GUY RAZ, host:
Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Twenty-six-year-old Jeanne Baret didn't set out to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In fact, when she stepped onboard a ship called the Etoile in the French port city of Nantes in 1766, she was disguised as a man. It was the only way she could help her lover, the famed botanist Philibert Commerson, collect plants around the world.
Professor GLYNIS RIDLEY (English, University of Louisville; Author, "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe"): After a few weeks, the calm that had descended was troubled by a rumor circulating among the men concerning a girl in disguise on the ship. Everyone knew where to look: It was undoubtedly our little man.
It was not that Baret's disguise was poor, but 116 men living in a self-contained world measuring 102 feet by 33 feet were quick to recognize oddities of behavior.
RAZ: That's author Glynis Ridley. She's reading from her new book. It's called "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret." Baret and Commerson were both botanists, but it was Commerson who was invited to travel the world with the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville.
Baret was supposed to stay in Paris in her official job as Commerson's housekeeper.
Prof. RIDLEY: The couple realized that Baret would have been the obvious candidate to be Commerson's assistant. He was given money as part of his wages to employ an assistant of his choice. The only problem was a French Royal ordinance forbade women being on French Navy ships.
RAZ: So he couldn't bring her, even though she was his top assistant.
Prof. RIDLEY: Exactly. She was not only his housekeeper and his lover, but she was his co-researcher. Commerson was up-to-date on the latest university-based scholarly knowledge about plants. Jeanne Baret represented a different tradition altogether.
I think one of the things that made their relationship tick was the fact that she was what's referred to as a herb woman. She was one of a group of women who worked in a largely oral tradition, very aware of the curative properties of a range of plants across Europe.
So she was used to mixing up medicines from raw plant ingredients. So I think Commerson really valued her as a co-worker, as well as his housekeeper, his lover, and I think the couple formulated a plan for Baret to disguise herself as a young man, offer herself as his assistant on the dockside on the day that he was due to board the ship, and Commerson would subsequently claim that in all the months prior to the expedition, he hadn't found an assistant who suited him. So he apparently offered the position to the young man who presented himself on the dockside on the day the expedition was leaving.
RAZ: There are two ships in the expedition. They set sail in 1766. How does she manage to keep her identity private?
Prof. RIDLEY: It happened as they were boarding ship that Commerson had brought along so much plant-collecting paraphernalia that the captain of his ship offered Commerson and Commerson's assistant the captain's own cabin.
And the thing about a captain's cabin on an 18th century sailing ship is that it gave access to sort of private toilet facilities. So that helped Baret to prolong the charade.
RAZ: My guest is Glynis Ridley. She's the author of a new book called "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret," the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
One of the better-known discoveries from this voyage was the bougainvillea plant, which presumably was brought to Europe on this voyage. It's named after the head of the expedition, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. He's credited with having discovered the plant. But you actually say it was Jeanne Baret, not Bougainville, not Commerson.
Prof. RIDLEY: Yes, that's correct. It's surprising that so many people assume the bougainvillea was discovered by Bougainville. As the commander of a circumnavigation, he had things to do other than go wandering around the countryside outside Rio.
Bougainville didn't have the time to go searching for plants, and it wasn't his job anyway. It was Commerson's job. But the time that bougainvillea was discovered, Commerson was suffering from varicose ulcers. So he couldn't go walking about.
His varicose ulcers were severe enough for the ship's surgeon, Francois Vives, to recommend amputation of Commerson's leg. So I think that the bougainvillea was undeniably discovered by Baret, and as with so much, she was written out of history. This has been forgotten. I'd like to reinstate her as the discoverer of the bougainvillea.
RAZ: How was her true identity discovered or revealed?
Prof. RIDLEY: Well, Bougainville says that in Tahiti, just as the male sailors were surrounded by groups of Tahitian women who were making plain the offer of multiple sexual partners to the crew, Bougainville said that a group of Tahitian men surrounded Baret and immediately identified her as a woman.
And 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 by a group of Tahitian men.
I show in the book that that story is peculiar to Bougainville's journal. In fact, three other members of the crew contradict this story and say that Baret was, in fact, brutally exposed, gang-raped in New Island by members of the crew when the bandages were taken off, and she was revealed to be a woman.
RAZ: The story sounds like it could be an amazing film. What happened when the expedition returned to France? Was Baret hailed as a hero? I mean, was it recognized immediately that she had accomplished this incredible feat? I mean, this was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
Prof. RIDLEY: Baret was not hailed as a hero, and it actually took her nine years to get home. What happened was Bougainville put Baret and Commerson off-ship in Mauritius. So when she finally made it back to France in 1775, she and the man she was then with were perhaps the only two people who fully appreciated what she had done. Unfortunately, she didn't come home to a hero's fanfare.
RAZ: There is just one plant genus named after Baret, who was this amazingly gifted botanist. Can you tell us about that plant?
Prof. RIDLEY: Yes. When Commerson and Baret were botanizing on Madagascar, Commerson hoped to immortalize Baret in a sort of green, sort of shrub native to the area, and the genus Baretia, as Commerson designated it, struck him as a neat summation of Baret herself.
The thing about Baretia is that an individual plant may contain a variety of different-shaped leaves. Some are oblong, some are rather more square, rather more irregular. So on any individual plant, you'll have a contradictory sort of set of leaves.
And I think he thought that this was a nice summation of Baret herself, since she united a lot of opposites. She was a working-class woman who traveled at that stage further than any aristocrat. She was a woman wearing sort of man's clothes.
Unfortunately, if listeners go looking up the genus Baretia, they'll find it no longer exists. Baretia has been reclassified. The genus is Turraea. So I think that given that today there is absolutely nothing named after Baret, whereas there are 70 plants, insects, mollusks that bear the designation Commersonia, and we've also talked about the name of the bougainvillea, which listeners will be familiar with, it would be wonderful if, as a result of the book, somebody wants to name something after Baret again. I think that would be a nice tribute.
RAZ: That's Glynis Ridley. She's the author of the new book "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe." She's also a professor of English at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Glynis Ridley, thank you.
Prof. RIDLEY: Thank you.