Thoughtfully composed, the author’s treatise on the first woman botanist to circumnavigate the globe, and undercover at that, is a page-turner. A very complex story, “The Discovery of Jeanne Baret” illustrates the monumental achievements of two 18th century botanists travelling abroad. Such an effort demanded great personal sacrifice from anyone, but especially from Jeanne Baret who had to hide her personal identity from her captain and his crew: women were strictly forbidden passage on board naval vessels.
At the time, explorers had discovered much of the world for their countries along with the most expedient ocean passages to great treasures known to exist in exotic lands. Fruits and spices from the Pacific islands were new to Europe, and monopolies on their trade made acquiring them difficult. European countries were then in fierce competition to locate, acquire and then preserve samples and name flora as they “discovered” it while on voyages from continent to continent. Given the social and political climate in France at the end of the Age of Discovery, combined with the reality of life at sea on a French frigate* or flute** it is amazing that a young woman from the countryside of France obtained the job of valet to a naturalist, and with it passage on a ship sailing from Le Havre, France in 1767.
The story is one of relationships and dependencies. Perhaps due to the very strict social structure of 18th century France, Jeanne Baret stands out a renegade, a patriot, and a woman looking for adventure, a fact which by itself characterizes Baret as intensely dedicated and loyal. She was from the French countryside, she had become an herbalist as a young woman, and she had one connection that helped her gain access to the threshold of scientific discovery for France in the late 1760s. The climate was ripe for scientific exploration and she had met and become close to a naturalist near her home town in Burgundy, France. Philibert Commerson, her naturalist friend had two connections, Carl Linneaus and a ship’s captain, Jean Claude Bougainville, who was given the charge of commanding the French expedition to the Pacific Islands.
Author Ridley typified the roles of ship’s captain, ship’s surgeon, and the voyage’s supernumeraries*, with enough detail to show them as competing with each other whenever wit or luck were all there was between them and the seeming whims of their captain or the ocean. The least they bargained for was safe passage, and as possible, clamored for the opportunity to make scientific discoveries for France. Though personal kindness of some officers could be counted on, it was not enough to keep Baret safe throughout the voyage, against the prejudices of the crew. Because special treatment had eluded them, they were otherwise undistinguished; they begged for mercy or hid from condemnation, a particularly dicey situation at sea.
Our heroine and her co-conspirator were less transparent, about whom not much is known of their character, since the author renders the biography by assumption. Jeanne and Philibert are not fully represented against the backdrop of all concerned individuals, and thus are somewhat disappointing. For a biography, there is obvious conjecture among the details in the book.
In the end, Baret’s botanical findings are somewhat underwhelming, in that for the reported 6,000 items collected and named; only one, according to the story, can be attributed to her, and one other was named for her. However it was no small feat to have journeyed by ship to Tahiti and the South Seas to the island of Mauritius and then to Madagascar, and finally home to France, after a 7-year stay off the coast of Africa. Her daily tasks were to prepare plants specimens, label and keep them from water and insects as their presence grew in the ship’s hold (actually the cabin shared by herself and Monsieur Commerson, the naturalist on board the ship, Etoile). She followed the classification system then newly developed by Swedish botanist Carl Linneaus, with whom Commerson had become friends.
Supernumeraries: non-crew members of an expedition, the passengers in this story were scientists who were valued, but also seen as a liability.
*Frigate: type of naval ship which carried guns
**Flute: small ship of Dutch design, built as a storeship