In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the world by Danielle Clode

‘Who was Jeanne Baret?’

Jeanne Baret (27 July 1740 – 5 August 1807) was a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s colonial expedition on the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile in 1766–1769.  Jeanne Baret is recognized as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe.

And, until I read this book, I had never heard of her.

Jeanne Baret joined the expedition disguised as a man, calling herself Jean Baret. She enlisted as valet and assistant to the expedition’s naturalist, Philibert Commerçon (anglicized as Commerson), shortly before Bougainville’s ships sailed from France.  

In this book, Danielle Clode sets out to find out more about Jeanne Baret.  Her journey takes her from France and Mauritius to New Guinea and the Pacific Islands.  I found it fascinating, following Jeanne Baret’s journey through Danielle Clode’s eyes.  The challenges of tracking down information: who was Jeanne Baret?  How did an impoverished peasant woman from Burgundy come to be part of Bougainville’s expedition?  What would the journey have been like and how much of a contribution did Jeanne Baret make?

After the expedition, Jeanne Baret remained in Mauritius for some years before returning to France in 1775.  She died in Saint-Aulaye in 1807 at the age of 67, leaving her estate to her husband Jean Duberat, her nieces and nephews, and a bequest to the poor.  An impoverished peasant no longer.

Ms Clode has included notes and references at the end of the book, as well as acknowledgment of those who assisted her.  I finished the book satisfied with what I had learned but wanting to know more, wondering about Jeanne Baret’s transition from valet to an independent woman of means.  As Ms Clode writes:

‘The image of Jeanne Barret in her later life refines and remodels my image of her on the voyage.  For much of this story, she has been elusive and difficult to characterise.  The sheer brevity of the records, refracted and distorted through a male gaze and the absence of her own voice, have made it challenging to build a picture of her.’

Challenging, but not completely impossible.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith