Pioneer botanist

Glynis Ridley - Jean BaretGlynis Ridley is a graduate of the universities of Edinburgh and Oxford, a former IASH Visiting Fellow, and currently Chair of the Department of English at the University of Louisville, Kentucky. Her publications include Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe (London: Atlantic Books; and New York: Grove, 2004), winner of the Institute for Historical Research Prize, and The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe (New York: Crown, 2010). Publicity surrounding the latter led Ridley to collaborate with field biologist Eric Tepe on naming a new plant species, Solanum baretiae, in honor of eighteenth-century botanist Jeanne Baret, and their co-authored paper was published in PhytoKeys in January 2012.


What happens when a woman refuses to conform to male expectations of what she can be and what she can do?

Historically, types of both physical and intellectual labour have been demarcated as either “man’s work” or “woman’s work”. For a woman to show herself capable of thinking and acting in defiance of allotted roles is to threaten the status quo. Such a woman is dangerous – because her refusal to conform is a very visible demonstration that there is nothing that should be a male-only preserve.

The first woman known to have circumnavigated the globe refused to accept the gendered and social limits placed upon women in her society. In 1766, Jeanne Baret, the daughter of illiterate French peasants, disguised herself as a teenage boy and presented herself for hire as principal assistant to the expedition naturalist on the first French circumnavigation of the globe. For two years, her floating home was the sailing ship L’Etoile: a supply ship 102 ft long and 33 ft wide that Baret shared with 115 offices and men. The larger vessel that they accompanied, La Boudeuse, brought the expedition complement up to 330, with Baret the only woman among them. French royal ordinances did not allow women on board naval ships, not even if they were the wives of officers, as was permitted in the British navy at the time. But Baret was no one’s wife.

Signing on for a projected three years at sea, she was accompanying her lover, the expedition’s official naturalist, Philibert Commerson. Working as his assistant, Jean Baret, she shared his cabin and botanised with him whenever they could be set ashore. The social gulf between them could not have been greater. Her parents signed their parish register with a cross in lieu of their names: his parents had sent him to university to follow in the family tradition of practising medicine. Women of Baret’s background were destined, at best, to be the servants of men like Commerson: in the field she met him as a fellow botanist. Her discovery of the showy vine that would be named Bougainvillea in honour of the expedition commander, Louis Antoine de Bougainville is, today, the most visible sign of her botanical skills. Yet Baret has, until recently, been largely overlooked in history books: her achievements glossed over. When Louis Antoine de Bougainville finally acknowledged in his expedition journal that a woman had defied all injunctions meant to keep her ashore and in her place, he presented Baret as someone other women would not choose to emulate:

Baret, with tears in her eyes, admitted that she was a girl, that she had misled her master by appearing before him in men’s clothing at Rochefort at the time of boarding…that moreover when she came on board she knew that it was a question of circumnavigating the world and this voyage had excited her curiosity. She will be the only one of her sex to do this and I admire her determination…The Court will, I think, forgive her for these infractions to the ordinances. Her example will hardly be contagious. She is neither ugly nor pretty and is not yet 25.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Journal, 28-29 May 1768. Italics mine.

It is striking that Bougainville assures his readers not once but twice that they should not be alarmed at the prospect of more women following Baret’s example: she is less a contagion than an aberration. And this is surely one of the occupational hazards of the dangerous woman: if she cannot be contained in life, her life may be marginalized in the written record; presented as too singular to be a model for others.

The matter-of-fact tone and single paragraph that Bougainville devoted to admitting that a woman had managed to get herself aboard his expedition did not encourage any reader to linger on the episode. This was convenient for the expedition’s royally-appointed naturalist, Philibert Commerson. Sharing a cabin, it was inconceivable that Commerson did not know Baret to be a woman and, indeed, the two had been lovers for at least two years prior to the expedition setting sail in 1766. But the plan to disguise Baret and have her join Commerson is unlikely to have been simply a grandiose romantic gesture: whatever else Baret brought to her relationship with Commerson, she brought knowledge that Commerson valued. What knowledge could an eighteenth-century peasant woman possess that would be of interest to a university-educated doctor? The one known image that purports to be of Baret offers an intriguing clue.

Dating from 1816, the engraving that appeared in an Italian edition of James Cook’s voyages shows Baret dressed in striped fabric not popular with sailors until the 1790s. She is pictured wearing the red liberty cap of the French revolutionaries. But despite these anachronistic puzzles (inappropriate for a woman who set sail in 1766), Baret is shown with a sheaf of flowering plants in her hand and such posies were a well-established iconographic shorthand for the the medicinal value of a botanical garden. In other words, the anonymous engraver suggests that Baret herself possessed botanical knowledge, independent of Commerson. If so, then she was likely a “herb woman”, working in a largely oral, traditionally female preserve, dispensing folkloric remedies while also supplying male physicians and apothecaries with the raw plant materials that were the foundation of their medicine cabinets. If Baret was an herbalist before she met Commerson, then it is easy to imagine the herb gatherer and the passionate botanist meeting in the field; Commerson recognizing Baret’s knowledge as complementary to his own. So when Commerson was named ship’s naturalist on Bougainville’s proposed first French circumnavigation of the globe, and was mandated to collect flora and fauna to feed and clothe France’s imperial masters and subjects, who better should he appoint as his expedition assistant than the woman who was already his lover, housekeeper, and fellow explorer of the plant kingdom? Together, Baret and Commerson hatched a plan whereby she would present herself on the dockside as a young man, eager to sign on as Commerson’s assistant. But while the ruse apparently worked in getting Baret on board, the couple had not foreseen what might happen once she was there.

From the various journals kept by members of the expedition, it is clear that rumors that Baret was really a woman started to circulate within a few days of the ship leaving port. The naturalist’s assistant was never seen to relieve ‘himself’ at the heads like other men and, when challenged by hostile crew members below decks, Baret claimed to be a eunuch, taking care always to be armed with pistols after that confrontation. When L’Etoile sailed across the Equator on 22 March, 1767, Baret was the only crew member to remain clothed for dousings associated with the naval rite-of-passage of Crossing the Line. Given the limited dimensions of her floating world, it was inconceivable that Baret’s true sex was not known. Journals kept by expedition members other than Bougainville hint at a mix of feelings towards this single woman among so many men; animosity and superstition among the crew being tempered with grudging respect for Baret’s tireless physical work. With her breasts flattened uncomfortably by strips of linen wound tightly around her upper body, Baret went ashore to botanize under Commerson’s direction at every opportunity, hauling the cumbersome equipment of an eighteenth-century field naturalist for her ‘master’.

From early December 1767 to late January 1768, the expedition ships inched through the Strait of Magellan, repeatedly sounding the depth so as not to risk ripping open the hulls on submerged moraine. All this time, Baret’s exertions ashore were visible from the ships’ decks and an officer characterized her as Commerson’s “beast of burden”, labouring up the slopes of the Strait under the burgeoning weight of specimens and their containers.

According to Bougainville, Baret’s story finally unravelled in April 1768 on Tahiti. As the officers and men were surrounded by Tahitian women making clear their offer of multiple sexual partners for each man, Baret was apparently surrounded by a group of Tahitian men who saw through her disguise. Bougainville’s best-selling journal, the Voyage autour du monde par la frégate du Roi La Boudeuse et la flute L’Etoile 1766-1769 (published in Paris in 1771) would claim that Baret admitted to her disguise as she called for help to extricate herself from an uncomfortable situation. But Bougainville’s account of events on Tahiti is only one version of what occurred there.

Four other narratives of the expedition – two journals kept by the surgeon François Vivès, one kept by the Prince of Nassau-Siegen, and a memoir by naval officer Pierre Duclos-Guyot – all insist that nothing unusual happened regarding Baret on Tahiti, but that she was forcibly stripped by crewmembers when the expedition stopped to re-provision on New Ireland in the New Hebrides. Why is the truth of what happened so elusive?

In locating Baret’s exposure on Tahiti, Bougainville’s narrative sanitises the later actions of his crew and exculpates expedition officers from earlier failures to act on the widespread belief that Baret was indeed a woman. Had Bougainville knowingly allowed a woman to remain on board in contravention of the royal ordinance prohibiting women on navy ships, he would have rendered himself liable to court martial on his return to France. Had he acknowledged that Baret was finally forcibly exposed by members of the crew on New Ireland, he would have cast aspersions on the conduct of the French and jeopardised his naval career by having allowed such a breakdown in discipline to occur. The fiction that Baret chose to reveal her identity on Tahiti in order to save her honour was a fiction that protected his.

From New Ireland, the expedition sailed on to New Guinea, Java, and Mauritius, where Commerson was released from his expedition contract to stay and work in the French East India Company botanic garden of Pamplemousses at the request of its director, Pierre Poivre (the Peter Piper who picked a pepper of nursery-rhyme fame). Baret stayed with Commerson. Bougainville’s problem of a woman aboard was solved. But after Poivre’s recall to France, and Commerson’s death from fever in March 1773, Baret was thrown out of their shared home, separated from over 6000 leafy, flowering, squawking, scuttling specimens forming a record of the circumnavigation and representing seven years of Baret’s life. She would never see the collection she had helped to build again: its final destination would be the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where it today forms part of the French national herbarium. When Baret was finally able to secure a passage back to France and landed in La Rochelle in late 1775, nine years after first setting sail, she became the first woman to have completed a circumnavigation of the globe.

Baret spent the next year litigating to receive monies she knew Commerson had willed to her; competing for a share of his estate against the claims of his brother-in-law. Quite separately, Bougainville petitioned the Ministry of Marine for an annual pension for “this extraordinary woman”. When the petition was finally granted, Baret became the first woman known to have received a state pension on account of her service to the advancement of knowledge.

Though Baret charted her own unique path, she never told her own story – that was left to a handful of men, all compromised by the truth of what had happened. When she died in 1807, the single genus that Commerson had named in honour of her, Baretia, had already been reclassified and renamed Quivisia, inadvertently writing Baret out of the history she helped to make. And so it would be until 2012 when a new species, Solanum baretiae, was finally named for her.

Dangerous women may sometimes be erased from conventional histories, but they have a habit of returning – embodying the perennially potent idea that the seemingly impossible is sometimes achievable, and that gender is no barrier to achievement.