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A Female Explorer Discovered On The High Seas

Jeanne Baret didn't set out to be the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. When she stepped onboard the Etoile in 1766, she was looking for plants.

Her lover, Philibert Commerson, was a well-known botanist at the time and had been selected to be part of French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville's round-the-world expedition from 1766-69.

Glynis Ridley, author of The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, says Baret would have been the obvious choice to serve as Commerson's assistant on the Etoile's journey, except for one thing.

"A French Royal ordinance forbade women being on French Navy ships," Ridley tells Weekend All Things Considered host Guy Raz. A little theater was necessary.

"The couple formulated a plan for Baret to disguise herself as a young man [and] offer herself as his assistant on the dockside."

A Brutal Discovery

After Commerson "accepted" Baret into his service, the couple was able to keep their secret from the crew of over 100 men for some time. Baret's real identity was cruelly revealed, however. The commander of the expedition claims it happened when the Etoile landed on the island of Tahiti.

"Bougainville said that a group of Tahitian men surrounded Baret and immediately identified her as a woman," Ridley says. "Because she was worried about what might happen, she supposedly revealed her true identity so that her countrymen, the French, could save her from what she took to be an imminent sexual assault."

But after poring over the diaries of crew members, Ridley doesn't believe Bougainville's tale.

"That story is peculiar to Bougainville's journal," Ridley says. "In fact, three other members of the crew contradict this story and say that Baret was, in fact, brutally exposed." According to the other journals, Baret was discovered and gang-raped by her crewmates in Papua New Guinea.

The Plant That Carried Her Name

Baret very likely discovered many plants on the expedition, Ridley says, most notably the bougainvillea plant, named for the Etoile's commander. The plant named after Baret, however, has since shed her name.

Commerson identified the plant while botanizing with Baret in Madagascar and named the genus Baretia.

"The thing about Baretia is that an individual plant may contain a contradictory set of leaves," Ridley says. "Some are oblong, some are rather more square, and some are fairly irregular."

"[Commerson] thought that this was a nice summation of Baret herself, since she united a lot of opposites," Ridley says. In addition to being a woman wearing man's clothes, "she was a working-class woman who traveled ... further than any aristocrat."

If you look up the genus Baretia today, however, you won't find much. The genus has been reclassified under the name Turraea. Ridley hopes her book might bring Baret's name back from the past.

"It would be wonderful if, as a result of the book, somebody wants to name something after Baret again," she says. "I think that would be a nice tribute."

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