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OP-ED: In the name of liberté and égalité, if not fraternité

  • Published at 08:45 pm July 19th, 2020
Louis-Benoit Zamor
An unlikely revolutionary WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

How a Chatgaiyya played his part in the French Revolution

July 14 marked the storming of the Bastille. Zamor’s journey from being a slave captured in Bengal to the royal apartments of Versailles and his eventual witness against his former mistress is a story that seems truly representative of the ideals of the 1789 revolution.

On September, 22, 1793, the last mistress of the late French king, Louis XV, is imprisoned. Rumour has it that this lady -- the once royal favourite, Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry (1743-1793), has been denounced by her own former page, Louis-Benoit Zamor (1762-1820). 

By the time the revolutionary tribunal opens trial against her, on December 6, 1793, Madame du Barry stands an extremely feeble chance of surviving it. Besides the fact that she was perceived as being closely associated to the ancien regime, she had also been sojourning in England till the declaration of war between the two countries in 1793. 

The final nail in the coffin, however, came when Zamor himself bore witness against du Barry. While du Barry screamed and convulsed on being condemned to death and declared an enemy of the French Republic, and was being dragged to the guillotine by several guillotine helpers, Zamor placidly signed the tribunal papers as “Louis-Benoit Zamor, né au Bengale...” (Louis-Benoit Zamor, born in Bengal)

A child from the Bengal Subah    

Although myriad contemporaneous archival material and civil documents remain divided to this day on Zamor’s precise birth date, it is generally accepted from the papers of the revolutionary tribunal as well as contemporary scholarship to be around 1762. His baptism record, however, indicates it to be around 1760. 

Whenever it might have been, it is unanimously agreed that the child, possibly of Siddhi origin, was captured by English slave traders from what was then Chittagong in the Bengal Subah under the Mughal Empire, and over which the English East India Company exercised de facto political control since the Battle of Plassey in 1757. 

The child slave probably passed through Portuguese and Spanish hands before setting foot in metropolitan France in 1766 and being offered to the royal favourite by Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu (1696-1788).

The child, though intended to be a page, was baptized in 1770 in the Church of Notre-Dame de Versailles “with great pomp.” 

Dressed in “a white costume braided in silver … with silver buttons, belt, and saber,” with Madame du Barry herself acting as the godmother, and Louis François Joseph de Bourbon (1734-1814) in the shoes of the godfather, Zamor got christened as Louis Benoit. 

Madame du Barry later wrote in her memoirs: “The second object of my regard was Zamor, a young African lad, full of intelligence and mischief: Simple and independent by nature, however, wild as his country. Zamor believed himself to be the equal of everyone he met, barely deigning to recognize the king himself as his superior.” Du Barry further admitted to have become “attached with all the tenderness of a mother” to “the little negro.”

The exotic curiosity of a royal mistress

For “all the tenderness of a mother” that du Barry had for Zamor, it is not to be mistaken as plain benevolence towards a captured and enslaved child brought from a faraway land. In order to precisely contextualize du Barry’s description of Zamor in her memoirs, the above mentioned quote appeared as second amongst a list of three “objects” that the royal mistress adored -- the first, being Dorine, her pet dog, prioritized over Zamor.

Neither was it important to determine the actual origins of her “little negro.” For 18th century France, a France posited in the age of the European Enlightenment, with all its newly valorized ideals breaking away from the Middle Ages, was still neither comfortable nor considerate when it came to women and men of colour. 

In a France of such sorts, one did not bother to determine where a coloured man came from -- if one was not white, he or she was essentially from the “savage, dark continent.” Madame du Barry lived throughout the length of her life under the impression that Zamor, being of the colour that he was, had been brought in from Africa.

The child was never technically employed in the household of Madame du Barry. Instead, he was to take up the role of a fashionable, exotic accessory of the royal mistress. He would closely follow his mistress wherever she went, “bearing the tail of her robe.” 

He would appear in royal suppers hosted by Madame du Barry, “bearing the trays with refreshments, hold up parasols or roll himself on the carpets.” 

In an epoch where owning a coloured slave and getting painted with one appeared to be quintessential fashion statements in the high societies of Europe, Madame du Barry chose to get herself a portrait along with Zamor, who posed as bearing her a cup of coffee. 

On another instance, the little boy appears in a water colour painting depicting a royal supper at du Barry’s residence in Louveciennes, in order to provide an exotic touch. This “amusing little creature,” a veritable character of entertainment, would be called names of all sorts -- a “two-legged pug,” a “human chimera,” and a “sapajou” -- a vulgar contemporary insult referring to the capuchin monkeys found in the tropical forests of Central and South America.

The Comtesse du Barry herself wrote in her memoirs: “Initially, I took him to be a puppet or a plaything, but ... I became passionate about my little page, besides, he was quick to perceive the ascendancy that he had gained over me, and, in the end … achieved an incredible degree of insolence and effrontery.” 

Zamor would have hardly agreed. After all, du Barry “brought and raised him merely for him to be made her toy; she allowed people to humiliate him at her home ... [he] was incessantly ridiculed and insulted by the castle household.” 

Zamor’s effrontery, however, helped him when he chose to educate himself, especially in the ideas of the philosophers and, more particularly, those of Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

A republican response

Come the Revolution, Zamor finally found some dignity for himself in securing employment with the Comité de Salut Public (Committee of Public Safety) and, later, even became the secretary of the Comité de Surveillance Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Surveillance Committee) of the district. 

Noticing the political tide turning, Zamor warned his mistress against her ways. However, “far from taking into consideration his wise advice … she did not even intend to seem to pay attention; on the contrary, having learnt that [Zamor] was very close to the [revolutionary] patriots named Blache, Salenave, Fremont, and many others, she allowed herself to talk to him in a peremptory manner, informing him that she would but give him three days to leave her house,” testified Zamor against his former mistress in the Revolutionary Tribunal. The fracture between the former royal mistress and her exotic, oriental “plaything” was now complete.

As du Barry headed towards the guillotine, Zamor himself was not unsusceptible to the excesses of the Reign of Terror. The Girondins, suspecting him to be an accomplice of du Barry, arrested him. 

A search in his house revealed how “on the walls of his bedroom, he had hung the portraits of Marat and Robespierre”… and “placed, on a white wooden shelf, among a few books, the works of Rousseau.” Finding, hence, nothing that could give him away, Zamor was released from prison after a brief six weeks.

Zamor immediately fled France only to return after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, when he took up the job of a teacher at a local Parisian school. He was considered strict and mean, and died penniless, probably hungry and cold, on February 7, 1820, in his home. 

Buried the next day with almost no friends and acquaintances in attendance, Zamor’s death certificate would label him as an “Indian … emancipated slave,” before historians would turn him into the celebrated “traitor of du Barry.”

The author is grateful, amongst others, to Marie-Amynthe Denis, biographer of Madame du Barry and former curator at the Musée-promenade de Marly-le-Roi-Louveciennes and Erick Noël, professor in the Department of History at the Université des Antilles, for their extensive research, from which this article heavily draws. 

Arghya Bose is an author and a doctoral researcher of political sciences at the Centre d’Études de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud (CEIAS), École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (Paris). A version of this article previously appeared in Scroll.in and has been reprinted by special arrangement.

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