Jeanne Baret

 

It’s 1766 and Jeanne Baret, dressed as a man, boarded a ship. Jeanne didn’t know all of what was in store for her. What she did know was that it would be dangerous, but she wanted more out of life. Her dreams were made of exotic plants and what lies on the other side of the ocean.

To understand Jeanne, we must know that she was an herb woman. This was common for women raised in day laboring families during that time. Medical practitioners would use herb women to source plant medicine. These men saw themselves above the task of procuring and drying herbs, but in the 18th century that started to change.

Botany started to emerge more as a discipline and there was a need to learn more about a species of plant than just their Latin name. Herb women held most of the knowledge of these plants, which meant it was not unheard of for an herb woman to teach a male botanist about herbs.

This is how Jeanne met Philibert Commerson. Their meeting seems like it was happenstance, but it’s clear they soon exchanged knowledge of plants and became lovers. Not that Philibert ever planned to marry Jeanne, since she was of such low birth, but he did take her to Paris and the two devised a plan to go on a voyage together to collect plants.

That is how Jeanne ended up on that ship in 1766. Not a lot of these women would have stepped aboard the ship that day, to live as a man among over 100 other men. The perils not just of the sea and travel, but also of the crew discovering her true gender, were severe.

The linen she wore to conceal her breast gave her sores. She couldn’t undress or relieve herself around the other crew, which made her seem suspicious. If found out, she faced attack and possible sexual assault. Add those concerns to the everyday dangers of sailing at that time. She faced the possibility of starvation, attacks from pirates, scurvy and other diseases, being stranded, or sinking at sea.

 

Triumfetta lappula L.

Triumfetta lappula L., a plant Baret and Commerson collected in Brazil, in 1767. Image from the New York Botanical Garden.

Jeanne endured the sores, the inquisitive eyeing from the crew, and was a hard worker. Her and Philibert collected plants from areas like Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and Tahiti. She saw new lands she would have never even dreamed of, but this came with a price.

We’re not exactly sure when or how it happened, but she was revealed as a woman and sexually assaulted by the crew. She became pregnant and with a baby on board, they couldn’t hide the presence of a woman. It was decided she could not go back with them. Jeanne, accompanied by Philibert, were soon left in the French colony of Mauritius.

Jeanne was a survivor though, she outlived Philibert and married a French sailor. The couple then returned to France to live out the rest of their lives and Jeanne was largely forgotten.

Even though her story is truly amazing, terrible, and inspiring; a lot of people have never heard of her. Even the one plant genius, baretia, that was named after her, doesn’t exist anymore. She was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and greatly contributed to the field of botany, but what makes it so astonishing, is that she came from nothing. Jeanne Baret pushed not just the boundaries of what was available to her sex but also of her class. She wanted a different future and when she saw the chance to change her life, she took it.

Resources

Glynnis Ridley, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, A Story of Science, The High Seas, And The First Woman To Circumnavigate The Globe