Drawing by Robert Krulwich
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Drawing by Robert Krulwich
Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The Little Boy Who Should’ve Vanished, but Didn’t

He was 12 years old. He was a slave. He’d had no schooling. He was too young, too unlettered, too un-European; he couldn’t have done this on his own. That’s what people said.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Edmond (he had no last name—slaves weren’t allowed them) had just solved a botanical mystery that had stumped the greatest botanists of his day. In the early 1800s he was a child on a remote island in the Indian Ocean, and yet, against overwhelming odds, Edmond would get credit for his discovery—and for the most surprising reasons. I want to tell you his story. So I’ll start here, with a plant.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

This is a vanilla plant (or my version of one). It’s a vine. It climbs, sometimes way high, and when it flowers and is visited by a pollinator, it produces a bunch of long, stringy beans. Properly treated, those beans give off the flavor we associate with vanilla.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

When Spanish explorers brought vanilla from Mexico, it was mixed with chocolate and became a classy sensation, fancied by kings, queens, and, pretty soon, everybody else. In his book Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Vanilla Orchid, journalist Tim Ecott reports that Anne of Austria, daughter of Philip III of Spain, drank it in hot chocolate. Madame de Pompadour, one of the great hostesses (and mistresses) of King Louis XV, flavored her soups with it.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Francisco Hernandez, physician to King Philip II of Spain, called it a miracle drug that could soothe the stomach, cure the bite of a venomous snake, reduce flatulence, and cause “the urine to flow admirably.”

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And, best of all, it was a sexual picker upper. Bezaar Zimmerman, a German physician, claimed in his treatise “On Experiences” (1762) that, “No fewer than 342 impotent men, by drinking vanilla decoctions, have changed into astonishing lovers of at least as many women.”

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Demand, naturally, shot sky high. By the late 18th century, a ton of Mexican vanilla was worth, writes Ecott, “its weight in silver.”

With profit margins growing, a few plants were hustled out of Mexico to botanical gardens in Paris and London, then on to the East Indies to see if the plant would grow in Europe or Asia.

It grew, but it wouldn’t fruit, wouldn’t produce beans. Flowers would appear, bloom for a day, fold up, and fall off. With no beans, there could be no vanilla extract, and therefore nothing to sell. The plant needed a pollinator. In Mexico a little bee did the deed. Nobody knew how the bee did it.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

What to do? In the 1790s people knew about plant sex. Bees, they knew, were pollinators.

If people could only figure out where vanilla’s sexual parts were hiding, they could become bee substitutes.

Enter the 12-Year-Old

They kept trying. One plantation owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, on the island of Réunion halfway between India and Africa, had received a bunch of vanilla plants from the government in Paris. He’d planted them, and one, only one, held on for 22 years. It never fruited.

The story goes that one morning in 1841, Bellier-Beaumont was walking with his young African slave Edmond when they came up to a surviving vine. Edmond pointed to a part of the plant, and there, in plain view, were two packs of vanilla beans hanging from the vine. Two! That was startling. But then Edmond dropped a little bomb: This wasn’t an accident. He’d produced those fruits himself, he said, by hand-pollination.

No Way

Bellier-Beaumont didn’t believe him—not at first. It’s true that months earlier the older man had shown Edmond how to hand-pollinate a watermelon plant “by marrying the male and female parts together,” but he’d had no success with vanilla. No one had.

But after his watermelon lesson, Edmond said he’d sat with the solitary vanilla vine and looked and probed and found the part of the flower that produced pollen. He’d also found the stigma, the part that needed to be dusted. And, most important, he’d discovered that the two parts were separated by a little lid, and he’d lifted the flap and held it open with a little tool so he could rub the pollen in. You can see what Edmond did in this video:

Edmond had discovered the rostellum, the lid that many orchid plants (vanilla included) have, probably to keep the plant from fertilizing itself. Could you do it again, Bellier-Beaumont asked? And Edmond did.

This was news. Big news. Bellier-Beaumont wrote his fellow plantation owners to say Edmond had solved the mystery, then sent him from plantation to plantation to teach other slaves how to fertilize the vanilla vine.

And so the Indian Ocean vanilla industry was born.

In I841, Réunion exported no vanilla. By 1848, it was exporting 50 kilograms (.0055 tons) to France; by 1858, two tons; by 1867, 20 tons; and by 1898, 200 tons. “By then,” Tim Ecott writes, “Réunion had outstripped Mexico to become the world’s largest producer of vanilla beans.”

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The planters were getting rich. What, I wondered, happened to Edmond?

Well, he was rewarded. His owner gave him his freedom. He got a last name, Albius. Plus, his former owner wrote the governor, saying he should get a cash stipend “for his role in making the vanilla industry.”

The governor didn’t answer.

Edmond left his master and moved to town, and that’s when things went sour.

He fell in with a rough crowd, somehow got involved in a jewelry heist, and was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to five years in jail. His former owner again wrote the governor.

“I appeal to your compassion in the case of a young black boy condemned to hard labor … If anyone has a right to clemency and to recognition for his achievements, then it is Edmond … It is entirely due to him that this country owes [sic] a new branch of industry—for it is he who first discovered how to manually fertilize the vanilla plant.”

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

The appeal worked. Edmond was released. But what catches my eye here is Bellier-Beaumont’s choice of “entirely.” Our new vanilla business, he says, is “entirely” due to Edmond. He’s giving the former slave full credit for his discovery and retaining none for himself. That’s rare.

Then, all of a sudden, Edmond had a rival. A famous botanist from Paris—a scholar, a high official knighted for his achievements—announced in the 1860s that he, and not the slave boy, had discovered how to fertilize vanilla.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

Jean Michel Claude Richard claimed to have hand-pollinated vanilla in Paris and then gone to Réunion in 1838 to show a small group of horticulturists how to do it. Little Edmond, he presumed, had been in the room, peeked, and then stolen the technique.

So here’s a prestigious scholar from the imperial capital asserting a claim against a 12-year-old slave from a remote foreign island. What chance did Edmond have?

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

He was uneducated, without power, without a voice—but luckily, he had a friend. Once again, Edmond’s former master, Bellier-Beaumont, jumped into action, writing a letter to Réunion’s official historian declaring Edmond the true inventor. The great man from Paris, he said, was just, well, mis-remembering.

He went on to say that no one recalled Richard showing them how to fertilize orchids, but everybody remembers, four years later, Edmond teaching his technique to slaves around the island. Why would farmers invite Edmond to teach “if the process were already known?”

“I have been [Richard’s] friend for many years, and regret anything which causes him pain,” Bellier-Beaumont wrote, “but I also have my obligations to Edmond. Through old age, faulty memory, or some other cause, M. Richard now imagines that he himself discovered the secret of how to pollinate vanilla, and imagines that he taught the technique to the person who discovered it! Let us leave him to his fantasies.”

The letter was published. It’s now in the island’s official history. It survives.

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Etching of more adult Edmond Albius Etching of more adult Edmond Albius

And Yet, a Miserable End

Edmond himself never prospered from his discovery. He married, moved back to the country near Bellier-Beaumont’s plantation, and died in 1880 at age 51. A little notice appeared in the Moniteur, the local paper, a few weeks after he died. Dated Thursday, 26 August, 1880, it read: “The very man who at great profit to his colony, discovered how to pollinate vanilla flowers has died in the hospital at Sainte-Suzanne. It was a destitute and miserable end.” His long-standing request for an allowance, the obituary said, “never brought a response.”

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The statue of Edmond in Réunion Photograph courtesy of Yvon/Flickr

But a hundred years later, the mayor of a town on Réunion decided to make amends. In 1980 or so, a statue was built to honor Edmond. Writer Tim Ecott decided to take a look. He bought a bus ticket on the island’s “Vanilla Line,” rode to the stop marked “Albius,” got off, and there, standing by himself is Edmond (in bronze or concrete? I can’t tell). He’s dressed, Ecott says, like a waiter, with a narrow bow tie and jacket. He’s not wearing shoes: Slaves weren’t allowed shoes or hats. But he’s got a street named after him, a school named after him. He has an entry on Wikipedia. He’s survived.

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Drawing by Robert Krulwich Drawing by Robert Krulwich

And the guy who tried to erase him from history, Richard? I looked him up. He also has a Wikipedia entry. It describes his life as “marred by controversy,” mentions his claim against Edmond, and concludes that “by the end of the 20th century,” historians considered the 12-year-old boy “the true discoverer.” So despite his age, poverty, race, and status, Edmond won.

This is such a rare tale. It shouldn’t be. But it is.

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to correctly reflect the title of Tim Ecott’s book.

Two books recount Edmond’s story. Tim Ecott’s Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Vanilla Orchid is the most thorough and original, but How to Fly a Horse: The Secret History of Creation, Invention and Discovery by Kevin Ashton tells the same tale and marvels that a slave on the far side of the world, poor and non-white, could get credit for what he’d done. There is also Ken Cameron’s Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation, a book that contains Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for vanilla ice cream.