The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
(2012), a biography
by Tom Reiss, surveys the life of General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a Haitian French Revolutionary soldier (later general) who went on to father the famous writer Alexandre Dumas. Reiss chronicles Dumas’s early life as a slave sold by his father, and moves through his initiation into the French Army and later tenure under Napoleon. Reiss also touches on Dumas’s influence on his son, who refigured him in some of his writings, most notably The Three Musketeers
and The Count of Monte Cristo
. The acclaimed biography won a 2013 Pulitzer Prize, for its nuanced reading of a complex revolutionary figure and his transformation into the fictional literature of his following generation.The Black Count
begins with a profile of Dumas’s childhood. Born under the name Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, he came into the world in a French colony of Haiti in 1762. His father was the Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, and his mother a Haitian slave, Marie-Cessette Dumas. When he was born, Alexandre was in hiding from the French government, as well as from his brother, a wealthy man in the sugar and slave trades who worked mainly out of Monte Cristo, Haiti. When the little Dumas turned fourteen, Alexandre sold him, along with his three siblings, to work as slaves in Haiti’s Port-au-Prince. The intent was to get enough money to come out from hiding by paying off his debts, thereby regaining his estate and a large inheritance sum. The plan worked, and Alexandre bought his son back, leaving his other children in slavery.
Dumas thereafter spent his teenage years in Paris, where he enjoyed the privilege conveyed by his father, who was considered a French aristocrat. He received one of the most comprehensive educations possible at the time, learning about classical literature, aristocratic history, military strategy, and combat. At the age of twenty-four, he suddenly had to fend for himself financially: his father remarried and squandered his wealth on his wife. Initially, as a means to an end, he applied to the French military, took on his mother’s last name, and abbreviated his first name to Alex. Initially enlisted as a dragoon, he quickly rose through the military’s bureaucracy. Once the French Revolution was in full swing, he championed a faction of swordsmen, all of mixed race, who became known as the Free Legion of Americans, or the Black Legion. The French Republic recognized him for his risky, yet successful strategies on the battlefield.
Dumas’ responsibility in the army broadened, and he went on to perform such tasks as overtaking the high Alps’ winding foot passages. This aided France greatly in its battle against Austria. At the age of thirty-two, he was made General-in-Chief of the part of the army that occupied the Alps, representing over 50,000 men, becoming the first non-white person in history to rank so highly in a European army. This record, moreover, lasted nearly until the twenty-first century, when Colin Powell of the United States became a general. In 1798, Dumas led the French Expeditionary Army into Egypt, under the title of Cavalry Commander. During this time, he passed between Alexandria and Cairo, putting Napoleon, not yet Emperor, under public scrutiny for his mission’s spurious purpose. From there, he returned to France, but was shipwrecked and captured by locals who imprisoned him for two years.
In 1802, Dumas was finally set free from his Mediterranean prison. He made for France, finding that Napoleon had taken control of what was now the French Empire. Napoleon passed a law that summer revoking the 1794 abolition of slavery. These newly reinstated laws effectively mandated all of France, including its many satellite colonies, demote any officers of mixed race. These individuals were often relegated to demoralizing hard labor, in stark contrast to their former lives. Further, Paris’ schools were closed to people of mixed race. The French Empire went so far as to nullify Dumas’s marriage to his wife, who was white. The now-disgraced General Dumas went on to rear his son, later the famous novelist Alexandre, in a home not far from Paris, breaking many rules about the proximity to the city in which a mixed-race man could live. He appealed to the government to waive the law, but it rebuffed him, despite his contributions to its existence in the first place. Recurring mental and physical ailments from his period in the dungeon troubled him until he died at the age of forty-three in Italy, barely a decade after his fall from the highest ranks of the French army.The Black Count
describes a mostly tragic account of the elder Dumas’ life. It suggests that despite the ambitions and achievements of colored men in France, working within a system that perpetually resonated with the racist proclivities of Europe ultimately proved self-effacing. Nonetheless, his legacy lived on through his son, who recapitulated his life in his later works.