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The Discovery of Jeanne Baret
by Glynis Ridley

In 1765, the French king Louis XV ordered an expedition of sailors and civilians to circumnavigate the globe. In the process, the men would claim new lands for France (carving out a colonial empire to rival that of England and Spain) and seek new sources for the spices Europe so desperately craved. To aid in the voyage, a botanist named Philibert Commerson was enlisted to seek out new plants that could be useful to the empire. With him was his youthful assistant, Jean Baret. Jean Baret was no ordinary crew member; she was a disguised woman in her twenties who was both Commerson’s lover and an herb woman whose knowledge greatly helped the botanist throughout the voyage. The tale of how this peasant from rural France left her hometown and became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe is full of courage, intrigue and adventure.

Before picking up this book, I’d never seen the name(s) Jean/Jeanne Baret before, or heard of this enterprising young woman. No surprises there – according to the Acknowledgements at the back of the book, only one other biography of Baret has been written in English, and that was in 2002. That’s not so very long ago, but the book was published in New Zealand, so there are very few copies of it available in the United States. So I’m absolutely delighted that Ridley’s book introduced me to this obscure pioneer.

Jeanne left no written record of her difficult life, so Ridley had to guess at many of the details of her childhood and years aboard the Etoile. Some of her theories are perfectly plausible; she suggests that one of the reasons Jeanne made such a valuable assistant to Commerson was that she was an herb woman, and since she was familiar with plants and their uses back in France she knew what to look for when the landed on foreign soils. The evidence the author provides to back up this suggestion is sparse, but there’s enough there that this seems likely. Later in the book, Ridley proposes that Jeanne was raped when several crew members decided to confirm whether or not the rumor that she was of the gentler sex was true; after suggesting this, she continues through the rest of the book to refer to it as if it were indisputable fact. Unfortunately, the only evidence that supports this idea is some ambiguous phrasing in the diary of the ship’s doctor that could be interpreted in a number of ways.

But even if some of the details about Baret’s life remain indeterminate, I loved reading about her work as a field assistant to Commerson, and the discoveries they made together. I’m a sucker for accounts of early exploration and the rudimentary science of the Enlightenment, and the fact that a woman like Baret could be part of it is pretty amazing, given her background and position as a woman in 18th century France. What impressed me all the more is how brave Baret was. I’m not just talking about her great cross-dressing scheme, although that certainly took guts that I’ll never have. Can you imagine being the only woman on a tiny ship full of men with virtually no privacy? But that’s not what I’m thinking about. After her identity has been revealed, Baret and Commerson leave the voyage at Mauritius, and spend the next several years continuing their botanical research there. Tragically, Commerson dies there, leaving Baret penniless and frightened. But Jeanne Baret doesn’t give up – against all odds, she figures out a way to get home to France and even claim an annual pension for her contributions to the voyage of 1765. Her life is a fascinating story well worth reading.

5 out of 5 stars

To read more about The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Vol. 1 by Eiji Osuka and Housui Yamazaki
2010: News: Used Booksellers on the impact of e-books
2009: Discussion Question: Penguin Books
2008: The Necklace by Cheryl Jarvis


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