The First Woman to Circumnavigate the World
In 1766 Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville left France in command of the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile. He was leading a three-year scientific expedition around the world, amid high hopes that the voyage would achieve much. But one of the voyage’s accomplishments would come as a surprise to Bougainville. Onboard the Étoile was the woman who would become the first to circumnavigate the globe. This was unknown to the expedition's leader, because the woman concerned, Jeanne Baret, was pretending to be a man.
Little is known of her early background apart from the bare facts. She grew up in rural poverty in central France and both her parents died when she was still young. Like many young women in her situation, she became a domestic servant. Around 1760 Baret became the housekeeper to a French naturalist called Philibert Commerçon. Her employer’s health was poor, and her role soon came to include nursing and caring from him. When his wife died during childbirth, Baret became his lover and they are known to have had at least one child together. At some stage Commerçon taught Baret to read and write and she began to assist him with his scientific work.
In 1765, Commerçon was invited to join Bougainville's expedition. This was a fantastic opportunity for a naturalist, but he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving his lover behind. His appointment allowed him to bring a servant with him, although women were strictly prohibited on French naval ships at the time. At some point the idea came to the couple of Baret disguising herself as a man in order to accompany him. The notion seems insane – how could someone possibly conceal their gender in the packed conditions of a warship for three years? Then the couple had a lucky break. Commerçon was assigned to the smaller of the two ships, the Etoile. When he arrived on the quayside, surrounded by mounds of equipment, her captain decided that it would be best if the naturalist and his assistant took over his large cabin, while he moved in with his officers. This generous offer provided the privacy to make the deception possible, particularly as the main cabin of the Étoile came with a private toilet.
Commerçon’s health remained poor throughout the voyage, which meant that Baret had to do much of the physical work of collecting specimens. Commerçon refers to her in his journal as his “beast of burden” on their various expeditions ashore in Patagonia, but she was clearly a much more important member of the team than that. Many of the catalogue notes that accompany the expedition’s specimens are in her distinctive handwriting, and it was almost certainly Baret that discovered a new species of flowering vine in South America that was later named Bougainvillea after the expedition leader.
The ships now headed into the Pacific. Baret had done well to conceal her identity for so long, although some of the crew were starting to suspect she was not all she claimed to be. Her unmasking as a woman came when they reached Tahiti. No sooner had she gone ashore with Commerçon then she was surrounded by laughing natives, highly amused by such an obvious woman choosing to dress as a man. This incident made such an impression on the Tahitians that they even mentioned it to James Cook when he visited the island years later.
The revelation of Baret’s true identity produced a dilemma for Bougainville. On the one hand was the strict standing orders of the French Navy prohibiting women onboard. On the other Baret had become a valuable member of the expedition, who he could hardly abandon in the middle of the Pacific. He decided to allow her to continue in her role for now. Once the ships had crossed the Pacific and visited Indonesia, they made for the French Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The governor of the island was Pierre Poivre, a fellow botanist and an old friend of Commerçon. He suggested that the naturalist should leave the expedition at this point with his assistant. They could spend some time studying the wildlife of the island before returning to France together later. This arrangement came as a relief to Bougainville as it solved the problem of his returning home with a woman illegally onboard.
On Mauritius Baret continued in her role as Commerçon's assistant and she accompanied him on plant-collecting expeditions to Madagascar and Reunion over the next few years. In 1773 Commerçon died, leaving his fortune to Baret. She established herself as an independent business woman on Mauritius opening a tavern in the main port. In May 1774 she married Jean Dubernat, a soldier in the garrison, and they returned to France the following year. When she set foot on French soil, she became the first woman to have circumnavigated the globe.
Back in France she settled down in her husband’s village as both a wealthy and famous woman. The proceeds from the sale of her tavern in Mauritius, together with Commerçon’s fortune meant she would never need to work again and by now the accounts of the expedition had been published. The extraordinary news that a woman had taken part in it made her a celebrity. Her role in the scientific success of the expedition was openly acknowledged by Bougainville, and in 1785 Baret was granted a pension of 200 livres a year by the French government in recognition of her work. She eventually died on 5 August 1807 at the age of 67.