January 11, 2014
The story of Edmund Albius began on Reunion Island and continues in every corner of the world.
Edmond Albius was born a slave in St. Suzanne, Reunion. His mother died while giving birth to him, and he was adopted (if that is the correct term) by the French colonist Féréol Bellier Beaumont. The colonists had imported vanilla orchids from Mexico to Réunion in the 1820s, hoping that the similar climate would allow them to produce vanilla. It turns out that none of the insects on Reunion would pollinate the flowers, leaving the vanilla plants sterile.
Beaumont owned a large number of vanilla vines, and despaired of ever having them all flower successfully. In 1841, while playing in his master’s garden, the little Albius invented a simple technique for pollinating vanilla orchids. He stuck a thin stick inside the flower and flicked it, finding it a clever way to transfer pollen by hand. In the process, he revolutionized the vanilla industry.
He was 12.
After the news of Albius’ discovery broke, the French botanist Jean-Michel-Claude Richard falsely stated that he had discovered the technique some years earlier. Beaumont and many other naturalists vigorously backed Albius, an event that left Richard’s reputation damaged forever.
When the French re-abolished slavery in their colonies in 1848, Albius worked as a kitchen servant for a time in St. Denis. He was later convicted of theft and sentenced to 10 years in prison for stealing some jewelry, but after intervention by Beaumont, the governor granted him clemency. The reason given? His great contribution to the island of Reunion.
Edmund Albius died penniless in St. Suzanne in 1880.
Vanilla is actually an orchid native to Mexico. After saffron, it is the most expensive spice in the world. Fruit is produced only on mature plants, which are generally over 3 m (10 ft) long. The fruits are 15-23 cm (6-9 in) long pods, although they are incorrectly called beans. They mature after about five months, at which point they are harvested and cured. Vanilla extract comes from this portion of the plant.