This is a great story, an incredible story!
In 1767, at a time when most still felt the world was flat, Louis-Antoine Bougainville set sail from France on an expedition in search of ‘the great southern land’. Aboard the ‘Etoile‘ was Philibert de Commerson, the expedition’s official naturalist who had requested of Bouganville to be allowed to bring his valet, Jean Baret, to assist in carrying the large quantity of equipment he required for his field research . Permission was granted & on seeing the amount of equipment, the ship’s captain even offered Commerson the captain’s cabin with sufficient room for the two to share the cabin.
Portraits of Jean Baret & Philibert de Commerson:
The ship set sail from France in 1767 reaching Brazil later that year. By this time the crew were becoming suspicious of a beardless Jean who was never seen to urinate through specially designed holes for the purpose along the foredeck. It was also rare for a servant to sleep in his master’s quarters & complaints would see Baret being compelled to sleep in a hammock with the rest of the crew – Baret always slept with a loaded pistol alongside!
As proof of manhood Baret worked far harder than any other member of the crew, but the questions continued to the point where the question of sexuality compelled the captain to ask Baret for an explanation. Baret would advance the story of being a eunuch having been captured by Turks, castrated & forced to work in a harem! It was good enough to see Baret allowed back into Commerson’s cabin!
The Etoile would continue down the coast of South America, through the Straits of Magellan to finally reach Tahiti in April, 1768. Whilst at anchor,a certain Tahitian chief, Ahutoro, came aboard & descended into a large cabin where Baret & other crew-members were standing. On sighting Baret, Ahutoro immediately exclaimed over & over again in Tahitian whilst pointing to Baret that: “it’s a woman; it’s a woman”!
The next morning when Baret went ashore to carry out botanical duties, the Tahitian men flocked around her, sniffing her, exclaiming loudly that she was a woman & clearly indicating their desire to “do the honours in welcoming her” to the islands. One Tahitian picked her up & made off with her to the bushes but she was saved by a sword carrying French officer.
A member of the ship’s crew would finally discover for himself the truth – Commerson’s valet, Jean Baret, was in fact his lover, Jeanne Baret, dressed as a male! Jeanne Baret had become the first white woman to ‘discover’ Tahiti.
Baret henceforth would always carry 2 loaded pistols whilst Commerson, who insisted that he had no part to answer in this extreme breach of regulations which forbade women from sailing, became the brunt of many a joke!
The Etoile would set sail from Tahiti after only ten days. On the trip that followed Baret would be raped by crew members & fall pregnant. Commerson & Baret would decide to disembark permanently at Mauritius. The baby would be born & given up for adoption before Commercon died in 1773. Bret would marry a french soldier in 1774 presumably to ensure free passage back to France where she would arrive later that same year. As such Jeanne Baret became the first woman to circumnavigate the world!
Bougainville, pictured above, would write in his journals of how much he admired Baret’s work ethic, her determination to sail around the world & her wisdom to the extent that he felt no harm had come from the serious breach in regulations. Under the circumstances, however, there was no fanfare for her arrival, no real comprehension of the feat she had achieved!
That Commerson & Baret were prolific gathers of flora & fauna exhibits is beyond question. More interestingly is the fact that Commerson suffered from a series of ongoing illnesses which severely resticted his movement & it was Baret who performed many of the duties accredited to the naturalist. Indeed it was Baret who actually ‘discovered’ the Bouganvillia plant in South America.
Although ultimately recognised for her work, awarded a pension & leaving a legacy of flora & fauna housed in the Museum Of natural history, no plant or animal from the era carries her name, although the name of around 70 pay homage to Commerson.
Glynis Ridley’s “The Discovery of Jeanne Baret” is essential reading for those wishing to learn more.