Who was the first woman to circle the globe? Surely someone of wealth and stature, who sailed with her father or husband? Not quite. French peasant Jeanne Baret sailed the world on France’s circumnavigation expedition from 1766 to 1769. France was looking to expand its colonial empire and collect scientific specimens. Sadly, her amazing feat went unnoticed in her lifetime, and for centuries thereafter. It’s only in recent years that Baret’s contributions finally became recognized.
Jeanne Baret was born in 1740 in France’s Loire Valley to dirt poor parents. Her father was a day laborer who helped farm the estates of aristocrats. As she grew up on farms, Jeanne was exposed to all the plants of the French countryside. With no formal education, the young girl developed a strong knowledge of botany. She became known as a “herb woman” due to her extensive knowledge of plant medicinal uses.
As a young woman, Baret got employment as a housekeeper to Philibert Commerson, a naturalist who studied medicine, natural history, and botany. Baret and Commerson bonded over their mutual love of plants. Their relationship became closer when Commerson’s wife died in 1762. The pair fell in love and Jeanne took up residence in his house. Then she became pregnant in 1764. The two never married, likely due to Jeanne’s peasant class. Instead, the couple moved to Paris where she quietly had the baby, then gave it up for adoption. Baret continued to act as a Commerson’s assistant, housekeeper, and lover.
In 1765, French Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville was commissioned to sail around the world and discover new territories for France.
Bougainville invited Commerson to join him as his expedition’s naturalist. What an amazing opportunity for Jeanne! Given her love of botany, Baret pleaded to accompany him. So Philibert insisted that his ‘Assistant’ come along to help him with the fieldwork. However, the French Navy strictly forbade women serving on board ships. What were they to do? The couple hatched a very risky plot where Baret would masquerade as a young man for the entire 2 year voyage.
So a 26 year old Jeanne wrapped her breasts with linen bandages, dressed as a man, and boarded the French ship Étoile, giving the name in a forcibly deepened voice: “Jean Baret.”
The Étoile and a second ship, the Boudeuse, set sail from Nantes, France in 1766 and headed into the South Atlantic. Commerson and Baret occupied a cabin at the stern of the Étoile, sharing the ship with 116 men, livestock, salted meats, hardtack and numerous barrels of beer. The ruse was doable as Commerson and Baret shared a cabin. Baret spent much of her time evading the crew and caring for a severely seasick Commerson. She was able to hide her true identify by remaining private and even defensive.
Still, the crew noticed something odd about this little man “Jean,” who rarely left his cabin and tended to his master. For one thing, he would never relieve himself in front of the crew. And no one could ever recall seeing him naked before his shipmates. When eyes narrowed and whispers began, Baret had to invent a believable story fast. So she went to the captain quarters, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “I am a eunuch.” He had been brutally castrated by Ottoman Turks, explaining his fair voice and femine appearance.
Finally admitting such a traumatic and humiliating secret silenced suspicions … for a time.
Some of their first stops were along the Brazilian coast. Commerson and Baret went ashore to explore the territory and observe the natural life. They collected dozens of samples and took copious sketches and notes. During their stop in Rio de Janiero, Commerson became sick with debilitating leg ulcers. He could barely walk, let alone go ashore to traipse through the dense rainforest collecting samples. Instead, his Field Assistant Jean would have to go alone. At the time, Admiral Bougainville was investigating the murder of the Étoile’s chaplain in port and hardly cared.
So an ecstatic Baret scrambled into the jungle to scour the forest for exotic specimens. Her knowledge of herbal remedies likely attracted her to a particular flowering vine with bright pink and purple blossoms. Perhaps they could help her sick lover? She took potted samples and brought them back to the ship. Baret and Commerson named the new plant Bougainvillea after their captain and leader. Today, it is a plant prized for its vibrant flowers that blooms in tropical climates around the world.
After navigating the tip of South America, the two ships sailed across the South Pacific. They reached Tahiti in 1767. In this tropical paradise, the delirious male crew encountered exotic, topless native women. Bougainville named it New Cythera, for the home of the Greek goddess of love and beauty.
It was in Tahiti that Baret’s true gender was finally revealed
No one knows the exact details of how ‘The Big Reveal‘ took place. One account says that when she went ashore, the Tahitian natives quickly spotted her true gender and called her out. When taken back aboard the Étoile, she was marched to the Admiral and … confessed everything, revealing her true name and sex. Admiral Bougainville was flabbergasted by the deception. Nevertheless, he allowed Baret to continue on the ship to their next port, New Ireland, in Papua New Guinea. In an attempt to keep his position as ship’s naturalist, Commerson pretended to have been duped as well. Not a soul believed him.
As you can imagine, even with Commerson’s protection, staying on board a ship full of randy sailors as the only woman was extremely dangerous. Many crewmen wanted their own firsthand ‘proof‘ she was a woman. During one field excursion, some men caught Baret alone and sexually assaulted her to ‘see for themselves.’ Commerson reported it to the captain, who had little sympathy for her. After this traumatic experience, Baret would never be ashore without Commerson again.
In 1768, the ship stopped in Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean, to restock supplies. When the Etoile and Boudeuse sailed again for France, Baret and Commerson were not onboard. They stayed on Mauritius as guests of Pierre Poivre, governor of the island, to continue their botanical research. The pair had amassed more than 6,000 specimens in their two years of travel.
Over the course of their next 7 years in Mauritius, Jeanne had another baby with Commerson. She again gave up the child for adoption. Whether this was by choice or not, is unknown. She continued to act as Commerson’s assistant, housekeeper, lover, and eventually nurse until his death in 1773.
A heartbroken Baret remained in Mauritius, stranded and penniless.
She eventually met a French officer named Jean Dubernat. They married in 1774 and she returned with him to France in 1775. When Jeanne stepped back onto French soil after a decade abroad, she was no longer the girl hiding her identity dressed as a man. Baret had made numerous scientific discoveries, lost her lover, and married a husband. She had also become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1785, the French government awarded her a pension of 200 livres a year for her work. They remarked on the record that she was indeed “an extraordinary woman.” The couple moved to Dubernat’s hometown of Saint-Aulaye where she lived a normal life for 30 years, till her death in 1807 at 67.
Baret’s accomplishment was not fully recognized for centuries. Jeanne never kept a diary of her experiences during the long voyage. Logs from several officers though, reveal the hardships she dealt with when the crew learned she was a woman. The writing’s left behind by both Bougainville and Commerson detail not only what she endured, but what she accomplished. Admiral Bougainville himself credits Jeanne Baret for being the first female to circle the globe. He said she should also be honored for her detailed records on the plants and specimens she herself collected.
Despite her amazing contributions to botany, until just recently, no plants were named for Jeanne Baret. By contrast, 70 bear a designation recognizing her husband: “Commersonii.” No one would argue Baret certainly deserved a species or two of her own. Commerson’s notes reveal he wanted to name an unusual Madagascar shrub (with beautiful, multifaceted leaves) after his life long partner. He died however, before he could maked the designation official.
In 2012, Eric Tepe, a University of Utah biologist, heard of Baret’s amazing contributions. In the journal PhytoKeys, describes a new fruit-bearing vine he discovered in the mountains of Peru … and dubbed it Solanum baretiae. Solanums are a genus that include the hardy potato and tomato. Eric Tepe had this to say of the woman: “I have always admired botanical explorers. We know many of their names. But few have sacrificed so much and endured so much as Jeanne Baret.“
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