I’ve never read anything by the French novelist Alexandre Dumas. I might now, after reading the remarkable story of his father in Tom Reiss’ remarkable book, Black Count.
I didn’t know that Dumas the novelist was mixed-race. His father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti), the son of a French nobleman and a black woman he owned as a slave. Eventually also known as just Alexandre or Alex Dumas, he became a top general in the French revolution - not in Haiti, but in Europe. He was the highest-ranking black officer in a Western army until Colin Powell two centuries later. Of course the political cause he served was very different from Powell's; and unlike modern generals, and many in his day too, he led from the front of the action.
Before he was 32, Alex Dumas was commanding over 50,000 troops as General-in-Chief of France's Army of the Alps. Despite his incredible story and his son's fame, he has largely been erased from history - and not accidentally.
Dumas' fate, which provided the basis for his son’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo, was partly down to bad luck at sea and in the international conflicts which followed the revolution – but compounded by conflict with the leader of France's domestic counter-revolution-from-within, Napoleon Bonaparte. That was a matter of personal enmity and of general political hostility, but also of the specifically racist dynamic which was central to the Napoleonic reaction.
Through the amazing lens of Dumas’ life - compellingly, even thrillingly recounted - Black Count tells the story of the French revolution’s politics on race and racism, how they radicalised and then went sharply into reverse. It deals with some of the same issues as Marxist writer CLR James’ Black Jacobins, about the Haitian revolution, but from a different vantage point.
The Saint-Domingue where Thomas-Alexandre was born, in 1762, was a society with complex and shifting racial politics. There were growing tensions and conflicts between white and mixed-descent elites, even as they both enjoyed the wealth produced by the remaining 85% of the population, the brutally exploited black slaves. (The main sources of this wealth: sugar and coffee.) Free people of colour had won significant rights; but white leaders were now pushing back and seeking to establish an increasingly rigid racial caste system.
Later, in the course of the struggle to abolish slavery and win independence, the country would be devastated and impoverished, but at this point it was one of the richest places on earth, at the centre of the world economy.
Thomas-Alexandre and his three siblings were born into slavery. His father – by most accounts a pretty unpleasant character, but more importantly a slave-owner – sold his siblings. He did not sell Thomas-Alexandre, who seems to have been a special favourite, until he “needed” to raise the money to return to France. Even then, he sold him “with the right to redemption”. Once back in France, he did redeem him and raised him as the free son of a nobleman.
The France in which Thomas-Alexandre lived his youth, from 1776, also had complex and shifting racial politics. Decades before the French revolution inspired the French empire’s Caribbean slaves in open revolt, Enlightenment philosophers, lawyers and activists had launched their own attack on slavery, in conflict in particular with the colonial sugar lobby. Decades before it happened in Britain, there were successful political and legal battles by these activists to ensure that slavery could not exist inside France itself. The first victory in these battles took place in 1691, 73 years before the famous Somerset case here.
As the Enlightenment ferment intensified before the revolution, so did the assault on slavery and on racism. These ideas and ideals were well-established in France’s political culture by the time Thomas-Alexandre arrived. But in response there was also a growing racist reaction, with strong links to the summits of the regime. Laws were introduced to stem the attacks on slavery and impose restrictions on black people living in France.
Even those well-off and privileged, like Thomas-Alexandre - whose skin colour was described in a 1790s biographical essay as "something closer to ebony than to bronze" - suffered under these restrictions. Black Count describes the various indignities and threats he experienced at the hands of both the state and individual racists even while enjoying the life of a young nobleman in Paris. Naturally the poor majority of black people suffered more. At the same time, there was genuinely widespread admiration of "Americans", ie black people, among French whites.
In 1777, Louis XVI decreed a comprehensive legal code with the aim that “in the end, the race of negroes will be extinguished in the kingdom” – through a system of explicitly racist immigration controls, detention centres and deportations. A spate of restrictions on black people in France followed, including a requirement to register with the state and a ban on marriages between white and black or mixed-race people. Like many other rules in the last years of the ancien régime, argues Reiss, this system was very patchily administered. Napoleon’s regime would be much more thorough in its racism.
Thomas-Alexandre undertook informal military training under another mixed-race gentleman with a remarkable life, Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Born on the sugar island of Guadeloupe, Saint-Georges was 17 years older than his student; he had become an honorary member of the King's guard as a result of avenging a racist insult (yes, bizarre contradictions). Today he is known mainly as a classical composer, "the Black Mozart".
In 1786 Thomas-Alexandre enlisted in the army as a private; he had the noble descent to apply for a commission, but given anti-black laws his ethnicity put that in doubt. According to his son the novelist, Thomas-Alexandre's father objected and demanded he use a pseudonym. What we know for sure is that he enlisted under his mother’s name, Dumas, and listed his father as a Dumas too. Remember his mother was his father’s slave: whatever the immediate reasons of expediency, the symbolism should not be underestimated. Alex Dumas was born.
One of many reasons to read Reiss' book is that it contains useful concise narratives of the French revolution (from 1789) and the Haitian revolution that branched out from and intertwined with it (from 1791), plus highlights on their impacts in many other parts of Europe and the world.
The early years of these revolutions saw a string of battles and victories against racism.
In 1790, black legions were formed in the French army, as an anti-racist and internationalist political declaration. As a result of a sort of bidding war between two legions, offering higher rank, Dumas leapt from corporal to lieutenant colonel. As a result of his talent and daring, he was a general less than three years later, and within months General-in-Chief in the crucial region of the Alps.
Until 1792 France was a constitutional monarchy. In 1791 the anti-racist campaigning organisation “Friends of the Blacks” - which had been fighting for the abolition of slavery since 1788 - persuaded the King to sign a law reaffirming the institution could not exist in France itself and banning all distinctions of colour in citizenship rights within country. A struggle began over to what degree things would change in France’s colonies. The colonial planters, the richest of whom mostly lived in Paris, became an active lobby to prevent any further change, and in particular any interference with black slavery.
Some mixed-race colonists who themselves owned slaves agreed with them, trying to present themselves as whites’ allies against the slaves. Some were pushed towards more radical and egalitarian positions as white planters’ racist politics hardened further in response to the leftward movement of the revolution. In Saint-Domingue, political and then armed conflict broke out between white and mixed-race forces.
But it was not only the already-free who were influenced by events in France. From August 1791, what Friends of the Blacks leader Abbé Grégoire called “the volcano of liberty” erupted as the largest slave-revolt in history took control of much of the colony. The Haitian revolution had begun.
Even left-wing politicians in France hesitated, torn between hostility to slavery and pressure from the Saint-Domingue uprising, and fear of economically weakening the new republican regime (from September 1792) during its growing conflicts with foreign powers.
In April 1792, the National Assembly extended full citizenship to free blacks and “men of colour” in the colonies, but did not yet take action against slavery itself. The white planters now turned decisively against the revolution, and the revolution began to turn against them. For a time the French Republic fought with the slave-owners against the former slaves; in 1793-4, as the revolution reached its zenith, the alignment reversed.
The struggle of the ex-slaves in Saint-Domingue and the struggle of the working people of France, Paris in particular, which was radicalising the revolution and driving it forward, flowed together.
In June 1793 officers from Dumas’ legion presented the new, more revolutionary National Convention, dominated by the left-leaning Jacobin faction, with a petition calling for “American liberty” – freedom for all black people in the islands. Outside black and mixed-race people demonstrated in support with a banner proclaiming the Jacobin slogan Live free or die. The government declared its support for their demands, but still hesitated to act.
Between August and October 1793, Léger-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, the French commissioners sent to Saint-Domingue to quell the revolt but who switched to winning over and working with the former slaves, declared the abolition of slavery in the various regions of the island on their own account.
In February 1794, three of Sonthonax's deputies arrived in Paris from Saint-Domingue. One was a native of Senegal who had been a slave, Jean Baptiste-Belley; another a free Saint-Dominguan of mixed-race, Jean-Baptiste Mills; and the third a white Frenchman who had lived for years in the colony, Louis-Pierre Dufay. Dufay made a passionate anti-slavery appeal to the Convention. The revolutionary government became the first in history to officially abolish slavery, at the same time granting full citizenship rights to all those liberated.
In some parts of the French empire slavery was actually abolished after 1794. In Saint-Domingue it took a struggle by the former slaves against the British empire, which attempted to seize the colony and restore slavery. In others, for instance France’s Indian Ocean colonies, the slave-owners managed to block implementation of the Convention’s decree.
Dumas celebrated the Convention's decision in an open letter to his soldiers:
“[I] was born in a climate and among men for whom liberty also had charms, and who fought for it first. [As a] sincere lover of liberty and equality, convinced that all free men are equals, [I] will be proud to march out before you, to aid you in your efforts, and the coalition of tyrants [the regimes attacking revolutionary France] will learn that they are loathed equally by men of all colours.”
From mid-1794, the republican regime began to shift to the right. In 1795, there was violent repression against the more radical wing of the Jacobins and the movement of the Paris masses was crushed. A much more elitist and conservative government, the "Directory", came to power. (Reiss doesn't tell us Dumas' view of any of this.)
Yet even under the Directory struggles against racism continued and made progress. One emblematic example was the election and acceptance of black and mixed-race legislators in the bicameral system which replaced the National Convention. At least a dozen were elected, including two former slaves, one of whom held the position of Secretary in the Council of Elders upper house.
The Directory also instituted the world’s first colour-blind and integrated elite secondary school, the National Colonial Institute, at which the sons of former slaves studied alongside those of white and mixed-race anti-slavery activists and others. The purpose was consciously anti-racist. Pupils included the mixed-race sons of Sonthonax; the son of Henri Christophe, the future King Henri I of Haiti; and the sons of Saint-Dominguan revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture.
The government created scholarships to the school “without distinction of colour” and organised recruitment of students from other parts of the world, including Egypt and East Africa.
“From the perspective of early 1796”, writes Reiss, “Alex Dumas might well have assumed that his son, when he had one, would attend this school or a similar one. He could not have known that his son Alexandre [the novelist], brilliant as he would be, would instead be unable to attend any secondary school at all, because of a man whose name was still unknown to all but a small circle in the government… but who would soon remake France, and the Revolution, entirely” – Napoleon Bonaparte.
In the middle section of Black Count racism and slavery fade out of the picture temporarily. In the mid-1790s Dumas was a key figure, on the front lines, in revolutionary’s France’s conquest of large chunks of central Europe. For a time, his origin and skin-colour mattered much less. His democratic politics and even more his humanitarian outlook earned him the nickname Monsieur de l'Humanité. The story of what he did in those years is astonishing in its own right, and Reiss makes the most of it. For more on the "swashbuckling" aspects of Dumas' life, see the links at the end of this article.
Dumas and Bonaparte first worked together in the French campaigns in Italy, in 1796-7. Bonaparte, as late as December 1795 of lower rank than Dumas, had risen rapidly as a result of taking a leading role in internal repression (in the first instance against royalists). In Italy he was already promoting himself as an authoritarian leader, to Dumas' dismay and alarm.
Then in 1798, Bonaparte organised an attempt to conquer Egypt. It was a turning point in his personal rise to power, but also in the subversion of the revolution’s democratic impulses and elements.
Dumas did not even know where he was being sent until he arrived in the port of Toulon to join the mission. He was appointed Commander of the Cavalry. When the French forces arrived many Egyptians assumed that the tall, heroic-looking, dark-skinned Dumas and not the shorter, unimpressive-looking, very pale-skinned Bonaparte was the expedition's leader.
The brief French occupation of Egypt did not revolutionise the old social order. Bonaparte ordered various reforms, but most importantly and tellingly left slavery untouched. For this among several reasons Dumas was increasingly unhappy about what they were doing in Egypt and increasingly desperate to leave. Enmity between him and Bonaparte grew.
Reiss emphasises that this was political and not merely personal hostility: "Dumas saw himself as a fighter for world liberation, not world domination". Bonaparte scornfully dismissed Dumas' politics as "the delirium [insanity, madness] of his republicanism". He did not like people who challenged him, particularly if they were radical and not white. He threatened to have Dumas shot.
Dumas got out of Egypt, but his ship was wrecked in Southern Italy, and he fell into the hands of the counter-revolutionary Kingdom of Naples, which had recently supplanted a French-backed republican regime.
He was held in prison in terrible conditions for two years, until his wife eventually persuaded French officials to intervene and gain his release. Only 37 when he was taken prisoner and in magnificent shape, his health was wrecked by the way he was treated. Partly because this experience was the model for The Count of Monte Cristo, Reiss discusses Dumas' imprisonment at length.
When the general made it home in 1801, everything had changed. Although on paper the Republic still existed, Bonaparte was now the dictator Napoleon and counter-revolution was in full-swing. The ancien régime would not return, even when Napoleon crowned himself emperor, and even when he was overthrown by foreign powers and the Bourbon monarchy restored. Nonetheless, much of what socialists would value in the French revolution was destroyed.
In no sphere was the Napoleonic counter-revolution deeper than that of racism. Napoleon’s modernising legacy in most of France’s European empire continued to be contradictory; his legacy for black people both in the colonies and Europe was emphatically not.
In addition to the views of Napoleon and his associates, much of the wider support for his 1799 coup against the Directory had come from a coalition of slave-traders and exiled plantation owners, who calculated that a tricolour-draped dictator would create better conditions for restoring slavery than any sort of representative government – particularly one that included black people, abolitionists and various other radical idealists. As with other aspects of the revolution, but more sharply, the interests of capitalism or proto-capitalism were pitted against those of equality and freedom. Moreover, as the regime bedded in, a racist political dynamic with a logic of its own was unleashed.
From the start of his rule, Napoleon allied with supporters of slavery and seeded them throughout his government. In 1802 he signed a law to maintain slavery where it still existed in the French empire. The same year he launched a blood-soaked attempt to conquer Saint-Domingue. This was blatantly in order to reassert white control and restore slavery: no one on any side denied that the colony was already part of France. Napoleon gave orders to capture or kill any black man wearing an officer's uniform.
After two years the invasion was defeated, at the cost of many thousands of black lives and the wrecking of the country’s economy. (Mention should be made of the Polish units sent to fight for France under false pretences who then defected to the Saint-Dominguans, some settling in independent Haiti.) A similar but successful operation was undertaken in Guadeloupe, where the leader of the black resistance was an officer who had served under Dumas’ command in 1792.
Haiti managed to break away, at great cost to its people, and became a source of inspiration to anti-slavery struggles and a source of fear to slave-owners worldwide, particularly in the Americas. But slavery was restored throughout the remaining French empire. It would not be abolished until the republican revolution of 1848.
Meanwhile a series of racist laws rolling back and eliminating the rights of non-white people were introduced in France itself. This time, unlike before 1789, they were enforced. The National Colonial Institute was closed down and its students forced into menial labour. A ban on marriages between white and non-white people was reintroduced. Eventually there followed a complete bar on black and mixed race people entering France "on any cause or pretext, unless supplied with special authorisation".
Remaining black and mixed-race soldiers in the French army, including impressed prisoners of war from Haiti and Guadeloupe, were forced into segregated units and given only hard, dirty and dangerous work. Numerous restrictions were imposed on black and mixed-race former soldiers and officers, including a ban on them living in Paris and nearby. Dumas had to get special dispensation to remain in his own home. He “had been released from the fortress dungeon [in Naples] only to find his world transformed into one”.
More generally, notes Reiss, in the revolution "blacks and people of colour in France [had] experienced true freedom and thus [felt] the full pain of knowing what it meant to lose it".
The idea of a black general or political leader was now unthinkable. Dumas died at 43, in relative poverty, stripped of position and official honours, despised by Napoleon and his regime. When some former soldiers asked the dictator to provide assistance to his former general, Napoleon snapped back: "I forbid you to ever speak to me of that man!" In Stalinist-style, descriptions and depictions of Dumas were edited to hide or downplay his role, his politics and his ethnicity.
Dumas' son was three when he died, too young to understand fully at the time, but old enough to adore his father and have his life and works shaped by him. Reiss argues that Dumas the novelist making his father's story central to many of his plots was a sort of poetic revenge on Napoleon.
When Alexandre Dumas' novels achieved success, his African heritage was widely attacked and mocked - in contrast to how, at the height of the revolution, his father's was admired and celebrated. The regression which had taken place in terms of racism had sunk deep.
As a result of campaigning by fans of his son, a statue of General Alex Dumas was erected in Paris in 1912. It was destroyed by the German occupation forces in the Second World War and, unlike many others they destroyed, not replaced. The international labour movement and anti-racist movements should resurrect this inspiring figure.