By Gary Rawlins, Black Books and Reviews.com
Author Tom Reiss has something to add to the debate, now two centuries old, on the legacy of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Scholars have quarreled over the merits of the little Corsican’s reign since his epoch-ending defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Reiss has little regard for the French emperor and weighs in splendidly with his latest book.
Napoleon’s unique influence is indisputable. In an age of monarchy, he granted constitutions, reformed laws, abolished feudalism, and made government more efficient, according to scholars. He encouraged the growth of science, literature, education and the arts.
Though the French Revolution ultimately failed, thanks to Napoleon its ideals spread across a continent, scholars agree. Marching across Europe, Napoleon’s soldiers carried with them ideas of equality. Later monarchs found the seeds of liberalism planted by the French were impossible to eradicate.
Napoleon has been known either as this liberator from a tyranny that gripped Europe for a millennium or as the instigator of an eponymous age of violent upheaval and constant war. Reiss shatters this binary perception, producing a clear-eyed picture of an ambitious revolutionary turned vainglorious despot.
Reiss makes his case in a book not about Napoleon but about one of his generals, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the protagonist of The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo.
Reiss’ research is an essential part of the narrative thread. Searching for documentation, the author tells how he blew open a safe in the general’s hometown to get at his papers and discovered a trove of material that no earlier biographer had seen. Reiss took what had to be dusty piles of documents and produced a book that is at once illuminating biography and riveting adventure.
The Black Count is the second book in English about the general. The first — John G. Gallaher’s General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution — was written in 1997. Reiss first came across the life of Dumas in an autobiography of the general’s son, Alexandre, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
In his memoir, the son wrote extensively about his father’s life. In reading the memoir, Reiss was struck by “the love that shows through.” Though only four years old when the father died, Reiss says, the son imbibed stories told by his mother and a close family friend.
The son drew inspiration from what he heard, imbedding the general’s exploits in characters of his novels: in particular, the swashbuckling d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers and the betrayed Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Reiss tells a believable story of how Dumas once fought three duels in one day, winning all three – “almost certainly the basis for one of the best-known and most comic scenes in The Three Musketeers, in which d’Artagnan challenges Porthus, Athos and Aramis to duels on the same afternoon.”
The general’s life of derring-do begins in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) when the island was the center of the world sugar trade. Born to a fugitive French aristocrat and an enslaved black woman, the young Thomas-Alexandre spent his first 14 years on the notorious sugar island.
Good biography uses key characters as a way to present related historical asides. Reiss uses Dumas’ birthplace to explain the importance of the Caribbean to the European economy of the late 18th century. What the Middle East is to the world today because of oil, he says, the Caribbean was to Europe because of sugar. And tiny Saint-Domingue was the world’s largest sugar exporter and the destination of three times as many slaves as in all of North America.
Reiss presents a brief history of Dumas’ father. A nobleman in hiding from his family and the law, he buried the name “Alexander Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie.”
Known as “Antoine of the Island,” he married a wealthy woman and acquired a plantation and slaves to become a sugar planter. He never made much money, Reiss says, but he did buy a woman named Marie-Cessette Dumas. Together, they had four children, including a son named Thomas-Alexandre.
Three of them he sold, along with their mother, when he returned to France to claim the family’s inheritance. A hard-up Antoine “pawned his black son to buy passage,” Reiss writes. Only after securing his title did he send for the 14-year-old boy.
As a young man, Dumas moved to Paris, enjoying life with his father’s financial support. He enrolled at the royal fencing academy, a finishing school for sons of the aristocracy. Alexandre lived like the typical son of a nobleman, Reiss says, a bon-vivant, spending freely and carelessly.
How was it possible for a man of color to enjoy such freedom when the French slave empire was at its height? Reiss explains that French Enlightenment values meant that young Thomas-Alexandre, brought to France in servitude by his father, was free once he stepped ashore. French courts were handing down pre-revolution decisions on race that were judicial straws in the wind of change.
Reiss calls it the world’s first civil rights movement. In the 1750s, he says, a generation of crusading lawyers went up against the colonial sugar lobby and won shockingly broad rights for people of color.
At 24, Thomas-Alexandre fell out with his father, and set off on his own. He enlisted in the French army as a private, Reiss says. At his father’s request, he joined under his mother’s name, Marie Dumas, in order to preserve the family’s reputation. Once he’d risen in rank, he would not even sign his name “Alexander,” preferring to be called “Alex Dumas,” Reiss says.
Three years after enlisting, at the outbreak of the French Revolution, Dumas got an officer’s commission in the Black Legion, an all-black unit led by a mulatto violinist. On duty with the legion, he met the mother of his famous son. Reiss emphasizes that the revolution was a remarkable event in the history of race relations, creating opportunities for talented blacks committed to its ideals.
Dumas’ dedication helped propel a meteoric ascent through the ranks of the new revolutionary army. “He rose to command entire divisions and armies,” Reiss says. Fighting Austria in the Swiss Alps, he commanded 53,000 men. “It would be 150 years before another black officer in the West would rise so high.”
While the revolution made Dumas, it made Napoleon Bonaparte much more. The Corsican lieutenant would parlay a genius for war into becoming commander-in-chief of the army and the French version of a Roman emperor.
On his way up the ranks, Dumas would catch and briefly pass Napoleon. Dumas was a division commander when Napoleon was still a captain, Reiss says, and he continued to outrank the Corsican until 1795.
Reiss casts Napoleon as a villain, as the morally contemptible antagonist of the Black Count. Dumas’ relationship with Napoleon was ambivalent. Napoleon admired Dumas’ bravery and appreciated his military prowess, but Dumas’ candor and his low opinion of Napoleon often got him into quarrels with his chief. Such was the case during the ill-starred 1798 expedition to Egypt.
Reiss writes that Dumas condemned the expedition as wasteful, unjust and against the principles of the revolution. Even today the Egyptian campaign “is widely seen as among the most delusional of Napoleon’s globe-conquering fantasies,” Reiss says.
After the two soldiers face-off over the management of the war, Dumas departs for France.
“Blind is he who does not believe in my fortune,” Napoleon is reported to have said after their confrontation.
It would be nearly two years before Dumas would see home and family. On the way back, a storm forced Dumas’ ship to land at Naples, where he was taken prisoner by “a shadowy Italian group called the Holy Faith Army, which hoped to ransom him to France,” Reiss writes. “But in fact, Napoleon basically uses this as an excuse to get rid of Dumas, and Dumas just languishes in this horrible dungeon.”
Reiss’ impassioned absorption with Dumas’ fate has yielded a deeply researched biography in which even footnotes make for fascinating reading.
After two years of mistreatment and poisoning, Dumas is released from prison a broken man: blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, Reiss says. Yet he still wanted to serve France. Again and again he offered his service to Napoleon, but he waited in vain to be restored to active duty. Napoleon continued to punish Dumas’ wife and children even after his death, denying them the general’s pension.
Channeling Dumas the novelist, Reiss links the general’s confinement to the fictional imprisonment of Edmund Dantes. He presents a plausible case for Dantes, Monte Cristo’s wronged hero, as an avatar of the betrayed general.
Did Napoleon’s hostility contribute to the general’s premature death from stomach cancer at age 44? Not directly. But Reiss’ case is a metaphysical one. The profession that had given meaning to Dumas’ life was moved beyond his reach.
As Reiss explains, Dumas’ ascendency as a black man through the white ranks of the French army reflected a key turning point in the history of slavery and race relations. In a world where slavery was a fact of life, revolutionary France not only freed its slaves, but also created a society where men of color could compete head-to-head against whites and rise as high as talent would take them.
All that ended when Napoleon seized power, Reiss says. As emperor, Napoleon imposed cruel race laws. He rescinded many of the revolution’s enlightened racial policies. He seeded the government with overtly racist bureaucrats. He banned from living in Paris all soldiers of color who had retired or been discharged.
Reprehensibly, he reinstituted slavery in the colonies, “sending an invasion force to Saint-Domingue with orders to kill or capture any black who wore an officer’s uniform,” Reiss says.
In Saint-Domingue, the French encounter Toussaint Louverture, one of the most fascinating and important figures in New World history, according to Madison Smartt Bell, author of Toussaint Louverture, a Biography.
Toussaint, a brilliant ex-slave general, fought an army led by Napoleon’s brother-in-law to a standstill. Called “a cannibal of the slave republic” by Thomas Jefferson, Toussaint is credited with leading the only successful slave revolt in the history of the world.
Unable to be vanquished on the battlefield, Toussaint was tricked and arrested. Napoleon ordered that Toussaint be imprisoned in the Alps and murdered by lack of food and warmth.
The lives of two extraordinary ex-slaves, born in the same slave colony, who rose to fame as soldiers, intersect the life of Napoleon. In the end, both see their dreams destroyed by the French dictator.
There are many Napoleon Bonapartes. There is the heroic Napoleon, who fired the imagination of writers and filmmakers. There is the mythical Napoleon, subject of countless stories that praise his battlefield brilliance. There is also Napoleon the villain. On this last point, Reiss peeks behind the curtain of glory and finds a racist despot who perverted the ideals of the French Revolution in his quest for empire.
About the Book Review Author
Gary Rawlins is a Washington, D.C. area journalist and Civil War historian.