Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lady Pirates: Discovered By The Locals

In all fairness and honesty, today's woman at sea wasn't really a pirate. She did sail with the French Navy, which puts her more in the privateer category since all standing navies have a penchant for what their enemies would surely call - at the very least - privateering. But she wasn't a pirate. Sue me. I have these titles for a reason and just you wait. Her story is both fascinating and funny.

Jeanne Bare (Baret, Barret or Bonnefoy) was born, by her own statement, in Burgundy, France on July 27,1740. We know very little about her youth since it was really only the then shocking circumstances of her "discovery" as a woman aboard ship that made her a mini-celebrity. She must have been an unusual young woman, though, because some time in her 20's she hooked up with a noted French naturalist, Philibert Commerson (or Commercon). Jeanne became Commerson's assistant, and it seems a naturalist in her own right, and the two became lovers as well.

In 1766, Commerson was tapped by Captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville to join his expedition to circumnavigate the globe and explore the great South Sea in particular. At the time, France was keen to colonize the East and Polynesia and Micronesia fit those plans like a glove. Commerson agreed to join the adventure aboard La Boudeuse (which, interestingly, loosely translates as the pouter or sulky one), signing on as naturalist. In this somewhat exalted position he was allowed an assistant/servant, and the choice must have seemed obvious to him and Jeanne. She put on men's clothes and joined him aboard La Boudeuse.

Joan Druett dedicates an entire chapter in her She Captains: Heriones and Hellions of the Sea to the European obsession with dress as a gender marker. She points out that simply slipping into trousers could frequently fool the European eye into imagining a woman was a man. She goes on to reason that, since there were women aboard European ships from the very beginning of what we now think of as national navies, no one was really looking too closely at the quiet kid in the corner with the high voice and lack of stubble. This must have been the case with Jeanne for, although some of her mates noted that she would not "shift [her] clothes nor join us at the head", there wasn't really a whole lot of suspicion about her gender.

In fact, Jeanne's Captain later testified that she had a reputation for "courage and strength". She evidently blossomed into a gifted botanist on the expedition, and was unafraid to join Commerson in the sometimes gritty and even dangerous work of collecting specimens from the various places where La Boudeuse anchored.

Jeanne's masquerade finally fell apart not due to any shipboard indiscretion - she appears to have been far too careful for that - but due to the different perception of people who didn't trouble themselves with skirts and trousers. Anchored off Tahiti, La Boudeuse's crew was given shore leave. The white skinned Frenchmen, fascinating to the locals, were readily accepted by the Tahitian women and sexual favors were granted per custom. When Commerson and Bare came ashore to begin their explorations, the Tahitian men immediately recognized Jeanne as a woman. They were frankly surprised when she refused to grant them the same hospitality that their women were granting the French sailors and they protested to Captain de Bougainville.

With the cat out of the bag, there was no going back. Commerson and Bare came clean about their ruse and de Bougainville eventually had to separate Jeanne from his crew, some of whom seemed to be just as outraged at her lack of generosity as the Tahitians.

In the end, Commerson and Bare left La Boudeuse before the expedition returned to France, some historians speculate to avoid embarrassing de Bougainville. The naturalists were left at the French colony on Isle de France, modern day Mauritius, and both fell into obscurity thereafter. Some sources state that Jeanne Bare may have been the first woman to sail aboard a vessel that circumnavigated the globe, but the fact that she and her lover left the ship at Mauritius puts that in question to my mind.

And then there's the fact that we just don't know, as I've always said, how many women were aboard any given ship when history was made. Maybe there was a woman with Drake or Vespucci or any of the others who rounded the Earth before the 1700's. Or maybe not. But Jeanne Bare's story opens the window for speculation just that much more.


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And welcome back to the blogesphere. Interesting post. Isn't it funny how these things always degenerate into sex and sexuality? We humans sure are strange little monkeys that way... I'm just saying.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! What you say seems to be especially true when a sexually strident culture - where the roles of men and women are virtually set in concrete - meets a more fluid, lassez faire kind way of being. This is a good example of that, I think. Before the Tahitians were complaining about Bare, none of her shipmates gave it two thoughts. And I don't believe for a moment that no one figured out she was a woman. Somebody besides Commerson knew, I'm sure.