Archive for the ‘French History’ Category

JEANNE BARET (1740 – 1807) First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

In Explorers, Feminists, French History, Sailing, Scientists on February 7, 2011 at 8:00 PM

Jeanne Baret

When Jean and Jeanne Baret had their daughter they did the obvious and named her Jeanne.  From a family of day laborers in the fields of Burgundy, France, she was destined to be poor and never venture farther than 20 miles away.  But Baret’s love of plants was her ticket to a worldly adventure that was at times more challenging than the life she left behind.

Baret came from a mixed family: her father was Catholic and her mother was Protestant.  Protestants tended to be more literate having learned to read the Bible on their own, and Baret’s mom taught her how to read.  Perhaps the freedom and ability to learn about the world also instilled in the young girl the curiosity and desire to discover more about it.

Baret’s broader education took place in the fields where she played.  She became an expert in the medical properties of plants.  As an “herb woman” she supplied druggists, physicians, dentists and veterinarians.  One day when she was picking and analyzing in the fields she met her future.

MEETING MR. RIGHT      Philibert Commerson was born near Lyon, France 12 years before Baret.  He appeased his father by studying law and medicine and then followed his heart and became a botanist, at the risk of losing his inheritance.  When he was 26 years old, this passion led him to explore and collect samples in the fields not far from Baret’s home where they had a fateful encounter.

Commerson was married to a rich heiress, but he spent a lot of time with Baret learning about the curative properties of the local flora.  When his wife died giving birth to their only child, Baret became more integrated in his life.  She moved into his house and assumed the duties of nanny, household manager, lover and assistant.

Baret became pregnant when she was 24 years old, which complicated their lives.  For Commerson marriage was not an option, so the couple had to deal with the fact that their lifestyle was unacceptable.  The best solution seemed to be to move away.  With the money Commerson inherited from his wife, they turned the need to escape the condemnation of their neighbors into an opportunity to broaden their horizons.

Commerson and Baret each did something to help facilitate a clean break.  It was mandatory for an unwed mother to have a certificate of pregnancy which named the father.  However, somehow Baret was able to make the appropriate connection which allowed her to decline to state who fathered her child, and she gave him her last name.  Commerson gave his two year old son to his brother-in-law, a priest, to raise.  The couple went to Paris to create a new life for themselves.

In December 1764 Jean-Pierre Baret was born.  Commerson, having already proven he did not have much paternal instinct, hated the inconvenience of having a newborn around.  Apparently Baret’s maternal instincts were not very strong either, and one month later she abandoned her baby at the Paris foundling hospital which then turned him over to a foster mother.  Less than one year later Baret received news that her son had died.

In a way, Baret had been relieved of one burden, but another one manifested.  Commerson had pleurisy.  Baret became the caregiver of her lover and his collection of plants.  As he healed he was able to write a book, but he continued to look for the perfect project that would really put his name on the map.

RUNNING AWAY TOGETHER         Britain, the Netherlands and Spain had already sailed around the world, and France wanted to get in the game.  The goal was to find a land mass in the southern hemisphere.  An expedition was planned, and Commerson was selected to be the naturalist on board who would discover and collect unknown species of flora and fauna.  It was the perfect opportunity for Commerson, but not for Baret.  Women were not allowed on French naval ships, but the couple came up with a solution: dress Baret as a man and have her work as the naturalist’s assistant since she had the experience to be convincing.  To facilitate the ruse, she started using the masculine spelling of her name, Jean.

The frigate La Boudeuse, under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and the supply ship L’Etoile, with captain Francois Chenard de la Giraudais at the helm, set sail together on February 1, 1767.  Commerson and his assistant were on the Etoile.  Baret disguised her gender by wrapping her chest with linen bandages, so tight that she had trouble taking a deep breath, and wearing men’s clothing.  It was her job to carry onboard her boss’s bags and most of the extensive field equipment they brought along.  When captain La Giraudais saw how much they had, he knew it would not all fit in the small berth they had been assigned.  He offered the scientist and his assistant the 30 x 15 foot captain’s cabin.

Suspicions about Baret’s gender were aroused immediately.  It was very unusual for a servant to sleep in the same cabin as his master, and Baret was never seen relieving herself at the “head,” holes cut out of the protruding part of the forward deck.  Such a breach of regulations could ruin La Giraudais’ career, so he ordered Baret to sleep with the other servants.  She did not feel safe in that environment, so she slept with one of Commerson’s loaded pistols and threatened to use it one evening when she was maliciously approached by some curious men.

La Giraudais called Baret in for questioning, and she explained her situation by claiming to be a eunuch who had supervised a sultan’s harem in the Ottoman Empire.  While the captain may not have been totally convinced, it was good enough to be allowed back in Commerson’s cabin.  In addition, a previous dog bite in Commerson’s leg had become ulcerated.  The infirmity was another justification to allow her to reside in the master’s cabin so she could tend to his needs.

Baret’s life on the ship was not easy.  Living in such close quarters with Commerson made him quite moody.  The temperature was consistently in the 80s, and the sweat-soaked linen wrap chaffed at her skin giving her eczema.  They were both living for the day when they could get off the ship.

The first opportunity to disembark was a brief stop in Montevideo, Uruguay before heading up the eastern coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In mid July, five months after leaving France, the naturalists were able to go ashore and start the work they were commissioned to do.

DOING A MAN’S JOB           The sores on Commerson’s leg were turning into gangrene.  Baret’s treatments prevented amputation, but Commerson’s mobility was severely restricted.  He was able to take the rowboat but he was in no condition to wander around collecting plant samples.  It was up to Baret to do all the physical work.  She carried the food for the day, the wooden presses for preserving samples and all the field equipment which included a spade, glass vials for seeds, tiny boxes for insects, magnifying glasses, a telescope, a compass and a butterfly net.  Commerson lightly referred to Baret as his “beast of burden.”

The most well known discovery Baret made was a colorful vine native to South America.  Commerson respectfully named it after Commander Bougainville: Bougainvillea brasiliensis, or what we call bougainvillea.

The Boudeuse and the Etoile continued their tandem journey back down the coast of South America where they spent 38 days feeling their way through the perilous maze of the Strait of Magellan.  There were no charts for navigation since this was the first time French ships were in the region.  They stopped in Patagonia and started across the Pacific Ocean at the end of January 1768.  Whenever they stopped, Baret and Commerson went botanizing.

COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET        If Baret’s gender had been a secret up to that point, that changed when they hit Tahiti.  A native Tahitian named Aotourou, with previous experience with foreign ships, came onboard the Etoile.  He saw Baret standing with several other crew members, pointed to her and identified her as a girl.  Undoubtedly confused by the accuracy of the observation and visibly angry at being outed, she ran into her cabin.  Aotourou, unaware that he had said anything wrong, offered an explanation.  In his culture it was very common for some men to dress like and perform the duties of women (called mahu).  In fact, they held a respected place in the society as having the best qualities of men and women.  Aotourou believed Baret to be a mahu, someone who dressed and acted like a person of the opposite sex, with a specific purpose on the crew.  Now that Baret’s identity was revealed, she was afraid of being attacked and carried a pistol with her whenever she left the cabin.

After leaving Tahiti in April 1768, the conditions of the trip got progressively worse.  They sailed for three months without being able to find a suitable port.  They used up all the fresh water, and the cases of scurvy increased daily.  They couldn’t seem to catch any fish and had to resort to eating the rats onboard.  When they finally landed on the island of New Ireland (part of Papua New Guinea) Baret had a few days of successful collecting before her life became a nightmare.

Each day Baret went botanizing, accompanied by a pistol to protect herself from her fellow crew members more than the natives.  Several days after their arrival Baret joined the other servants who were doing laundry.  They had been plotting to confirm Baret’s sex for themselves, and she unwittingly gave them the opportunity they were waiting for.  They stole her gun and proceeded to rape her.  In relating the incident in his journal, the ship’s doctor justified the actions of the men by conveying the benefit to Baret: she no longer had to bind herself to hide her identity.  Back on board, Commerson feigned surprise at the news that Baret was a woman in order to protect his job.  For the rest of the journey, Baret secluded herself in their cabin.

After leaving New Ireland, the explorers traveled for six weeks without any real food, and starvation was a constant threat until they could get provisions on the Dutch island of Buru.  This posed a problem especially for Baret because she was pregnant.

In early November 1768 the expedition landed on the island of Mauritius, near Madagascar.  Commerson had known the civil administrator from Paris, and he invited the couple to stay in his home at Port Louis.  Baret was given her own room in the servants’ quarters, and she had some privacy for the first time in almost two years.  When the Etoile and Boudeuse headed back to France about a month later, Baret and Commerson stayed on the island.

When it came time to deliver the baby, Baret and Commerson went to a plantation in Flacq in the northern part of the island and stayed with a Mr. Bezac.  The new mom didn’t feel any more affection for this child than she had for her first one, and she left him to live with Bezac.

Baret and Commerson went to Madagascar for four months and collected 500 species of flora and fauna.  When they returned to Mauritius they had to find a new place to live.  They rented a house and lived together as a couple for the first time since leaving Paris.  The contentment of this arrangement did not last long, however, because Commerson was diagnosed with rheumatism and then dysentery.  Bezac welcomed them again in Flacq where Commerson died in 1773.

GOING HOME        Baret was ready to return to France, but she had no money and no place to live until she could get some.  She said goodbye to her son again and moved back down to Port Louis.  She worked as an herb woman and barmaid for survival.  While she was serving drinks she met a French soldier, Jean Dubernat, on his way back to France after serving in one of the colonies.  Whether it was for love or convenience we can’t be sure, but Baret and Dubernat were married on May, 1774.  Presumably to give herself a fresh start in life, the bride signed her name with a new spelling: Barret.

When Baret landed on French soil near the end of 1774, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.  But unlike the arrival of Bougainville and the crews of the two naval vessels five years earlier, there was no ceremony or recognition of her achievement.

The new couple set up house in Dubernat’s home town of Saint-Aulaye.  Commerson had provided for Baret before they left Paris, leaving 600 livres to her in his will which she collected when she returned to France.  That was about six times the annual wage of a servant.  She finally had the means to buy a house and give her life some stability.

Baret did receive recognition for her contribution to society as a naturalist.  Nine years later, the Ministry of Marine granted her a pension of 200 livres a year.  On August 5, 1807, at age sixty-seven, Baret died.  She left behind a legacy of plants, seeds, shells and insects that are housed in the Museum national d’histoire naturelle, giving future generations insight into the world around them.

QUESTION:  What would you like to be remembered for accomplishing when you die?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Ridley, Glynis, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, A Story of Science, The High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.  New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

HENRY CHRISTOPHE (1767 – 1820) King of Haiti

In Biography, Black Leaders, French History, History, People Who Committed Suicide on January 28, 2011 at 9:46 AM

Henry Christophe (from the New York Public Library)

Henry Christophe learned everything he knew from experience.  A Negro born into a slave family on the island of Grenada, he never went to school and was illiterate his whole life.  His life’s purpose was to eradicate slavery and build Haiti into a strong country, and the slave boy who would be king took seriously the power and perks that came with the job.

Christophe was a rambunctious kid.  At age seven the plantation owner turned his unchanneled energy into profit when he sold the boy to a Negro mason as an apprentice.  Christophe ran away from his master and stowed away on a boat bound for the island of Saint Domingue (now Haiti).  At age twelve, Christophe ended up the servant of a French naval officer, hired to oil his boots and serve his meals.  This job took him north to America where Christophe fought with the French in the Siege of Savannah before returning to Haiti where he was again sold to a free Negro who owned a hotel.  The ambitious young man moved up from stable boy to cook, waiter and billiard marker.  He saved enough money to buy his freedom.

When Christophe was 26 years old he married the boss’s daughter, Marie Louise, who was only 15.  They had two sons and two daughters.

FIGHTING FOR FREEDOM             The Spanish, French and English all had interests in the island, and the slaves were rebelling for their freedom.  Black General Toussaint Louverture led the army to claim their emancipation.  Christophe volunteered to fight with Toussaint and showed early leadership skills.  Seven years later, Toussaint, had driven the Spanish back to their side of the island and defeated the British.  He designated himself the Governor-General and appointed a trio of successors: Christophe as general and military governor, Jean-Jacques Dessalines as a provincial governor, and Alexandre Sabès Pétion (a mulatto), who ended up in the south.  Toussaint, seeing an opportunity for independence, set up a government without asking permission of Napoleon Bonaparte, which prompted Napoleon to send an expedition to the island to reestablish French dominion.

The captain of the French expedition was Charles LeClerc, and he insisted on negotiating directly with Toussaint.  While LeClerc waited on the ship, his emissary went ashore and was insulted when he was met by the second in command, Christophe.  Thinking a black, former slave could be easily persuaded, LeClerc offered Christophe many honors if he would turn over the town of Cap François before Toussaint arrived.  Christophe was insulted by the insinuation that he would betray his commander.  And, there was the underlying fear that one objective of the French mission was to reinstate slavery.

The messenger delivered Christophe’s message to his boss, and Christophe vowed to his commander and his countrymen that if LeClerc came ashore, there would not be any town for him to claim because Christophe would personally see to it that it would be burned.  LeClerc sent Christophe a letter warning that 15,000 soldiers would disembark at dawn if Christophe did not capitulate.  Christophe’s response reiterated his loyalty to the chain of command.  Since he was illiterate, the content of his letter was dictated, but Christophe was able to sign his name.

After one more written attempt to resolve the situation, LeClerc made good on his threat, and Christophe made good on his promise.  Despite the pleas of the townspeople of Cap François not to destroy their homes, while the French soldiers stormed the shore, Christophe torched the city, starting with his own house.

Now Haiti was at war with France, and eventually the Haitians were overwhelmed by the French.  Christophe, on behalf of Toussaint, was willing to negotiate.  The sticking point was slavery, and LeClerc, speaking for Napoleon, agreed to let every person be free.  Finally an agreement was reached with the stipulation that Toussaint retire to his plantation.  He did so, but LeClerc had reason to believe that he was planning another uprising, so Toussaint was arrested and exiled to France with his family.

When LeClerc died of yellow fever, the black and mulatto leaders agreed to submit to the command of Jean-Jacques Dessalines who led them to freedom.  On January 1, 1804 they declared independence and Saint Domingue officially became Haiti.

The mulattos in the south did not accept being ruled by blacks.  They rebelled and assassinated Dessalines.  A national assembly was quickly organized to elect the next leader, and it was between Christophe and Pétion.  In a gesture of reconciliation, Christophe, age 40, was elected, if somewhat grudgingly, as President of Haiti for four years, residing in the north.

A RULER WITH LOTS OF RULES            Christophe took his authority seriously and declared Catholicism as the official religion, although other beliefs would be tolerated.  He made divorce illegal, and parents were not allowed to disinherit their children.  He understood the importance of trade, and he courted the United States and Britain as trading partners, giving foreign businesses absolute protection.

Haiti had no currency, so Christophe created one.  Gourds were used for bowls, utensils and bottles, making them indispensible to daily life, but they wore out.  The new president confiscated all the gourd plants.  When the farmers brought dried coffee berries to the capital, Christophe would buy them, paying in gourds.  Then he sold the coffee to other countries for gold, giving Haiti a growing, stable currency.  Even today, the term for Haiti’s money is the gourde.

Pétion didn’t accept Christophe as President, and he set up his own government in Port-au-Prince, instigating a civil war.  Both men stubbornly held on to their respective territories, and it seemed inevitable to tacitly accept that unifying Haiti would not be possible.  In February 1807, Christophe was elected the President of the State of Haiti, giving him jurisdiction over the north and making him the generalissimo of the forces on land and sea for life.  His capital was Cap François.  One month later, Pétion was elected the President of the Republic of Haiti for four years with his capital at Port-au-Prince in the south.  He was later elected to a second four-year term.

Christophe was more ambitious than Pétion, and his efforts built up his infrastructure and defense, and his reputation overseas.  He accumulated a fleet of ships and started a navy which controlled the local waters.  For all his success, the threat of a French invasion never diminished.  Christophe’s advisors thought that having a ruler of equal rank to the emperor Napoleon would be more effective in staving off any aggression.  They respectfully suggested that Christophe be declared king, and it didn’t take much convincing to get him to go along with the idea.  He became Henry I, preferring the English spelling, and changed the name of the capital to Cap Henry.  The coronation was on June 2, 1811 in a cathedral that was built for the occasion in about two months.  He was officially crowned “Henry, by the Grace of God and the Constitutional Law of the State, King of Haiti, Sovereign of Tortuga, Gonave and other adjacent Islands, Destroyer of Tyranny, Regenerator and Benefactor of the Haitian Nation, Creator of her Moral, Political and Martial Institutions, First Crowned Monarch of the New World, Defender of the Faith, Founder of the Royal and Military Order of Saint-Henry,” just in case there was any doubt about his authority.

The new king created a hereditary nobility and spiritual hierarchy with a Catholic archbishop in the capital and bishops in other cities.  He instituted a strict dress code for the nobility and an Order of Chivalry whose members wore a large cross embedded with jewels.

Under Christophe’s leadership, his colony began to thrive.  He introduced Code Henry mandating that every adult was obligated to work in the fields.  Monday through Friday they were required to work from daylight until 8:00am when they took a break for breakfast.  Then they worked from 9:00 until 12:00 when they got a two hour rest.  They resumed working at 2:00 until dusk.  Saturday was a day off from the fields to allow the workers to tend to their own land and take their goods to market.  Sunday was reserved for rest and going to church.  The plantation owners had to give one quarter of their gross profits to their workers and provide room and board and medical treatment.  An owner could not transfer a worker from one activity to another without the worker’s permission.  The military police oversaw the plantation owners to insure compliance.

The king availed himself every Thursday for a public audience when he would listen to petitions.  In the morning he received the commoners, and in the evening he received the aristocracy, who were required to wear their military uniform or formal court dress.  An answer was always given the following Thursday.

Christophe had his hands in everything.  He monopolized the meat supply and all the cattle crazed on state land.  He built seven palaces and 15 chateaux, all surrounded by fertile land which produced, among other things, two-thirds of the kingdom’s sugar export.  He sold everything for gold, incresing his personal wealth and the national treasury.  

Even though he hated the French, he knew the country needed the expertise and knowledge of white men.  He offered full citizenship to any white man who married a Haitian woman and lived in Haiti for one year.  Any white man who married a black woman anywhere in the world would be welcomed to settle in Haiti, and the government would set them up. 

The future of the kingdom was very important to the king, and Christophe created five national schools for boys modeled after Joseph Lancaster’s British and Foreign School Society.  Teachers were quickly trained for two thousand students.  English was required, and advanced students could learn Spanish.  The curriculum also included French, reading, writing, arithmetic and grammar.  During the summer, classes met from 6:00am to 11:00am and then again from 2:00 to 6:00.  The winter hours were shorter, from 7:00 in the morning until 5:00.  Thursday and Sunday were days off with the exception of attending morning prayers and a lecture.  In addition, every boy at least ten years old had to learn a trade.

Upon the recommendation of the monarch’s personal physician, Dr. Duncan Stewart, a Scottish surgeon who visited many of the commoners working on the king’s farms, it was necessary to educate girls in order to prevent voodoo from creeping back into public practice.  In 1818 Christophe issued an edict opening up education for girls but stipulating that they must be taught in schools separate from boys.  Christophe also founded a royal college for secondary education where students studied English, French, Latin, history, geography and math.

Public health was also an issue the king focused on.  He appointed Dr. Stewart as director of the hospital with responsibility for the accommodations for the sick.  In addition to food and clothing, this included a pair of stocks installed at the foot of each bed for the legs of the patient if he was disobedient or didn’t take his medication.

The British didn’t fully recognize Christophe’s authority, but that did not inhibit him from imposing it absolutely on his citizens.  Every marriage had to be a civil contract, and as the king moved around the kingdom, if he even suspected that a couple was living in sin, he forced them to marry on the spot.  The penalty for stealing was death, and those guilty of a misdemeanor were punished by flogging.  Christophe carried a silver-topped cane and used it to beat people he saw on his daily walks who he deemed were being lazy.  No one was immune from the king’s judgment.  One time he went to mass and the priest was not immediately there.  Christophe ordered soldiers to arrest him and take him directly to jail.

THE FALL FROM POWER             Being a dictatorial monarch took its toll on Christophe.  On August 15, 1820 during the mid-day break he went to mass, which was not a part of his normal routine.  Just before he was given communion, Christophe suffered a stroke which left him permanently paralyzed.  His mind was still clear and he tried to carry on business as usual, but his government was threatened by factions who hated his tyrannical ways.  In October the king tried to stand up to the rebels, but he realized he did not have the support he needed.

One Sunday evening, Christophe called his wife and children into his room to discuss the state of the state and sthen ent them off to bed.  After they left he raised a pistol to his chest and shot himself.  As word of the king’s death got out, looters started ransacking the palace.  Two men were able to get the body out of the residence, but they couldn’t find tools to dig a grave, so they buried Christophe in a pile of lime.  In 1847, 27 years after his death, the monarch who did great things for his country, if perhaps not in great ways, was given a proper burial in a concrete tomb at the place d’Armes at the Citadel on the peak of La Ferrière.

QUESTION:  What makes someone a good leader?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Cole, Hubert, Christophe King of Haiti.  New York: Viking Press, 1967.

Vandercook, John W., Black Majesty, The Life of Christophe King of Haiti.  New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1928.

SOPHIE BLANCHARD (1778 –1819) First Women to Fly Solo in a Hot Air Balloon

In adventure, Ballooning, Biography, Feminists, French History, People, Pilots, Uncategorized, women on September 15, 2010 at 9:34 AM

Sophie Blanchard

In the 1960s, The 5th Dimension sang, “Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?”  When Sophie Blanchard’s husband said that to her, she said, “Yes,” and they were Up, Up and Away.  Sophie felt most comfortable in the air, but what goes up must come down.

Marie Madeleine-Sophie Armant came to the world’s attention when she married Jean-Pierre Blanchard, an inventor and pioneer in French aviation, specifically ballooning.  Other than the fact that she was born to Protestant parents in western France, almost nothing is known about her young life.

Blanchard was about 16 years old when she married, 35 years younger than her husband, becoming his second wife.  She was described as a small, nervous woman who startled easily when she heard loud noises.  When she started flying with Jean-Pierre, she felt more at home in the quiet, peaceful sky than on terra firma.

TAKING TO THE SKIES                Blanchard made her first balloon ascent in 1804 with her husband as a stunt to raise money.  Even though Jean-Pierre was the world’s first professional balloonist and had made demonstration tours all over Europe, he wasn’t a very good businessman.  They hoped that having a woman in the basket would attract more fans.  Blanchard wasn’t the first woman to ride in a balloon.  Three other women had gone up in tethered balloons, and two women had previously gone up untethered, but seeing a woman aloft was still a novelty.

In 1809, Jean-Pierre was flying over The Hague when he had a heart attack and fell from his balloon.  He died from his injuries.  He had adopted the Latin phrase Sic itur ad astra (“Such is the path to the stars”) as his personal motto.  Blanchard decided to follow her husband’s path and became the first woman to fly solo in a balloon.

Blanchard still needed to pay off the debt left by her husband, so her balloon of choice was a hydrogen-filled gas balloon.  The benefits of using gas (instead of hot air) generally outweighed the risks.  She wouldn’t have to tend to a fire to keep the balloon airborne and, since she was a petite woman, she could use a small basket about the size of a chair and minimal gas to inflate the balloon.

WORTH THE RISK                          Even though ballooning had been popular for almost 30 years, the inherent dangers still made it a risky endeavor.  Blanchard passed out during several flights because of the high altitude, and she encountered freezing temperatures when she cruised at 12,000 feet.  In 1811, she had to stay airborne for over 14 hours to avoid a hail storm.  And sometimes landing was just as risky.  One time her balloon made a crash landing in a marsh, and she almost drowned.

Blanchard’s husband had experimented with parachutes, dropping dogs out of the basket to demonstrate floating down to earth safely.  One time when flying solo his balloon ruptured, and he was grateful for the parachute as his only way to escape.  None of Jean-Pierre’s mishaps deterred Blanchard from her own desire to be a pilot.  When she had the opportunity to fly solo, Blanchard also tested the flotation devices using dogs, but she never had the occasion to need one herself.  When she flew exhibitions at events, she spiced things up by attaching small baskets of fireworks to parachutes to light up the sky as they were falling.

Engraving of Sophie Blanchard in 1811

GETTING OFFICIAL RECOGNITION      Napoleon was a big fan of Madame Blanchard, and he appointed her as the “Aeronaut of the Official Festivals,” making her responsible for organizing balloon demonstrations at official events.  In 1810, she flew over the Champs de Mars (today near the Eiffel Tower) in honor of Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria.  To commemorate the birth of their son, Blanchard flew over Paris dropping announcements of the birth.  One year later, Blanchard made an ascent over the palace Château de Saint-Cloud during the official celebration of the boy’s baptism, and she set off fireworks from her balloon.  There’s speculation that she also devised plans with Napoleon to use hot air balloons for an aerial invasion of England, which were never carried out.

Blanchard’s popularity outlasted Napoleon’s rule.  When Louis XVIII returned to Paris in 1814 to regain the throne, she participated in the official procession, making her ascent from Pont Neuf.  King Louis was so impressed by her performance that he named her the “Official Aeronaut of the Restoration.”

Blanchard was also known throughout Europe, and large crowds came to watch her.  For the opening night of the opera in Frankfurt in 1810, she was allegedly responsible for a poor audience, as most of the city turned out to see her rather than attend the opera’s debut.

AN UNPLANNED DESCENT          In 1819, when Blanchard was 42 years old, she made an ascent over the Tivoli Gardens (now the site of the Saint-Lazare station), an area she was very familiar with.  She was warned repeatedly about the dangers of using pyrotechnics in her exhibitions.  She had never had an incident, but on the night of July 6, she was uncharacteristically nervous.  She went ahead with the demonstration, wearing a white dress and white hat topped with ostrich feathers and waving a white flag.  There was a strong wind and the balloon had difficulty rising.  It bounced off a tree in the attempt.  Blanchard threw ballast overboard, reducing the weight but also jeopardizing her stability.

When she had cleared the trees, Blanchard began her show using “Bengal Fire” fireworks to illuminate the balloon.  While she was still rising, the hydrogen caught on fire and the balloon started to fall.  The wind carried her off course, and Blanchard continued to eliminate ballast to become lighter and keep from plunging to the ground.

The balloon drifted above the rooftops of the Rue de Provence where the hydrogen gas finally burned up, causing the balloon to drop onto the roof of a house.  Blanchard was tossed out of her small basket, fell to the street below and was killed.  Speculation after the fact determined that the pyrotechnics were knocked out of position by the tree the balloon hit on the way up.

The crowd was stunned, and the rest of the event was cancelled.  The owners of Tivoli Gardens donated the admission fees to the support of Blanchard’s children.  When they found out that she didn’t have any children, the money was used to build a memorial to her over her grave, which was engraved with epitaph “victime de son art et de son intrépidité” (“victim of her art and intrepidity”).

QUESTION:  How do you feel about flying?  Would you like to be a pilot?  Why or why not?

©2010 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved