Child from Chittagong

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By ABHIJIT GUPTA unravels one of history's mysteries
  • Published 11.03.08

There are some secrets that history hides remarkably well. I have often lain long nights wondering what happened to the 100 books which David Livingstone took on one of his African journeys, and threw away as his bearers took ill and died? What shop in London, circa 1913, sold luchi-mangsho to the young Sukumar Roy as he studied at the London County Council School of Photo Engraving and Lithography? What happened to the young boy from Chittagong sold into slavery in the household of Louis XV’s mistress, the Comtesse du Barry?

Of all these, the only secret I have come remotely close to unravelling is that of Louis Benoit Zamor. This was the name given to the 11-year-old boy when he arrived in the household of the Comtesse in 1773, having been trafficked by slavers from Chittagong via Madagascar. The Comtesse laboured under the delusion that he was African and doted upon the boy. In her memoirs she wrote: “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. Zamor fancied himself the equal of all he met, scarcely deigning to acknowledge the king himself as his superior.”

What did Zamor look like? The few paintings we have show him as having an unmistakably African cast, especially the one at Louvre by Marie-Victoire Lemoine, which you can see here. Elsewhere, he is depicted as some sort of curiosity which the Comtesse liked showing off. Again, from her memoirs: “At first I looked upon him as a puppet or plaything, but... I became passionately fond of my little page, nor was the young urchin slow in perceiving the ascendancy he had gained over me, and, in the end... attained an incredible degree of insolence and effrontery.”

Then came the French Revolution. Zamor, along with another member of du Barry’s domestic staff, joined the Jacobin Club. He became a follower of the revolutionary Grieve and then an office-bearer in the Committee of Public Safety. Du Barry found out and questioned Zamor about his connections with Grieve. He was given three
days’ notice to quit her service. This Zamor did without hesitation, and denounced his mistress to the Committee. During the trial, he gave Chittagong as his birthplace. His testimony sent the Comtesse to the guillotine, along with many of her ilk.

Little else is known about Zamor. After the decapitation of du Barry, Zamor spent six weeks in prison before his friends managed to secure his release. Then in 1815, he took up residence on Rue Maitre d’Albert, not far from the Latin Quartier. He taught school in the quarter but was said to be very mean and hit the kids. When he died on February 7, 1820, nobody went to his funeral. If surprised by this, a questioner would be told, “It’s Zamor, the one who snitched on du Barry.”

The author teaches English at Jadavpur University