Edmond Albius: The Boy Who Revolutionized the Vanilla Industry

The modern vanilla industry owes its existence to a young enslaved African, Edmond Albius. Vanilla vines had been imported from Mexican jungles to the tiny French colony of RĂ©union, in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. But without their Mexican bee pollinators, nobody could figure out how to produce vanilla beans. In 1841, Edmond Albius, then an enslaved 12 year old, figured it out. He adapted a method for hand-pollinating watermelon plants to work for vanilla orchid flowers. The plantation where he was enslaved sent him around the island to teach others. By the late 1800’s, RĂ©union was producing more vanilla beans than all of Mexico. Sadly, Albius never shared in the wealth he brought to this little island.

In 1848, France finally freed its enslaved population. The 19 year old Albius did menial work, and found a job in a kitchen, but was jailed after a crime. Fortunately, some prominent officials intervened on his behalf, citing his important discovery, and he was released early. He continued his life in poverty, dying at 51 in 1880. Over the years, several have tried to discredit him, but there’s much evidence to prove that it was young Albius who found the solution. The French established successful vanilla plantations in their tropical colonies. Madagascar, a former French colony, now produces most of the world’s vanilla beans. Albius’ ingenuity helped make vanilla an essential ingredient in modern foods and fragrances.

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