Dense, inquisitive biography of the first woman to circle the globe by sea.
After learning about intrepid voyager Jeanne Baret (1740–1803), Ridley (English/Univ. of Louisville; Clara’s Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe, 2005) was intrigued by their shared interest in botany and surprised at the lack of information available. Compelled to uncover the truth about her subject, Ridley scoured historical texts, personal journals, shipping logs and encyclopedias. Baret’s interest in naturalism blossomed early, and she eventually caught the eye of esteemed Parisian botanist Philibert Commerson, who became enamored by this “herb woman” and her botanical wisdom. In 1766, Commerson joined French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville on the first world circumnavigation expedition, which was staffed with 330 men. Anxious to join him in collecting floras of the worlds, Baret bound her chest, cross-dressed, donned a pistol and covertly enlisted as Commerson’s male servant—though, Ridley asserts, Commerson was well aware of the arrangement. Tolerating ravaging seasickness and unpredictable weather patterns, Baret was able to blend in with the crew (she claimed to be a eunuch) and reveled in discovering new plant species. However, upon reaching Tahiti in 1768, she was nearly gang-raped by native islanders who saw through her disguise. Ridley points out implausible discrepancies in Baret’s accounting of her voyage versus what was dictated into the logs of seamen who worked with her on the ships. She also expresses skepticism about Commerson’s naïveté, demonstrating that many of Baret’s crewmates were already aware of her gender but were wary to “rock the boat.” Dual themes of feminism and sexual equality anchor the author’s scholarly analysis as Baret reportedly remained ever-fearful of exposure, which would have placed Commerson and Bougainville’s respective reputations in jeopardy at a time when “a female stowaway was a curiosity, but a female botanist was a breach in the natural order of things.”
Ridley has definitely done her homework in recognizing Baret as an overlooked but important historical figure.