The slave who unlocked the vanilla secret

Pollinating vanilla is a tricky business but slave Edmond Albius unlocked the secret.

Written by Alexandra Richards


Great botanists of the day worked on the problem…then young Edmond Albius tried his hand with the vanilla plant.

Edmond Albius was born a slave in Ste-Suzanne in 1829. His mother died during his birth and his master, Fereol Bellier Beaumont, adopted Edmond. At the age of 12, Albius invented a technique for pollinating the vanilla orchid by hand, launching the vanilla industry.

The vanilla plant is an orchid native to Mexico, but its pollination is a tricky business. Buds form on the plant after three years, blooming for just a few hours on one day per year. Vanilla has one natural pollinator, the Melipona bee (Apis melipona), which is native to Mexico.

French colonists brought vanilla plants to Reunion and Mauritius in the 1820s, planning to cultivate vanilla, which had become a valuable commodity by that stage. However, there was no insect to pollinate the orchid outside Mexico and the plants could not reproduce. Great botanists of the day worked on the problem, and in 1837 a Belgian botanist discovered that pollination was required to set the fruit from which the vanilla pod is formed. However, his method of artificial pollination was slow, complicated and not commercially viable.

Beaumont, a Reunion Island landowner, had received some vanilla plants from the government in France. Only one of the plants survived for any length of time but it didn’t fruit. Young Edmond Albius, who had already learned how to artificially pollinate the watermelon plant, tried his luck with the vanilla plant. He was successful and developed a method of pollinating the plants quickly and easily using a thin stick and his thumb. Beaumont sent Albius to other plantations to teach other slaves how to pollinate vanilla. The Indian Ocean’s vanilla industry was born and by 1898 Reunion had overtaken Mexico as the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans.

Albius’s technique is still used today, as you will see if you do a tour of one of the island’s vanilla plantations. In 1848, following the abolition of slavery, Albius moved to St-Denis, where he worked as a kitchenhand. He was convicted of stealing jewellery and sentenced to ten years in prison, but after five years the governor granted him clemency in light of his significant contribution to the vanilla industry. Albius died a poor man in Ste-Suzanne in 1880.

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