July 14 marks the storming of the Bastille. Louis-Benoit Zamor’s journey from being a slave captured in Bengal to the royal apartments of Versailles and his eventual witness statement against his former owner 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 was imprisoned. Rumour had it that this lady – the once royal favourite, Jeanne Bécu, Comtesse du Barry – was denounced by her former page, Louis-Benoit Zamor.
By the time the revolutionary tribunal opened trial against her on December 6, 1793, Madame du Barry stood 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 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, dans l’Inde…[Louis-Benoit Zamor, born in Bengal, in India…]”
A child from the Bengal Subah
Although archival material remain divided on Zamor’s precise birth date, it is generally derived 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 was captured by English slave traders form 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.
The child, though intended to be a page, was baptised 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 in the shoes of the godfather, Zamor was christened as Louis Benoit.
Madame du Barry later wrote in her memoir: “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 recognise 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”.
A royal mistress’s exotic curiosity
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 contextualise 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, gaining priority over Zamor being Dorine, her pet dog.
Neither was it important to determine the actual origins of her “little negro”. For 18th-century France, posited in the age of the European Enlightenment and with all its newly-valorised 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, s(he) was essentially from the “savage, dark continent”. Madame du Barry lived throughout the length of her life under the impression that Zamor, being the coloured person 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 statement in the high societies of Europe, Madame du Barry chose to get herself a portrait along with Zamor, who poses as bearing her a cup of coffee.
On another instance, the little boy appears in a watercolour depicting a royal supper at du Barry’s residence in Louveciennes, merely 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 alluding 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.
A republican response
Come the Revolution, Zamor finally seemed to find some dignity for himself in securing an employment with the Comité de Salut Public, or Committee of Public Safety, and later even became the secretary of the Comité de Surveillance Révolutionnaire, or Revolutionary Surveillance Committee, of the district. Noticing the political tide turning, Zamor warned his mistress against her ways.
However, as Zamor testified against his former mistress in the revolutionary tribunal, “far from taking into consideration his wise advices…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.”
The fracture between the former royal mistress and her exotic, oriental plaything was now complete.
But 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 nothing else that could give him away, Zamor was released from prison after a brief six weeks in prison.
Zamor immediately fled France, to return only after the fall of Napoleon in 1815, when he took up the job of a teacher in 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 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”.
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, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris.
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 primary research, from which this article draws heavily.