BBC World Histories Magazine

The first known circumnavigation by a woman

In April 1768, two French ships, the Boudeuse and the Étoile, rode at anchor off the coast of Tahiti. Until that time, France had been unaware of the existence of the volcanic Polynesian island that later gained a reputation as an earthly paradise, but the 330 officers and men taking their first shore leave in nearly a year would have appreciated its natural – and human – beauty.

The two ships constituted an expedition, under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, to make the first French circumnavigation of the globe and to find natural resources of use to an imperial power. Bougainville’s published account of the voyage is careful to emphasise French shyness in the face of Tahitian sexual freedom – looking with desire rather than acting upon it. Yet one woman saw danger in the looks that met her gaze, and screamed an appeal to her countrymen to save her. To the wonder of the French, though, that woman was not a Tahitian islander but one of their own crew. As Bougainville later recounted: “They have discovered that the servant of Monsieur Commerson, the doctor, was a girl who until now has been taken for a boy.”

That servant of expedition naturalist Philibert Commerson (or Commerçon) was Jeanne

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