Preface: Just as I often need a break from talking about the Climate Crisis, we all need to take breaks — big breaks — from thinking about the COVID-19 epidemic. Books are my answer, either looking to the future with Sci-Fi or, in this case, looking to the past. Meanwhile, I am coming up with a post-pandemic action plan and some of you aren’t going to like it.
Like so many true heroes who happen to be people of color, French Revolutionary General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas created a legacy that was whitewashed by history. In his Pulitzer Prize winning biography, The Black Count, Tom Reiss not only sets the record straight, he presents the life of a man we wish we would have known personally.
Prior to his father’s financial ruin he had trained with the best swordsman in Europe, but in 1786 Dumas enlisted in the French Republican Army as a private. Six foot two, wide-shoulders, trim waist and renown for his horsemanship, bravery and loyalty to his men, Dumas rose to rank of Brigadier General in just seven years.
Prior to Napoleon taking over the French Army, General Dumas was the most celebrated general in France. Filled with fervor for French liberté, he won one campaign after the other, including a notorious victory in the Italian Alps in the heart of winter. Fervent in the ideals born of the French Revolution, he viewed his military victories as a means of bringing equality and democracy to the lands he liberated. After every battle, he insured that his troops restrained themselves, that prisoners were treated humanely and that civilians were granted every courtesy. He was dubbed ‘Mr. Humane’ by the very people he defeated.
Dumas was also famous among the people of France for his physical appearance. As Reiss reports, “Dark-skinned and clearly of African descent, his look were not disparaged by his contemporaries; rather, they were admired and celebrated.”
French newspapers at the time declared him to be, ‘One of the handsomest men you could ever meet . . . interesting physiognomy is accompanied by a gentle and gracious manner.’
So, what happened to the legacy of the man who was once the most famous black soldier in all of Europe? In a single word, Napoleon. France was the first European nation to outlaw slavery. After the bloody climax of the French Revolution they even set-up bi-racial schools in Paris which provided scholarships to ‘Americans’ (their term for black men born in the West Indies, as Dumas was). They also outlawed Jewish ghettoes and liberated Jews in all the countries they managed to take over. But after 1804 when he declared himself Emperor of France he reversed all the progressive laws that came out of the French Revolution, undermining its democratic principles as well.
Despite the fact that General Dumas won a number of military victories for him, Napoleon came to despise Dumas. It might have been a short, skinny man’s resentment of a physically imposing soldier, or it might have been an expression of Napoleon’s racism. Either way France no longer celebrated diversity and they, following the lead of the Emperor, turned their backs on Dumas, even in their history books. They did, however, celebrate Dumas’ son, the most widely read French novelist of all time who was also bore the name Alexandre Dumas.
What remains a mystery concerning the whitewashing of General Dumas’ legacy, is the way in which his son contributed to it – at the least, failed by omission to correct it. Dumas the writer adored his father. His most famous novel, The Count of Monte Cristo, was largely based on his father’s life. But, Dumas portrays the hero of the story, Edmond Dantès, not as mulatto or black but as a white merchant sailor. Is it possible that post-Napoleonic France was racist enough to make a black hero unpopular?
To be fair, Alexandre Dumas did write a biography of his famous father. Tom Reiss draws heavily from it. But, the book never sold well.
Footnote: You will also recall The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas. Many of the scenes, such as D’Artagnan fighting three duels in one day, are taken directly from the life of his father. All are great swordsman like Dumas, and Porthos, like General Dumas, is lauded for his prodigious strength. Yet, none of the musketeers are black men.