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Zamor, the slave boy from Bengal played a major role in bringing down Bastille during French Revolution

30 December, 2021 11:41:54
Zamor, the slave boy from Bengal played a major role in bringing down Bastille during French Revolution

Bastille… that formidable French prison that none could ever get through. But on the afternoon of 14 July 1789, this very fortress and political prison was attacked by an angry and aggressive mob. The prison had become a symbol of the monarchy’s dictatorial rule, and the event became one of the defining moments in the Revolution that followed. And how is French Revolution related to Bengal? The missing link is Louis-Benoit Zamor --- a slave captured in Bengal and how he landed in the royal apartments of Versailles, how his eventual witness statement against his former owner scripted the ideals of the famous 1789 Revolution.

But who was Louis-Benoit Zamor? Zamor was a child when he was captured by English slave traders form 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. Back in the 1760s, Chittagong was one of the finest trading ports in the East and slave trading was a common practice then. Zamor was kidnapped by British slave traders and probably passed through Portuguese and Spanish hands before setting foot in metropolitan France in 1766 and being offered to the royal favourite, Madame du Barry, by Louis François Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu. Some say he may have been as young as seven at that time.

The child, though intended to be a page, was baptised in 1770 in the Church of Notre-Dame de Versailles with great pomp with Madame du Barry herself acting as the godmother, and Louis François Joseph de Bourbon as the godfather, Zamor was christened as Louis Benoit. According to the book Memoirs of the Comtesse du Barry, translated by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon, Zamor was a very mischievous child.

The child was never technically employed in the household of Madame du Barry. Instead, Zamor was brought and raised to become a toy, an exotic accessory of Madam du Barry who allowed people to humiliate him at her home. He was incessantly ridiculed and insulted by the castle household. These events played key roles in his later life. Zamor’s keen interest in literature and philosophy, his thirst for knowledge and sense of equality, led him to participate in the French Revolution. By the time the French Revolution broke out, he was an adult. The 27-year-old young man was deeply inspired by the works of Rousseau and he took the side of the revolutionaries and the Jacobins.

Zamor began to loathe the countess and her luxurious lifestyle. He also protested her repeated visits to England with the intention of retrieving her lost jewelry. With the Revolution, Zamor finally found 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. As an informant of the Committee of Public Safety, Zamor, got the countess arrested in 1792, on her return from another England visit.  However, she secured her release from jail and dismissed him from her service as she learnt about his involvement with her arrest and his affiliation with the insurgents. This further infuriated Zamor and he brought more charges against the countess, which eventually led to her arrest, trial and execution.

At the moment of her trial, Zamor's actual origin came forward. The former page placidly signed the tribunal papers as “Louis-Benoit Zamor, né au Bengale, dans l’Inde…[Louis-Benoit Zamor, born in Bengal, in India…]”, breaking the long misconception of his African origin.

Despite being an informant, the Girondins suspected him to be an accomplice of the countess and arrested him. They searched his house for proof and found nothing but few books – some works of Rousseau. On the wall hung portraits of the two most influential leaders of the French Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat and Maximilien Robespierre. He was released after six weeks’ imprisonment. Zamor fled from France immediately after his release, but returned to Paris in 1815 after the fall of Napoleon. He joined a local school as teacher and spent his last days in his house near the Latin quarters of Paris. He died in poverty on February 7, 1820. Not many were present at his funeral. He was buried in Paris, in an unnamed grave.

And in that grave, rests a boy from Bengal who never made it home.

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