Edmond Albius: The Black Man That Revolutionized the Global Production of Vanilla


Edmond Albius (b. 1829 - d. 8/9/1880) 
(Image: circa 1863)

Many of us know and love vanilla, which is now grown to flavor an array of the foods we have come to love. There are little known historical facts about how vanilla became a common staple in many kitchen pantries and cupboards today. First, many do not know that vanilla is produced from the vanilla orchid, which has about 110 specie variations  within the orchid family. Yes, an orchid. The second little known fact about vanilla is that a Black man, Edmond Albius, taught European planters how to hand pollinate the orchid that made way for a global production of the vanilla bean. 

Arab traders knew the island of Réunion as Dina Morgabin, translated as the “Western Island”, an island located in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. Around 1507, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to settle in the region. The Portuguese settlement was nominal. By 1642, the French began to occupy the island to house its convicts -- French mutineers expelled from Madagascar. By 1665, the French introduced the forced labor of enslaved Africans from the region to the island.  

Edmond Albius was born in 1829 and enslaved under the French occupation of Réunion. His mother had died during his birth and he would later give himself the surname Albius, adopted from the word alba "white" in reference to the vanilla orchid's color. When Edmond was born, slavery still existed in Réunion and would not be abolished until December 20, 1848. Edmond was taught basic botany by his French enslaver, Féréol Bellier Beaumont.

Flat-leaved vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia)

In the 1820s, the vanilla bean was brought to Réunion by the French colonists. The problem with growing vanilla in the region was that there were no insects to pollinate the vanilla orchid. At a very young age, Edmond was known as a young horticulturalist with profound knowledge on the cultivation of plants. In 1841, by the age of 12 years old, Edmond invented a quick hand pollination technique that involved the use of a thin blade of grass or stick coupled with a thumb gesture that lifts the rostellum that separates the female stigma from the male anther. This allowed for the manual pollination technique of smearing the sticky pollen from the anther to the stigma. 

To this day, this hand-pollination technique of the vanilla orchid is used in nearly all vanilla production. After the successful introduction of the technique in Réunion, it was soon introduced to Madagascar by the French colonists. Madagascar remains one the world’s leading vanilla producers to this day, based on the hand-pollination technique of the vanilla orchid introduced by a Black man -- Edmond Albius. While it is said that there were petitions to the government of Réunion to provide Edmond some form of monetary compensation for his significant contribution to the economy, the petitions were ultimately unsuccessful. Edmond died in poverty in St. Suzanne, Réunion in1880. 

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