Born in 1762 on the French sugar plantation hellhole of Sainte-Domingue (now Haiti) of a French wastrel nobleman and a slave woman, Alex Dumas as a possession of his father would be literally pawned for a ticket back to France in 1775. Eight months later his father, having regained his patrimony, not that he ever lifted a finger to support or nourish it in any way, redeems his son and brings him to France, there to be raised as a gentleman. Highly intelligent and physically gifted, he becomes an outstanding swordsman. He enlists as a common dragoon in France’s Revolutionary Army, and through his own merits on the battlefield rises at a dizzying pace to the rank of general, in command of his own armies.
Because France has become the first nation on earth to emancipate men of every color, race and creed. “It was all made possible,” writes Reiss
by the concept, going back to the misty foundations of the nation, that France was the land of the free–that no one should be kept in unwilling servitude on its soil.
For a hundred years the French literati had taken up the cause of freedom, fighting it in the royal courts and the legal courts and infuriating Louis XV, who
found his hands tied. The phrase “absolute monarchy” is misleading: Ancien Regime France was a state of laws, of ancient precedents, where the spark of enlightened reason could and occasionally did ignite great things.
The French Revolution, as terrible as it was in execution (sorry), was glorious, at least briefly, in one respect: It really did embrace the rights of man, of all men, and Dumas fought to defend it.
The tragedy of General Dumas is that he goes to fight in Napoleon’s army in Egypt a free man. On the way home from that debacle Dumas’ ship puts into the Kingdom of Naples for repairs and due to some confusingly chaotic local ructions he is imprisoned for two years in pretty dire conditions.
Which imprisonment his son, Alexandre Dumas, uses as the basis of his novel, The Count of Monte Cristo. You’ll even find out who the Abbe Faria was in real life.
When Dumas is finally released, his health is shot and his world has changed. His republic has been supplanted by a three-man consulate, itself soon to become a one-emperor monarchy again. Due to the machinations of Napoleon (whom if you didn’t despise before you will when you’re done with this book), slavery is reinstituted across his once-free nation and all its properties. Including Sainte-Domingue, Dumas’ island birthplace and the site of so many conscienceless atrocities against its slaves.
One of those stories that teaches you all over again just how much stranger fact is than fiction. The one problem I have with it is the lack of illustrations. This is a well-designed book, nice cover art, heavy paper with deckle edges. Money has clearly been spent on it, so where is a picture of the safe holding the Dumas historical documents the author broke into? He was standing right there, he says, with a big ass camera, he says, while the locksmith cracked it. Where is a picture of the miniature painting of General Dumas in the tiny museum outside Mantua, site of one of General Dumas’ many victories, of which the author writes
The portrait of General Dumas leapt out from the rows of his lighter-skinned comrades, with their romantic pompadours and bushy sideburns…Dumas peered out with an open, almost quizzical expression, and I had that uncanny feeling that while the others were frozen in their lost worlds, he was alive within his little oval–impatient, curious–staring right back at me from the two-hundred-year-old paper.
Where is the photograph of the cell in Taranto in which General Dumas was held and which the author visited? Where is the photograph of the statue of General Dumas, taken before the Nazis took it away and melted it down, along with all the other Parisian statues of people of color?
Irritating. But you should read the book anyway. This is an amazing story.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.