Jeanne Baret, a French voyager, died Aug. 5, 1807, at the age of 67. In 1766, Louis-Antoine Bougainville set out in the ship Boudeuse on a voyage around the world, and he signed on Philibert Commerson as naturalist. Commerson brought with him a valet, Jean Baret, who was actually Jeanne in male disguise. Supposedly neither Bougainville nor his crew suspected anything was amiss, but when they arrived at Tahiti, the natives immediately pointed out, presumably with signs, that Baret was a woman. So Commerson and his mistress were forced to move into separate quarters for the remainder of the voyage.

Although the Boudeuse returned to France in 1769, Commerson and Baret disembarked at the Ile de France (now Mauritius) to study the flora of Reunion, Mauritius, and Madagascar. Commerson had always been in ill health, and Baret seems to have functioned more as his nurse and caretaker than his mistress, but she was faithful to the end. Unfortunately for Commerson, the end was not long in coming, and he died in the spring of 1773, 45 years of age. Baret could not afford passage back to France, so she worked for several years on Mauritius until she found a man to marry who was headed to Paris. We don’t know exactly when she returned home, perhaps 1776, but as soon as she did so, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

The image of Jeanne, published in a travel book of the early 19th century, is probably not faithful, but it is all we have (first image). The other images show the commander, Bougainville; a drawing of their arrival in Tahiti; and a full-size replica of the Boudeuse, built in 1916 in celebration of the sesquicentennial of Bougainville’s voyage.

Dr. William B. Ashworth, Jr., Consultant for the History of Science, Linda Hall Library and Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Missouri-Kansas City. Comments or corrections are welcome; please direct to ashworthw@umkc.edu.