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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution,…

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte… (2012)

by Tom Reiss

Other authors: Christian Rugstad (Translator)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,1019911,227 (4.05)2 / 189
  1. 30
    Georges by Alexandre Dumas (Artymedon)
    Artymedon: A novel over race relations by Alexandre Dumas who was inspired by Alex Dumas General of the French Revolution and former slave to create his fictional character Georges as narrated by Tom Reiss.
  2. 20
    The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James (Artymedon)
    Artymedon: The three revolutions that created our modern world are the American the Haitian and the French Revolution. The story of the Black Count is the point of intersection between the three in that they tried and did for a short time create a society based on the principle of equality for man regardless of race, birth or religion. It is also the key for the lecture of Alexandre Dumas' important works [[The Count of Monte-Cristo]] and [[Georges]], the later treating the question of race. That the real father of Dumas, a general of the French revolution be less known that his illustrious son author of the "Three Musketeers" is explained by how the reaction to the French revolution and the counter coup of the Thermidorians followed by that of the strong man of the sugar lobby, Napoleon, reestablished slavery in the Antilles. It is also the story of how and how it failed to do so in St Domingue, where the Black Count was born a slave, prompting the independence of this nation as black and mulatto only Haiti followed by its economic blocade by the rest of the world. Tom Reiss not only writes wonderfully be he also researched his subject in the Castle of Vincennes France and in the Dumas archives in Villers-Cotteret because this extraordinary Black Count, unlike Edmond Dantes, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, really existed.… (more)
  3. 31
    The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas père (marieke54)
  4. 00
    Monsieur de Saint-George: Virtuoso, Swordsman, Revolutionary: A Legendary Life Rediscovered by Alain Guede (goddesspt2)
  5. 01
    Mes mémoires by Alexandre Dumas (LamontCranston)

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English (100)  Spanish (1)  German (1)  French (1)  All languages (103)
Showing 1-5 of 100 (next | show all)
So, it is not surprising that I was enticed to acquire this one, given my love for the author Dumas' story, The Count of Monte Cristo. Reiss delves deep into General Dumas life and his military career during both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. In pulling together this historical biography, Reiss brings to light the shifting attitudes towards race and slavery of pre- and post-revolutionary France and its colonies as well as the conflicts slavery and plantation ownership - key to economic survival of France - were at odds with the revolutionary ideals of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity" versus the economic interests of the colonial plantation owners and the resulting re-emergence of racist bigotry that allowed for the re-enslavement of its black population as well as the erasure of the memory of the valiant contributions they made to France - including those of the Black Count.

Reading this, it is easy to see how author Dumas senior felt such admiration for his father, who was a source of inspiration for some of his stories. On the downside, the book goes into a fair bit of detail about military strategies (not a favorite topic of mine). I was intrigued to learn of the conflicts between General Dumas and some senior military personnel, including Napoleon, where Dumas principals did not co-exist well with Napoleon's "empire building" vision.

Overall, an interesting glimpse into the Count/General Dumas and 18th-19th century French empire. ( )
  lkernagh | Apr 21, 2019 |
I was expecting a good read in the The Black Count by Tom Reiss, considering it won the Pulitzer Prize, but I didn’t expect it to be as exceptional as it was. The book follows the extraordinary life and military career of General Alex Dumas. You may be saying “that guy wrote the Count of Montecristo.” No, that was his son, Alexandre Dumas. But his father was the inspiration for Alexandre’s novels, a wronged warrior in search of some sort of justice in a France that had transformed from a republic to a dicatatorship. Like any good drama the book starts with the author hiring a safe cracker to open a safe in the Alexandre Dumas Museum in Villers-Cotterets, France because the museum curator has died. In the safe, the author finds a rich trove of correspondence between Alex Dumas and his wife. The author soon shifts from the present to the French sugar colony of Saint Dominique (Haiti) in 1762 where Alex Dumas was born to a fugitive French nobleman named Alexandre Antoine Davy, the Marquis de la Pailleterie and an African slave named Cessette Dumas. The first ten years of his life was spent in a land where people of mixed race were upwardly mobile and large numbers of biracial women were shopkeepers and plantation owners. This was all made possible by the Black Code issued by Louis XIV in 1685 that made the children of unions between African and French eligible for protections of the French state and possibility of full freedom. Although some people of mixed raced parentage got on rather well the African slaves lived in a world of toil under some of the harshest conditions in the Western hemisphere.

Alex’ father was able to come out of hiding after his brother died and decided to return to Normandy to claim his title, but incredibly he sold his son and his daughters into slavery in order to pay for the journey. When he arrived in France he purchased Alex back from the Captain he sold him to but not his sisters. As soon as Antoine gained his inheritance he lavished Alex with money and clothes and sent him to Paris to school to live the life of gentleman. In Paris Alex thrived in a life of extravagance and rakishness that was expected of the young gentry of the time. This lasted until his father got remarried to his house servant and cut Alex off.

Something in Alex changes at this point in his life and he creates his own identity away from his self-serving father by joining the military as a common soldier and not as an officer as his father would have wished. He also drops his father’s name and from there on goes by his mother’s name of Dumas. This is the dawn of the revolution in France and this is also where the author shines as he seamlessly entwines the fortunes of Alex Dumas with rise and fall of the French Revolution from a republic of liberty to a paranoid dictatorship.

In the military Alex finds his calling. His superior physical strength and sharp mind make him an exceptional soldier. His prowess in swordsmanship and horseplay are second to none. He becomes one of those legendary battlefield figures such as Sir James Douglas (also known as Black Douglas or Douglas the Good), Sigfried Sassoon, Audie Murphy, or Carlos Hathcock where a combination fearlessness, uncanny luck and superior skills create an individual of mythic proportions.

While Alex was still a private he falls in love with Marie Louise Laboret, his landlord’s daughter, and asks her to marry him. Her father says that they can marry only after he becomes a sergeant. They don’t have long to wait as Dumas quickly rises from a private in the Queen’s Dragoons to a Lieutenant Colonel of the Black Legion to Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Alps. They were soon married and from their letters it is very evident that they were deeply in love their whole life.
As the leader of the Army of the Alps, he wins a major victory over Austrian forces dug into the precarious Saint Bernard Pass. The victory opens up the Piedmont of Italy to invasion by the Republican army. During Dumas’ ascension in the ranks, the French Revolution unfolds creating significant opportunities for advancement in the military as France seeks to spread the revolution to other countries, but conversely contains deadly traps for public figures that were constantly in danger of being brought before the Committee of Safety to face charges of treason. Revolutionary opportunities came with revolutionary risks as the author, Tom Reiss states. And Dumas is accused of treason just after his victory at Saint Bernard Pass but manages to delay his visit to Paris long enough to avoid the Great Terror as Robespierre is executed. Here Dumas’ duel identity created a bit of confusion for the Safety Committee, he was noble by blood and therefore suspect but he was also a slave by blood which would make him irreproachable. He embodies a contradiction, but in the end his denunciation of his title and his Revolutionary zeal causes his African persona to win over his politically dangerous noble one.

In a year, Dumas had gone from a corporal in the dragoons to being made a general of a division, which is a command of ten thousand troops. And while sieging the city of Mantua, Dumas intercepts a secret message stating that a superior Austrian force was en route to break the siege. Dumas successfully deploys his French troops against the twice as large Austrian force. Leading from the front, Dumas has two horses shot out from under him as he slashes away at the enemy and successfully repels the Austrian reinforcements, therefore halting the breakout. However, Dumas’ siege saving maneuver is left out of an after action report sent to Paris by Napoleon, which infuriates General Dumas. But this would not be the last time that Dumas is at odds with the rising Corsican. In Dumas’ next engagement he single-handedly beats back an entire squadron of Austrians on a bridge in the Tyrol. This instance he is not overlooked by Napoleon who names Dumas “Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol”. Napoleon also shows his gratitude by sending him a set of pistols and makes General Dumas the head of the cavalry in the Tyrol. This will be about the last time that Napoleon praises Dumas for Dumas’ steeped belief in the Revolution of 1790 would put him at increasing odds with Napoleon’s policies and consolidation of power.
In 1798 General Dumas is made the commander of all cavalry of the Army of the Orient in Napoleon’s disastrous campaign to conquer Egypt. Again Dumas serves with distinction in the Battle of the Pyramids and is at the vanguard of repressing a revolt in Cairo, where he even charges into the Al-Azhar Mosque. Napoleon has a painting created of the episode years later but he replaces Dumas with a white man. Dumas’ relationship with Napoleon becomes completely ruptured when he gets wind of seditious musings by Dumas and other generals. General Dumas was not one to mince words and he thought the whole expedition was a catastrophic farce that left France vulnerable. But he was proven right after the self-serving Napoleon abandoned the army the following summer after the French fleet was defeated at the the Battle of the Nile. When General Kleber learned that Napoleon had flown the coop and left him in charge he said, That bugger has left us here, his breeches full of shit. We’re going back to Europe to rub it in his face.

Dumas didn’t get a ship to leave Egypt until almost a year after Napoleon and unfortunately it was hardly seaworthy. They had to put in for repairs at Taranto, Italy, a place where they thought was still controlled by the French. But to their misfortune the Neapolitan monarchists had regained control and Dumas was imprisoned by the zealous Holy Faith Army. During this time his wife impassionedly wrote letters to Napoleon and the French government to get him released, but it took two long years for him to be freed and by that time Dumas’ health had spiraled downward, possibly due to poisoning.

When Dumas finally returns to France he finds most of the societal changes wrought by the Revolution to be wiped away, especially in terms of race. Dumas now found his marriage to his French wife to be illegal and slavery was reinstituted. Napoleon had met with former Caribbean slave owners and realized how much money he was losing now that there were no more slaves to harvest sugar cane and rolled back all the social progress that made France a beacon of hope for many around the world. The General was also unable to receive his pension and his protestations went unheard. Alex Dumas died a broken and bitter man but his son Alexandre would become obsessed with his legacy which drove his art. His father was the inspiration for the character Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo with Napoleon being the main reason behind the character’s abuse and imprisonment. Also the swashbuckling adventures of The Three Musketeers is based on his father’s strong moral character and dueling prowess. Tom Reiss has done the world a great service in bringing to life an important and forgotten Black hero who led 10,000 Frenchmen to battle in an age when Africans in the Western world were enslaved and who epitomized the promise and failure of the French Revolution. Unfortunately there is no monument to General Alex Dumas in France. The one that did exist was blown up by the Nazis during the occupation. ( )
  earlbot88 | Jan 20, 2019 |
I've read some of Alexandre Dumas's novels but I had no idea his father was a hero of the French Revolution - and black. I learned a lot about the French Revolution from this, but I'm glad I'd read The Count of Monte Cristo beforehand because there are quite a few references, as Dumas the novelist seems to have been quite inspired by his father's life story. Definitely interesting, but you need to be familiar with Dumas and interested in French history to get much out of it. ( )
  melydia | Dec 27, 2018 |
Fantastic book. It's amazing that this man (Alex Dumas) has gotten zero credit or lip service until now. A new hero for me.

Tom Reiss put together a brilliant biography ( )
  Vulco1 | Oct 12, 2018 |
So...it was well written and all, Dumas Sr. just isn't as interesting as I was lead to believe. It's like when horror movies claim to be inspired by true events - yeah, there might be some vague semblance between the movie and an event that happened, it's just...the event was a pale shadow of the movie. Dumas Sr. is a pale shadow of the characters and stories based on him. ( )
  benuathanasia | Jun 10, 2018 |
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It was nearly midnight on the night of February 26, 1806, and Alexandre Dumas, the future author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, was asleep at his uncle's house. He was not yet four years old.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 030738246X, Hardcover)

Amazon Best Books of the Month, September 2012: Generations have been enthralled by Alexandre Dumas' characters, especially the wronged hero in The Count of Monte Cristo and the daring swordsmen in The Three Musketeers. Yet few realize that these memorable characters were inspired by Dumas' father, General Alex Dumas, the son of a French count and a black Haitian slave. Tom Reiss brings the elder Dumas alive with previously unpublished correspondence and meticulous research, providing the context necessary to understand how exceptional his life as a mulatto general in a slave-owning empire truly was. From single-handedly holding a bridge in the Alps against 20 enemies to spending years held captive in a fortress, Alex Dumas is a fascinating character that not even his son's vivid imagination could have dreamed up. --Malissa Kent

An Essay by Author Tom Reiss

Tom Reiss

I've always loved exploring history. It's like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I'm also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?

In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The "famous" Alexandre Dumas is the general's son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon's destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)

I first came across Gen. Dumas's life in the memoir of his son Alexandre, the novelist. And what a life! Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be known, was born in Saint Domingue, later Haiti, the son of a black slave and a good-for-nothing French aristocrat who came to the islands to make a quick killing and instead barely survived. In fact, to get back to France in order to claim an inheritance, he actually "pawned" his black son into slavery, but then he bought him out, brought him to Paris, and enrolled him in the royal fencing academy, and then the story begins to get interesting.

What really stuck with me from reading the memoir was the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. I could never forget the novelist describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father's gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Little Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God – for killing daddy." When he grew up, he took a greater sort of revenge, infusing his father's life and spirit into fictional characters like Edmond Dantes and D'Artagnan, with shades of Porthos, too. But the image of the angry child stuck with me and drove me onward to discover every scrap of evidence I could about his forgotten father.

And recovering the life of the real man behind these stories was the ultimate historical prospecting journey for me: I learned about Maltese knights and Mameluke warriors, the tricks of 18th-century spycraft and glacier warfare, torchlight duels in the trenches and portable guillotines on the front; I got to know about how Commedia del Arte influenced Voodoo and how a Jacobin sultan influenced the Star-Spangled Banner, about chocolate cures for poisoning and the still brisk trade in Napoleonic hair clippings. I discovered the amazing forgotten civil rights movement of the 18th century – and its unraveling – though the most amazing thing about this story of a black man in a white world was how little race stood in his way: how Alex Dumas's future father-in-law never once questioned his daughter marrying a man of color but only asked that he get promoted to sergeant first (later he lovingly referred to his son-in-law simply as "the General").

Finally, the memoir set me not only on a historical adventure but on an adventure in the present day that was straight out of a Dumas novel. I began by visiting the gray town in northeast France where the general died – where I found a dead museum secretary, a locked safe, and a host of unlikely, inspiring characters to make my journey a far from lonely one.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:43 -0400)

In this extraordinary biography, Tom Reiss traces the almost unbelievable life of the man who inspired not only Monte Cristo, but all three of the Musketeers: the novelist's own father.

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