The Google Doodle of today is the 280th birthday of Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Baret disguised herself as a man and managed to get half way around the world before she was “outed”. It was, supposedly, the natives in Tahiti who casually remarked “Oh, you brought a woman”.
Her ability to fool the crew for so long might be contextualized by circumstance and the manners of French imperial society. The portrait of Louis Stanislas Xavier, the non-King Louis XVIII might explain much. Before the French Revolution the manly man wore makeup, a wig, perfume, and dressed in fine brocade, silk and lace. Baret might not have had the wherewithal to dress as finely as a king, but she could dress in sufficient volume to disguise a female form.
Baret was “housekeeper” and lover of Philibert Commerson, the naturalist employed by the Bougainville expedition of 1766. Bougainville was the “French Captain Cook” and his circumnavigation is displayed below.
When Commerson joined the expedition he was entitled to have an assistant, but not a female. Commerson secured the best cabin on the second ship, the Étoile. Baret joined the ship only at the last moment before departure. With a private cabin, and private toilet facilities, they were able to disguise her gender from the crew.
Commerson was ill much of the time and she took a lead role in securing samples and taking on the physical work of the expedition naturalist.
In highly structured societies where dress and manner take precedence a woman who knows how a man should behave can carry off the illusion of being a man. But when you arrive in a land free of such manners and customs the illusion melts away. The Tahitians looked at her and saw her exactly for what she was.
When the expedition reached Mauritius Bougainville managed to dump Commerson and Baret. The Governor of the island was an old friend of Commerson and a fellow botanist Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper). They undertook botany expeditions to nearby islands such as Madagascar until Poivre was recalled to France and Commerson died in 1773. Baret seems to have made good, opening a tavern, purchasing land and managing other businesses. In 1774 she met and married a French Army Officer and returned to France with him, thus completing her circumnavigation as a woman of independent means.