Baret, Jeanne (1740–?)
Baret, Jeanne (1740–?)
French adventurer and research assistant who became the first woman to circumnavigate the world. Name variations: Jeanne Barret, Jeanne Mercadier. Born into modest circumstances in Bourgogne, France, in 1740; date of death unknown, but she was still alive in 1795; married a soldier named Antoine Barnier (or Antoine Du Bernat).
Worked in Paris as a servant for the botanist Philibert Commerson and hired on as a male valet for the expedition led by Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1764); was of great help to Commerson in his botanical research; several newly discovered plants were named for her; returned to France after Commerson's death (1773).
On September 6, 1764, a young woman calling herself Jeanne Baret was hired as a servant by the noted botanist Philibert Commerson. With her move from the provinces to Paris to seek her fortune, Baret enters the pages of history. Unfortunately, much of the documentary record relating to her is spotty and at times confusing. The reliability of her name is questionable; it is sometimes spelled Jeanne Barret, and in her last will and testament she asserted that her real name was in fact Jeanne Mercadier. The precise nature of the relationship between Baret and Commerson also remains obscure, and it is unclear whether she was simply his servant or actually his mistress. Regardless, we know the link between these two individuals from very different social strata involved a mutual respect for one another as they worked together in botanical projects that were intellectually—and sometimes physically—demanding.
One of the most remarkable voyages of discovery during the 18th century's age of science and exploration was the circumnavigation of the earth led by the French navigator Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1729–1811) in the years 1766–1769. Philibert Commerson was the botanist of this expedition, which set sail on December 14, 1766, with the frigate La Boudeuse and the transport L'Étoile. In the will that Commerson wrote prior to his departure, he left Jeanne Baret an annual pension of 100 livres and ownership of the furniture in his Paris apartment. What Commerson may not have known at the time he boarded La Boudeuse was that the male valet named Bonnefoy who also boarded the frigate for the great adventure was none other than his servant Jeanne Baret. Under the excellent leadership of Captain Bougainville, over the next months the expedition visited several ports on the east coast of South America and survived the treacherous currents of the Straits of Magellan to enter the Pacific Ocean. During this time, "Bonnefoy" assisted Commerson in his botanical field trips, discovering a number of valuable specimens and assisting in their preservation and cataloguing.
Baret's deception, if Commerson was in fact being deceived, ended in Tahiti, where she was recognized by local women as one of their own sex. Deeply disturbed by the presence of a woman on his vessel, Captain Bougainville interrogated Commerson, who denied all knowledge of what had been taking place. When Bougainville interrogated Jeanne Baret, she displayed great self-confidence, admitting in an emotional scene that she had desired to participate in a great adventure, and did not in fact regret what she had done. Bougainville, impressed by her courage and strong personality, pardoned Baret and insisted that her identity be kept a secret for the duration of the voyage. For the remainder of the expedition, she continued to work assiduously, collecting and categorizing a large range of botanical specimens. Despite her lack of formal education, Commerson saw in her a valuable scientific collaborator whose energy and knowledge added greatly to the integrity of his data.
The Bougainville expedition returned to France in March 1769. Of a crew of more than 200, only seven had died. Due in large part to the work of Commerson and Baret, a sizeable body of new botanical data was discovered, including the South American climbing plant Bougainvillea, named for the captain. Paying homage to Baret, Philibert Commerson named both a genera (Baretia) and a species of plant (Bonna fidia) in her honor.
After Commerson died in 1773 during an expedition to the island of Madagascar, Jeanne Baret married a soldier named Antoine Barnier and inherited the pension stipulated years before in Commerson's will. By this time, Baret had achieved the status of a celebrity as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Showing the admiration and gratitude of the crown, King Louis XV granted her an annual pension of 200 livres. Bougainville's favorable description of her participation in his expedition, published in his 1771 account of the voyage, served to further enhance her reputation. After the death of her husband, Jeanne Baret lived in Chatillon-les-Dombes. Her name disappears from the documentary record after 1795 when she filed a will; she possibly died soon after. Her continuing fondness for her benefactor Philibert Commerson was evidenced by this last will and testament, which instructed that her property be distributed among his heirs.
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Bougainville, Louis-Antoine de. A Voyage Round the World. Translated by John Reinhold Forster. NY: Da Capo Press, 1967.
Craig, Robert D. Historical Dictionary of Polynesia. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.
D'Amat, Roman. "Baret (Jeanne)," in M. Prevost and Roman D'Amat, eds., Dictionnaire de Biographie Francaise. Vol. 5, cols. 448–449.
Wilson, Derek. The Circumnavigators. NY: M. Evans, 1989.
John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia