Napoléon Bonaparte and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the names many people are familiar with when the topic of the French Revolution is raised. Not many know about Louis-Benoit Zamor, a boy from Chattogram (or Chittagong, Bengal, now in Bangladesh) who became a leader in the revolution and played a notable role in the most defining event in French history.
In the 1760s, slave trading was common in Chattogram, where Zamor was from. Zamor was, according to historians, kidnapped by British slave traders before being sold to King Louis XV of France when he was 11 years old. Some accounts state that he was seven.
The King gave him to his mistress, Madame du Barry. In 1770, Zamor was baptized in the Notre-Dame Church and he was christened as Louis Benoit. He was dressed in “a white costume braided in silver…with silver buttons, belt and saber”, with the countess du Barry acting as his grandmother.
Du Barry believed that Zamor was African, meanwhile, he may have been from the Siddi ethnic group from Bengal, historians say. Du Barry would write in her memoir translated by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon that Zamor was full of mischief.
“The second object of my regard was Zamor, a young African boy, full of intelligence and mischief; simple and independent in his nature, yet wild as his country,” she writes of Zamor, who she largely took up as a pet project.
Du Barry would dress the boy up in elegant clothing, keep him by her side wherever she went, and show him off. At grand suppers she organized, Zamor would serve the guests or sit in a corner. And at a time when owning a colored slave and getting painted with one was essentially a fashion statement among the privileged in Europe, Du Barry decided to get herself a portrait along with Zamor, who is seen in the portrait bearing her a cup of coffee.
Raised more or less a toy for the countess, Zamor was often humiliated and ridiculed in the courts but amid the discomfort and racism, he decided to seek knowledge. He gained an interest in literature and philosophy, reading texts written by philosophers including those by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. By and by, he realized the need for every individual to have an equal opportunity to make the most of their lives. This realization and his continued thirst for knowledge inspired him to take part in the French Revolution.
The French Revolution, which began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s, was caused by many factors including people’s discontent with the French monarchy and the poor economic policies by the King. The Revolution would help get rid of institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system.
When the French Revolution began, Zamor was already an adult. Around 27 years old, he took the side of the revolutionaries and the Jacobins. The Jacobins were left-wing revolutionaries who aimed to end the reign of King Louis XVI and establish a French republic. King Louis XV had died in 1774. His successor’s extravagant spending without ensuring the betterment of the country had outraged people, leading to the Revolution.
Zamor himself began to hate Du Barry and her luxurious lifestyle. As several affluent people in France (declared enemies of the revolution) fled to other countries when the revolution began, Du Barry also started frequenting England claiming that she was retrieving her lost jewelry. Zamor warned her about those visits and her association with the aristocrats but she ignored him.
Zamor had at the time become an informant of the Committee of Public Safety, the first effective executive government of the Revolutionary period which governed France for a year during the Revolution. In 1792, Zamor got Du Barry arrested after she had returned to France from another England visit. The countess secured her release from jail and dismissed Zamor from her service after she learned about his links with the revolutionary patriots and the fact that he was involved in her arrest.
Zamor went ahead to do more by bringing more charges against the countess, eventually leading to her arrest, trial and execution. Du Barry became one of the thousands executed at the time, including Louis XVI. While testifying against Du Barry in the revolutionary tribunal, Zamor signed the tribunal papers as, “Louis-Benoit Zamor, born in Bengal”, making his actual origin known to all.
And despite being an informant, Zamor was later suspected of being an accomplice of the countess and was arrested. But when officials searched his home, all they found were books and paintings of influential people of the French Revolution including Jean-Paul Marat. As a result, Zamor was released after six weeks in prison. He fled from France right after his release but came back in 1815 after the fall of Napoleon.
He then became a teacher at a local school and spent his last days in his house near the Latin quarters of Paris. Sources say he died in poverty in the 1820s and was buried in Paris, in an unnamed grave.
All in all, history describes Zamor as the boy from Bengal who became a leader in the revolution and a “celebrated traitor” of Du Barry.