The tale behind vanilla is a bittersweet one. Critics have continued to ask questions on why the history behind one of the world’s most popular flavour is often overlooked.
Vanilla is an expensive ingredient and a principal flavouring in ice-creams and cola drinks; it is also used to produce perfumes and delicacies. Despite its popularity worldwide, many people do not know the history behind it or the inventor who contributed to its production.
Around the mid-19th century, the world could only produce about a thousand vanilla beans yearly due to bees’ technicalities involved in pollination.
Today, the story is different, and millions of beans are produced monthly in countries like Mexico, Kenya, Madagascar, China, and Indonesia, thanks to a pollination technique introduced by a young African slave named Edmond Albius.
Edmond had no last name because slaves were not allowed to own last names at that time. The name Albius came only after he helped solve what was known as the most significant botanical mystery the word had ever known. Edmond’s solution to the vanilla pollination challenge continues to surprise even the greatest botanists to date.
Edmond Albius was a horticulturist from Réunion. Born into slavery, Albius became an essential figure in the cultivation of vanilla. At the age of 12, he invented a technique for pollinating vanilla orchids quickly and profitably using a grass blade.
Before he introduced the technique, the challenge with pollinating vanilla beans seemed unsolvable, and this was because a practical method of pollination was needed.
All the plans presented by European scientists failed until a 12-year-old Edmond shared his technique. Yet, there is no vanilla industry in the world today that recognizes Edmond’s contribution in saving the vanilla industry – something critics say would not have been the case if a white man was behind the feat.
Born in Sainte-Suzanne in 1829, on the island of Bourbon (modern-day Réunion), Edmond was orphaned from birth, as his mother died in childbirth and never knew his father.
When he was a few years old, his master sent him to work with Ferreol Bellier-Beaumont, who introduced him to horticulture and botany.
Edmond spent most of his time following Beaumont around the estate, learning about flowers, vegetables, and fruits, including a vanilla vine belonging to Ferreol.
French colonialists had in the 1820s brought vanilla beans to Réunion with the hope of starting production there, but the vines, like Ferreol’s, were sterile because no insect would pollinate them.
In 1841, while Ferreol took his regular walk with Edmond, he was amazed to find that his orchid, barren for many years, had produced fruit.
Edmond told him that he had pollinated the plant himself. Ferreol initially did not believe the child, but he asked Edmond for a demonstration when more fruits appeared later.
With a thin stick or blade of grass and a simple thumb gesture, Edmond was able to show his master how he quickly pollinated the vanilla orchid.
Edmond soon started traveling the island, teaching other slaves how to pollinate vanilla orchids.
His technique spread to the Seychelles, Mauritius, and Madagascar, which currently produces 80% of its vanilla.
Edmond died in 1880, at the age of fifty-one after being freed from his master in June 1848 and being given the last name “Albius.”
Edmond’s technique is still practiced across the world today, and a statue of Edmond Albius is still visible in Sainte-Suzanne, one of Réunion’s oldest towns to date.
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