Although it was originally recommended as a book that contained parallels between today's society and that of France a little over two hundred years ago, I found myself enchanted by the history that Tom Reiss painstakingly reveals. Who knew I would so enjoy learning the origin of the US Marine Corps sword? (See footnote, page 254.)
It is one of those biographies. You know, the kind written by a curious mind which not only wants to discover the story of a life, but also the world in which the life was lived. And because Alex Dumas lived in so many interesting places and during such interesting times, this biography is rich in social, political, economic, geographical and military details.
But this is first a biograrphy of a French General who swiftly rose high in the military ranks of Revolutionary France, a devoted idealist to the aims of the revolution, and a brilliant fighter who led the Army of the Alps, and the Army of the Orient to victories under difficult circumstances. And whose descent from the pinacle was faster than his rise.
In order to return to France to claim his inheritance after his father died, Pailleterie sold Alex as a slave to a naval officer. Sold with conditions, or in other words, pawned. (The wife and three other children had already been sold outright.) Once the inheritance was secure he brought his son to France and raised him as an aristocrat who would inherit his title of Marquis.
At 24, Alex had a final falling out with his father, and joined the military as an enlistee in the Queen's Dragoons, a light cavalry regiment. It was at this point that he took his mother's last name, Dumas, and began to use Alex as a first name.
While his regiment was assigned to the village of Villers-Cotterêts, Dumas met and eventually married, Marie-Louise Labouret, the daughter of the innkeeper where he lodged. They had three children, the youngest, born in 1802 was their son Alexander who became the most read author in France.
Dumas’s incredible ascendancy as a black man through the white ranks of the French army reflected a key turning point in the history of slavery and race relations as forgotten as Dumas himself: a single decade when revolutionary France ended slavery and initiated the integration of its army, its government, and even its schools. General Dumas was “a living emblem of the new equality,” wrote a nineteenth-century French historian—but his career’s tragic unraveling reflected the unraveling of that progress as well.This masterful biography reminded me that the hard-fought gains that we in the US have made for women, minorities and workers can be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Just as revolutionary gains in France were wiped out once Napoleon took over. And the history of an amazing French General was wiped out as well. By fiat he was erased from our knowledge of the French Revolution. A lone statue of him in France was destroyed during WWII, and has not been replaced.
The agent of destruction for both was his fellow general, Napoleon, who at first praised Dumas as a Roman hero for his battlefield feats but came to loathe him for his independence and revolutionary values. The two men clashed in 1798, during the invasion of Egypt—where the Egyptians mistook the towering Dumas for the leader of the French forces. Then, while Dumas languished for two years in an enemy dungeon, Napoleon made himself dictator and dismantled France’s postracial experiment, imposing cruel race laws in France, reinstituting slavery in the colonies, and sending an invasion force to Saint-Domingue with orders to kill or capture any black who wore an officer’s uniform. He went to equally extraordinary lengths to bury the memory of Alex Dumas, thundering, “I forbid you to ever speak to me of that man!” when former comrades tried to intervene on behalf of the general and his family, who were living in near-destitution. Barely five years after his return to France, Dumas died at 43 of stomach cancer, likely an aftereffect of his poisoning while imprisoned.
- Tom Reiss, The Harvard Magazine
And who knew that the heroes of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo were based on a black man, son of a slave and French aristocrat? For Alexandre Dumas, the son born to the General and Marie-Louise in 1802, and with whom most of us are familiar, based both books on his father's exploits. General Dumas did fight three duels in a single day and was locked up in a castle dungeon.
Other fun facts I learned in this book:
In late-eighteenth-century France, the term “American” was usually used synonymously with “man of color.” He was from the American sugar islands, and was thus a former slave or the son of a slave.And although I have been aware since grade school that France came to our aid during our own War of Independence, I did not realize the cost.
Thus the oldest great monarchy in the West assured the establishment of the first great Republic since ancient times. In the process, Versailles bankrupted itself.On the sword I mentioned in the introduction:
The Mameluke sword was considered such a perfectly balanced weapon that, during the fifty years after the Egyptian expedition, it was adopted as the official cavalry weapon by almost all major Western armies and to this day is the official sword of the U.S. Marine Corps.In the decades before the Revolution, the civil rights of slaves were fought for and protected by lawyers who sued for their freedom when they arrived on French soil.
From there, they argued that the Franks, who had founded the French nation and empire, had been fundamentally opposed to slavery. (The argument was etymological as well as historical, referring to the roots of the word “franc,” which originally meant “free.”)Looks like W and Dick weren't the only Westerners who completely misread the Middle East:
The Egyptians would welcome the French as liberators, Napoleon assured his men,And sadly,
In a sign of future troubles, when the French tried billeting some of their troops in Alexandria’s old city, a number had their throats slit, so the policy was jettisoned.
Strangely enough, none of the villagers greeted them as liberators. Everywhere the population seemed prepared to put up resistance.
Napoleon would attempt to remake Egyptian society from top to bottom in a manner as extreme as what he had done so quickly in Malta. But the Egyptians would prove much more resistant to their makeover, and in trying to bludgeon them into accepting foreign rule in the name of “rights for all,” the French would unleash storms that are still igniting conflict between East and West to our own day.