Pierre Poivre, 1719 – 1786: Nutmeg and Spice

Really, you couldn’t make up a name like that and even if you did, no fiction editor worth his salt would let it pass.   So, truth must step up where fiction dares not tread.

Poivre  was the son of a Lyon merchant and was heading towards a religious career when the Society of Foreign Missions, impressed with a native talent of languages,  sent him to China and Indochina to get his feet wet with a little evangelical work.  Reports of his time there get somewhat murky (mysterious east and all that), a curious mixture of amusing anecdote and utter silence. One story goes that he  landed in a Chinese jail through a misunderstanding with a local mandarin but learned enough Chinese while incarcerated to talk himself out of it.

On the utter silent part (or at least the Not-In-Front-Of-The-Servants part), is the fact that he was encouraged to leave the mission and indeed, from China altogether.  Certainly he gave up the path towards the church.   

His trip home proved another turning point.  There were rumors of war between France and Britain at this time and both countries’ ships  dotted the South China Seas.  Poivre’s transport, the “Dauphin”, went in a small convoy of three, but had the ill luck to run into the British naval ship.  A battle ensued,  a cannonball took off his right hand, surgeons  took off the better part of his arm, and the British took the ships (and Poivre) to Batavia (Djakarta) where the ships were sold for prize money and the passengers were left to do the best they could. (His immediate regret was that he would no longer be able to paint.)

Batavia was then a Dutch colony and if Britain wanted to do anything to undo their on-off allies, they could not have done better than to drop Poivre here.   As a man of natural curiosity, especially in matters botanical, he took a close interest in spices and the spice trade.  Cloves, cinnamon, but chiefly the nutmeg.

He continued home in 1745, stopping in Pondicherry (French India), and became friendly with  François Mahé La Bourdonnais  an officer of the French East Indies Company and governor of Mauritius.  They hit it off so well that when the governor returned to his posting, Poivre went with him and stayed for three years.  It was Poivre’s notion that the island’s climate was close to that of the spice islands further east and its location a whole lot closer to Europe, therefore making it a perfect place to grow the cash crops that enriched the Dutch but did little for France.

Good ideas are dime a dozen,  good execution is what makes fortunes, and jump starting this good idea would be something of a challenge.   The Dutch were jealous of their  plants.  Nutmegs were soaked in lime juice to prevent them from sprouting anyplace but in Dutch held territory, and seeds for other spices were not to be had.

Challenging for Poivre, of course, but what are challenges meant for if not to be conquered?  The French East India Company signed on to his idea of snaffling a few of these plants, and other spices as well.  They fronted him a few thousand piasters to give credence to his cover as a legitimate merchant.  Within a few months he had managed to get a small garden of commercially interesting plants and seeds from unscrupulous supplies in the Philippines and the Moluccas and elsewhere, including the great prize of some non-sterile nutmeg.

Not that it did him much good.  The Dutch were not stupid, and his interest had not gone unnoticed.  Most of the plants he carried back west died en route, spiked by a Dutch East India Company man who was to sent to ensure this (he got off light- officially, the penalty for exporting seeds or plants was death).  Those that survived, well, there were not enough for any real commercial enterprise and the people to whom he entrusted them on Mauritius did not treat them with the care and affection he would have done.

In 1757 he returned to France, semi-retired  with an honorarium of 20,000 francs from the French East India Company , and for the next ten years wrote tracts for the Physiocrats and scholarly bodies.  He was brought out of retirement ten years later when the company was dissolved and the French government,  now directly in charge of Mauritius, needed someone with a resume like his to oversee their new empirical interests.  He was named Intendant of the Islands of Mauritius (Isle de France) and Réunion (Isle de Bourbon).  He also married the aristocratic seventeen year old Francoise Robin of Lyon, who accompanied him out east and gave birth to their three daughters.

As governor, he managed to make the two islands utterly self-sufficient.  He also passed laws to improve the lot of slaves (it was apparently too radical to actually set them free) and rebuilt a good deal of Port-Louis. He also established the Gardens of Pamplemousse (today the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanic Garden) as a kind of botanical laboratory for the various spices he had imported from the far east.

In 1772 he petitioned to retire from service.  The request was granted, and he was awarded a royal pension on the recommendation of  Turgot.  He died in Lyon in some comfort on the eve of the Revolution.  Good timing.

His widow Francoise Robin married his biographer and fellow Physiocrat Pierre Samuel du Pont, and together they moved to America where the family got involved in other enterprises.

Poivre’s dream of supplanting the Dutch nutmeg trade never quite worked out as he had hoped, not on Mauritius, at any event.  After he died, the plants were transplanted to the French West Indies where they fared rather better – Grenada is today the world leader in nutmeg production, and takes the job with due seriousness.

Poivre wrote two books on his observations of eastern agriculture and several papers on economics.  He also had two spurious books of travel attributed to him.  The Oeuvre Complet is available online, which is nice.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Pierre Poivre, 1719 – 1786: Nutmeg and Spice

  1. To whom it may concern

    Dear sir/Madam

    Michael Charters & I have compiled a Dictionary of Southern African Plant Names. This includes short biographies of people after whom plants have been named. The genus Poivrea (Combretaceae) was named for Pierre Poivre (1719-1786).

    In our dictionary we have over 1,000 biographies. Our biographies are short, so we only need ‘postage stamp’ size images and we can down-size the image on your website. The image is in the public domain but we always try to get permission from the owner. We are not funded by any institution so cannot pay for images. We acknowledge all sources who have helped us and if you have a specific citation you want us to use we will do so.

    We would appreciate it if you could confirm that we can use this image.

    Sincerely
    Hugh Clarke
    Cape Town, South Africa

    • Mr Clarke, greetings

      I have no claim on this picture and would not hold it back even if I did.

      Best of luck on the project, I’m pleased to learn of it and surprised no one has done it before now.

      All best regards

      Bruce Ware Allen

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