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The year was 1765. Eminent botanist Philibert Commerson had just been appointed to a grand new expedition: the first French circumnavigation of the world. As the ships' official naturalist, Commerson would seek out resources - medicines, spices, timber, food - that could give the French an edge in the ever-accelerating race for empire.
Jeanne Baret, Commerson's young mistress and collaborator, was desperate not to be left behind. She disguised herself as a teenage boy and signed on as his assistant. The journey made the 26-year-old, known to her shipmates as "Jean" rather than "Jeanne", the first woman to ever sail around the globe. Yet so little is known about this extraordinary woman, whose accomplishments were considered to be subversive, even impossible for someone of her sex and class.
When the ships made landfall and the secret lovers disembarked to explore, Baret carried heavy wooden field presses and bulky optical instruments over beaches and hills, impressing observers on the ships' decks with her obvious strength and stamina. Less obvious were the strips of linen wound tight around her upper body and the months she had spent perfecting her masculine disguise in the streets and marketplaces of Paris.
Expedition commander Louis-Antoine de Bougainville recorded in his journal that curious Tahitian natives exposed Baret as a woman, eighteen months into the voyage. But the true story, it turns out, is more complicated.
In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, Glynis Ridley unravels the conflicting accounts recorded by Baret's crewmates to piece together the real story: How Baret's identity was in fact widely suspected within just a couple of weeks of embarking, and the painful consequences of those suspicions; the newly discovered notebook, written in Baret's own hand, that proves her scientific acumen; and the thousands of specimens she collected, most famously the showy vine bougainvillea.
Ridley also richly explores Baret's awkward, sometimes dangerous interactions with the men on the ship, including Baret's lover, the obsessive and sometimes prickly naturalist; a fashion-plate prince who, with his elaborate wigs and velvet garments, was often mistaken for a woman himself; the sour ship's surgeon, who despised Baret and Commerson; even a Tahitian islander who joined the expedition and asked Baret to show him how to behave like a Frenchman.
But the central character of this true story is Jeanne Baret herself, a working-class woman whose scientific contributions were quietly dismissed and written out of history - until now. Anchored in impeccable original research and bursting with unforgettable characters and exotic settings, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret offers this forgotten heroine a chance to bloom at long last.
The book is non-fiction detailing the life of a French peasant woman who was the first woman known to circumnavigate the world in the mid 1700's. The book is well-written and researched. The information was based on log books of Captain Bougainvillea, and contemporary biographies by people who were present on board. Unfortunately Baret wrote nothing of her work or life. She became knowledgeable about plants and herbs and came to the attention of renowned botanist Philibert Commerson and became his assistant. She disguised as a man to accompany Commerson on his world trip. It is possible that the first European to observe the plant was Jeanne Baret and Commerson named it after the Captain of the ship "Bougainvillea". I will never look at this plant again without thinking of Baret.
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I love true tales of adventure and exploration and this one did not disappoint. That the subject was a woman was one of the deciding factors for me to listen to this book. The story of her life, from her impoverished childhood to her relationship with the eccentric naturalist,Commerson, and her botanical discoveries (including the Bougainville) during her voyage on the Etoile is both exceptional and heart breaking. It is inspiring that Jeanne Baret managed to accomplish what she did, under the shadow of men (also disguised as a man) and tormented by the hostility and degredation of the male sailors aboard the ship. She was truly unique (if not controversial) and remarkable woman!
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
Exceeded expectation in every way. It opened up the 1700-1800s in a fresh light. Very well researched and makes you want to know what else the author has written.