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.

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