Jeanne Baret: the first known woman to circumnavigate the globe

Glynis Ridley traces the 18th-century voyage undertaken by French botanist Jeanne Baret – who sailed disguised as a boy

An aerial view of Tahiti

On April 1768, two French ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile, rode at anchor off the coast of Tahiti. Until that time, France had been unaware of the existence of the volcanic Polynesian island that later gained a reputation as an earthly paradise, but the 330 officers and men taking their first shore leave in nearly a year would have appreciated its natural – and human – beauty.

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The two ships constituted an expedition, under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, to make the first French circumnavigation of the globe and to find natural resources of use to an imperial power. Bougainville’s published account of the voyage is careful to emphasise French shyness in the face of Tahitian sexual freedom – looking with desire rather than acting upon it. Yet one woman saw danger in the looks that met her gaze, and screamed an appeal to her countrymen to save her. To the wonder of the French, though, that woman was not a Tahitian islander but one of their own crew. As Bougainville later recounted: “They have discovered that the servant of Monsieur Commerson, the doctor, was a girl who until now has been taken for a boy.”

That servant of expedition naturalist Philibert Commerson (or Commerçon) was Jeanne Baret. And if Bougainville is to be believed, no one aboard the crowded ships saw through her disguise for over a year, until landfall on Tahiti, where French sailors were surrounded by Tahitian women – and Baret was surrounded by Tahitian men.

Portrait of Jeanne Baret
Portrait of Jeanne Baret: naturalist, pioneer, circumnavigator. (Image by Alamy)

Jeanne Baret: naturalist, pioneer, circumnavigator

Jeanne Baret (1740–1807) was born to poor parents in the Burgundy region of central France. In her early twenties she was engaged as housekeeper to one of the brightest young scientists in France, Philibert Commerson (or Commerçon), and became his mistress in the years after his wife died in 1762. When he was given a royal appointment as the naturalist on the first French circumnavigation expedition, leaving France in 1767, Baret disguised herself as a young man in order to work as Commerson’s assistant on the voyage – women were not allowed on board French naval vessels at that time.

Baret, literate despite her poor family background, assisted Commerson in his scientific duties on the expedition. Between them, they collected more than 6000 plant, animal and mineral specimens, all of which were subsequently absorbed into the collections of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris.

Baret’s gender was discovered by the crew during the expedition, probably in the south Pacific, though accounts differ as to when, where, and how early in the voyage this occurred. When the ships docked at French-controlled Île de France (now Mauritius) in late 1768, Baret and Commerson, together with expedition astronomer Pierre-Antoine Véron, remained on the island. Baret spent seven years on Mauritius; Commerson died in 1773, and Baret finally returned to France in 1775 – becoming the first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe.

More than 70 species of plants and animals are named for Commerson, but it was not until 2012 that Baret was commemorated in the taxonomic record in Solanum baretiae – a striking flowering plant found in Andean forests.

In December 1766, then aged 26, Jeanne Baret disguised herself in men’s clothes and waited at the dockside in the port of Rochefort in south-west France. There she offered her services to Philibert Commerson, a doctor by training but now the royally appointed naturalist on the first French circumnavigation attempt, anticipated to last at least three years. Commerson’s salary advance included money to hire an assistant, but he had been unable to find one to his liking, and quickly concluded terms with the young man who had introduced ‘himself’ as Jean Baret.

That, at least, was Commerson’s account of events. In reality, Baret – 12 years his junior – had lived with him since 1764, and had borne him a son, who died. When Commerson was appointed to Bougainville’s expedition, Baret would have been an obvious choice for his assistant – had she not been a woman: a royal ordinance forbade women on French naval ships. So the couple hatched a plan for Baret to disguise herself as a man so that she could join Bougainville’s expedition. This decision, it seems, wasn’t based solely on companionship. Commerson’s will specified that, in the event of his death and Baret’s survival, she should be given one year in their shared Paris apartment to arrange his natural history collections, including the sheaves of pressed plant specimens he had been assembling since he was a teenager. The fact he trusted her with such a task suggests that she had botanical knowledge in her own right, and skill enough not to need his constant direction. Indeed, Bougainville’s journal referred to Baret and Commerson as “the botanists”.

Boarding the Étoile in Rochefort, Baret’s disguise might soon have been discovered were it not for the fact that Commerson was allocated the captain’s cabin, to accommodate his field equipment. It had a private commode, allowing Baret to relieve herself in private rather than having to go to ‘the heads’ along with the other sailors.

On 1 February 1767, after six weeks of preparation and provisioning, the Étoile sailed south-west to rendezvous with Bougainville, the expedition’s commander, in Rio de Janeiro, where he had been engaged in diplomatic business aboard his own ship, the Boudeuse.

Bougainville’s arrival in Tahiti
Bougainville’s arrival in Tahiti, shown in a 19th-century French engraving. One contemporary scientist suggested that Tahitians could distinguish a man from a woman by smell alone. (Image by Alamy)

Suspicious minds

As well as Bougainville, three other members of the expedition kept journals that mention Baret. That of the Étoile’s surgeon, François Vivès, makes it clear that the crew suspected Baret was a woman within a few days of setting sail. And the journal Commerson kept jointly with another crew member aboard the Étoile reveals when Baret’s true identity was seemingly put beyond doubt. As maritime tradition dictated, when the Étoile crossed the equator on 22 March 1767, all ‘equatorial virgins’ had to strip to be baptised by Father Neptune and his followers. Commerson describes the unusually brutal hazing ceremony as “a masquerade – of devils” though, being a gentleman, his ‘baptism’ was nothing more than a dousing with a bucket of water. Ordinary seamen stripped for immersion in a foetid pool, and were battered with oars by ‘Neptune’s acolytes’, painted green. Baret remained the only fully clothed equatorial novice – a fact that did not escape the crew.

The Étoile reached Rio in mid-June and, while awaiting the arrival of the Boudeuse, Baret and Commerson went botanising, though his recurring varicose ulcers limited his movements. Indeed, Commerson’s health was so bad that the surgeon recommended the amputation of the affected leg. It is therefore likely that Baret collected the showy tropical vine that was later named in honour of their commander: Bougainvillea.

In mid-July, both ships sailed south, past barnacle-encrusted humpbacks breaching the waves of the south Atlantic. But a leak in the hold of the Étoile necessitated repairs off Montevideo, where Baret and Commerson went ashore. Among their goals were specimens of the cochineal beetle, collected from the thorny pads of prickly pear and in huge demand for the red dye produced from the beetles’ carapace – companies producing the dye were quoted on both the London and Amsterdam stock exchanges.

In November 1767, repairs to the Étoile completed, the expedition sailed out of the Río de la Plata (River Plate) and through marine bioluminescence often encountered in these waters – a milky haze on the surface of the ocean, lighting it to the horizon. Bougainville’s journal recorded seals, penguins and whales, while albatross and petrels wheeled overhead. For Baret, born to day labourers who typically never travelled farther than their local market town, the experience must have been nothing short of miraculous.

On 4 December 1767, the ships reached the southern tip of the South American mainland and turned west into the Strait of Magellan. One-fifth of Bougainville’s journal is devoted to this stage of the journey as the ships inched through this channel, trying to avoid submerged glacial moraine that might rip open the hulls. Baret and Commerson were put ashore on the coast, with additional personnel to help them, and Bougainville records native Patagonians also taking their cue from the botanists and assisting in a plant hunt. The specimens collected were likely strait bilberries, similar in appearance to savin, a shrubby juniper plant that has a long history in Europe as a herbal remedy for sexually transmitted disease. It’s possible that the consequences of the expedition’s shore leave in Montevideo were starting to present themselves to the doctor.

Accompanying the expedition in the strait were black-and-white dolphins that Commerson believed were new to European science; he rather egotistically named the species Commerson’s dolphin, Cephalorhynchus commersonii. On the coast, the expedition saw colonies of Magellanic penguins and huge southern elephant seals – among the natural wonders that perhaps provided some compensation to Baret for the freezing conditions and shifting scree underfoot during shore excursions.

In late January 1768, the expedition finally emerged into the Pacific, charting a north-west course in hopes of reaching the Spice Islands (or Moluccas, now Maluku, in Indonesia), which were closely guarded by the Dutch colonial rulers. Among the goods obtained there, most prized was nutmeg. En route, at the beginning of April 1768, the ships stumbled upon Tahiti – an island whose existence had been hitherto unknown to the French. There, Baret and Commerson must have studied the breadfruit, later the goal of Captain Bligh’s ill-fated Bounty expedition; certainly, Commerson sketched the plant in his notebook.

It was also here, according to Bougainville’s account, that the discovery of “a girl who until now has been taken for a boy” was made. Early readers of his reports saw nothing strange in the Tahitians’ apparent ability to see through Baret’s disguise. But 21st-century readers may feel sceptical about Bougainville’s version. He did not even write about the revelation during the expedition’s stay on the island; it was not until 28–29 May 1768 that his journal raised the subject of Baret for the first and last time, attributing the discovery to the Tahitians.

Fort Belgica, built by the Dutch on Banda Neira
Fort Belgica, built by the Dutch on Banda Neira, Maluku in the 17th century. Bougainville’s ships were prevented from exploring these ‘Spice Islands’ by the Dutch, who rigorously controlled access. (Image by Shutterstock)

It is not as if his journal entries for late May would otherwise have been short on drama. By then, the ships were running so low on food and water that both officers’ messes had started serving rat, and ordinary seamen were given boiled leather to gnaw. In addition, the ships had encountered armed Melanesian islanders from the Vanuatu archipelago, and felt compelled to fire on them. In the midst of tropical plenty, the Boudeuse and Étoile could not find any safe landfall.

On 5 June 1768, the Boudeuse fired warning shots to alert the Étoile to danger in the water: the expedition had run up against the Great Barrier Reef. The crews gazed uncomprehendingly at what Captain James Cook later described as “a wall of coral rock rising perpendicular out of the unfathomable ocean”. Today, a coral outcrop some 120 miles east of Australia’s mainland is named Bougainville Reef in honour of that moment.

The ships turned north and, by 10 June, the expedition was off New Guinea’s south-east coast; sea currents and tropical squalls prevented landfall here, and instead the crew next landed in early July on New Ireland, north-east of New Guinea. The journals of three other men on the expedition all report that something significant happened to Baret here. That of François Vivès is the most explicit of the three: his metaphors of a gun’s lock plate being drawn back and of a conch shell being found suggest that Baret was forcibly stripped and assaulted. Though this version of events was corroborated by others, modern chroniclers typically prefer to rely on Bougainville’s account.

Timeline: the Bougainville expedition

1 February 1767 Expedition ship Étoile sets sail from Rochefort on a voyage of circumnavigation, with Jeanne Baret aboard in disguise as the (male) assistant of expedition naturalist Philibert Commerson

22 March 1767 As the Étoile crosses the equator in the mid-Atlantic, the crew strip for brutal hazing rituals. Baret stays clothed

13 June 1767 The Étoile anchors at Rio de Janeiro to wait for expedition leader Louis-Antoine de Bougainville and his ship Boudeuse to join the mission

July 1767 The two ships sail south from Rio towards Montevideo; around this time the vine later named Bougainvillea is collected by the botanists on the Brazilian coast

4 December 1767 Having left the River Plate in November, the ships enter the Strait of Magellan; descriptions of the slow passage through the strait fill one-fifth of Bougainville’s journal

26 January 1768 The expedition finally emerges into the Pacific and turns north-west, aiming for the Spice Islands – now called Maluku, in Indonesia

2 April 1768 Bougainville’s party sights Tahiti and claims the island for France, unaware that Captain Samuel Wallis had staked Britain’s claim the previous year

6 July 1768 Baret’s gender is confirmed during an incident on New Ireland, an island east of New Guinea, according to the journals of three expedition members

27 September 1768 The Étoile and Boudeuse dock at Batavia (now Jakarta) on Java for three weeks’ reprovisioning following a bleak period on starvation rations in the Ceram Sea off the Spice Islands

7 November 1768 Bougainville’s expedition lands at Port Louis on the French-controlled Île de France (now Mauritius), administered by Pierre Poivre – the Peter Piper of nursery-rhyme fame, and a noted botanist

12 December 1768 The expedition departs Mauritius, leaving Baret and Commerson on the island. Completing the circumnavigation, Bougainville arrives in St Malo the following March

In search of spice

Commerson and Baret kept to their cabin for one month after New Ireland, during which landings on New Guinea’s northern coast were attempted but stymied by thunderstorms and strong headwinds. Bougainville determined to hug the coast, sailing west, and land in the Spice Islands. However, the Dutch had long regulated the production and availability of navigational charts of these islands, so non-Dutch vessels were effectively sailing blind in the Ceram Sea. When Baret and Commerson were finally put ashore, the island chosen yielded no spices. A strategy of random landings was not sustainable. In early September, the Étoile and the Boudeuse anchored off the Dutch plantation island of Boeroe (modern Buru) and, after the ships were searched, Bougainville and his officers were fed by the governor and given some supplies. Now under Dutch surveillance, Bougainville saw little choice but to sail directly west across the Molucca Sea for a major port.

Later that month, the expedition limped into Batavia (today’s Jakarta), where they reprovisioned before sailing on to the French-controlled Île de France (now Mauritius). There, Baret, Commerson and astronomer Pierre-Antoine Véron were invited to stay at the home of the director of the botanical gardens, Pierre Poivre – the Peter Piper of nursery-rhyme fame. In the gardens, Poivre oversaw test beds of tropical plants that might be useful to feed and clothe France and her empire. The botanists’ skills were in demand and, when Bougainville sailed on in December 1768, they and Véron remained with Poivre.

When Bougainville’s expedition returned to France in March 1769, he was fêted as a hero. From their base on Mauritius, Baret and Commerson explored Madagascar before he died in 1773; she secured a passage back to France, arriving sometime in 1774 or early 1775. When she stepped onto French soil, some eight years after setting out, there was no one to fête her. Yet someone, most likely Bougainville, petitioned the Ministère de la Marine (Naval Ministry) for recognition for this extraordinary woman. From 1 January 1785, she received a state pension of 200 livres per annum for her part in the expedition. Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe – and the first to receive a government pension for her contribution to a scientific expedition.

Glynis Ridley is professor and chair of English at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and author of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret (Crown, 2010)

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This article was first published in issue 22 of BBC World Histories Magazine