Although it was the Portuguese and the Dutch that had come to Sri Lanka for the cinnamon, Emperor Augustus already traded cinnamon in the first Century BC. Later when the Arabs ruled the trade in the Indian Ocean they tried to keep it a secret that they took cinnamon from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was famous for the excellent quality of cinnamon; hence it was a very expensive and highly wanted spice. Europeans use it in the production of confectionary, it is used for perfumes and care products and in South Asia cinnamon is largely used in cooking. During the British rule in the early years of the 19th Century the price of cinnamon dropped dramatically, due to the high coffee prices. It was more lucrative to start coffee plantations than cinnamon plantations. Cinnamon never experienced a revival.
The Dutch started to grow cinnamon on plantations around 1789. Earlier they had the idea that cinnamon could only be harvested in the wild, the jungles. However, they found a way to control the growth of cinnamon trees in large gardens. It started in Maradana, some 5 km outside Colombo Fort, then being Colombo town. Successful results led to rapid extensions of the garden westward and southward and thus creating vast plantations covering up till what is today’s crowded areas of Cinnamon Gardens, Bambalapitya, Slave Island and Kolpitiya.
The great achievements brought the Dutch to extend the cinnamon plantations to areas such as Negombo, Kalutara and Galle. As the Dutch were great canal builders, they constructed a network of canals to transport cinnamon and other spices to Colombo during the southwest monsoon when the sea was too rough. The canals still exist up till today. The longest canal, the Dutch Canal, connects the Kelani River in Colombo with the Puttalam Lagoon, about 100 km north of the capital. Originally the construction of the canal was started by the Portuguese, but the Dutch finished the job. The canal has recently been renovated between Negombo and Colombo and is now an important tourist attraction. Around Negombo visitors can also make smaller boat rides on the many canals and during the trip watch people doing cinnamon peeling.
Cinnamon is neither a fruit or a flower, nor a root of a plant or tree, but the inner bark of a branch of the cinnamon bush. Peeling a cinnamon stick is a highly skilled job and hard physical work, which is done by peelers. First the knots are being cut and the outer skin removed. The skin is rubbed and with a sharp knife, cuts are being made in the inner bark, so that it can be taken off from the wood. The bark immediately curls, so the hollow cinnamon pipes are then filled-in with waste matter inside, to create nicely even so called ‘quills’. The quills are being dried on special racks and made ready for sale and export. In several places in the western and south western part of the country you can watch the process of cinnamon peeling. Mostly a stop is included at a peeling shed during a boat ride on one of the rivers or canals.
There are nine different qualities of cinnamon. The best ones are Alban and C5 sp; those are the export qualities, which you will find in shops in developed countries.