Who was Jeanne Baret?
Story by Alanna Rossi, Illustration by Jaclyn Simon
The inspiration for Fernlore’s first story was a woman named Jeanne Baret. Born in 1740 in the town of Autun in France, Jeanne’s early life was most likely difficult, having been born to two poor labourers. In a time when the life expectancy was only the mid twenties for both men and woman, making a living was arduous and many people never left the villages they were born in. Jeanne was a peasant, but she was taught, presumably by the other women in her family, how to identify and collect plants used to treat common ailments. This classified her as an herb woman. To “botanize” you did not need to know how to read or write as it is a predominantly visual activity. Herb women played a vital role in the development of the field of botany and taxonomy. Their knowledge of plants and their uses was invaluable and their expertise was often sought out by male botanists looking to expand their own knowledge of plants.
Women were not permitted to attend university until the late eighteenth century. Taxonomy, the classification of all living things, was deemed too inappropriate for women and their “delicate constitutions.” An appreciation of nature was considered refined for women of the eighteenth century, however it was considered unladylike to seek further information, such as the Latin names of the plants kept in the garden. The world was (and still is in many ways) cruel to women who sought something greater for themselves. Those who wished to nurture their minds and find meaning in their lives were limited to what they could do. Over the course of time many women managed to defy societal expectations and make a name for themselves in a number of fields. The contribution to science by women, such as Jeanne Baret, is still impactful today and should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, Jeanne’s story is one filled with speculation as there isn’t much recorded of her experiences. She didn’t keep a journal so much of what we know today is from other people’s accounts. Her own personal thoughts on her life are unknown to us.
Jeanne Baret is known for her incredible achievement of being the first woman to have circumnavigated the globe. She had joined the expedition of Louis-Antoine De Bougainville in 1766. She disguised herself as a man and assumed the role as assistant to esteemed naturalist Philibert Commerson, her lover at the time, who she had lived and studied with leading up to the voyage. Women were not permitted on Navy vessels in the eighteenth century, and while there is no official record that Commerson was aware that his lover was aboard the ship disguised as a man, it is speculated that he was part of the plan to get Baret on board. They shared the captain’s cabin aboard the Êtoile, the larger of the two ships of the expedition, the Boudeuse being the smaller, faster ship, given to them by the captain due to the vast amount of equipment they had packed with them. Commerson and his “assistant” shared this cabin for the majority of their time aboard the Etoile and it became a refuge to Baret. It’s hard to imagine what life aboard a ship with three hundred men would be like for a woman, but it’s safe to assume it would have been difficult. Baret had to ensure that no one figured out her disguise. The risk of assault, including rape, would have been high if the men discovered a woman aboard. It would also mean the risk of tarnishing the reputations of men, like Commerson and the captain himself. There are records though that indicate the captain of the Êtoile, did in fact know that Baret was a woman. He wrote of her in his journal:
“Baret, with her face bathed in tears, owned to me that she was a woman; she said that she had deceived her master at Rochefort, by offering to serve him in men’s clothes at the very moment he was embarking […] she well knew when she embarked that we were going round the world, and that such a voyage had raised her curiosity. She will be the first woman that ever made it, and I must do her the justice to affirm that she has always behaved on board with the most scrupulous modesty. She is neither ugly nor pretty, and is no more than twenty-five.”
While aboard the Êtoile, Baret assisted Commerson with his work. Together they amassed a collection of approximately six thousand items. One of their more important and well known discoveries was the discovery of the leafy evergreen vine, known today as Bougainvillea brasiliensis, which they discovered in Rio de Janeiro in 1767. Commerson at the time was nursing an injured leg and would have been unable to explore, so it was Baret who searched the area for new specimens. It can be assumed that Baret, with her knowledge of medicinal plants, would have kept her eye out for something to help Commerson’s leg. The similarities between the Bougainvillea vine and other plants that treat maladies such as gangrene would have attracted her to it. Commerson would eventually bring the plant back to the Êtoile to show to the captain and would eventually name it after him. Today, after being introduced to Europe, Bougainvillea can be found blossoming all over the world from California to Florida, and all the way to Australia and Vietnam.
Baret would only spend two years aboard the Êtoile. She left the ship after a supposed altercation on the island of Tahiti where her gender was revealed to the crew. There are, however, conflicting accounts of what truly happened in Tahiti. Other accounts state that her identity was revealed on the island of Latangai (known at the time as New Ireland). Regardless of what truly happened, Baret and Commerson eventually left the ship and the expedition when the ship docked at Port Louis on the Isle de France (today known as Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean). Here, Baret would live for seven years before eventually marrying a French man and returning to France in 1774 where she would spend the rest of her life in the town of Saint-Aulaye in the Dordogne.
While Baret kept no known logs of her time on the expedition, other logs from members of the crew describe the hardships that she had endured once her true identity was revealed. Her accomplishments remain invaluable to science today. If Baret did not accompany Commerson on the expedition, she most likely would have never left the village she was born in. Baret would have seen incredible things while aboard the Êtoile and while exploring the many parts of the world they ventured to. Thankfully, her story did not slip into obscurity and we can properly recognize her achievements today.
- Glynis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe. New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2010.
2. Robert Krulwich, “The First Woman To Go ‘Round The World Did It As A Man,” NPR, January 24,2012 http://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/01/23/145664873/the-first-woman-to-go-round-the-world-did-it-as-a-man.