Monday, July 29, 2013

Tom Reiss – The Black Count: Napoleon's Rival, and the real Count of Monte Cristo – General Alexandre Dumas.

Almost nobody will know however that the stories that inspired the often unbelievable, adventures The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo was the life of Alexandre Dumas' father, Alex.

Here for instance, is a near contemporary account of the General who, at thirty-five, commanded three armies and was the toast of Revolutionary France, yet five years later was to die, ignored and dismissed by Napoleon's post-revolutionary regime.

“During the conquest of Italy... he went forward to observe enemy movements with about twenty dragoons detached as scouts.... Seeing how few men stood in their way, the Austrian cavalry charged vigorously; Dumas's escorting troops were defeated before Dumas could reach them.... Seeing the danger, General Dumas rushed alone to the bridgehead and held back a squadron of enemy cavalry for several minutes, forcing them to retreat. Surrounded by some twenty Austrians he killed three and wounded eight.”

General Dumas was an expert swordsman, an educated and clever man, brave and dedicated to his troops, who in turn lionised him. However, what makes Dumas so interesting is that he was black. The son of a French count who had gone to Haiti and married a slave.

General Dumas arrived back in pre-revolutionary France as a young man and as debts assailed him and his family, he joined the army. Not as an officer as his social position would have permitted, but as a private. His skills, loyalty and politics soon led him to rise upwards.

General Dumas was, according to the 1797 report, “every but of deserving of admiration as those of a native of the Old World. Indeed, who has a greater right to public respect than the man of color fighting for freedom after having experienced all the horrors of slavery? To equal the most celebrated warriors he need only keep in mind all the evils he has suffered.”

This was not hyperbole. Dumas' was his father's favourite son. His brothers and his mother were sold back into slavery by his father when he returned to France to claim his estate.

But the General's rise in the ranks was as much to do with the changing revolutionary world as his skills with sword and men. As Reiss explains, it was Revolutionary France, long before the Civil Rights movement, long before William Wilberforce that granted equality and freedom to everyone within its Empire. The abolition of slavery as part of the 1789 revolution helped inspire revolution and revolt by slaves across France's dominions, as well as inspire millions of other “slaves”. Within France the equality was real. Black people were treated the same by the revolutionary state in a way that would not be seen again until the 20th century. Reiss points out that this is particularly remarkable given that France's economy depended very much on the wealth generated by the slave plantations of Saint-Domingue.

Sadly, it was this that helped led to General Dumas' fall from grace. After leaving the Egyptian campaign, Dumas was captured and spent two years in an Italian prison, nearly dying from the deprivation. This story is the model for his son's Count of Monte Cristo. But, Dumas arrived back to a very different France. Napoleon's regime certainly wasn't concerned with equality. Black people faced discrimination and the return of slavery. Dumas however, never seems to have lost his ideals, those shared by millions during the revolution.

What makes Tom Reiss' book such fascinating reading is not simply his rediscovery of a forgotten figure of history, but the way that General Dumas' life is linked to the wider world. The rise of the French Revolution lifts the General up. He shares its ideals and aspirations and is prepared to die for them. His fall from grace and his forgotten story is a reflection of the degeneration of the Revolution. This is a wonderful well told story that should be read widely to remember that once "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" was something that millions of people were ready to fight for.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I also thought this book was remarkable, especially by the way its content was inserted in the historical background and all that happened at the time. A very well-deserved Pulitzer