‘Yesterday I checked on board the Étoile a rather peculiar event. For some time, a rumour had been circulating on the two ships that Mr de Commerçon’s [sic] servant, named Baré, was a woman. His structure, his caution in never changing his clothes or carrying out any natural function in the presence of anyone, the sound of his voice, his beardless chin, and several other indications had given rise to this suspicion and reinforced it’

(De Bougainville’s Journal, 28–29 May 1768).

De Bougainville recruited three scientists for his expedition: the engineer and cartographer Charles Routier de Romainville, the astronomer Pierre Antoine Véron, and the Royal Botanist and Naturalist Philibert Commerson to collect botanical specimens.

Commerson’s appointment allowed for him to bring a personal servant. He ‘smuggled’ his 25-year-old female companion ‘Madame Bonnefoy’ or Jeanne Baret (Baré) on board. Disguised as a man ‘Jean’ assisted Commerson with the collection, preparation and documentation of the plant specimens.

It wasn’t until they reached Tahiti that Jeanne’s gender was discovered. The Tahitians were as curious about the white-skinned visitors as the French were about the Tahitians and their customs. Ahu-toru, the Tahitian whom de Bougainville later agreed to take back to France, suspected her to be a mapou (transvestite). Jeanne admitted to de Bougainville that she was indeed a woman. He complimented her for her enterprise and behaviour on board, although he could not condone Jeanne’s breach of navy regulations.

Commerson and Jeanne Baret left the expedition when they reached the Île de France (Mauritius), perhaps to avoid any awkwardness that de Bougainville might have with his superiors when he landed back in France.

Mad lla Bare, Engraving

‘MAD LLA BARÉ’, Engraving, artist unknown. From Navigazioni de Cook pel grande oceano e itorno al globo, Volume 2, 1816, Sonzogono e Comp, Milano.

Reproduced courtesy of the State Library of NSW.