The extraordinary life of Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) will likely remain shrouded in mystery despite the number of archival documents that have been consulted. What is known is that Baret was born to illiterate and impoverished day laborers in Burgundy and, somewhat miraculously, ended up being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She is a woman who dressed as a man in order to join the famous Bougainville expedition (from 1766–1769) as the assistant to Philibert Commerson — a known botanist. By all accounts she was actually his lover, probably his former servant, and very likely had a child with him which she left in an orphanage before their travels together. She perhaps had another child in Paris who died very young. One of the most fascinating and challenging aspects of piecing together the lives of women from the distant past is that so many scenarios are possible and the scant facts provided by birth certificates and early parish records cannot hope to give historians an ironclad narrative. But this has not kept historians from constructing very different accounts of the formidable Jeanne Baret.
Glynis Ridley's biography, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, presents a pleasing contemporary interpretation that credits Baret with an impressive knowledge of botany in her own right — an equal to Commerson. The plausible story suggests that Baret's role as an herb woman (a woman who is knowledgeable in the curative properties found in plants) attracted Commerson to her as an equal or perhaps even — a teacher. This runs counter to the idea that she was his lover and servant but was not a learned woman. Ridley also grapples with the conflicting accounts in the journals of various shipmates (including the doctor on board, Francois Vivez). For example, the different entries regarding Baret and the deeply concerning event of her gender being revealed leave much ambiguity. There is some suspicion that she was raped by multiple men, while still other accounts stating that her rape was avoided by careful maneuvering of the crew. What role did the local people (Tahitians in this case) play in this situation. It is easy to imagine events playing out in a number of violent and abhorrent ways but whose accounts can be trusted? And whose accounts are not available?
The story presented by author Danielle Clode's In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World External, provides a more conflicted and complex narrative. She cast doubt on several aspects of Ridley's story including the relationship of equals that she supposedly shared with Commerson — but also other details including the birth of a child, and her sexual assault. Her story also takes Jeanne beyond her voyage around the world and follows her life after these events. Baret finds a husband, Jean Dubernat, with whom she shares property and a business on what seems like equal terms. She had a close relationship with her niece and nephew and became a woman of means. Depending on the sources consulted one can take away a different sense of Jeanne Baret's character and how she experienced her eventful life. But, no one can refute that she was a supremely capable and hardworking woman who built a life for herself that far exceeded the expectations of the time.
For digitized sources on women of this time period see Digitized Sources: La Renaissance & Ancien Régime.
You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings: