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The young woman and the sea

On 21st January 2012, 16-year-old Laura Dekker became the youngest person to ever circumnavigate the globe alone. Dekker, who had to battle Dutch authorities to be allowed to sail without her parents, pulled off a truly inspiring feat – a year-long solo voyage from the Caribbean across the Pacific to Australia, then back around Africa into the Atlantic.

Dekker didn’t court publicity, although she got it. She didn’t sail round the world to beat records, although she did. She did it simply because she loved sailing. She wanted to be alone on her boat and to see the world. Attention and acclaim weren’t important to her. But compared to Jeanne Baret, the first woman ever to circumnavigate the globe, Dekker was as publicity-hungry as the combined cast of The ‘Only Way Is Essex’. For not only did nobody know Jeanne Baret went around the world – for years, nobody knew she was a woman.

In 1766, Jeanne Baret stepped aboard the French expedition boat the Étoile, lured by the promise of working as a botanist in distant lands. Dekker went for the sailing, Baret for the botany. Dekker fought a law that wouldn’t let her go before she was too young; almost 250 years ago, Baret faced a law that wouldn’t let her go because she was a woman. Dekker took on the law and set sail; Baret set sail too, but dressed as a man.

Southern exposure

In 1766, France was in a fever of empire-building. This was seen as an economic necessity – Britain, the Netherlands and Spain had long claimed distant lands as part of their expanding territories, and France needed to stay competitive, particularly after having lost overseas globe, it was critical that he take a botanist with him. The pressure was on to find specimens, taxonomise them and turn them to profitable commercial use. Bougainville’s chosen botanist, Philibert Commerson, was not only approved by the King but had also been recommended by Carl Linnaeus, grandfather of modern taxonomy. Commerson was at the very top of his profession, one of Europe’s leading botanists, a man of prestige and learning. So why did he pick a peasant woman from the Loire Valley as his assistant?

Commerson met Baret while he was botanising near her hometown two years after his wife died in childbirth. Baret became his housekeeper, and a few years later, in 1764, they moved to Paris together. Shortly after this, she bore him a child who was placed in a foundling hospital. It was clear that Baret had considerable botanical knowledge – when Commerson wrote a will in 1766, he ordered that Baret should be allowed stay in their apartment for one year after “news of my death”, to “provide time to organise the natural history specimens that are to be sent to the Royal Collection.”

When he was appointed expedition botanist, Commerson was allowed to take an assistant – someone with whom he could work with in close quarters for three years. Baret was the obvious choice, but a government decree forbidding women from working on naval vessels stood in the way. Undeterred, the couple hatched a cunning plan. On 15th November 1766, with her chest bound tightly in linen bandages, wearing men’s clothes and with the newly adopted name of ‘Jean’, Baret boarded the Étoile as her lover’s assistant.

If she had not met Commerson, Baret would – like her parents – have lived and died in her small town. For her, the chance to sail around the world and botanise in distant lands must have been mind-boggling.

Expedition logs kept by Commerson, Bougainville (the expedition’s captain, in charge of both the Étoile and its sister boat, the Boudeuse) and a few others reveal that rumours very quickly began flying about Baret’s dubious masculinity. As Commerson’s assistant, she was expected to share quarters with the men of lower standing on the ships, which meant sleeping in hammocks with them. A stroke of luck saw Commerson gain the captain’s cabin, and he insisted that his assistant share it. While this gained her some privacy, it raised a few eyebrows.

“Reports suggest that Baret’s real gender was an open secret by this stage. Aotourou, a Tahitian who joined the Étoile, identified her as a ‘mahu’ (a transvestite) within minutes of seeing her”

It didn’t take long before Baret was called upon to explain herself to La Giraudais, the captain of the Étoile, and Bougainville’s deputy. What reason did she give for those glimpses of femininity that everyone kept seeing in her? According to the log of Vivès, the Étoile’s doctor: “the false servant insisted he was not a woman but one of those individuals from among whose ranks the Ottoman emperor chooses the keepers of his harem” – in other words, she claimed to be a eunuch, castrated by the Turks.

The lie didn’t make life much easier for Baret, though. As the Étoile crossed from the North to the South Atlantic, the men on board performed an “equatorial baptism”, celebrating “crossing the line” with an act of ritual hazing. On the Étoile, it involved a bucket of water being thrown at the officers and seamen who hadn’t previously been past the equator. By the time it was Baret’s turn to be “baptised”, things had descended into mob rule; Commerson describes a makeshift pool that the men were submerged in before being covered in soot. Baret, presumably keeping most of her clothes on as the men stripped off, just had to deal with it.

The birth of the bougainvillea

Arriving in Brazil, Commerson and Baret began their work, scouring the landscape for undocumented species that might have agricultural or commercial potential. Here, they found and named the Bougainvillea brasiliensis, a flowering plant native to South America; it was to be the most significant botanical find of the entire expedition. Of course, the credit was Commerson’s, the name in honour of Bougainville, but the find may well have been Baret’s. As Vivès records in his log, Commerson’s legs were almost gangrenous by the time they reached South America. It was quite possible that he left the intrepid botanising to Baret, and that she would have been the one to find the colourful, clambering vines.

The bougainvillea joined the growing collection of specimens on board the Étoile; which would ultimately number around 6,000, all found, dried and preserved by Commerson and Baret alone, and sent to the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris.

By 1768, the expedition had passed through the stormy Magellan Strait, where Baret worked relentlessly, seeking out new specimens along its shores, and had reached the South Pacific. Hoping to come across both the Dutch Spice Islands, and the terra australis incognita, they first bumped into the beautiful tropical island of Tahiti.

The Tahitians, apparently, knew a woman when they saw one. Bougainville writes: “For some time there was a report… that the servant of M. Commerson was a woman… a scene which passed at Tahiti [made] this suspicion into certainty. M. Commerson went on shore to botanise there; Baret had hardly set his feet on shore when the men of Tahiti surrounded him, cried out ‘it is a woman,’ and wanted to give her the honours customary to the Isle.”

Reports from other expedition members suggest that Baret’s real gender was an open secret by this stage. Aotourou, a Tahitian who joined the Étoile, identified her as a “mahu” (a transvestite) within minutes of seeing her; at which, according to Vivès, everyone laughed, as though they were in on the joke, knowing this to be closer to the truth than the eunuch story.

Things became more disturbing when the expedition reached New Ireland in Papua New Guinea. Accounts from three other crew members state that it was here that Baret’s gender was forced into the open in brutal circumstances. One of the accounts – again, that of Vivès – is especially disturbing. “One fine day,” he says, “the servants were ashore doing the laundry. Baret made the error of trying to do her laundry with them. It was a sorry day when, having seized her pistols, the gun was examined, the lock was drawn back, and light was shed, putting an end to all doubts. But it was really a service they did the girl…”

One of Baret’s biographers, Glynis Ridley, reads this as meaning that a gang-rape occurred, leaving Baret pregnant. There is evidence for this – although it’s pretty flimsy. A man with Baret’s preferred nickname, “Bonnefoy”, is documented to have been working exactly where Baret gave birth in the Flacq district of Mauritius some 30 years later. It’s impossible to know what, if anything, to read into this.

The Étoile reached Mauritius in November 1768. Baret and Commerson disembarked – and ended up staying for the next seven years. Mauritius afforded far greater privacy and freedom than the claustrophobic Étoile, and Commerson and Baret were also free to travel to Madagascar, a place Commerson described as “the naturalist’s true Promised Land”. The first real glimpse of stability in Baret’s adult life came when Commerson purchased a house in Port Louis, Mauritius’s capital, where they tried to put the difficulties and defeats of the Étoile  behind them – which for Commerson included having failed to find any commercially useful crops during the expedition. The three-year voyage and his gangrene infection had taken its toll on him though, and aged 45, with Baret nursing him, he died.

The long way home

This left Baret on her own, aged 32, on a small island in the Indian Ocean. Commerson’s house was impounded by a new regime in Port Louis, and she was left penniless until she she was able to return to France to claim the 600 livres Commerson had left her in his will. There is evidence of Baret selling alcohol, and records show she was fined for selling it on the Sabbath in 1773: the botanist had turned barmaid.

Soon after the arrest, she met and married a French sergeant, Jean Dubernat, who was passing through Port Louis. It was with him that she gained passage back to France. When she stepped off the boat with him in late 1774 or early 1775, she became the first ever woman to have circumnavigated the globe, although there was no fanfare and no welcome home.

Baret settled with Dubernat in his hometown of Saint-Aulaye in the Dordogne, and successfully claimed the money due to her from Commerson’s will. She lived the rest of her life in obscurity, albeit with a pension of 200 livres a year – a gift from the French Marine Ministry in recognition that she was an “extraordinary woman”. It is speculated that Bougainville, long celebrated as a maritime hero, might have been behind this gift. She died in the Dordogne in 1807 aged 67, her simple grave making no reference of her incredible achievement.

Over 200 years later and Baret finally gained her floral immortality. Commerson might never have got round to it, but in January 2012, a new species of solanum, one of the largest species of plants, was named Solanum baretiae in her honour. Endemic to Peru and Ecuador, Solanum baretiae is a striking flowering plant with large, colourful flowers and rambling vines. Jeanne Baret might have had to wait several centuries for a tribute that acknowledged her botanical achievements – the true goal of her dramatic life – but it has finally arrived.

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