A Woman to Know: Jeanne Baré

Her adventure should, I think, be included in a history of famous women. — Prince of Nassau-Siegen

(image via Wikimedia Commons)


On the ship, she went by "Jean." She bound her chest, dressed in men's clothes and refused to use the bathroom alongside the male sailors. She claimed to be a eunuch, though many crew members suspected her of being a cross-dressing deviant. The alone time and social ostracization from the crew suited her just fine: she had disguised herself as a man to sneak aboard the important voyage, captained by French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville in 1766, because she wanted the chance to collect rare herbs and plants, samples that were crucial to her botanical research. Secretly, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Years before she snuck aboard the ship, Jeanne studied botany with her family. The young French peasant couldn't read or write, but she studied herbal medicine with her relatives, learning how to hunt for flowers and crush them into healing poultices. She apprenticed herself to the renowned botanist Philibert Commerson -- and within months, they were lovers. He helped hide her identity aboard the important expedition so they could continue their research together.

But "Jean"'s ruse couldn't last forever. Ultimately, a crew member unmasked her, forcing de Bougainville to expel Jeanne and Commerson from the ship, leaving them in Mauritania. There, the lovers continued to "botanize" throughout Madagascar and the surrounding islands. When Commerson died in 1773, Bougainville set up a pension for his former colleague, writing that "her behavior was examplary, and His Lordship refers to it with all due credit."

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