Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 20, 2020

The Woman Who Sailed the World (2020), by Danielle Clode

Danielle Clode is an award-winning author, biologist, and research fellow at Flinders University. As she tells us in this lively biography, Clode grew up on a boat, and her own experiences of sea voyages are an integral part of her quest to find out more about Jeanne Barret, the first woman to circumnavigate the world.

I’d never heard of Jeanne Barret until the Australian National Curriculum specified that Year 4 students were to study exploration, i.e. the great voyages during the Age of Exploration, including the exploration of Australia.  This topic hadn’t been in the curriculum at primary level for years and years, and there was next to nothing in the way of kid-friendly resources.  So I made a wiki for my students to use, which meant I needed to resurrect my own rusty knowledge of the topic, which dated from the days when we used coloured pencils to mark explorers’ sea routes onto a map of the world, using tracing paper to copy it from an atlas.  (My students had to show what they had learned with an iPad App called Explain Everything, using their fingers to trace the voyages across a map of the world and explaining where and why the ships stopped en route.  LOL Teachers are getting more cunning with ways to stop parents from doing their children’s projects.)

Anyway, I started my wiki with my own small library of books on the subject, which included:

For the rest i.e. Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, Vasco da Gama, Bartolomeu Dias et al, I relied on Wikipedia… and that was how I found Jeanne Barret.  At that time  she was a mere footnote, a curiosity, partly because not much was known about her, and partly because she was not a navigator or a ship’s captain, she wasn’t even a member of the crew.  Dressed as man among men who were apparently oblivious to her gender, she was valet and assistant to Philibert Commerson, the naturalist who sailed with Bougainville’s 1766 expedition to circumnavigate the world.  Indeed, it was easy to get the impression that she was notable only because of her gender.  After all, there are hundreds of nameless crew and servants who accompanied these celebrated voyages, and the only one most of us might know about is Syms Covington, made famous by Roger McDonald’s Mr Darwin’s Shooter (1999).

Turraea rutilans, originally named Baretia bonafidia by Commerson (Source: The Conversation)

Danielle Clode, however, sets the story straight, and it’s a remarkable achievement because of the paucity of records about Jeanne Barret.  She brings Jeanne out from behind Commerson’s shadow, demonstrating without any doubt that she was an equal partner in his collecting activities, and quoting Commerson’s own words to show how much he valued her contribution.  He named a plant after her, Baretia bonafidia*,  citing her role in its discovery:

‘This plant showing deceiving leaves or clothing is named for that heroic woman who changed into manly clothes and with the mind of a woman, traversed the whole globe, a thirst for knowledge as her cause, daring to cross land and sea with us unaware.  […] Equal to the armed hunter Diana and the sage and severe Minerva, she evaded ambush by wild animals and humans, not without risk to her life and virtue, unharmed and sound, inspired by some divine power’. (p.271)

He concluded his dedication like this:

She will be the first woman to have made the complete turn of the terrestrial globe, having travelled more than fifteen thousand leagues.  We are indebted to her heroism for so many plants never before harvested, all the industrious drying, so many collections of insects and shells, that is would be prejudicial for me, as for that of any naturalist, not to render her the deepest homage in dedicating this flower to her. (p.272)

But Jeanne was remarkable for other reasons too.  She was an example of social mobility: an illiterate peasant who rose to become bourgeois.

This is a rags-to-riches story — of a woman who not only sailed the world, but made her fortune and returned to France successful and independently wealthy. When she married Dubernat in the Saint-Louis chapel in Royal Street, alongside the tomb of Madame de Labourdonnais, it was Jeanne who was the catch.  The marriage was witnessed by five men, tradesmen and merchants of varying ages, a mix of young and old French arrivals in Mauritius.  Not servants or labourers, neither upper nor lower class, neither wealthy or poor: these were men more or less in charge of their own livelihoods and destinies.  Jeanne had joined the middle classes — the petite bourgeoisie. (p.291)

(In Search of) The Woman Who Sailed the World isn’t just about a really interesting woman, it’s also a fascinating quest.  Clode’s search for fragments about this woman who seemed to have left no trace of herself — no journal, no letters, no memorabilia — is a story in itself, enlivened by Clode’s understanding of ships and sailing and her expertise in natural history.

Danielle Clode has worked in zoos, museums and universities.  Her first book on French exploration, Voyages to the South Seas, won the 2007 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Non-fiction, and most recently The Wasp and the Orchid (see Theresa Smith’s review) was shortlisted for the 2019 National Biography Award.  You can find out more about her at her website.

I hope to see this book on shortlists too.

*Baretia bonafidia has since been renamed as Turraea rutilans.

Author: Danielle Clode
Title: (In Search of) The Woman Who Sailed the World
Publisher: Picador, (Pan Macmillan) 2020
ISBN: 9781760784959
Review copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Available from Fishpond: In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World or your favourite Indie bookshop. Yu can buy the eBook direct from the publisher.


Image credit: Turraea rutilans, originally named Baretia bonafidia by Commerson. Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris (France) Collection: Vascular plants (P) Specimen P00391569, at


  1. My thoughts immediately turned to Kay Cottee whom I read up on for my Independent Woman project though in the end she didn’t make the cut. I like meta-biographies about researching/writing the biography. I wonder if Barret knew she was the first woman to circle the globe.


    • Yes, I wondered that too. She was on Mauritius for a while, maybe it crossed her mind that if she could get home it would complete the circumnavigation, but then… if she had, and if it had been known to her and to others at the time, surely, you’d think that there would have been some fuss made of her?


  2. Another one for the TBR pile – this book sounds amazing. And ships. So count me in.


    • I think you’ll also find it interested because of the way she writes the bio as a kind of quest… that is, the author and her memories, experiences and knowledge are very much part of the book. The reader is never in any doubt about the line between what is known, what she would like to find, and her explicit assessments of what might have been but can’t be claimed as truth.
      For example, she talks about how Jeanne must not only have dressed successfully as a man, she must also have comported herself as a man. You know, the way a man strides on through and any woman in his path shuffles aside. The way they sit, taking up room. And so on. But there is no record of this, no commentary from anybody/ So the reader knows that it is an educated guess and nothing more.


  3. A great review here Lisa and thanks for the link up. Danielle Clode really is a terrific researcher and writer, I’m looking forward to reading this one.


  4. I have been intrigued by The wasp and the orchid, and would now like to read this too. I love non-fiction in which the author takes us on their journey with them, or, makes clear what the research makes clear and what it doesn’t.

    Sounds like there’s no suggestion of transgender in this book, just that she dressed as a man to be able to move in a man’s world? I love your description of Clode describing how she must have worked out how to move like a man, take up space like a man!


    • Rarely have I felt so sure that you will love this…and I also now that I will love the way you’ll deconstruct it in your review.
      I feel conflicted about the transgender issue: clearly they are as a group amongst the most marginalised in literature, and I can understand the impulse to assert their existence. As you say there’s no evidence of it, but there wouldn’t be, would there?


      • Ha ha Lisa. I love that you think that. Problem is I opted out of Pan Macmillan review copies because I didn’t want to fill out their questionnaire. So, with all the books I have been sent, and am struggling to read, I fear I won’t get to this one.

        Yes, I can understand that too, Lisa, life is really tough for them. But I just can’t see from what I’ve read, including the naturalist’s quotes you share, that she was anything more than one of the many women from previous centuries who dressed as men to live a freer life. There are so many of them who did this, and my guess is that that’s all most were. Some may have been transgender but I don’t think we can really say they are if we have no evidence?


        • *chuckle* We are of one mind when it comes to filling out publisher’s questionnaires. I’ve never done any of them. I am not an employee…
          Publishers or publicists who would like me to review their books send me notice of upcoming books and if I’m interested I request a review copy by email. That’s the way I do it, and if that doesn’t suit them, well, I have plenty of books to read.
          Yes, I think you are right about a lack of evidence, I just feel for people who seem to be invisible in that way, and we know there must have been some because it’s a natural part of the full spectrum of humanity.


          • Yes that’s what I do too, but Pan MacMillan, a year or two ago , asked me to complete a questionnaire and I explained that I didn’t want to. I haven’t gone on their mailing list so I don’t see their lists. I also, I have to say, don’t always have time to read all the emails that come – or I read them too late! That makes me sad if I then see a book I’d like to have read!

            Yes, it is tough for those invisible people because as you say they have always been part of our humanity.


            • LOL I think I just ignored that request!
              The interesting thing about PM is that their emails are mostly a scattergun type of thing promoting the kind of books I’m not even remotely interested in, and yet they publish some really good stuff under the Picador imprint which I don’t discover until I get Readings Monthly…
              What drives me crazy is the nagging I get from the interns…”just checking you’ve received the book we sent you unsolicited and when are you scheduling the review?” I know they’re just doing their best, and they’re probably not even being paid for it, but it’s the tone of it that grates, as if sending the book (that doesn’t correspond to anything in my review policy) entitles them to expect that I will drop everything and do their marketing for them!
              But I’m not really complaining, I’ve got some lovely books to review at the moment, including what came today: Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi from Penguin Random House. It is going to take all my self control to read the ones I’ve already got first:)

              Liked by 1 person

  5. […] liked include Drawn From Life, the autobiography of the expat Australian artist Stella Bowen; and The Woman Who Sailed the World, by Danielle Clode, which tells the astonishing story of the first woman to circumnavigate the […]


  6. […] The Woman Who Sailed the World (2020) by Danielle Clode […]


  7. […] In Search of the Woman who Sailed the World by Danielle Clode (SA) (Pan MacmillanAustralia), see my review• White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad (NSW) (Melbourne University Publishing)• Yornadaiyn […]


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