Do you know the first woman to circumnavigate the world?

by | Mar 7, 2022 | Insights

Do you know the first woman to circumnavigate the world? Her incredible story is a lesson and inspiration for us all

Until recently I had never heard of Jeanne Baret, or what she did that was so utterly amazing. If you don’t know Jeanne’s story, you really should.

#InternationalWomensDay #IWD #RememberJeanneBaret

Jeanne Baret was born in 1740 into a poor French family in Burgundy. Her mother died when she was 15 months and her father, a labourer, when she was 15. Despite her challenges she managed to study and gain a rudimentary education, and in the early 1760s (her early 20s) she became a housekeeper to Philibert Commerson. Records of the time are sketchy, but following the death of Commerson’s wife in childbirth in 1762 it is clear that Jeanne looked after Commerson, his household and infant son, and they then started a relationship that was to last until his death.

In 1766 Commerson, a renowned botanist, doctor and someone who did not enjoy good health, joined an expedition being led by Louis Antoine de Bougainville to circle the globe. Bougainville would become the 14th navigator – and the first Frenchman – to complete the circumnavigation, and the first with naturalists and geographers on board. Jeanne Baret accompanied Philibert Commerson, but because women at the time were not permitted on board ship by the French navy she had to pretend to be a man – Commerson’s servant. This tricky situation was inadvertently helped by Bougainville who, seeing Commerson’s scientific equipment, frail health and “servant”, gave them his much larger cabin to share for the voyage.

During the voyage Commerson together Jeanne Baret found a wide variety of plant species, and Jeanne gained a reputation for doing the hard work of collecting plants, stones and shells and carrying them back to the ship. Commerson named over 70 varieties of plant including the popular flowering vine Bourgainvillea, discovered in Rio de Janeiro and named after the expedition’s leader. Only one plant, Solarnum Baretiae, was named after Jeanne.

The inevitable happened, however, when the expedition made landfall in Tahiti in 1768. Unlike the French, the Tahitians were immediately able to recognise a 28-year old woman when they saw one, and they expressed surprise (although presumably not as much surprise as the French expressed, after a journey which had already lasted 18 months).

The expedition continued their crossing of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, enduring storms and starvation, before eventually arriving on the island of Mauritius. Here they found that the French governor was an old friend of Commerson and a keen botanist. Jeanne and Commerson stayed in Mauritius as the governor’s guests: a situation that allowed the relieved Bourgainville to continue his return to France without the problem of a woman illegally on board his expedition (he arrived back in France in March 1769).

Jeanne continued exploring and collecting plants, venturing across Mauritius and as far as Madagascar. After Commerson died in 1773 she ran a successful tavern in Port Louis, the Mauritian capital, and established herself independently. Then, in May 1774, Jeanne married Jean Dubernat, a former French soldier, and they returned to France in 1775. On her arrival she received a substantial sum of money from Commerson’s will, and settled with Dubernat in his native village in the Dordogne.

In 1785 Jeanne Baret was granted an annual pension of 200 livres, and she died in 1807 at the age of 67. The document granting Jeanne’s pension makes clear the high regard with which she was held, reading:
Jeanne Barré, by means of a disguise, circumnavigated the globe on one of the vessels commanded by Mr de Bougainville. She devoted herself in particular to assisting Mr de Commerson, doctor and botanist, and shared with great courage the labours and dangers of this savant. Her behaviour was exemplary and Mr de Bougainville refers to it with all due credit. (See Monsieur Baret: First Woman Around the World, by John Dunmore, published in 2002 by Heritage Press)

When I first heard Jeanne Baret’s incredible story it occurred to me how it contrasted with that of Ferdinand Magellan, widely celebrated for leading the first expedition to circle the globe in 1519. Magellan named the Pacific Ocean and his name has been applied to other entities ranging from the Strait of Magellan to the Magellanic Clouds – two dwarf galaxies visible in the night sky of the southern hemisphere. Magellan, however, never actually completed the circumnavigation: he was killed in a skirmish in the Philippines in 1521 leaving one of his lieutenants, Juan Sebastian Elcano, to actually complete the voyage in 1522. In fact, of the 270 men that set out from Spain with Magellan, only 18 or 19 survivors actually returned with Elcano.

So, Ferdinand Magellan, celebrated as the first man to circle the globe, didn’t actually do it. Whereas Jeanne Baret, the first woman to complete a circumnavigation, did so with little recognition and despite not having a formal education, having to pretend to be a man, and having to care for a man. As if that wasn’t enough along the way she also made ground-breaking botanic discoveries and ran a successful business.

There are many conclusions to take from the fact that Jeanne’s immense and historic achievement is, even to this day, largely unknown and unrecognised. It is a travesty. It occurs to me, however, that there are many ways to honour Jeanne Baret, not only publicly and prominently but with actions that are much more individual and personal.

Without doubt, Jeanne Baret’s example reminds us all of the need to ensure that everyone’s talent, potential and achievements are routinely supported and celebrated. And it is surely past time to properly honour Jeanne Baret, the first truly International Woman.

Kourdi Associates​ ​work with current and potential leaders to develop their mindset, skills and effectiveness. Jeremy Kourdi is formerly Senior Vice President with The Economist, he has worked with London Business School and Duke Corporate Education as well as market-leading businesses worldwide, and he is the author of 27 books translated into 17 languages, including​ ​The Truth About Talent​ ​and​ ​Coaching Essentials​. ​His business​ ​Kourdi Associates​ ​provides coaches, expert content and consultants that help leaders successfully navigate a changing world.

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