An unexpected discovery on a voyage around the world!
Monday, August 24th, 2020
An unexpected discovery on a voyage around the world!
The tale of the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
Before we start, you need to know that this is the tale of a first. It’s a tale that’s not particularly well known, but then if it was I probably wouldn’t tell the tale. You’re probably familiar with a few people who were the first to achieve something in history. I bet you can name at least five. South Pole, Antarctica, Radiation, the Moon are just some. This is a tale of a first that was never meant to be discovered or talked about. In true story telling style, this tale has a twist. This is the short story of a seemingly ordinary ship’s servant but, as we are to discover, there was something unexpected and far from ordinary about the Frenchman, Jeanne Baré. So, if you can name at least 5 firsts, here is your 6th and I’d like you to remember it and tell at least one other person about it. Here goes.
The 18th Century was crammed with voyages of discovery. Explorers from most of the enlightened European countries fought over themselves to claim a stake in far off lands in order to expand their empires. Crews could expect to be away at sea and absent from home for many years. Today’s sailing vessels, however, are built for speed and can travel around the world in a matter of weeks. Circumnavigation of the globe is no easy feat in any century. With 24,000 miles to cover, you sail through three vast oceans, experience huge temperature ranges and encounter almost every kind of weather. It would be 200 years before ships could safely bypass the world’s most notorious stretch of ocean which had a nasty habit of swallowing you up. Voyages prior to the opening up of the Panama Canal in 1914 had to face the treacherous and deadly temperament of Cape Horn and combat the hidden threats of scurvy as well as a lack of a safe and drinkable water supply.
Sailing around the world carried a very high risk of drowning or death or disease and malnutrition. Yet, despite these risks, history is full of tales told by returning sailors from far off exotic lands. They told stories of strange new creatures, new colourful plant life and naked savages. All this lured Europeans to mount expeditions and equip their ships complete with astronomers, surveyors, illustrators and botanists to seek out, record, and learn more about these fantastic distant lands.
Europe was becoming hungry for expansion and countries were flexing their muscles to gain respect, supremacy and access to trade. France had a thirst to build an empire and trade with far off lands, bringing riches home, and, up to this point, no French ship had ever travelled around. Voyages began to be granted by King Louis XV to help spread the seed of France as far as any willing and brave seaman could cast – I say ‘seaman’, because at this point in history, women were forbidden to go to sea.
Let me introduce Louis-Antoine De Bougainville. ‘Who’s he?’, you ask. He was a well-respected, long-named French aristocrat who had a love of the sea and travel. Let’s call him De Bougainville for short. He had a head for travel and an idea to be the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the globe in order to establish and claim new territories for France. Pioneering European explorers often left in their wake a trail of ‘I was here’ tell-tale signs of their voyage and left signs of their visit to some distant land. Many places are named after them. Today, many such names have been lost to the changing tide of modern cultures whose inhabitants, who are both recent and indigenous, seek to erase their turbulent history and take steps to right the injustices of early European exploration. We call this reverse colonialism. But many tell-tale names are still there, for example, in the South pacific you’ll find the Cook Islands, Drake’s Passage, Tasmania, the Magellan Straights and alike. This French voyage of discovery also left its mark. If you look closely at his passage on a map of the world, you’ll find the Bougainville Straights, Bougainville Island, and the most famous of all his legacies, not found on a map but possibly in your garden; a flower found in South America that was named after him – the Bougainvillaea. The flower was sighted and studied by the ship’s chief botanist, Philibert De Commerson and his servant (the one I mentioned earlier). But the most underrated, lesser known and unexpected discoveries on this voyage is little heard of and is far more worthy of notoriety than a garden flower as we will soon discover.
Let’s start our voyage of discovery. De Bougainville left Nantes on the West coast of France on 15th November 1766 with two ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile. The ships were loaded with all the supplies required for a long voyage of exploration, including the burgeoning load of specialist kit brought on board by their eager botanist. De Commerson was an eminent botanist with an enviable career and connections in high places. He had the enormous responsibility of sampling, analysing and collecting specimens of new plants and flowers on their travels around the globe in the name of the French Royal collection. A task that he knew would be the crowning jewel in his career and a once in a lifetime opportunity. As such, his status and the need for equipment, store, books, specimen jars were so vast that he commanded his own servant as his personal assistant; a young man named Jeanne Baré. And so De Commerson and Baré joined the crew on board the smaller of the two ships, the Étoile where they were to live among 114 other crewmen for the next two years. They set off and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to re-group on the South American coast.
Sick as a Chien
Baré, the botanist’s servant, was no seaman. The sea constantly reminds travellers that they are no longer on that pleasurable flat hard surface called land, but on a constantly moving and violently changeable void of water. The ships pitched and rolled as they lumbered south-westwards, pushing against the might of water that threw itself against the hull. Heavily laden ships like the Boudeuse and Étoile suffered more at the mercy of the waves during heavy seas. If you weren’t accustomed to the motion, your body over compensates for the gyroscopic maelstrom that your senses are going through by punishing you for your choice to leave the calmness of land and making you sick. This is what happened to Baré on his first leg through the Atlantic down towards the West coast of South America. He was so ill that he confined himself to his master’s cabin for days and days. Many an inexperienced landsman gaining their sea legs would often go through the same arduous process but quite often many would make quick recoveries. Strangely, Baré wasn’t seen to emerge from the cabin for some weeks. This was particularly unusual for a crewman being paid for work on-board and especially unusual for a ships servant whose very job was to be seen, if not heard.
Arrival at Tahiti
De Bourgainville’s voyage made many stopovers. Some were to claim new lands and discoveries and others were simply to restock on provisions and water. The ship was soon to stop at an island they didn’t even know existed – it wasn’t on any French chart. Unbeknown to them, the British had discovered it just the year before; they had found the paradise island of Tahiti. On this particular stopover, something very strange occurred that would set tongues wagging and eventually make history.
The Tahitian’s welcomed European vessels. Their arrival was marked by awe and celebration. Gifts were exchanged and they all looked upon each other in worldly amazement. Naturally, the spectacle of Europeans in their clothed finery and their white skin arriving on-board their mammoth ship was a sight for sore eyes. The native men were curious about the wondrous objects and crafted carpentry of the ship. Baré however, certainly wasn’t expecting anything like the attention drawn to him when he stepped off the ship to investigate the islands rich green flora.
A scream in the trees
It was here on this stunning and beautiful group of high, luscious, green mountainous islands rising out of the sea that Jeanne Baré encountered a group of natives. Tahitians, being at one with nature and in harmony with the wonders of their world began to stare in curiously at Baré. They slowly began to encircle, jostle and taunt him. It was as if they were drawn by a basic, natural instinct that fuelled them into the start of frenzy. The circle of natives surrounding Baré became smaller and smaller as they became ever more excited. This attention grew increasingly unwelcome for Baré until it finally built to an uncomfortable moment of hostilities. The hostilities grew so much that Bare was eventually cornered and faced a mob of Tahitian hecklers. The French officers were largely unaware of the affray. It was at that moment that they heard something extraordinary emanating from the trees. Baré did what you would expect in a moment of fear caused by the violent actions of others – he screamed. A duty officer came to Baré’s assistance. Baré then distanced himself from the madding crowd and continued on with his duties. There were some however, that thought the episode was just that little bit too strange to let it go.
The rumblings begin
After two weeks on the island, the ships weighed anchor and continued on their way Westward. Some of the crew were clearly uneasy about the Tahitian event in the woods. Some began to whisper about Baré and others watched him like a hawk. Something puzzled the sailors. Why was he rarely seen socialising on deck? He was rarely seen even using the ships toilets. Why was he was spending long periods of time behind closed doors with his master, De Commerson? Increasingly, day after day he drew the suspicions of the crew. And then, on Friday the 27th May 1768, history was made. A log entry in De Bougainville’s journal lays bare the story and with the strokes of his pen he inscribes it into history. His secret was out.
Now you see him – now you don’t
De Bougainville’s historic log entry read as follows: Saturday 28th May [just off the Great Cyclades (modern day Vanatu in the South Pacific)] ‘Yesterday I checked a rather peculiar event on board the Étoile. For some time, a rumour had been circulating on the two ships that Mr De Commercon’s servant named Baré ,was a woman …I was therefore obliged, in accordance with the King’s Ordinances, to verify whether the suspicion was correct. Baré, with tears in her eyes, admitted that she was a girl…”.
On returning to the ship, Jeanne Baré spilled her story to De Bougainville. He learned of her real name; Jeanne Baret. She told him of her deception, fuelled by her chance to circumnavigate the globe which ‘excited her curiosity’. De Bouganiville listened to her sorry tale. He learned of her hardship endured from becoming orphaned and then a failed lawsuit, forcing her into destitution. Perhaps this was when De Bougainville, after hearing such a woeful tale decided to ensure that history knew and recognised this moment for what it really was. For this was not an occasion to punish. This was the feat of a daring, brave and headstrong woman who didn’t seek the glory of the voyage, but the sought to expand her knowledge of her greatest passion – the healing powers of plants and flowers. In doing so, she unwittingly became the first known woman to circumnavigate the globe.
The art of cross dressing
So how did she fool them? Imagine being Baret on board the Étoile. At the foremost on her mind was concealment. She absolutely could not have given herself away as being a woman. To do so would risk imprisonment for her and discredit to her master. De Commerson was a leading botanist of his time and a distinguished man with wealth and contacts. His reputation was at stake. She couldn’t bring harm to the man she loved. She too knew that she couldn’t lose this opportunity to travel the world to discover new plants. She had put in place a well thought plan. A plan that required her to think, behave, look, and dress like a man. She flattened her breasts with tightly wound fabric. She wore her hair short and dressed in the oversized outfit of a male servant so as to help hide her shape. Against all odds she was successful in duping her own countrymen. It took the keen eyes of the Tahitian’s little more than minutes to see through her. From descriptions given about Baret in journals written by officers on board, we have come to learn a little about what she looked like. One of the officer’s, Vivez, kept an on-board journal throughout the voyage. Very unfairly, he described Baret as ‘very plain and ugly’. I think we can interpret this is todays’ language, as being natural and having features associated to a tom boy.
The journal of the Prince of Nassau-Seingen, a French aristocrat travelling on board gave just praise in his journal, “The sailors discovered on board the Étoile a girl disguised in men’s clothes who worked as a servant to Mr Commercon.…I like to allocate her alone all the credit for such a bold undertaking, forsaking the peaceful occupations of her sex, she had dared to face the strains, the dangers and all the happenings that morally one can expect in such a navigation. The adventure can, I believe, be included in the history of famous girls.”
A famous girl indeed, but, perhaps not as famous as she deserves to be. So that is the tale of the ‘famous girl’ and her unexpected discovery on a round the world voyage.
We now know that there was a lot more to this story than first meets the eye. Baret, as it turns out was in fact De Commerson’s lover. They had met a few years before and even bore a child together. A secret pact to travel together almost paid off – had it done, the crown of the first woman around the world would of gone to someone else, and you wouldn’t be reading this tale. If you would like to read more about her, then I can recommend The Discovery of Jeanne Baré by Glynis Ridley.
The Pacific Journal of Louis Antoine De Bougainville 1767-1768 published by The Hakluyt Society, 2002
- The journal of Prince Nassau-Siegen 1767-1768 p 293 [Off New Britain]
- The journal of Vivez p228
The Discovery of Jeanne Baré by Glynis Ridley, published by Random House, 2011
Written for Histories of the Unexpected by Jeff Nicholls.
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