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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

Down for the Count

February 27, 2013  |  11:00am
<i>The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo</i> by Tom Reiss

A little more than two hours into Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western set during slavery times down South, a German dentist/bounty hunter lectures Leonardo DiCaprio—cast as a dentally challenged Mississippi planter—on an irrefutable fact: French novelist Alexandre Dumas was a black man. Or more properly, at the time of Tarantino’s story, “is” a black man.

Dumas’s blackness—actually he claimed mixed African and European origins—was of course no secret during his lifetime. Amid the unabashed racism of the day, his 19th-century white detractors seem to have relished the opportunity to goad the writer about it.

While Dumas’ ethnicity likely will not surprise any halfway serious undergraduate student of literature even now, it might well astonish the generations who have absorbed a parade of exceedingly white cinematic versions of The Three Musketeers. We’ve seen principal roles played by the likes of Gene Kelly, Van Heflin, Richard Chamberlain, Michael York, Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen.

We find much the same for The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas wrote, as everyone “knows,” white stories. That a man of color wrote them goes unmentioned. Somehow, a fundamental and obvious fact about one of the most famed authors of all time has simply … maybe conveniently? … been forgotten by the popular culture.

What’s more, two centuries’ worth of similar historical amnesia has obscured the incredible story of Dumas’ father. Here we find a figure made for fiction himself—son of an enslaved woman, a dashing cavalier, a hero of the French Revolution, a warrior who singlehandedly turned the tide of battle at critical moments for France, an officer and French general, the highest-ranking and possibly most famous black man of his era in Europe … and peer of a rising military figure named Napoleon.

And finally, within his own lifetime, a forgotten man.

General Alex Dumas’ almost unbelievable story of romance, intrigue, betrayal and historical sweep might have been written by his novelist son. As historian Tom Reiss puts it in his excellent biography:

“The life of General Alex Dumas is so extraordinary on so many levels that it’s easy to forget the most extraordinary fact about it: that it was led by a black man, in a world of whites, at the end of the eighteenth century. His mother, Marie-Cessette Dumas, was a slave, and he himself was sold into bondage briefly by his own father, an aristocratic fugitive who needed to pay his passage back to France. But by the time he was twenty, Alex had also made it to France and been educated in the classics, philosophy, fine manners, riding, dancing, and dueling. A life of Parisian parties, theaters, and boudoirs ended after a falling-out with his father, and he enlisted as a horseman in the service of the queen. This was in 1786, on the eve of the French Revolution, and when that storm came Dumas seized his chance and began a meteoric ascent through the ranks of the new revolutionary army. He rose to command entire divisions and armies. It would be 150 years before another black officer in the West would rise so high.”

Reiss convincingly argues the obvious—that the story of General Alex Dumas is the story underlying his son’s better-remembered lifetime of work. The General proved a key inspiration for D’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers and the betrayed but resilient Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo.

Reiss reconstructed the general’s life through persistent historical detective work—including, he says, a bit of after-hours safecracking in search of old letters, this done with the tacit assistance of a sympathetic French functionary.

The trail of discovery led to basic facts: Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie was born in 1762 in the Caribbean French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue on the island of Hispaniola. (The place of his birth now lies in Haiti.) His father, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, the rogue son of an aristocratic but impecunious Normandy family, struck out for the islands to sponge off his younger brother, Charles. Charles had married into money and prospered as a planter in the brutal sugar economy. Sometimes, Charles used a nearby island called “Monte Cristo” as a base to smuggle sugar and slaves.

Antoine had other things in mind.

“It wasn’t long before the Pailleterie brothers began to quarrel, sometimes violently. The diligent, pious Charles resented supporting his older brother, who took advantage of his hospitality, kept serial slave mistresses, and treated his plantation as the Saint-Domingue branch of the Pailleterie estates.”

In 1748, after a particularly rough argument, Antoine fled Charles’ plantation and disappeared. For years he lived under a pseudonym: Antoine de l’Isle—Antoine of the Island. It would be nearly three decades before he re-emerged to claim his inheritance in France as Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de la Pailleterie. He brought with him his mulatto son—or as Reiss notes, he first pawned the boy to pay for his ticket, and then sent for young Thomas-Alexandre to join him in Europe. He sold into slavery, however, the boy’s three mixed-race siblings, along with their mother. Reiss could not discover what became of them.

Legally recognized as a nobleman’s son, young Thomas-Alexandre received an education befitting a gentleman. He trained, and excelled, in swordsmanship. He did so during a remarkable interlude in French law, after intrepid French lawyers in the 1750s won broad legal rights for enslaved people who had been brought from the Colonies to France. Reiss describes it as “the world’s first civil rights movement,” and notes that the French court decisions upholding black personhood were actually derided in the language of the infamous Dred Scott decision a century later in the United States.

In 1786, at age 24, Thomas-Alexandre enlisted as a private in the Sixth Regiment of the Queen’s Dragoons. Finances, it seems, drove the decision. (His father remarried, then curtailed his son’s allowance.) In an expression of what must have been tension and resentment between father and son at that point, Thomas-Alexandre adopted his mother’s surname and enlisted as Alexandre Dumas. “Once he’d risen by his merits to higher rank he would not even sign his name ‘Alexandre,’ preferring the blunt and simple form ‘Alex Dumas,’” Reiss writes.

The dashing young man quickly made a name for himself with feats of strength and swordsmanship. One tale holds that Dumas fought “three duels against fellow soldiers in a day and winning all three, despite being gashed twice in the head.”

He soon proved himself in battle too. Wearing the French revolutionary tricolor cockade, Dumas was stationed on the Belgian frontier, where Austrian and French troops fought a war of cross-border skirmishes. One day, Reiss reports, “Dumas spotted the enemy riders, a force considerably larger than his own. But rather than try to escape or evade, Corporal Dumas led his little band in a charge on the startled Austrians. The Austrians, perhaps stunned at the mere sight of a six-foot-one black man riding full tilt out of a Belgian bean field, quickly surrendered to him en masse.”

With such exploits, the young dragoon rose rapidly in the ranks to general. Now leading a few regiments, Dumas singlehandedly took a strategic bridge in the Tyrolean Alps while under fire and fighting Austrians hand-to-hand. Reiss writes:

“Early in the battle Dumas’s horse was shot out from under him and fell in such a way that the Austrians were sure it had killed him. ‘The Black Devil is dead!’ the cry went up. But then Dumas rose from the dead, or, rather, from behind his horse, which he then used as cover to stage his own counter-fusillade. He had discovered a small cache of loaded Austrian guns, which he now used to return fire.”

A fellow soldier recalled, “I managed to turn toward the general; he was standing at the head of the bridge of Clausen and holding it alone against the whole squadron; and as the bridge was narrow and the men could only get at him two or three abreast, he cut down as many as came at him.”

D’Artgagnan, indeed.

General Dumas deftly navigated the tricky political currents swirling through the revolution and the ensuing terror—at times receiving orders that carried the implicit threat of the guillotine should he fail to carry them out. He managed not only to succeed under these perilous circumstances, but to somehow also develop a reputation as a humane and fair military man, genuinely committed to the ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Then he had the bad fortune to run afoul of Napoleon.

Reiss uncovered repeated instances when Dumas would display heroism on the field but be slighted in after-action reports. Jealousy may have been at the root. On Napoleon’s bizarre Egyptian campaign, locals often took the tall black general for commander-in-chief instead of the runty Corsican. Further, the habitually outspoken Dumas did not hide his disdain for Napoleon’s empire-building ambitions. The military campaigns, after all, had begun in an idealistic, if misguided, effort to spread the people’s revolution across national borders.

In 1799, Dumas had the supremely bad luck to be taken prisoner—not by the Egyptians, but by the anti-revolutionary Holy Faith Army in the Italian city of Taranto. (The leaky ship that carried Dumas back from Egypt had pulled into that port in search of assistance.) He would languish in a dungeon there two years—shades of Edmond Dantès—losing his health to what very well may have been deliberate poisoning by his captors.

Finally, in 1801, a badly weakened Dumas made his way back to France and his beloved wife Marie-Louise—a French innkeeper’s daughter he married in the early days of his military career.

He found a different France, Reiss writes: “By the time he returned to France, in June of 1801, the Revolution and the nation Alex Dumas loved had declined almost as precipitously as he had. He must have felt like Rip Van Winkle returning from the hills— only Rip Van Winkle had found a king replaced by a revolution, while Dumas found a revolution replaced by a king, of sorts. And it was the same king he had left Egypt to escape. When Dumas arrived on French shores, Napoleon had had over a year to remake France in his image and to turn the gains of the Revolution to his own purposes.”

Less than a decade before, France gave free men of color in the colonies their rights. Five years before, France ended slavery. In that brief window of time, Dumas ascended by his own strength from slavery to a high place on the world stage. Then the window closed.

Currying favor with pro-slavery forces of the sugar colonies, Napoleon made it clear he would not oppose the reinstitution of the peculiar institution. In 1802, France reimposed racist laws that rescinded many rights and privileges from free black citizens. Black men could no longer serve as officers in the army. Mixed-race marriages were no longer permitted. Dumas and his wife tried vainly to secure some sort of compensation for the years and riches his imprisonment had cost him. The French authorities met the requests with silence.

Reiss writes, “Dumas had been released from the fortress dungeon only to find his world transformed into one. Surreal degradations now menaced him in his own country, as the government methodically restricted, rolled back, and finally eliminated rights for French citizens of color. Less than a year after arriving back in France, General Dumas would need to request a special dispensation to be allowed to stay in his own house in Villers-Cotterêts—part of the zone forbidden to retired military men of color. The war hero now had to appeal to his former army comrades to pull strings so he wouldn’t be deported.”

It was under these circumstances, in 1802, that Marie-Louise gave birth to their last child, a boy named Alexandre. He would grow up to be a writer whose fame outstripped and outlasted his father’s by two centuries.

Reiss says the ailing general spent the next four years, until his death in 1806, devoted to his son. The son returned that devotion. Although he was just four when his father died, Dumas claimed to have recalled many things about the general. Between his own recollections and those of his mother and his father’s friends, Dumas made an explicit effort to tell his father’s story, including it in a long section of his own memoirs. As Reiss notes:

“To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas. The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget. The villains of The Count of Monte Cristo do not murder the hero, Edmond Dantès—they have him thrown into a dungeon where he is forgotten by the world.”

How is history forgotten? How is it possible that the world simply forgot General Alex Dumas for two centuries?

Reiss suggests that Napoleon played a decisive role in transforming a war hero into a nonperson. He quotes an account by the novelist Dumas of an instance when a military friend of the late general approached Napoleon to discuss some kind of help for Dumas’ family. According to the son’s account, Napoleon “is said to have stamped his foot and said, ’I forbid you ever to speak to me of that man.’”

Of course, the decree of an emperor cannot by itself erase history. People remember what they want, if they want. Perhaps General Dumas left an unwanted memory in the white world—an anomalous bump in the ongoing narrative of white achievement.

We find much black history, in particular, forgotten this way—hidden in plain sight. Thankfully, more and more historians like Reiss in recent decades have begun to dig down into that obscurity. They uncover stories, once widely known, that became too inconvenient or uncomfortable or frightening to retain in the “accepted” version of history.

Among those, certainly, this story of The Black Count stands out. Through persistent, skillful efforts as a historian and sleuth, Reiss has produced a gripping account of General Alex Dumas.

It goes a long way toward completing a tale the novelist Dumas clearly wanted the world to love and remember.

Don Schanche Jr. is a journalist living in Georgia.

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