Book review: The Black Count, by Tom Reiss

Alex Dumas fighting Austrian soldiers in 1797. Picture: Getty
Alex Dumas fighting Austrian soldiers in 1797. Picture: Getty
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IN the 1790s, the son of an aristocratic white father and a black slave woman became a charismatic French general who for a time rivalled Napoleon himself, and afterward languished in an Italian dungeon.

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

By Tom Reiss

Harvill Secker, 432pp, £20

His story inspired the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, written by his son, Alexandre Dumas, who also drew upon his father’s adventures in The Three Musketeers. Posterity remembers this son as Dumas père, to distinguish him from Alexandre Dumas fils, also a writer, whose novel La Dame aux Camelias was the source for Verdi’s La Traviata. But the general was the first of the three Alexandres (he preferred to be known as Alex), and in The Black Count, Tom Reiss has recovered this fascinating story with a richly imaginative biography.

Despite Reiss’ extensive research, the count remains a somewhat remote figure, since his contemporaries usually described him in conventional superlatives. The chief source of information is a highly romanticised memoir by his son, who was not yet four when he died, and who idealised him, in Reiss’ words, as “the purest, noblest man who ever lived”. Still, such language seems deserved. General Dumas was majestically tall (“his proportions were those of a Greek hero”), a crack swordsman and horseman (“looking like a centaur”), utterly fearless, generous to subordinates and a loving husband and father. He was also exceptionally good-looking, though the portraits that 
survive are less spectacular than the majestic Adonis depicted in the book’s cover 

Dumas was born in 1762 at the western end of Saint-Domingue, the colony that is now Haiti. Remarkably, the French Empire guaranteed protection and opportunities to people of mixed race, and when the boy’s 
father brought him to France at the age of 14 he received a first-rate education and later joined the army. He never cared much for his feckless father, however, and took the name Dumas from his slave mother, about whom very little is known.

Still a young private in the army, Dumas fell in love and proposed marriage to Marie-Louise Labouret, his landlord’s daughter. It was an enduring love match; years later he wrote to her from the wars, “I am and will always be your best friend”. Her father asked the couple to wait to marry until Dumas was promoted to sergeant. They didn’t have long to wait. The French Revolution had erupted, and he shot up through the ranks.

This was a time of chaos throughout Europe, and Dumas got to experience the upheavals firsthand. Assigned to the Army of the Alps, he fought a series of difficult winter engagements. In addition to being a gifted organiser and inspired tactician, he was indomitable in hand-to-hand combat.

But back in Paris, his civilian superiors kept complaining that he wasn’t accomplishing enough, and when the infamous Committee of Public Safety launched the Reign of Terror, he was charged with defeatism and incivisme, “lack of civic consciousness”. If anyone should have been safe from such an accusation it was Dumas, whose devotion to the principles of the revolution never wavered. But he was summoned to Paris possibly to face execution. He survived only because Robespierre fell and the Terror abruptly ended.

Next, Dumas was sent to the Vendée region in western France, where the army had punished peasant resistance to the regime by massacring many thousands of people. Acting decisively, he succeeded in restoring order. Here and throughout his career he flouted military custom by forbidding his men to pillage.

And then it was on to Italy. Promoted by now to general, Dumas battled the Austrians, who called him the Black Devil. On one memorable occasion he defended a mountain bridge against heavy odds, and a companion remembered seeing him “lift his sabre, as a thresher lifts his flail, and each time the sword was lowered a man fell”.

Meanwhile Napoleon, seven years his junior, was rising rapidly in prestige, and was hostile to potential rivals. Dumas’ gifts as a soldier were obvious, and Napoleon would continue to make use of him, but always with jealousy and suspicion. In 1798, Napoleon started a megalomaniac campaign in the Middle East, intending to conquer Egypt and then go on to British India. There were never enough supplies, the heat was intolerable and thousands of soldiers were killed or died of disease.

In Egypt, Dumas was now supreme cavalry commander of the Army of the Orient, and as usual he distinguished himself in battle. Reiss’ narrative of the campaign is especially spirited, and along the way he treats us to a wealth of incidental information, for instance about the Mameluke warriors who came to Egypt from the Caucasus and bequeathed pale skin and blue eyes to some Egyptian families.

Though the French managed to rule Egypt for several years, there were repeated setbacks, most notably Nelson’s naval victory in the Battle of the Nile in 1798, which put an end to thoughts of conquering India.

Napoleon abruptly departed for France, leaving his bedraggled army behind. Dumas then chartered a vessel that was leaky and stayed afloat only after his shipmates threw their cannons overboard, as well as 4,000 pounds of coffee that he had been planning to sell in France, along with nine Arabian horses.

When the men got as far as Italy they put ashore at Taranto on the southern coast, expecting to be welcomed by a recently established republic there. It turned out, however, that Neapolitan monarchists had retaken Taranto, and Dumas was imprisoned in its fortress by a reactionary gang that called itself the Holy Faith Army. He spent two years in the dungeon, unable to get anyone to address his case, and after falling gravely ill he became convinced that the physician attending him was administering poison.

Back home, Marie-Louise pestered the authorities to find her husband, which they finally did, negotiating his release. By now he was a broken man. Shortly after his release from prison, Dumas wrote a bitter account of his captivity that would later inspire his son’s tale of the ordeal of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. Alex Dumas, who was never officially a count because he didn’t claim his father’s title, died of cancer in 1806 at the age of 43.

In 1802, Marie-Louise gave birth to their third child, Alexandre, Dumas pere. That Alexandre was a figure of vast appetite and incredible energy, but thanks to Reiss we now know that Dumas grandpere was even more interesting. A statue in his honour once stood in the Place Malesherbes in Paris, but it was destroyed by the Nazis since it celebrated a man of mixed race. There still isn’t a monument to him, but there should be.