Egyptians were possibly the first civilization to record the use of aromatics with paintings depicting the use and trade of frankincense in the Temple of Deir el-Bahri in Upper Egypt (c 17th century B.C.E.) (Howes 1950). The Eber Papyrus (c 1600 B.C.E.) contains details of the procedures for a substantial number of medicinal preparations many of which contain aromatic plants (Kubeczka 2016). Incense and perfumes were well known by ancient Egyptians as described by Theophrastus (484–425 B.C.E.) and Pliny (23–79 C.E.). Theophrastus described the composition of Egyptian unguents, which were made of several ingredients including cinnamon and myrrh, but agarwood or aloes does not seem to have been used in this period (Lucas 1930). Moreover, there is no record of the use of agarwood in the Egyptian art of embalming although 31 other plant species have been mentioned as used during the process (Baumann 1960; Koller et al. 1998). However, McClintock and Strong (1867) state that the Greek historian Herodotus reported that aloeswood was used by the Egyptians for embalming. Gannal (1840) asserted that the Egyptians used myrrh and bitter aloes (Aloe species) during embalming for their powerful effect in resisting putrefaction rather than exclusively for their fragrant properties. While the timing of the first use of agarwood (aloeswood) and other foreign spices has not been determined, it is clear that aromatics were important products. Many of the aromatics used then were imported and, while the Sumerians were possibly the first civilization to engage in ocean-mediated international trade (3000 B.C.E.), the Egyptians began sailing the Red Sea and the coast of east Africa as early as 2500–2400 B.C.E., trading manufactured goods in exchange for slaves, ivory, gold (from Ethiopia and Somalia), spices (from India via Yemen), and aromatics (frankincense and myrrh from Yemen) (Kearney 2004).
Ancient Greece and Rome
The people of Ancient Greece may not have made routine use of incense in their rituals (Groom 1981), but the practice was possibly adopted around the 6th century B.C.E., as evidenced by the use of frankincense by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras apparently to help him to prophesize (Dannaway 2010). Also around this time, the Pythagorean brotherhood, a secret, religious, political, and educational society, burned incense in their offerings to the gods (Classen et al. 1994). The Greeks also used incense at public festivals, during processions and at ceremonies for oracles (Groom 1981). It is recognized that Herodotus (c 485–425 B.C.E.) knew about myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon, and other spices as Arabian products traded by the Phoenicians. According to Strabo (c 64 B.C.E. to c 25 C.E.), Eudoxus of Cyzicus made two trips to India (c 120–110 B.C.E.) on behalf of Ptolemy to buy spices and other luxuries (Strabo 1930). Dioscorides in his book Materia Medica (65 C.E.) described several medical qualities of agarwood (Áγαλλοχου) and mentioned its use as an incense. Even though Dioscorides describes agarwood as having an astringent and bitter taste, it was used to freshen the breath when chewed or as a decoction held in the mouth. He also writes that a root extract was used to treat stomach complaints and dysentery as well as pains of the lungs and liver (Matthioli 1554).
The Romans adopted practices and cultural customs (including the use of plants) from other kingdoms brought under their control (i.e., Greek, Egyptian, Phoenician). Among the aromatics used in ancient Rome were rose, lily, sweet flag, narcissus, pepper, cinnamon, spikenard, aloeswood, and fragrant grasses imported from India (Morris 1984). With the annexation of Egypt by the Roman Empire in 30 B.C.E., the Romans controlled many overland and ocean trade routes that directly connected the Mediterranean with Africa, southern Arabia (Egypt), and India (Heldaas Seland 2011; Miller 1969). In 65 C.E., the Roman Emperor Nero expended large amounts of oriental incense to mourn the death of his second wife Poppaea Sabina (Peacock et al. 2006; Rhind 2014). Interestingly, Poppaea Sabina was also embalmed before burial “with spices in the customary habit of foreign kings” despite cremation being the main funerary practice in Rome at the time (Counts 1996). A 3rd-century C.E. Roman tomb excavated in 1485 contained the preserved remains of a young woman apparently buried in a mixture of “myrrh, aloe and other priceless drugs [sic]” (Lanciani 1892:167). In the 6th century C.E., the Justinian’s Digest of Roman law (Book 39) listed 54 valuable articles that were subject to import duty at Alexandria and these included aloeswood (agarwood) (Parker 2008; Scott 1932; Watson 1985).
Roman commercial ties reached China, with reports of Roman traders in 166 C.E. and an envoy in 284 C.E. when they gave a tribute to the Emperor of China comprising 30,000 rolls of thin agarwood (Warmington 1928). A spice merchant, Cosmas Indicopleustes, writes in his Christian Topography (c 550 C.E.) about the imports of silk, aloeswood, cloves, clove-wood, and sandalwood from China and Southeast Asia to Ceylon in the 6th century B.C.E. (1897 translation of c 550 C.E. book). In Cyprus during the 14th century C.E., agarwood prepared with benzoin (Styrax benzoin) or solid storax (Styrax spp.) was used in 10 medical recipes to treat medical conditions of the ear, eye, skin, muscles, bones, joints, oral cavity and respiratory tract (Lardos et al. 2011).
Agarwood was one of the revered aromatics in the Arab world and is mentioned in many ancient documents with regard to its use in medicine and as a perfume (Zohar and Lev 2013). For example, in al-Kindī’s (801–807 C.E.) Book of the Chemistry of Perfume, five recipes for perfume are written specifically for agarwood and within Ibn Mᾱsawahī’s (777–857 C.E.) book On Simple Aromatic Substances agarwood was categorized as a principal perfume (most of them imported from other regions) (cited in Zohar and Lev 2013). Two compound perfumes, nadd and ghāliya, were expensive and exclusive and contained musk, aloes, and amber. Ibn Mᾱsawahī’ also discussed the practice of burying parts of the Aquilaria tree in the ground for up to 1 year as a method to degrade the soft white wood that surrounds the pockets of resin-enriched agarwood (Levey 1961). In a collection of fictional works written during the Abbasid Caliphate known as Arabian Nights, agarwood features in several stories in the context of its use as perfume (pp. 60, 139, 153), incense (pp. 36, 60, 69), in prayer rituals (p. 254), trade (pp. 71, 82), item for tribute (p. 84), status (pp. 484, 532), and construction of a gate and bird cage (pp. 57 and 59, respectively) (Webber 1812). The real-life caliph Harun al-Rashid was an idol in many stories in Arabian Nights, and when he died in 809 C.E., an inventory of his cache included an impressive list of exotic commodities, including 1000 baskets of aloes and many kinds of perfumes (Liu 2010). In Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain between 900–1500 C.E.), local perfumers utilized aromatic substances from both eastern and western origin with musk, camphor, agarwood, ambergris, and saffron classed among the five primary ingredients (Constable 1994). Incense and perfumes were an integral part of imperial life during 16th-century C.E. Mughal empire and based on both ancient then contemporary formulations (Allami 1873). Ain-i-Akbari detailed the ingredients of 12 royal perfume recipes, of which 11 contained either agarwood or its essential oil. Agarwood was also eaten, an experience described as exhilarating. High-quality agarwood was prepared as powder and applied to the skin and clothes (Allami 1873).
Many Arab tribes were involved in trading activities before the Islamic era, with commercial connections with people from North Africa, the west coast of India, Southeast Asia, and China (Hourani 1951; Morris 1984). For example, the Nabateans, a nomadic Arab tribe, were a link between Yemen (“Arabia Felix”) and the Mediterranean coast and controlled the trade routes of incense, perfume, and spices between c 25 B.C.E. and c 4th or 5th century C.E. (Groom 1981; Zohar 2003). During the Sasanian (Neo-Persian) Empire (224–651 C.E.), vibrant overland and ocean trade routes existed with India and Southeast Asia, with the latter becoming increasingly active in trading spices, medicines, and aromatics. A commercial network emerged in the Java Sea, during the 2nd and 3rd centuries C.E., based on exchange of aromatics, such as agarwood and sandalwood, and spices including cloves (King 2015). An early account of Arab visits to the Indian coastline is found in the book Akhbār al-Ṣīn w’al-Hind written by Sulayman Tajir (851 C.E.) where he describes Sarandip, an island on the Bay of Bengal, and its main products gold, ruby, aloeswood, and the surrounding sea full of pearls and conch (cited in Islam 2010).
Arabs and Indians were prominent traders in the Indian Ocean between the 7th–11th centuries C.E., which has been confirmed by archaeological evidence (Flecker 2001; Stargardt 2014). There are records of an Ibādite merchant (Abu-‘Ubay-dah) of Umāni origin who went to China during the middle of the 8th century and purchased agarwood (aloes) (Hourani 1951). Much trade between the Arabs and Chinese during this time occurred in the Straits of Malacca particularly for luxury goods including pearls, ivory, coral, glass, fabrics, and a plethora of fragrant products (agarwood, ambergris, benzoin, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, dragon’s blood, and rosewater) and spices (cloves, nutmeg, asafoetida) (Chaudhuri 1985). Records from the 13th century C.E. identify that the trade in aromatics was controlled by Muslim people established in Indonesia (known at that time as Island of the Southeast Asia). In Ibn Baṭṭūṭa’s (1304–1377 C.E.) account of his travel to Southeast Asia around 1345, he referred to the region as the source of the incense benzoin and aromatic agarwood (Feener and Laffan 2005).
As with many aromatics, the use and trade of agarwood has had a rich history in India and is described in poetry, trade, educational, and medical manuscripts. Agarwood was also considered to be of great commercial value, and the Arthaśhāstra (c 320 B.C.), a treatise on economic policy, governance, military affairs, and international relations in the Mauryan Empire (Liebig 2014), provides details of important natural and traded products (Zumbroich 2012). The text states that aromatics featured as one of the “precious articles to be received in the treasury,” with aloeswood and sandalwood being described as the finest aromatics (Zumbroich loc. cit.:60). In the Arthaśhāstra, agarwood and other aromatics were also subject to a state tax at one-tenth or one-fifteenth of the sale price of the products.
In the texts of Kāmasūtra (3rd century C.E.), Nāgarasarvasva, and other treatises dealing with pleasure (end of the 1st millennium C.E.), the use of perfumes and unguents (among other esthetic practices) was essential for the sensual experience (Ali 2011). In the Kāmasūtra Gandhayukti, the technique of making perfumes was one of the 64 arts to be learned by men and women (Penchala et al. 2008). The Gandhasara (c 500–1000 C.E.) suggests that aromatics lead to the attainment of the three aims of human life, namely “religious merit, worldly prosperity and sensual enjoyment” (Rhind 2014:109; Worwood 2013).
Evidence of the importance of aromatics in Tamil, India, is presented in the poetic work of Cilappatikāram (c 5th century C.E.), which mentions that scent of sandalwood, aloeswood, musk, and civet emanating from the city of Madurai (capital of the Pandya kingdom) could be detected by travelers from a distance away (Atikal 1994). The Harshacharita is a fictionally embellished biography of the Indian emperor Harsha written by the Sanskrit writer Banabhatta. In Chapter VII, an offering to a king was made, and among a plethora of valuable gifts were “volumes of fine writing with leaves made from aloe bark, thick bamboo tubes containing mango sap and black aloes oil, and bundles contained in sacks of woven silk and consisting of black aloe dark as pounded collyrium” (Cowell and Thomas 1887:243). Under Sassanid rule, agarwood was sent among other valuable items as tribute from India to Persia during the reign of Kisra Anushirwan (531–579 C.E.) (Masudi 1877). While it is not unusual to find agarwood included in the long lists of valuable items as offerings to important people, the use of the bark of agarwood for writing demonstrates an alternative use for this tree. Plant aromatics, including agarwood, were the ingredients widely used in the making of fragrances in India in the late 1st millennium C.E. (McHugh 2011; Penchala et al. 2008).
India has been of commercial interest to many civilizations since ancient times. Repeated visits to India by Greek traders were reported following the original voyages of Herodotus (c 485–425 B.C.E.). During Roman times, when Alexandria was central to regional commerce, commodities from India, Arabia, Egypt, and Ethiopia converged in the city (Banerjee 1921). The products traded from India during the Roman period were varied and included silk, precious stones, spices, and aromatics including agarwood (Prasad 1977). Agarwood was known to be sourced from upland regions around the Ganges watershed (Allami 1891; Matthioli 1554) and possibly imported from Tenasserim (west coast of Malay Peninsula) and Sumatra (Yule 1871). Eusèbe Renaudot translated a 9th-century C.E. Arabic travel account that included a description of agarwood occurring naturally in Sri Lanka (Harris 1744). Merchant ships, using the monsoon current to ply the coast of India, facilitated the trade of luxury products and an increase in the importation and consumption of eastern goods in Rome (Warmington 1974). Benjamin of Tudela, who traveled to India in the 12th century C.E., mentioned India, as an exporter of silk cloth, cinnamon, ginger, and other sorts of spices found in abundance in south India (Samaddar 1911). Sandalwood, agarwood, musk, camphor, and saffron persist as central ingredients in Indian perfumery from the 9th–11th centuries C.E. (McHugh 2012). During the travels of German adventurer Johan Albrecht de Mandelslo through Surat in India during the 1630s, he recorded that wild agarwood was sourced from, among other places, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, and Cambodia. He recorded that wild agarwood was used for the cremation of Indian priests and princes (Harris 1744) and thus confirming its high status in Indian society at this time. In India, during the 1500s C.E., agarwood, musk, and ambergris were used for flavoring betel nut preparations (de Orta 1891; Tielel 1885). In the 19th century, the extraction of agarwood was a customary activity in various parts of Assam, with much of the product exported from Calcutta for re-export to Turkey, Arabia, Persia, and Europe (CSIR (India) 1953). During the early 20th century, China became a more prominent export market for Indian agarwood (CSIR (India) 1953).
In both India and China, the bark from agarwood was used to manufacture paper (Borris et al. 1988) from as early as 284 C.E. when it was described as being strong and tough. Even though the bark was soft, it did not disintegrate when immersed in water and had a yellow clay color with “markings in it like fish roe” (Ju-Kua 1911:205). The paper was also described as strongly scented (Ju-Kua 1911; McLaughlin 2008), although it is not clear if this scent was associated with the natural aroma of the bark or from added fragrances.
The development of trade routes linking the Mediterranean to East Asia in the early centuries C.E. marked the start of a long period of trade between north India and China. Luxury goods, including coral, pearls, precious stones, glassware, incense, and perfume from India, were traded along these routes for Chinese silk (Liu 1994). The first use of incense in China has been placed around the 1st century C.E. and is considered as a direct influence from Buddhist Indian culture (King 2007). Records of incense/aromatic use can be found in the oldest known official pharmacopeia (Hsin Hsiu Pen Ts’ao c 659 C.E.), which contains a list of prominent components (aloeswood, frankincense, cloves, patchouli, elemi, and liquidambar). In the 3rd century C.E., aromatics from Southeast Asia were considered sophisticated luxuries for use by the Chinese ruling elite. The governor of Jïngzhou in the late 3rd century was reported to have finely powdered agarwood scattered over an ivory bed. His favored serving girls were requested to step on it, with rewards (pearls) for those who left no footprint and punishments (ordered to lose weight) for those who disturbed the powder (Gungwu 1958). In one of the first known written floras on subtropical Asian plants (Nan-fang Ts’au-mu Chuang written around 300 C.E.), the knowledge of human-induced agarwood formation was discussed with a brief description that cutting into the tree would bring about a change in color of the internal tissues (“root, stem, branches and joints”) within a year of the injury as a consequence of resin development (Ju-Kua 1911). By the 4th century C.E., aloeswood and cardamom were being imported from Vietnam and Cambodia to China (Gungwu 1958; Keay 2006). These imports, and tributes of agarwood from Vietnam (Dai Viet and Champa), continued well into the period of the Song Dynasty (960–1279 C.E.) (Shiro 1998), a time when agarwood was recorded by Marco Polo to be abundant in both southern Vietnam (Champa) and eastern Indonesia (Yule 1871).
Schafer (1963) provides a detailed account of exotic products imported into China during the three centuries of the T’ang Dynasty (A.D. 618–907). These include many plant products, animals, and minerals, as well as spiritual and manufactured goods. Over this period, aromatics were sourced from a large number of native plants as well as imported products, although the latter were always more valuable and coveted (Schafer 1963). Schafer describes that “women and men of the upper classes lived in clouds of incense and mists of perfume” (p. 155). The emperor Hsuan Tsung (847 C.E.) promulgated a decree, which included a number of conditions including one that he would consider memorials and petitions only after he had washed his hands and burned incense. Schafer (1963) described how a Chinese prince of the 8th century C.E. would speak to guests only after he had aloeswood and musk in his mouth (although the text is not clear as to whether it was the prince or the guest with the fragrant mouth). Extravagance is also found in Han His-tsai practice of burning incenses in his garden (already full of flowers) to produce an exquisite blend of aromas: aloeswood with bramble, musk with magnolia, and sandal with michelia (Schafer loc. cit.). A “gallery” built of agarwood by one of Hsuan Tsung’s ministers containing sandalwood railings and walls rendered with the fragrance of musk and frankincense was used as an extravagant display of wealth and power (Schafer loc. cit.:160).
Aromatics were also discussed in Ch’ing i lu (translated as “records of unworldly and strange things”) compiled by T’ao Ku. The incense seal, a sophisticated form of incense developed during the 8th century C.E., burned during Tantric Buddhist rituals, is believed to be crafted mainly with agarwood (Bedini 1994:26). Agarwood is also one of the 24 ingredients required in a recipe for an incense seal for use in Buddhist worship (Kao Lie, Tsun sheng pa chien, c 1570 quoted in Bedini 1994:90). The incense seal also served as time measurement in both China and Japan, where incense tablets or sticks were marked with the time divisions at certain intervals and put in a container or tray where the seal-character (shape of the incense trail when burned) would form. The burning of the tablet or stick would indicate the passage of the time (Bedini 1963). The prominence of agarwood in these important spiritual and time-keeping products is further evidence of how it was revered in China.
In the official pharmacopeia of T’ang, agarwood, frankincense, cloves, patchouli, elemi, and liquidambar were the six essences most used by blenders of aromatics (Schafer 1963). Aromatics were a recurrent subject in literary works (Bedini 1994). For instance, in poetry, the phrase “hundred-blend aromatics” (a paste formed with several ingredients, including resins such as agarwood and sandalwood) is commonly used (Bedini loc. cit.:29). Agarwood is also reported as being used to perfume buildings and to scent the garments of courtesans (Schafer 1963). Agarwood had a prominent status in T’ang period medicine and was prepared as an ointment for external applications as well as a decoction in wine to treat many different internal ailments, to expel evil spirits, and to cleanse the soul. Agarwood had a spiritual dimension in China, and of the many tributes provided to emperors of the T’ang, one includes a detailed description of a “mountain of the myriad of Buddha,” which was a 10-feet (ft)-high carving of agarwood adorned with jewels comprising a verdant mountain scene that included a setting of buildings and images of all the Buddhas (Schafer 1963:38). In 871 C.E., the religious significance of agarwood was demonstrated when Emperor I Tsung granted high seats to the monks of An-Kuo Temple that were 20 ft tall, framed in sandalwood and agarwood, and used by lecturers on the sutras (Buddhist aphorisms) (Schafer 1963).
Vibrant international trade occurred during the last four centuries of the 1st millennium C.E., as a result of the emergence of a unified China under the Sui Dynasty (581–618) and its peaceful expansion under the Tang Dynasty (618–907) and the rise of the Islamic dynasties of Umayyad of Damascus (661–750) and Abbasids (749–1258) (Villiers 2001). This, combined with advances in shipbuilding and navigation, opened up ocean trade between China, India, and Arab centers in the Middle East (Kearney 2004; Villiers 2001). Persians and Arabs sailed to Canton where they traded a wide range of aromatic goods for porcelain, silk, and copper coins, and T’ang goods spread as far west as Constantinople (Kearney 2004). In 916 C.E., Abü Zaid wrote that the center of the trade in agarwood, sandalwood, and camphor was Kaläh (believed to be either on the west coast of the Malay peninsula or Tenasserim Coast), which was a protectorate of the Sri Vijaya in Sumatra (Villiers 2001).
By the late 11th century C.E., large volumes of agarwood and sandalwood were traded into China by Southeast Asian merchants: 2950 kg (4890 catty) of aloeswood was sent from Jiaozhi (northern Vietnam) in 1063 (Villiers 2001). Stargardt (2014) reports that Chinese merchants were still taking advantage of the lucrative trade in agarwood in Southeast Asia during the mid to late 12th century C.E. and were exploiting natural sources in the Kra Ecotone of south Thailand in exchange for high-quality ceramics. Abundant sources were also found in the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and Java (Yule 1871). In the late 12th century C.E., Marco Polo wrote about the wealth of the port city of Quanzhou (Zaiton) derived from the duties paid on imported goods including 40% tax on items such as agarwood (Yule 1871). In the beautifully preserved Quanzhou wreck of a 13th-century C.E. Chinese sailing junk (excavated in 1973), the most abundant cargo was incense wood which was discovered in 12 of the 13 holds and weighed 2400 kg. Other exotic goods were inventoried, including small quantities of (possibly Arab) frankincense (6.3 g), ambergris from Somalia, and dragon’s blood (Stargardt 2001). Trade routes for agarwood in China may have been widespread at this time, with Marco Polo reporting that agarwood was used in western China during complex rituals for healing the sick (Yule 1871), although the source of the product was undefined.
Chinese trade presence in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean was also prominent during the Ming Dynasty of the 1400s. At this time, China had a significant navy and a large number of private merchant ships trading with Korea, Japan, Southeast Asia, India, and east Africa. For example, the Chinese imported a diversity of plant products for medical purposes from Sumatra, and these included pepper, ginger, medicinal herbs, camphor, frankincense, and sulfur (Kearney 2004). From Jidda (Red Sea Port in Saudi Arabia) and Dhufar (Oman), the Chinese purchased frankincense, myrrh, aloe (possibly bitter aloes), and medicines (Kearney 2004). Contact with western merchants is reported throughout the history of China, with records as early as 166 C.E. (Warmington 1928) continuing through the T’ang Dynasty (618–907 C.E.), when Greek, Roman, Arab, Indian, Persian, and Japanese merchants frequented the empire, and then with direct trade with Europeans in the 16th century (Fitzgerald 1961).
Medical preparations containing agarwood are featured in Li Shizhen’s 1573 C.E. compendium Compendium of Materia Medica (Ben Cao Gang Mu), which is recognized as the first comprehensive medical publication on traditional Chinese medicine (Unschuld and Zhang 2014). Agarwood prepared as pills, decoctions, and plasters in combination with a myriad of other ingredients was attributed to having a range of positive health effects including stimulant, carminative, aphrodisiac, antirheumatic, antimalarial, analgesic, deobstruent, tonic, and diuretic properties (Smith and Stuart’s 2003 translation of Shizhen’s 1578 text).
The use of aromatics in Japan began during the 6th century C.E. and, as with China, coincided with the arrival of Buddhism. The first written record of the use of fragrant wood is found in the Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan) when Emperor Kimmei (549–571 C.E.) commissioned the carving of two Buddhas in 553 C.E. from camphor wood that was found floating in the sea by one of his noble attendants. The first Japanese written record of agarwood was also reported in the Nihongi when, in 595 C.E., a large piece of agarwood drifted ashore on the island of Awaji. The islanders noticed in wonder that it produced a strong fragrance when used as firewood, and later presented an unburnt piece to Empress Suiko (Aston 1896). Early mixtures of aromatics burned in Japanese Buddhist ceremonies included jinkoh (the best incense: agarwood), sandalwood, cloves, cinnamon, and camphor. When Emperor Tenji (671 C.E.) fell ill, during his final year, he sent a tribute to the Buddha of Hōkō-ji (Kyoto) of a range of valuable items including agarwood and sandalwood (Aston 1896).
A recurrent story about incense use in Japan refers to a highly revered and large piece of agarwood known as Ranjatai, which was a gift from the China Court to the Emperor Shômu (724–748 C.E.) (Bedini 1963; Brinkley 1902; McKenna and Hughes 2014). Small pieces have been removed from Ranjatai over time but only during prosperous occasions or for special tribute (Bedini 1994). Ranjatai continues to be located at the Shōsōin repository in Nara and is exhibited periodically. During the Nara period (710–794 C.E.), the burning of incense became a secular activity (Gatten 1977). Kneaded incense blends imported from T’ang, China (618–907 C.E.), contained aloeswood, sugar, and plum meat and were highly prized in Japan (Aston 1896; Schafer 1963).
Incense ceremonies (kōdō) began to emerge during the Heian period (794 to 1185 C.E.) and were one of the emblematic practices of aristocrats where aromatics were at the center of focus of the ceremony. In the ceremony, participants discriminated and judged the qualities of different aromatics, including local products pine and cedar and exotics such as agarwood, sandalwood, cinnamon, and cloves (Brinkley 1902; Morita 1992; Morris 1984). During the period 833–850 C.E., Japanese aristocrats ceased importing incense from China and began the manufacture (and blending) of their own incenses. Prince Kaya formulated the famous Six Scents (described in the Kunshū Ruishō c 12th century C.E.); all the Six Scents are compounded of the same six elements in different ratios: aloes, cloves, seashells, amber, sandalwood, and musk. A characteristic seventh ingredient defined the final scent, for example, if frankincense was added, the scent created was known as the Black incense (Gatten 1977).
European nations began to influence the international trade of spices from the beginning in the 14th century C.E. The Portuguese, followed by the Spanish and then, by the end of the 16th century, the Dutch, French, and English all traded spices with India and east Asia and sold them in lucrative European markets. Matthioli (1554) provided insights into the origins, harvesting process, product classes, fragrant properties, and medical applications of agarwood. In the 16th century C.E., the best agarwood available in Europe was sourced by the Portuguese from the port of Calcutta in India, Taprobana (presumably trading posts in Sri Lanka), and other neighboring ports (possibly Java where agarwood was abundant). The agarwood was brought back as tree trunks and not necessarily burnt, but rubbed with the hands to liberate its fragrance. Portuguese and French traders also sourced agarwood from southern Vietnam to trade in China, India, and the Middle East from the 16th–18th centuries C.E. (Chin-keong 2017; Lach 1905; Pires 1944). The French merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier wrote in the mid-1600s C.E. that the Portuguese of Goa sent piece of agarwood measuring 6 ft in length as a tribute to the Emperor of Japan (Harris 1744). This demonstrates Europeans were aware of the reverence that Asian aristocracy had for agarwood. Interestingly, Matthioli (loc. cit.:44, ln7) writes that agarwood was valuable “everywhere” except for the places from where it was sourced. While much is written about the European trade of spices including tea, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and nutmeg (Freedman 2008; Turner 2004), there is less consideration of European involvement in the trade of incense products including agarwood. In a three-volume 1942-page account of the British East India Company between 1600–1708 (Bruce 1810), pepper was cited over 250 times, whereas little to no references about fragrant products like agarwood (none), camphor (none), or sandalwood (once in vol. 1 p. 269) were made. Chaudhuri (1978) described that, while pepper and calicoes were the bulk of imports of the East India Company in the 17th century, other commodities including gum resins (aloes, myrrh, olibanum) were still listed in the import records. Incense blends of the West were distinct from those of the East. In the West, the ingredients commonly used for incenses were frankincense, myrrh, galbanum, and onycha (Schafer 1963).