Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Most Amazing Woman You've Never Heard Of

by Stephen J. Gertz

With one exception, all first-person accounts of famous seafaring voyages have been written by men. The exceptional woman was not the first to circumnavigate the globe but she was and remains the sole one to have written about it, the only great voyage narrative told from a woman's point of view.

Rose Marie Pinon, later de Freycinet, Paris, 1812, aged 17.
From an engraving of the original portrait
in the possession of Baron Claude de Freycinet.

Rose Marie Pinon was nineteen, well-educated, and an attractive middle class girl when she married 35-year-old French naval officer and navigator, Captain Louis de Freycinet (1779-1842), in 1814. The two were extremely devoted to one another.

Debarking from Toulon three years later, on September 17, 1817, she accompanied Louis on the  corvette Uranie, which he commanded, for a three-year surveying voyage  that would take them and crew across the Atlantic to Rio de Janero, then around South Africa to Mauritius, soon Western Australia, New Guinea, Guam, Hawaii,  Samoa, the Cook Islands, New South Wales, New Zealand, and around South America's Cape Horn to the Faulklands where the Uranie was shipwrecked upon submerged rocks

The vessel damaged beyond repair the expedition continued on another ship, ultimately returning to Le Havre on November 13,  1820.

Essential point: Wives (and women in general) were strictly forbidden to join their husbands or otherwise travel solo on a ship wholly comprised of male crew members. Rose de Freycinet had been smuggled aboard disguised as a man by Louis, at great risk to his career; it was highly illegal. Rose's presence on the ship at first caused some disruption amongst the crew but she enchanted them and was immensely popular in most of the voyage's ports of call.

Her account of the three-year circumnavigation was composed of a series of letters to her friend, Caroline de Nanteuil,  in diary form. Rose recorded life aboard ship, observations of the people and places they visited, scientific work of the expedition, relationships between men and women, and the work of artist Jacques Etienne Arago. She had a keen eye for detail and composed vivid descriptions of the strange and exotic places they visited.

Detail from an original pen and ink drawing by Arago
of an aqueduct on Mauritius featuring Louis and Rose.
She wears her distinctive hat and scarf, as usual.

Although fêted by many while visiting the French colony of Mauritius, Rose evidently found the going a bit racy for her taste; her true grit was of a softer, gentler nature than Mattie Ross's in Charles Portis' novel. Her diary contains a polite and good-natured account of the reaction of the Creole women to her attire:

"I always wore a scarf, which strangely enough offended all the Creole women, as the ones I met, laughingly or mockingly, urged me to remove it. Mme Lindsay [her particular friend there] alone not only found it most becoming but would have liked to imitate me; however, she was afraid that her husband might not allow it, for, as you know, English women wear low-cut dresses even for dinner. I cannot begin to tell you all the gossip that my scarf gave rise to; there were some who claimed that undoubtedly I must have had some blemish on my breasts, or some scar that was hidden by the gauze. Others had learnt from one woman that I had nothing to hide, as she had seen me wearing a low-cut dress and had noticed nothing untoward, and so on... But all joined forces to make fun of my reserved nature, giving me the nickname of 'Mrs. Virtue' or other similar names, to which I can assure you I paid no attention whatsoever" (A Woman of Courage, p. 35).

Rose and her manuscript survived the dangers of the voyage and the shipwreck in the Falkland Islands yet all evidence of her presence on the Uranie and her role during the voyage were expunged from the official record of the expedition, which consumed Louis for twenty years, appearing as Voyage Autour de monde, entrepis par order du Roi... (Paris: Pillet ainé and Imprimerie Royale, 1824-1844), comprised of eight quarto volumes of text and four atlas folios. 

Réception à Diely (i.e. Dili, East Timor), November 1818.
The official version, sans Rose, painted by Pierre-Antoine Marchais.

 As an officer of the King, Louis was compelled to omit Rose's participation. Yet he did sneak her into the official narrative: He named both "Rose Island" in the Pacific near Samoa and "Cap Rose" in Shark Bay in Western Australia after her.

It was not until 1927 that her diary was finally published, magnificently illustrated by reproductions of twenty-five paintings done by Arago, who had been on the Uranie as visual documentarian. Published in a highly limited edition, it is quite scarce and is currently being offered for $8,000 (Australian; $8021 USD)

The same scene, avec Rose, by Arago.
Note her ever-present hat and infamous
scarf, which she holds rather than wears.

The life of this intrepid woman was tragically cut short when she died of cholera in 1834, aged 38 years, after nursing Louis through the same illness.

FREYCINET, Rose. Campagne de L' Uranie (1817-1820). Journal de Madome Rose de Saulces de Freycinet, d'apres le manuscrit original, accompagné de notes par Charles Duplomb. Paris: Sociétie d'Editions Geographiques, Maritimes et Coloniales, 1927.

Borba de Moraes I, p. 328. Chadenat 1607. Hill 652.

The first edition in English was published as A Woman of Courage. Translated and edited by Marc Serge Riviére. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1996.

With the exception of the portrait of Rose, all images courtesy of Hordern House Rare Books, of New South Wales, Australia, with our thanks.

Horden House has recently published a beautifully produced hardbound catalog, Captain Louis De Freycinet and His Voyages to the Terres Australes, a collection of important printed, manuscript, and pictorial material related to the two great French expeditions to Australia, that of Baudin  in 1800 and Freycinet seventeen years later. It is sure to become a key bibliographical reference.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing. I was very interested to read the story. I can not even imagine how they used to swim. Now already we come up with many ways and there are good conditions for this. I went on an expedition here in this website https://poseidonexpeditions.com/ships/ . We bought initially it here. I really liked it. I got a lot of unforgettable emotions.


Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email