Jeanne Barret, First Woman to Sail Around the World

Jeanne Barret
Imagined portrait of Jeanne Barret, 1816

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.

Map of Bougainville's Voyage
Map of de Bougainville’s Voyage, 2009, by Jeff de Longe

Going Undetected

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.

Bougainville à Tahiti
Bougainville à Tahiti, 1942, by Gustave Louis Michel Alaux

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.

HYDROPHYLLE DE MAGELLAN
Bougainvillea specimen gathered by Jeanne Barret, Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle

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

Hard-Won Independence

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.

Sail.Sunset.Mauritius
Sail.Sunset.Mauritius, 2001, by Alexey Biryukov

Recognition

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.

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About Carol A. Seidl

Serial software entrepreneur, writer, French to English translator, mother, and lover of: books, travel, history, cultures, art, cooking, fitness, nature.

29 Comments

  1. A fascinating story. It would have taken considerable endurance just to engage in such a long sea trip, considering what ships were like in those days, even without the additional legal and physical dangers. As an explorer she would surely have been intrigued at her name being given to a mountain range on a planet whose very existence was unknown in her time. She certainly deserves to be better known for having made such contributions to human knowledge despite the absurd and infuriating obstacles she faced.

    It’s to de Bougainville’s credit that he urged the king to give her some concrete recognition. In those days achievers of “lowly” origins, especially women, were often pushed aside by better-connected men who took credit for their work.

    Tragically, she was attacked and raped by members of the crew

    I wondered about that from the beginning of the story. If she was breaking the law by even being aboard, she would have been unlikely to report an attack when she got back to France, and the crew would know that.

    Is the name spelled with one R or two? It seems to vary depending on context. I know English names in earlier times often fluctuated in spelling, but the French tend to be exacting about such things.

    • You hit on something I was wondering about when I was reading about her and that is the difficulty of the voyage. She was about 20 years younger than Commerson so her youth was certainly an advantage. In my brief effort to learn about her, I didn’t find much about the difficulties they faced other than running low on food but you’re right there certainly would have been many physical challenges to withstand.

      It’s likely that she was also raped by the Tahitians but the males who were documenting the journey apparently weren’t clear on that point. I think it would have been next to impossible for her to seek justice, no matter what the circumstances, given her station in life.

      I agree that de Bougainville went above and beyond. His status as a national hero must have afforded him the luxury of putting her forward without negative repercussions.

      The French spelling is two Rs. The English spelling is one R. I started writing, using all French sources and then just stuck with it. It bugs me that the English would adopt a different spelling anyway. It’s not that compliqué. Ha! (Good eye, by the way).

  2. Remarkable! So did you hear about her in the first place?

    • That’s a good question. I had to think for a bit because when I was deciding what to write about this week, I started by looking in a notebook where I keep a list of blogging ideas and there she was. I’d completely forgotten that I’d even written her down.

      That said, I’m pretty sure the l’Obs article is the original source. I think I was reading a completely different story in l’Obs and a one-liner about Barret popped up in a sidebar.

    • I forgot to ask you if you’d heard of her before. When I come across such characters, I’m always wondering whether they’re well known in France or not.

  3. I remember learning about her in one of my classes and being fascinated. Thanks for sharing this information- we don’t talk about women in history enough.

  4. PS. I knew about her, I’d forgotten her name. her story is unique enough to be relatively well-known

  5. What an amazing woman! Thanks for sharing her story.

  6. What a woman! And how enraging to think that her courage was met by probably several rapes; nevertheless, she kept going.

    Also enraging to learn that the first woman to travel around the globe is so sporadically mentioned—and not at all in American history books. (There’s a worthy project for you, Carol!)

    You wrote that she’d apparently accumulated sufficient wealth to finance the move to France with her husband. Perhaps Commerson left her an inheritance? Seems only fair.

    • I agree Annie. Barret’s resilience is certainly remarkable.

      Commerson did leave her an inheritance and she began running the inn some time before his death so that was another source of funds. I also wondered if de Bougainville might have paid her something before she and Commerson left his ship.

  7. What remarkable accomplishments, even by today’s standards. Bravery takes on a whole new meaning set in 1766. Fascinating!

  8. That was a great story… especially when you reveal that they knew she was a woman during the voyage. A lot of people seem obsessed with traveling around the world. I don’t know why, but I blame Magellan…

    • Ha ha! I wonder if they’d be as obsessed with it if they knew they had to do without freeze dried food, water filters, radios, GPSs, Gortex, sun screen, and perhaps as many as another one hundred advancements/conveniences that hadn’t yet been invented when Barret snuck aboard.

  9. Such an interesting story, especially knowing that it was illegal for women to be on commercial or military vessels. How the times have changed as I was on a cruise ship captained by a woman.

    • Thank goodness that times have changed, eh? I love seeing women popping up in unexpected positions. Ship’s captain would certainly be one of them. Thanks for sharing that image Karen.

  10. A most interesting story!

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