A Woman Far From Home
Story by Alanna Rossi, Illustration by Jaclyn Simon
Charlotte stood on the deck of the ship and tilted her face up towards the warm sun. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply, holding her breath as if to savour the sweet taste of the salty air before exhaling, expelling it from her lungs. After a seemingly endless patch of rough weather, it was nice to be outside again, and feel the cool breeze on her skin. The air felt fresh after the storm and it was a small luxury after having been confined to her musty cabin. The sounds of the crew filled the air, men talking amongst one another and bellowing commands back and forth. It was a familiar sound to her ears now, and she hardly noticed it at times. She knew that they were somewhere in the South Pacific Ocean having recently departed from the island of Tahiti where they spent three weeks gathering and cataloging botanical specimens for their expansive collection. After spending months in frigid temperatures near Patagonia, the unintentional discovery of Tahiti felt like a Godsend. They were unaware of its existence but were pleased to have found it nonetheless. It was warm and inviting, the island lush and teeming with life. It was a successful three weeks and her body ached all over from their labours. Charlotte was a woman of only twenty eight years, but exposure to the sun and other harsh climates had aged her significantly. The work was hard on her body and life aboard a ship was uncomfortable at the best of times. Charlotte had adapted as best she could to life at sea over the past three years. At first she had experienced the most wretched sea sickness and was unable to leave her cabin for weeks while the ship headed South. The ship lurched and swayed and it felt as though her entire cabin was being tossed about. The hammock she slept in only heightened the sense of nausea and it made recovery difficult. During her bout of sickness, Charlotte experienced a number of regrets, mostly involving leaving the comforts of her home in France and her comfortable (stationary) bed behind, but also of not being more prepared for the journey. Naively she thought she would be able to handle it without any problems and underestimated the conditions she would have to endure. Charlotte had never left the small village she grew up in until she boarded the Baret, three years ago, so the four day journey to the ports was thrilling for her. She didn’t know what to expect, but she certainly didn’t expect to be so sick. Those first few weeks were when she missed France the most, and had seriously considered abandoning the expedition all together.
However, she soon recovered, and regained her strength and sense of purpose. The thoughts she had of leaving to return home to France felt like a distant memory and she began to prepare for her journey ahead. Charlotte shared a cabin with her dear friend John, who was the reason why she was on the expedition. John, who she knew to be brilliant, was personally selected for this expedition by the King himself as part of an effort to circumnavigate the globe and explore foreign lands – collecting and cataloging as many specimens as possible to be returned to the Royal collection. An accomplished naturalist, John had enthusiastically accepted the position and knew immediately that he wanted Charlotte to come with him. John and Charlotte bonded over their shared passions, his love of nature and her love of plants. As an herb woman at home in her village, Charlotte possessed a vast knowledge of the common plants found in their region. Her job was to provide dispensaries the necessary plants and herbs required to treat common ailments. John had a University education but he lacked any sort of practical experience. He needed a teacher, someone who could show him how to properly identify plants in the wild, and that is when Charlotte entered his life. Charlotte shared her knowledge with him and in return he shared his. John had even been kind enough to allow Charlotte to live in an old caretaker’s cottage on his estate, where she had full access to the grounds and the gardens.
John was a widower, having lost his wife years previous and Charlotte wasn’t looking for a husband, so the relationship was purely platonic. Charlotte’s knowledge of plants was a precious gift to John. She taught him everything she knew and when the time came when John was selected for the expedition, he decided that Charlotte was to accompany him as his assistant. He trusted no one else, and no one else possessed her knowledge and expertise. There were however, a number of obstacles in their way. In France, women were forbidden, by law, from being aboard navy vessels. Unsure of how to proceed with their plan, Charlotte suggested a rather radical idea. If she couldn’t go as a woman, she would go as a man. She would disguise herself by wearing men’s clothing and hiding as much of her womanhood as possible. It was the simplest solution, but a dangerous one. Charlotte bound her breasts with linen, cut her hair, and wore loose fitting clothes, including trousers. She wore a hat to hide some of her hair and she spoke with as deep a voice as she could muster. Before they left for the expedition, she would accompany John into the village in her disguise to see if it was passable. Fortunately, no one paid her any attention. She would call herself Charles and she prayed to God that no one would discover their secret.
Unfamiliar with life aboard a ship, Charlotte was uncertain of how successful her disguise would be around so many men. In addition to the obvious physical differences – she was shorter, far more slender, and looked much more feminine than any other man aboard – she was quieter and less jovial than the rest of the crew. This was intentional. Charlotte needed to distance herself from the crew to avoid any potential conflicts. Fortunately, due to the vast amount of equipment her and John packed for the expedition, the captain of their ship, which was the supply vessel (a larger, slower ship than the faster, sleeker lead ship) graciously gave up his private cabin to accommodate John and his assistant. It was unusual, but not unheard of for a captain to relinquish his cabin. Captains often benefited from sharing quarters with their crew especially on longer voyages – being able to quell any conflicts that arose and maintain order. Access to the captain’s private cabin also included access to the captain’s private facilities as well, which was to Charlotte’s great relief. She introduced herself to the captain and the crew as ‘Charles’, and Charlotte was so accustomed to the name now that she hardly responded to ‘Charlotte’ when John used it when they were alone. She often wondered how long it would take her to get used to the name ‘Charlotte’ again, and to wearing dresses, when they returned to France.
“Charles!” Charlotte brought her hand up to shield her eyes as she looked to see John heading towards her, waving his hand in the air as he approached her. “Charles, we should really take this opportunity to organize the collection from Tahiti.” They hadn’t been able to do much since leaving Tahiti, due to the rough weather. John took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. Charlotte sighed feeling slightly perturbed at the intrusion. “Yes, good idea. I’ll meet you below in just a moment” she replied. John nodded in agreement and turned to head towards the steps that took him back below deck to their cabin. Charlotte wanted just a few more minutes to herself, to listen to the ocean and the constant hum of a busy crew in the background.
It was the third year of what should have been a three year expedition. Delays such as inclement weather and running low on fresh water were some of the contributing factors. Charlotte was at capacity for being able to endure another lengthy shore leave. The carrying of the heavy equipment and back breaking work of collecting specimens and navigating through tough terrain had started to take a more permanent toll on her body. The linen bandages that bound her breasts had caused her skin to break out in dermatitis, which made moving around painful at times. Luckily, she was able to avoid a trip to the ship’s doctor by treating herself with her own herbal remedies. When they were in warmer climates, she would sweat through the bandages and the tightness of them on her chest would give her difficulty breathing. A small price to pay, she reminded herself, for such an experience. Each time made it a little worse and she longed for a respite from it all. Her only place of refuge was their cabin, where she had the privacy to remove her bandages and tend to her irritated skin. Their cabin, with plants hanging to dry off the overhead beams, and books and papers strewn about, was packed tight with wooden crates full of their precious cargo. Everything was carefully packed in moss and straw and would be sent straight to the Royal collection upon their return. The crates, three years into the expedition, had overtaken their cabin. Crates became impromptu tables and places to sit, and needed to be checked thoroughly for mold and pests. It was a tedious but important task to ensure that their collection made it back to France safely and in one piece.
Charlotte and John made a good team. They worked efficiently and knew each other so well, they barely had to speak to one another to know what the other wanted. When they ventured off the ship, Charlotte was able to let down her guard while it was just her and John. Far from the eyes of the crew, she allowed herself to laugh at his stories and move around freely without worrying about what her movements looked like. She worked feverishly to fill her journals with as much information as she could. She wanted to capture every moment of her experience and record everything she saw, touched, and studied. She described everything she saw in great detail, even how it smelled. She loved plants, more than most things in her life and she never considered that she would ever discover a plant for the first time. So far, her and John had identified thousands of species and 8 brand new species of plants unknown to anyone else. Their job was to find undiscovered species of plants that had potential for commercial development. One of their most precious discoveries was that of a flowering evergreen vine they came across in Rio. Charlotte had stumbled across it entirely by chance. At first, she saw the vine, which was nothing special, but then she noticed brightly coloured flowers, or at least what appeared to be flowers. Upon further inspection, she noticed that the actual flower of the plant was small and delicate, and was surrounded by three or six bracts, which were vivid in colour and paper-thin. The first vine she saw had magenta bracts, but she also discovered another vine that had red and yellow bracts. They were beautiful and her and John studied the plants fervently . They brought cuttings back to the ship, and hoped that they would be able to cultivate it back home. As the most important discovery they had made to date, John decided to name it ‘ Bougainvillea Vine’, in honour of the expedition’s captain.
Avoiding the crew as much as possible was crucial to Charlotte’s deception. As long as she kept out of the way and didn’t draw attention to herself, she felt that the risk was minimal. There were a few close calls and she suspected the captain knew that she was a woman. He often watched her closely and didn’t seem to mind when she avoided socializing with the rest of the crew. Outing her would put the success of the entire mission at risk, she was an vital part of the crew, and replacing her would be difficult. She felt confident that he would protect her secret. When she wasn’t on the deck looking to the horizon with the other men, she spent the majority of her time in her cabin, studying her journals and tending to their collection. She often lied in her hammock staring at the ceiling and thought about her return to France. They would be home in less than a year and she wondered what it would feel like to immediately get to work publishing her findings. What would it feel like to see her name, a woman, in the scientific journals? John would no doubt publish what they found, but would he include her name? She doubted it. Women seldom made history, and she was breaking the law by being aboard the very ship they sailed on. She considered herself one of the finest botanists of the day, even without a formal education. The practical experience she gained on the expedition was enough to make any man famous. She smiled thinking about what the ladies back home would think of her – dressing as a man, wearing trousers, climbing about in the mud, sharing a tent with a man who wasn’t her husband – such scandal! The world would never know her name and upon her return home she would simply slip back into obscurity. For now at least, she could dream about what her life could be like if only the world wasn’t so unfair.
Charlotte read through her journals and still couldn’t believe that the words on the pages were her own. She remembered how frightened she was when they first left France and how foreign everything felt to her. Even the air felt different. She read her account of a moss covered forest where she took her boots off and walked barefoot on the soft forest floor. It felt like what she imagined the most luxurious of carpets to feel like. The air was thick with fog and smelled like rain. They were always wet during that trip. Her clothes stuck to her body and her skin was slick with condensation. If it wasn’t raining, the air was heavy with mist, which made it difficult to keep their equipment and specimens dry.
“This damned weather!” John would shout to no one in particular, exasperated by futile attempts to keep his gear dry. “We may as well be in England with all this bloody rain.” On clear nights, she would lie on her back outside of their tent, on the soft mossy floor, and look at the stars through the clearing in the trees. She was accustomed to seeing stars back home, but stars in the Southern Hemisphere were new to her. She had a friendship with another scientist on the expedition who was an astronomer, and at night she would join him on the deck of the ship with his telescopes and he would teach her about the constellations above them. She collected delicate specimens of mosses, lichen, and tree bark to bring home and when they finally left, she wept. She didn’t know if she would see such a place again and it made her incredibly sad. All she had now were her recollections, and she hoped she would always remember what it felt like to be there.
One of her first memories was when the ship was heading South. She was sitting out on the deck, soon after recovering from her sea sickness, when a grey whale surfaced close to the ship. She heard it before she saw it and she recognized it immediately from books back home. She was rendered speechless at its appearance and she felt pure joy at being able to witness something so beautiful. Its body was covered in barnacles and despite its size, its movements were majestic. She stood at the side of the ship and watched the whale until finally it changed course. Many of the men aboard had seen whales before, but this was Charlotte’s first whale. It would be the first of many, and she would see other marine life on the duration of the voyage, including elephant seals, penguins, and varieties of fish, but the memory of her first whale would stay with her forever.
Another page in her journal described a clearing they stumbled across in a jungle that was filled with enormous pitcher plants. They were large enough to trap a small rodent, which fortunately for them, but unfortunately for the rat, they witnessed. The air was sticky with the scent of the plants, and occasionally smelled like rotten flesh. It was grotesque, but fascinating to behold. Charlotte had never seen such large specimens of these plants, only smaller versions which only trapped insects. She would sit and sketch, and take notes, trying to capture as much detail as possible. John struggled with collecting some of the plants to transport home. Not all the plants they came across cooperated with being uprooted from their home, and she couldn’t blame them.
It wasn’t just the plants that took her breath away, but also the animals they saw as well. Charlotte thought of a time when they were hiking through the jungle when their guide suddenly stopped and ordered them to stand still. Up in a tree above them, impossible to see at first, was a jaguar, watching them closely, as still as a statue. Charlotte’s heart was in her throat and she knew she should have been afraid, but she wasn’t. Never had she seen such a beautiful animal before, and knew immediately that it deserved her respect and admiration. The guide eventually scared it off, and they carried on with a bit more urgency towards their camp. As soon as she could, she sketched the jaguar in her journal as best as she could from her memory. “Weren’t you frightened?” John asked her that evening as they sat around the fire. “Frightened?” She replied. “No, I suppose I wasn’t. It was beautiful. How lucky we were to have seen such a creature. I like to think he was just as curious about us too.” John smiled. “Yes, curious indeed. Curious to see if we would make a good meal.”
Charlotte didn’t care much for the insects and reptiles they encountered. Having grown up in the country, they were a part of everyday life, but the insects they’d encountered on their trip were nothing like the insects back home. When they camped, they had to check their tent before settling in for night. Charlotte was certain she would never recover from the one time she found a snake curled up in the blankets on her cot. Luckily, John didn’t mind snakes or spiders or other creatures that crawled or slithered around. He was all too happy to deal with them, taking the opportunity to study them briefly before setting them loose or killing them for further examination back on the ship. The image of John holding the snake up in front of her after removing it from her cot saying “Look at it! Isn’t it marvellous?” while she frantically searched the rest of their tent would stay with her forever. You got used to sleeping outside, but the first few times were horrible. The jungle was especially loud at night, which Charlotte wasn’t prepared for. It was hard enough to sleep with the threat of poisonous spiders or snakes sneaking in to your tent, but when the jungle was a symphony of noise, it made sleep impossible. She experienced many sleepless nights, but eventually she grew used to it. She assumed her body was fed up with the lack of sleep and had no choice, but she hadn’t had trouble sleeping anywhere since.
Charlotte made her way to the cabin to help John organize their most recent collection. It would be the final time they had to do such a thing. Even if they wanted to make more stops, they wouldn’t be able to, seeing that they had run out of room. She looked around their cabin, and despite the lack of space and crates everywhere, she knew that she would miss it. Whether or not she would be acknowledged for any part of the expedition remained to be seen, but Charlotte was certain of one thing – the expedition had changed her completely. Three years ago when she was just a herb woman in her small village, she had no knowledge of the world outside of her immediate surroundings. The books she read provided her with a sense of exploration, but they were accounts of other men’s adventures, their stories and their experiences, all from their own perspectives. She read about the jungles and deserts and other parts of the world, but it was one thing to simply read about them and an entirely different thing to experience them firsthand. She was a naive young woman three years ago and woefully unprepared for this kind of life, but she adapted and grew stronger as each day passed. Her will and desire to learn everything she could was what kept her going when it felt impossible. She knew that the world would most likely never know her name. They would never read her stories and share in her experiences. She knew she should accept it as the way things were, but a fire burned inside of her and she knew that she couldn’t allow her story to die when they returned. She would find a way to make her voice be heard, and she would be damn sure the world knew her name and all that she had accomplished.