Friday, October 25, 2013

The discovery of Jeanne Baret: 18th-century scientist, healer, and adventurer

Guest blog by Linda Thornburg
With its showy, magenta bracts spilling over Hawaiian terraces and lanais, bougainvillea has long been one of my favorite plants, perfect for making leis. I had no clue it was discovered by a cross-dressing woman, hiding in plain sight among a crew of 300 sailors, on a high-stakes French voyage of discovery—let alone that she was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Jeanne Baret, disguised as a man, sailed with her lover/employer, botanist Philibert Commerson (Commerçon), aboard Étoile, the supply ship for Louis Antoine de Bougainville's 1766 voyage around the world.
Baret was a rural herb woman—knowledgeable gatherer and dispenser of medicinal herbs—when she met Commerson, who was suffering from an ulcerated leg wound. Though she was a peasant and he was upper class, they formed a bond through their interest in plants. She became his housekeeper after his wife died and then found herself pregnant with Commerson's child. Unmarried  women of the time were required to obtain a "certificate of pregnancy." Filed in a town about 20 miles away, Baret's certificate survives. Signed by upper-class friends of Commerson, it does not name the father. Before the child was born, the couple moved to Paris, where she gave it up for adoption. There they continued to collect and classify various native French plants under the system of Linnaeus.
Because of Commerson's connection with Linnaeus and Voltaire, he was asked to be the official naturalist for a voyage headed by Louis Antoine de Bougainville (right) to circumnavigate the globe, the first such voyage by the French. Louis XV was anxious to offset the loss of French Canada to the British in the Seven Years' War by finding Terra Australis, the presumed Great Southern Continent, and new species of plants and animals to restore the French economy and image. Commerson, still suffering from venous ulcers and in need of a nurse and assistant, accepted the prestigious commission, but women were strictly forbidden on shipboard. They conspired that Baret would accompany him as his assistant, dressed as a man. To protect Commerson, Baret joined the crew at the last minute. They pretended not to know one another (although before Commerson left Paris, he made a will leaving 600 livre and his household goods to her). They concocted a story that Jean Baret, a wealthy lad educated in botany and Latin, had lost his inheritance and needed work. 
Though much is known of the de Bougainville voyage from his official diaries, including mention of Baret's expertise as a botanist, little is known about her personally.
Yesterday I checked on board the Étoile a rather peculiar event. For some time, a rumour had been circulating on the two ships that Mr de Commerçon’s [sic] servant, named Baré, was a woman. His structure, his caution in never changing his clothes or carrying out any natural function in the presence of anyone, the sound of his voice, his beardless chin, and several other indications had given rise to this suspicion and reinforced it. (de Bougainville’s Journal, 28–29 May 1768)
1816 drawing of Jeanne Baret, not from life
To answer De Bougainville’s charges, Jean Baret offered the story that he had been abducted by Muslims and had suffered the fate of “harem guards.” The story played into 18th-century stereotypes and many sailors’ greatest fear. It bought her some time. Whether Baret’s real identity was known or not, having a woman aboard ship was a punishable offense, and de Bougainville's diaries veiled much of Baret's activity. He was forced to include an entry revealing her identity when Baret was discovered and raped. His official account differs, however, from two other accounts. Captain de Bougainville says that Baret's sex was not discovered until the expedition reached Tahiti, where, he says, Tahitian men discovered Baret and then "explored every cavity"on her person. The ship's physician, Francois Vives, recalled that Baret was alone on the beach in New Guinea where she was gang raped by angry sailors from the expedition. Vives' journal speculates about Baret's true identity much earlier. His confrontation of Commerson early on jeopardized her safety and position. Still, she managed to stay aboard ship, sometimes forced to sleep among the male crew with a loaded pistol. Commerson's recorded bouts of illness and notes regarding Baret's trips ashore suggest that she collected most of the specimens, including the bougainvillea that Commerson named for the Captain.
In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, The High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, Glynis Ridley has pieced together a mesmerizing story of deception, intrigue, and adventure on the high seas from the journals of Captain de Bougainville, ship physician Francois Vives, the jointly written journal of Commerson and expedition astronomer Pierre-Antoine Verone, and Baret's surviving historical documents.
Map of de Bougainville's expedition
Though de Bougainville's high-profile expedition produced neither the desired new lands (impeded by the Great Barrier Reef, his ships turned North without catching sight of Australia, just 120 miles west) or any commercially viable new plants (think coffee, tobacco, spice), it did leave the story of an extraordinary female scientist, healer, and adventurer—even if she was obscured for a century or so.
Speaking of cross-dressing, don’t forget to submit your Glen or Glenda or Ed Wood–related  Halloween photos to to be eligible for the Daily Glean prize of a classic film DVD. The deadline is November 3, 2013.
Linda Thornburg is an award-winning filmmaker and playwright who occasionally writes her own blog.


  1. This is one of those stories at which I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I'm happy to see Jeanne Baret given recognition for her work, but her gender caused her much suffering. It seems that the deception used to get her on board was seen as a greater fault than the ill discipline that endangered her physically.
    It's as if men were not responsible to control themselves in the presence of a woman, an idea that puts women in burquas today.
    Thanks for another interesting post!

  2. It has a happy ending, sort of. Baret was recognized by the French government and granted a pension for her service. Better than the treatment of Civil War surgeon, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, by the US government.