Jeanne Baret was born in 1740 to very poor parents living in an agricultural community in France. Earning money only when their labor was needed, Baret’s parents often did not have food for their small family. Young Jeanne was destined for a life of poverty and near starvation. However one day, she crossed paths with botanist Philibert Commerson.
Commerson was a young, over-confident botanist who became interested in the medicinal value of plants after he was bit by a rapid dog and monks nursed him back to health with their herbal remedies. When Baret and Commerson crossed paths that fateful day in the field, Jeanne was in her 20s and was a knowledgeable herb woman. She answered Commerson’s questions about medicinal plants and taught him what he wanted to know. Over time, a relationship developed and this relationship set the stage for an adventure neither could have ever imagined.
In 1765, Commerson was chosen to travel with Commander Louis-Antoine de Bougainville on an expedition that was to last three years. Jeanne joined the expedition not as Jeanne, but as “Jean”, Commerson’s young male assistant. Baret went to great lengths to hide her identity and to pull her share of the workload on the Etoile, a storeship measuring 102 feet long and 33 feet wide occupied by 116 men. She collected plants, animals, and documented specimens the way a field assistant should, in spite of growing curiosity about young Jean’s less than male-like male features.
Author Glynis Ridley tells the story of Commerson, Baret, and the famous philosophers and naturalists of the Enlightenment Period in a well-researched and captivating saga based on the handwritten journals of people who traveled with the expedition and on the published accounts of 18th-century naval officers. Ridley transports readers back to the 1700’s and through engaging storytelling, provides readers with insight into the harsh living conditions of the 18th-century and the unfortunate laws defining women and their roles in society. Through her well-documented tale about Bougainville’s expedition, Ridley is able to recreate the tension generated by the spice trade and competing European countries as they raced to establish colonies across the globe.
The Discovery of Jeanne Baret is a lesson in world history, geography, oceanography, anthropology, and botany that is not to be missed.
Author Event with Glynis Ridley
We owe much of our understanding about biodiversity to early explorers. Learn more about botanist and herb woman, Jeanne Baret, in a live conversation with author Glynis Ridley on Saturday April 16, 2011. This live one-hour event will occur in the Discussion forum on ArtPlantae’s Facebook page at 11 am PST / 2 pm EST. You’re all invited!
UPDATE (4/21/11): Read interview with Glynis Ridley
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