July 27, 2012 - Happy Birthday, Jeanne Baret!

She is the first woman to have circled the globe (at least, that we know of)...but she had to pretend to be a man to do it!

Jeanne Baret (born on this date in 1740) was a close companion to a man named Philibert Commerson, who had been hired as the naturalist for an expedition of discovery. Commerson needed Baret to act as both an assistant in studying previously unknown plants (Baret was reported to be an expert botanist) and as a nurse, since he was often unwell. However, the expedition had a firm no-women-allowed rule. Baret  disguised herself as a man called Jean (the French equivalent to the name “John”), and just before the two expedition ships set sail, in 1766, she got a position as Commerson's assistant. The two pretended not to know each other before the journey!

Once the Louis Antoine de Bougainville expedition reached Montevideo, in what is now the nation of Uruguay in South America, Baret had to do much of the hard work in collecting plants, since Commerson's leg had an unhealed ulcer. She probably carried most of the supplies and specimens, for example. The next port, Rio de Janeiro, found Commerson supposedly confined to the ship until his leg healed. However, he and Baret still managed to collect some specimens, including a gorgeous flowering plant that Commerson named Bougainvilla after the expedition leader. When they explored rugged Patagonia, Baret gained a reputation with the entire expedition for courage and strength, and the injured Commerson ruefully called her his “beast of burden.” Baret not only helped collect plants, stones, and shells, she also helped organize and catalog the specimens and notes. Baret and Commerson had plenty of time to do so while sailing across the Pacific Ocean from South America to Tahiti.

Bougainvilla bush
Once in Tahiti, apparently, Baret was found out as a woman. Different journals tell very different stories about how this discovery was made (and even when and where, to some extent), but some time later, when the ships landed in the French colony of Mauritius (an island in the Indian Ocean), Baret and Commerson left the expedition to visit a friend and fellow botanist.

The two continued to collect botanical specimens on Mauritius, but Commerson was running out of money and continuing to have health problems. Suddenly, he died, and Baret had no way to get back to France!

Baret got a job running a tavern on Mauritius, and about a year later she married an officer in the French army who was on his way home. When she finally did get back to France with her new husband, probably nine years after she started out with Bougainville's expedition, she was able to get the money left to her by Commerson's will. She and her husband settled down in a peaceful little village.

Here's a surprise: Baret was given a pension of 200 livres a year by the Ministry of Marine, with these complimentary words:

Jeanne Barré, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit.... His Lordship has been gracious enough to grant to this extraordinary woman a pension of two hundred livres a year to be drawn from the fund for invalid servicemen and this pension shall be payable from 1 January 1785.”

I love that she was given this respect and reward while she was still living! So many women were hated during their lives but later praised.

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