Traveling around the world sounds glamorous to us, but for Europeans in the 18th century, it was no picnic. All sailors at the time were men, but imagine a woman sailor on a voyage with a shipful of men. Jeanne Baret was the first such woman to travel around the world in a sailing ship, and she did it disguised as a man.
Sailing ships in the 18th century were still crude and unreliable; shipwrecks were common and diseases, including scurvy and syphilis (sailors headed for brothels when in port). The cause of scurvy (caused by a deficiency of vitamin C) was not known, so sailors routinely died on long voyages. Food rotted or ran out, ships were becalmed or lost, and starvation was often their fate. Privacy onboard ships was unknown – sailors relieved themselves in a hole opening into the sea and they slept on hammocks above or below deck.
If the European sailing voyages managed to find land, it was often full of what they considered savages, and being killed by natives was not uncommon (it’s how the famous Captain James Cook died).
A typical voyage from England or the Continent might take months, while a voyage around the world would take several years. Dr. Samuel Johnson, in a description of sailing voyages of the 18th century, said,
“No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get him in jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned”.
Add to the picture of the rigors of travel the image of a woman disguised as a man aboard an around-the-world sailing ship, and you have what sounds like a nightmare. Yet Jeanne Baret did this, sailing around the world with the expedition of Louis-Antoine de Bougainvillea in 1766.
She signed on to this expedition as the “assistant” (assumed to be a man) of the voyage’s naturalist, Philibert de Commerson and kept hidden through most of the voyage – or did she? Much of Jeanne’s story is open to interpretation because there is little written about her and there are conflicting accounts of the events of her life and especially of the Bougainvillea voyage.
Why did she go on the Bougainvillea expedition? Jeanne was born in France in 1740, a peasant girl who was an herbalist and healer. She was very familiar with medicinal plants and natural remedies. Somewhere (it’s not clear where or how), she met Philibert de Commerson, a botanist. They worked together identifying plants, and she probably taught him a good deal about native plants and their healing properties.
When Lous-Antoine de Bougainvillea put together his expedition around the world, one of his main purposes was to find commercially viable plants that France could cultivate for profit. He invited Commerson on the voyage as its botanist. By this time, Baret had had a child by Commerson and he termed her his “housekeeper.” The voyage was planned to take several years and Jeanne would have had a difficult time financially if she were left in France.
By French law, women were not allowed on naval ships, so Baret couldn’t travel as a woman. Glynis Ridley, the author of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, believes they concocted the story of Baret as Commerson’s “assistant” so they could travel together. They carried this fiction on until she was discovered.
Did she manage to hide her identity through most of the voyage? When was she discovered to be a woman? Bougainvillea in his journal claims Jeanne was not discovered to be a woman until the expedition reached Tahiti. When the party disembarked, the Tahitians immediately recognized her as a woman, although they might have thought she was a transvestite. Other accounts of the voyage by officers and a passenger make it seem likely that she was discovered almost immediately. Bougainvillea, the captain, and some officers knew she was a woman before the ship reached Rio de Janeiro, its first stop. It also appears that she told everyone on the ship that she was a eunuch. The officers probably kept her true identity quiet so the sailors didn’t find out. The superstition of the sailors and the possibility of rape made discovery a serious threat to Jeanne.
After Jeanne was “discovered” on Tahiti, her life became a nightmare. On an island in Papua New Guinea, she was, Ridley says, probably gang raped. It was a traumatic experience for her, and the discovery that she was pregnant didn’t help her situation.
Who made all the plant discoveries on the voyage? Although Commerson was the official naturalist and he had all the credentials, he has some serious leg ulcers that precluded him from hiking very far from the ship or wandering around looking for plants. It’s quite likely that Jeanne made the discoveries, including the bougainvillea plant, which Commerson promptly named after the expedition’s leader.
Some Comments About Historical Veracity
Before I get into a discussion of the voyage, I need to tell you a couple of things about this history.
- The image you see above of Jeanne is not really her. No images exist of this woman, so someone drew a sketch of a typical French sailor of the 18th century, gave it some feminine features, and put what looks like a cloth or a sheaf of wheat in her hand. Any resemblance between this image and the “real” Jeanne Baret is purely coincidental.
- The author of the biography of Jeanne Baret had to imagine and assume a lot. Glynis Ridley did a good job of finding information about her but there isn’t much available about peasant women in the 1700s. Except for the journals of the captain and sailors, there are precious few documents about Jeanne’s life. So Ridley had to assume and guess and go by what she knew of the historical background to get information about Jeanne to put into a book.
Jeanne didn’t exactly travel around the world by ship with Bougainvillea. After she was discovered in Tahiti, and after some incidents on the island of New Ireland, she and her husband were put off the ship in Mauritius (off the coast of Africa). Yes, she did travel back to France via the Cape of Good Hope, so technically she did go all the way around the world. But she didn’t complete the voyage she started on. Just sayin’.
Jeanne Baret’s Journey
On the voyage, Jeanne spent time on the ship, mostly in her cabin to avoid spending time with the crew. Aside from trying to avoid discovery, Jeanne worked with Commerson on the collections of plants they were accumulating. In her free time, she could watch humpback whales or the solar eclipse that happened while they were traveling. I can imagine that by the time they left the voyage they would have filled a small room with all the collected specimens.
On shore, Jeanne and Commerson would “botanize,” searching for plants at each stop. When they stopped in Patagonia, in the Straits of Magellan, they immediately began looking for medicinal plants, one of which was a treatment for venereal disease. While Commerson watched from shore, Ridley says, Jeanne:
…climbed rock faces and scrambled up and down scree slopes, bagging specimens of ferns and lichen, anemone and grasses.”
The ship’s doctor describes his impression of her work by saying, (Notice the feminine pronoun; he probably wrote this after he returned from the voyage.)
What Happened to Jeanne After the Voyage?
As noted above, Jeanne and Commerson were allowed to leave the ship in Mauritius, probably because of Jeanne’s pregnancy and Commerson’s ill health. They stayed on Mauritius for several years, working on their plant collection. After Commerson’s death on the island, Jeanne found herself a husband (a sailor) to take her back to France, where she collected a pension due her from her service on the voyage. She died in France in 1807.
Did Jeanne Baret Have a Plant Named After Her?
Famous explorers and botanists through the centuries have enjoyed the privilege of naming plants. Many have been named after patrons; Commerson’s naming of the bougainvillea plant after the explorer Bougainvillea is one good example. And many plants have been named after botanists (Commerson had about 70 plants named after him). But up until recently, no plant has been named after Jeanne Baret.
Now that oversight has been rectified. Glynis Ridley mentioned the lack of a plant in honor of Jeanne in an NPR interview. In 2012 botanist Eric Tepe took up the challenge and named a new plant Solanum baretiae in recognition of her contributions to botany and her courage.
Why is Jeanne Baret Important?
Jeanne didn’t set out to be an explorer. Ridley says she was curious; she also wanted to be with Commerson, for a variety of reasons. But she endured what most of us would consider inhuman conditions on the voyage. She had no choice but to stay on the voyage once she started. Being put off on her own in a strange country was impossible. I would consider her courageous and persistent.
She was able to use her plantwise sense and her knowledge of herbs and healing medicines to help those on the voyage, and she was resourceful in finding plants. She was also determined to get back to France, which she did. The courage of this young woman makes me wonder if I could do the same.