A Life Flavored with Sweet Vanilla and Bitter Injustice

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2018-2019, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the February 2019 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.

According to a recent survey by the International Dairy Foods Association, the best-selling flavor of ice cream in the U.S. is vanilla. If you are one of the people whose favorite ice cream is vanilla, then you should give credit to a slave for vanilla ice cream, because it is due to a slave that vanilla ice cream tastes like vanilla.

Sketch of Edmond Albius

Nowadays the majority of vanilla flavoring in foods results from chemically synthesized vanillin. Vanillin is the substance present in natural vanilla that is primarily responsible for natural vanilla’s flavor and aroma. Synthetic vanillin, most of which is manufactured from a petrochemical, is widely used as an artificial vanilla flavoring, because it is much less expensive than natural vanilla. In contrast, most vanilla ice cream sold in the U.S. has natural vanilla flavoring that comes from an extract of the fruit of the vanilla plant, that is, from vanilla beans. This is because the FDA requires that ice cream flavored with synthetic vanillin must be labeled as “artificial vanilla” or “artificially flavored vanilla.” Since companies are reluctant to market ice cream that is labeled in this way, vanilla ice cream in the U.S. is by and large flavored with natural vanilla, and a black slave named Edmond Albius was responsible for making that natural vanilla flavoring possible. Edmond Albius was not a slave in the U.S., but a slave in a French colony. The ingenious technique that he developed for cultivation of the vanilla plant is another example of how people in bondage were capable of much more than manual labor. This history brief focuses on Edmond Albius and his seminal contribution to vanilla production.

Hernán Cortés

For centuries in Mexico, vanilla plants were grown and vanilla beans harvested and used to make vanilla flavoring. In 1519 Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés led an expedition to Mexico, during which the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs. At that time the Aztecs routinely used vanilla flavoring. In his dealings with the Aztecs, Cortés learned about vanilla and brought this flavoring back with him to Spain, from which it was introduced into other European countries, such as England and France. Cortés also learned about chocolate from the Aztecs, and he likewise brought this New World delicacy to Europe. For many years, vanilla’s use was primarily as an additive to chocolate to reduce chocolate’s bitterness. In 1570 there was another Spanish expedition to Mexico led by Francisco Hernández, who was a physician for the Spanish king, Philip. This expedition was intended to be a scientific mission, and Hernández provided the first written descriptions of various New World plants, including the vanilla plant. Hernández claimed that extracts of vanilla beans combined with chocolate had medicinal properties and could “warm and strengthen the stomach; diminish flatulence; cook the humors and attenuate them; give strength and vigor to the mind; heal female troubles; and are said to be good against cold poisons and the bites of venomous animals.” Another health benefit of vanilla according to Hernández, although his experimental evidence for this is not known, was that it “causes the urine to flow admirably.” If Hernández was correct, then vanilla is a tasty substitute for Flomax. While the medicinal properties that Hernández claimed for vanilla should be a sufficient reason to consume it, an Englishman named Hugh Morgan, who was the apothecary for Queen Elizabeth I, was more taken by vanilla’s taste and suggested in 1602 that vanilla, by itself, be used as a flavoring. This began the steady and inexorable rise in the use and popularity of vanilla.

Charles Morren

For a long time, the vanilla that was used in Europe was simply imported from Mexico. But eventually vanilla plants were brought to Europe with the objective of cultivating them for vanilla production. However, the outcome of this endeavor was a complete failure. The plants grew well and were capable of surviving for decades, but the plants produced no fruit, that is, no vanilla beans. Because of this, no vanilla extract could be made from the plants in Europe. The reason for this remained a mystery until 1836 when a Belgian botanist named Charles Morren discovered that the vanilla plants in Europe were not being pollinated. This is because Europe lacks the appropriate pollinator for vanilla flowers. The natural pollinator for vanilla is now thought to be a species of stingless bee known as the Melipona bee that is native to Mexico. The vast majority of flowers that exist on Earth, including those of vanilla plants, are hermaphroditic, which means that the flower contains both male and female reproductive organs. Vanilla plants belong to the orchid family, and like orchids in general, but in contrast to most hermaphroditic flowers, vanilla flowers have inside them a flap of tissue that separates the male and female organs. The natural pollinators of vanilla plants have evolved the necessary instinctive qualities to reach the pollen and effect pollination.

When vanilla plants from Mexico were distributed throughout Europe and its colonies, it was fortuitous that some plants were brought to a small island in the Indian Ocean. This island, which is named Réunion, is about 500 miles east of Madagascar and was a French colony at that time. The rationale for bringing vanilla plants to Réunion and places like it was that the tropical climate made such places suitable for cultivation of the vanilla plants. But the vanilla plants in those places, like the plants in Europe, never produced fruit, because they were not pollinated. One person living on Réunion, a man named Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, had some vanilla plants, and he had always wondered why the plants never produced fruit. Bellier-Beaumont had also come to own a young black slave named Edmond, who, as was typical for slaves on Réunion, had no surname. Edmond’s mother, Mélise, died while giving birth to him in 1829, and Edmond never knew his father. Bellier-Beaumont, who had an interest in plants, took a liking to Edmond and taught him to care for the many plants that Bellier-Beaumont had on his plantation.

Manual pollination of a vanilla flower

Among the things that Bellier-Beaumont showed to Edmond was a procedure to manually pollinate watermelon flowers. A short time later, Bellier-Beaumont, to his astonishment, saw fruit growing on one of his vanilla plants, a plant that had been in Bellier-Beaumont’s possession for over 20 years without ever producing fruit. When Bellier-Beaumont asked Edmond about this, Edmond, who was 12 years old at the time, told Bellier-Beaumont that he had manually pollinated the plant. Bellier-Beaumont had previously tried to manually pollinate vanilla flowers, but without success. Edmond explained that he closely examined the vanilla flowers and noticed the flap of tissue that separates the male and female reproductive organs. Edmond said that he used a small stick to push aside the flap of tissue and then pressed the male and female organs against each other to transfer the sticky pollen onto the female organ. Edmond demonstrated his procedure to Bellier-Beaumont, and Bellier-Beaumont spread the word about this to others on Réunion. The year in which Edmond developed his manual pollination procedure was 1841. For context, in 1841 William Henry Harrison was sworn in as president of the United States. A little over a month later, John Tyler was sworn in as president of the United States. Also in 1841, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of the Amistad. In 1841 the island of Réunion exported no vanilla. By 1848 Réunion exported about 100 pounds of dried vanilla. Ten years later it was two tons, and in 1867, 20 tons. In 1898, 57 years after Edmond developed his pollination procedure, Réunion exported 200 tons of vanilla and surpassed Mexico to become the world’s leading producer of vanilla beans. Réunion exported not only vanilla, but also Edmond’s pollination procedure, and this procedure, which today is, by far, the predominant method by which vanilla flowers are pollinated, led to the development of the worldwide vanilla industry.

Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont freed Edmond in June 1848, seven years after Edmond first pollinated vanilla flowers, although Edmond would have received his freedom in December of that year when slavery on Réunion was abolished. It may have been that Bellier-Beaumont freed Edmond in anticipation of the abolition of slavery. Sometime after Edmond received his freedom, he was given the surname Albius. It is not known why this particular surname was chosen, but it is curious that the surname given to Edmond, who was a black slave of African descent, contains the root of the Latin word for white. After Edmond received his freedom, he moved to the city, worked as a laborer for a time, and then worked as a kitchen servant. One night a robbery occurred at the house in which Edmond worked, and for reasons that are not known, Edmond was accused. He was subsequently tried, found guilty, and in 1852 sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor. But three years into Edmond’s sentence, his former owner, Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, interceded on Edmond’s behalf and was able to obtain Edmond’s release from prison. In the letter that Bellier-Beaumont sent to the governor to plead for Edmond’s release, Bellier-Beaumont wrote, “If anyone has a right to clemency and to recognition for his achievements, then it is Edmond.” The most interesting statement in the letter is one in which Bellier-Beaumont gave full credit to Edmond for the invention that led to the island of Réunion becoming, in the late 19th century, the world leader in the production of vanilla. Bellier-Beaumont wrote about 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 manually to fertilize the vanilla plant.”

After Edmond’s release from prison in 1855, he married, left the city, and moved near Bellier-Beaumont’s plantation. Sometime after Edmond’s release from prison, there was a false claim that Edmond was not the person who developed the vanilla pollination procedure. A French botanist named Jean Michel Claude Richard insisted that he had developed the procedure years before Edmond showed the procedure to Bellier-Beaumont. Richard claimed that he developed the procedure in Paris and then went to Réunion in 1838 and showed the procedure to several people. Richard supposed that young Edmond had been present when Richard demonstrated the procedure, and then Edmond later showed it to Bellier-Beaumont. But Bellier-Beaumont wrote a letter to government officials on Réunion and refuted Richard’s account. In that letter, in which Bellier-Beaumont wrote that he had been Richard’s friend for many years, Bellier-Beaumont maintained, “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!” In that statement from Bellier-Beaumont’s letter, he offered a couple of specific suggestions for Richard’s claim to being the person who invented the vanilla pollination procedure, namely, “old age” and “faulty memory.” It can only be surmised what Bellier-Beaumont meant by the unspecified “some other cause” that he proposed as a possible explanation for Richard claiming to be the inventor of the pollination procedure. Perhaps Bellier-Beaumont was referring to something that is associated in a children’s taunt with pants on fire and is also the reason that Pinocchio’s nose grows. On the other hand, Bellier-Beaumont left no doubt about his recommendation for how to deal with the man who was trying to usurp credit for the pollination procedure. Bellier-Beaumont’s suggestion with regard to Richard was simply, “Let us leave him to his fantasies.”

Statue of Edmond Albius on Réunion

Fortunately, Edmond continued to receive credit for developing the pollination procedure. But sadly, while many people were reaping large profits because of Edmond’s pollination procedure, Edmond did not receive any financial prosperity from his discovery. Edmond Albius died in 1880 at the age of 51. In the local newspaper there was a notice dated August 26 that read, “The very man who at great profit to this colony, discovered how to pollinate vanilla flowers, has died in the public hospital.” The notice also contained the somber statement, “It was a destitute and miserable end.” Today a statue of Edmond stands in one of the towns on the small island which at one time, thanks to Edmond, was the leading producer of vanilla.

In the poem “Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard,” which was written by English poet Thomas Gray and published in 1751, there is a line that reads, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” In a way, this quote applies to those whose lives and talents were squandered in the desert of slavery. Countless people who possessed the ability to make important contributions and to live rewarding lives were denied the chance to do so, because they were forced to blush unseen and waste the sweetness of their talents in bondage. Edmond Albius almost was such a person, but, ironically, it was a flower that gave Edmond the opportunity to escape the terrible fate of blooming unseen in unfulfilling anonymity. In spite of living over a third of his life in slavery, Edmond made a contribution which is so important that it spread from the small island on which he lived to reach the entire world. At present the leading producer of natural vanilla is Madagascar, the much larger island that lies about 500 miles west of Réunion. While natural vanilla is produced in a number of different countries, Madagascar currently produces about 80% of the world’s natural vanilla, and all of the vanilla produced on Madagascar results from the pollination procedure that was invented by a 12-year-old black slave on a small island in the Indian Ocean. In fact, the vast majority of the vanilla flowers on planet Earth are now pollinated with the procedure that was developed by Edmond Albius. Whenever people enjoy the taste of vanilla, they should think of Edmond Albius, and maybe also give a silent thank you to him.