Despite regulations forbidding their presence on naval sailing ships, some women are known to have accompanied their husbands to sea.

Few can have been as bold, though, as Jeanne Baret who embarked disguised as the valet of Philibert Commerson, botanist on the voyage of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville.

For 10 months she concealed her feminine needs, flattened her chest by wrapping her breasts in rags and did her share of physical labour.

After her sex was discovered she was allowed to continue around South America, across the Pacific via Tahiti to Papua New Guinea, Indonesia and finally to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean where they both left Bougainville's expedition.

Commerson's life is easily reconstructed from his letters and diaries but that of his lover has to be deduced from his writings and those of Bougainville and others who left accounts of the voyage. Commerson, educated, middle-class, was probably a rather unpleasant fellow, but Baret, who became his highly intelligent and fortunately literate servant after his wife died, sounds like a Trojan.

A chronic leg injury restricted his physical activity and it was largely thanks to Baret's assistance that he was able to collect and send back more than 6000 botanical specimens.

In naming a plant after Baret he wrote of her "crossing with agility the highest mountains of the Strait of Magellan and the deepest forests of the southern islands ... We are indebted to her heroism ... " She looked after him as a servant, kept his collection in order and helped him with its cataloguing.

That was not all. Bougainville's expedition suffered appallingly from scurvy and malnutrition. "There have been many arguments over where Hell is situated," he wrote. "Truly we have found it."

John Dunmore's writings on the history of French navigation in the Pacific are prolific and well known and have earned him recognition in France where he is a knight of the Legion d'Honneur and an officer of the Ordre des Palmes Academiques.

Unlike the more fluid style of his other works, here he writes with a rather stilted formality that leads him to make occasional naive comments - for example, that Jakarta's present population would have been inconceivable when it was the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company. Or when he takes a semi-novelistic tack and claims to know what Baret was thinking.

The book's strength consists in the interest it compresses into fewer than 200 pages: a potted social history of late 18th-century France, the politics of the spice trade, a brief history of the Falkland Islands, and absorbing descriptions of life at sea - all with a scholar's attention to footnotes and sources.

Baret is inevitably a shadowy figure whose extraordinary courage we can only guess at.

Heritage Press


* Pat Baskett is an Auckland journalist and writer.