This is the story of Jeanne Barré (also spelled Baret or Barret), the first woman in recorded history to complete a circumnavigation of the globe in the 18th century – and she did it disguised as a man.
Jeanne Barré was born in 1740 in a village in Burgundy, France. Her father was a daily agricultural worker, and as such, amongst the poorest members of society. Her mother died 15 months after her birth. There is little known about her childhood, and records of her and her family are scarce. But at that time, no one could have predicted such an extraordinary future.
What we do know is that early on, Jeanne develops a fascination for plants, and learns about their medicinal properties. But it is her meeting with Philibert de Commerson that will change the course of her life. At 22, she is employed by the famous botanist as a housekeeper, close to her hometown. The two develop a special bond, most likely over their love of plants, that would last until Commerson’s death.
According to a biography written by Glynis Ridley: “She was an herb woman: one schooled in the largely oral tradition of the curative properties of plants. Herb women were for centuries the source of all raw materials to be prepared, mixed, and sold by male medical practitioners, and as botany crystallized as a science in the eighteenth century, a handful of male botanists did not think it beneath them to learn from these specialists.”
In 1764, Jeanne became pregnant, probably with Commerson’s child, even though she refused to name the father on the official documents. At that time, and possibly to avoid a scandal, she and Commerson move to Paris, where unfortunately, the child dies soon after the birth. At that time, the two start socializing with prominent intellectuals, and eventually, Commerson is recommended to take part in an expedition around the world led by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, as a botanist.
At the time, the French navy strictly forbade women from being on board. But that wasn’t enough to deter Jeanne from accompanying her partner on the Étoile, one of the two ships of the expedition. Who came up with the plan? No one can know for sure, but chances are the two were partners in crime.
Therefore, on the day of the departure, Jeanne showed up dressed as a boy, using the name “Jean”, to be employed as Commerson’s assistant. Commerson, because of the large amount of material necessary to collect and preserve plant specimens, was granted the captain’s cabin to share with his assistant. This detail was actually key to shield Jeanne’s secret, as the cabin had a private toilet facility which allowed privacy.
At this time, Commerson suffered poor health, and a long lasting leg injury made the presence of Jeanne even more crucial, as she was acting as much as a nurse as she was her assistant in his scientific work. In fact, she is probably responsible for most of Commerson’s discoveries, even if she was never credited. She is most likely the one who discovered the Bougainvillea vine, named in honor of the expedition’s leader. At every stop, the pair would disembark and explore the land to collect plant samples, still unknown in the West. Much of their collection is still displayed in various museums worldwide.
During the expedition, Jeanne experienced very hard work, having to carry the heavy wooden plant presses used in the field to preserve the specimens they encountered. She was involved in collecting about 6000 plant specimens. She even often led the expeditions herself, as Commerson’s health sometimes prevented him from going out in the field. Her tireless work had Commerson refer to her as her “beast of burden”.
During 2 years, Jeanne shuts down rumors about her gender by pretending to be a eunuch (a man who has been castrated for social purposes). But eventually, her secret is exposed. There is still uncertainty about how her true identity was revealed, as there are contradictory tales about the event. According to Bougainville, her gender was revealed by the local population when the expedition reached Tahiti in 1768. Other members of the expedition refer to sexual assaults by crew members.
After the unveiling of Jeanne’s secret, she and Commerson decide to leave the expedition and disembark in the Isle of France, a former French colony now known as Mauritius.
Jeanne and Commerson continue their work as botanists on the island of Mauritius, exploring the land and collecting and identifying plant species.
While Commerson has named many plants in honor of friends and family members, it is only at that time that he decides to name one after Jeanne. However, by the time the sample reaches Paris, the plant has already been named, and is now known as Turraea.
Commerson passed away in 1773, leaving Jeanne in a difficult situation, as her resources have become scarce. But if there is anything we know for sure about Jeanne Barré, is that she is a resourceful woman.
Left on her own after a life spent alongside Commerson, Jeanne has to find another way to make a living. She decides to buy a license to run a tavern in Port Louis. Records show her establishment receiving a 50 livres fine for serving alcohol on Sundays!
In 1774, she married a French soldier, Jean Dubernat. Before marrying him, Jeanne has him sign a prenuptial contract, stating that she would keep control of 2/3 of her fortune. After sailing around the world for several years and running her own tavern in Mauritius, Jeanne had not only become a businesswoman, but an independent woman, or at least, as independent as could be at the time.
Jeanne and Jean Dubernat finally decide to go back to France, most likely in 1775, thus completing her journey around the globe, and making her the first woman in recorded history to ever sail around the globe!
After applying to the attorney general, Jeanne receives money from Commerson’s heritage, which allows her and her husband to buy various properties including a farm. Dubernat signs a document stating that he and his wife will share the properties equally, which is again, a very uncommon thing, and speaks volume on Jeanne’s character.
In 1785, Bougainville pleaded for Jeanne to receive a royal pension for her contributions on board the expedition, even though she was never supposed to be on board. The document granting her pension states:
“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…”.
Even after her secret was discovered, she was still considered with high regards for her contributions to the expedition. She was never punished, but instead, ended up being celebrated for her hard work.
Jeanne passed away in 1807.
It is still hard for historians to find details about Jeanne Barré’s journey, as she was seldom credited for her work. Some members of the expedition did, however, acknowledge her hard work, such as The Prince of Nassau-Siegen, a nobleman who was a paying passenger on the ship: “I want to give her all the credit for her bravery. She dared confront the stress, the dangers, and everything that happened that one could realistically expect on such a voyage. Her adventure, should, I think, be included in a history of famous women.”
Her story is amazing in many ways: her fearlessness, her independence at a time when women were merely considered as children as well as her business acumen, make her a truly extraordinary woman.
In 2012, a newly discovered plant species was named after her: the Solanum Baretiae. The credit for her work might have taken a long time, but finally, credit is given where credit is due!
So, next time you feel afraid of taking the leap (whatever the leap may be), think about her and try to channel your inner Jeanne!
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