Although few people know her name, Jeanne Baret deserves a place on the list of history’s most badass explorers. At a time when the French Navy forbade women from setting foot on their ships, Jeanne disguised herself as a man, joined an expedition, helped a botanist collect samples all over the world, and became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
It was a journey that kept Jeanne away from France for about eight years, but when she finally returned home, she did so under her own name and identity. Only a few ship logs and journals describe the expedition, and although the sources provide differing accounts about certain events, historians have been able to piece together most of Jeanne’s story.
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When a young valet in men’s clothing boarded a French naval ship in 1766, only one other passenger knew that the valet was actually a peasant woman named Jeanne Baret. Of the entire expedition, which consisted of two ships and more than 300 people, she was the only woman setting sail, and she didn’t want anyone else to learn her secret.
She had good reason for her deception, though, since the French Navy didn’t allow women on its ships at that time. But Jeanne wanted to accompany Philibert Commerson — a botanist who had been her employer and lover for several years — and assist him with his work. She knew quite a bit about plants and herbs, and with her scientific background, she made a fairly skilled nurse. Commerson, whose health was far from perfect, needed her there.
So the two cooked up their scheme, and Jeanne appeared at the docks that morning disguised as a man. The expedition hired her as Commerson’s assistant and assigned the two of them to share a cabin, where they could also stow the botanist’s equipment and supplies. Jeanne must have felt overwhelmed with relief as the ships pulled away from shore and took her out to sea — she and Commerson had somehow pulled off their ruse.
The expedition, which was led by an explorer named Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, aimed to circumnavigate the world and bring glory to France. Commerson was one of several scientists who had joined the group (along with a few doctors, an astronomer, and a cartographer), and he would have to venture on land and collect specimens once the ships finished crossing the Atlantic.
When the ships finally made it across the ocean and docked at several South American ports, Jeanne and Commerson’s real work began. They went ashore in Montevideo and Rio de Janeiro, where they collected a large quantity of plants, including a flowering vine that they named bougainvillea, after their captain. They had no way to know it at the time, but the colorful plant would become their most famous discovery from the trip.
No one is quite sure how the pair divided the work, especially given Commerson’s poor health, but most experts agree that Jeanne did a lot of the heavy lifting. She carried supplies and specimens, all while walking over unfamiliar terrain and looking for exotic plants. Back at sea, she helped Commerson catalog and document the specimens. Her new lifestyle was completely at odds with her childhood in rural France, where her father had been illiterate and most of the villagers had been field workers.
That isn’t to say that Jeanne’s new life was perfect, though. Between the murder of the expedition’s chaplain in Rio de Janeiro and the storms that hit the ships in the Strait of Magellan, the explorers faced their fair share of problems, and Jeanne had to worry about her secret, too. Throughout the journey, rumors had abounded that there was a woman on board, and many people pointed fingers at the botanist’s assistant. Expedition member François Vivès wrote in his memoir that Jeanne explained away the rumors by saying that she had been castrated by Ottoman pirates — and while that might seem far-fetched in today’s world, it pacified the gossiping explorers.
Even so, Jeanne’s secret didn’t last forever, and as the ships made their way through the South Pacific, everyone eventually learned that she was, indeed, a woman. The expedition members wrote varying accounts about how they ascertained the truth, but in most versions, the explorers said that they encountered Tahitians who insisted that Jeanne was a woman until she confessed.
No matter how the truth came out, it changed the way that Bougainville and the other explorers viewed Jeanne — and when the ships docked in Mauritius, they made sure it was the last stop for her and Commerson. The official reason for their change of plans, as Bougainville wrote in his journal, was that Commerson left the expedition “to enquire into the natural history of these isles.” While that was certainly a piece of the story, it wasn’t the whole truth. Bougainville must have been afraid of what the Navy (and his peers) would say if anyone found out that one of the expedition members had been a woman.
By then, it was November 1768, and nearly two years had passed since 28-year-old Jeanne and 41-year-old Commerson had left France. They lived in Mauritius for several years, Jeanne still working as Commerson’s assistant, nurse, and housekeeper, all while continuing to collect plants (eventually amassing about 6,000 specimens). The pair even made several trips to Madagascar, which Commerson described in a letter as a “promised land” for naturalists.
After years of health problems and de facto exile, Commerson died in March 1773, leaving Jeanne alone in Mauritius. This chapter of her life is a bit of a mystery, although her biographers believe that she may have worked at a tavern on the island.
What we do know, however, is that about a year after Commerson’s death, Jeanne Baret married a soldier named Jean Dubernat. She then left Mauritius and went home to France with him. No one knows exactly when the newlyweds made it back, officially completing Jeanne’s circumnavigation. All that we know is that they settled in a small town in southwestern France, where Jeanne claimed her inheritance from her late lover.
A decade after her return, Jeanne began receiving a yearly pension from the French government — it seems that, after everything that had happened, they wanted to acknowledge the feat that she had accomplished. Although the reward was a bit ironic, especially given its lateness and the fact that Jeanne had disguised herself because of the government’s own policies, it was fitting. After all, not only had she been part of the first French expedition to circumnavigate the globe, but she had also been the first woman in history to do so.
“Jeanne Baret, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe… She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant.”
— French government, 1785
So, the next time you see a wall or a gate covered in bougainvillea, think about the woman who discovered and named those ornamental vines. It’s time the world paid Jeanne Baret due.
Header image by Dmitrij Paskevic