The Australian Women's Weekly

SCANDAL AT SEA: the feats of Jeanne Barret

In 1766, a young man set sail on the first French circumnavi­gation of the world. Except that the young man was actually Jeanne Barret, a woman in disguise. In her new book, Danielle Clode discovers the true story of the trailblaze­r.


There was nothing obvious in Jeanne Barret’s childhood to suggest that she would one day become the first woman to sail around the world.

She was born almost 400 kilometres from the coast, into a poor peasant family in the middle of the peaceful French countrysid­e. Generation­s of farm workers were born, lived and died without ever travelling more than a few miles from their village. But Jeanne was different.

In her early 20s, Jeanne left village life behind her. She dressed as a man to board a sailing ship in the French port of Rochefort and set sail for the jungles of South America, the icy Straits of Magellan, the tropical islands of the Pacific and south-east Asia. She narrowly escaped the dangers of the Great Barrier Reef before returning to France, via the French colony on Mauritius, eightand-a-half years later. It was a perilous journey for anyone, risking shipwreck, scurvy, disease and violence. The death toll on such long voyages was often high. It must have been even more risky for a young woman, illegally disguised as a man, on a ship full of ardent young men. Yet Jeanne not only survived, she excelled as a naturalist’s assistant and returned safely home, although not before she was exposed as a woman on a beach in the middle of the Pacific.

I’ve always been fascinated by women who challenged the restrictio­ns of their times and lived adventurou­s lives. Having lived on a boat with my parents as a child, I also have a vivid appreciati­on of the challenges and risks of life at sea. With so little written about Jeanne, I wanted to know more about where she came from, what motivated her, how she survived and what impact the journey had on the rest of her life.

When I visited the Morvan region of Burgundy to find out about Jeanne’s childhood, it was late summer.

Birdlife and wild flowers flourished in woodlands and hedgerows. Farmyards bustled with sheep, ducks, chickens and cows. It seemed idyllic, but in the 18th century life must have been much harder.

Little has been written about Jeanne’s childhood or her family, but when I searched the parish registers I found traces of her family, scrawled notes in the priest’s handwritin­g – births, deaths, marriages, sisters, brothers and parents.

Jeanne was born in July 1740 in the middle of the Great Frost, one of the coldest winters of the 18th century. Famine stalked the poor and the vulnerable. Within a year of Jeanne’s birth, her mother was dead and her father, an illiterate labourer, must have struggled to look after his surviving children. There are stories of children eating grass to survive and, in winter, poor families like Jeanne’s closed themselves into low thatched hovels and slept through winter to save energy. Perhaps these years formed Jeanne’s character: stoic, determined and, above all, a survivor.

As she grew up, Jeanne may well have moved with her older sister,

who followed her husband’s work to neighbouri­ng towns. At 16, Jeanne was godmother to her nephew in a town four kilometres south of her home town. Later she seems to have followed her sister further down the Arroux river, to a town near Toulonsur-Arroux, where she found work with the local doctor and naturalist Philibert Commerson.

Commerson was certainly the catalyst for change in Jeanne’s life. A brilliant naturalist, he probably taught her to write and trained her in botany. Jeanne looked after him through illness, injury and depression over the death of his wife. Their relationsh­ip was almost certainly close. In 1764, Jeanne was five months pregnant and the pair fled to Paris, ostensibly for Commerson’s scientific work, but perhaps also to avoid scandal.

Commerson lived in an apartment in the 5th arrondisse­ment, with

Jeanne as his housekeepe­r, not far from the Jardin des Plantes and the Natural History Museum. It is not clear what happened to Jeanne’s child. The fires of the Paris Commune rebellion of 1871 destroyed the parish records for the city. A child by the name of Jean-Pierre Barret (bearing the names of Jeanne’s father and brother) was left at the Enfants Trouves, or Foundling Home, near Notre-Dame, a common practice of the time. Whatever happened, it is clear that this baby did not survive childhood.

When Commerson accepted a lucrative and prestigiou­s position as “The King’s Naturalist” as part of the first French circumnavi­gation of the world under the command of the renowned war hero Louis-Antoine de Bougainvil­le, there was only one acceptable course of action for Jeanne. Commerson wrote in his will that Jeanne would stay in Paris as his housekeepe­r, working on his natural history collection, until he returned.

As far as anyone knew, in December of 1766 Commerson waved Jeanne goodbye as he climbed aboard the coach to Rochefort, and headed off post-haste to catch his ship. When he arrived in Rochefort, he employed a quiet and serious young man, allegedly from Geneva, as his assistant. A young man who went by the name of Jean Barret or Baré. There is a portrait of Jeanne Barret, drawn years after her death, from her time as Commerson’s assistant. She is wearing a soft red cap, loose striped pants and a blue pea coat, like sailors of the times wore, with a bunch of plants draped across her arm. This picture bothers me. Everything about it seems wrong and it sums up all the difficulti­es I have had trying to uncover the truth behind Jeanne’s story. The Italian artist had probably never met Jeanne. The image symbolises what the artist thought she ought to be, just as how Jeanne is described in books often tells us more about what was expected of women, rather than how she actually lived. The red cap was a symbol of liberty, during the French Revolution, originally worn by freed slaves. ‘Marianne’ or the ‘Goddess of Liberty’, who represents the French Revolution, is often drawn wearing this cap. But in Jeanne’s

youth, red caps were worn by life convicts, not young women symbolisin­g democracy and freedom. Similarly, Jeanne would never have worn sailors’ clothes because she was not a sailor. She was a servant and a valet on the ship, who did not live with the sailors in the ‘forecastle’, but in the officers’ quarters. More likely, she would have worn a simple version of 18th-century gentlemen’s clothes, or even resewn Commerson’s old clothes to fit.

Nor do botanists collect plants in bouquets draped over their arm. Jeanne’s shipmates describe her carrying heavy bags, guns, supplies and great sheafs of paper in the field. Each carefully selected individual plant sample would be positioned and pressed within the sheets before being carried back to the ship.

If there is one thing every account agrees on, it is that Jeanne was incredibly tough and hard-working. Commerson described her as his “beast of burden”, while others describe her as working as hard as three men. Commerson ultimately sent over 30,000 plant specimens back to France, at a time when barely 20,000 species were known to science. As the Natural History Museum director Georges Cuvier commented, “It is astounding that one man should have been able to do so much in so short a time.”

Perhaps that is because Commerson was not, in fact, one man, but supported by an incredibly hardworkin­g woman.

By the time the ships reached South America, Commerson was struggling with a leg injury, which doctors feared might require amputation. In the jungles of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, it was certainly Jeanne who collected most of the plants, including the famous Bougainvil­lea that Commerson named after their commander. In the mountains of the Straits of Magellan, it was Jeanne who carried all their collection­s and supplies through snow and ice. After finally reaching the calmer, warmer waters of the Pacific, she must have been looking forward to collecting in the more pleasant climate of Tahiti.

But this was not to be. Commerson and Bougainvil­le immortalis­ed Tahiti for the beauty of its women and the sexual freedom they enjoyed. It was a paradise for a ship full of young French sailors. It was not just the women, however, who were interested in intimate liaisons with the French. As the story goes, no sooner did Jeanne step ashore than she was surrounded by enthusiast­ic Tahitian men shouting “ayenne” (woman), keen to pay her “the honours of the island”, as Bougainvil­le put it.

Jeanne was swiftly rescued and confined to the ship for the remainder of their stay. There were no plants collected from Tahiti.

As the ships sailed from Tahiti, Jeanne confessed to Bougainvil­le that it had been her idea alone to dress as a man in order to embark on a circumnavi­gation that had “raised her curiosity”. As with many events in Jeanne’s life, it is difficult to know how much of this is true. Did the Tahitians really identify Jeanne as a woman first? Or is there a darker version of events being concealed?

What happened to Jeanne once the ships arrived in Mauritius? How did she survive after Commerson’s death and manage to return to France?

The answers hidden in the archives have been even more surprising than I could have ever imagined. Jeanne’s voyage was remarkable, but the life she built afterwards is perhaps more so. Researchin­g her life has proved full of revelation­s, from her unexpected wealth, to a previously unknown second child, Aimé Bonnefoy, left in Paris. I can’t help but wonder what Jeanne’s parents might have thought about their daughter’s achievemen­ts. And whether they would have been more impressed by her final comfortabl­e years as a successful, wealthy landowner in the Dordogne than the astonishin­g voyage for which she is famous. AWW

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 ??  ?? CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT: A modern illustrati­on of Jeanne; Mauritius, where she ended her odyssey; writer Danielle Clode; famous explorer and admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainvil­le.
CLOCKWISE FROM FAR LEFT: A modern illustrati­on of Jeanne; Mauritius, where she ended her odyssey; writer Danielle Clode; famous explorer and admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainvil­le.
 ??  ?? In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World by Danielle Clode is published by Picador. On sale September 29.
In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World by Danielle Clode is published by Picador. On sale September 29.

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