[This is an excerpt from an ebook published today – ‘The Hungry Jungle: The Story of Plants that Shaped our Garden’, available from Amazon.]
He pressed the postillion to drive faster. He later wrote, ‘I had to traverse the dangerous part of the Luberon… to find that no postillion would agree to go, because four or five days before this a chaise had been robbed on this road. I exhibited the King’s order, for I was travelling on his service, and so forced the postmaster to obey me. Yet, in spite of this, the only person willing to ride the posthorse was a young rascal of eleven or twelve years old, who indeed was both skilful and courageous, for his beggarly comrades did all they could to discourage him crying ‘Go and get yourself killed.’ He replied quite cheerfully ‘Oh no, I’m too young. The gentlemen will pay for the two of us.’ All this commotion was foolish, for we met nothing more alarming than a hat lying by the roadside. Seeing the hat the young imp had stopped and was preparing to dismount, I asked what was the matter. He answered, ‘A hat, Sir. I must pick it up.’ ‘Go on, leave it, and I will give you a crown.’ ‘Oh, no, sir,’ he replied, ‘I would lose by that, for it has gold embroidery’. And so the young rascal mounted and rode on with the hat on his crupper.’
Commerson travelled as fast as he could manage, clattering through both night and day, travelling more than eight hundred miles in less than three days. He didn’t even give himself time to take off his boots. He just reached Rochefort just in time for the right tide, but after all his haste, the boat was delayed. It remained in the harbour for another couple of weeks, though the ‘Boudeuse’ had set sail on 5th November. The two ships were to rendezvous at the Falkland Islands, where Bougainville, to his great chagrin, was to hand over the colony which he had founded there to the Spanish.
Commerson’s enforced wait at Rochefort gave him time to collect himself. He carried out administrative chores, like reconsidering his will. Much of it was concerned with his infant son, left in the care of relatives. Commerson also took care of his servants, especially the housekeeper he had engaged. He left her the furnishings of his Paris flat at M. Le Gendre’s, Fauxbourg St Victoire, Rue des Boulangers. He left her all its contents, and allowed her a year’s tenancy, during which time she was to administer his natural history collections before giving them to the state.
He was a strange man with a strange childhood. He was born, a second son, on November 18, 1727, at Chatillon-les-Dombes (now Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne), Ain, France. His grandfather had been a Michel de Commerson, Chatelain of the Seigneurie de Romans. It was an ancient family, and the stump of their ancient castle still stands. However, he was so poor that he dropped any pretence of grandeur, sold what was left of the estate, and became a lawyer in Macon. Philibert’s father followed the same profession, though perhaps nursed regrets for the family’s loss of status. He seems to have been very hard on his many children. Our Commerson wrote to his own son’s guardians, ‘I wish you to draw the conclusion that children must be brought up hardly. That was the system of my poor father, and I owe him many obligations for having put it in practice in my own case. He made me go about in winter without special winter clothing, and also in summer without takings my clothes off. So, in spite of the tender affection which I bear to my child, and of the kindness which I have asked you to show in his moral education, my intentions are that you subject him to hard gymnastics and the greatest sobriety. Let him never wear hat or bonnet, gloves or mittens; keep him in winter as far away from the fire as is possible without his suffering too severely. Let him become strong by chopping wood, carrying successively heavier burdens, jumping hedges and ditches, and using both left and right hand. The value of this last accomplishment is not sufficiently understood…’
Such an upbringing seems to have produced in Philibert a sense of insufficiency rather than self-sufficiency. Philibert’s father was successful enough as a lawyer to provide all his children with small incomes. He saw Philibert’s obsession with botany, and sent him to Montpellier University. There, the young Commerson was quickly recognized as brilliant. It was equally clear that he was a compulsive, indeed maniac, collector of plants, herbarium specimens, botanical treatises, books and catalogs. His local expeditions were filled with hair-raising exploits, and were often undertaken with no thought for his preservation. He travelled with neither money or provisions. He would return home ill, scarred by accidents, worn out by the intensity of his enthusiasm. He was completely dominated by the need to collect, and accepted the fact when his friends called him a botanomaniac. Nothing stopped him, not even morality; he sometimes stole plants from other collectors, and got into considerable trouble. After one trip, he returned home shaking with fever, and wondered if he could find a cure at the baths of Bourbon-Laney. Even when there, he couldn’t stop plant hunting, and began visiting the cure of a nearby village. Perhaps the cure knew something about plants. Certainly, he had a pretty sister. She and Philibert were soon married. His new wife brought him fortune, but her influence seems to have calmed the fires that burnt within him. She also bore him a greatly loved son whom they christened Archambault. Two years later she died. Grief set Philibert once more ablaze.
In Paris, he had already come to the attention of Bougainville. Soon, young Archambault was consigned to the care of an uncle, and Commerson set off to travel the world. At Rochefort, and at long last, the ‘Etoile’ was ready to sail. Amidst the muddle of departure, just as the gangway was about to be pulled aboard, a young man pressed forward, begging to be taken on the voyage. M. Commerson had need of a valet. In the rush and haste, he was waved up the gangway with no questions asked, no answers given. The Fates must have smiled behind their hands. The ‘Etoile’ finally sailed from Rochefort on 2 January 1767.
Philibert seems to have been a trifle cocksure. He wrote, soon after the French coast vanished below the horizon, ‘Once on board, the slight experience I have so far had of the sea has not been particularly trying. I believe that I shall soon get my sea-legs, and I have not yet suffered from sea-sickness…’ In a later letter, he writes ‘What repentance everywhere. A ship is like a mousetrap wherein each perceives his piece of cheese. Once the salls are spread, the trap falls.’ He was later almost mortally seasick, and never became a good sailor. He did, though, recover quickly at each landfall, and his usual obsessive pattern started up. He collected whatever he could find. He wrote, ‘Often I do not know where to begin. Often I forget to eat and drink. Indeed, the captain, an excellent friend of mine, has gone so far as to forbid me any light after midnight, because he perceived that I was injuring my health in thus robbing myself of sleep – for I need the whole night to examine properly all that comes before me.’
Meanwhile, Bougainville had reached Montevideo, now capital of Uruguay, then the only good harbour in the whole of the Spanish colonies in South America. He had to meet up with the future governor of the Malvinas islands, or Falklands, then sail back to those islands for their official exchange. But he had accomplished all that, yet still the ‘Etoile’ had not appeared. Not giving it up for lost, on 21 June 1767, Bougainville anchored in the harbour of Rio de Janeiro. The ‘Etoile’ was waiting for him. The ship had been there for six days, and already its chaplain had been murdered ashore. For gardeners, something more important had happened. Commerson had been collecting. At their first anchorage of Montevideo, he saw why the Spanish explorers of 1513 had called the river the Rio de la Plata, not from its silver, but because its banks grew endless millions of white zephyr lilies (Zephyranthes candida). It’s a lovely thing to grow.
He was enchanted, and indeed, the whole exquisite beauty of Brazil delighted him. Of the area around Rio de Janeiro, he said,’This country is the Loveliest in the world; in the very middle of winter oranges, bananas, pineapples continually succeed one another. The trees never lose their greenery. The interior, rich in every sort of game as well as in sugar in rice, in manioc, etc., offers, without any labour of cultivation, a delicious subsistence to its inhabitants, as well as to thousands of slaves who have but the trouble of gathering its fruits… You know my mania for observing everything: in the midst of all these troubles, in spite of a formal prohibition to go outside the town, and even notwithstanding a Fearful sore on my leg which had appeared at sea. I ventured to go out twenty times with my servant in a canoe, which was paddled by two blacks, and visited, one after another, the different shores and islands of the bay.’
He found another species of Zephyr lily, and also a rather showy violet-flowered scrambling climber. Perhaps he thought it would make an ironic tribute to the expedition’s leader. Without telling him, Commerson wrote home, describing it scientifically as ‘Bougainvillea‘. Once the plant reached Europe, it went suddenly onwards from its erstwhile habitat in the margins of South American forests to get an almost planet-wide distribution. Unaware that there was now a plants that would make his name live forever, and more scuffles having broken out between his crews and the Portugese settlers, Bougainville thought it prudent to leave straight away.
Bougainville’s plan was to circumnavigate the globe whilst carrying out scientific investigations. A pattern developed whereby whenever possible the ships would find safe harbour, and let the scientists get on with their observations. Commerson was indefatigable. However, his exertions were vastly helped by his faithful servant, Jean, whom he often mentions in his letters, and who carried all the equipment that was necessary. Commerson took to calling the boy his ‘faithful beast of burden’, and was very obviously grateful for his fortitude, for his ingenious attempts to make both their lives more comfortable, and for his endless willingness to carry firearms and all the substantial amount of collecting equipment.
In April 1768, the ships anchored in a coral-ringed bay on the shore of one of a group of beautiful islands. Bougainville, as he had been doing throughout the expedition, at once claimed them for France, naming the island Nouvelle-Cythere, and the whole group of islands, Archipel de Bourbon. The local name for the island was Tahiti. On 7th April, Bougainville met the local chieftain and somehow managed to establish permission to set up a camp near the beach. The ships’ sick were brought ashore, and fresh water was given them from the nearby stream. They found rest in a land of plenty. For iron, earrings, and other baubles, they bought pigs, chickens, pigeons, bananas, shells, strange cloths, and native weapons and fishing gear. The French entertained the Tahitians with music and a fireworks display.
Commerson was, of course, soon furiously busy, describing and dissecting new and rare fishes, or gathering the many new plants. His valet accompanied him. The local chief, Ereti, took a strong interest in the young man, and, with a group of followers, made off with him. French sailors set up a pursuit. In the following scuffle, the young man’s clothes were ripped apart. He turned out to be a young woman. She was, in fact, Jeanne Baret, Commerson’s Paris housekeeper. She was hurried back to the ‘Etoile’ and interrogated by Bougainville.
Bougainville’s cool account is as follows: ‘There had been a rumour that M. de Commerson’s servant (Bare by name) was a woman. His features, the tone of his voice, his beardless chin, the scrupulous care which he took never to change his linens etc., before anybody, as well as other indications, seemed to confirm this suspicion… When I was on board the ‘Etoile’, Bare confessed to me, her eyes streaming with tears, that she was a woman. She told me that at Rochefort she had deceived her master by presenting herself before him in men’s clothes at the very moment when he was about to embark. She said she had already been a lackey in the service of a Genoese in Paris, she was an orphan born in Burgundy and had been rendered utterly destitute by the loss of a lawsuit, so that she has chosen to disguise her sex. Moreover, she knew that it was a case of Voyaging round the world, and this had aroused her curiosity for she would be the first of her sex to do this. I must, in justice, say that on board she had always conducted herself with the utmost propriety. She is neither ugly nor pretty and is not more than twenty-six or twenty-seven years of age.’
Commerson’s will suggests that he had no idea that she would follow him. Yet, fiercely observant, he can’t have failed to notice his new servant’s features. Was she in the carriage clattering through the Luberon? Commerson did name a genus of plants after her. Alas, unlike Bougainvillea, it has become submerged as a synonym for another genus. She was faithful to her master until his end. Commerson was not well.
The ‘Etoile’ sailed out of the Tahiti anchorage on the 14th. The ‘Boudeus’e managed to raise its anchors and leave the next day. Though, later, many of the sailors began to show signs of siphilis, the French, who had only been on the island for nine days began, in their writings and memoires, to create a picture of an earthly paradise. In spite of the thieving, the constant quarrels, the episode of abduction, the Tahitian people were depicted as proof that Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’ really did exist, and that with the right climate, the abundant crops and game, the irrelevance of work, Utopia was possible. But Utopia had its dangers. Commerson had not got a sexual disease but, like many of the crew, was wrecked with dysentery.
The expedition continued onwards, Jeanne in her usual ‘valet’ role, until it eventually arrived on the shores of Mauritius in December 1768. The island was then a French possession and known as the Ile de Bourbon. The ‘Etoile’ anchored on the 8th December. Several of the crew were ill, among them Commerson, who was still suffering agonies of seasickness on top of dysentery. Jeanne Baret went ashore with him. He couldn’t go on. He decided, together with the expedition’s astronomer, to leave the expedition, recuperate, and return to France by a separate route. Before they parted, Commerson told Bougainville about the climber he had discovered in Brazil, and the name he would give it.
Commerson gradually seemed to get better, and made a trip to Madagascar between October 1770 and January of 1771. Whilst leaving it, he was seriously injured and though desperate to return to France, had to remain on the Ile de Bourbon. He didn’t even get back to Mauritius for a whole year. France had become a mirage. He wanted to see his son. He wanted to describe scientifically some of the huge number of plants he had collected, and to receive some of the recognition he felt was his due. After all, he knew around twenty five thousand plants, and had found around three thousand species, and perhaps sixty genera that were new to science. That is a truly astonishing haul.
Fame waited, and waited. There were endless delays and disappointments. Finally, he was forced to buy a house in Port Louis in which to store his baggage, especially the forty cases of plant and animal specimens. Jeanne made him comfortable, but his health was failing. He wrote to his old friend Lalande on the 19th October 1772, that he had ‘scarcely strength to write to you, and it is an equal wager that I shall succumb, owing to my excessive night-watchings and severe labours. After an attack of rheumatic gout which kept me in bed for nearly three months, I thought I was convalescent, when, in addition, dysentery attacked me; up to the present it has been incurable – and it has brought me to the very edge of the grave. My strength is almost utterly exhausted and I am already more than half worn out. If country air and a diet of rice and fish do not cure me of this attack, you may as well, as you once said (prophetically, no doubt), begin to work on the history of my martyrology.’
However, at last, he had permisson to return, and a comfortable berth assured to make his seasickness less dreadful. He became just too ill to travel. The ship sailed without him. He rallied slightly, and had enough strength to reach the cooler windward side of the island, sixteen miles from Port Louis, at Flacq, in a house called La Retraite. Jeanne stayed behind to look after their collections. On the 13th March 1773, her master died. He was buried in an unmarked grave. Eight days later, in Paris, he was elected a member of the Academy of France by a unanimous vote in a full assembly. It was an unprecedented honour, for no other man had ever been elected while absent from France. He was also give the Cordon of the Order of St. Michael.
Jeanne Baret eventually guided many of the cases of material still on Mauritius back to France. She had, by then, married a soldier, but seems to have returned to France alone. She settled down near her master’s family at Chatillon-en-Dombes. When she herself died, in 1816, and without children of her own, she left all she owned to Commerson’s son, Archambault. She was, as she had hoped, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
Many of Commerson and Baret’s herbarium specimens still exsist. The Linnaean Society of London possesses about fifteen hundred specimens. The Delessert herbarium in Paris has three thousand. Far more are scattered through museum collection in France and elsewhere. Archambault followed family tradition and became a prominent local notary. Bougainville went on to have an extraordinary career, survive the Revolution, find a perfect wife, and die in August 1811 of the dysentery he had once caught in Tahiti. He was given a state funeral on 7 September and his ashes were buried in the Pantheon. His heart, though, was removed and placed next to his wife in the cemetery of St. Pierre at Montmartre. The symbol of his friendship with Commerson grows in at least half of the glasshouses and gardens across the entire globe.