Nearly 2,500 years ago, Arab traders told stories of the ferocious cinnamon bird, or cinnamologus. This large bird made its nest from delicate cinnamon sticks, the traders said. One way to get the cinnamon was to bait the cinnamologus with large chunks of meat. The birds would fly down from their nests, snatch up the meat, and fly back. The precarious cinnamon nests would collapse when the bird returned weighted with its catch. Then quick-witted traders could gather up the fallen cinnamon and take it to market.
As enticing as the tale is, the fabled cinnamologus never existed. The story was most likely invented to ward off curious competitors from attempting to seek out the source of the spice. For many years, the ancient Greeks and Romans were fooled.
It might seem odd that something as seemingly inconsequential as a spice – a food flavouring or something to burn to add aroma to the air – would need such jealous guarding with elaborate tall tales.
But the world’s demand for spices grew throughout the Roman era and into the medieval period, defining economies from India to Europe. This demand gave rise to some of the first truly international trade routes and shaped the structure of the world economy in a way that can still be felt today. Those who controlled the spices could divert the flow of wealth around the world.
But the secret of the origins of spices such as cinnamon could only be kept for so long. In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama made the first sea voyage from Europe to India, via the southernmost tip of Africa. The mission was driven by a desire to find a direct route to the places where spices were plentiful and cheap, cutting out the middlemen. His arrival on India’s Malabar Coast, the heart of the spice trade, marked the start of direct trading between Europe and South East Asia.
Da Gama’s voyage, and that of his country, was a heavy blow to the Arab traders. As well as their financial loss, da Gama maintained a bloody attack on Arab merchants at sea in order to establish and defend the new spice route from India to Europe.