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Cinnamon –History of extra bark

Wednesday, 16 December, 2015, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
B Sasikumar
Cinnamon is a spice obtained from the inner bark of several trees from the genus Cinnamomum that is used in both sweet and savoury foods. Besides its use as a spice, the commodity is increasingly used in medicine to treat a variety of ailments ranging from diabetes, obesity to Parkinson’s disease.

The price of cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum) may not be attractive at present but the value of cinnamon is immense, historically. This hardy tree has played a significant role in shaping the socio- cultural life of Kerala, albeit by default! Annals of history reveal interesting indirect roles cinnamon played in abolishing slavery in Kerala, paving the way for an authentic and systematic land registration system and interestingly in the evolution of Malayalam language.

1. Abolition of Slavery
Though India is considered to be the secondary centre of origin of Cinnamomum verum, cinnamon cultivation on a plantation scale got a fillip in India with the introduction of cinnamon seedlings from Ceylon at the Randatharra Estate, Anjarakandy, Kannoor, in the year 1798 by Murdoch Brown, overseer of the estate of about 250 acre area.

In fact, consequent upon the guerrilla warfare of Pazhassi Raja when the supply routes of spices and other commodities were blocked, the Randatharra Estate was started by the British East India Company  to ensure steady flow of  spices and other agricultural produces. Brown, already at Thalasserry then, was appointed as the overseer or superintendent of the estate. He took initiatives in making the estate a profitable commercial farm and it was towards this end he introduced cinnamon, which was having good demand at that time and Ceylon was the major producer of the commodity.

However, Brown faced problems in running the farm as the local Thiyyars and Muslims were reluctant to work in the estate due to many reasons such as poor wages, continued threat of Pazhassi Raja’s guerrillas, wild animal attack etc. And the upper cast Nairs never considered it respectable to work as labourers in an estate though run by Britishers. This forced Brown to hire slaves from southern part of Malabar, Kochi and even Travancore with the prior permission from British East India Company. He sheltered the bonded labourers in the estate and utilised them maximum to run the big estate. And the estate turns to become a successful venture, gradually. It was during this time, that Thomas Harvey Baber took charge as the local Magistrate in the year 1811.

Baber, a very young man of lot of ambitions, made an inspection at the estate one day and found out about the slavery existing in the estate and the slaves included women and children too. He immediately reported the matter to the company headquarters and the company asked explanation from Brown. Brown, instead of toeing the line, questioned the authority and finding of Baber and filed a case in the local court. This lead to a series of litigation between Brown and Baber running for few years and ultimately the East India Company suspending Baber. Once sacked, Baber returned to England.  However, the company reinstated Baber back In Bombay Province after 2-3 years. Before his return to India, Baber made a detailed report of the slavery existing in Malabar and the pathetic  living conditions of the slaves. This was the authentic document British Parliament relayed upon for passing the Slavery Abolition Act in the year 1843! Thus cinnamon was indirectly responsible for abolition of slavery in British India.

2. Land Property Registration
It is another twist of history that cinnamon was also responsible for establishing an official land registration and mutation system in south India! Brown thought it prudent to get the 250 acre estate registered in government documents. And there was no other system for land property registration in Kerala during the time, though Veluthampi Dalava introduced a land ’Kandezhuthu’ system in Travancore prior to this period. Thus the first subregistrar office was opened at Anjarakandy to register the Randatharra Estate on February 1, 1865. This office is considered to be the great grandma of all sub- registrar offices in Kerala.

3. Malayalam Language and Literature
Cinnamon not only delighted the tongue of Malayalis  but also was instrumental in the development of  the mother tongue of Malayalis, the Malayalam language and literature.

Hermann Gundert (1814 – 1893), founder of Basal Mission at Thalasserry alongwith other mission functionaries were regular weekend visitors to Randatharra Estate. Brown and family, proficient in the local dialects and customs, were good hosts. The serene and calm atmosphere of the vast estate alongwith the company of a ‘local scholar’ like Brown would have definitely contributed positively to bring out the Malayalam grammar book, Malayalabhaasha Vyakaranam (1859) and the first Malayalam-English dictionary (1872), besides the work on Bible translations into Malayalam by Gundert. Cinnamon is thus in way involved in  the evolutionary history of Malayalam language.

The past is definitely chequered, but the present? The ‘incursion’ of Chinese cinnamon to India is making the production  of Indian cinnamon less lucrative now, sadly!

(The author is principal scientist and head, crop improvement and biotech dvn, Indian Institute of Spices Research, Kozhikode)

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