Africa, in the neighbourhood of present-day Eritrea, southern Sudan or Somalia, and perhaps even including southern Arabia, Punt was known to the ancient Egyptians as the “The Divine Land” because it provided an inexhaustible supply of frankincense and myrrh for use as incense in their holy temples. In the minds of the Egyptians, Punt was a distant and enchanted place of incense trees, fabulous beasts and wonderful riches. 9
Among the Punt murals are images of men carrying various kinds of goods to be loaded onto vessels for the return journey to Egypt (colour plate 25).
Plate 25. Section of a cast of the Deir el-Bahri wall paintings. ROM
Below these figures is a hieroglyphic inscription (fig. 55) which
James Henry Brested has translated as follows:
Figure 55. Detail of the Deir el-Bahri inscription. ROM
The loading of the ships very heavily with marvels of the country of Punt; all goodly fragrant woods of The Divine Land, heaps of myrrh-resin, with fresh myrrh trees, with ebony and pure ivory, with green gold of Emu, with cinnamon wood, khesyt wood, with ihmut-incense, sonter-incense, eye-cosmetic, with apes, monkeys, dogs, and with skins of the southern panther, with natives and their children. Never was brought the like of this for any king who has been since the beginning. (Breasted, 1962, 109, emphasis added)
If this translation is correct, and the hieroglyph ti-sps does, in fact, stand for cinnamon wood, then it is of the utmost importance (fig. 56).
Figure 56. The hieroglyph for ti-sps
This hieroglyph is made up of three elements: the sign for a pestle, indicating ‘grinding,’ a picture of a bearded man seated and holding a fly whisk, which means ‘noble’ or ‘honourable,’ and the sign for ‘branch’ or ‘wood,’ thus indicating something (a) which comes from a branch of wood, (b) that is ground up, and (c) that is noble or precious (von Deines, 1959, 550-551; Nicolson, 2000, 405). However, scholars disagree about the meaning of this hieroglyph. If it does indeed mean cinnamon, then this would be the earliest surviving written evidence that cinnamon was imported, together with other fragrant substances from the land of Punt into the heartland of the Egyptian empire during the Eighteenth dynasty. “There is no record from Pharonic Egypt of cinnamon having been taken internally for any purpose (i.e., as medicine). But there are prescriptions for cinnamon unguents, where the characteristic scent and the antiseptic qualities would be appreciated” (Manniche, 1989, 89).
Cinnamon is mentioned in pre-Exilic Hebrew texts of approximately the seventh century B.C.E., and Theophrastus (372–288 B.C.E.), the so-called father of botany, listed it among his aromata or substances which had a fragrant scent. By the fourth century B.C.E, cinnamon was a well-known commodity in the Mediterranean world, and during the Roman period in Egypt it was an essential ingredient in embalming (Loewe, 1971, 174). Yet cinnamon grew only in south-eastern Asia, and “no species of cinnamon, it is agreed on the highest botanical authority, is indigenous to Africa or was commercially cultivated there at any time” (Miller, 1969, 156). So the question is, how on earth did cinnamon get to Africa from Asia so long ago?
As we have seen, the bulk of the trade in spices and silks between China and India was carried in the great ships of the Nanyue and Kunlun peoples. There was, however, a third major group of maritime traders who plied the waters of the South China Sea, and these were the Indonesians.
The Periplus, in examining the foreign craft on the south-east coast of India,mentions ‘very large vessels made of single logs bound together, called sangarra.’ It was in these that the Polynesians also sailed eastwards as far afield as Hawaii (a corruption of ‘Java’), Easter Island, and New Zealand,
distances of over 4,000 miles. In the Pacific there were intermediate islands. In the Indian Ocean the voyage was over a stretch of virtually open sea, or some 4,500 miles. (Miller, 1969, 158)
We know that in ancient times the Indonesians had a monopoly on the trade in cultivated Chinese cinnamon bark and wood, partly because these were not shipped via the Maritime Silk Route from China to India. But how did the Indonesians get control of this particular spice trade? What did they offer in exchange for the cinnamon? How was their role as middlemen in the cinnamon trade kept secret for thousands of years? And finally, what on earth does cinnamon have to do with the mythic Chinese unicorn? These are some of the questions that may be answered by the extraordinary tale of an ancient maritime connection between south China and the African island of Madagascar—the story of The Cinnamon Route.
Let us begin by examining the origins of cinnamon. Wild cinnamon trees first appeared in south-eastern Asia: in the eastern Himalayas, Assam and northern Vietnam. From there cinnamon was brought at an early date to be widely cultivated, predominantly for its wood and bark, in the area which later became known as southern China. A modern experiment has shown that the cinnamon bark from the Eastern Himalayas is substantially identical to Chinese cinnamon bark (Miller, 1969, 75). The Chinese call their cultivated cinnamon gui (fig. 57).
Figure 57. Modern Chinese character gui (cultivated
However, this character does not have any special ancient meaning. It is simply a compound of “tree” plus a pronunciation indicator, and it does not appear in Chinese literature until the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. Therefore, it is likely that the word gui was imported from northern Vietnam or Assam along with the original wild cinnamon. The Chinese word for cinnamon branch is guizhi. In the poems of the Chuci, this term is used, along with guishu (a cinnamon tree), guizhou (a boat made of cinnamon wood), and guizhao (an oar made of cinnamon wood). However, the Chinese use gui as an all-inclusive term for the products of the cultivated cinnamon tree.
From ancient times gui was appreciated for its food flavouring and medicinal properties, which essentially mean the same thing, since in China, food is medicine. As a hot or heating remedy it was used to eliminate cold influences, particularly lung and liver diseases and malarial fevers and chills. It was especially valued as a catalyst to activate other ingredients in compound medicines. The Chinese first became interested in writing about the medicinal properties of many substances during the third century B.C.E. This was part and parcel of the growing interest in the Search for the Elixir of Immortality. Many Chinese and Western writers continue to err in their early dating of ancient medical texts such as the Huangdi Nei Jing (Canon of Medicine), one of the first great medical works in China. However, it should be noted that none of these texts, including the Huangdi Nei Jing, was written before the Warring States period or the early Han Dynasty (Xie and Huang, 1984, 342-391).
The botanical name for the cultivated cinnamon bark of southern China is Cinnamomum cassia auct. (= Cinnamomum aromaticum Nees), family Lauraceae.10 The most likely etymological source for the term “cassia” is that it derives from the Khasi people who exported wild cinnamon from the hills of northern Assam. Of the wild Himalayan varieties, the Cinnamon tamala Nees from Sikkim was considered to produce the best cinnamon leaves which were called tej patra. These were known throughout India as tamalapatra, which was later modified by the Greeks, who regarded the initial ta as the definite article, to malabathrum. Malabathrum was prepared in balls of large, medium and small leaves for the Indian market and exported westward in great quantities along with pepper (Miller, 1969, 74-76).
Gui was the principal spice of the Lingnan area of China, south of the Chang Jiang. So prevalent was its cultivation there, that when Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, conquered the Nanyue Kingdom in 216 B.C.E., he named this lovely region Guilin, which means ‘Cinnamon Forest’ (colour plate 26).
Plate 26. Guilin (Cinnamon Forest)
By this time the Chinese had come to believe that if you ate gui for a long time you would become immortal. They also believed that if you ate too much at a time you would get a nosebleed! Rice wine flavoured with cinnamon is mentioned in several poems in the Chuci as a drink fit for the gods.
In my cloud-coat and my skirt of the rainbow,
Grasping my bow I soar high up in the sky.
I aim my long arrow and shoot the Wolf of Heaven;
I seize the Dipper to ladle cinnamon wine.
(Translation by Hawkes, 1985, Dong jun, 113)
From the god’s jewelled mat with treasures laden
Take up the fragrant flower-offerings,
The meats cooked in melilotus, served on orchid mats,
And libations of cinnamon wine and pepper sauces!
(Translation by Hawkes, 1985, Dong huang tai yi, 102)
Fragrant beams of gui wood were also used for making houses and boats:
Lady of the lovely eyes and the winning smile?
Skimming the water in my cassia boat,
I bid the Yuan and Xiang still their waves
And the Great River make its stream flow softly.
(Translation by Hawkes, 1985, Xiang jun, 106)
In these lovely poems, which date from the Warring States period, the Chinese characters that Hawkes translates alternately as “cinnamon” or “cassia” are all simply forms of the character gui.
Eventually, gui was exported from south China to Java, whose inhabitants then discovered that cinnamon trees grew wild on their own island. As a result, they cultivated and exported it, together with the Chinese gui, giving it the Malayan name of Kayu manis which literally means ‘sweet wood.’ Kayu manis is assumed to be the origin of the English word “cinnamon.” The botanical cinnamon of today, C. zeylanicum Nees, does not appear to have been cultivated in either India or Sri Lanka during Roman times (Miller, 1969, 75). In fact, even as late as the sixteenth century in Sri Lanka, cinnamon exports were small in terms of both volume and value, and the spice itself was not cultivated but simply collected from trees that grew wild in the jungle (De Silva, 1996).
From ancient times the overseas trade in Chinese gui bark and wood was controlled by the Indonesians, for the simple reason that they had something even more precious to offer in exchange. These were the dried unopened flower buds of a particular type of myrtle tree (Eugenia caryophyllata Thunb (= Syzygium aromaticum (L.) Merr. & L. M. Perry), family Myrataceae, which the Chinese call dingxiang (‘tiny thing which makes a good smell’). Known in English as “cloves,” this spice was much in demand by the Chinese for many reasons. Medically, it was used to cure a wide variety of diseases and was effective as a local anaesthetic for toothache (“oil of cloves”) and as an antiseptic to kill insects and germs, particularly those which caused mouth odour. It was also added as a spice to food, and used to produce oil for scents and perfumes.
However, the fact that dingxiang was native only to five small islands which lie off the western coast of Halmahera in the Molucca Sea presented something of a problem, since Ternate, the northernmost of these islands, is 1700 miles as the crow flies from the southern Chinese port of Guangzhou (map 10)..
Map 10. Indonesia and South-East Asia
Only the Indonesians had the knowledge and expertise to expedite this trade, for they were the great long-distance runners of the sea. In fact, there is now undisputed biological evidence to prove the existence of transoceanic voyages between Asia and the Americas in ancient times, including the introduction of coca (Erythroxylon sp.) from South America into Egypt as early as 1000 B.C.E. (Sorenson and Johannesssen, 2006).
The Indonesians, incredible as it may seem, packed the gui from south China in their huge ocean-going sangarra (outrigger canoes), and making use of the monsoon winds, sailed 4,500 miles directly across the southern Indian Ocean to the island of Madagascar off the south-eastern coast of Africa (map 11).
Map 11. The Cinnamon Route
From Madagascar the spice reached the important entrepot of Rhapta, on the coast of present-day Somalia, and from there it was transshipped northward up the Red Sea by southern Arabian merchants from Muza in Yemen, who controlled the coastal trade in cinnamon. This Arab monopoly was the main reason why the true source of Chinese gui remained hidden for so long. For, according to Herodotus (c. 484 – c.424 B.C.E.), the Arabs alleged that the sources of cinnamon were to be found among the limestone crags of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and the swamps of the Sudd (Sudan) (Miller, 1969, viii). There is little doubt that it was these same Arab middlemen who forbade the shipment of any coconuts or coconut products with the gui, as this might have revealed the route by which Chinese cinnamon had come to Africa (Miller, 1969, 163). The theory that cinnamon may also have been transported north from Somalia overland to Juba in southern Sudan, Ethiopia, and the Nile Valley, is given weight by these strange stories, so prevalent in Western antiquity, suggesting an African origin for this precious spice.
The first hint as to the mysterious Asian origins of cinnamon appeared in the writings of Pliny the Elder (23/24–79 C.E.). According to Pliny, the Ethiopians had bought it from their neighbours, who in turn had purchased it from others, who
bring it over vast seas on rafts which have no rudders to steer them or oars to push or pull them or sails or other aids to navigation; but instead only the spirit of man and human courage. What is more, they put out to sea in winter, around the time of the winter solstice, when the east winds are blowing their hardest. These winds drive them on a straight course, and from gulf to gulf. Now cinnamon is the chief object of their journey, and they say that these merchant-sailors take almost five years before
they return, and that many perish. In exchange they carry back with them glassware and bronze ware, clothing, brooches, armlets, and necklaces. And that trade depends chiefly on women’s fidelity to fashion. (Pliny, as quoted in Miller, 1969, 156)
In the West, during the period following Pliny, in other words, from the middle of the first century to the beginning of the seventh C.E., the use of spices in all their forms became increasingly widespread. Yet no one else pursued Pliny’s line of inquiry, and the true source of gui remained hidden for a long time to come.