The evolution from being an Editor to being edited seemed like quite a devolution at the time that I wrote this article on VANIILLA – one of my favourite economic goods and sensual sidekicks – in 2013; particularly as the edition published in print and circulated throughout the United Kingdom held a few embarrassing editorial typos.

I pointed these errors out to Nielsen-Massey, manufacturers of the world’s finest vanilla extracts who had supported my article and appreciated the insight into the subject’s life.

They too had noted the errors, but as the company’s etiquette is in the same league as their flavours did not draw attention to it when giving their feedback and discussing future opportunities.

As much as a perfectionist at my writing desk as I am at the kitchen counter or bottom line of a business plan, it took a while for me to laugh at the experience and made me cautious about to whom I license the HIDDEN VOICES™ platform – it is important that my intellectual property is matched with a setting of the same integrity.

I am happy to finally publish an unadulterated version of my original 2013 article with a light infusion of today’s perspective to add a fresh flavour that will hopefully enhance your enjoyment of a life story and economic case study that will always remain one I find hard to digest.


VANILLA, the most popular flavour in the world has a history as complex as its olfactory notes.

Indigenous to southeast Mexico and Guatemala, tlioxochitl was first cultivated by the Totanac people who inhabited the Mazatlan valley on Mexico’s Gulf Coast; a region that now has many African-named cities bestowed by the enslaved whose free and hard labour laid the foundation for the industrial supremacy of the New World.

Vanilla is the only member of the 30,000 strong orchid family with agricultural value, its scent and flavour infuse ancient and modern history.

The Aztecs used vanilla to scent their cigars and Jamaica’s Guinness Punch would not be a knock-out drink were it not for vanilla essence.

Vanilla is an unnoticed cornerstone of many global staples including Coca-Cola, chocolate bars and cigarettes. Its essential oil calms the central nervous system and brain and is both a sedative and an aphrodisiac.

Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés introduced vanilla to Europe in the 1520s. It proved impossible to cultivate the plant outside of its indigenous environment: pollination was dependent on the Melipona bee and hummingbirds.

The man who ensured vanilla’s supremacy as a universally favoured flavour is unfortunately unknown to most vanilla producers and consumers.

In 1841, Edmond Albius a twelve year old African boy enslaved on Île Bourbon (modern Réunion; an Indian Ocean department of France) revolutionised horticulture and created the spark that would fuel the global vanilla industry with an innovative hand-pollination technique which is still in use today: le geste d’Edmond.


Edmond Albius’ mother Mélise died during his birth, his father Pamphile shortly after.

Though born a slave, Edmond appears to have had a lucky beginning far removed from the brutality and dehumanisation of most enslaved experiences, his owner Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont adopted him and treated him with respect and affection.

In later life Bellier stated: “this young black boy became my constant companion, a favorite child always at my feet.”

Vanilla vines had been smuggled to Île Bourbon from Mexico in 1793.

Bellier-Beaumont, despaired of the unproductive vanilla vines growing on his Belle Vue plantation; only one had taken hold in twenty years and had never borne fruit. He remarked “Of one hundred vanilla vines on our island, we would be lucky to see ten flowers, and even fewer fruits, in the whole year.”

Edmond had spent his early childhood following his master around his estate, observing him as he tended to his various plants and botanical curiosities.

Wishing to please the man to whom he belonged and who was the only father-figure he had known, Edmond, resolved to solve the dilemma of the unproductive vanilla vines.

Having watched Beaumont hand-pollinate simpler plants over the years, Edmond had a eureka moment as he meditated over the strange yellow orchids which had vexed his master for longer than he had been alive: Edmond peeled back the lip of a vanilla orchid and with a thorn plucked from a wild lemon tree lifted the rostellum and connected the anther and stigmatic surfaces.

The deft flick of Edmond’s thumb and finger was an action that would forever change the worlds of flavour and fragrance: he had pollinated the vanilla orchid.

Edmond then did the same with another orchid and then another…


On a morning walk shortly after Edmond’s moment of botanical genius, Beaumont was astonished to find two fruits growing on his single vine.

Edmond admitted that he had fertilised the vanilla vine.

When asked to repeat his feat with other vanilla specimens, Edmond did so with precise effectiveness and outstanding efficiency.

Beaumont informed other estate owners of the innovation.

Edmond was delivered to plantations around the island in a coach and led workshops training other slaves in his technique.

Vanilla swiftly became Île Bourbon’s premiere cash crop.

Vanilla orchids were soon exported to the Comoros Islands and Madagascar along with le geste d’Edmond and by 1898 the two islands produced 80% of global production.

MIGHTIER THAN THE MIDAS TOUCH – The genius gesture that created an agricultural revolution and immortalises Edmond’s innovation: le geste d’Edmond.

European botanists were flabbergasted that the wisdom of a 12 year old black slave had exceeded their exhaustive efforts to launch the vanilla industry.

Jean-Michel-Claude Richard claimed that it was he who had taught Edmond the fabled technique. Beaumont and others came forward to ardently defend Edmond and denounce Richard’s absurd assertions.

Edmond may have received credit for breaking Mexico’s 300 year monopoly on the international vanilla trade and bringing vast wealth to his master, his island and colonial France, but he never reaped the financial fruits of his economic labour or received the reward of freedom.

After the French revolutionary government’s abolition of slavery in 1848, Île Bourbon was reborn as Réunion and 62,000 enslaved Africans were freed; Edmond Albius was one of them.

Emancipated, Edmond went to the capital Saint-Denis and took up work as a kitchen servant. Later accused of stealing jewellery he was sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Beaumont appealed to the governor for leniency due to Edmond’s economic enrichment of the country: if he had been rewarded for his enterprise he might not have turned to crime. Edmond served half of his sentence. In 1880 he died “destitute and miserable” in abject poverty within a heavily segregated society.

After Edmond’s death, Réunion continued to reap dividends from his botanical feat: in 1898 the island exported 200 metric tonnes of vanilla pods to France.

Madagascar, another Indian Ocean nation that was an early adopter of le geste d’Edmond is now a supreme producer of Vanilla Planifolia, cultivating 3,100 tonnes of vanilla pods in 2013.

Today vanilla has global supremacy in the world of flavours and fragrance.

The majority is produced in Madagascar and Indonesia. Colombia, India, Jamaica, Mexico, PNG, Tahiti, Uganda and Zanzibar are amongst the vanilla producing nations. Indian and Mexican crops have been affected by droughts in recent years, whilst Colombian and Papua New Guinean output has surged.

Vanilla, the world’s most expensive spice after saffron is essential to industries other than food.

Comforting vanilla is a superior fixative in the world of perfume and irreplaceable in the creation of voluptuous formulas within the Oriental fragrance family.

Güerlain’s Shalimar, Chanel No. 5 and Caron’s legendary 1930s aftershave Pour un Homme were all built upon vanilla’s foundation.

BASIC INSTINCT: Most are unaware that their sweet scent is based on the sweat of a slave’s enterprise.

In 2012, AFRICA: Seen & Heard created The Olfactory Voyage with the assistance of the world renowned Perfumeur, Roja Dove.

Our Metaphysical Calendar illustrated and traversed the botany, fragrant materials, history and personalities of Ancient and Modern Africa and her global Diaspora.

The month of February embodied the Berlin Conference via Tom Ford’s Tobacco Vanille.

Van Cleef and Arpels’ Orchidèe Extraordinaire represented August and was a tribute to Edmond Albius himself who died on 9th August 1880.

In 1980 after much haranguing St. Suzanne’s mayor placed an unexceptional monument to Edmond Albius near Belle Vue plantation. A bronze statue also stands and the Collège Edmond Albius in Le Port, Réunion is dedicated to him.


Many names & deeds are forgotten by history, but it is possible to pay tribute to Edmond Albius every time vanilla teases your nostrils or caresses your taste buds: remember that an enslaved African liberated the world’s most successful flavour.

© W. O. Adeyemi/ AFRICA: Seen & Heard Ltd and, 2016. Unauthorised use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to W. O. Adeyemi, AFRICA: Seen & Heard and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




5 Vanilla Products I Couldn’t Live Without in 2013

Nielsen-Massey Organic Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract

Diptyque Opoponox Candle

Harry Joseph & Son’s Ital Cashew Punch

Serge Lutens Muscs Koublaï Khan Eau de Parfum

Xanath Liqueur

5 Vanilla Products I Cannot Live Without in 2016

Nielsen-Massey Organic Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract

Royal Bain de Caron Cologne – Dropped into my iron water chamber to press my bed linen

Waitrose 1 Single Origin Dark Chocolate – I am sipping Diasporean hot chocolate this winter – some days Haitian, other days Peruvian whilst listening to Susana Baca, some nights Indian, others Indian Ocean for subtle coconut accord…

Calvin Klein Driftwood Scented Candle

Pasteis de Nata from Café Lisboa – One is never enough…

LEARN about The African Influence on Veracruz, Mexico:

DANCE in tribute to Edmond Albius:

COOK with Vanilla the West African Way:

or TASTE my favourite French pastries at: La Pâtisserie des Rêves, 43 Marylebone High St, Marylebone, London W1U 5HE


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