Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, July 27, 2015

Jeanne Baret: Around the World

Jeanne Baret (born 27 July 1740)

Jeanne Baret is credited as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe--although she did have a seven-year layover on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. And she did the first part of the journey not as Jeanne, a woman, but as Jean, a man.
An imagined Jeanne Baret,
from an engraving made after her death

Born in 1740, Jeanne Baret and her early life are relatively undocumented--the names of her parents, Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard are known, her father a day laborer, and probably illiterate, though Jeanne herself could at least sign her name. Jeanne Baret also acquired a knowledge of medicinal plants. Her recent biographer, Glynis Ridley, identifies her as an "herb woman."

Between 1760 and 1764, Jeanne Baret met the nobleman Philibert Commerçon, a naturalist who had recently lost his wife in childbirth. Her practical knowledge was of use to him--Ridley says Baret served as a teacher, an assistant, and an "all around aide." She became his housekeeper and his lover. 

The two moved to Paris where, in 1764, Jeanne Baret gave birth to Commerçon's child. The boy was placed in a foundling hospital, then with a foster mother, but he died in 1765. (Meanwhile, Commerçon's legitimate child, also a son, had been put into the care of a brother-in-law--and Commerçon never saw him again.)

In 1765, Commerçon was asked to join the expedition of the French admiral and explorer Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville--the aim was to circumnavigate the globe. Commerçon accepted the invitation, and took Jeanne Baret with him as his "servant"--of course, since women were prohibited on French naval ships, Commerçon and Baret devised a plan. Jeanne became "Jean," and the two departed on the Bougainville expedition in December 1766.

Traveling as a man and as Commerçon's assistant, Jeanne Baret carried out the expedition's botanical work--as Jennie Cohen notes* in "First Woman to Circle the Globe Honored at Last," the two identified more than 6,000 plant specimens.

Baret's sex was undiscovered until 1768. Accounts of how Jeanne's true identity came to be known vary--according to some versions, the identification was made when the expedition was in Tahiti, but Ridley thinks the most likely is that, shortly after leaving the island, the crew (or other servants--details differ) stripped "him," and then gang-raped her on the island of New Ireland (now in Papua New Guinea). Whatever the circumstances, nine months later, Jeanne Baret gave birth to another baby.

When the ship reached the island of Mauritius (in the Indian Ocean), Commerçon and Baret remained, "guests" of the island's governor. The two resumed their lives, with Baret again acting as Commerçon's assistant and housekeeper. They also continued their botanical research--with trips to Madagascar and Bourbon Island (southwest of Mauritius). 

After Commerçon's death in 1773, with funds running low, Baret married Jean Dubernat. At some point in 1775 or 1776, she returned to France--thus becoming the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe. 

There were no crowds to cheer her upon her arrival back in France, but, as Ridley makes clear, Commerçon's family made sure the bequest he had left her was honored and the French Navy--which forbid women on its ships--awarded her a pension, recognizing her as an "extraordinary woman."

Baret died on 5 August 1807.

In her essay on Baret, Cohen noted that, while the expeditions most famous plant, bougainvillea, was named for the expedition's leader, nothing was named in honor of Baret:
Despite her extraordinary contributions to the field of botany, until recently nothing in the natural world was named for Baret. (By contrast, 70 plants, insects and mollusks bear the designation “commersonii.”) Commerson’s notes reveal that he wanted to name a shrub he observed with Baret in Madagascar after his partner, perhaps because the plant’s many-shaped leaves evoked her ambiguous and multifaceted nature. He died before making the designation official, and instead of Baretia the genus is now known as Turraea.
That has now been rectified. As Cohen reports, the biologist Eric Tepe heard Baret's biographer, Glynis Ridley, on an NPR interview in 2010. Ridley closed her interview by saying, "It would be wonderful if, as a result of the book, somebody wants to name something after Baret again," adding, "I think that would be a nice tribute."

Tepe rectified the situation, naming a beautiful flowering- and fruit-bearing vine in her honor, the Solanum baretiae.

The Solanum baretiae, named after Jeanne Baret
by Eric Tepe

*Unfortunately, only a tag remains on the History website where this excellent essay was posted on 4 January 2012. I have left the quotations from Cohen here, to document her piece and original work. The page existed until at least 2020 before it was disappeared . . . Sigh.