National Library of Australia - Home page
NLA News - home January 2000 Volume X Number 4
Voyaging Through Strange Seas

Hobart Town, Van Deimen's Land 1828
R.G.Reeve (fl.1811-1837) Hobart Town, Van Diemen's Land 1828 handcoloured aquatint; plate mark; 37.4 x 64.4cm Rex Nan Kivell Collection; from the Pictorial Collection

Honore Forster considers some early women voyagers
The experiences of the four remarkable women travellers who are the subject of this article span a fascinating period of discovery and change in the Pacific region between 1768 and 1851. Forsaking conventional domesticity, they chose, for a variety of reasons, to undertake long and uncomfortable voyages by sailing ship across a hazardous ocean. Records of their remarkable ventures are to be found in the National Library's collections.

The first western woman to see, and sail across, the Pacific was Jeanne Baré, a member of the French explorer Bougainville's round-the-world expedition of 1766-69. (Her name is sometimes spelt Baret or Barret, and she called herself Bonnefoy on board ship.) Not surprisingly, she was at pains to conceal the fact that she was a woman when joining the strictly all-male naval vessel L'Etoile and it was not until the French ships reached Tahiti in 1768 that her true gender was revealed—though there had been for some time considerable suspicion and excited speculation among the crew that the young 'valet' was in fact a female. It was remarked upon that he grew no beard and was never seen to wash, nor remove his strangely voluminous clothing. The Tahitians soon recognised Baré's sex and made it known in no uncertain terms. Bougainville took a pragmatic and generous view of the matter, and pardoned the youthful 'Bonnefoy' who, we are told, finished her voyage 'very agreeably'. It is not altogether clear whether her employer, Philibert Commerson, 'doctor, botanist and naturalist of the King', had known of the deception. We do know that Baré, who was described by Bougainville as 'neither plain nor pretty' and about 26 years old, was an orphan from Brittany whose curiosity had been aroused by news of the planned voyage round the world.

Part of a Bay in Tahiti
Part of a Bay in Tahiti, South Seas c.1850
watercolour; 18.2 x 26.3cm
Rex Nan Kivell Collection;
from the Pictorial Collection

Baré proved herself an adept and courageous botaniser, and regularly went ashore with Commerson collecting specimens. Commerson (1727-73), whose achievements as a botanist have been greatly underrated, was generous towards his helper: he dedicated the plant genus Baretia to her (this includes a species with ambiguous sexual characteristics). In 1785, when Jeanne Baré was living quietly in the French countryside as Madame Dubernat, a widow, she was granted a government pension in recognition of her work as Commerson's assistant. Bougainville's regard for the 'indefatigable Baré' probably helped obtain this official largesse. The exact date of her death is unknown.

This modest French country girl who was the first woman to visit the Pacific and circumnavigate the world left no personal record of her adventure. But some of Baré's fellow voyagers, officers on the Bougainville expedition, wrote about her in their ship-board journals and these, together with later research about her life, can be read in Etienne Taillemite's fascinating study, Bougainville et ses compagnons autour du monde 1766-1769 (Bougainville and His Companions around the World) (2 vols; Paris, 1977). Bougainville's observations on the Baré affair appear in his Voyage round the World (London, 1772). They conclude with this wry comment:

It must be owned that if the two ships had been wrecked on any desert isle . Baré's fate would have been a very singular one.

Early in the next century another young Frenchwoman set sail across the Pacific, determined to accompany her husband on a dangerous and lengthy voyage. Strong-willed and brave, with a lively and enquiring mind, she proved to be an ideal helpmate, and a perceptive observer. Her name was Rose de Freycinet (1794-1832). She too, like Jeanne Baré, went to sea dressed as a man, though in more elegant attire, and only briefly. She also had plants named after her. An outline of her remarkable story has already appeared in a 1996 issue of National Library of Australia News ('The Captain's Wife Stows Away' (vol. VIII, no. 3), written by Marc Serge Rivière in conjunction with the Library's 1996 publication of his book, A Woman of Courage: The Journal of Rose de Freycinet on her Voyage Round the World 1817-1820. This contains the first English translation of Rose de Freycinet's original diary, as well as supplementary letters and information about the author and the Freycinet family. The National Library also has two copies of the beautiful 1927 French edition of the diary, edited by Charles Duplomb.

The City of Auckland N.Z.
Joseph Jenner Merret (1816-1854)
The City of Auckland N.Z.
watercolour; 19 x 31.3cm
Rex Nan Kivell Collection;
from the Pictorial Collection

Some mystery surrounds my next Pacific voyager. Although her journal was published in Paris in the 1850s, an English translation did not appear in London until 1944. A slim volume, in wartime austerity binding, it is now a rarity. The title page reads as follows: 'The Journal of Madame Giovanni by Alexandre Dumas. Translated from the French Edition (1856) by Marguerite E. Wilbur.' Under its original French title, Journal d'une Parisienne, this is not a well-known work by Dumas (1802-1870), and is not included in the collected French editions of his work. Dumas' role, he claimed, was merely to write down Madame Giovanni's narrative for her, while 'scrupulously' sticking to the facts and personal judgments in the notes and documents supplied to him by the 'intrepid traveller'. The Journal first appeared in Paris magazines in 1855, before publication in book form in 1856. Popular demand led to later French, Belgian and German editions.

Dumas' book described a series of voyages undertaken by a newly-married 20-year-old Frenchwoman and her Italian husband, a merchant. Accompanied by a piano and two armchairs, the couple boarded the first of many sailing vessels at Mauritius, thereafter visiting Hobart, Sydney, Auckland, Tahiti, the Marquesas and New Caledonia en route to their final destination of gold-rush California and Mexico. This epic journey, which also included a trip to Hawaii from California, took 10 years to complete. The vivacious Madame Giovanni was a keen observer, interested in everything and everybody. Convict society in Hobart, high life in Sydney, Maori and European behaviour in Auckland, Tahiti's Queen Pomare IV and the Hawaiian King Kamehameha were all subjects for her discerning eye. She did not dwell only on her personal experiences, but offered firm views on such subjects as the baneful influence of missionaries in the Pacific and Britain's rigid rule over her colonies. As a patriotic Frenchwoman, she was happy to see France become Tahiti's protector, and was charmed by the Tahitian way of life in an 'earthly paradise'.

Pomare, Queen of Tahiti
George Baxter (1804-1867)
Pomare, Queen of Tahiti, the Persecuted Christian surrounded by her Family at the Afflictive Moment when the French Forces were Landing
engraving; 26.3 x 22.6cm
Rex Nan Kivell Collection;
from the Pictorial Collection

It seems that there was a real person lurking behind Madame Giovanni. She was Gabrielle-Anne Cisterne de Courtiras (1804-72), who married an officer of the Napoleonic nobility, E.-J. Du Poilloüe de Saint-Mars, in about 1824; by 1835 they had separated-but she retained her title. To earn much-needed money, she took up writing, and under the pseudonym 'Countess Dash' wrote numerous best-selling historical romances and other popular pieces. She became a member of Dumas' literary circle, preparing and researching articles for him. The National Library has a microfiche copy of her witty and insightful guide to marriage, Le livre des femmes (The Women's Book; 3rd ed., Paris, 1864). The Countess de Saint-Mars was clearly a woman of keen intellect, socially aware, with an elegant writing style. The question is: did she really sail across the Pacific and later pass on her reminiscences to Dumas for The Journal of Madame Giovanni?

A thorough examination of the text shows that although dates are left vague, the significant events described—all between about 1843 and 1851-are historically correct, and the famous personages encountered are credibly, often warmly, portrayed, suggesting close personal contact. The Countess de Saint-Mars would in fact have been in her 40s during her travels, and was never married to a Venetian merchant; nevertheless it is feasible that she personally visited at least some of the places described in the Journal. There is, of course, the possibility that the Countess de Saint-Mars in her role as journalist-researcher for Dumas made use of a variety of up-to-date printed sources and recent eye-witness accounts, and that Dumas then transformed her research into the highly successful Journal. In the end, we have to accept that, while it does contain a lot of reliable information, there is much that is clearly fictional. Overall, however, the Journal is a very engaging work. The narrator's droll and penetrating appraisal of various levels of Australian society in the 1840s as seen through French eyes make the discovery of this neglected curiosity especially worthwhile to Australian readers.

The last woman traveller in this survey, Viennnese Ida Pfeiffer (1797-1858), was one of the most popular and admired authors of her day, foreshadowing in many ways the globe-trotting female travel writers to come. She wrote five books about her remarkably wide-ranging journeys, all of them translated very quickly into English. Her first, about a trip to the Holy Land, appeared in 1844. Ida Pfeiffer's work attracted the attention of scientists and geographers, and in 1856 she was made an honorary member of the Geographical

Societies of Paris and Berlin. The Prussian king presented her with a gold medal, the Austrian government gave her monetary assistance, and she won praise from Alexander von Humboldt, the famous naturalist and explorer. Pfeiffer, a small, energetic and down-to-earth woman who unhesitatingly faced danger and disease on her travels, claimed that she wanted above all things to add to the stock of human knowledge.

Tahitians Presenting Fruit to Bougainville
Tahitians Presenting Fruits to Bougainville Attended by his Officers 1768?
pencil and watercolour drawing:
9.2 x 6.9cm
Rex Nan Kivell Collection:
from the Pictorial Collection

Surprisingly, perhaps, Pfeiffer and the worldly Countess de Saint-Mars share some common ground, apart from the popularity of their books. Both women took up writing as a way of making money when they lost the financial support of husbands; and they both wrote about Tahiti in the 1840s.

Ida Pfeiffer's Tahitian visit is described in Eine Frauenfahrt um die Welt. Reise von Wien nach Brasilien, Chili, Otaheiti [Tahiti], China, Ostindien [East Indies], Persien und Kleinasien [Asia Minor] (published in Vienna in 1850). Several·English translations followed. The National Library's copy, A Woman's Journey round the World . is the undated (1850?) edition, published in London, with an unnamed translator, which went into at least six more editions. Other popular translations appeared in the 1850s.

The island of Tahiti is described in chapter 7, 'The Voyage from Valparaiso to Canton, via Tahiti'. The island's wild natural beauty fascinated the Austrian writer, and the most interesting sections of the chapter are those in which she describes her hazardous journeys into the mountainous interior. Perhaps less appealing to modern readers is her stern judgement of the Tahitians themselves, whom she dismissed as lazy and immoral, even depraved. Tahiti had just become a French protectorate when she arrived there in 1847 (shortly before the visit of Madame Giovanni), and she did not believe the French would improve matters.

Ida Pfeiffer was a world traveller and a seasoned travel writer, unlike the other women mentioned in this survey, but she shared a questing and courageous spirit with those Pacific voyagers. This comment in her preface to A Woman's Voyage is revealing:

Many will perhaps believe that I undertook so long a journey from vanity. I can only say in answer to this . that nothing but a natural wish for travel, a boundless desire of acquiring knowledge, could ever overcome the hardships, privations and dangers to which I have been exposed.

Honore Forster is an independent writer and researcher living in Canberra. She has a long-standing interest in the history of the Pacific

Return to January NLA News | Return to NLA News Entry
NLA News - home

To order a particular issue of the NLA News e-mail nlasales@nla.gov.au
or join the Friends of the National Library of Australia and receive a copy each month by mail.