Friday, April 22, 2016

Jeanne Baret, Botanist and Explorer

1816 portrayal of Jeanne Baret dressed as a man
Jeanne Baret was an 18th century botanist who disguised herself as a man and embarked on a trip that would take her around the world. She helped classify hundreds of new species, including bougainvillea.

Jeanne Baret was born in the Loire Valley in France in 1740 to Jean and Jeanne Baret. When naming their child they didn't have to think too hard about it - she would be Jeanne, of course. Jeanne's family worked in the fields of Burgandy. They did not have much money, and toiled hard every day.

Jeanne's mother taught her to read, and the fields she worked and played in became her classroom. Jeanne learned about plants and became an expert in their medicinal properties. She built a reputation as an "herb woman" when she began picking selections and delivering them to veterinarians, druggists, and physicians.

While a young girl born to Jeanne's position at that time might not have expected to ever travel more than 20 miles from home, Jeanne would go much further in her quest to discover more about the world, and to find plants in greater number and variety.

Philibert Commerson

Philibert Commerson was a botanist who collected samples in the fields not far from Jeanne's home. 12 years her senior, they shared a similar dedication to botany and exploration; Philibert having risked losing his inheritance when he went against his father's wishes that he become a doctor.

Philibert was married and Jeanne was just 14, but they spent much time together, and she taught him about the medicinal qualities of the local flora. After his wife died giving birth to their only child, Jeanne moved in with Philibert and the two became lovers, with her also assuming the roles of nanny, household manager, and assistant.

When Jeanne was 24 she became pregnant, which was seen as problematic by both parents. Philibert was not in a position where they could be wed (perhaps due to being named in his wife's inheritance), and the couple considered moving, both to attain a fresh start and to evade to condemnation of their neighbors.

Jeanne had a son and did not name his father on the birth certificate. The couple gave the young boy to Philiberts' brother-in-law, a priest, to raise, and departed for Paris.


In a somewhat unsettling trend, the couple had another baby in December 1764, named Jean-Pierre Baret, and after life with a baby proved inconvenient (Philibert reportedly hated having an infant around), Jeanne abandoned the baby at a Paris hospital when he was one month old. He was given to a foster mother and would die less than one year later.

As soon as she gave away this responsibility, however, Jeanne was confronted with another: Philibert had developed pleurisy, a condition related to pneumonia that makes breathing very painful. Jeanne cared for him and his collection of plants as he recovered. Philibert took the time while he was healing to write a book, but also look for an opportunity to make a name for himself, and begin again to travel.

The Expedition

In terms of world exploration, Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain had already successfully completed circumnavigations of the globe, a feat France wanted to equal. An expedition was planned, the goal of which was to discover land in the southern hemisphere. The course was set and a crew was selected, with Philibert named as the naturalist on board.

It was a prime opportunity for Philibert, who yearned to travel, but less than ideal for Jeanne. As a woman, she was not allowed on a French naval ship, but the couple devised a plan: Jeanne would dress as a man and position herself an Philbert's assistant, something she certainly had the experience to pull off.

Jeanne changed her name to Jean and wrapped her chest tightly with linen bandages to conceal her gender; at times wrapping them so tightly she had trouble taking a deep breath. She wore men's clothing and carried Philibert's equipment and supplies.

The couple had so many things with them the captain, Francois Chenard de la Giraudais, offered them his cabin, which was 30 ft. x 15 ft. On February 1st, 1767 the supply ship L'Etoile departed from France alongside the frigate La Boudeuse, and the couple thought none were the wiser.

Suspicions about Jeanne's gender were aroused immediately, however, as it was very uncommon for servants to sleep in the same room as their master, and as Jeanne was never seen relieving herself at the head of the ship, through holes cut out of the protruding helm.

The captain of L'Etoile recognized this breach could ruin his career, and he ordered Jeanne to sleep in the servant's quarters. Jeanne did not feel safe in that environment, however, and slept with a loaded pistol, which she threatened to use on some men who approached her with a little too much curiosity one night.

Following that encounter, the captain advised that Jeanne go back to residing in Philibert's cabin in the evenings - as Philibert had recently been bitten by a dog he had a wound that needed tending to anyway, so Jeanne was once again regulated to being his nursemaid.

Life on Board

Life on the ship was far from easy. The temperatures were in the 80s and the air was thick with humidity, soaking their clothes and making their close quarters even more uncomfortable. Their skin was chaffed and Jeanne developed eczema.

The first opportunity to get off the ship was a brief stop in Montevideo, Uraguay, before heading up the eastern coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Five months after they departed from France, the botanists disembarked amid a steamy July and began the work they had set out to do.

A Naturalist's Work

The wounds Philibert had suffered earlier in the voyage had turned to gangrene and his mobility was seriously hampered, though the treatment Jeanne provided meant that amputation would not be necessary. With Philibert unable to collect any species, it was up to Jeanne to do all the physical work.

She carried the food, boxes for samples, equipment for collecting, a spade, glass vials for seeds, a magnifying glass, butterfly net, telescope, and compass. In what he probably intended to be a term of endearment, Philibert called her his "beast of burden."

The most well-known discovery made by Jeanne in Brazil was a brightly-colored vine native to South America that we know as bougainvillea - Philibert named the species for the captain of the frigate heading their voyage, Commander Bougainville.

Bougainvillea brasiliensis blooming in Bermuda.
Photo by Keith Forbes for Bermuda Online
The two ships continued their journey, this time south down the coast towards the Straights of Magellan, a veritable maze it would take 38 days to navigate, as there were no charts for navigation. They stopped in Patagonia, then headed across the Pacific Ocean. Every time they stopped, Jeanne and Philibert disembarked to collect samples and record their observations.

A Secret Revealed

While the crew likely knew the truth by this time, it would be Tahiti where the secret of Jeanne's identity became clear to all. A native Tahitian named Aotourou saw Baret and identified her as a girl, from her appearance and mannerisms. She responded with shock and fled to her cabin, fearful of what her outing would mean. From then on she carried a pistol whenever she left that cabin.

They left Tahiti in April 1768, and conditions grew steadily worse. They were unable to find a suitable port for three months so they kept sailing, with no fresh water on board and a steadily increasing occurance of scurvey. The crew were unable to catch fish and resorted to eating the rats.

When they finally landed on the island of New Ireland, part of Papua New Guinea, Jeanne would never have suspected that her trip was about to get even worse.

Jeanne spent several days collecting samples carrying her pistol as protection. Her work was without incident for several days, until she met with other servants from the crew so they could do laundry together. They used this as an opportunity to take her gun and brutally rape her.

Back on board, the ship's doctor tended to Baret and confirmed her identity, letting her know that on the bright side, she no longer needed to bind her chest. Philibert, for his part, pretended to be shocked at the discovery of her "true" identity so he would not be punished for his role in the deception.

The voyage continues

After leaving New Ireland, the voyage continued for six weeks at sea with no real food, The were able to get provisions on the Dutch Island of Buru by that time, which was  a relief to Baret especially, because she was pregnant.

In early November of 1768 the ships landed in Mauritius, near Madagascar. Philibert was friends with a civil administrator in the area, and he invited Jeanne and Philibert to stay in his home. Jeanne was given her own room for the first time in nearly two years.

When the ships Etoile and Boudeuse departed for France one month later, the couple stayed on the island.

After giving birth to her baby on the island, Jeanne again chose to leave the child behind, this time with the family that had so graciously been hosting them. Jeanne and Philbert continued on to Madagasgar, collecting over 500 species of flora and fauna in their travels. Following this trip they returned to Mauritius, where Philibert became ill with dysentery and in 1773, he died.


Jeanne worked on the island of Mauritius for over a year, trying to earn enough money to  go home to France. In  this time she met a French soldier named Jean Dubernat, who was also headed back to France after serving in one of the colonies. The two were married in May of 1774.

When Jeanne returned to France in 1774 she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. This was never her intent, from the moment she set off, and there was no pomp and ceremony in the port to greet her as there had been for Bougainville and the crews of the two vessels five years prior, but it was an achievement nevertheless.

The couple set up a home in the town of Saint-Aulaye, and with provisions that Philibert had left her in his will, Jeanne was at long last able to purchase a house and settle down in one place - if that is what she wanted.

Jeanne died on August 5th, 1807, leaving a legacy of plants, seeds, shells, and insects that she and Philibert had classified behind her.

A Legacy Renewed

Despite her huge contributions to the field of botany, there were no species of animals or plants named for Jeanne. By contrast, there are over 70 plants, insects, and mollusks bearing the name "commersonii" for Philibert Commerson.

Philibert himself had written that he wanted to name a shrub he observed in Madagascar with Baret after his partner. The shrub had many leaves of different shapes and sizes, perhaps a fitting representation of Baret's various talents and multifaceted nature. The plant's name was never finalized by Commerson before he died, however.

In 2010 author Gylnis Ridley published The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe about Jeanne's life and adventures.

In an interview with NPR, Glynis remarked that Jeanne still had no species bearing her name, and a biologist named Eric Tepe happened to be listening. When he discovered a new plant species, he named it Solanum baretiae.

Solanum baretiae is a fruit-bearing vine found in southern Ecuador and northern Peru. It is part of the Solanum genus, which also includes the eggplant, potato, and tomato, and is one of the largest and more economically vital genus in the world.

The shrub also displays unique, ever-changing foliage patterns, again, perhaps a fitting tribute to someone who dressed as a woman then had to present as a man to follow her heart and her adventures.

In the January 3rd issue of the journal PhytoKeys, Tepe and Ridley explained the decision as follows:

“Given the importance of her work and the singular nature of her achievements, Baret has clearly made a sufficient contribution to the field to deserve a species named after her. Following Commerson’s example, we believe that this new species of Solanum, with its highly variable leaves, is a fitting tribute to Baret.”

In the article, Baret is described as “an unwitting explorer who risked life and limb for love of botany and, in doing so, became the first woman to circumnavigate the world.”

A flowering Solanum baretiae, a newly discovered plant
names for Jeanne Baret. Photo by Eric Tepe
One thinks that Jeanne Baret would have appreciated the gesture, and that her love and dedication to botany, at told through her story, are bringing new interest to the field today.

  • A Female Explorer Discovered on the High Seas, All Things Considered, December 26, 2010.
  • First Woman to Circle the Globe Honored at Last - History in the Headlines, Jennie Cohen, January 3rd, 2012.
  • Bermuda's Flora, Keith Archibald Flores, Bermuda Online. 2016.
  • Jeanne Baret (1740 - 1807) First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, Debbie Foulkes,, February 7th, 2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment