Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What If She Had Kept a Journal?

I've been writing about Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.  She accomplished this feat disguised as a man for most of the two-year voyage.  Her story has been told by Glynis Ridley in her book, "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe".  As I explained in previous posts, this tale was compiled based primarily on  journals kept by six men who also made the journey, including Philibert Commerson, the expedition's naturalist, who was Baret's lover and employer.

I finished the book last night.  I thought the story was an intriguing one and that the author did a thorough job of researching the details of the voyage as well as other information providing insights into Baret's experience.  But in the end, the reader is left unsatisfied because we never hear from Baret herself.  Her lover, Commerson, is circumspect in his journal descriptions of Baret, perhaps to avoid incriminating himself (it was against naval law for women to sail on ships).  He apparently pretended not to know that Baret was a woman and maintained this charade in his written record of the journey.  Ridley rightly expresses disbelief regarding Commerson's claim of ignorance, given that Baret had been his housekeeper and lover... and had borne his son... prior to the voyage.  The logical conclusion is that Commerson and Baret conspired to have her accompany him as his male valet and field assistant and that Commerson was careful not to leave any written record that hinted at their deception.

Ridley further speculates that Baret did not keep a journal because that would certainly have left a written record of their deception and possibly have led to arrest and punishment.  The assumption here is that Baret would have had to talk about the fact that she was really a woman in such a journal and/or reveal herself to be a woman in expressing her innermost thoughts.  I do not agree with this assessment.  I think it would have been perfectly reasonable for Baret to keep a journal, even talking about her experiences, feelings, and insights, without revealing her gender.  She was dressing, speaking, and behaving like a man.  It doesn't seem so far-fetched to think that she could also write like a man (or at least in a genderless manner).  I would even speculate that such writing might even further help to maintain her disguise as a man, especially given the widespread belief at the time that women were intellectually inferior to men.  

A notebook was found with Commerson's other papers, which Ridley speculates was Baret's compilation of herbal remedies written prior to the voyage.  So if Baret was the author, she was accustomed to keeping detailed records and descriptions of things that interested her.  Another point is that Baret spent much of the voyage isolated in the tiny cabin that she shared with Commerson. Perhaps she spent some of the time cataloging the collection of specimens or reading, but she certainly had plenty of time and opportunity to write down her thoughts.  If not during the voyage, she had opportunity during several years she spent on Maritius before she was able to return to France. 

It's a different matter, however, whether Baret could have managed to protect such a journal and avoid its discovery or loss during all those years.  She would either have had to hide it on the ship or take it with her on field expeditions.  She was known to carry pistols with her, even when on board the ship, to protect herself from the rowdy seamen.  She could have easily secreted a journal under her bulky clothing or in the various boxes and collecting gear while on field excursions (I keep thinking about that plant press she struggled to carry everywhere....what a great hiding place!).  Baret was eventually attacked and unmasked by some of the seamen (unidentified) while they were ashore on New Ireland.  Ridley speculates that Baret was also raped--based on the descriptions in other journals.  It's easy to imagine that any journal she might have been carrying would have also been found and possibly destroyed.

Whatever the real story, there is no existing record of Baret's experiences written in her own words. What a shame.  What could she have told us about how she survived, what amazing things did she see and experience, and what motivated her to embark on this expedition in the first place?  I like to think that she did write a journal, but kept it private.  Maybe it was destroyed or taken from her during the rape?  Perhaps it's buried somewhere at her last port of call? Perhaps she took it with her when she returned to France and it was thrown out when she died?

The point I want to make here is that it's unlikely that Jeanne Baret fully recognized the significance of her adventure or that later generations might want to know about her experiences--and especially how she managed to survive in such a hostile environment.  Baret was succeeded by female explorers who fully documented their expeditions. Mary Kingsley is one excellent example.  Today, we have the means to describe our own adventures in the field and the laboratory and have our words read by others around the world--at the click of a mouse.  What would Baret have thought of such a thing?

I don't know the statistics of how many women scientists and naturalists write about their experiences, but my impression is that it is a very small percentage (I personally know no female colleagues who have a blog and only one who writes stories about her experiences).  But this is one way for women to make their voices heard and to inspire young girls to consider science as a career. 

Who knows? What you write about today may influence future generations or even be important to future historians.

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