‘she well knew when she embarked that we were going round the world, and that such a voyage had raised her curiosity. She will be the first woman that ever made it…’
Louis -Antoine De Bougainville, Journal , May 28-29, 1768
In 1765, Jeanne Baret, a 26 year old French woman with incredible knowledge of local plants, defied all the rules of her time and disguised herself as a man so that she could support her lover, a renowned botanist, on a mission to discover spices and medicines around the globe. Over a decade later – after travelling through countless lands, experiencing many different climates and cultures, and overcoming rape, illness and storms along the way – she returned to France. She was the first woman ever to circumnavigate the world.
Jeanne and her lover, Philibert Commerson, identified and named thousands of plants over their trip. One of these was the now widespread Bougainvillaea, named after the Captain of the expedition. In Madagascar, Commerson named a plant genus after Baret on account of its unusual leaves. Baretia – as it was called – are complex. They don’t easily fit in a box and resist quick identification as they have a range of characteristics that are not normally found together. They make you challenge the status quo – just like Baret must have done on board the ship being a woman, disguised as a man, helping to make sense of the frontier of the known world.
Yet her journey and achievements have been edited out of history. Although the French government gave her a pension on her return to France in recognition of her service, record of her involvement on the voyage has been all but erased. There are hints in the footnotes of a few crew member’s memoirs, but much has been left unsaid – to avoid the scandal of having had a woman on board. As the genus Baretia has been usurped too, nothing concrete remains of such an incredibly forward thinking, brave and pioneering woman.
I’ve started this blog to remember Jeanne Baret, not by dwelling on the past, but by considering her legacy in the present. I want to bring ‘Baretia’ back to life. For all women in your mid 20’s (in age or in attitude) who are curious to see the world and who travel with a purpose – this is for you. I look forward to the journey!