Imaginary picture of Jeanne Baret dressed as a sailorman.
This is to mark the posthumous birthday of one of the very formidable women achievers, who despite all odds, got their historical goals and destiny.
Her early life
Baret is recognized as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe but she did it dressed as a man! In her life time, she was a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s colonial expedition. According to Bougainville’s account, Baret was herself an expert botanist. Jeanne Baret joined the expedition disguised as a man, calling herself Jean Baret, her father’s name. She enlisted as valet and assistant to the expedition’s naturalist, Philibert Commerçon He was anglicized Commerson, shortly before Bougainville’s ships sailed from France.
Born on July 27, 1740, in the village of La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France, little is known of Baret’s childhood or her young adulthood. She was identified as the legitimate daughter of Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard. Jean Baret, her father, is identified as an illiterate, day laborer as he did not sign the parish register for her record of baptism.
On her encounter with Bougainvilles, she told the story of her life. Her mother died 15 months after she was born and her father, when she was 15. She had been orphaned and lost her fortune. Historians agree that some details of the story she gave Bougainville were merely fabricated to shield Commerson from complicity in her disguise.
Relationship with Commerson
Baret became employed as a housekeeper to Commerson, who had settled in Toulon-sur-Arroux, upon his marriage in 1760. This was at some point between 1760 and 1764. Barrett and Commerson was said to have developed a more personal relationship. Commerson’s wife, who was the sister of the parish priest, died shortly after giving birth to a son in April 1762, and it seems most likely that Baret took over the management of Commerson’s household at that time, if not before. Commerson left his legitimate son from his marriage in the care of his brother-in-law in Toulon-sur-Arroux and never saw him again in his lifetime. Baret became pregnant in 1764. She refused to name the father of her child, but historians do not doubt that it was Commerson’s. Her child, born in December 1764, was given the name Jean-Pierre Baret. Baret gave the child up to the Paris Foundlings Hospital. He was quickly placed with a foster mother but died in the summer of 1765.
Around the world
Baret and Commerson joined the Bougainville expedition at the port of Rochefort in late December 1766. Two ships were part of this journey: The Boudeuse and the Étoile which Baret and Commerson sailed on. The Étoile set sail from Nantes, France in 1766. Their goal was to circumnavigate – sail around the world. And Jeanne Baret was a part of this. Commerson required Baret’s assistance as a nurse because of his poor health as well as in running his household and managing his collections and papers. His appointment allowed him a servant, paid as a royal expense, but women were completely prohibited on French navy ships at this time. At some point, the idea of Baret disguising herself as a man in order to accompany Commerson was conceived. To avoid scrutiny, she was to join the expedition immediately before the ship sailed, pretending to be a stranger to Commerson. History recorded that the ship’s captain, François Chenard de la Giraudais, gave up his own large cabin on the ship to Commerson and his “assistant” . This is because of the vast quantity of equipment Commerson was bringing on the voyage. This gave Baret significantly more privacy than she would have had otherwise on board the crowded ship. In particular, the captain’s cabin gave Baret access to private toilet facilities so that she did not have to use the shared head with other members of the crew.
One of the first stops made during the journey was in Montevideo, Uruguay. Commerson and Baret collected plant samples and observed the surrounding environment. After the stop in Montevideo, the ship sailed on to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil – a much more dangerous place, where the Étoile‘s chaplain was murdered ashore soon after their arrival.
Commerson and Baret had the opportunity to explore the territory and observe the plants. It is believed that Baret was the one who discovered a strange new flowering vine adorned with bright pink and purple flowers. Baret named the new plant Bougainvillea after the leader of the expeditions.
A woman of reputation
After a second visit to Montevideo, their next opportunity to collect plants was in Patagonia while the ships of the expedition were waiting for favourable winds to carry them through the Strait of Magellan. Here, Baret accompanied Commerson on the most troublesome excursions over rugged terrain and gained a reputation for courage and strength. Commerson, still hampered by his leg injury, referred to Baret as his “beast of burden” on these expeditions. In addition to the manual labor she performed in collecting plants, stones, and shells, Baret also helped Commerson organize and catalog their specimens and notes in the weeks that followed, as the ships entered the Pacific.
Finally discovered as a woman
How was Jeanne Baret discovered as a woman? Surviving accounts of the expedition differ on when Baret’s gender was first discovered. According to Bougainville, rumors that Baret was a woman had circulated for some time, but her gender was not finally confirmed until the expedition reached Tahiti in April 1768. For some time there was a report in both ships, that the servant of M de Commerçon, named Baret, was a woman. His shape, voice, beardless chin, and scrupulous attention of not changing his linen or making the natural discharges in the presence ootherf anyone, besides several signs, had given rise to, and kept up this suspicion. But how was it possible to discover the woman in the indefatigable Baret, who was already an expert botanist, had followed his master in all his botanical walks, amidst the snows and frozen mountains of the Strait of Magellan, and had even on such troublesome excursions carried provisions, arms, and herbals, with so much courage and strength, that the naturalist had called him his beast of burden?As soon as she and Commerson landed on shore, Baret was immediately surrounded by Tahitians who cried out that she was a woman. It was necessary to return her to the ship to protect her from the excited Tahitians. Bougainville recorded this incident in his journal some weeks after it happened, when he had an opportunity to visit the Étoile to interview Baret, personally.
She died on 5th August 1807. She would have been 280 years.