The Bougainvillea on our balcony has begun to flower. The west-facing balcony makes it very hard to photograph the delicately textured white bracts which surround the tiny flowers. In the morning the back-light presents a terrible contrast, and in the evening the setting sun glares into the lens. But I have time, so eventually I’ll find a way to solve this problem. While reading about Bougainvillea, one of the first interesting things I found was that it was initially described, as I expected, during Bougainvillea’s circumnavigation of the world which started in 1766 CE. What I had not known was the interesting story of the two botanists on board: Philibert Commerson, Royal botanist, and his long time assistant, Jeanne Baret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world.
Baret disguised herself as a man, since women were forbidden on French navy ships of that time by a royal ordinance. It is believed that the first samples of this thorny flowering vine were collected by her when the ships docked in Rio de Janeiro. Baret’s circumnavigation of the earth was interrupted after reaching Tahiti, when she was discovered to be a woman. Baret and Commerson were forced to disembark in Mauritius, where they lived until his death. Eventually Baret married and moved back to France in 1775, completing the circling of the globe. Commerson had, in the mean time, written about her as the first woman voyager around the world. On her return to France she was tried by a naval court, and, under the influence of Bougainvillea, was acquitted with honor, being described as `femme extraordinare’ and granted a pension of 200 livres a year.
An article by Londa Schiebinger in Endeavour and a book by Glynis Ridley have details of Jeanne Baret’s story.