The first woman to sail around the world – Jeanne Barret’s biography by Danielle Clode: a case study in public history
I would like to thank Dr. Sam Keeley very much for proof-reading this article.
In April 1768 a French expedition on a mission to circumnavigate the world reached the island of Tahiti. After a long time at sea, the French sailors and scientists under the command of Louis Antoine de Bougainville were mesmerized by the white beaches, lush green nature and friendly people welcoming them. But stepping on the beach, surrounded by naked men and women, the French made a very surprising discovery. More correctly, it was the natives who made a discovery. The Tahitians were able to spot with one glimpse what the Frenchmen had missed for many months: The young valet who assisted the royal botanist Philibert Commerson, who had climbed icy mountains near the Magellan Strait, who hunted exotic animals in strange places and who always carried two pistols with him to make clear that he was not someone to mess with – was a women in disguise. Her name was Jeanne Barret and she was the first woman to sail around the globe.
This article will present Jeanne Barett’s story by examining one remarkable book. It belongs to the field of public history, was written by a non historian and is aimed at a broad audience. It deserves to be discussed in length because the author, Danielle Clode, is not only a marine biologist but also a very successful public science author who knows all the tricks of her trade. So her book can serve as an example of how public history works. Furthermore, she has to deal with a rather common problem while presenting amazing, yet little known stories to a broader audience: There are only very few primary sources that tell us about Jean Barret. We do not have any words of her own and the scant primary sources we have often contradict each other. For a non-historian, Danielle Clode does an amazing job in discussing this problem, presenting different sources and trying to balance them. All with an openly proclaimed goal: To tell the true story of a woman who went on the adventure of a lifetime, traveled the world, went from rags to riches and came home with an amazing story to tell.
The Book I – Presenting research as a journey
Danielle Clode chooses a common narrative method in Anglo-American public history. She describes her own journey as a researcher solving the puzzle that is the life of Jeanne Barret. She talks at length about how she visited France, Mauritius and other places, the people she met, what the places she visited felt like, smelled and how it felt like to hit roadblocks on the way. This makes the process professional historians hardly ever mention in their theses into a compelling story. Applying this method, Clode is able to turn even minor findings that would only fill a single page in a PHD thesis into an interesting tale that spans a whole chapter.
But she does not apply just this one strategy. Clode also makes it clear that her mission is to write the version of Jeanne Barest story that she believes to be the only true one. From a professional point of view this idea is highly problematic. The more you know about history and the limits of primary sources, the more you’ll understand that there can never be a single biographical truth about a person. Sure, you can prove dates and an itinerary, but to find out what someone thought or felt will always be subject to interpretations. But ambiguity is not what Clode wants to present. It is rather typical for public history that she claims her story to be true. And just as typically, she gives her ‘true story’ of Jeanne Barret a clear narrative. She wants to tell a positive, inspiring story of a true heroine. Of a woman who traveled on her own free will, who saw the world, overcame many obstacles, never gave up and returned home in triumph. This message is of highest importance for her and it surely resonates with many readers. What is typical and a successful strategy of public history comes at a prize academic historians are not willing to pay, though: the narrative overshadows anything that might contradict it.
The Book II – Telling a biography within a biography
So Clode offers her readers a compelling “true story” and two narratives of her own and Jeanne Barret’s journey. But there are two more things that make this book an archetype of public history.
In the book, she also tells her own biography, linking her previous life experiences with those two journeys. Clode talks about growing up, amazed by the sea and the history of sailing but missing female heroes in her storybooks. Furthermore, she writes for a greater part of the book about how she traveled the Pacific Ocean with her parents when she was a kid. In this way, she adds a third journey into the book that includes tales of a little girl collecting shells and visiting exciting places and how that girl eventually decided to become a marine biologist. So, although she never states it explicitly and claims to tell a true story, every reader can see that Clode is constructing an identity similar to Jeanne Barret, inspired by her own life experiences, her assumptions and aspirations about female heroes and scientists. And just to be clear: In the genre of public history this is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, a good way to get your readers invested. And if you are dealing with a topic on which there are very few primary sources, you can write hundreds of pages whereas professional historians might only write dozens.
Since Clode’s own research and her childhood already play major parts in the book, it is only fitting that she, as a final strategy, uses her professional expertise when she actually talks about Jeanne Barret. As a marine biologist she has a lot to say about the animals and plants Barret encountered. This is a truly unique scientific perspective and also a common trait in public history. Many authors present their own non-historical expertise as a strength which offers new insight. Often this is combined with attacking a caricature of academic scholarship, describing historians as dry, bloodless bookworms who have no real experience and who for their love of pointless details miss what is really important. It is refreshing that Clode refrains from this strategy and talks about the historians whom she encountered and who helped her on her journey with friendship and respect.
The life and mysteries of Jeanne Barret – according to Dannielle Clode
Now let’s examine the life of Jeanne Barret, as Clode reconstructs it, regarding also the few primary sources available.
From La Comelle to Toulon-Sur-Arroux
Even the beginning of Barret’s life, her family background, has been a topic of debate. Clode dismisses theories that Barret may have been of noble birth and been taught reading and writing at a young age, since there is no evidence for it. Using parish books, Clode shows instead that Jeanne, born on the 27th of July 1740 in La Comelle, came from an illiterate peasant family, with no formal education and was surely unable to read or write until later in her life. Barret was orphaned at age fifteen, but despite that she was not alone because she had siblings with whom she stayed in close contact.
It is worth briefly explaining how Clode constructs her book quantitatively. In this chapter, where we meet little Jeanne for the first time, the reader gets three pages about the historical person and twelve about the author’s quest to gain this knowledge and reflections on the author’s own childhood and memories. This seems quite extreme, but later sections are more balanced. The reason for this might be that there was no information about Jeanne between the time she became an orphan and when she was pregnant at the age of 24.
In 1764, she traveled from Toulon-sur-Arroux, where she was working, to another village to officially announce her pregnancy. Such statements were mandatory to keep women from having abortions. The idea was, if the state knew about the child, its death or disappearance could not go unnoticed. Jeanne complied with that duty, but also made use of her right to not name a father. So, as Danielle Clode suggests, she had a secret to keep.
At that time she worked as housekeeper for the local physician of Toulon-sur-Arroux, named Philibert Commerson. The widowed doctor had a son with special needs and was a passionate naturalist, making expeditions into the surrounding area. During one of these expeditions, he had received a wound that never fully healed and therefore needed constant medical care. In explaining Jeanne’s work for Commersont, Clode presents the theory by Glynis Ridley  that Jeanne may have been an expert on local plant life, possibly a healer, and that she was the one who taught botanists about regional herbs. Clode dismisses this theory as wishful thinking and doubts that a famous collection of healing herbs in Commerson’s possession could have been cataloged by the illiterate Jeanne. What she does not dismiss, though, is the idea that Commersont may be the father of Jeanne’s child. This would explain the secrecy and also, why he kept her in his service although she was unmarried and pregnant.
From Toulon-Sur-Arroux to Paris
A further indication for an affair is that Commerson moved without any further explanation together with Jeanne from Toulon-Sur-Arroux to Paris. It is highly possible that they needed to avoid the small town rumors. In Paris, Jeanne’s child was born. She gave the boy to a foundling home, a rather common thing to do for a single mother in that time. But the unexpected move to Paris and her pregnancy had alerted Commerson’s brother-in-law, the priest of Toulon-Sur-Arroux. He wrote and asked if Commerson would not prefer an official second marriage to living in sin. But Commersont was unwilling to act on that suggestion.
In the following two years Commerson focused on his work as a naturalist in the broader sense. He was interested in plants, animals, natural history and many more topics. Writing letters, taking part in discussions and owning collections he, who already was a household name in the field, became even more renowned. It is most likely, according to Clode, that he or someone in his service taught Jeanne how to read and write. In any capacity, this skill would make her much more useful for him. But little is known about the years 1764-66. Clode takes this as an opportunity to portray the intellectual environment of Paris in the age of enlightenment as a world in which women took part as famous scientists as well as assistants. This problematic claim – the importance of women like Emilie Chatelet notwithstanding – leads her to the conclusion that Jeanne had found role-models and gained, through Commersont, access to inspiring circles. But, as she openly admits, there is no evidence for this.
In 1765 Philibert Commerson was invited to join an expedition planning to circumnavigate the world starting the following year as the official botanist of the king. An expedition like this was a matter of national concern in a time when kings rivaled for prestige and glory. So everybody knew the expedition would be well funded and an extraordinary opportunity to discover new plants, animals and maybe even islands to claim for France.
From Paris to Tahiti
Although it was the opportunity of a lifetime, Commersont was doubtful. He would not only require assistance to collect samples and catalog them, but also someone to care for his chronic wounds and sickness. So, it was a relief when he got the budget to pay for a valet as his personal assistant. Jeanne was more than highly qualified for the job, but the regulations of the French navy strictly prohibited women on board. If Commerson was to take Jeanne with him, she would have to be in disguise and under constant risk of discovery and punishment.
Therefore, as Clode points out, Commersont was not planning to take her with him originally. He even took care of her during his absence, making sure she would be paid to keep his household in order and look after his collections. In the case of his death, she was to be bequeathed a large sum of money, any female clothing in the household and most of the furniture. She was also to take care of his collections and prepare them to be sent to the Academie. This is a clear sign of her involvement in his work.
But for unknown reasons plans changed and Jeanne ended up in the port of Rochefort, dressed as a man who claimed to be from Geneva. Commerson, acting like he had never seen her before, hired her as his valet. Since it is downright impossible that he did not recognize her, Commersont and Barret must have decided to take the risk.
The fact that we don’t know how the two came to devise this plan and what their motivation was, has led to several speculations. For Clode it is without question that Jeanne joined her employer out of her own free will and was driven by the will to explore the world and take her fortune into her own hands. It needs to be said that Clode clearly makes this argument purely to advance her desired narrative without any proof.
The expedition comprised two ships. The newly built, slender frigate Boudeuse and the more bulky transport Etoile. Bougainville made the frigate his flagship, while the Commersont traveled on the Etoile. Clode offers very lively and captivating descriptions about life on board a ship of the time and on the complex social interactions there. She very well describes the immense amount of men, stuffed inside the wooden hull for months, the terrible hygienic conditions, the lack of fresh supplies, the different social worlds of the common sailors, officers and passengers.
Although there are no details known about Jeanne’s life on board – Commersont kept a journal but almost never mentions her – it was surely easier for her to pass as a young servant since there were several prepubescent boys serving masters on the Etoile. As valet to a passenger on an official mission from the king, she surely spent her time on the afterdeck and in the officer’s mess, although she and Commerson would not have had much privacy. Her duties, like all valets, would include sewing, washing and taking care of her master’s health. In her case she also had to help collect specimens and conserve them on board.
The first stop was the Rio de la Plata in South America. Here Jeanne was working hard, climbing mountains and hiking through the woods to collect samples. Several members of the crew mention her in journals as assistant to Commerson and sometimes even setting out alone. She was carrying rations, a rifle, a game-bag and paper. Her job was to shoot birds and other animals as well as to gently fold plant specimens between sheets of paper to press them on board. Soon she and Commersont had filled almost 25 boxes of samples and a lot of work to do to conserve all of them. The space they needed and the smells they produced made it impossible to continue sharing a small cabin with other scientists and officers. So the captain gave them his own cabin and therefore a private working and living space.
Next stops were Rio de Janeiro and the Magellan Strait. Due to Commerson’s deteriorating health, it became more and more Jeanne’s duty to collect samples. She shot, fished and collected plants and animals by the hundreds, on icy mountains as well as rocky shores and forests.
In the Pacific the crews of both ships finally made their way to the promised island paradise of Tahiti. Clode is very eager to use this as an opportunity to switch perspectives. For a while she focuses on Ahutoru, a young Tahitian nobleman who later accompanied Bougainville to France. She even claims that he was the one who first realized that Jeanne was a female, following the journal of the ship’s surgeon that contradicts the tale told by Bougainville about the next day.
According to the captain, when first entering the island, many natives surrounded the French and they all immediately saw Jeanne for what she was. Remarkably, Bougainville only mentions this event in a very short passage of his journal, treating it like it was not a big deal. Accordingly, several other members of the expedition simply mention it as a curiosity.
This lack of scandal is interesting and has led to many speculations, but Clode focuses on the continuation of the journey. Bougainville summoned Jeanne Barret and Commersont for a private talk. When questioned by the captain, Jeanne took all the blame and stated she had tricked the unknowing botanist. She did not confess that she knew him beforehand and Bougainville did not inquire further. Instead they talked about Commerson’s festering old wound and fever that would not heal. Finally, he decided that Jeanne Barret was to further fulfill her duty. She kept on working as a member of the expedition regardless of her gender, in men’s clothes and no formal punishment was given to anyone.
From Tahiti to Port Louis on Mauritius
The expedition headed west and tried in vain to reach the eastern shore of Australia. Unable to cross the Barrier Reefs, they sailed north, through the Coral Sea to the Spice Islands or Moluccas and further to modern day Indonesia. This part of the journey was very much a constant turmoil of hunger, sickness and thirst that went on for many weeks.
This is also the time in which two members of the expedition noted in their journals the discovery of Jeanne Barret’s femininity, contradicting Bougainvilles official version. The Etoile’s surgeon noted in his record that there had been suspicions since Tahiti but no final verdict thus far. So, when the expedition stopped at New Ireland, a group of sailors and valets wanted to find out for themselves and inspected Jeanne physically. The journal stays quite vague on this, but the biographer Glynis Ridley interpreted the passage as the description of a collective raping. Danielle Clode strongly argues against this, bringing up that no other source mentions this event and that Bougainville did not punish anyone for it. Since rape would be punishable by death and Jeanne Barret was still protected by Commerson, an official of the king, such a crime could not be without consequences, she argues. And finally, even though another member of the expedition, the Count of Nassau-Siegen, reports that Jeanne was found to be a woman in New Ireland, he does not mention any violence.
On the Moluccas, Commerson’s health deteriorated and so Clode assumed that all the new plant and animal samples collected there were the work of Jeanne. The collection grew immensely in Batavia, the capital of the Dutch Colony of Indonesia, where Commerson was able to trade for many samples.
It is striking that Bougainville did not force Jeanne to disembark and return to France as a passenger on a non-military vessel here. Instead he kept her on board and in service for now, till they reached the French colony of Mauritius, in that time known as the Isle-de-Ré. Mauritius was – politically speaking – the end of the expedition, since it had now returned to a French shore. Many people left the expedition here, especially the sick and wounded. So it was no surprise that Commerson stayed while a large part of his samples would travel to France. He might also have been motivated to stay by the Intendant of the Island who was an old friend of his. The Indentant needed a botanist to experiment with new plants on the island and offered a generous payment, quarters and working spaces. With Commerson bound to stay, Jeanne also left the expedition.
Now officially a female again, she took up the duties of nursing, housekeeping and assisting Commerson for a while. But soon they seem to have gone different ways. In 1770 Jeanne Barret, in her own right, became owner of two small houses in the city of Port Louis. She did not have to buy them, they were given to her for 20 years with the obligation to pay taxes on any income she earned. And creating income she did. While Commerson traveled to Madagascar and other places, enriching his collections, she received a license, one of only six in the city, to sell liquor and host Billiard games.
Being independent she was not much affected by Commerson’s death on one of his expeditions in 1773. Jeanne kept her business going and also traded on the side, making quite a fortune. On the 17th of May 1774 she married the 33 year old Veteran Jean Dubernat. During her research, Clode was able to find the marriage contract and to assess how successful a businesswoman Jeanne had been. Her husband brought some furniture and 4000 livres into the union. Quite a sum for a former non-commissioned officer. But Jeanne at the age of thirty four had no less than 20.000 livres to her name, a house, furniture and certain jewels. She also owned slaves. From all of her possessions the contract reserved 2/3 as her own and only 1/3 as common property of the marriage. So, Clode’s conclusion that Jeanne had become a successful and self-assured businesswomen seems right.
From Port Louis on Saint-Aulaye
But Jeanne and her husband did not want to stay in Mauritius. To be more precise, they decided to go to her husband’s hometown in Dordogne, where his family still lived. In 1775 they left Port Louis with valuable goods and a lot of cash. Their journey home led them to the Caribbean where Jeanne could have used her money to buy more goods and a passage home to France. In the end, they made the journey safely.
In October 1775 they bought a house in a street in Saint-Aulaye-de-Breuilh (today Saint-Antoine-de Breulhi) where several craftsmen had their shops. But this was just the first of two deals. Just three months later she made a final real estate deal and bought 12 hectares of Land with lodgings and paid 21.000 Livres for it in cash. So the couple was settled, close to Jean Dubart’s siblings, nieces and nephews. But Jeanne was still eager to ensure their financial future and wasted no time on that. In April 1776 she pushed her claim to Commerson’s testament. Since he never changed his last will, she received 600 livres, furniture and several other things. Finally, in 1785 she applied successfully for a royal pension for her services as a valet on a royal expedition and was granted 200 livres per year for the rest of her life. This sum, equal to other pensions paid, only illustrates how much money she had made in Mauritius.
Jeanne Barret died on the 5th of August 1807. Although she had no more children of her own, the boy she had in 1764 had died long ago, she lived as a wealthy landowner, surrounded by her husband’s family. This final point seems to be very important to Danielle Clode: to portray her heroine’s life with a happy ending.
Danielle Clode’s Jeanne Barret – a narrative in context
Finally, the narrative Danielle Clode was supporting with her version of Jeanne Barret’s life needs to be put into context. She herself does so in her book, comparing her way of telling the events with those of others. Clode tells her readers the story of a self-made businesswomen. A rags-to-riches adventure story that spans the globe, including sailing, shooting, ice-climbing, exotic animals, foreign cultures, dangers and a harmonious ending. But that is just her version.
Other biographers have told different tales. Older works – and those more focused on Commerson – portrayed her as nothing but a devoted servant, as a person with no agency who only followed others and did as she was told. For them, this was the ideal of how women should behave and how she could find her place in history.
Finally, the biographer Glynis Ridley, whom Clode quotes several times, went for a different angle . She made Jeanne Barret a victim of the patriarchal structures and manipulative men around her. In her version Jeanne did exceptional things because she had to, facing the resistance of the whole society and paid a high price for this when being gang-raped and fighting death for weeks afterwards
What we can take from looking at these very different approaches is that public history – like any history – is a product of its time and the minds that create it. History does not offer singular truths, but many. This basic fact is hard to sell in public history, though. Readers want a good story that happens to be true or at least possible. And Danielle Clode caters masterfully to those desires.
For a professional academic historian it is sometimes hard to be confronted with this very basic need for truth. We are very much accustomed to comparing and combining different interpretations or digging up new evidence that in the end only leads to new diverging interpretations. The idea that history could be “done” and be told according to the truth is strange to us.
But I do not want to finish this article leaving you with the impression that history is a never-ending debate club where all speculations are equally welcome. That would be absurd. History does not have a singular, simple “right”, but it has a lot of very simple and plain “wrongs”. If you invent stuff, ignore the evidence or disrespect theories thus far considered valid, you are not writing history, but simply a story.
What good public history does, what Danielle Clode does, is writing history and telling a story at the same time, never going against the sources, but presenting them in a captivating way. She may be wrong in claiming to have told “the” true story – but she told “a” true story very well.
 – Danielle Clode: In search of the woman who sailed the world; Sydney : Picador, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2020
 – Ridley, Glynis: The discovery of Jeanne Baret. A story of science, the high seas, and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe; New York, NY, Broadway Paperbacks, 2011