Told one way, the story of Jeanne Baret is an essentially inspiring tale: a woman born a peasant, raised with the expectation of seeing nothing more in her life than the next town over who became a first class botanist and the first woman in the history of the world to circumnavigate the globe during Louis Bougainville’s historic 1766 expedition. A talent recognized, a life broadened, a milestone achieved. If you bring other details into focus, however, what appears is less a triumphal succession and more a slow trawl through a vindictive horrorscape: unkept promises, lost children, constant physical torment, possible rape, and abandonment, all culminating in a return to a France supremely indifferent to her existence and unaware of the scope of her accomplishments and depth of her suffering.
Where does the truth lie? The story of Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) is not one easily told, not only because of the radical tonal rift between the triumphant momentousness of what she accomplished and the omnipresent emotional and physical hardship that her uncertain position in life constantly inflicted upon her, but because of the spotty and contradictory nature of the sources we have that inconsistently illuminate different aspects of that life. During the epic part of her life, she was surrounded by people with vested interests in misrepresenting her story or in omitting its significance altogether, and to pull truth from those accounts has been a taxing proposition for the most dedicated of her biographers. We know she was born in the Loire valley on the 27th of July, 1740, and that her parents belonged to the peasant class whose life fortunes waxed and waned with the daily demand for their manual labor.
For two decades following her birth, Baret is a blank slate on the historical record – just another peasant girl destined to live and die in a cycle of poverty unnoticed and unnoted in its particulars – until, that is, sometime in the early 1760s her path crossed that of the botanist Philibert Commerson. She was at the time, according to one theory, earning her living as an herb woman, an expert on the medicinal value of the local flora who made her money selling the plants she gathered to various middlemen in France’s sprawling pre-modern medical system. Commerson, a gentleman some thirteen years her senior with a passion for botany that was the despair of his family who hoped he would settle down into a respectable legal or medical profession, had moved to Toulon-sur-Arroux in 1760 after his marriage, and the distance between Baret’s village and Commerson’s residence was, in this theory, just small enough for their botanizing radii to overlap.
Modern historians disagree as to whether Baret was in fact an herb woman who piqued Commerson’s interest because of her knowledge, or whether she was simply a servant he had somehow met and subsequently taught how to write and botanize. Glynis Ridley, author of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, holds with the former view, and Danielle Clode, author of In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World, holds the latter, and in the absence of definite documentation one way or the other, we have to make our way forward the best we can.
Commerson, who had many deep faults as a human being that we shall come to in due course, had apparently the virtue of being able to see talent where it existed. Whereas others of his class would regard Baret and see nothing more than a peasant and a woman, beneath their notice and certainly beneath utility as sources of information, Commerson saw a person of either clear and precise competence in a field he wanted to learn more about, or a promising and sharp mind that could comprehend new worlds of facts and fine distinctions.
He struck up an acquaintance with this unique peasant woman. In 1762, Commerson’s wife died shortly after childbirth and Commerson, in what would be something of a pattern, fobbed the infant off on the nearest available relative so that he could be back at his primary task of botanizing, infused with the funds of his late wife. By 1764, Baret had taken up the position as housekeeper in Commerson’s household, and something else besides, as in December of that year, after the couple had moved to Paris, she gave birth a baby boy, who was thereupon placed in the famous Paris Foundlings Hospital so that Commerson could continue his life unencumbered by the living consequences of his own actions.
What emotional trauma Baret suffered at the surrendering of her first child we can imagine but cannot know, yet her life left her little leisure to contemplate it. Commerson was not a well man, and would need constant nursing for the next two decades of their association, in addition to her duties as housekeeper and her extra botanical duties as the maintainer of the specimens acquired from the nearby Jardin du Roi, an early botanical research garden whose director was a friend of Commerson’s and always keen to experiment with new ways of growing potentially valuable crops across the French Empire.
She combined the jobs of nurse, housekeeper, and research scientist within herself and somehow found the space to accomplish their aggressive demands within the span of a day’s available hours, all of which made her an invaluable aid to Commerson and perhaps suggested to him the germ of a scheme that would, depending on how you read the details of her life, open up vast new vistas of discovery to her capable brain and boundless stamina, or plunge her into a decade of danger and harm from which he could not possible protect her.
1763 saw the close of the globe-spanning conflict called the French-Indian War in the Americas and the Seven Years’ War in Europe, and on the surface of it, the end result was defeat on all fronts for France. The nation needed a re-assertion of its might and basic competence, and what better way to accomplish that than a round-the-world expedition to claim new territories and discover new natural resources, organized under explorer and the nearest thing that the French had to a military hero in the recent conflict, Louise Antoine de Bougainville. This was to be a mission of discovery, both geographic and scientific, and when casting about for a botanist to serve in that crucial capacity for his expedition, Commerson’s name floated to the top of Bougainville’s pile of candidates.
To serve on the expedition was a sure path to career advancement, esteem, and maybe at last the familial acceptance that had largely evaded him to this point, but Commerson knew full well that his health would not allow him to succeed to the degree that would be expected of him. He would need an assistant, one he worked well with, who would stay in their place and not attempt to seize any credit that might objectively be their due. He had exactly that person working for him, but because of a law forbidding a man to bring a woman on board a royal naval vessel, he could not take her. Commerson had to make a decision – to take on a new assistant and try and train them in time, or to do something absolutely fricking crazy.
He opted for the latter.
He would take Jeanne Baret with him, except disguised as a man, and somehow hope that, during the years of the proposed expedition, crammed into an object the size of a large house with hundreds of other people constantly interacting minutely with each other, she would escape detection and its consequences. It was a plan that could only be formulated by someone concerned with solving the problem immediately before them and who did not bother over much considering the long term difficulties that would be faced by the person bearing the brunt of that plan. Where would she relieve herself? What would happen to her body as she underwent the rigors of sea voyaging and specimen gathering while her chest was wrapped in tight bands of linen that disguised her form while cutting into her skin and preventing her breathing? What would happen to her if some crewmates discovered her secret and cornered her? But the mind that thought that the best way to handle the birth of his second child with least inconvenience to himself was to drop it off at the local foundling hospital was hardly the mind to weigh as definitive these possible futures, and so Baret and Commerson stepped aboard the Étoile in December of 1766.
I lied in the title to this piece. There are three Jeanne Barets, ultimately – the victor, the victim, and the particular amalgam of the two that each individual reading her story forms within the cavernous spaces of the available documents.
Aboard the Étoile, which was to be the companion ship to Bougainville’s Boudeuse, many of Commerson and Baret’s most immediate problems were overcome when the captain offered Commerson the use of his own private cabin, which had a connecting privy which Baret could use without exposing herself to general view, as she would have had to find a way around when using the exposed crewmen’s facilities. The cabin would also give her a place to spend most of her time, which meant fewer prying and appraising eyes upon her while she was in the first stages of learning how to pass for masculine. Even so, however, it was generally remarked upon how unwilling she was to strip down as the other men often did, and particularly during the grotesque affair of Crossing The Line, an anarchic festival undergone when a ship crosses the equator and equatorial virgins are made the butt of the crew’s variously sadistic gestures. On Baret’s Crossing, she was placed with the other equatorial virgins in a submerged net filled with human waste and had to attempt to drag herself back up onto the deck while more waste descended from above and her other companions in terror pulled her back and under the fetid slosh in a mad dash to escape the feces and urine slurry sliding up their noses and into their mouths.
Most sailors underwent the ritual stripped so as to be more maneuverable in the water, but Baret chose to remain clothed, adding to the suspicions that she was not what she seemed. Confronted by the captain, she wove a story of having been captured by the Turks and castrated so that her genitalia were a source of constant shame to her which she did not want others to see. The thought of being captured and castrated by Turkish jailers was among 18th century European sailors’ most vivid dreads, and as it seemed to explain the oddness of Baret’s actions, it was accepted at face value by most of the crew, while the captain, if he didn’t believe it, perhaps felt that it acted as just good enough of a cover to excuse him for not having detected and dealt with her sooner.
When the Étoile met the Boudeuse the voyage could begin in earnest, and Commerson and Baret began what would be their standard arrangement for the next half-decade. As Commerson was experiencing intense leg pains throughout the trip, he would generally go part of the way into a new environment, set up his chair, survey the landscape, and then indicate where Baret was to go. Baret, chest bound tightly with linen, would then take up the heavy wooden plant press, the wooden specimen boxes, and the bag of field equipment, and spend the day climbing mountains and working through forests to obtain plants of potential medicinal value or particular novelty, as well as animal samples, to bring back to Commerson for the two of them to catalogue later on board the ship. The sailors, watching her encumbered with so many scientific devices while still scampering up forbidding terrain, took to calling her Commerson’s Beast of Burden.
The work was hard, and it was perhaps made harder by the fact that, having found new plants, and lived under such appalling daily discomfort and psychological uncertainties, Commerson took great pains to name new species after everybody of any stature on the ship (including, with flagrant taxonomical vanity, himself), but nothing after her until they had quitted the expedition and were collecting privately again in Madagascar. Still playing the multiple roles of nurse, housekeeper, and collection organizer, she had added that of expedition mule and field worker, all under the extra burden of physical pain, restriction of breath, and the knowledge that one slip up might mean any number of horrors too awful to contemplate.
What was occurring in her mind during this expedition? Did she feel a thrill at being an individual exploring an unknown environment and using her unique insight and knowledge to bring its most promising specimens back to her partner and ultimately to France? Or were those moments overridden by the anxiety she felt every night as she grasped one of Commerson’s pistols close to her, to use on anybody who attempted to assault her while she slept?
We have no way of knowing, and even those externals we do have some historical documents about are so at odds we are hardly better prepared to comment on the basic externals of her condition. For example, when and how was her deception discovered? The official account says it was upon the island of Tahiti when the locals gathered around her and saw through her in an instant, whereupon she was saved by her countrymen coming to her rescue. Very neat, no harm done to anyone. But other accounts state that the discovery came not by native residents on Tahiti, but later by Frenchmen at New Ireland, and some have read the allegorical innuendo in those accounts as stating that, in the process of discovering her gender, she was also gang raped while gentlemen who might have prevented it watched on.
Whether you believe that her gender was roughly revealed and she was then allowed to go, or that she was gang raped by her former companions depends on how you read the coded innuendo of the surviving accounts, but the fact that Baret remained in Commerson’s cabin for one month following the incident recovering from the experience is a sign that something traumatic happened on New Ireland, even if its specifics will always be at the edge of our ability to grasp.
The New Ireland event, whatever its particulars were, happened in July of 1768, and in November of that year Baret and Commerson went ashore at the French colony of Mauritius, there to remain for the next seven years after Bougainville’s ships shoved off on their way home in December. Here, according to Ridley, Baret gave birth to a son sometime in 1769 who was the product of the sexual violation she experienced at New Ireland, but Clode holds the lack of a declaration of pregnancy (such as that she signed upon the birth of her first child) as evidence that such an event did not take place, and that an account of a man at the home of one of Baret’s Mauritian friends in 1803 who bore the last name that Baret used as a pseudonym – Bonnefoy – is not as compelling a sign of Baret’s having borne and given up a son at Mauritius as Ridley holds it to be.
Biography, folks. It’s a minefield.
Commerson and Baret together undertook botanical surveys of Mauritius and Madagascar that netted thousands of specimens until the time of Commerson’s death in 1773. Baret, however, resourceful as ever, found a path to not only survival after the loss of her variously useful patron, but success, as she bought property and ran a highly profitable bar located near the port where it could thrive on the sailors’ gold. By the time she married a French colonial soldier, she had a home, a business, and a substantial stockpile of wealth all her own which she turned towards the purchase of a farm when the couple returned to France some six years after Bougainville’s historic landing. For the next thirty-one years, she lived comfortably and was able to provide for her family, though recognition of her scientific contribution to Bougainville’s voyage had already dwindled by the time of her return to a matter of interest to a specialized few who perhaps saw to it that she received a government pension in later life, but who did not take tremendous pains to see that the specimens she had so heroically collected bore traces of her name.
I lied in the title to this piece. There are three Jeanne Barets, ultimately – the victor, the victim, and the particular amalgam of the two that each individual reading her story forms within the cavernous spaces of the available documents. Everybody who undertakes to tell her tale will tell it differently, and perhaps for that reason somebody will always be found to dig into its particulars and attempt to tell it again. We shall rediscover Baret over and over again, and for an individual from two and a half centuries ago to hold that kind of lingering fascination still is a testament to a life lived on a scale we can hardly comprehend, but that we shall hopefully never stop trying to.
FURTHER READING: For most people, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret (2010) by Glynis Ridley is the book that put Jeanne Baret on their radar, and it is still a rich read that tries to juice from the material available at the time every last ounce of possible implication. Critics have since then disputed some of the more speculative leaps in that book, some fairly, others less so, and Danielle Clode’s In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World (2020) attempts to gather together all of the ensuing decade’s worth of research along with some of her own into an updated portrait of Baret. Really, you should probably read both if you want to have the benefit of both their methods in your attempt to unravel this remarkable life.
Lead image: Portrait of Jeanne Barret (1740-1807) by Cristoforo Dall’Acqua (1734-1787), extract from Navig. di Cook – Bougainville, T. II, pag. 204; Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons