As with so many notable women from history, when you first learn their story, you wonder why you’ve never heard of them before. For me, this was the case with Jeanne Barret who, in 1766, embarked upon a journey that would eventually circumnavigate the globe. At the time, it was illegal in most countries for women to set foot on commercial or military vessels. Yet, Barret not only managed to complete the multi-year voyage but also helped identify thousands of new plant species along the way.
In order to avoid detection, Barret, who was accompanying the botanist, Philibert Commerson, was forced to disguise herself as a young man. According to her biographer, Christel Mouchard, the dangerous expedition is only part of her extraordinary story. Also remarkable is the fact that Barret left France as an unlettered peasant and returned as an expert botanist who would go on to be recognized by King Louis XVI.
« Ce qui est extraordinaire dans l’histoire de cette femme, c’est finalement moins ce qu’elle a vécu, que le fait que cette paysanne du peuple soit sortie de l’anonymat : sa soif d’aventure et sa curiosité scientifique vont susciter jusqu’à l’admiration de Bougainville et même de Louis XVI »—Christel Mouchard, l’Aventurière de l’Etoile
The Path Away from Poverty
Jeanne Barret was born in 1740, the daughter of a poor farmhand. She grew up in Autun, France, which lies near the center of the country, hundreds of miles from the nearest seaport. Barret lacked a formal education but apparently was skilled at gathering and identifying local plants. When she was 22 years old, Philibert Commerson hired her as his housekeeper. Commerson, a doctor and botanist, had moved to the area to study and collect plant samples.
When Commerson’s wife died, in 1762, Barret moved in with him. They had a child together which provoked a scandal, given that they weren’t married. The couple relocated to Paris and put the child up for adoption. Wishing to be near the capital’s scientific hub, they settled near what is now the Jardin des Plantes.
A man of science and technology, Commerson was was an avid supporter of the philosophy of Enlightenment and a fan of Diderot’s Encyclopédie. He began circulating with members of l’Académie des sciences and the Collège royal. As a result, Louis XV offered him the position of chief naturalist on board a ship that would be sailing to South America then onward around the rest of the world. The voyage was headed by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, a French admiral, and explorer, who was charged with discovering new territories for France as well as natural resources that might increase France’s wealth.
It’s unknown whether Barret or Commerson came up with the plan for her to join the expedition. She certainly risked a lot by going. There are examples of other women from this time period that went to prison for similar impersonations. The couple gave Jeanne a new name, Jean Bonnefoy. On December 26, 1766, Barret/Bonnefoy boarded the Étoile, disguised as Commerson’s assistant. There were more than 100 sailors aboard.
Barret reportedly cut her hair, banded her chest, and wore baggy clothes to go undetected. It’s unclear whether Barret was illiterate but she didn’t keep a journal. Based on other onboard accounts, it’s probable that most of the crew realized at some point that she wasn’t a young man. One of the passengers was the surgeon François Vivez, who recorded the following in his diary:
Un naturaliste faisait le tour du monde pour approfondir et augmenter les connaissances de la nature et embarqua à cet effet une fille déguisée. — François Vivez
A naturalist was making the trip to deepen and extend his knowledge of nature and to this end brought with him a girl in disguise. — François Vivez
Some accounts claim that Barret’s true identity remained concealed until the Étoile landed in Tahiti, in April 1768 when Tahitian natives recognized that she was indeed a woman and tried to assault her.
An Accomplished Botanist
During the course of the expedition, Barret and Commerson collected 5,000 plant specimens, 3,000 of which were unknown in France. Barret was in charge of maintaining the collection as it made its way around the globe. She is credited with discovering a previously unknown flowering vine adorned with bright pink and purple flowers. Barret named the new plant Bougainvillea, after the famous French explorer and captain of their cruise.
France’s National Museum of Natural History, located in Paris, is in possession of a Bougainvillea specimen that Barret gathered, pressed, and preserved.
It’s certain that without Commerson’s zeal and connections, none of this would have been possible for Barret. However, Commerson’s health was lacking and during their outings, Barret had to carry much of their equipment as well as the specimens. Thanks to her hardiness, tenacity, and organization skills, the couple sent 32 large crates of specimens back to Paris.
Comment reconnaître une femme dans cet infatigable Barret? … [elle avait] un courage et une force qui lui avaient merité le surnom de bête de somme. — L.A. de Bougainville
How to recognize a woman in this inexhaustible Barret? … [she had] a courage and a strength that earned her the nickname of beast of burden. — L.A. de Bougainville
After leaving Tahiti, the Étoile continued on to New Ireland (located today in Papua New Guinea) where they restocked their dwindling supply of food. While anchored, Barret left the ship to study shells along the shoreline. Tragically, she was attacked and raped by members of the crew. The violent assault put an end to her scientific excursions for the rest of the trip.
In 1768, the vessel reached the island of Mauritius, located east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Mauritius was then an important French trading post and Commerson was happy to discover that his old friend and fellow botanist, Pierre Poivre, was governor of the island. When the Étoile set sail on its final leg to France, Barret and Commerson remained behind.
Once again, Barret took up the role of Commerson’s housekeeper and continued to help him gather specimens of local flora until his death in 1773. During their stay, she opened an inn on Mauritius and after Commerson’s death, Barret married a French non-commissioned officer, named Jean Dubernat. Apparently, Barret had amassed enough wealth that she financed the couple’s move back to France at the end of 1775. They settled in Dubernat’s hometown of Saint-Aulaye, where she lived until her death in 1807.
Harboring a woman aboard a navy ship was a serious offense at the end of the 18th century. Had Commerson been caught helping to disguise Barret, he could have gone to prison. In 1776, 10 years after the Étoile set sail, the French Navy officer, Yves de Kerguelen, was sentenced to serve 6 years in state prison for hiding his mistress in his cabin. Yet, de Bougainville thought so highly of Barret’s contribution to his expedition that in 1785, he petitioned King Louis XVI to grant her a royal pension in recognition of her having been the first woman to sail around the world.
According to historian Christel Mouchard, de Bougainville admired Barret’s curiosity and valued her contributions to the advancement of science. Intellectuals throughout France were embracing the revolutionary ideas of the Enlightenment and de Bougainville was among them. Barret was a woman of the people, making her accomplishments especially commendable. Apparently, Louis XVI concurred with this assessment and he awarded Barret a pension of 200 pounds, referring to her as an “exemplary woman”.
“Pendant longtemps, les historiens ont voulu voir ce tour du monde comme une épopée romanesque, celle d’une servante amoureuse qui avait tout sacrifié pour son amant. Or, c’était moins une passion qu’une association. Jeanne Barret avait le sens du défi, un appétit d’indépendance aussi.” — Christel Mouchard
“For a long time, historians wanted to view this round-the-world journey as a romantic saga, that of an enamored servant willing to sacrifice everything for her lover. Yet, the relationship was less a passion than a partnership. Jeanne Barret had a penchant for challenges and an appetite for independence.” — Christel Mouchard
Without a doubt, no one who knew Barret during her childhood could have imagined such a trajectory for her. For more than a century, researchers and botanists such as Buffon, Lacépède, and Jussieu profited from her work. In 2012, scientists discovered a new species of plant in South America which they named Solanum Baretiae, after Barret. In 2018, astronomers discovered a new range of small mountains on Pluto, which the named Baret Montes.
- howstuffworks, Why were women on ships considered bad luck?
- The Mariner’s Museum Park, Jeanne Baret
- NotEvenPast.org, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
- Wikipedia, Jeanne Baret
- France Culture, Jeanne Barret, première femme à avoir fait le tour du monde
- l’Obs, Jeanne Barret, première femme à avoir fait le tour du monde
- Scenareio.com, LE PASSAGE DE VENUS #1
- Muséum National de l’Histoire Naturelle, HYDROPHYLLE DE MAGELLAN