Today I would like to talk about the man who invented the process of pollination of vanilla when he was only 12 years of age: the Reunionese Edmond Albius. His technique allowed for the pollinating of the vanilla orchids quickly and profitably. Albius’s technique revolutionized the cultivation of vanilla and made it possible to profitably grow vanilla beans away from their native Mexico.
Edmond Albius, at the time of his discovery was a slave, who was born in Sainte-Suzanne in 1829, on the island of Bourbon (modern-day Réunion). He was orphaned from birth, as he lost his mother and never knew his father. Later, his master sent him to work with Fereol Bellier-Beaumont who initiated him into horticulture, and then botany. Albius spent most of his time following Beaumont around the estate as tended to his plants. Beaumont later wrote about Albius, that “this young black boy became my constant companion, a favorite child always at my feet.”
French colonists brought vanilla beans to Réunion in the 1820s with the hope of starting production there. However, the vines were sterile because no insect would pollinate them. In the 1830s, Charles Morren, a professor of botany at the University of Liège in Belgium, developed a method of hand-pollinating vanilla, but his technique was slow and required too much effort to make cultivating vanilla a money-making proposition. Albius discovered in 1841 the practical process for the pollination of vanilla, a process which has revolutionized the culture of this almost ubiquitous spice. He discovered how to quickly pollinate the vanilla orchid with a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture. With the stick or grass blade, field hands lift the rostellum, the flap that separates the male anther from the female stigma, and then, with their thumbs, smear the sticky pollen from the anther over the stigma. Albius’s manual pollination method is still used today, as nearly all vanilla is pollinated by hand. His discovery thereby allowed the Island of Reunion to become for a while, the largest world supplier of vanilla, and the cradle for the diffusion of his process.
Since this discovery was made by a child, who was black, and a slave, the invention was quickly contested by all the jealous people. The unscrupulous botanist Jean-Michel-Claude Richard would pretend to have taught the technique to the slave Albius three or four years earlier. The lie will reach its paroxysm when at the beginning of the 20th century, the French press will go as far as claiming that Edmond Albius was white. Albius eventually gained his freedom with the abolition of slavery in 1848, but will not get any financial benefit from his invention which made the fortune of planters and of the French economy. He died in misery in 1880.
As you enjoy vanilla aromas in cakes, perfumes, and all those delicacies, don’t forget to celebrate the genius of Edmond Albius as well, and read Voices to learn more.