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.
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|
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Vives, the jointly written journal of Commerson and expedition astronomer Pierre-Antoine Verone, and Baret's surviving historical documents.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|
Speaking of cross-dressing, don’t forget to submit your Glen or Glenda or Ed Wood–related Halloween photos to firstname.lastname@example.org 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. http://missboogiesadventures.blogspot.com/2011/01/this-is-miss-boogie.html