Poivre, Pierre

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(b. Lyons, France, 23 August 1719; d. La Freta, near Lyons, France, 6 January 1786)


Poivre was the son of a respected silk merchant. Brought up in a missionary college where he received a Catholic education, he intended to become apriest. After finishing the course in theology, and before his ordination, he studied natural history, drawing, and painting for four years in preparation for his “missionary job.” In 1749 he went to China and Cochin China in order to learn the languages of the countries, but he was also instructed to bring back anything curious or useful for his own country. Upon his return to France in 1745, the ships were encountered by the English, and Poivre was taken a prisoner to Batavia (during the battle he lost his right arm, the result of which was his giving up of the priesthood). During his five-month imprisonment, he inquired about the culture of the spice plants that he wanted to introduce into the French possessions. Until then, spices were sold solely by the Dutch, but Poivre realized that the situation was due to lack of enterprise on the part of other nations. When he arrived at the île-de-France (Mauritius) in 1746, he noted that the few spice plants introduced from the Moluccas seemed to grow quite well. He then decided to try to cultivate all the spice plants he had seen in the Moluccas. Poivre wanted to create a new center for spices in Cochin China, and to purchase spice plantlets for cultivation.

Returning to France in June 1748, Poivre convinced Mr. David, the director of the French East India Company, and Rouillé and de Montaran, the king’s superintendents, to charge him to go to the Indies to execute his projects. In spite of some difficulties with one of the directors of the Company, Duvelaer, who did not seem quite truthful, Poivre returned to the East; but nothing was signed between him and the Company, and he doubted the promise would be thoroughly respected. Between 1749 and 1755, in spite of many problems, he introduced twenty plantlets of nutmeg. Instead of cooperating with him, the directors of the Company and several personalities of the île-de-France—including the director of the Botanic Garden in Reduit, Fusée‐Aublet—did everything to ruin the efforts and work or Poivre.

In 1757 Poivre returned to a peaceful life with his family in France. But in 1766 he was asked by the royal government to accept the charge of Commissairegeneralordonnateur (general intendant) of the île-de-France and Bourbon (Mauritius and Réunion). As intendant, Poivre had so many difficulties that as early as 1770 he wished to be released from his office. In October 1772 he returned to his home, near Lyon, France.

The clove and nutmeg plants that Poivre had introduced to the Grapefruit Garden (“Jurdin des Pamplemousse”) of the île-de-France were not productive until 1775 and 1778 respectively. Consequently, he never saw the result of his efforts. Poivre himself published nothing, but he did leave many manuscripts, a great number of which are in the main library of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris.


I. Original Works. For the complete works of poivre, see Oeuvres Complètes de Pierre Poivre . . . précédées de sa vie (par R. S. Dupont de Nemours) et accompagnées de notes et d’une préface signée, L. L. (Louis-MathieuLanglès)] (Paris, 1797), which includes “Voyages d’un philosophe ou Observations sur les moeurs et les arts des peuples de I’Afrique, de I’Asie et de I’Amérique” “Discours prononcé par Pierre poivre à son arrivée à I’lsle de France”; “Discours pronouncé à la premiére assemblée du nouveau Conseil supérieur de I’Isle de France, le 3.8.1767”; “Extrait du voyage fait en 1769 et 1770 aux Isles Philippines & Moluques par les vaisseaux . . . le Vigilant et . . . I’Étoile du Matin, sous le commandement de M. Evrard de Trémigon . . . présenté par le sieur d’Etcheverry . . . d’aprés les vues de Pierre Poivre pour la recherche des arbres à épiceries”; “Mission faite aux iles Moluques par le sieur d’Etcheverry, depuis le 10.3.1770 … jusqu’au 25 juin suivant”; “Lettre de M. Poivre au Père Coeurdoux, lettre du Père Coeurdoux”; “Rapport fait à I’Académie des Sciences sur le transport des plans de Cannelliers et de girofliers à L’Isle de France”; and “Extrait du voyage aux Indes. à la Chine par Sonnerat,” vol. I, p. 81. A certain number of separate editions of every one of those works have been done in Europe, and can be found in big libraries.

II. Secondary Literature. On Poivre and his work, see Henri Cordier, Voyages de Pierre Poirre de 1748 Jusqu’à 1757 (Paris, 1918); Marthe De Fels, Pierre Poivre ou l’amour des épices (Paris, 1968); Pierre Samuel Du Pont de Nemours, Notice sur la vie de M. Poivre, chevalier de I’ordre du roi, ancien intendant des isles de France et de Bourbon (Philadelphia, 1786); Yves Laissus, “Note sur les manuscrits de Pierre Poivre (1719–1786) conservés à la bibliothèque centrale du Museum national d’Histoire naturelle,” in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Arts and Science of Mauritius, 4 , pt. 2 (1973); Madeleine Ly-Tio-Fane, “Mauritius and the Spice Trade. The Odyssey of Pierre Poivre,” in Bulletin of the Mauritius Institute, 4 (1958); and Louis Malleret, “Pierre Poivre;” in Publications de l’Éole française d’ Extrême Orient, 92 (1974).

Paul Jovet
J. C. Mallet