"It is a woman" - The botanist and explorer Jeanne Baré

27 July 1740, botanist and explorer Jeanne Baré (Baret), the first recorded woman to have circumnavigated world and member of the de Bougainville expedition to the South Seas, was born in La Cornelle in Burgundy.

“But how was it possible to discover the woman in the indefatigable Baré, who was already an expert botanist, had followed his master in all his botanical walks, amidst the snows and frozen mountains of the straits of Magalhaens, and had even on such troublesome excursions carried provisions, arms, and herbals, with so much courage and strength, that the naturalist had called him his beast of burden? A scene which passed at Taiti changed this suspicion into certainty. M. de Commerçon went on shore to botanize there; Baré had hardly set his feet on shore with the herbal under his arm, when the men of Taiti surrounded him, cried out, It is a woman, and wanted to give her the honours customary in the isle. The Chevalier de Bournand, who was upon guard on shore, was obliged to come to her assistance, and escort her to the boat.” (“A Voyage Round The World”, Louis de Bougainville)

Jeanne Baré in sailors' garb

Baré was born in poor circumstances and, allegedly after losing a lawsuit, fled to Paris dressed up as a man. Noboday knows how she had acquired her quite obviously comprehensive understanding of botany, but she approached Philibert Commerçon, the botanist of de Bougainville's expedition and signed on as his assistant. If Commerçon knew about her true identity and if they were engaged in more than a professional relationship is unclear but not improbable. In any case, entered in the muster rolls as Jean Baret and wearing sailors’ garb, Jeanne was aboard de Bougainville’s fluyt “Étoile” when she left Nantes on 15 November 1766 together with the “La Bodeuse” frigate for the South Pacific. According to de Bougainville’s report, Jeanne’s cross-dressing went unrecognised and she attracted attention only by doing hard manual work for Commerçon during shore leaves as well as giving solid scientific support during the collection and examination of plants. Other sources claim that the officers and crew of the “Étoile” indeed became suspicious. Jean didn’t use the ship’s head, refused to strip down for the traditional crossing-the-line ceremony when the expedition reached the equator and her smooth cheeks after a months-long voyage were equally noticeable. Allegedly she claimed she was a eunuch. 

Gustave Alaux’s (1887 – 1965) imagination of de Bougainville’s arrival in Tahiti

Besides Bougainville's official statement about her being found out to be a woman by the Tahitians and had to be protected, other sources claim that she was assaulted by the crew, either before or after the event. Commerçon, who is responsible for naming a genus of flowering plants native to South America “Bougainvillea”, and Baré finally left the expedition on Mauritius were they both explored and classified the local plant life until Commerçon died in 1773. Baré opened a tavern in Port Louis, married an army sergeant named Dubernay and returned to France in 1775, thus completing the circumnavigation. She claimed the money left for her in Commerçon’s will and settled with her husband in the Dordogne. At least her effort to have circumnavigated the world was officially recognised and she received a moderate pension by the French Ministry of Marine.

"Tahitians Presenting Fruits to Bougainville Attended by His Officers",
by an unknown French 18th century artist

However, Commerçon did indeed name a plant after her, a Malagasy melica, Baretia bonnafidia, being able to sprout different sets of leaves, oblong, square, irregular, quite fitting for Baré, thought Commerçon, for a “working-class woman who travelled ... further than any aristocrat." More than 70 plants, insects and molluscs are named “commersoni” in his honour, though. Her story was taken up by historians as well as botanists in recent years and in 2010, Eric Tepe of the University of Utah named a further plant after her, a solanum, now called “solanum baretiae”.