Like vanilla? Thank Edmond Albius, an enslaved boy who discovered its secret
‘Edmond's 1841 discovery changed everything,' says historian Eric Jennings
Vanilla, the world's most popular flavour, has a remarkable history.
It also emblematizes some of the most important tectonic shifts in modern history: institutional slavery and geopolitical economics on the one hand; and on the other, scientific discovery, social justice — and human invention.
"It's a narrative of the human and the orchid getting commodified and commercialized in ways that we're still only beginning to understand," said Eric Jennings, a historian at the University of Toronto, and 2022-2023 Faculty Research Fellow with the Jackman Humanities Institute.
After digging through archive sources, Jennings reveals — for the first time — the full story of the modest vanilla bean's rise to global prominence, in a talk entitled The Enslaved Teen Who Cracked Vanilla's Secret, which he delivered in June 2023 as part of the JHI Lecture in Public Humanities.
"You might not associate a teenager with vanilla. Because 'vanilla' in popular usage has come to mean boring, run-of-the-mill, ordinary. Pretty much counter to the associations we have with adolescence, and its intensities and dramas. And vanilla's secret: I'm betting most of you didn't know vanilla even had a secret!"
Shaking the foundations of slavery
In 1841, Edmond Albius, an enslaved 12-year-old, was living and working on Île Bourbon (now Île de la Réunion) — a small island in the Indian Ocean (some 900 km east of Madagascar).
When Edmond was born in 1829, his mother died during childbirth. His father, Pamphile, was the property of Madame de Bellier-Beaumont, who owned an estate in the island's district of Sainte-Suzanne.
Jennings found that Edmond's childhood is a bit of a mystery and while it's not clear how he became a gardner of Madame Bellier-Beaumont's brother, Ferréol, he was believed to be Ferréol's "favourite." Edmond likely worked less in the fields than other enslaved people, but when he did, he found ways to acquire and increase his botanical learning.
"Like many brilliant inventions, Edmond's appears disarmingly simple, but only after the fact. What he did was discover a straight-forward and efficient way of artificially pollinating the vanilla orchid in just a matter of seconds, using only a toothpick or a needle. Equally astonishing is the fact that he actually received credit for his method, despite several other botanists who tried to rob him of it," Jennings explained in his talk.
"Edmond's 1841 discovery changed everything. Vanilla planifolia, the main species of edible vanilla, could now be grown outside of the range of vanilla's natural pollinator, the Central American Melipona bee. French settlers introduced the Edmond Albius technique to Mexico. The world soon experienced a vanilla craze."
It was the simplicity of his method that made it so appealing, as it enabled the rapid pollinating of a vanilla orchid with the help of only a needle.
Jennings recounts that there was such a demand to know more about Edmond's method, that he actually went on tour around the island, presenting his pollination technique at several plantations in person.
"One can just imagine the reactions of audience members, and especially of enslaved onlookers, overhearing one of their own — a youngster aged 12 at that — arriving by carriage before delivering a lecture on how to pollinate a recently-introduced flower before local dignitaries and gardeners alike. They must've been transfixed. This was more than breaking a glass ceiling — it was straining the shackles of slavery, shaking its very foundations."
Stealing credit for Edmond's discovery
Edmond's discovery was nearly stolen from him, more than once. In 1862, the director of Île Bourbon's main garden, Claude Richard, publicly denied that Edmond invented anything of the kind, and as the main botanical authority on the island, attempted to claim Edmond's technique as his own.
"As you might expect, Claude Richard fit the mold of the consummate vengeful villain," Jennings said.
Richard presented two arguments. He first claimed that he knew about the artificial pollination of vanilla since 1811 or 1815, adding that it was he who shared the technique with Edmond.
"His second argument, if you can call it that, was that, in his words: 'an ignorant child' could not have made such a discovery on his own. Edmond's owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, took immediate offense. His word was at stake. Bellier-Beaumont also expressed sympathy, even admiration for Edmond. And so Bellier-Beaumont drew up a rebuttal, in the form of a detailed December 1862 letter to the legal clerk and local naturalist and historian, a man named Eugène Volsy Focard," Jennings explained.
Thank you, Edmond Albius
Jennings notes that given the huge power imbalances of the time, it's remarkable that Edmond's discovery wasn't stolen from him. However, he was attributed to the invention very late in his life. Even though the method transformed Réunion's economy, Edmond received no material or financial compensation.
And he wasn't freed as the result of his discovery. Freedom came only when France outlawed slavery in 1848.
So where does the achievement of Edmond Albius stand today?
According to Eric Jennings, it hasn't yet achieved the recognition it deserved.
"Edmond has achieved some local fame in Réunion, as a middle school there has been named after him. But beyond the shores of an island in the French Indian Ocean, I'd argue that he's all but unknown."
Edmond died at age 51 in 1880. But his impact is visible everywhere.
"Today, every vanilla bean you see on store shelves has been deftly pollinated by human hands. And we have an enslaved teenager to thank, because the method he discovered in 1841 is still used today the world over."
*This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.