Publication date: 9/18/2012
It is August 15, 1789. Twenty soldiers from the Sixth Regiment of the Queen’s Dragoons ride into the square at Villers-Cotterêts to await orders. One dashing private with the bearing of an officer stands apart in the square.
Claude Labouret, the National Guard commander in charge, invites the handsome soldier to lodge in his hotel. Labouret’s family, including daughter Marie-Louise, were all beguiled. By December, Labouret gives consent for his daughter to marry the private—once he has been promoted to sergeant.
Returning in 1792 as a lieutenant colonel to claim his bride, this hero’s military triumphs would earn him the rank of general. He would scale glaciers in the Swiss Alps, serve as Napoleon’s cavalry commander in Egypt and suffer betrayal and imprisonment in a medieval fortress.
As a boy, author Tom Reiss discovered in the memoirs of Alexandre Dumas that the source of inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers came from the heroic life of the novelist’s father, General Alex Dumas.
In the amazing true story of this hero, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, Reiss sought to uncover why he was forgotten by history.
“The life of General Alex Dumas is so extraordinary on so many levels that it’s easy to forget the most extraordinary fact: that it was led by a black man, in a world of whites, at the end of the eighteenth century.”
His curiosity led him to the Château de Vincennes, the fortress home of French military archives, where he read thousands of pieces of correspondence. With the help of devotees of the Association of the Three Dumas, he cracked a safe containing the general’s personal papers. In Paris, Reiss also tracked down Claude Ribbe, a documentary filmmaker lobbying the Sarkozy government to award General Dumas a posthumous Legion of Honor.
In The Black Count, Reiss sheds light on the drastically different worlds of General Dumas and his son Alexandre Dumas Père (the novelist) within a fascinating narrative of colonial and revolutionary France.
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born in 1762 in the sugar colony of Saint-Domingue to a French noble and a beautiful Haitian slave, Marie Cessete Dumas. After living incommunicado in the coffee and cocoa highlands for thirty years, the Marquis de la Pailleterie would bring his son back to Paris to reclaim his title and a life of privilege.
“Thomas-Alexandre could enrapture his hosts with tales of the colonial frontier, of facing down alligators and pirates. Beyond his looks, his grace, and his charm, what may have made him most attractive in this rarefied world was that he was an American.”
Despite a rightful claim to noble status and an officer’s commission, Thomas-Alexandre enlisted in the glory-seeking Queen’s Dragoons as a private under the nom de guerre Alex Dumas.
According to Reiss, the same world that honored a mixed race soldier for his skill and daring in combat would also produce Napoleon Bonaparte, who used the tricolor guise and rhetoric of the French Revolution to advance his ambitions.
Reiss writes about General Dumas serving with distinction in Egypt, but having bold reservations about the ruthless Napoleon. When he came upon an abandoned treasure of gold and jewels beneath a house in Cairo, he would turn it over to Napoleon. He also fought bravely to quash a mullah revolt in a Cairo mosque.
General Dumas would leave Egypt in March of 1799 with passage on La Belle Maltaise. The last word anyone would hear from him for two years was a letter to his wife Marie-Louise.
The leaking ship began taking on water and sailed into a Naples port, where he was interrogated and detained indefinitely by enemies of the French republic.
His languishig in the fortress of Taranto would be the basis of the false imprisonment of hero Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Meanwhile, Napoleon landed back in France and staged a coup.
By the time General Dumas was released from prison, the law had stripped men of color of their universal rights and reimposed slavery in the French Caribbean. Napoleon would allow only white men to serve as commissioned officers in his army.
General Dumas spent the last four years of his life in the shroud of his diminished status and deteriorating health. The pension that he was owed was withheld and his widow would support her children by working in a tobacco shop.
In his memoirs, Dumas the novelist recalls the General as an affectionate father who shared stories of his childhood. The General’s dignity and virtue would be honored in the heroic exploits of his son’s fictional characters.
“Out of the deepest betrayal Alexandre Dumas would weave imagined worlds that resurrected his father’s dreams and the fantastical age of glory, honor, idealism, and emancipation he championed.”
The Black Count by Tom Reiss is a highly worthwhile read about General Alex Dumas, inspiration for the heroic characters created by his son Alexandre Dumas in The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.
Category: Nonfiction, History