Legends Series: Jeanne Baret

Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) was the first woman to circumnavigate the world. As a botanist, she explored indigenous communities, made scientific discoveries and endured many hardships, yet today, few people have heard of her. In the 1700s, of course, her achievements were minimized because she was a woman. But that begs the question: How did she even accomplish them in a world dominated by men? The answer is simple: She pretended to be one of them.

Baret was born into a working-class family in the Burgundy region of France. Highly intelligent, she became a “herb woman” — an expert in local plants and their healing properties. At the time, botany was an emerging science, and scientists often sought out the practical expertise of these herb women to further their academic knowledge.

Philibert de Commerson was one of these scientists. He met Baret while studying in the Loire Valley. Some sources claim that she initially worked as his housekeeper, others say that it was her knowledge of local plants that drew them together, but the outcome is always the same –- he fell in love with Baret.

Philibert de Commerson. Photo: npr.org


Commerson was married when they met, but after his wife died in 1762, he and Baret traveled, worked and lived together. After a few years, they moved to Paris and had a son, but the baby was placed in an orphanage.

In 1765, Commerson was invited to join an expedition led by Louis Antoine de Bougainville. The expedition was to be France’s first circumnavigation of the globe, and they wanted Commerson as lead botanist. He was to collect exotic specimens that could be grown in France or its colonies. Commerson insisted that he needed an assistant, and eventually they agreed. The French navy did not allow women on its ships, but Baret was eager to explore the world and continue studying botany, so the couple hatched a pla. She bound her breasts with strips of linen, wore baggy clothes and in 1766, she boarded the Etoile as Commerson’s male assistant.

The crew were suspicious of the botanists’ small assistant, Jean. He was always with Commerson, spent most of his time in their cabin, was painfully shy, and never relieved himself or undressed near them, despite the fact that they all had to use the same open-air toilet. Eventually, they confronted Baret and demanded to know if she was a woman. Baret broke down in front of them and confessed that “he” had been castrated by Ottoman pirates. He had hidden this from them because he was embarrassed at being a eunuch. The sailors immediately stood down and accepted the story, at least for the time being.

The Etoile crossed the equator, and after several months, it docked in Rio de Janeiro. Commerson couldn’t leave his cabin because of an ulcerated leg, so Baret took on the task of collecting specimens. She spent days exploring the tropical rainforest and gathering plants.

One of those she brought back was a woody vine with red flowers. Commerson decided to call it Bougainvillea, after their admiral. Rumors that Baret was a woman in disguise were once again taking over the ship, and many think that the naming of the flower flattered Bougainville and prompted him to ignore the scuttlebutt.

Louis Antoine de Bougainville. Photo: notevenpast.org


From here, they sailed through the Strait of Magellan, stopping at various points to collect samples, before continuing across the Pacific Ocean to Tahiti. The indigenous people there welcomed the sailors enthusiastically but were not fooled by Baret’s disguise and did not realize that her femininity was a secret. Following Baret’s outing as a woman, Bougainville — who seemed to have a soft spot for her — wrote in his journal, “She well knew when we embarked that we were going around the world…She will be the first woman that ever made it, and I must do her the justice to affirm that she has always behaved on board with the most scrupulous modesty.”

Despite the French naval rules, Bougainville let her remain on the ship, but she was now a target for the sailors on board. She tried to remain in the cabin as much as possible to avoid them, but it became ever more difficult. The crew tried to land at New Guinea for supplies but failed because of bad weather. Eventually, they made it to New Ireland, where the starving crew found food and water. Baret, who also needed food, had to leave the ship, and this is where the sailors caught her alone.

She had to be carried back to the ship and did not leave Commerson’s cabin for weeks. The ship passed through Indonesia, sailed across the Indian Ocean and landed in French colony of Mauritius. Here, Commerson and Baret left the ship. Baret was pregnant, and the baby was due before they could make it back to France. Despite Bougainville’s sympathies, she couldn’t remain on the Etoile pregnant.

Baret and Commerson bought a house on the island. Once again, they placed the baby in care, this time with a local family. Baret and Commerson spent their time exploring and collecting samples. They even journeyed to nearby Madagascar to add to their ever-growing collection of specimens. The plan was to bring them all to Paris, but Commerson died of an infection and never made it back home.

Baret stayed on the island for seven years. During this time, she married a French naval officer who had been passing through. She returned to France with him and thus completed her circumnavigation of the globe. In Paris, she handed over all her samples, hundreds of them, as she and Commerson had originally planned.

Though she was not openly recognized for her contribution, the French government did award her a pension and officially noted that she was an “extraordinary woman”. It has never been clear who arranged this pension for her, but many suspect that it was Bougainville. She lived the rest of her life in relative obscurity and died in 1807.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. Photo: notevenpast.org


Over 70 of Baret’s samples were named after the lead botantist, Commerson. It is clear from his journals that he intended to name one of the prettier samples they collected in Madagascar after Baret, but he died before he could publish his paper on it.

Over 200 years later, historian Glynis Ridley wrote a book on Baret’s life, called The Discovery of Jeanne Baret. In it, she wrote that it would be wonderful if someone named something after Baret as a tribute to her work. In 2012, Eric Teper named the Solanum baretiae in her honor, saying, “I have always admired explorers, especially botanical explorers…but few have sacrificed so much and endured so much as Baret.”