Jeanne Baret (1740-1807)
In speaking of Jeanne, Admiral Bougainville wrote, “… 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.”
Jeanne Baret (sometimes spelled Baré or Barret) is a little known globetrotter whose story I found to be surprising and inspiring, and quite frankly I thought it was sad that I’d never heard of her! Jeanne, born in the Burgundy region of France in 1740, lived during a time when women were strictly forbidden aboard the naval ships of France, yet she is recognized as the first (historically recorded) woman to circumnavigate the globe.
But just how did she do this?
By disguising herself as a man!
Jeanne’s story begins some time before she stepped aboard a naval ship though. Several years before disguising herself as a man, Jeanne—a highly intelligent “herb woman” living in Loire Valley of France—met Philibert de Commerson, an aristrocrat and scientist, who shared her interest in plants and botany. Jeanne eventually became Commerson’s housekeeper, and later (as indicated by records) the two became romantically involved, eventually moving to Paris together. A year later, in 1975, Commerson was invited, by royal appointment, to join an upcoming expedition to be led by Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville. The voyage, set to be France’s first circumnavigation of the globe, was being sent out to collect specimens of plants and animals with commercial value that could be grown or raised in France (or its colonies). Commerson suffered from various health issues so he was hesitant at first, but his appointment on the ship allowed for a servant. Jeanne—who already helped Commerson when his health suffered, kept his papers organized, and helped run his house—was ready for adventure and eventually they made a decision. Jeanne would accompany him as his valet and assistant, disguised as a man and under the name “Jean Baret.”
The Bougainville expedition involved two ships, La Boudeuse and Étoile, and was gone from 1766 to 1769. On the expedition they journeyed to places such as the Straits of Magellan, Rio de Janiero, New Ireland, Tahiti, and Mauritius. Jeanne’s time aboard the ship, and during the trips inland to collect samples, were far from easy. Time and time again she proved to be invaluable to Commerson’s research—often helping him by carrying many of their tools, supplies, and samples as well as helping to organize and catalogue the information collected. According to some records, when they arrived in Tahiti, it was discovered that Jeanne was a woman (proving the suspicions that voiced early in the expedition, though Jeanne had managed to thwart them until then by claiming to be a eunuch). Upon the discovery, Bougainville had written,
“… 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.”
When their ship docked at the French colony of Mauritius, Commerson and Jeanne chose to stay as guests to a local governor. They continued to conduct research, even traveling to Madagascar to collect more samples. Commerson later passed away from an infection, and Jeanne lived on Mauritius for a total of seven years before meeting and marrying Jean Dubernat of the French Army. Sometime around 1775 they returned to France and ten years later the Ministry of Marine granted Jeanne a pension of 200 livres a year. A quote from the document (featured in Dunmore’s book, Monsieir Baret: First Woman Around the World) shows the level of high regard that she held years after her journey around the globe:
“Jeanne Barré, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. 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. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit…. His Lordship has been gracious enough to grant to this extraordinary woman a pension of two hundred livres a year to be drawn from the fund for invalid servicemen and this pension shall be payable from 1 January 1785.”
Jeanne Baret—the first woman to circumnavigate the world—lived until the ripe age of 67, and is just another example of the extraordinary achievements that women made in the past. Despite all of the challenges and roadblocks that stood in their way!
Story by Alyce Howard