In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World
There had been an undercurrent of speculation aboard the Étoile about smooth-faced Jean Barret, the stoic and hard-working assistant and personal valet to the ship’s naturalist-doctor, Philibert Commerson. In April 1768, after the ship moored off Tahiti, a local man, immediately perceiving what the French crew had only guessed, cried out, “Ayenne!” – “Woman!” Jeanne Barret’s secret was out.
But like so many other women “in places where they were not supposed to be”, which in maritime history includes stowaways, admirals, pirates, whalers and sailors, Barret drifted “in and out of official records” – even though she was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Her life, as adventurous, brave and remarkable as any man’s, barely rated a footnote in various accounts of the voyage. Working side by side with Commerson under gruelling conditions, she made an enormous contribution to his landmark collection of botanical and zoological specimens, a contribution that has gone mostly unacknowledged, including by Commerson, who was almost certainly her lover as well. One of the only records of Barret’s own words comes from the journal of the expedition’s commander, who, once it was common knowledge that Barret was a woman, asked what had motivated her to take such a risk. She replied that the idea of sailing around the world had “piqued her interest”.
Author and biologist Danielle Clode grew up in South Australia, with three years living on the boat her parents built and sailed up the east coast to Queensland. She still wakes sometimes in her bed when the wind is high, “heart pounding, hand itching to release the cold metal of brake on the anchor chain”. Obsessed with the sea, and having first studied psychology and anthropology, Clode was naturally drawn to Barret’s story. In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World is Clode’s 10th book, and in it she writes with thrillingly precise prose about everything from the rigging of ships to the migration of eels, 18th-century port life and the effects of climate change.
She also dispenses with the myth that before European exploration the Pacific was “unknown” or “unmapped”, noting the great Polynesian sailors, navigators and explorers, and relating the story of Ahutoru, the islander prince who saw through Barret’s disguise and later became “the first Tahitian to discover Europe”. An artful weave of maritime adventure, memoir, natural history and observation, this terrific book is an exploration of worlds we should never have lost.
Picador, 384pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Danielle Clode, In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World".
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