Jeanne Baret (sometimes spelled Baré or Barret) (July 27, 1740 – August 5, 1807) was a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville's expedition on the ships La Boudeuse and Etoile in 1766–1769 and is recognized as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation.
Shortly before Bougainville’s ships sailed from France, she joined the expedition disguised as Jean Baret, a male valet and assistant to the expedition's naturalist, Philibert Commercon (anglicized as Commerson). According to Bougainville's account, Baret was herself an expert botanist.
Jeanne was born in the village of La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France. Her record of baptism survives and identifies her as the legitimate issue of Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard. Her father is identified as a day laborer, and seems likely to have been illiterate as he did not sign the parish register.
Nothing definitive is known of her childhood or young adulthood. She later told Bougainville that she had been orphaned and lost her fortune in a lawsuit before taking to disguising herself as a man. While she might well have been an orphan given the low life expectancies of the time, historians agree that other details of the story she gave Bougainville were a fabrication to shield Commerson from complicity in her disguise. Burgundy was at this time one of the more backward provinces of France in terms of the condition of the peasant classes, and it is likely that Baret's family were quite impoverished.
One of the mysteries of Jeanne’s life is how she obtained at least the rudiments of an education, as her signature on later legal documents provides evidence that she was not illiterate. One of her biographers, Glynis Ridley, suggests that her mother may have been of Huguenot extraction, a group that had a higher tradition of literacy than was otherwise typical of the peasant classes of the time. Another biographer, John Dunmore, suggests that she may have been taught by the parish priest or taken on as a charity case by a member of the local gentry.
At some point between 1760 and 1764, she became employed as housekeeper to Commerson, who had settled in Toulon-sur-Arroux, some 20 km to the south of La Comelle, upon his marriage in 1760. Commerson's wife, who was the sister of the parish priest, died shortly after giving birth to a son in April, 1762 and it seems most likely that Jeanne took over management of Commerson's household at that time, if not before.
It is also evident that Jeanne and Commerson shared a more personal relationship, as she became pregnant in 1764. French law at that time required women who became pregnant out of wedlock to obtain a "certificate of pregnancy" in which they could name the father of their unborn child. Jeanne’s certificate from August 1764 survives; it was filed in a town 30 km away, and witnessed by two men of substance who likewise had travelled a considerable distance from their homes. She refused to name the father of her child, but historians do not doubt that it was Commerson, and that it was Commerson who had also made the arrangements with the lawyer and witnesses on her behalf.
Before leaving Paris, Commerson drew up a will in which he left to "Jeanne Baret, known as de Bonnefoi, my housekeeper", a lump sum of 600 livres along with back wages owed and the furnishings of their Paris apartment. Thus, while the story Jeanne concocted for Bougainville's benefit to explain her presence on board ship was carefully designed to shield Commerson from involvement, there is clear documentary evidence of their previous relationship, and it is highly improbable that Commerson was not complicit in the plan himself.
Jeanne and Commerson joined the Bougainville expedition at the port of Rochefort in late December, 1766. They were assigned to sail on the store ship, the Étoile. Because of the vast quantity of equipment Commerson was bringing on the voyage, the ship's captain, François Chesnard de la Giraudais, gave up his own large cabin on the ship to Commerson and his "assistant". This gave Jeanne significantly more privacy than she would have had otherwise on board the crowded ship. In particular, the captain's cabin gave her access to private toilet facilities so that she did not have to use the shared head like other members of the crew.
In addition to Bougainville's published account, Jeanne’s story includes three other surviving memoirs of the expedition: A journal kept jointly by Commerson and Pierre Duclos-Guyot; a journal by the Prince of Nassau-Siegen, a paying passenger on the Boudeuse; and a memoir by François Vivès, surgeon on the Étoile. Vivès has the most to say about her, but his memoir is problematical because he and Commerson were on bad terms throughout the voyage and his account – largely written or revised after the fact – is full of innuendo and spiteful comments directed at both Commerson and Jeanne.
Commerson suffered badly from both seasickness and a recurring ulcer on his leg in the early part of the voyage and Jeanne probably spent most of her time attending to him. Aside from the ceremony of "crossing the line", which Commerson described in some detail in his memoir, there was little for the botanists to do until the Étoile reached Montevideo. There they set out on expeditions to the surrounding plains and mountains. Commerson's leg was still troubling him and Jeanne seems to have done much of the actual labor, carrying supplies and specimens. In Rio de Janeiro – a much more dangerous place, where the Étoile's chaplain was murdered ashore soon after their arrival – Commerson was officially confined to the ship while his leg healed, but they nonetheless collected specimens of a flowering vine which he named Bougainvillea.
After a second visit to Montevideo, their next opportunity to botanize was in Patagonia while the ships of the expedition were waiting for favorable winds to carry them through the Strait of Magellan. Here Jeanne accompanied Commerson on the most troublesome excursions over rugged terrain and gained a reputation for courage and strength. Commerson, still hampered by his leg injury, referred to her as his "beast of burden" on these expeditions. In addition to the manual labor she performed in collecting plants, stones, and shells, she also helped Commerson organize and catalog their specimens and notes in the weeks that followed, as the ships entered the Pacific.
Surviving accounts of the expedition differ on when Jeanne’s true sex was first discovered. According to Bougainville, rumors that she was a woman had circulated for some time, but her sex was not finally confirmed until the expedition reached Tahiti in April 1768. As soon as she and Commerson landed on shore to botanize, she was immediately surrounded by Tahitians who cried out that she was a woman. It was necessary to return her to the ship to protect her from the excited Tahitians. Bougainville recorded this incident in his journal some weeks after it happened, when he had an opportunity to visit the Étoile to interview Jeanne personally.
‘Yesterday I checked on board the Étoile a rather peculiar event. For some time, a rumour had been circulating on the two ships that Mr de Commerçon’s servant, named Baré, was a woman. His structure, his caution in never changing his clothes or carrying out any natural function in the presence of anyone, the sound of his voice, his beardless chin, and several other indications had given rise to this suspicion and reinforced it’ (De Bougainville’s Journal, 28–29 May 1768).
Vivès also reports much speculation about Jeanne’s sex early in the voyage, and asserts that she claimed to be a eunuch when confronted directly by La Giraudais (whose own official log has not survived). Bougainville's account of her unmasking on Tahiti is not corroborated by the other journalists, although Vivès describes a similar incident in which she was immediately pointed out as a woman by the Tahitian Ahu-toru on board the ship. Ahu-toru travelled back to France with the expedition and was subsequently questioned at some length about this. (Modern scholars now believe that Ahu-toru actually thought that Jeanne was a transvestite, or mahu.) Vivès also describes a different incident on New Ireland in mid-July in which she was caught off-guard, stripped, and "examined" by a group of other servants on the expedition. Duclos-Guyot and Nassau-Siegen also recorded that Jeanne had been discovered to be a woman on New Ireland, but without mentioning details.
After crossing the Pacific, the expedition was desperately short of food. After a brief stop for supplies in the Dutch East Indies, the ships made a longer stop at the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. This island, also known as Île de France, was then an important French trading station. Commerson was delighted to find that his old friend and fellow botanist Pierre Poivre was serving as governor on the island, and Commerson and Jeanne remained behind as Poivre's guests. Probably Bougainville also actively encouraged this arrangement as it allowed him to rid himself of the problem of a woman illegally on board his expedition.
On Mauritius, Jeanne continued in her role as Commerson's assistant and housekeeper. It is likely that she accompanied him to botanize on Madagascar and Bourbon Island in 1770-1772. Commerson continued to have serious health problems and he died on Mauritius in February, 1773. His financial resources on the island had dwindled, his patron Poivre had been recalled to Paris, and Jeanne was left without the means to immediately return to France to claim the money due her from Commerson's will.
After Commerson's death, she seems to have found work running a tavern in Port Louis for a time. Then, on 17 May 1774, she married Jean Dubernat, a non-commissioned officer in the French Army who was most likely on the island on his way home to France. There is no record of exactly when Jeanne and her husband arrived in France, thus completing her voyage of circumnavigation. Most likely it was sometime in 1775. In April 1776, she received the money that was due to her under Commerson's will after applying directly to the Attorney General. With this money, she settled with Dubernat in his native village of Saint-Aulaye where he may have set up as a blacksmith.
In 1785, Jeanne was granted a pension of 200 livres a year by the Ministry of Marine. The document granting her this pension makes clear the high regard with which she was held by this point:
Jeanne Barré, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit.... His Lordship has been gracious enough to grant to this extraordinary woman a pension of two hundred livres a year to be drawn from the fund for invalid servicemen and this pension shall be payable from 1 January 1785.