Monday 4 February 2019

Jeanne Baret, first woman to circumnavigate the globe - by Katherine Langrish

Imaginary portrait of Jeanne Baret

I first came across the story of Jeanne Baret in a most unlikely place: one of Beverley Nichols’s semi-fictional house-and-garden books, 'Merry Hall'. Nichols was a bit of a polymath who loved to throw strange little anecdotes and historical amuse-bouches into his books, but his tendency to embroider a good tale made me suspicious of his version, so most of the information in this post is derived from John Dunmore’s fascinating, scholarly translation of ‘The Pacific Journal of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville 1767-1768’, Hakluyt Society, Third Series, Vol 9, 2002, and from his 'Monsieur Baret: First Woman Around the World', Heritage Press, 2002. And it turns out that Nichols did not, in this instance, need to do very much embroidery at all. But first, some background.

Louis de Bougainville

In 1767-8, the Frenchman Louis de Bougainville (for whom the ebullient climbing plant bougainvillia is named) made a voyage of exploration across the Pacific with two ships: La Boudeuse, a brand-new frigate (her name translates as ‘Sulky Girl’) and a smaller, older store-ship named Étoile, ‘Star’. Having crossed the Atlantic, Bougainville’s first duty was to meet two Spanish naval frigates at the River Plate and escort (or be escorted by) them to the Falkland Islands, then known as the Malouines: the name comes from the islands’ first sighting by French ships from St Malo, and Bougainville had established a small French colony there in 1763. But by 1764 the Malouines were claimed by the British, who wanted to protect British shipping routes; the Spanish too took an interest in these islands so close to Spanish South America. To avoid offending Spain and possible war with England, France agreed to relinquish its colony, and the Spanish King reimbursed Bougainville’s investment and costs. (Judging by subsequent history, France was well out of it.)

La Boudeuse
Having performed this duty Bougainville’s instructions were to ‘examine … as many as possible and as best he can the lands lying between the Indies and the western shores of America’ and to take possession of any that might be useful to France. So Bougainville’s two ships sailed down the east coast of Patagonia, threaded the Straits of Magellan, rounded Cape Horn and sailed north into the wide Pacific. Crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, La Boudeuse and Étoile then bore west to Tahiti where, mistakenly believing himself the first European discoverer, and struck by the ‘celestial forms’ of the Tahitian women – Bougainville named the island ‘Nouvelle Cythère’, ‘New Cythera’ after the Greek island where Aphrodite was said to have risen from the waves.

Philibert Commerçon or Commerson

Here at Tahiti a notable incident occurred. On board the Étoile was a gentleman naturalist. Philibert Commerson or Commerçon was a keen botanist who had also trained in medicine at the University of Montpellier, so he could double as ship’s surgeon if required, although the Étoile already had a surgeon, François Vivez. Commerçon disliked him. In fact (most likely for reasons which will become apparent) Commerçon didn’t get on very well with anyone on board the Étoile; he described the ship in his journal as ‘a hellish den’ full of ‘insubordination, bad faith, brigandage and cruelty’. He had brought along with him his valet, a slight young man named Baret or Baré

Bougainville's map of Tahiti

Let the commander, Louis de Bougainville, take up the tale in his own words: the entry is for Saturday 18 May to Sunday 29 May 1768. (Comments in square brackets are my own.)

For some time a rumour had been circulating on the two ships that Mr de Commerçon’s servant, named Baré was a woman. His build, his caution in never changing his clothes or carrying out any natural function in the presence of anyone else, the sound of his voice, his beardless chin, and several other indications had given rise to this suspicion and reinforced it. It seemed to have been changed into a certainty by a scene that took place on the island of Cythera [Tahiti]. Mr de Commerçon had gone ashore with Baré who followed him in all his botanizing and carried weapons, food, plant notebooks with a courage and strength that earned for him from our botanist the title of his ‘beast of burden’. 

Hardly had the servant landed than the Cytherans [Tahitians] surround him, shout that it is a woman, and offer to pay her the honours of the island. [This circumlocution implies the Tahitians were trying to rape Baret; they may merely have been trying to ascertain her sex; a differing account blames crew-members, see below.] The officer in charge had to come and free her. I was therefore obliged, in accordance with the King’s ordinances, to verify whether the suspicion was correct. Baré, with tears in her eyes, admitted that she was a girl, that she had misled her master by appearing before him in men’s clothing at Rochefort at the time of boarding, that she had already worked for a Genevan as valet, that, born in Burgundy and orphaned, the loss of a lawsuit had reduced her to penury and that she had decided to disguise her sex, that moreover, she knew when she came on board that it was a question of circumnavigating the world and that this voyage had excited her curiosity. She will be the only one of her sex to have done this, and I admire her determination all the more because she has always behaved with the most scrupulous correctness. The Court will, I think, forgive her for this infraction of the ordinances. Her example will hardly be contagious. She is neither ugly nor pretty and is not yet 25. 

Bougainville reaches Tahiti

You can sense that Bougainville – writing in what is effectively his official account of the voyage – is covering his tracks. He seems to have turned an obstinately blind eye to all of this until the actions of the Tahitians (or of the crew) forced his hand. Bougainville was in La Boudeuse; the scandal was happening on board the other ship, so it wasn’t a situation he himself had to confront every day. But Baret had been on board the Étoile for more than a year by this time, and speculation about her sex had been rife from the start. The surgeon whom Commerson disliked so much, François Vivez, also kept a journal and you can tell how much he enjoyed the scandal, the jokes and the sly or open insinuations that must have been going on. He begins naughtily:

A naturalist going round the world to deepen and increase the knowledge and productions of Nature, presumably wishing to have some new experience in this region, for this purpose took on board as his servant a girl in disguise…

Vivez goes on to describe how master and servant, laid low by seasickness in the Atlantic, kept to their cabin where

The special care she took of her master did not seem natural for a male servant, with the result that this quiet period of enjoyment went by quickly for the two people. After the first month, the peaceful rest they were enjoying was interrupted by a little murmuring arising from the crew about, they said, the presence of a disguised girl on board.

Vivez claims that ‘the leaders pretended to be unaware of the situation for a long time,’ but were eventually forced to tell Commerçon to move Baret out of his cabin. This meant Baret had to sleep in a hammock alongside the other menservants. Still maintaining himself to be a man, Baret soon complained of being harassed by his companions, who were accordingly punished – a proceeding which can hardly have endeared either Baret or Commerçon to them. Vivez agrees that Baret worked hard:

During our period of call at the River Plate, she went to collect plants in the plain, in the mountains two or three leagues away, carrying a musket, game-bag, food supplies…  In the Straits of Magellan, these exertions doubled, spending entire days in the forest with snow, rain and ice to seek plants or along the seashore for shells. 

Fair enough, but then he spoils it. Eyebrows waggling, nudge-nudge, wink-wink.

Scandalous gossip claimed that she suffered at Buenos Aires from an acute illness brought about by the care she gave her master to relieve him from the weaknesses he might have had during the nights when she watched over him. I do believe that she found herself repaid for this labour in the excursions by the rest she took in the plantings which her master was able to make when he found a soil suitable for a halt, as long as the harshness of the cold did not prevent it. 

Yes, well. No wonder Commerçon didn’t like him.

La Boudeuse and Étoile arrive at Tahiti

Vivez tells a different story of how Baret’s gender was revealed. Although he describes the incident in which the Tahitians tug her this way and that, believing her to be a woman, he adds a later incident in which her fellow French servants, finding her alone on shore without her customary brace of pistols, forcibly examine her to reveal her sex. Traumatic as this must have been, according to him once the truth was out Baret ‘became more at her ease, no longer compelled to restrain herself or stuff herself with cloths’ and ‘finished the voyage very pleasantly’. She may well have felt safer once Bougainville had been compelled officially to recognise her sex. It is likely that even though everyone believed Baret was a woman, Bougainville had been prepared to ignore it so long as nobody was sure

The explanation recorded by Bougainville in his journal, in which Baret claims Commerçon hired her believing her to be a man, is a pack of face-saving nonsense. Jeanne Baret or Baré  was a labourer’s daughter born 27 July 1740 at La Comelle, near Autun. She worked as a servant, but had learned to read and write, and entered the Commerçon household at Toulon sur Arroux in 1762 on the death, post childbirth, of Commerçon’s first wife. The pair must soon have become lovers: by 1764 Jeanne was pregnant herself, causing a breach between Commerçon and his brother-in-law the Abbé Beau, who took over guardianship of Commerçon’s baby son by his wife. Commerçon brought the pregnant Jeanne to Paris, where he made the acquaintance of a number of leading botanists and gained his appointment as Royal Botanist and Naturalist on the Bougainville expedition, with a good salary of 2000 livres. Jeanne gave birth in December 1764 and gave the child up to the Paris Foundlings Hospital. (Why? Were Jeanne and Commerçon already considering taking ship together?)  He was placed with a foster mother but died during the summer of 1765. In December 1766 Jeanne and Commerçon left Paris for Rochefort to sail in the Étoile

One wonders what had been going through their heads. They weren’t married (though they could have been if Commerçon had wished it); even if they had been, however, Commerçon would not have been allowed to bring a wife with him. He could have given Jeanne a competance on which to live while he was away. Yet he was not prepared to leave her behind. It's true that his health wasn't great; he relied on Jeanne for nursing care; even so, there must have been a remarkable bond between them to undertake such a risky deception. They were about to spend two years on a ship just over a hundred feet long, living at close quarters with a crew of perhaps a hundred or more men. It would be disastrous if Jeanne got pregnant again and she didn’t, so they must have either abstained or taken precautions. They must also have endured perpetual stress. Were they naïve? Did they not expect to be teased, mocked and harassed? Or were they both adventurers, fired with excitement to see the world? Jeanne in particular must have been strong both physically and mentally. She was twenty-six, Commerçon was nearly forty. Whose idea was it? Who persuaded whom? Where did the balance of power lie?

Having been found out, the pair remained on the Étoile until the vessel reached Mauritius, then ‘Isle de France’, in the Indian Ocean, where they both left the ship either willingly or not, possibly having reached some mutual accord with Bougainville. Mauritius was a French colony but not France: out of sight was out of mind, and the fewer questions to answer when back at home, the better! Commerçon continued his work on the island with Jeanne still in assistance, but by 1772 his health had declined and he died in March 1773, aged forty-five, without ever publishing his work. In his introduction to the voyage journals, John Dunmore writes: 

After his death, now dressed in ordinary female attire, [Jeanne] opened a tavern, as is indicated by her being fined in December 1773 for having served drinks during Mass time. On 27th January 1774 she married Jean Dubernat, a former army sergeant and returned to France with him, probably a year later. She thus completed her circumnavigation. She then lived in relative obscurity, although still regarded as ‘an extraordinary woman’ and was given a pension of 200 livres in 1785. She died on 5 August 1807. Commerson had named a plant after her, the baretia, now known as quivisia.

This ‘plant’ was actually a Madagascan tree, but as so often in those days of slow travel and difficult communications, the name he chose for it was superseded by that of an earlier discoverer. All the same, I think it’s revealing, perhaps even poignant, that he chose to name a tree rather than a flower after his strong companion and lover Jeanne Baret.  

Picture credits:

Imaginary portrait of Jeanne Baret dressed as a sailor, anon, c.1817 wikipedia
Louis de Bougainville, by Jean-Pierre Franque,wikipedia
La Boudeuse, wikipedia
Philibert Commerçon, wikipedia 
Bougainville reaches Tahiti, by Rouargue frères - Les Navigateurs français: histoire des navigations, découvertes et colonisations françaises, Léon Guérin, Belin-Leprieur et Morizot, 1846 wikipedia 
Map of Tahiti drawn by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, Bibliothèque nationale de France, wikimedia
Arrival of Bougainville at Tahiti, by Gustave Alaux, Musee national de la marine, Paris.


Susan Price said...

Fascinating - and, as you say, a real puzzler.

Marjorie said...

Fascinating. I'd never heard of her.