Day 484: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

Cover for The Black CountTom Reiss, previously the author of the fascinating biography The Orientalist, seems to be drawn to unusual figures who were famous in their own time but have become virtually unknown. Such is the case with Thomas-Alexandre Dumas—the father of the famous author of The Count of Monte Cristo, among other classics—who reached the heights of his fame as a great soldier and general of revolutionary France.

Dumas, who went by Alex rather than Alexandre or Thomas, had a colorful past. He was born on the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), the son of a black slave and a French marquis, Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie. His father was a wastrel and a scoundrel who, although he apparently did not raise his son in slavery, sold him in order to raise the passage money for his own return to France after his family had thought him dead for years. After claiming his right to his title and property (which his relatives had been maintaining and improving for years at their own expense), Pailleterie redeemed his teenage son and brought him up in privilege.

However, shortly after entering manhood, Alex broke with his father, took his mother’s name, and proceeded to make his own way as a soldier. He was the first person of color to become a general-in-chief of the French army and was the highest ranking black officer in the western world of his time.

This book is an account of Dumas’ fascinating life, in which his physical courage, ability, and principled behavior won him acclaim. Unfortunately, he was not as gifted politically and inadvertently made an enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte, who perceived him as a rival and really comes off here as a jealous and power-hungry opportunist. Bonaparte’s resentment, in combination with an abrupt change in policy of the French government to remove the rights previously granted subjects of color, ended in the loss of his career and a death in neglect and poverty.

The book is written in an energetic and informal style for the general public, although it is copiously documented in the back. The Black Count is an engrossing story of an event-filled life.