It is not often that I get a chance to read a book ordered by one of the academics. However, I decided to give this book a read as it is based on the story of a remarkable woman and it came highly recommended by the academic. It is always so rewarding to have academics who have such a passion for the books they order, and who are willing to share the knowledge of their reads.
The central character of this true story is Jeanne Baret, and the setting is mid-eighteenth century France. Baret, a peasant from the Loire valley was an illiterate herb woman, who was well-read in the oral tradition of the healing properties of plants. Just to give you an idea of the fate of the peasantry during this period, Ridley (2011) states that the local manor “owned the collection of rotting wooden shacks where his workers slept, owned the land and the produce they harvested.” Barets’s parents knew little of the outside world and nor did she.
Baret’s path crossed with that of the aristocrat and botanist Philibert Commerson. Soon she became his mistress and housekeeper. Commerson was offered a chance to circumnavigate the world for a period of three years to study, explore, and collect plant life wherever the ships anchored. He needed an assistant, and the only person qualified to do so was Baret. However, according to French law, women were prohibited from being on board naval ships. Baret therefore disguised herself as a teenage boy by having linen bandages wound tightly around her upper body to flatten her chest. Imagine the discomfort she must have endured. Rumours concerning the presence of a woman on board did circulate and her identity was eventually revealed towards the end of her journey. Baret worked tirelessly and performed tasks that would have outdone any man. Perhaps her best known discovery was that of the bougainvillea, but the plant was named after the expedition’s commander, rather than her. Throughout the book we see the egostistical urges of Commerson to name species after him rather than Baret.
Today not a single genus or plant species commemorates the work of this incredible botanist. This book at least does justification to her work. Baret is also credited with being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
The book is extensively researched and although one can be caught up in the historical nitty-gritty, it is still worth a read.
Ridley, G. (2011). The discovery of Jeanne Baret : a story of science, the high seas, and the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. New York: Broadway Paperbacks.