Who was the first woman to sail around the world?

Unknowingly the first woman to sail around the world and forgotten by history for many years, Jeanne Baret was an extraordinary woman.

Born into poverty in 1740, she was a keen botanist. It was this interest which would make her life remarkable.

Jeanne Baret botanist

Baret’s interest in plants led her to meeting nobleman and botanist Dr Philibert Commercon. Originally employed as his housekeeper, the death of his wife saw the pair become even closer. They became friends and lovers, working on botany together. Baret fell pregnant. At this time in France, pregnancies out of wedlock had to be declared legally, with the father named.
 
Evidence suggests Baret declared the pregnancy far from home, refusing to name the father. Histories are certain it was Commerçon. The baby was later given up for adoption.
 
France was attempting to grow its economy through international voyages. This saw the government putting money into trips around the world. When Commerçon was offered a place on one of these voyages, L’etoile he sought to bring Baret with him. L’etoile was the first French circumnavigation of the globe. The voyage was captained by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.
 
Women were not allowed on French naval ships, and so a plan was hatched to hide Baret’s true gender identity. She flattened her breasts, binding them in linen, and changed her name to ‘Jean’. She boarded the ship a valet for Commerçon just days before its voyage, so as not to arouse suspicion.
 
However, as the voyage began, the crew were indeed suspicious about the valet. Never seeing Baret relieve herself caused comments from many of the crew mates. One lie Baret and Commerçon told the crew was that Baret was a eunuch.
 
There are many stories concerning the discovery of Baret’s true gender. One story suggests that the ship’s arrival in Tahiti saw that Tahitians immediately call out Baret’s gender. Another story suggests that a sexual assault at the hands of a crewmember revealed her identity.
 
Upon arriving in the French colony of Maritius, Commerçon discovered that his close friend was the governor of the Island. It was here that Commerçon and Baret disembarked the ship and parted ways with L’etoile. This was no doubt encouraged by the ship’s captain, who would have got in trouble upon returning to France with a woman in his crew.

What did Jeanne Baret discover?

Commerçon died in 1773, leaving all of his money to Baret in his will. She later wed a French soldier. On her return to France, she received a pension from the French government, for her work in the collection of more than 70 plant samples.
 
The discoveries Commerçon and Baret made were named after Commerçon. That is until a book by Glynnis Ridley, documenting the extraordinary work and life of Baret. In 2012 a vegetable related to the tomato and the potato was named Solanum baretiae in her honour. 

Jeanne Baret timeline

Many of the exact dates of Baret’s life are uncertain.

27 July 1740

Baret born in the Burgundy region of France.

Between 1760 and 1764

Baret becomes employed as housekeeper to Commercon.

1765

Commercon invited to join Bougainville’s expedition.

1766

Baret and Commercon joined the Bouganville expedition.

1768

L’etoile reaches Tahiti, Baret supposedly outed as a woman.

1773

Commercon dies in Mauritius.

1774

Baret marries Jean Dubernat, non-commissioned French officer.

1775

Baret most likely returns to France

1807

Baret dies, at the age of 67.