Jeanne Baret: Early Explorer
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Jeanne Baret was a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville's expedition on the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile in 1766–1769. Baret is recognized as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe. Jeanne Baret joined the expedition disguised as a man, calling herself Jean Baret.
Jeanne Baret was born on July 27, 1740, in the village of La Comelle in the Burgundy region of France. Her record of baptism survives and identifies her as the legitimate issue of Jean Baret and Jeanne Pochard. Her father is identified as a day laborer and seems likely to have been illiterate, as he did not sign the parish register. Nothing definitive is known of Baret’s childhood or young adulthood. She later told Bougainville that she had been orphaned and lost her fortune in a lawsuit before taking to disguising herself as a man. While she might well have been an orphan given the low life expectancies of the time, historians agree that other details of the story she gave Bougainville were a fabrication to shield Commerson from complicity in her disguise.
At some point between 1760 and 1764, Baret became employed as housekeeper to Commerson, who had settled in Toulon-sur-Arroux, some 20 km to the south of La Comelle, upon his marriage in 1760. Commerson’s wife, who was the sister of the parish priest, died shortly after giving birth to a son in April 1762, and it seems most likely that Baret took over management of Commerson’s household at that time, if not before. It is also evident that Jeanne Baret and Commerson shared a more personal relationship, as Baret became pregnant in 1764. French law at that time required women who became pregnant out of wedlock to obtain a “certificate of pregnancy” in which they could name the father of their unborn child. She refused to name the father of her child, but historians do not doubt that it was Commerson and that it was Commerson who had also made the arrangements with the lawyer and witnesses on her behalf.
His appointment allowed him a servant, paid as a royal expense, but women were completely prohibited on French navy ships at this time. At some point, the idea of Baret disguising herself as a man in order to accompany Commerson was conceived.
To avoid scrutiny, she was to join the expedition immediately before the ship sailed, pretending to be a stranger to Commerson. Before leaving Paris, Commerson drew up a will in which he left to “Jeanne Baret, known as de Bonnefoi, my housekeeper“, a lump sum of 600 livres along with back wages owed and the furnishings of their Paris apartment. Thus, while the story Baret concocted for Bougainville’s benefit to explain her presence on board ship was carefully designed to shield Commerson from involvement, there is clear documentary evidence of their previous relationship, and it is highly improbable that Commerson was not complicit in the plan himself.