Au Nègre joyeux. Really?

Saturday, May 14th, 2016
  • Racist Paris history

    While enjoying a drink with some friends at a bar near the Latin Quarter of Paris, I noticed the words “Au Nègre Joyeux” on a building across the square from where we were sitting. My French is not very good at all, but even I knew what those words meant.

    The sign and picture are situated above a small convenience store at 14 Rue Mouffetard, and if you hadn’t already guessed, the sign reads “At (the place of the) Happy Negro.” It’s a bizarre thing to see on any wall, not least in this busy part of Paris, brimming with boutiques, creperies, bars, and restaurants.

    There’s no plaque to explain the sign or give its presence any context or reason, so it’s left to the casual observer to just guess why such an object of apparent antique racism has remained there. However, a plaque explaining that this is the site of a long since gone chocolatier might only deepen some people’s offense, and honestly, who could blame them. But, as you’ll learn if you read on, there is a lot more to the story than just the chocolatier.

    The controversial sign has attracted a fair amount of negative attention, especially in recent years. The owners of the building placed a plexiglass cover over the painting to protect it from the frequent attacks it’s subjected to. In the convenience store below, the clerk told me that the sign is often attacked at night, and in 2015 it was pelted with rocks and paint.

    La Brigade Anti-Négrophobie, an anti-racism pressure group in France, has long been campaigning to have the sign removed because they say there is no need to keep such an obviously racist artifact in place, regardless of its history. However, there are also those who feel that the sign and painting should stay.

    “Au Nègre Joyeux” was a chocolatier opened in 1748 when such a sign would have been entirely acceptable. It’s also worth noting though, that while at first glance the painting might look like a relatively common scene in which a black servant is serving a white woman a cup of chocolate, look closer and you’ll notice some inconsistencies with that assumption.

    The servant is wearing a large hanging napkin around his neck, and it would appear as if he is about to sit in the chair pulled out behind him, therefore joining the woman at the table, something a servant would never have done.

    In fact, after more research, I found that the picture has an interesting and, as you might expect for French history, a terrible story behind it.

    Apparently the woman in the picture is Jeanne Antoinette Bécu, more commonly known as Madame Du Barry, the scandalous courtesan who became the final Maîtresse-en-titre (official mistress) of an aging Louis XV.

    The servant is Zamor, captured when he was about ten years old by British slave traders in the Indian state of Bengal, now Bangladesh. They trafficked him to France where he was then presented to Countess Du Barry as a gift from the Duke of Richelieu.

    Madame Du Barry was fond of, as she put it, her “little negro,” whom she incorrectly believed was from Africa. She christened him Louis-Benoit Zamor, dressed him in elegant clothing, fed him well, and paid for his education and religious instruction.

    In her memoirs Du Barry wrote that she became attached to him with all the tenderness of a mother.” Zamor was with Madame Du Barry for many years and would eventually become the Governor of her chateau, in charge of her daily affairs, and reportedly paid a salary of six hundred francs a year by Louis XV.

    There has been much speculation about the relationship between Zamor and Du Barry. She was widely reported to “kiss and fondle” Zamor, so much so that she would later be accused of “spoiling the morals” of the young man. However, such salacious speculation of their relationship might well have been unfounded, and simply the cruelty of gossip. Whatever relationship the two had, if Zamor was in fact a “happy negro” with Madame Du Barry, that certainly began to change as he matured.

    Again from her memoirs, Du Barry wrote of Zamor, “During the years he has passed with me … age has only stripped him of his charms of infancy without supplying others in their place; nor can I venture to affirm that his gratitude and devotion to me are such as I have reason to expect they should be; for I can with truth affirm, that I have never ceased to lavish kindness on him, and to be, in every sense of the word, a good mistress to him.”

    Zamor himself began to detest Du Barry’s opulent lifestyle and he objected to her frequent visits to England, the country of the people who kidnapped him and sold him as a slave. He warned her numerous times not to support or shelter nobility on the run from revolutionaries in the rapidly changing country, but she paid no attention to his advice. Perhaps feeling rudely reminded of his place in her life, he used his influential position in the Committee of Public Safety to have the Countess arrested.

    Within just a few days Du Barry managed to secure her release from jail, and when she learned that Zamor had betrayed her and was involved with the revolutionaries, she promptly dismissed him from her service. As a result, Zamor became more vocal and open in his support of the revolution, and later brought further charges against the Countess that again lead to her arrest.

    She was accused of financially assisting nobility who had fled the French Revolution, and as such, she was charged with treason. Zamor gave evidence at her trial whereupon she was found guilty and sentenced to death by guillotine.

    On the 8th of December, 1793, Madame du Barry has beheaded on the Place de la Revolution which is now known as Place de la Concorde. On the way to the guillotine, terrified at what awaited her, she screamed and cried out to the indifferent crowds to rescue her from her fate.

    Her last words were to her executioner; “One more moment, Mr. Executioner, I beg you!” Then the guillotine fell.

    The story of Zamor doesn’t end well either. Not long after Madame Du Barry’s execution, Zamor himself was arrested on suspicion of being an accomplice of the Countess. He was jailed for a short time, then upon his release fled the country, disappearing into relative obscurity.

    Years later, after the fall of Napoleon, Zamor returned to Paris where he bought a house at 13 Rue Maître-Albert, just half a mile (800 metres) from the “Au Nègre Joyeux” chocolatier. With his days of elegant clothes and influence all but a distant memory, Zamor – the “happy negro,” became poverty-stricken and died of starvation in the winter of 1820.

    So should there be some kind of plaque at the site of “Au Nègre Joyeux” telling us at least some of that story? Or should we instead tear down this remnant of history that we’re no longer comfortable with? Personally, I think a plaque for those who want to learn would be beneficial because while our history might be hard to understand, our progress demands that we do.

    See the “Au Nègre joyeux” sign using Google street view.