By Tom Reiss
The original Alexandre Dumas was born in 1762, the son of “Antoine Alexandre de l’Isle,” in the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue. Antoine was a nobleman in hiding from his family and from the law, and he fathered the boy with a black slave. Later Antoine would discard his alias and reclaim his real name and title—Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de la Pailleterie—and bring his black son across the ocean to live in pomp and luxury near Paris. But the boy would reject his father’s name, along with his noble title. He would enlist in the French army at the lowest rank, taking the surname “Dumas” from his mother for his enlistment papers. 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.”
Alex Dumas was a consummate warrior and a man of great conviction and moral courage. He was renowned for his strength, his swordsmanship, his bravery, and his knack for pulling victory out of the toughest situations. But he was known, too, for his profane back talk and his problems with authority. He was a soldier’s general, feared by the enemy and loved by his men, a hero in a world that did not use the term lightly.
But then, by the wiles of conspiracy, he found himself imprisoned in a fortress and poisoned by unknown enemies, without hope of appeal and forgotten by the world. It was no accident that his fate sounds like that of a young sailor named Edmond Dantès, about to embark on a promising career and marry the woman he loves, who finds himself a pawn in a plot he never imagined, locked away without witnesses or trial in the dungeon of an island fortress called the Château d’If. But unlike the hero of his son’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo, Alex Dumas met no benefactor in the dungeon to lead him to escape or to a hidden treasure. He never learned the reason for his trials, for his abrupt descent from glory to suffering. I had come to Villers-Cotterêts to find the truth of what befell this most passionate defender of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.”
In his own lifetime General Dumas was a legendary figure. Official histories of the period often pause to relate some colorful anecdote about him. David Johnson, in his book The French cavalry 1792-1815, writes of the general’s early career, “In addition to being a first-class soldier, Dumas was possibly the strongest man in the French army. . . . In the riding school he liked to stand up in the stirrups, take hold of an overhead beam, and lift himself and his horse bodily off the ground.” A more plausible story that appears in multiple histories relates that he once fought three duels in one day, winning all three despite being gashed in the head—almost certainly the basis for one of the best-known and most comic scenes in The Three Musketeers, in which d’Artagnan challenges Porthos, Athos, and Aramis to duels on the same afternoon (the scene ends happily—“All for one and one for all! ”—as a real enemy appears).
Alex Dumas first came to the army’s attention when, still a lowly corporal, he single-handedly captured twelve enemy soldiers and marched them back to his camp. Not long afterward, he led four horsemen in an attack on an enemy post manned by over fifty men—Dumas alone killed six and took sixteen prisoner. As a Parisian society journalist in the early nineteenth century summed up, “Such brilliant conduct, on top of a manly physiognomy and extraordinary strength and stature, secured his quick promotion; it wasn’t long before his talents proved he deserved it.”
As his star rose, Alex Dumas was not one to give orders and then hang back in safety while his subordinates did the dangerous work: he led his troops by going out ahead of them. One of his commanding officers once remarked to him, “My dear Dumas, you make me tremble every time I see you mount a horse and gallop off at the head of your dragoons. I always say to myself, ‘It’s impossible for him to return in one piece if he keeps going at this pace.’ What would become of me if you let yourself get killed?”
Even when Dumas became a general, commanding thousands of troops, he always preferred to lead small units on special operations where he could use his wits and outsized physical skills to prevail. As general-in-chief of the Army of the Alps, roughly the equivalent of a four-star general today, Dumas put on spiked boots and led his men up seemingly impregnable ice cliffs at night to surprise an Austrian battery that seemed as unassailable as the guns of Navarone. He captured the enemy’s matériel and turned their own guns against them, forcing immediate surrender. He took not only 1,700 prisoners and over forty artillery pieces but Mont Cenis, the key to the Alps.
When they were still both generals in the French Revolution, Napoleon celebrated Alex Dumas’s deeds in the classical terms favored at the time, proclaiming him the incarnation of Horatius Cocles, the ancient hero who saved the Roman Republic by keeping invading barbarians from crossing the Tiber. (French revolutionaries, like American ones, lived in a world of classical allusions—everyone referred to George Washington as Cincinnatus.)
When Napoleon launched the French invasion of Egypt, Dumas went as his cavalry commander, but it was there that the two very different soldiers came to loathe each other. The clash was ideological—Dumas saw himself as a fighter for world liberation, not world domination—but it was also personal.
“Among the Muslims, men from every class who were able to catch sight of General Bonaparte were struck by how short and skinny he was,” wrote the chief medical officer of the expedition. “The one, among our generals, whose appearance struck them more was . . . the General-in-Chief of the cavalry, Dumas. Man of color, and by his figure looking like a centaur, when they saw him ride his horse over the trenches, going to ransom prisoners, all of them believed that he was the leader of the expedition.”
* * *
At over six feet, with an athletic physique, Alex Dumas cut a dashing figure among the French elite. But how was it that he could enter the elite—and indeed be celebrated as a national hero—at a time when the basis of French wealth was black slavery in the colonies?
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.
The explanations for how such a life had even been possible lie in another forgotten story—that of the world’s first civil rights movement. In the 1750s, during the reign of Louis XV, a generation of crusading lawyers went up against one of the most powerful interests in France—the colonial sugar lobby—and won shockingly broad rights for people of color. Slaves taken to France from the colonies brought lawsuits against their masters and won their freedom. (Compare this with the infamous Dred Scott ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which—in the 1850s—would find that blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The ruling actually contains language mocking the French freedom trials of the previous century.) The French lawsuits were decades earlier than the Somerset case, which launched abolitionism in England.
With the Revolution in 1789, the dream of equality in France suddenly seemed almost limitless. Dumas was not the only black or mixed-race Frenchman to rise up; he rode into battle with the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the acknowledged master swordsman of Europe (and an acclaimed composer and musician). Like Dumas, the chevalier was of mixed race: his mother had been a freed slave. When the Revolution broke out, the chevalier formed a corps of mounted cavalry known as the Légion Noire, the Black Legion, and recruited Dumas to be his second in command.
By the time he was thirty-one, Dumas had been promoted to general, having earned almost universal admiration from every officer and soldier who fought beside him. A Prussian-raised French officer who openly proclaimed a “horror of negroes” (not to mention an “invincible antipathy for Jews”) nevertheless wrote that General Dumas “might be called the best soldier in the world.”
The story of General Dumas brilliantly illuminates the first true age of emancipation: a single decade during which the French Revolution not only sought to end slavery and discrimination based on skin color but also broke down the ghetto walls and offered Jews full civil and political rights, ending a near-universal discrimination that had persisted since ancient times. General Alexandre Dumas, wrote a French historian at the end of the nineteenth century, “was a living emblem of the new equality.”
Much has been made of the beginnings of abolitionism in the British world and the question of equality during the American Revolution, but the life of Alex Dumas shows that it was the French Revolution that was the first unbridled age of emancipation, and its complex web of dreams and disappointments would underlie the history of freedom and prejudice for the next two centuries. This revolutionary age of racial emancipation introduced much of the world to modern ideas of human freedom—the idea that all men, regardless of religion or race, deserve equal rights, opportunities, respect—but it also spurred the backlash of modern racism and modern anti-Semitism, which fused older prejudices with the new political and scientific idealogies.
During the days of the Terror, Dumas showed a restraint and humanity that could have cost him his command, or even his life. At a time when the most radical defenders of liberty, equality, and fraternity committed atrocities in the name of these ideals, he never shrank from protecting any victim, no matter what his or her background or ideological complexion. Sent to suppress the royalist uprising in the west of France, the Vendée—the darkest hour of the French Revolution—General Dumas risked his career to oppose the bloodshed he saw all around him. Later, a pro-royalist writer would write, of this “generous republican,” that Dumas was one of those rare generals who were “always ready bravely to sell their lives on the battleground, but resolved to break their swords rather than consent to the role of executioners.” Dumas—the son of a marquis and of a slave—had the unique perspective of being from the highest and lowest ranks of society at once. A true idealist, he did not cease to espouse his views once they’d fallen from favor. His capture and imprisonment in an enemy fortress where he languished for two years—until he was released into an even more agonizing labyrinth of betrayal in his own country, by his own side—foretold what would become of the ideals of equality and fraternity, especially for France’s men and women of color. And Dumas’s birthplace, Saint-Domingue, would have a violent revolution and reemerge as Haiti, to be ostracized by the white nations and moved from the center of the world economy to its desperate margins.
The dizzying rise and downfall of General Dumas haunt his son’s memoir. “I worshipped my father,” the novelist writes. “I love him still with as tender and as deep and as true a love as if he had watched over my youth and I’d had the blessing to go from child to man leaning on his powerful arm.”
His father had a fairy-tale romance with his mother, Marie-Louise Labouret, a white woman from a respectable bourgeois family; they fell in love when he rode in to protect her town from violence during the first months of the Revolution. This was how the Dumas family came to be based in Villers-Cotterêts; Marie-Louise’s father, Claude Labouret, an innkeeper, had grown prosperous from the increased tourist trade the swinging House of Orléans had attracted to the town. Marie-Louise’s father’s only condition for his daughter’s marriage was that Dumas, then still a private in the Queen’s Dragoons, receive his first promotion and attain the rank of sergeant. When Dumas returned for his fiancée’s hand, he was four ranks higher. He and Marie-Louise would go on to have three children, of which Alexandre, the writer, would be the last and their only son.
In fiction, his father most directly inspired Dumas’s novel Georges, where a young man of mixed race from a French sugar colony makes his way to Paris, becomes a great swordsman, and returns to the island to avenge a long-ago racial insult (itself an almost exact retelling of a searing incident from his father’s youth).
By the end of the novel, Georges has married the woman of his dreams, proven himself superior to the whites in courage and skill, fought duels, rescued damsels, and led a failed slave uprising, which sends him to the scaffold, although he is saved at the last minute by his brother, a mulatto slave-ship captain. Georges has many aspects of Edmond Dantès, the Count of Monte Cristo, who would follow him into print a few months later. Georges remembers everything with an encyclopedic obsession. When he returns to confront the white people who have wronged his family, he profits at every turn by the fact that they live only in the present. The past is not alive to them the way it is to Georges; they do not remember—and thus do not see the reality of things. That reality is the dream Georges has come to embody: that a black man can become a nobleman and be better educated and more talented and powerful than the white plantation owners.
The author of The Count of Monte Cristo provided the standard account of the novel’s origin. (Notably absent from it: the fact that Alex Dumas’s disreputable uncle Charles, on his father’s side, once used a Caribbean island called “Monte Cristo” to smuggle sugar and slaves). The novel’s main plotline, Dumas once wrote in an essay, was based on a gruesome true-crime story taken from the police archives of Paris, about a man who suffered false political imprisonment after being betrayed by a group of jealous friends. After serving seven years behind bars, the man was released when the government changed hands and proceeded to hunt down his old friends and murder them in cold blood. There are many details from this account that Dumas used, but the main character could not be farther from the deadly but ultimately humane count.
The essay ends with the novelist signaling that his various explanations might be mere talk and obfuscation: “And now, everyone is free to find an- other source for The Count of Monte Cristo than the one I give here,” he wrote, “but only a very clever man will find it.” It’s impossible to know what the novelist hoped to inspire when he challenged his clever reader to “find another source for The Count of Monte Cristo,” but it seems likely he hoped someone might one day guess another origin for his wronged hero. He had already transformed his father’s character into the avenging mulatto justice-crusader “Georges,” but the true-crime story he’d fastened on next offered the chance to universalize his father’s struggles. By applying something of Alex Dumas’s character to Edmond Dantès, he transformed a criminal—the equivalent of a modern serial killer—into a representative of the universal drive for justice.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, Dumas would give his betrayed protagonist not only the fate of his father’s final years but also a fictional taste of a dark sort of triumph. In the novel’s hero you can see the premise of every modern thriller from Batman comics to The Bourne Identity. No other adventure novel of the nineteenth century carries its resonance. After escaping the dungeon and securing the treasure of Monte Cristo, Dantès builds a luxurious subterranean hideout in the caves of the island. He becomes a master of all styles of combat, though he mainly uses his mind to defeat his enemies, bending the law and other institutions to his superhuman will. Knowing that the world is violent and corrupt, the Count becomes a master of violence and corruption—all with the goal of helping the weakest and most victimized people of all. The Count is the first fictional hero to announce himself as a “superman,” anticipating Nietzsche—not to mention the birth of comics—by many years.* (*The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, writing at the height of the Nietzschean vogue in the early twentieth century, went so far as to declare that “many self-proclaimed Nietzscheans are nothing other than . . . Dumasians who, after dabbling in Nietzsche, ‘justified’ the mood generated by the reading of The Count of Monte-Cristo.”)
The writer Dumas grew up in a very different world from that of his father—a world of rising, rather than diminishing, racism. His fellow novelist Balzac referred to him as “that negro.” After the success of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, critics launched an endless, damaging public attack on Dumas, mocking his African heritage. He was a black-skinned tropical weed in the literary soil of France, one declared: “Scratch Monsieur Dumas’s hide and you will find the savage . . . a Negro!”
Newspaper artists in the 1850s depicted the novelist with a succession of racist clichés, mocking his literary efforts. One well-known caricature shows Dumas leaning over a hot stove on which he is boiling his white characters alive: his popping eyes glare demonically at a musketeer he is lifting to his impossibly huge lips, apparently about to sample the European’s flesh. The writer was only one-quarter black, while his father had been half, but attitudes had dramatically sunk since the late eighteenth century, when his father’s African heritage had been an object of admiration.
The novelist tried to make light of the racist insults, but they must have stung. The greatest sin of all, however, was that his father, General Alex Dumas, was forgotten. The son never managed to discover the full truth about his father, or to restore his place in the history books. But he avenged his father in another way, by creating fictional worlds where no wrongdoer goes unpunished and the good people are watched over and protected by fearless, almost superhuman heroes—heroes, that is, a lot like Alex Dumas.
Excerpted from The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss.
Copyright 2012 by Tom Reiss.
Reprinted with permission from Crown Publishers.
TOM REISS is the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life and The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. He makes his home in New York City.