Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous French novelist, was born into a noble Norman family. He was generally acknowledged to be the strongest man in the French army. He commanded armies, fought on two continents, and successfully invaded Italy. Not only was he personally known to Napoleon, but Napoleon hated his guts. Dumas managed to survive enemy action, prolonged imprisonment, personal betrayal, and the Terror. His was a life of almost picaresque scope and wonder.
Oh, and he was also the mixed-race son of a penniless French nobleman and a freed slave.
Thus is the story of Tom Reiss’ The Black Count. Drawing on staggering reams of data (including papers liberated from a safe by a French safecracker), Reiss draws us into the life and times of a most extraordinary man, one whose life would serve as repeated inspiration for his better-known son. In particular, the elder Dumas’ unjust imprisonment provides the inciting incident for The Count of Monte Cristo (which, if you haven’t read it, stop reading this review right this second and hie thee over to Amazon or to your local purveyor of the written word and pick yourself up a copy because OH MY GOD it’s breathtaking). But aside from providing his son with literary fodder, the life of Alex Dumas (as he preferred to be known) offers a compelling glimpse into class and race issues in France before, during, and after their Revolution.
In fact, the book’s primary accomplishment for the history buff is detailing the advances made by abolitionist and civil rights advocates in France in the mid to late 18th century. The slave trade was big business in France, and Reiss goes to some length to describe the wildly lucrative sugar industry of the 18th century. Sugar cultivation, as practiced throughout the Caribbean but especially in the French colony on Sante-Domingue (present-day Haiti), was an incredibly labor-intensive process, and as such it required a vast number of unskilled and semi-skilled laborers. Thus, slaves, who were worked until they died. Good times.
Inspired by both Enlightenment ideals and disgust at the treatment of their fellow man, a cadre of dedicated lawyers and politicians spent decades trying to overturn slavery and establish basic civil rights for people of African descent. That said, reactionary elements in France often held the upper hand in legislating the rights of minorities. At certain times and in certain jurisdictions, simply being black in France was enough to get one sent to work on a sugar plantation in the Caribbean until they died. The Revolution tipped the scales toward civil rights activists, but Napoleon rolled back many of their advances once he consolidated his power. It’s a rather horrifying ebb-and-flow, given what’s at stake, and had Dumas been born 20 years earlier or later, he might never have advanced beyond the rank and file of the army, or even been allowed in the army at all.
But Dumas lived in just the right place at just the right time. He turned his back on his nobleman father and joined the army as a buck private, which unbeknownst to him at the time probably saved him from a date with a guillotine at the height of the Terror. He proved to be an able leader of men, particularly skilled at leading small cavalry units in disputed territory. By 1793 he was a general, serving on various fronts as France fought its neighbors to preserve the ideals of the revolution. He campaigned in the Pyrenees and the Alps. He became renowned for the discipline he imposed on his troops, as he forbade them the “right” of pillage. He served under Napoleon in northern Italy, and a hundred and fifty years before the US Army was officially desegregated, General Dumas commanded the cavalry in Napoleon’s ill-fated Egyptian campaign, an experience that soured the mythically short Corsican on the tall, strong, well-liked “American” (as mixed-race people from the Caribbean colonies were known in France). This personality conflict would have tragic consequences for Dumas.
I think by now you get the idea. Dumas was an extraordinary man in an extraordinary time. Reiss’ scholarship is excellent, his sources varied, his storytelling prowess formidable. I’m a big fan of books like The Black Count, books that shine a light on lesser-known moments in history, human stories against grand historical backdrops, and this is one of the better ones I’ve read recently.