How books and a royal mistress shaped the role of an Indian slave in the French Revolution
Tits story has all the qualities of a war drama – a king, a mistress, a slave, a revolution, loyalty and, ultimately, betrayal. But, at its center is a young Indian, withdrawn from his birthplace when he was only 11, never expecting a future role in one of the most important events in history. European – the French Revolution.
The mistress mentioned above was Jeanne Bécu, Countess of Barry, or Madame du Barry, who was “gifted” with a young slave by King Louis XV of France. This boy was to be his page, but the countess instead developed a strong sympathy for him and educated him. This education would inspire him with ideals which would ultimately lead to the loss of the Countess. But before it got there, who was this young boy?
‘The object of my consideration.’
In France, Zamor was baptized and baptized “Louis-Benoit”. But his birthplace was halfway across the world in Chittagong, Bengal (now Bangladesh). It is assumed that he may have been of Siddhi origin.
He later told people that he was born in Bengal Sabah of the Mughal Empire and that when he was around 11 he was kidnapped by British slave traders and taken to Europe.
Eventually, Zamor was taken to France via Madagascar and sold to King Louis XV as a “slave”. The king delivered it to Madame du Barry, then royal mistress – probably around 1769.
The Countess’ own story is nothing short of a period film – she was the illegitimate daughter of a French seamstress and a brother, who rose through the ranks with her beauty and garnered attention of the King. She was famous for her golden locks, shining blue eyes, and snow-white skin.
Before finding herself living a lavish life upstairs just above the King’s Quarters in the magnificent Palace of Versailles, she was a poor woman who struggled to make ends meet – and was the lover of many wealthy men. (including the king’s courtiers). Either way, her fortunes changed around the age of 25, when the King (who was around 58) fell in love with her.
As for Zamor, she seems to have taken it as a favorite project. Jeanne dressed Zamor in stylish clothes, always kept him by her side and showed him off as one would with a pet.
In her memoirs, she writes that her first love and priority was Dorine, her dog, who “sipped her coffee every day from a golden saucer, and Zamor (who seems not to have liked Dorine) was appointed her cupbearer”.
Zamor was the “second object of [her] which concerns. “She called him a” young African boy. “Madame du Barry believed all her life that he was African, but that was not abnormal at the time. The true origins of the people of color did not matter in French from the mid to late eighteenth century.
Zamor was said to be “full of intelligence and mischief” and “independent in her nature, but wild as her country” (she was completely wrong about the country that was, however).
That’s not to say their relationship was positive – Zamor was seen as a “young kid” who performed “monkey feats” which she often viewed as a source of her amusement.
The racism to which Zamor was subjected was not only benevolent. In the courts, he was often humiliated and ridiculed and brought up as more or less a toy or a “toy” for the Countess. He then finds comfort in his thirst for knowledge and turns to texts written by philosophers, notably those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But, at some point, Zamor also began to hate the Countess and her lavish lifestyle.
In her memoirs, Madame du Barry had written that Zamor considered himself the equal of anyone he met, so much so that he rarely recognized that even the king himself was his superior. This simple description turned out to be a sort of foreshadowing. A silent storm was brewing in Zamor’s mind – a feeling of outrage he kept to himself.
By 1789 Zamor was an adult man and Joan’s fortune had changed a lot. King Louis XV died in 1774, and Madame du Barry was quickly sent to a convent. She eventually bought an estate and lived a quiet life there, occasionally having an affair with other nobles. Zamor remained at his service.
The reign of King Louis XVI was underway and Marie-Antoinette was all the rage. And the French Revolution was just around the corner.
At that time, Zamor, alongside another member of Madame’s staff, joined the Society of Jacobins, friends of liberty and equality, or, Society of Jacobins, Friends of Liberty and Equality. Zamor was eventually inducted into the Committee of Public Safety and later, the Revolutionary Oversight Committee.
The Jacobins ruled the infamous “Reign of Terror,” while launching tough measures like price controls and food seizures.
‘… Born in Bengal, India’
Several well-off people in France (who were most likely to lose their minds if the worst were to happen) fled to other countries when the revolution began, and many settled in Britain. They were known as the emigrants and were declared enemies of the revolution.
Perhaps England was also the eventual plan of Madame du Barry, who began to visit England frequently under the pretext of recovering lost jewelry. Zamor warned her against this alliance with the aristocrats (she could have legitimately claimed to have no noble blood). But the warnings on the page have fallen on deaf ears.
He was plotting to get her arrested anyway, which he managed to do for a short while. She found out who her whistleblower was and quickly fired Zamor from her duty when she left.
Zamor decided to take things to the next level. On his return from a private trip to England, Zamor arrested Madame du Barry, suspected of having financially helped the emigrants.
He testified against her in the revolutionary tribunal. At trial he signed his birthplace as Chittagong – “Louis-Benoit Zamor, born in Bengal, India…[Louis-Benoit Zamor, born in Bengal, in India…]“
Her role in her arrest led to her being sentenced to death. The Countess tried to escape by revealing the location of the jewels she had hidden, but to no avail.
On December 8, 1793, at the age of 50, Madame du Barry was beheaded by the guillotine. His last words would be: “Please, hangman, a little while longer!” (“One more moment, hangman, please!”). She became one of the thousands executed during the Reign of Terror, including Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.
What then becomes of the young Indian who played a modest but significant role in the most significant event in the history of France?
Zamor is briefly arrested by the Girondins, suspected of being an accomplice of the countess. However, when they searched his home, they found only books and paintings by famous French revolutionaries. As a result, he was released after six weeks in prison and fled France almost immediately.
Little is known about him after that, except that he returned to Paris after the fall of Napoleon in 1815 and spent his last days as a schoolteacher, minus the luxury and wealth he unwittingly found himself in as a child.
He died in the 1820s, almost penniless, and was buried in an anonymous grave in Paris.
Zamor is hailed as one of the few “du Barry’s traitor” who remembers his existence and his contributions. However, as is the case with most people of color who are part of societies that care little for their well-being, Zamor’s role has faded, not only nowadays, but even immediately after the revolution, to which he devoted his life.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)