Keeping a Secret
The first woman to circumnavigate the world, Jeanne Baret did so disguised as a man. Her bravery laid the groundwork for Kay Cottee, Ellen MacArthur and Jessica Watson
Article by Justine Gosling
In 1766 aged just 26, French woman Jeanne Baret had no choice but to hide her true identity if she wanted to join this exciting voyage as women were banned from all French Naval ships. Women were deemed physically too weak, a distraction for the male crew and it was common belief that a woman’s place was at home looking after the family and certainly not galavanting around the world exploring.
The opportunity came about when her partner, a Botanist called Philibert Commerçon, was invited by French admiral and explorer Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville to join his voyage. It was a once in a life time, historically significant expedition that had been ordered and funded by the most powerful man in France, King Louis the XV, to bolster the prestige of France following its defeats during the Seven Years war. It would be only the 14th circumnavigation ever to have been completed at the time, the first French circumnavigation and the first with professional naturalists, astronomers and geographers on board.
But Commerçon was in poor health and knew he would struggle at sea and completing his botanist work. So together, Baret and Commerçon hatched a plan of ultimate deception to enable Baret, herself a knowledgeable botanist to join the voyage.
So how did she illegally smuggle herself on board the ship?
Baret enlisted herself as a male nurse and assistant to Commerçon. She wore baggy men’s clothes, covered her short hair with a scarf and introduced herself by the male version of her name, Jean Baret. Luckily, due to the huge amount of equipment the Botanists travelled with and the space needed to store all their specimens, the ship’s captain assigned Commerçon and his ‘assistant’ the largest cabin on the ship. The cabin came with private toilet facilities so they didn’t have to share with the rest of the all-male crew, making it much easier to keep their secret.
The voyage departed France in December 1766 aboard the Royal Naval ship, ‘Ètoile’ with 116 crew. Using only the power of the wind they crossed the Atlantic from France to Uruguay, sailing onto Brazil where the ship’s captain was murdered. Believing her to be a man, Baret earned respect from her crew for her courage and strength trekking over difficult terrain collecting and documenting plant and shell specimens. Commerçon respectfully referred to her as his “beast of burden”.
According to surviving journals kept by other crew members, rumours circulated about Baret’s gender, but were not confirmed until they made land in Tahiti in April 1768. It must have been a dramatic and frightening experience for Baret when she stepped off the ship and was apparently immediately surrounded by Tahitians who cried out that she was a woman. She was forced to remain on the ship for the rest of their stay for her own safety to protect her from the excited Tahitians.
The expedition continued on to Mauritius where they stopped to resupply. It is not known if Commerçon and Baret chose to depart the voyage here, or if Bougainville ordered the pair off the ship to rid himself of the problem of a having a woman illegally on board. Commerçon died in Mauritius in February 1773. Still in Mauritius, Baret went on to marry Jean Dubernat, a non-commissioned officer in the French Army and together they sailed home. There is no record of exactly when Baret and her husband arrived in France, thus completing her voyage of circumnavigation. It is thought to be some time in 1775. Her circumnavigation is only confirmed in documents proving her location in France relating to the collection of the money Commerçon left for her in his will and the collection of her French pension from the Ministry of Marine in the years after. She died in France on August 5, 1807, at the age of 67.
Baret truly was an exceptional woman of her time. Not only was she brave enough to illegally join a perilous all male expedition with few comforts and the very real chance that she could die, she managed to hide her gender for a year and a half. Along with her crew, she survived attacks from natives on the lands they explored all whilst collecting important scientific data, at a time when Captain James Cook was still mapping and discovering the world and expectations for women were simply to look after children and the home.
Imagine keeping that secret for so long!
Today it is inconceivable that a woman could not just jump on a boat to where ever she wanted to go, but women’s lives were very different back in 1766 when Baret completed her epic voyage. Unlike men of the time women could not vote, were often denied an education and unless they were born into a wealthy family often lived in extreme poverty serving their husband and children.
Baret was brave, resourceful, curios and not willing to accept the unfair sexist rules and miss out on the adventure of a life time and opportunity to have her name remembered in history. Despite the restrictions place upon women back then, Baret’s courageous trip proves that women’s ambitions were just as great back then as they are today.
Over 200 years later, women enjoy much greater freedom and have proudly conquered the oceans. Australian Kay Cottee was the first woman to successfully complete a solo, non-stop and unassisted circumnavigation of the globe. Cottee achieved this heroic feat in 1988 in her 11metre yacht named Blackmores First Lady, and she did it in just 189 days.
Nearly 100,000 Australians greeted her in Sydney Harbour when she returned to celebrate her world first record. Like gender, age is no barrier in the adventure world. Fast forward 234 years from Baret’s expedition, in 2010 another Australian, 16-year-old Jessica Watson completed a seven month solo sailing circumnavigation, earning her the prestigious accolade of 2011 Young Australian of the year.