Monday, May 20, 2013

Jeanne Baret

Friends and relatives, I would like to tell you about Jeanne Baret. I just finished a book about her that has been haunting me for probably two years, and it was every bit as fascinating as I thought it would be.

Jeanne Baret was the first woman known to have circumnavigated the world. That alone is a feat, but the circumstances it even more remarkable. For one thing, she was born a peasant in the French countryside in 1740. Remember in A Tale of Two Cities when the Marquis runs over that little boy in his cart, and all he does is toss a couple of coins to the boy's father and go off to have some hot chocolate? That's how much French society cared about peasants. Their average life expectancy was 26, and literacy rates for women were 10%. (Men, at 20%, did not fare significantly better.) By all rights, Jeanne Baret should have worked herself into the grave before the age of 30 and been forgotten.

Other than a sheet of herbal remedies that may or may not have actually been written by her, Baret survives solely in others' accounts. A few of the men on the expedition kept journals, and practically everything known about her experiences on the voyage comes from their accounts. All of these men, and many later historians, subscribed to the still-popular notion that ambitious women are whores. The book that I read, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, is a thoroughly feminist take on Baret's life that I found, for the most part, convincing.

The key to Baret's achievements was her field of expertise: botany. She was an herb woman, which means she knew more about botany and its medical uses than many well-educated men. She was employed by a botanist named Philibert Commerson to teach him all she knew, and, as is the way of things, she ended up pregnant. Commerson does not come off at all well in this book: he appears selfish, cowardly, and callous. And not a little stupid. It's hard to imagine Baret and Commerson having a happy relationship; they stayed together, but one wonders if it was only because, once they embarked on this adventure, they didn't have much choice.

When Commerson was hired to participate as a botanist in a French expedition around the world, the French government told him to hire an assistant. Baret was the obvious choice, but it was against the law for women to travel on naval vessels. Instead of letting a little thing like that stop them, Commerson and Baret entered into a ruse in which Baret was to be passed off as a man for some two years in the company of 300 sailors. Why they expected this to work, no one will ever know. It didn't take long for questions to arise, which prompted Baret to tell everyone she was a eunuch. Perhaps that staved off more questions for a while, or perhaps everyone simply said, "Uh huh, sure." It seems likely that although it wasn't openly discussed, it was obvious to everyone that she was a woman -- otherwise, there would have been less need for her to carry a brace of pistols with her everywhere she went.

By all accounts, Baret performed the strenuous work of hiking, climbing, and lugging heavy boxes and plant presses here to there with rather extraordinary energy and ability. Commerson had a leg injury that was an ongoing and kind of gross issue, so Baret seems to have done a great deal of physically difficult work for him. She may even have been the one who discovered bougainvillea (named for Bougainville, the captain of the expedition). She also endured, along with the rest of the crew, several terrible tropical storms, and survived for a time on leather and rats when the food ran out. Unlike the rest of the crew, she suffered condescension, harassment, and, as indirectly evidenced by a disturbingly jovial passage in one account, gang rape.

This is not a triumphant story by any means. Baret accomplished an incredible thing, but it was costly. After being formally "discovered" and subsequently assaulted, she kept to her cabin did no botany at all until she and Commerson were let off in Mauritius, where Commerson had once again finagled a new job. There she gave birth to a second child. Her first child, born in Paris before the voyage, was probably Commerson's. For unknown reasons, the child was given to a foundling hospital and died at a young age. Her second child may well have resulted from rape, and was left with a caretaker in Mauritius. While Commerson had an elevated position and benefactor in Mauritius, Baret was a servant, living in servant's quarters. For only a small percentage of their time together did she she and Commerson set up house together, with all their specimens. And then Commerson finally died from what sounded like complications from his incessantly suppurating leg wound. Since they were not married, Baret was left with absolutely nothing. The government even seized all of the specimens she and Commerson had collected. She was in Commerson's will, but in order to claim her money, she had to get back to Paris.

It's sort of unclear what happened to her for a while, but it appears she was a barmaid for a time. About a year and a half after Commerson's death, she married a naval officer and returned to France. That was 1774. By the age of 34, she had crossed the Atlantic, crossed the equator, been to Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo, and passed through the Strait of Magellan. She crossed the Pacific, visiting Tahiti, New Guinea, and Madagascar, and lived for on Mauritius for seven years. She and Commerson had collected six thousand specimens during their travels.

Although hardly anyone knew what Baret accomplished, she didn't go entirely unrecognized. Commerson named one (ONE) plant after her, which was renamed later by someone else. And she joined Caroline Herschel in being one of very few eighteenth-century women paid for scientific work: several years after she returned to France, someone petitioned the government to give her the same pension that invalid servicemen received, citing her "exemplary" behavior. She lived to be 67.

The book itself has some flaws, the main one being that the author includes a lot of speculation that isn't as well-grounded as I'd like. But she makes good arguments, and the amount of research she must have done is astounding. She even found evidence of a man bearing Baret's pseudonym living on Mauritius thirty years after she would have left her son there -- the uncovering of that small fact seems extraordinary to me. And I especially liked this bit from the introduction:

"Bougainville thought Baret's example [of a globe-trotting female] was not likely to be contagious because of the physical privations and brutality she experienced. But Bougainville overlooked the allure of the idea she embodies: that one human being, irrespective of the hand dealt by fortune, can have as much curiosity about the world as another. And that, like race and class, gender should pose no barrier to satisfying that curiosity and discovering how far it may take you."

I've basically told you the whole story, but should you want the details (there are lots more interesting things I didn't mention), I would certainly recommend Glynis Ridley's The Discovery of Jeanne Baret.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Lists, Part IV: Late Additions to Mr. Peale's Museum

The fourth and as far as I know final installment in my series of lists has to do with one Charles Willson Peale. This is Mr. Peale, sporting a fashionable pair of forehead goggles:


The canny-eyed Peale was a portrait-painter until 1794, when he decided to go into the museum business. After the Revolution, there was a new enthusiasm for education and civic virtue that Peale wanted to reinforce; his museum would "educate and teach virtue to the public by demonstrating the benevolence of the Creator and the order, harmony, and beauty of His creation." As you will see, he accomplished this by packing into this museum every interesting and oddball thing he could get his hands on. He was so dedicated to displaying every facet of the creator's creation that he even wanted to display the embalmed bodies of public figures (posthumously, of course), but had to settle for portraits instead. The popularity of the museum meant it received contributions from all over the world. No description could be better than what you'll read below, but here's a painting of Peale lifting the veil so you can peek into an exhibition:


I happened upon an article about the museum not too long before I went to Philadelphia myself last October. The one thing I would have killed to see was this famous museum, but alas, its contents were sold off about twenty years after Peale's death in 1827. Government support probably would have preserved it, but in spite of his many efforts, he could never the government to agree on that. He had the bad luck to have started his museum when the government was still figuring out what it was and was not allowed to do. Jefferson said he supported the idea of nationalizing the museum, but he didn't think Congress had the power to do so -- or at least, he didn't think they'd think they did. So in the end, Peale's collections went to P. T. Barnum, and most of it was destroyed by fire.

Evidently there's some debate over whether Peale was a forerunner of P. T. Barnum or of the Smithsonian -- whether he was a showman or a man of science. It's silly to suggest he had to be a forerunner of one or the other, and that he couldn't have been a forerunner of both, or neither. Which brings me to this purpose of this post: the list. When the Historian Esq. and I were in Philly, we went (of course) to see Ben Franklin's printing office and bindery.


In demonstrating the presses, they print a lot of random stuff -- sayings and advertisements and articles from early American papers -- and post them on the walls. That is how we spotted this beauty of a list: "Late [that is, recent] Additions to Mr. Peale's Museum." This thing is like a found poem. It is so strange, and wonderful, and revealing as to what eighteenth-century people thought was notable. Was Peale a scientist or a showman? It's impossible to tell. Sometimes the natural world is so weird there's no need to choose.

Unfortunately, the list at the printers was from such an old demonstration that it was no longer for sale, but Historian Esq. pointed out with his customary genius that the library would certainly have this article in a database. And so it did. And so I present to you this final list. Enjoy.


A fine specimen of Petrified Wood, found in the State of Delaware : Presented by Jonathan B. Smith, Esq.

A pair of Horns of the American Rein-Deer : Presented by Mr. Shingle.

A white Hare, of which species some numbers have appeared in this and the neighbouring northern States within four years past; before that period unknown : Presented by the Hon. Thomas Jefferson.

An Otahitian dress, consisting of a long cloak, and a cap made of feathers, and very elegant; being a present to the president of the United States by some gentlemen of Boston, adventurers in the first voyage made from thence to Nootka Sound and the Otahitian islands; now deposited in the Museum for preservation and safe-keeping for the president.

Chinese ladies shoes, measuring in length 5 4-10 inches : Presented by Mr. Pritchard.

The Nautilus-shell, uncoated and ornamented. A pair of Chinese ladies shoes, made to fit the wife of a native of that country, who supplied the ship (Sampson) with necessaries when at China, and the Podada bird, commonly called the sea-pidgeon : Presented by Mr. Jacob Betteron.
Birds nests, very costly, which, made into a soup, is much esteemed in China, and throughout all the Indies. “When it is reported, that in the Indies people eat birds-nests, there is no man but must wonder at it;--nay, many think they are imposed upon, because it appears to them quite repugnant to nature, or at least very little acceptable to the palate. But they are reckoned good, light, and wholesome food, very proper for sick people. They are so well dressed with other good ingredients, that they prove an excellent dish to those who do not know what it is. As the materials with which they are made come from fish, they are not unsalubrius.”--Postlethwait Dictionary.

A kitten with two heads, in spirits : Presented by Dr. ------------

Two snake-skins, from the island of Trinidad, one measuring in length 7 feet four inches, and the other 13 feet 8 inches : Presented by Mr. Samuel Hazlehurst.

Shells, which are used instead of glass in the windows of the houses of the inhabitants of Malabar : Presented by capt. Howell.

A large flying fish, measuring from the mouth to the extremity of its tail 18 inches : Presented by Mrs. Earl.

A large porcupine fish, measuring 16 ½ inches in length, and two feet three inches circumference, independent of spines : Presented by capt. Howell.

Coisimond, (alive) a very good-humoured, playful animal, from South America : Presented by Mr. Lee.
The ring-tail monkey : Presented by Mr. J. Graham.

A calcarious stone, weighing 21 ½ ounces, taken out of the bladder of a horse : Presented by Mr. Dunkin.

An arrow, which was used against the Americans in the battle of the 4th of November 1791, near the Miami towns : Presented by Dr. Brown

A live rattle-snake : Presented by Dr. Gibbons.
N.B. This is secured in a strong case, with a wired and glass front, and may be viewed in perfect to the spectators, and it is also kept in a room distinct from the museum, so that those who have aversions to such animals need not see it.

That brilliant insect the diamond beatle, from the Brazils, is placed in the museum, with convenient magnifiers for viewing it to advantage.

A large sea-pen : Presented by Mrs. Branton (Willington)

A pair of humming-birds, preserved in a glass case : Presented by Mr. Myers

A pair of ground paroquets, very small and beautiful, from the Streights of Sundy. A Chinese lanthorn. Some incense matches, which are used in the temples in China, and a pair of Turkish knives, in a case, neat and curious : Presented by Mr. Plumstead.

Some improvement in the arrangement of the articles are made. A Gross, for receiving the marine subjects, and a number of rare birds are added.