French explorer Jeanne Baret (1740–1807) is the first woman known to have circumnavigated the world, a remarkable feat she carried out in the late 1760s by masking her gender. Disguising herself as a valet, Baret accompanied botanist Philibert Commerçon in what was the couple's daringly crafted ruse to bring her along on one of 18th-century France's most groundbreaking scientific research missions. In 1785 the French Ministry of Marine granted Baret an annual pension in recognition of her service.
Baret's surname is alternately spelled Baré, and she also used a masculine version of her given name as well as an alias, Bonnefoy or Bonnefoi. Her father, Jean Baret, is listed as a day laborer on a church baptism record in La Comelle, the village in the Saône-et-Loire department where Baret was born on July 27, 1740. The elder Baret did not sign his name, but mother Jeanne Pochard did have enough basic literacy skills to affix her signature. At the time of her birth, households headed by day-laborers in the east-central Burgundy region of France were among the most impoverished in all of Western Europe. Baret's father was not only absent a profession but landless, as La Comelle and large swathes surrounding Beuvray were controlled by aristocratic clans. Men and women of Baret's generation and station in life, if they lived to an old age of 50, were destined to experience long-term malnourishment. They were also destined to witness the upheaval of the French Revolution.
Baret escaped a grim fate by working as a domestic servant, a not-inconsequential leap into a job sector that offered a modicum of respectability. The man who eventually employed her, Philibert Commerçon, was a widower in his mid-thirties whose wife had died either in childbirth or shortly thereafter, during the spring of 1762. Commerçon was the scion of an affluent family in Châtillon-les-Dombes, where he established a botanical garden in the late 1750s. After his 1760 marriage, he lived in Toulon-sur-Arroux, about 12 miles south of La Comelle. He was a physician by training but had resisted settling down and setting up a medical practice for several years in favor of conducting plant-collecting expeditions in the Alps and the Mediterranean basin. Gifted in the emerging field of taxonomy, Commerçon corresponded with Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus and was well known to other European botanists of his day.
Commerçon may have hired Baret as a housekeeper and caregiver for his infant son, a boy left with family when Baret and Commerçon moved to Paris in the autumn of 1764. Historical documents hint that Baret was pregnant when they departed Toulon-sur-Arroux. In pre-revolutionary France, an unmarried pregnant woman was required not only to formally register with authorities but also to divulge, for the record, the name of her child's father. In August of 1764 Baret traveled to another town, Digoin, and registered her pregnancy with a lawyer there in order to obtain a special certificate. She brought with her two men to serve as character witnesses and may have stated that she had been the victim of an unreported sexual assault by an unknown assailant. All three men were likely paid by Commerçon to help hush the potential scandal. The infant boy, whom Baret named Jean-Pierre, was born in December of 1764 and was left at a Paris hospital for foundlings; he died a few months later.
With her pregnancy ended, Baret lived with Commerçon in an apartment on the rue des Boulangers near the Jardin le Roi (Royal Gardens), where the botanist worked as an unpaid scientific consultant. Commerçon suffered some health issues around this time, as evidenced in letters he exchanged with family members. After mid-1765 the correspondence makes reference to preparations for a major maritime expedition under Captain Bougainville. The salary amount and expense allowance provided to the botanist were generous sums, but it was the chance to serve under one of France's most famous military commanders that undoubtedly excited Baret's common-law in-laws back in Châtillon-les-Dombes. Bougainville was a war hero with long overseas experience gleaned from service in Canada, and this voyage would be a historic triumph for France as its first maritime circumnavigation.
The scheme the couple hatched—that Baret would disguise herself as a young man and pretend to seek employment in the port city of Rochefort, where Commerçon would discover and hire her as his valet for the sea journey—seemed both improbable and risky. The ruse worked, however, and Commerçon secured permission to hire the young man Jean Baret for service aboard the second of Bougainville's two ships, the cargo carrier Étoile. On departing Rochefort on December 14, 1766, Commerçon was given the captain's stateroom on the Étoile because of the sizable array of botany-related equipment and supplies he had brought with him. The suite came with a private toilet, a luxury that allowed Baret to conceal her gender more effectively.
Bougainville, the leader of the expedition, had traveled ahead of the Étoile on the newly built frigate Boudeuse. The two ships made the transatlantic crossing separately, and the Étoile docked first in Montevideo, Uruguay, in late July of 1767. In this initial landfall, as well as a second in which the expedition backtracked northeast to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Baret carried out the main plant-collecting activities for Commerçon, whose health had been weakened by the arduous sea voyage. In Brazil they discovered a pretty flowering vine that Commerçon gave a scientific name in honor of the captain, Bougainvillea spectabilis. The 300-plus crew stopped in the Falkland Islands to complete a formal handover to the Spanish Empire, and then sailed through the treacherous Straits of Magellan at the bottom tip of South America.
Bougainville later wrote in his account of his historic expedition that Baret's “shape, voice, beardless chin, and scrupulous attention of not changing his linen, or making the natural discharges in the presence of any one” had raised suspicions among the sailors, according to Vanessa Smith, writing in Sea Changes: Historicizing the Ocean. François Chesnard de la Giraudais, the captain of the Étoile, later claimed that he had challenged Commerçon's valet, who in response made reference to the surgically castrated males who guarded the harems of the Ottoman Empire.
Another variant of Baret's unmasking was related to a young Tahitian, Ahu-toru (Aotourou in some sources). On his visit on board the Étoile, Ahu-toru identified Baret as a mahu, the Polynesian term for a third-gender person. Ahutoru was fascinated by the Europeans, and arrangements were made for this son of a chieftain family to depart with Bougainville's party when the two ships set sail for unknown waters and the final leg of the journey back to France.
When Bougainville's expedition left Batavia in the Dutch East Indies in October of 1768, several crew members were sick with dysentery. A month later, they arrived back on French colonial ground, docking at the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, called Île de France at the time. Commerçon knew the governor, horticulturalist Pierre Poivre, and he and Baret were enthusiastically welcomed and invited to stay. Bougainville's ships sailed for France in December of 1768, leaving the couple behind, along with ship's astronomer Pierre Antoine Véron, who hoped to observe a coming transit of Venus from this Indian Ocean perch. Baret and Commerçon made a scientifically noteworthy botanical expedition to the nearby islands of Madagascar and Bourbon in the early 1770s, but the exertion fully claimed Commerçon's health, and he died in Mauritius in February of 1773. Both he and Bougainville had written down their impressions of Tahiti and its relaxed social rules, especially regarding sexual behavior, but Commerçon's words made the most enduring impression on Europeans of the Enlightenment Age. “I can tell you it is the only corner of the earth where men live without vices, prejudices, needs, or disagreements,” he wrote, according to Strangers in the South Seas: The Idea of the Pacific in Western Thought. “They recognize no other god but love.”
Baret lived an extraordinary life for a woman of the pre-modern era. When Poivre was eventually recalled to Paris, she was truly stranded on Mauritius, with no income and no protector. She also had no financial means to pay for a return passage to France, where she could then make a legal claim against Commerçon's estate. Before the couple had left France in 1766, he had written out a last will and testament and left to Baret a lump sum, plus the contents of their Paris apartment.
The main city on Mauritius was Port Louis, a bustling hub that served as a midpoint supply depot for ships traveling the Europe-Asia routes. Baret is believed to have worked in a tavern, then run a tavern, before wedding Jean Dubernat, a noncommissioned officer with the French army, in a ceremony at the Cathedral of Port Louis on May 17, 1774. She ultimately returned to France with Dubernat and settled in his home village. Although the actual date she completed her historic circumnavigation is unrecorded, ten years later the French Ministry of Marine awarded her an annual sum of 200 livres for her service. Baret died on August 5, 1807, in the French town of SaintAulaye.
Klein, Bernhard, and Gesa Mackenthun, editors, Sea Changes: Historicizing the Ocean, Routledge, 2004.
Lansdown, Richard, editor, Strangers in the South Seas: The Idea of the Pacific in Western Thought, University of Hawaii Press, 2006.
Endeavour, March 2003, pp. 22–25.
Women's Review of Books, May–June 2012, p. 3.❑