In memory of Pierre Poivre (August 23, 1719 - January 6, 1786) | 24 August 2019
In 1772, Seychelles gained cinnamon, a spice which until then had been the most guarded secret of the Indian Ocean. On behalf of the National Museum of History, Tony Mathiot marks the 300th Anniversary of the birth of the man who gave this to us…
He grew up in Lyon where he spent most of his childhood in his father’s shop. At 16 years he joined the Missionnaries of St Joseph, an order of Jansenist convictions founded by a 17th century surgeon Jacques Crenet (1603-1666) to recruit missionaries for oriental countries. At twenty, he joined the Societé des Mission Etrangères de Paris, founded in 1663 by Mgr. Francis Pallu. His keenness for learning and extroverted disposition made him an eligible candidate to disseminate the doctrines of the Roman Catholic abroad. So in January 1741, the young vivacious seminarian travelled to Macao which was then ruled by Manchus in the Ta Ch’ing Dynasty. However, Pierre Poivre was soon to be in a troublesome state of affairs. Since 1722 with the death of k’ang-Hi, Christianism was in a precarious situation that saw the expulsion of priests. Emperor Yung-Tcheng was hostile to foreign missionaries. When he arrived at Canton in the South of China, Poivre was wrongfully imprisoned, a victim of gross iniquity. It was months later in early 1745 that he was freed and decided to return to France. During the journey home his boat, the Dauphin, was attacked by two English ships – Deptford and Preston – and in the ensuing battle, his right arm was so badly injured that it had to be amputated later.
Upon landing at Bavaria (Djakarta) he was fascinated by the spices that he found there. The Dutch East India Company had been occupying the island since the 1620s and in 1656, Sri Lanka, another source of cinnamon, also became a Dutch possession. Consequently, it was not surprising that the Dutch had a monopoly on spices. Pierre Poivre’s passion for botany was ignited. He went to Pondicherry where the French East India Company had established headquarters the year before where he made the acquaintance of Bertrand-François Mahé de La Bourdonnais (1699-1753), a former governor of Ile de France who had just left his post.
Together, they travelled to Ile de France where they arrived on December 10, 1746. By then, Pierre Poivre, who was 26 years old, had given up any hope of becoming a missionary.
During the ensuing years, he made voyages to Vietnam and the Philippines and brought back various plants to Ile de France. In 1756, he returned to France where he acquired a property in Lyon with the idea of retirement. To his surprise, he was called upon by Louis XV (1710-1774) to occupy the newly-created post of Intendant of Ile de France and Bourbon. He was responsible for Civil Administration and the appointment of officers whereas Governor Jean-Daniel Dumas (1721-1794) and later Governor Francois Julien du Dresnay Desroches (1719-1786) were invested with power to have command over military matters. The Constitution of 1767 gave the Governor and the Intendant joint responsibility over financial matters.
In 1771, in brazen defiance of the death sentence, he personally undertook a couple of expeditions to the Dutch East Indies and managed to smuggle out samples of spices plants and most important of all, cinnamon seedlings which he brought back to Mauritius where he had already created the Jardins des Pamplemousses, with the help of the Naturalist Philibert Commerson (1727-1773). He was resolutely committed to growing spices in Seychelles. Upon learning that on Mahé, the salubrious climate and the soil composition were propitious for a spice garden, he dispatched his most trusted agent, Antoine Gillot, accompanied by forty workers and a small contingent of slaves. The spice garden Gillot created was situated at Anse Royale in the South of Mahé. It was called Jardin du Roi, the king being of course Louis XV. It was 1772, sixteen years after the Seychelles had been taken possession of by the French. Cloves, nutmegs pepper and cinnamon grew and flourished for some time until one day in May 1780 when the spice garden was deliberately destroyed by a monumental act of blunder.
Pierre Poivre left Ile de France on August 23, 1772 (on his 53rd birthday). He died on January 6, 1786, in the town of Hyères in Southeastern France.
CINNAMON – The scent of the Seychelles
It’s warm and spicy. It’s sweet and fragrant. It’s aromatic. It’s common, it’s everywhere. It’s cinnamon!
Take a leaf, crush it in your hand and inhale… one of the oldest fragrances on earth! Surely, it must have been among the favourite luxuries of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt,before she committed suicide in 30 B.C. Indeed cinnamon was being used for medicinal purposes as far back as 356 BC, long before Alexander The Great conquered Egypt. Together with ginger, cloves and pepper, cinnamon is among the earliest known spices on earth. The story of how it was taken from its original place, Sri Lanka, and brought to the shores of Seychelles where it now grows in rampant profusion and abundance is steeped in the political intrigues of colonialist rivalries, the shenanigans of imperial powers and the depravity and barbarity of slavery.
Once upon a time spice was a rare and precious commodity. The aristocratic class of Venice, for example, would spend inordinate sums of money on a few ounces of cloves or cardamom. In medieval Europe, cinnamon was a staple ingredient, along with ginger, and was used to flavour meat and fruit which were invariably prepared in a single cauldron.
Spices were consumed in huge quantities by the upper crust of European society who used it to season and flavour cured meat which began to spoil during the winter. The excess or moderation with which a host offered spices to his guests was an indication of his social rank or wealth. Most of the spices were brought to Europe from India and the Moluccas (formerly Spice Islands, an island group of Indonesia) by Arab merchants travelling in companies known as caravans. The “spice trade route” was from India to the Persian Gulf, the spices being taken in caravels across the Arabian Sea. They were then carried by the caravans across the vast expanse of the Middle East, passing through Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya eventually arriving to the Mediterranean or the Black sea, and from there into the countries of Europe. The long and arduous journey sometimes took as long as two years and this naturally helped to make the spices very costly.
Nevertheless, the fascination for spices was so overwhelming that the gentry of Vienna would not scruple or hesitate to splurge a fortune on nutmegs, cloves or cinnamon. People were intrigued by the exquisite taste that these “exotic substances” gave to their dishes but had no knowledge of the far away places and countries where they came from. The Arab merchants would not dare divulge the sources of their precious commodities lest potential rivals outmanoeuver them in the lucrative spice trade. In the thirteenth century, there were dozens of Moslem Arab-Persian trading colonies established all along the East-African coast for the transactions of gold, palm oil, slaves and of course spices.
As European demand for spices soared and prices escalated, curiosity fermented among explorers. True enough, finding cinnamon was the main goal of maritime exploration in the 15th and 16th centuries and most of the voyages were carried out in an attempt to find a way by sea from Europe to the East Indies. In 1488, the Portuguese navigator, Bartholomew Diaz, made a voyage of discovery across Africa’s Cape of Good Hope which opened the “Spice route” to the East Indies. A decade later, another intrepid Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, reached India by sea. And lo and behold, there lying off the South Eastern coast of India was the cradle of cinnamon zeylanicum…yes cinnamon,the world’s most coveted spice! The country was Ceylon. (Now Sri Lanka) and it abounded in Kurudu (the Sinhalese word for cinnamon). Desperate to control and monopolise the spice industry, the Portuguese went to nefarious extremes as it was then characteristic of the modus operandi of colonialism. They enslaved the indigenous Veddas, sank Arab dhows and hanged their European competitors and opponents. The footholds they established in India and Africa (Damao, Goa, Angola and Mozambique) helped Portugal to conquer the spice trade and become a world power for over a century.
Because of its important value both as a spice and herbal medicine, it is not surprising that cinnamon became one of the most-sought after commodities of the 16th century.
As they proceeded to claim and acquire territories and nations across the world for their respective empires, Dutch, French and English merchants battled and struggled with the Portuguese and with one another over the possession of the spice lands namely Ceylon and the Moluccas (in the Southern Philipines). In 1658, after years of internecine conflicts, the Dutch drove the Portuguese out of Ceylon and gained control of the cinnamon industry. The Portuguese also ceded the sovereignty of Indonesia to the Dutch who, for the ensuing decades, luxuriated in the triumph of becoming Europe’s most important trade power with the tyranny they exerted over their jealous competitors. The death penalty was imposed on clandestine importers of spices from the Dutch East Indies.The Dutch had no reason to envisage that one day, in 1796, they would have to surrender their golcondas to the encroaching tentacles of the British East India Company, the supreme organ of British Imperialism. In 1771, sixteen years after the Seychelles islands had been taken possession of by the French, the Intendant of Ile de France and Bourbon, Pierre Poivre (1719-1786), a redoubtable figure in the history of Seychelles, embarked on a risky and audacious venture. In retrospect, it was one of the most dangerous and daring schemes of the 18th century. To break the Dutch monopoly on cinnamon! He was a strong-willed naturalist and is fondly remembered as the creator of the Pamplemousses Gardens in Mauritius.His ambition was to duplicate the exploits of the Dutch in the Indian Ocean where the trade of spices was a primary source of colonial wealth.
At the risk of the death sentence, he personally undertook a couple of expeditions to the Dutch East Indies and managed to smuggle out samples of spice plants, and most important of all cinnamon seedlings, which he brought back to Mauritius. Upon learning that on Mahé the salubrious climate and the soil composition were propitious for a spice garden, he dispatched his most trusted agent, Antoine Gillot, accompanied by forty workers and a small contingent of slaves. The spice garden Gillot created was situated at Anse Royale. It was called “Jardin Du Roi”…the king being of course Louis XV! There, cloves, nutmegs, pepper, and cinnamon grew and flourished for some time until May 1780 when it was destroyed by a monumental act of blunder. The Commandant of Seychelles, Charles Routier de Romainville, mistook an approaching French ship for an English one and ordered that the valuable spice garden be burnt completely to prevent the enemy from acquiring the precious spices if the English succeeded in capturing the island. The Dutch must have gloated over the preposterous calamity! The conflagration destroyed the entire spice garden but as good luck would have it, mynah birds had already propagated the seeds of the cinnamon in the hills of Mahé where soon after, cinnamon saplings became part of the natural scrubland vegetation of the entire island.
Cinnamon is from a tropical evergreen tree of the laurel family growing up to 7m (56ft) in its wild state. The bark is smooth, yellowish and aromatic like the leaves. Cinnamon quills are strips of dried bark that have been curled into rolls. Cinnamon is extracted from the leaves and black fruits by distillation. The chief constituent of cinnamon oil is cinnamic aldehyde which possesses anesthetic properties and is used for medicinal purposes such as for toothache and inflammation of the mucus membrane. Indeed, the medicinal effects of cinnamon oil are very powerful and there are many uses for it as carminative, astringent, stimulant and antiseptic. Cinnamon also contains eugenol, metholeugenol and sucrose and are widely used as ingredients in food manufacturing, confectionery and pharmaceuticals. Yes, no wonder……….
At the end of the 19th century, the coconut and the vanilla industries provided the Seychelles with sufficient revenues to sustain a growing population of 18,000. However during the late decade of the 20th century when prices of vanilla collapsed on the world market due to the creation of vanillin, synthetic vanilla flavour, Seychelles decided to capitalise on the European demand for cinnamon. In 1908, a cargo of 740,123 kilos of cinnamon at R50,166 was exported abroad with most of it going to Germany. By 1921 with a population of just above 25,000. Seychelles had 67 cinnamon leaf oil distilleries and all of the Crown lands on Mahé and Praslin were leased for cinnamon cultivation, totalling over 25,000 acres. Leaves collected by workers on a daily quota were 50 kilos for men and 40 kilos for women. The price paid by a proprietor to collectors of leaves from lands owned by himself was R4.00 per ton.
A tree of 1ft in diameter would normally produce around 100lbs of dry bark, and in order to obtain succeeding crops from offshoots from the stump, the trees were not uprooted but cut down. Mostly women were allotted the task of removing cinnamon bark. By the end of the 1940s over 2,000 labourers were employed in the cinnamon industry. Because of the growing consumption of cinnamon worldwide, Seychelles was exporting both essential oils and cinnamon bark to Europe and America. In 1951, 99,332 kilos of cinnamon oil fetched R2,211,774.
In 1959, Seychelles exported 6 inches of cinnamon quills to the United Kingdom. In America, Seychelles cinnamon oil was used almost exclusively in the manufacture of vanillin at a time when Seychelles was also exporting vanilla to the country! A cruel irony, indeed. Cinnamon bark was used as flavouring agent in the manufacture of tomato ketchup and coca-cola.
By the end of the 1960s the cinnamon industry of Seychelles was coming to a close. The period of prosperity for the cinnamon exporters had reached its eventual apogee.
Faced with a competitive threat from lignin vanillin, a by-product in the manufacture of paper, most of the cinnamon distilleries were closed and the landowners concentrated on the production of cinnamon bark, which is widely used in powder form. In May 1970, for the first time, 200 tonnes of cinnamon bark were sold to the Soviet Union. A ship, M.V Suzdal, of the Black sea steamship company came to collect the Kremlin’s cargo. By the end of the 20th century cinnamon production on an industrial scale had ceased almost completely. Nowadays, those precious spice trees are left virtually untouched to grow wild anywhere in the forests and hills and coastal plateaus of the Seychelles islands… yet not entirely unused or rejected. It is delightfully obvious how the Seychellois people just love their cinnamon leaves. And the Creole cuisine dictates that cinnamon leaves should be used in all curries that are made with coconut milk, thus the delectable and appetising taste of our octopus curry! The evolution of the culinary history of Seychelles has been influenced and inspired largely by African and Asian cooking. If nowadays cinnamon features prominently in Creole recipes it is because of the Indian and Chinese immigrants who brought along their own recipes which required cinnamon as flavouring. Consequently, the Seychellois penchant for the hot and spicy made it easy for our ancestors to assimilate cinnamon into our own Creole cuisine.
To the Chinese, cinnamon is ròugui. Indians say ‘Daalacheenee’. To the Indian Tamil it is karruvappa Dai. The Swahili word for cinnamon is mdalasini. As for our Creole word for it ‘kannel’, it derives from the Latin word cannella meaning small tubes (cinnamon quills). Europeans love a pinch of cinnamon in their black berry ice cream or in their hazelnut soufflé. A typical New Yorker will tell you that it is a hint of cinnamon that gives zest or punch to that Puerto Rico rum cappuccino. Yes, the fragrance of cinnamon is immemorial, biblical. In Revelations 18:13 we learn of the fall of Babylon, and that cinnamon is the precious cargo of merchants of the earth who have grown rich with the wealth of her wantonness. In Exodus 30:22-25 when Moses goes up on Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments the Lord ordains him to include 250 shekels (8lbs) of cinnamon with other spices to make the oil of anointment. On October 2, 1972, the year that Ceylon became the Republic of Sri Lanka, a bust of Pierre Poivre, who never even set foot in the Seychelles, was inaugurated in the grounds of the Supreme Court building to commemorate 200 years of romance between Seychelles and cinnamon. Today, our passion for cinnamon is as fiery as the flames that destroyed the spice garden of Jardin Du Roi two hundred and thirty-nine years ago!
By the way, the Dutch calls it ‘kaneel’!