Book Review: The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

This book is not only fascinating, exciting, surprising, adventurous, eye-opening, invigorating, and educating but it’s well-written too.  You’ve heard of Alexander Dumas, of course, the author who wrote “The Three Musketeers,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and other tales of adventure; well, this book is the true story of his father Alex Dumas’s adventures upon which so many of the younger Dumas’s stories are based.  Reiss dove into an incredible amount of research to dig up this tale, and it was worth the effort.

The novelist Dumas’s grandfather was an aristocratic Frenchman who moved to the French colony in the Caribbean that encompasses what is now called Haiti and took a black mistress.  Alex Dumas was their son, a dark-skinned mulatto, half white French and half black Haitian slave woman.  Although he was born free, he spent a brief time as a slave before his father brought him to France and gave him an aristocratic upbringing and education.  It was a narrow window through which Alex Dumas leapt, as in the European countries all around blacks were kept as slaves, but in revolutionary France, for a brief period of time, they were freed and given the equal rights of all French people.

As a young man, Alex Dumas received a generous allowance from his father as he pursued his education and enjoyed the frivolities of Paris.  There came a time, though, when he enlisted in the French army as a dragoon, a common foot soldier, though with his aristocratic background he could have had an officer’s commission.  He was tall, broad-shouldered, and strong, and had been trained as a swordsman at one of the finest academies in Paris, and he quickly excelled and received promotion after promotion.  During one of his tours of duty he met the white Frenchwoman who became his wife and the mother of Dumas the novelist.

The book discusses the political background of France at the time in some depth to explain the extraordinary opportunity Alex Dumas had to excel and rise in rank.  With his battle prowess and intelligence he was a natural leader and hero.  France wanted to export its revolution to other European lands and set its armies out on conquests.  Dumas led his troops to victory after victory and found himself eventually promoted to general at the head of an entire army.  During the Italian campaign he began to run afoul of a young ambitious Corsican upstart named Napoleon, but he conducted himself so brilliantly that even Napoleon was forced into begrudging praise.

The next expedition was Napoleon’s disastrous journey to Egypt.  Dumas again excelled and proved himself a worthy leader, but Napoleon’s fleet was destroyed and the Egyptian campaign turned into an expensive fiasco.  Dumas left Egypt with a few other officers, only to encounter a Mediterranean storm aboard a leaking vessel.  They were forced to make port in southern Italy, which was held by enemies, and Dumas was arrested and imprisoned for two years.  It was this experience that inspired his son to write about the fictional Count of Monte Cristo and his terrible ordeal in a forgotten dungeon.

When Dumas was finally freed, his vigorous health was broken and France had changed.  The revolution was over.  Napoleon had taken over as dictator and had begun to create all sorts of new laws curtailing the freedoms of blacks and mulattos.  Dumas and his wife and children found themselves poverty-stricken, unable to claim the pension that Dumas was due.  It was discovered that he was very ill, with cancer as the author of the book relates, and he died forgotten and penniless at the age of forty.  Although his widow petitioned his old military friends and colleagues, Napoleon himself had given instructions that nothing was to be done for his family.  The novelist Alexander Dumas, along with his mother and sibling, grew up in poverty, and he was unable to afford a secondary education, but his talent as a writer brought him wealth and international fame.

This is a true story as exciting as any historical novel you might possibly find.  A great read.  Highly recommended.

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