Amongst the pioneers and trailblazers, Jeanne Barret has a special spot : she is the first woman to have circumnavigated the globe… but she did it disguised as a man.
In 1766, the famous French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, is ready to sail for a long around-the-world voyage that will not only increase a wide range of scientific knowledge but also show the greatness of France at sea. He is the master of two ships : La Boudeuse and l’Etoile and boarding that second ship was Philibert Commerson, a renowned botanist.
Just before the ship’s departure, a teenager called Jean showed up and offered his services to Commerson who hired him on the spot as his valet and assistant. For months, Philibert and Jean collected and named plants. As Jean was sharing the same cabin as his master, gossips spread throughout the crew of the expedition. The truth was finally exposed when the ships reached the South Pacific. Accounts differ : Bougainville himself recorded in his log that “Jean” was recognized as a woman by a group of Tahitian men while others (such as the surgeon François Vivès) tell us it happened in New Ireland (an island now part of Papua New Guinea) where she was forcefully stripped and exposed.
Although Jeanne explained that the ruse was of her own devices, we now know that she was Commerson’s live-in girlfriend. The daughter of day laborers in Burgundy, she was quite acquainted with plants and their properties. Somewhere between 1760 and 1764, she became Commerson’s housekeeper and after the death of his wife, his lover.
When Philibert was called to join Bougainville’s expedition, the couple decided to go together, as Commerson was often in poor health and would require assistance. There was one big problem though : a French ordinance prohibited the presence of women aboard navy ships. This is where the idea of the disguise came into being.
As much a botanist as her companion, Jeanne was the one who did all the hard work, hauling the material on and off the ship and collecting the plants. She was even nicknamed “Commerson’s beast of burden” by the crew.
Following a stop in Rio de Janeiro, she is known to have brought back to the ship a vine with bright, colorful flowers that Commerson baptized “Bougainvillea”. A plant that would spread around the world and is still a garden’s favorite.
Jeanne and Philibert left the ship in Mauritius, when Pierre Poivre, then governor, asked his good friend Commerson to remain as guest. Jeanne accompanied him on several trips to Madagascar and Bourbon Island (now Reunion) for more plant-collecting and they remained together until Commerson’s death in 1772. Two years later, she married Jean Dubernat, an officer who was on his way back to France. When they finally got home, Jeanne became the first woman to complete a trip around the world. She brought with her thousands of plant specimens, most of the them new. You can still see them at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. She and her husband will live quietly in Saint-Aulaye and Jeanne will even benefit of a pension given by the Ministry of Marine, a small token of appreciation since she was barely credited for the work she did with Philbert Commerson. Jeanne will die in 1807, at 67 years old, and leaves her name to history as a fearless and resolute woman.