Thursday, March 28, 2013
A version of this article originally appeared in " The Travel Belles" Magazine:
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
The first men to set foot on the moon, circumnavigate the earth, reach the South Pole and climb Everest are well known to history. But the first woman to travel around the world? More than two hundred years later, few have heard of her.
And that’s a pity because Jeanne Baret’s story is a cracking good yarn. Her Hollywood-worthy adventures unfolded on a cramped wooden sailing ship calling at exotic destinations like Rio de Janiero, the Staits of Magellan, Tahiti, New Ireland, Mauritius and Madagascar. She made scientific discoveries, encountered indigenous people, and endured hardships ranging from starvation to assault.
All while disguised as a man.
Jeanne Baret was born to a family of poor day laborers in France’s Loire Valley in 1740. Highly intelligent and keenly interested in the natural world, she became an “herb woman,” versed in the healing properties of local plants and sought out by residents of her village for medical treatment.
In Enlightenment Europe, herb women were also in demand by practitioners of the newly-emerging science of botany. Formal education was still almost exclusively from textbooks at the time, so any aspiring scientist wishing to truly understand the natural world needed to consult with local people who knew it best.
One such scientist was the aristocrat Philibert de Commerson, who met Baret when he was studying plants near her home village. He was married at the time but fell in love with the quick-witted country girl who knew every tree and flower. Soon they were lovers, traveling the fields and hills collecting plant specimens. Eventually they moved to a house in Paris, where Baret bore Commerson’s son. She placed the baby in an orphanage, a not-uncommon practice in eighteenth-century Paris. The historical record is not clear, but Baret may have hoped that Commerson, whose wife had since died, would marry her and raise their child. Sadly, their baby did not survive and marriage was not forthcoming.
In 1765 the well-connected Commerson received a royal appointment to join an expedition led by the famed naval commander Louis Antoine de Bougainville. It was to be France’s first circumnavigation of the globe. The voyage was expressly charged with collecting specimens of flora and fauna that might have commercial value and could be grown in France or its colonies around the world.
French naval regulations prohibited women aboard ships. But Commerson needed an assistant, and Baret was eager for an adventure. So she bound her breasts in tight strips of linen, donned baggy clothes, and boarded the Etoile with Commerson in Rochefort harbor in December 1766.
From the beginning the crew was suspicious of the scientist’s small companion, who kept to Commerson’s cabin and never seemed to use the “head” or open-air toilet. A group of sailors publicly confronted Baret on the deck, demanding to know her sex. Tearfully, she “confessed” to being a eunuch, a state so horrifying to the sailors that they immediately backed down. Her story was plausible as Ottoman pirates had been known to castrate their captives. This brilliant deception hid Baret’s true gender while keeping her tormentors at bay regarding her identity.
"Eunuch" or not, Baret was subjected to the brutal hazing rituals inflicted on all new sailors during the traditional “crossing the line” ceremony at the equator. Dragged through the water with other seamen in a sail strung beside the ship, Baret was groped and pelted with chamberpot filth.
Her disguise proved a misery to maintain. Baret had little opportunity to wash her increasingly dirt-crusted clothes. The linen straps binding her breasts chafed horribly, causing her skin to break out in hideous, constantly-weeping sores.
When the Etoile finally docked in Rio de Janiero after months at sea, the little assistant was soon seen clambering though the tropical rainforest outside the city in voluminous, sweat-soaked garments. Baret gathered boxes of plant specimens for Commerson, who was laid up in his cabin with an ulcerated leg.
One plant she brought back was a towering woody vine with showy red flowers. Commerson named this impressive blossom “Bougainvillea” after his commander, whose ship Le Boudeuse had docked in Rio months earlier after a mission to evacuate French colonists from the Falkland Islands. This honor may flattered Bougainville into ignoring the renewed and spreading suspicions that Baret was really a woman.
The ships sailed for the Straits of Magellan. The air grew cool, then cold. Whales and seals appeared. Towering, snowcapped mountain ranges drew close to the sea.
Once the expedition reached Tierra del Fuego, Baret and Commerson spent days scaling rocky slopes collecting and preserving plant and animal specimens. They encountered tall, nearly-naked Fuegian aboriginal people and marveled at their ingenuity in adapting to their harsh environment.
Eventually the ships burst out of the narrow, icy passage into the radiance of the South Pacific. They came upon numerous palm-fringed coral atolls teeming with inhabitants, and dropped anchor at the largest of these islands, Tahiti. The archipelago was unknown to them when they arrived, although the first Western explorer, the British commander Samuel Wallis, had actually visited the islands the previous year.
The Tahitian people welcomed the ragged French sailors enthusiastically. Bougainville named the islands “New Cythera,” and praised their inhabitants’ beauty, friendliness and apparent innocence.
Months later, Bougainville wrote in his log that a group of Tahitians had surrounded Baret and immediately realized she was a woman, to the “shock” of everyone, including Commerson! The entry read, in part:
“..she well knew when we 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 not yet twenty-five.”
Bougainville’s feigned surprise may have been due to a desire to avoid criticism for violating French naval regulations. Whatever the reason, Baret was now free of the need to maintain the fiction that she was a man. However, she became once again a target for the sailors.
When Bougainville’s ships arrived at the island of New Ireland, near New Guinea, the crew was starving. Attempts to land at islands beyond Tahiti, and on New Guinea itself, had failed due to hostile inhabitants or bad weather. Once the desperate, famished sailors finally came ashore and found food and water, they turned their attention to Baret, catching her alone on a beach. What followed was described only vaguely in the officers’ journals, but Baret was carried back to Commerson’s cabin, where she remained for weeks in seclusion while Bougainville’s ships passed through Indonesia and on to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius.
There, in the first French territory they had encountered in two years, Baret and Commerson left the expedition. Why? Baret was once again pregnant. With the baby due before Bougainville’s ships could reach Europe it would have been impossible to hide the fact that a woman had been on board.
Baret and Commerson remained on Mauritius as guests of a hospitable governor. When the baby arrived, Baret placed her second son in the foster care of a local plantation owner.
During their sojurn in the colony Baret and Commerson went on an expedition to Madagascar, gathering yet more hitherto unknown species of plants and animals for the scientists in Paris. When they returned to Mauritius, however, they found all their boxes of samples and specimens neatly packed up for departure. A new, less-accommodating governor had arrived from France.
Commeson and Baret purchased a house on Mauritius, as no landlord would rent to the peculiar couple with the stacks of smelly and strange-looking preserved plants and animals. Commerson was never to return to his native country, dying in the house from an infection.
Baret remained on Mauritius for seven years. She met and married a French naval officer who was passing through on his way home. The couple returned to France in 1774 or 1775, with the boxes of specimens, which were duly turned over to the government. Baret and her husband settled in his home in the Dordonge and disappeared from history. However, records indicate she was awarded a comfortable pension from the French government. No one knows who secretly arranged for this reward, but suspicions fall on Bougainville.
Baret died at the ripe old age of 67, unheralded as the first woman to circumnavigate the world. She is a spiritual ancestor of those of us who today visit every corner of the globe because “…such a voyage raised her curiosity.”
I am indebted to the excellent book.“The Discovery of Jeanne Baret,” by Glynis Ridley, (Crown publishing 2010) for material for this article.