The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley
Crown Publishing Group, copyright 2010
Crown Publishing Group, copyright 2010
Trade Paperback, 304 pages
very highly recommended
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret tells the remarkable story of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe—who did so disguised as a man. In 1766, a French peasant named Jeanne Baret disguised herself as a teenage boy in order to work as principal assistant to the naturalist Philibert Commerson, royal appointee to the first French circumnavigation. The expedition commander, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, had no idea that the two shared more than simply a passion for botany—they were in fact lovers. In his memoirs, Bougainville reported that Baret was finally exposed by the natives of Tahiti, who recognized a woman where her countrymen had not: a version of events that went largely unchallenged for more than two hundred years. But three members of Bougainville’s crew provide a very different version of Baret’s exposure. Their unpublished accounts suggest that the truth of what happened to her is more brutal than official chroniclers cared to admit.
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley introduces Jeanne Baret, a young woman who was an expert in herb-lore. She posed as a young man in order to assist her lover, the naturalist Philibert Commerson, on French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville's round-the-world expedition from 1766-69. This is a fascinating account of that trip and the oversight history has dealt Baret - ignoring her contributions to Commerson's work, as well as her abuse during that voyage.
Ridley's The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is a well researched portrayal of what likely occurred during the expedition based on the few written documented facts available. Because a French Royal ordinance forbade women being on French Navy ships, Baret had to disguise her sex in order to assist Commerson. In her disguise, whether it was truly fooling anyone or not, Baret worked harder than many men and most certainly harder than Commerson.
Ridley points out that Baret very likely discovered many or most of the plants on the expedition. She certainly discovered the bougainvillea plant, which was named for named for the ship's commander. The one plant named after Baret during the trip has since shed her name.
While Ridley does have to make some assumptions, I felt like they were very likely accurate ones, based on the information and this period of history. Certainly it must be acknowledged that Baret's major contributions to Commerson's work have been largely ignored until now and, additionally, that this was not a kind period of time for women.
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is not only well researched, it is well written. I would imagine that anyone interested in botany and historical biographies would certainly enjoy this account, but I also felt it is a narrative that would be very accessible to anyone. I know I thoroughly enjoyed this historical overview of Baret's life.
As is my wont, I fully appreciate that Ridley includes eight pages of pictures, an afterword to the paperback edition, notes and references for each chapter, notes on source materials and illustrations, sources and a select bibliography, acknowledgements, an index, and a reader's guide.
Very Highly Recommended - it's early in the year but this may make the top nonfiction list by the end of the year. I enjoyed it immensely.
Disclosure: I was given a copy of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Crown Publishing Group for review purposes.
For two years on board, Jeanne Baret had presented herself as a young man, using the name Jean Baret, and had worked as the principal assistant to the expedition's naturalist, Philibert Commerson. When an old leg wound prevented Commerson from collecting specimens around Rio de Janeiro, it was Baret who had ventured inland and had brought back the showy tropical vine that would be named in honor of the expedition's commander: Bougainvillea. pg. 2
Taxonomy - the classification of all living things, plant and animal, according to perceived "family" resemblances - may seem an improbable arena for a protracted historical battle of the sexes. But throughout the eighteenth century, women's attempts to engage in this male-dominated field generated a torrent of vitriol. The systematic exclusion of women from the field of taxonomy is so much a part of Baret's story that the historical silence surrounding her cannot fully be explained without understanding something of taxonomy's history. pg. 8-9
Even if she had returned to France with the rest of Bougainville's expedition in 1769, Baret could not have expected any public recognition of her work for the expedition: A female stowaway was a curiosity, but a female botanist was a breach in the natural order of things. pg. 10
But Bougainville overlooked the allure of the idea she embodied: that one human being, irrespective of the hand dealt by fortune, can have as much curiosity about the world as another. And that, like races and class, gender should pose no barrier to satisfying that curiosity and discovering how far it may take you. pg. 12
So what is the intersection between the world of the mid-eighteenth century Loire peasant and the gentleman scientist? Baret and Commerson came together at the meeting point between two views of the natural world: a folkloric, feminine tradition surrounding the medicinal properties of plants and the emerging field of taxonomy, which aimed to name and classify the natural world. Baret captured the attention of Commerson because she possessed botanic knowledge that lay well beyond the competence of his professors and mentors. She was an herb woman: one schooled in the largely oral tradition of the curative properties of plants. Herb women were for centuries the source of all raw materials to be prepared, mixed, and sold by male medical practitioners, and as botany crystallized as a science in the eighteenth century, a handful of male botanists did not think it beneath them to learn from these specialists. In this light, Baret was not Commerson's pupil, but his teacher. pg. 16-17
Baret was twenty-four and Commerson thirty-six. Though they did not know it, they had begun a journey that would help to redraw the known world. pg. 41