By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by: Paul Michael
What irony–two of the best known literary adventures ever written were about white’ heroes based on the life of a black swashbuckler. Tom Reiss, in The Black Count, resurrects the life of Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie, a Haitian-born’ Frenchman who is the son of a white aristocrat and a slave. This swashbuckler becomes a fearless and heroic general in Napoleon’s army. He is the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Christo”.
Alexandre Dumas’ grandfather (a white aristocrat) is one of three sons that leave France for Haiti in search of riches from the sugar trade. The grandfather disappears for 30 years. However, he eventually returns to France to re-claim his patrimony. Though the grandfather is not successful in Haiti, he marries a black Haitian woman that bares four children. Before leaving Haiti, the grandfather sells his wife and three of his four children into slavery. To acquire enough money for a return to France, he chooses to pawn his last child, the future father of Alexandre Dumas.
Reiss presumes this last child is loved by the amoral and profligate aristocratic father because he pawns rather than sells his last son. The pawned son arrives in France to be reunited with his father. This pawned son becomes the father of Alexander Dumas.
This Haitian-born’ son is raised as an aristocrat in education and manner. He is over six feet tall and black in a world where most Frenchmen are white and average five feet, five inches in height. He is athletic. The son is given lessons in fencing and other battle born and aristocratic disciplines.
When the amoral father (Alexander Dumas’s grandfather) re-marries, his wife tempers her new husband’s profligate spending and diminishes support of his Haitian-born son. Alexander Dumas’s father leaves his his aristocratic family, joins the French army, changes his name to Dumas (his mother’s Haitian’ slave name) and begins a career in the military as a private. The chance of a black private rising to General is unlikely; despite physical ability, aristocratic upbringing, and patrimony. However, France is nearing the revolution of 1789, the great leveling of French society. The newly patronymic Dumas becomes a cause célèbre for equal rights.
The father of Alexandre Dumas earns a reputation for bravery by leading four men to capture 12 prisoners of war in one of many French conflicts after the revolution. The father not only gains a reputation for bravery but rises in the eyes of the new Republic of France. Reiss suggests Alexandre’s father understands France’s revolution offers a better future for the French, particular for French’ men of color.
Bravery and tactical leadership make Alexander Dumas’s father a prime candidate for promotion. There are competing military factions for experienced military leaders in France during the Terror unleashed by the revolution. The Black Count is offered promotion to an officer’s rank by one of these factions. After showing leadership in successful military’ actions, the father of Alexander Dumas becomes a general in the French army.
As The Black Count rises in rank and notoriety, Reiss believes he unknowingly “crosses swords” with a fellow officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. The inadvertent conflict is over supplies for troops under different commands. Because of bureaucratic circumstance, Bonaparte fails to receive supplies requested, while the “Count” gets what he needs.
In 1792, Napoleon Bonaparte witnesses the storming of the Tuileries and the dethroning of King Louis XVI. By 1793, Napoleon is a brigadier general with greater ambitions. While The Black Count is winning tactical battles, Napoleon is refining a strategy for world domination; i.e. Reiss infers The Black Count lives the ideals of the French’ revolution–liberty, fraternity, and equality–to secure oppressed people’s place in society; while Napoleon morally manipulates those ideals to conquer nations and create a new world order. Reiss suggests Napoleon is no liberator but a megalomaniacal Caesar, seeking control of a reconfigured empire.
Reis’s gives the example of the “Battle of the Pyramids” on the Nile in Egypt. Reis argues that evidence suggests the battle would have failed without General Dumas’s tactical decisions and physical presence. However, history blotted out memory of the general in a painting that shows a white French’ general, and then Bonaparte, as victors in the battle. Reis recounts a letter by one of Alex Dumas’s commanders that reinforces the argument that the “Battle of the Pyramids” was only won because of the Haitian-born General’s strength and courage.
Napoleon leaves Dumas in Egypt while he returns to France. The military outpost left in Egypt eventually falls and Dumas leaves on an ill-fated ship sailing to France. The ship is a leaking coffin. He is rescued and captured by Italian enemies on his return home. Like the hero of “The Count of Monte Christo”, the general is imprisoned. Unlike the novel, the hero does not escape.
Reiss covers a fascinating period of world history by dredging cloistered files of The Black Count’s recorded patrimony and world adventure. In the course of Reiss’s research, General Alex Dumas seems an exemplary hero, a tactical genius, and a man ahead of his time. Reiss infers General Dumas and other French patriots fought for the ideals of humankind. But, the ideals of the French revolution are bowdlerized by Napoleon.
The Black Count dies at the age of 43 and is nearly erased from history by the duplicity and discrimination of his time. After a two-year imprisonment, with failing health, General Dumas is nearly a broken man. Napoleon no longer wants Dumas in his army. One presumes because of past personal conflicts or because of Dumas’ failing health.
Reiss intertwines the novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo”, with the story of General Dumas’ life but, unlike the novel, the General does not escape prison with enough treasure to destroy his enemies. Revisionists, like Tom Reiss, are left to correct, or at least, vivify history. Reiss shows that Napoleon is less than a liberator and Alex Dumas is more than a father of Alexandre Dumas.