The original Spice Hunter: Pierre Poivre
Author: Jack Denley
Poivre was born in Lyon, the son of a silk merchant, and was raised in a monastery, turning to the cloth in his own manner. A young man in search of adventure, he took advantage of his calling, travelling to Asia as a missionary. It was here that his infamy began to grow.
Not long after his arrival, he was arrested in China, for reasons not quite known today. Not one to be inconvenienced, he took it upon himself to learn Chinese so that he could defend himself in court. He used his new-found skill to learn about trade and agriculture, becoming a keen botanist. Before he could put his skills to good use, his mission ended, seeing him return to France to take his holy orders.
As was fashionable in the 18th century, Britain and France had entered a war on opposite sides, leaving plump merchant ships vulnerable to privateers. On his journey back to France, Poivre encouraged his ship, the Dauphin, to engage with a British ship. In the subsequent skirmish, he lost an arm to a cannonball, requiring him to convalesce on the nearby Dutch-owned islands of Indonesia. It was here, amongst the abundant nutmeg and cloves that his mind turned from the cloth to something riskier.
At their height, spices were worth more than gold, and the Dutch had a firm grip on their distribution through the famed spice routes. Anyone found stealing these precious goods was declared a “Spice Hunter” and faced execution. Breaking the Dutch monopoly, however, offered huge rewards for anyone bold enough. A proud patriot, Poivre took up the gauntlet to risk life (seeing as he had already risked limb) for his country.
His travels took him to the Île de France, modern-day Mauritius, which he found was perfect for cultivating spices. Using this tropical paradise as his base, he – with the help of the French East India Company – started smuggling spices to the island, where they could be propagated.
Under the guise of a legitimate merchant for the French East India Company, he began dealing with unscrupulous suppliers on the spice islands. The Dutch, however, were soon wise to the enterprise and began a campaign to counter any successes. Spies produced falsified maps to confuse navigators and tampered with seedlings, boiling or covering them in lime juice and thus ruining any chance of growing them on his return. A few pickled peppers certainly outweighed the threat of death.
Those that eventually arrived on Mauritius failed to grow initially, and it was only 10 years later, as Governor of Mauritius that he was able to fully control the process. The first nutmegs on the island were harvested from a tree that Poivre himself had planted. Within 30 years, the French were successfully growing cloves and nutmeg across the globe, all due to Poivre’s nous.
The greatest testament to Pierre Poivre is the botanical garden that he planted near the Mauritian capital. It remains open and flourishing today on the site of his original botanical laboratory, it stands as a symbol of the original Spice Hunter.