25 agosto 2018

The Horseback Librarians of the Great Depression

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The First Woman To Travel Around The World

Jeanne Baret is the first known woman to have circumnavigated the globe. She was a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition on the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile from 1766 to 1769. And most of that time, she was disguised as a man! “Jean Baret” enlisted as valet and assistant to the expedition’s naturalist, Philibert Commerçon, and was an expert botanist herself.

She had been Commerçon’s housekeeper – and probably lover – for years already, and he was in poor health. He hesitated to accept the position as naturalist for the around-the-world voyage because of his health. Commerçon was allowed one servant on the Bougainville, paid for by at royal expense, but women were strictly forbidden on French naval vessels. Somehow the idea of disguising Baret as a man was introduced. She showed up just before the ship left, pretending to be a stranger to Commerçon. While Baret’s surviving documents carefully absolve Commerçon of the plot, it is inconcievable that he had not known (at minimum) and had helped her plan.

Sometime during the voyage, likely in the south-eastern Pacific islands, Baret’s gender was discovered. Accounts differ as to how exactly that happened. When the voyagers, short of food, stopped at Mauritius in the Indian Ocean Commerçon was delighted to find that an old naturalist friend, Pierre Poivre, was the governor. At the time Mauritius was an important trading post. So Commerçon and Baret were left behind as Poivre’s guests. Bougainville encouraged them to stay. Henwas probably glad to not have a living, breathing breach of the law on one of his ships anymore.

Commerçon made a series of plant-collecting expeditions from Mauritius, to Madegascar and Bourbon Island. Baret, who was still working as his housekeeper and nurse, likely accompanied him on these trips. Unfortunately Commerçon died in Mauritius. He left little money, and no social supports, as Poivre had been recalled to Paris. Baret was left there without a way to get back. She seems to have found work running a tavern, for a time, before marrying one Jean Dubernat in May of 1774. He was a non-commissioned officer in the French army who was likely stopping over in Mauritius on his way back to France.

The couple made their way back to France, completing Jeannne Baret’s circumnavigation of the globe. Sadly there are poor records, and we do not know which ship took them back or what day, exactly, Baret arrived in France. But at some point, likely in 1775, Baret became the first woman to circle the globe. For her feat she was eventually awarded a pension of 200 livres a year by the Ministry of Marine.

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