Zamor: The tale of a Bengali in the French revolution

When the French Revolution in the 1790s overthrew the French monarchy and gave power to the people, it changed the course of world history forever. One might have heard of the historic names associated with this revolution like Napoleon Bonaparte and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But not many of us know that the French Revolution also had a leader of Bengali origins.

Here’s the forgotten tale of Zamor, a young boy from Chittagong who participated in a revolution of people that changed the world forever.

The boy from Chittagong

From whatever little records can be found, Zamor was born in 1762, in Chittagong of Bengal. It is likely that he had little or some African lineage in him. Zamor was probably a member of the Siddi or Habshi community.

We make these assumptions based on Countess Du Barry’s mention of him as an “African boy” and his one portrait where his skin color gives off an impression that he’s African.

Kidnap by slave traders and ending up in France

Chittagong at that time was the finest port in the East. It was frequented by traders and businessmen from all over the world and slave trade was not an uncommon sight.

Read more: Chittagong port: Reliving the history of the oldest port in the East

BRITISH SLAVE TRADERS

Zamor was the victim of these slave traders. He was kidnapped by British Slave traders when he was 11 and was sold to King Louis XV of France as a palace slave. The king, however, gifted him to his mistress, Countess Du Barry, who named him Louis-Benoit Zamor. She also believed he was African which she writes about in her journal.

“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.”

The countess wrote in her journal.

Becoming a leader in the French revolution

Zamor had a keen interest in philosophy and was inspired by the works of Rousseau. In 1789, by the time Zamor turned 27, the French revolution broke out.

A young man inspired by Russeau, Zamor took the side of the revolutionaries and the Jacobins. He began to detest the Countess and her lavish lifestyle.

As an informant to the Committee of Public Safety, he got the Countess arrested by the police for protecting the Aristocrats in 1792. After that, Zamor eventually got more vocal and actively involved in the revolution. He rose to become a secretary in the revolutionary government.

His charges against his countess eventually led to her execution by guillotine. At the trial, Zamor publicly announced his birthplace as Chittagong of Bengal Subah, breaking the long misconception that he was African.

The Aftermath of the revolution

The tale of the heroic rise, of a young boy from Chittagong to a leader of the French revolution has a bitter ending.

Zamor was arrested by the Girondins soon after the execution of Du Barry. He was tried and imprisoned but was able to secure his release.

Zamor fled from France only to return in 1815 after the fall of Napoleon.

He bought a house near the Latin quarters of Paris and spent the rest of his life in extreme poverty as a school teacher. Zamor died in 1820 and was buried in Paris in an unnamed grave.

Somewhere in the city of art and revolution, lies the remains of a boy from Bengal who lost his home when he was eleven years old. A boy who was sold as a slave to the other side of the world. A slave who became a hero in a revolution that changed the world. Somewhere in Paris, sleeps a son of Bengal who never returned home.

Read more: A lost community of Armenians in Dhaka

A lost community of Armenians in Dhaka

Dhaka, a 400-years-old behemoth of a city. Imagine for a moment that you are in 17th century Mughal Dhaka. You are standing in the middle of a bazaar in the Grand Area. People are shouting, talking to one other, switching between languages in their usual loud tone. Persian merchants, on their way to the port of Calcutta, are stopping by to trade fine Muslin for the Shah’s gold. Do you smell the fresh spices? Amid the ruckus of crowd and noise, a mellow and soothing sound of sitar is coming from somewhere. You can hear the prayer chants and bells of a temple somewhere far away. Only to be overtaken with the sound of Azaan as the dusk begins to fall.

It was sometime in these buzzing, lazy days of the 17th-18th century when Dhaka saw the arrival of a prominent community of Armenians in this part of the world. Almost 400 years later, only a small locality name, Armanitola and one magnificently breathtaking church built by them, bear the testimony of their existence. This is the story of the forgotten Armenians of Dhaka.

The arrival of the Armenians in Dhaka

Courtesy: The Armenian Church of Bangladesh Website

We cannot find an exact record of exactly when the Armenians had arrived in Dhaka. But it is widely believed that they arrived some time in the late 17th or early 18th century.

Following the invasion of Armenia by the Persian Safavid rulers in the 17th century, a significant number of Armenians came to Bengal to establish a community and engage in trade and commerce. Armenians, who were fluent in Persian and veteran businessmen, had no trouble finding their niche in the Persian speaking Mughal court. They quickly established themselves as prominent traders in Bengal.

The rise to prominence

The Armenians settled largely in an Armenian colony in the preset day Aramanitola. In an extremely short span of time, the Armenians became unmatched in the trade of textile, opium and leather, beating their European counterparts in the game.

Thanks to them, Dhaka started to become even richer as one of the most important trade hubs in the east.

The Armenians, thanks to their specific skill sets of trade and commerce, quickly established themselves as the elite class in the city. Integrating themselves with the locals, many of them became local zamindars and landlords. They built picturesque mansions, houses and bungalows that adorned the city of Dhaka. The now ruined Ruplal House was such an establishment which was originally built by an Armenian landlord, Aratoon. It later went on to become one of the most prominent landmarks of colonial Dhaka alongside Ahsan Manzil. Parts of Shahbagh and the land where Bangabhaba stands also used to belong to Armenian zaminders.

Read more: 6 places in Dhaka that remind us of our glorious past

Contributions to the development of Dhaka

Dhaka City across Buriganga River – a painting by Frederick William Alexander de Fabeck in 1861

The Armenian community played a significant role in the development of Dhaka. Although the use of horse-carriages is mostly associated with Nawabs of Dhaka, it was the Armenians who fist introduced these horse-carriages which became a popular mode of transportation in the city later on. The Armenians were also the first to introduce departmental stores in Dhaka. Nicholas Pogose, a prominent wealthy Armenian of that time, had established the Pogose school. It was one of the first three English schools in Dhaka. He was also the founding member of Dhaka Municipality in 1864.

The Armenian Church

A lost community of Armenians in Dhaka 2

In 1781, the Armenian community built a church adjacent to a community burial ground. This is the Armenian church that we know today. The sole testament to a once thriving and flourishing diaspora in the heart of Dhaka.

Just like their arrival, there are no records of their sudden disappearance either. The community slowly extracted themselves after the partition in 1947. The burial ground inside the Armenian church contains bodies of Armenian settlers and their subsequent generations who are just as much Dhakaites as the rest of us today. They came here, settled here, grew families and businesses here. They flourished this city. Here’s to hoping this city does not forget them.