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General Alexandre Dumas
General Alexandre Dumas, Musée Alexandre Dumas, Villers-Cotterëts
Tom Reiss' book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It is the little known story of the father of the French writer Alexandre Dumas, General Alexandre Dumas who "shared with Toussaint Loverture the distinction of being the highest-ranking black officer in the Western world until 1989, when the American Colin Powell became a four-star general, the closest United States equivalent of General of the Army, Dumas's highest rank." (Wikipedia)

Although it was originally recommended as a book that contained parallels between today's society and that of France a little over two hundred years ago, I found myself enchanted by the history that Tom Reiss painstakingly reveals. Who knew I would so enjoy learning the origin of the US Marine Corps sword? (See footnote, page 254.)

It is one of those biographies. You know, the kind written by a curious mind which not only wants to discover the story of a life, but also the world in which the life was lived. And because Alex Dumas lived in so many interesting places and during such interesting times, this biography is rich in social, political, economic, geographical and military details.

But this is first a biograrphy of a French General who swiftly rose high in the military ranks of Revolutionary France, a devoted idealist to the aims of the revolution, and a brilliant fighter who led the Army of the Alps, and the Army of the Orient to victories under difficult circumstances. And whose descent from the pinacle was faster than his rise.

The Black Count by Tom Reiss book cover
Alexandre Dumas was born, Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, in Saint-Domingue the French sugar plantation colony that became Haiti, the home for many of France's aristocratic second sons.  His father, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, was a somewhat feckless man, avoiding as diligently as possible any honest labor. Although the older son, he mooched off of his younger brother's sugar plantation for a while, before heading to the hills where he purchased the beautiful Marie Cessette, who already had one child and bore him three more, including Alexandre in 1762.

In order to return to France to claim his inheritance after his father died, Pailleterie sold Alex as a slave to a naval officer. Sold with conditions, or in other words, pawned. (The wife and three other children had already been sold outright.) Once the inheritance was secure he brought his son to France and raised him as an aristocrat who would inherit his title of Marquis.

At 24, Alex had a final falling out with his father, and joined the military as an enlistee in the Queen's Dragoons, a light cavalry regiment. It was at this point that he took his mother's last name, Dumas, and began to use Alex as a first name.

While his regiment was assigned to the village of Villers-Cotterêts, Dumas met and eventually married, Marie-Louise Labouret, the daughter of the innkeeper where he lodged. They had three children, the youngest, born in 1802 was their son Alexander who became the most read author in France.

Dumas’s incredible ascendancy as a black man through the white ranks of the French army reflected a key turning point in the history of slavery and race relations as forgotten as Dumas himself: a single decade when revolutionary France ended slavery and initiated the integration of its army, its government, and even its schools. General Dumas was “a living emblem of the new equality,” wrote a nineteenth-century French historian—but his career’s tragic unraveling reflected the unraveling of that progress as well.

The agent of destruction for both was his fellow general, Napoleon, who at first praised Dumas as a Roman hero for his battlefield feats but came to loathe him for his independence and revolutionary values. The two men clashed in 1798, during the invasion of Egypt—where the Egyptians mistook the towering Dumas for the leader of the French forces. Then, while Dumas languished for two years in an enemy dungeon, Napoleon made himself dictator and dismantled France’s postracial experiment, imposing cruel race laws in France, reinstituting slavery in the colonies, and sending an invasion force to Saint-Domingue with orders to kill or capture any black who wore an officer’s uniform. He went to equally extraordinary lengths to bury the memory of Alex Dumas, thundering, “I forbid you to ever speak to me of that man!” when former comrades tried to intervene on behalf of the general and his family, who were living in near-destitution. Barely five years after his return to France, Dumas died at 43 of stomach cancer, likely an aftereffect of his poisoning while imprisoned.
- Tom Reiss, The Harvard Magazine

This masterful biography reminded me that the hard-fought gains that we in the US have made for women, minorities and workers can be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Just as revolutionary gains in France were wiped out once Napoleon took over. And the history of an amazing French General was wiped out as well. By fiat he was erased from our knowledge of the French Revolution. A lone statue of him in France was destroyed during WWII, and has not been replaced.

And who knew that the heroes of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo were based on a black man, son of a slave and French aristocrat? For Alexandre Dumas, the son born to the General and Marie-Louise in 1802, and with whom most of us are familiar, based both books on his father's exploits. General Dumas did fight three duels in a single day and was locked up in a castle dungeon.

Other fun facts I learned in this book:

In late-eighteenth-century France, the term “American” was usually used synonymously with “man of color.” He was from the American sugar islands, and was thus a former slave or the son of a slave.
And although I have been aware since grade school that France came to our aid during our own War of Independence, I did not realize the cost.
Thus the oldest great monarchy in the West assured the establishment of the first great Republic since ancient times. In the process, Versailles bankrupted itself.
On the sword I mentioned in the introduction:
The Mameluke sword was considered such a perfectly balanced weapon that, during the fifty years after the Egyptian expedition, it was adopted as the official cavalry weapon by almost all major Western armies and to this day is the official sword of the U.S. Marine Corps.
In the decades before the Revolution, the civil rights of slaves were fought for and protected by lawyers who sued for their freedom when they arrived on French soil.
From there, they argued that the Franks, who had founded the French nation and empire, had been fundamentally opposed to slavery. (The argument was etymological as well as historical, referring to the roots of the word “franc,” which originally meant “free.”)
Looks like W and Dick weren't the only Westerners who completely misread the Middle East:
The Egyptians would welcome the French as liberators, Napoleon assured his men,

In a sign of future troubles, when the French tried billeting some of their troops in Alexandria’s old city, a number had their throats slit, so the policy was jettisoned.

Strangely enough, none of the villagers greeted them as liberators. Everywhere the population seemed prepared to put up resistance.

And sadly,
Napoleon would attempt to remake Egyptian society from top to bottom in a manner as extreme as what he had done so quickly in Malta. But the Egyptians would prove much more resistant to their makeover, and in trying to bludgeon them into accepting foreign rule in the name of “rights for all,” the French would unleash storms that are still igniting conflict between East and West to our own day.
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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (10+ / 0-)

    We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty - Edward R. Murrow

    by Susan Grigsby on Mon May 06, 2013 at 08:30:09 AM PDT

  •  Really liked the book (9+ / 0-)

    Read it awhile ago, before it got the award. Aside from the broad outlines of the story, which definitely enrich the reader's understanding of the world, it's full of little tidbits - like the political terms "right" and "left" originating with the French Revolution, for one semi-random example. Prof. Henry Lewis Gates said on the jacket blurb that he learned something new on practically every page. So true.

    Mark Twain: It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

    by Land of Enchantment on Mon May 06, 2013 at 08:41:23 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for this utterly fascinating diary! (7+ / 0-)

    Now I've got to get a copy of this book!

    Who'd a thunk it?  The Count of Monte Cristo was a man of color, and for a while that belle France was in the vanguard of racial equality in Western Europe!

    However, I don't think the French have ever whole-heartedly embraced racism. Remember the popularity of Josephine...oh, gad, what was her name? Ignored in her native America, she went to France early in the 20th century and made a name for herself. I read her autobiography.  She adopted 12 children and called them her "Rainbow Tribe."

    You said:

    This masterful biography reminded me that the hard-fought gains that we in the US have made for women, minorities and workers can be wiped out in the blink of an eye.
    And indeed it will--the process has already begun.

    Still owe you two book reviews for this series, and am starting on the first of them this week.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Mon May 06, 2013 at 08:46:44 AM PDT

  •  What a fascinating piece of lost history. (5+ / 0-)
    This masterful biography reminded me that the hard-fought gains that we in the US have made for women, minorities and workers can be wiped out in the blink of an eye.
    What a soul-crushing fate! Imagine being born into a benighted world, where for centuries blacks had so little hope for fairness and possibility. But you're born into a rising sun, and you rise with it to the top of society. Only to have the night come crashing down around you, and all your possibilities vanish.

    I did know Dumas the writer was black, as was St. Augustine. Pushkin had a great-grandfather who was an African slave (but became a major-general, a governor, and a Russian nobleman). And there's Frederick Douglass.

    Does anyone know any other black authors, who achieved success before 1850?

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Mon May 06, 2013 at 12:50:24 PM PDT

    •  Good question. I was once lucky enough to pick out (5+ / 0-)

      of a sale bin the Daughters of Africa: An International Anthology of Words and Writings by Women of African Descent From the Ancient Egyptian to the Present. It is a wonderful anthology and includes the poetry and songs of Africa as well as the words of the Queen of Sheba speaking of the Wisdom of Solomon.

      There is a large gap after that until the poetry of Lucy Terry in written in 1746, but not published until 1855, long after she had been freed, married, living and then dying in Vermont in 1821.

      We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty - Edward R. Murrow

      by Susan Grigsby on Mon May 06, 2013 at 01:13:24 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Very knowledgeable answer, thank you. (4+ / 0-)

        I'm impressed.

        There may be several more among the Romans, Greeks and Fathers of the Church, what with all the trade, conquest and intermingling in the ancient Mediterranean. And among the cream of Islam, a millennium later.

        There will be others, whose lineage we are simply unaware of. Machado de Assis has been called the greatest Brazilian writer, and Harold Bloom calls him "the supreme black literary artist to date" - but he began publishing in 1864. There certainly may be others from South and Central America, and possibly the Caribbean.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Mon May 06, 2013 at 01:45:21 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Not sure if "black" (5+ / 0-)

          would describe Publius Terentius Afer...

          But he was African, was a slave, and one of the greatest playwrights of ancient Rome.

          •  It was interesting to write this diary and use (4+ / 0-)

            an appropriate racial descriptor for General Dumas. African American was clearly out, but using the term used during his lifetime, American, would make little sense to current American readers. So I used the term black from the title.

            When General Dumas led his troups into battle against the Austrians in the Alps,

            “[ Dumas] flies from one city to another, from one village to another, hacking everything to pieces,” runs one account, “capturing two thousand prisoners here, one thousand there, he performs truly fantastic charges.” The Austrians came up with a name for the relentless French general who stalked them through the snow: die schwarze Teufel, the “Black Devil.”
            Reiss, Tom (2012-09-18). The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (p. 207). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

            We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty - Edward R. Murrow

            by Susan Grigsby on Mon May 06, 2013 at 07:02:02 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you! (5+ / 0-)

    I have it on my TBR pile and I look forward to reading it.

    I probably said this before, but the lost Dumas story, The Last Cavalier, found a few years ago, was about Napoleon.  It was supposed to come before The Count of Monte Cristo, but Dumas put off writing it and did the Count first because he hated Napoleon.

    The story was not finished, but is still 751 pages.

    I thought it was an interesting book, but I am glad he did the Count first.    

    Join us at Bookflurries-Bookchat on Wednesday nights 8:00 PM EST

    by cfk on Mon May 06, 2013 at 01:14:41 PM PDT

  •  Thanks for this excellent diary. A history book (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    RiveroftheWest, Susan from 29

    that reads like a well written novel makes learning a joy. The Black Count is one you put on your re-read shelf for great writing as well as to make sure you get all the info from the notes.

    I would be impressed by the intellectual scholarship + investigative journalism of Tom Reiss if his tome was dry as dust. I would have tried to fight my way through it had it been a pendantic pontification. Luckily it's neither self-importantly boring nor preachy. Reiss approaches questions and information with the two gifts of a great storyteller: curiosity and generosity.

    Somewhere out there, AP teachers are using this book for extra credit.  How fun would it have been to read just after reading The Count of Monte Cristo?

    I read a lot, but I could've easily missed this without Susan from 29 putting it on the schedule. Thank you, thank you. I learn so much from your diaries and from the comments as well. I came to dkos for the politics (well, for sanity re: politics), but I get so much more.

    Looking forward to next week.

    "In politics stupidity is not a handicap." Napoleon Bonaparte

    by citylights on Mon May 06, 2013 at 11:21:07 PM PDT

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