Thursday, February 14, 2013

February Book of The Month: The Black Count

The Black Count
By Tom Reiss

Alexandre Dumas is best known today for his swashbuckling adventure/revenge stories such as The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Corsican Brothers and several others. What's not widely known is that details of and inspiration for Alexandre Dumas' bestsellers often were drawn from stories and memories of his own father, General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

Thomas-Alexandre, who generally preferred to be known as Alexandre, was the son of a dissolute French nobleman (who sold his own children into slavery) and a black Haitian slave. He rose to claim aristocratic status and worked his way thru army ranks to become a General (and rival of Napoleon). He died when his son was only four. Once you become familiar with the General's story, his feats of derring-do, his struggles against racism, the intrigues of nefarious aristocrats and bigoted bureaucrats, great battles in the Alps, fortunes won and lost, it becomes very apparent that his son the novelist loved him dearly and put bits and pieces of him in just about everything he wrote.

It is amazing how the more things change the more things stay the same. The accounts of police harassment that the elder Alexandre had to deal with in France, especially if he were in the company of a Frenchwoman, as he often was, read like something out of 1930s Mississippi. There were French laws requiring the registering of anyone with African blood and petty apartheid rules were occasionally enforced (No black person could be called "Sir" or "Madame".)

On the other hand, like Britain, France had a tradition of not tolerating slavery within its borders, regardless of what it was doing in Haiti or elsewhere, and of rewarding talent regardless of race. It was between these clashing interests that people like General Dumas and Chevalier St. Georges made their way..

Author's essay from Amazon:
I've always loved exploring history. It's like an uncharted hemisphere, and when you look at it closely, it has a tendency to change everything about your own time. I'm also drawn to outsiders, people who have swum against the tide. I often feel like a kind of detective hired to go find people who have been lost to history, and discover why they were lost. Whodunnit?
In this case, I found solid evidence that, of all people, Napoleon did it: he buried the memory of this great man – Gen. Alexandre Dumas, the son of a black slave who led more than 50,000 men at the height of the French Revolution and then stood up to the megalomaniacal Corsican in the deserts of Egypt. (The "famous" Alexandre Dumas is the general's son – the author of The Three Musketeers.) Letters and eyewitness accounts show that Napoleon came to hate Dumas not only for his stubborn defense of principle but for his swagger and stature – over six feet tall and handsome as a matinee idol – and for the fact that he was a black man idolized by the white French army. (I found that Napoleon's destruction of Dumas coincided with his destruction of one of the greatest accomplishments of the French Revolution – racial equality – a legacy he also did his best to bury.)
I first came across Gen. Dumas's life in the memoir of his son Alexandre, the novelist. And what a life! Alex Dumas, as he preferred to be known, was born in Saint Domingue, later Haiti, the son of a black slave and a good-for-nothing French aristocrat who came to the islands to make a quick killing and instead barely survived. In fact, to get back to France in order to claim an inheritance, he actually "pawned" his black son into slavery, but then he bought him out, brought him to Paris, and enrolled him in the royal fencing academy, and then the story begins to get interesting.
What really stuck with me from reading the memoir was the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. I could never forget the novelist describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father's gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Little Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God – for killing daddy." When he grew up, he took a greater sort of revenge, infusing his father's life and spirit into fictional characters like Edmond Dantes and D'Artagnan, with shades of Porthos, too. But the image of the angry child stuck with me and drove me onward to discover every scrap of evidence I could about his forgotten father.
And recovering the life of the real man behind these stories was the ultimate historical prospecting journey for me: I learned about Maltese knights and Mameluke warriors, the tricks of 18th-century spycraft and glacier warfare, torchlight duels in the trenches and portable guillotines on the front; I got to know about how Commedia del Arte influenced Voodoo and how a Jacobin sultan influenced the Star-Spangled Banner, about chocolate cures for poisoning and the still brisk trade in Napoleonic hair clippings. I discovered the amazing forgotten civil rights movement of the 18th century – and its unraveling ...
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