by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith (Regular Contributor)
The first woman to circumnavigate the globe and write about it was a 19-year-old French bride who, in 1817, sailed on the ship L’Uranie from Toulon, headed for Australia. Her husband Louis de Freycinet was the ship’s 35-year-old captain. He knew that any request to allow his wife to accompany him would be denied. So he had an extra cabin built on the ship, claiming it would be a storehouse for botanical specimens collected on the voyage, but secretly he was preparing it as accommodation for young Rose. As she would narrate the event in letters to her sister Caroline Pinon, Rose boarded the ship in September 1817, dressed “as a man in a blue frock coat with trousers to match”, and introduced by her husband as the son of a friend. The new passenger stayed in her cabin as much as she could for the first few days of the voyage. But once the ship had made its last stop on European soil, in Gibralter, the couple decided it was both safe and necessary to reveal Rose’s true identity.
At home, the news was already out, angering Louis Freycinet’s superiors and creating a sensation in the papers. The Moniteur Officiel reported the escapade on October 4, emphasizing both the official transgression and its romantic inspiration:
“News has broken out in Toulon that Madame de Freycinet who had accompanied her husband to the port of embarkation had disappeared thereafter and, dressed as a man had gone on board the ship that same night, despite the ordinances that prohibit the presence of women in state vessels, without official authorisation. This example of conjugal devotion deserves to be made public.”
The voyage of the Uranie would take three years. Both Louis, in his published official account of the voyage, and Rose, in her letters home to Caroline, gave detailed descriptions of their adventures at sea and on land in Australia, Hawaii, the Sandwich Islands, South America, and many other stops on their journey to explore and collect scientific information. But reading the published account of the trip written by the ship’s captain, one would not know that his wife had been on board. Perhaps wary of the price he would have to pay for having violated protocol by bringing her with him, he makes no mention of her presence on the ship. There is only one moment when he acknowledges it, obliquely, when he reports on the naming of a small island off the coast of Australia (now in American Samoa). He named it, he writes, after “a person who is precious to me.”
On their return trip, off the coast of an uninhabited Falkland Island in February of 1820, the ship was badly damaged when it ran against a rock. The terrified passengers and crew had to abandon the sinking vessel. Rose describes the tension on board as they all slowly realized the ship could not be saved, the difficult passage to shore, and the depravation and hardship encountered on land. But within a month, the crew was able to build another boat, small but seaworthy. This boat sailed to the mainland and was able to arrange rescue for the castaways.
In addition to Louis and Rose, other passengers on the voyage of the Uranie were keeping records. Jacques Arago, an artist who had been commissioned to provide illustrations of the expedition, produced drawings in which Rose can clearly be seen, and he wrote admiring descriptions of her in his accompanying narrative. Alphonse Pellion, another illustrator and draughtsman on board, made drawings of different moments in the voyage that were used in Freycinet’s official report. Some of the illustrations used in that report were revised from earlier versions, with the effect of erasing Rose from the record. In his first version of a drawing showing a campsite of the Uranie community after they landed on the west coast of Australia, Rose can be seen standing outside her tent, on the right side of the painting. In the second, ‘authorized’ version, this figure of a woman has disappeared from the scene.
But the historical record can be revised and it can also be reconstructed. New discoveries about the Freycinet expedition continue to be made. The submerged wreck of the Uranie was lost for nearly two centuries, only discovered after an ambitious underwater expedition in 2001. And a new edition of Rose’s account of her voyage, based on the manuscript of her letters home, and including original versions of the illustrations, was published in 2003.
For further reading: A Woman of Courage: The Journal of Rose de Freycinet on her Voyage Around the World, 1817-1820. Translated and edited by Marc Serge Rivière. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2003.