The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

by Tom Reiss


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General Alex Dumas is a man almost unknown today, yet his story is strikingly familiarbecause his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used his larger-than-life feats as inspiration for such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

But, hidden behind General Dumas's swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: he was the son of a black slavewho rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time. Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas made his way to Paris, where he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolutionuntil he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.

The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world’s first multi-racial society. TIME magazine called The Black Count "one of those quintessentially human stories of strength and courage that sheds light on the historical moment that made it possible." But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307382474
Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/14/2013
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 31,460
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.14(d)

About the Author

TOM REISS is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Black Count and the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist. His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications. He makes his home in New York City.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

May 5, 1964

Place of Birth:

New York, New York


A.B., Harvard College, 1987; M.A., University of Houston, 1991


Read an Excerpt


the sugar factory

Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie—father of the future Alex Dumas—was born on February 26, 1714, in the Norman province of Caux, a region of rolling dairy farms that hung above great chalk cliffs on the northwest coast of France. A scrawled scrap of paper from the time states that he was baptized “without ceremony, at home, because of the peril of death,” suggesting he was too sickly to risk bringing in to the local church. He was the firstborn son of an old family that possessed a castle, a scarcity of cash, and an abundance of conniving members, though Antoine would one day outdo them all.

The boy survived, but the following year his sovereign, King Louis XIV, the Sun King, died after seventy-two years on the throne. As he lay dying, the old king counseled his heir, his five-year-old great-grandson: “I loved war too much, do not imitate me in this, nor in my excessive spending habits.” The five-year-old presumably nodded earnestly. His reign, as Louis XV, would be marked by a cycle of spending and wars so extravagantly wasteful and unproductive that they would bring shame not only on his person but on the institution of the French monarchy itself.

But the profligate, war-driven habits of its kings could not hold France back. In fact the “Great Nation” was about to unleash the age of the philosophes, the Enlightenment, and all that would follow from it. Frenchmen were about to shake the world into the modern age. Before they could do that, they would need money. Big money.

Big money was not to be found in Normandy, and certainly not around the Pailleterie château. The family’s coat of arms—three golden eagles holding a golden ring on an azure background—looked impressive but meant little. The Davy de la Pailleteries were provincial aristocrats from a region more abounding in old glories than in current accounts. Their fortune was not enough to sustain grandeur without work—or not for more than one generation.

Still, a title was a title, and as the oldest son, Antoine would eventually claim the title of “marquis” and the ancestral estate of Bielleville that went with it. Next in succession after Antoine were his two younger brothers—Charles Anne Edouard (Charles), born in 1716, and Louis François Thérèse (Louis), born in 1718.

Faced with their limited prospects in Normandy, all three Pailleterie brothers sought their fortunes in the army, which then accepted nobles as young as twelve into its commissioned ranks. Antoine received a commission in the Corps Royal de l’Artillerie, an up-and-coming branch of the service, as a second lieutenant at sixteen. His brothers soon followed him as teenage junior officers. The Pailleterie brothers were kept busy by His Majesty’s plunge, in 1734, into the War of the Polish Succession, one of a series of dynastic conflicts that regularly provided excuses for the gory quaintness of eighteenth-century European combat. The big-power rivals behind this little war were the traditional competitors for European land domination, the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs, France and Austria. (England would soon play a bigger role, especially on the high seas and in the New World, but that was still one or two wars in the future.)

In addition to his commission in the artillery, Antoine served at the front as gentleman in the entourage of the Prince de Conti, the king’s dashing, fabulously rich cousin. Antoine saw his main action at the Siege of Philipsburg, in 1734—later written into the military annals by Karl von Clausewitz, in On War, as the “perfect example of how not to site a fortress. Its location was that of an idiot standing with his nose against the wall.” Voltaire was also there, fleeing a royal arrest warrant, and working as a kind of one-man eighteenth-century USO show during the siege, offering bons mots and brandy between bouts of battle and composing odes to the military men.

The most notable event in Antoine’s service at Philipsburg, however, was that he served as a witness to a duel that took place on the night of the Prince de Conti’s birthday party at the front: it was between the Prince de Lixen and the Duke de Richelieu. The duke took offense when the prince mocked the Richelieu pedigree. The duke’s grandfather had been Cardinal Richelieu (later immortalized as the mustache-twirling nemesis of the Three Musketeers), an adviser to Louis XIII who had managed royal financial and building projects to great advantage—both for himself and for France. But such accomplishments did not measure up to the high standards of snobbery practiced by Lixen, who regarded the Richelieu clan as parvenus. To make matters worse, the duke had recently offended the prince by marrying one of his cousins.

At midnight, the illustrious in-laws met in the field of honor between the dining tents and the trenches. They began lunging at one another there in the dark, their lackeys lighting the swordfight with flickering lanterns. The prince took the advantage first, wounding Richelieu in the thigh. The lackeys switched from lanterns to bare torches, and the combatants chased each other in and out of the trenches, their blades reflecting fire. The prince stabbed the duke in the shoulder. At this point an enemy barrage lit the field of honor. One of the lackeys was hit and killed.

Richelieu counterattacked, and with Antoine watching, the duke sank his blade into the chest of his unfortunate in-law. Contemporaries considered it a sort of poetic justice, since Lixen himself had recently dispatched one of his own relations, his wife’s uncle, the Marquis de Ligneville, for a similarly trifling offense. Such were the friendly-fire deaths of the eighteenth-century battlefield.

In 1738, when the war ended, Antoine took the chance to get out of the army and Europe altogether. While he was stationed at Philipsburg, his younger brother Charles had joined a colonial regiment that went to the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, on the West Indian island of Hispaniola. This was a fortunate posting.

Sugar planting was the oil business of the eighteenth century, and Saint-Domingue was the Ancien Régime’s Wild West frontier, where sons of impoverished noble families could strike it rich. Barely sixteen when he arrived in the colony as a soldier, by twenty-two Charles Davy de la Pailleterie had met and wooed a young woman, Marie-Anne Tuffé, whose family owned a sizable sugar plantation on the colony’s wealthy northeast coast. Antoine decided to join him.

Today, the world is so awash in sugar—it is such a staple of the modern diet, associated with all that is cheap and unhealthy—that it’s hard to believe things were once exactly the opposite. The West Indies were colonized in a world where sugar was seen as a scarce, luxurious, and profoundly health-giving substance.

Eighteenth-century doctors prescribed sugar pills for nearly everything: heart problems, headache, consumption, labor pains, insanity, old age, and blindness. Hence, the French expression “like an apothecary without sugar” meant someone in an utterly hopeless situation. Saint-Domingue was the world’s biggest pharmaceutical factory, producing the Enlightenment wonder drug.

Columbus brought sugarcane to Hispaniola, the first European settlement in the New World, on his second voyage, in 1493. The Spanish and the Portuguese had been the first to cultivate sugar in Europe, and when they began their age of discovery, among the first places they “discovered” were islands off the coast of North Africa just perfect for sugar cultivation. As the Iberian explorers made their way down the African coast—the Portuguese going around the Horn to East Asia, the Spaniards cutting west to the Americas—both powers had two main goals in mind: finding precious metals and planting sugarcane. (Oh, and spreading the word of God.)

The Spanish established a colony on the eastern side of Hispaniola and named it Santo Domingo; eventually, the colony would extend over the eastern two-thirds of the island, roughly corresponding to the modern-day Dominican Republic. (The native inhabitants called the entire island by another name: Hayti.) The Spanish brought artisans from the Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa, to build the elaborate on-site technology needed for sugar production—presses, boilers, mills—and then brought the most essential ingredient of all: African slaves.

Slavery, of course, had existed since antiquity. The Greek city-states had created democracy among a small elite by enslaving almost everybody else, in some cases up to a third of the population. Aristotle believed democracy could exist only because of slavery, which gave citizens the leisure for higher pursuits. (Modern versions of this argument held that American democracy was born of the slave society of rural Virginia, because slavery gave men like Washington and Jefferson the free time to better themselves and to participate in representative government.) In Greece and Rome, slavery was the fate of prisoners of war and barbarians, anyone not lucky enough to have been born Greek or Roman. When ancient slaves managed to buy their freedom or that of their children, they would assimilate into the free population, with no permanent mark on their descendants. Though ubiquitous in the ancient world, slavery was not based on any sense of “race.”

There was an ethnic connotation in the etymology of the word “slave,” which first appeared in the eighth century AD: the word was a corruption of “Slav,” since at the time nearly all slaves imported into Europe were ethnic Slavs. The Slavs were late converts to Christianity, and their pagan status made them vulnerable. “Slav markets” were established across Europe, from Dublin to Marseilles, where the people being bought and sold were as fair-skinned as those buying and selling them.

The rise of Islam led to a vast expansion of slavery, as conquering Arab armies pulled any and every group of “unbelievers” into bondage. Arab slave traders captured whites from the north via sea raids on European shipping, and blacks from the south via land raids or barter with the sub-Saharan kingdoms. Justified by religious faith, the Muslim slave trade was a huge trans-national business. Over time it focused more and more on black Africans. Yet there was still no fixed biological marker for bondage.

The European sugar trade changed this forever. As thousands of blacks were bought and sold out of Africa to harvest sugar, for the first time in history a biologically marked group of human beings came to be considered destined for slavery, created by the white landowners’ God for a life of permanent chattel servitude.

The Portuguese had first taken blacks to Madeira to cut sugarcane because the island was off the coast of North Africa and the Muslim traders there happened to deal in African slaves. When they sailed down the Guinea Coast, the Portuguese found the black African kingdoms were willing to supply them with slaves directly: the Africans did not consider they were selling their racial brothers to the whites. They did not think in racial terms at all but only of different tribes and kingdoms. Before, they had sold their captives to other black Africans or to Arabs. Now they sold them to whites. (The African kingdoms and empires themselves kept millions of slaves.) As time went on, Africans would learn of the horrors awaiting black slaves in the American colonies, not to mention on the passage over, yet they continued to export ever greater quantities of bois d’ébène—“ebony wood,” as the French called their cargo. There was no mercy or morality involved. It was strictly business.

Spain laid the foundations of this great wealth and evil in the Americas, then quickly became distracted and forgot about it. After introducing the plants, the technology, and the slaves into Santo Domingo, the Spanish dropped the sugar business in favor of hunting for gold and silver. They moved on to Mexico and South America in search of the precious metals, leaving the island to languish for nearly two centuries, until the French began to harness its true potential.

By the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the Saint-Domingue colony, situated on the western end of Hispaniola, where Haiti is today, accounted for two-thirds of France’s overseas trade. It was the world’s largest sugar exporter and produced more of the valuable white powder than all the British West Indian colonies combined. Thousands of ships sailed in and out of Port-au-Prince and Cap Français, bound for Nantes, Bordeaux, and New York. When the British, after winning the Seven Years’ War, chose to keep the great swath of France’s North American colonies and instead return its two small sugar islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique, they unwittingly did their archrival a favor.

Saint-Domingue was the most valuable colony in the world. And its staggering wealth was supported by staggering brutality. The “pearl of the West Indies” was a vast infernal factory where slaves regularly worked from sunup to past sundown in conditions rivaling the concentration camps and gulags of the twentieth century. One-third of all French slaves died after only a few years on the plantation. Violence and terror maintained order. The punishment for working too slowly or stealing a piece of sugar or sip of rum, not to mention for trying to escape, was limited only by the overseer’s imagination. Gothic sadism became commonplace in the atmosphere of tropical mechanization: overseers interrupted whippings to pour burning wax—or boiling sugar or hot ashes and salt—onto the arms and shoulders and heads of recalcitrant workers. The cheapness of slave life brushed against the exorbitant value of the crop they produced. Even as the armies of slaves were underfed and dying from hunger, some were forced to wear bizarre tin-plate masks, in hundred-degree heat, to keep them from gaining the slightest nourishment from chewing the cane.

The sugar planter counted on an average of ten to fifteen years’ work from a slave before he was driven to death, to be replaced by another fresh off the boat. Along with malnutrition, bugs and diseases could also eventually do in someone working up to eighteen hours a day. The brutality of the American Cotton Kingdom a century later could not compare to that of Saint-Domingue in the 1700s. There would be no shortage of cruel overseers in the United States, but North American slavery was not based on a business model of systematically working slaves to death in order to replace them with newly bought captives. The French sugar plantations were a charnel house.

Because Versailles loved laws and orders, France was the first country to codify colonial slavery. In doing so, King Louis XIV passed a law, in 1685, that changed the history of both slavery and race relations.

Le Code Noir—the Black Code. Its very name left no doubt about who were to be the slaves. It elaborated, point by point, the many ways in which black Africans could be exploited by their white masters. The Code sanctioned the harshest punishments—the penalty for theft or attempted escape was death—and stated that slaves could not marry without their master’s consent or pass on property to their kin.

But the very existence of a written legal code—a novelty of the French colonial empire—opened the way for unexpected developments. If there were laws governing slavery, then slave owners, at least in some instances, could be found in violation of them. By articulating the rules of white domination, the Code, theoretically, at least, limited it, and gave blacks various opportunities to escape from it. It created loopholes. One of these was on the issue of sexual relations between masters and slaves, and the offspring resulting from such relations.

Table of Contents

prologue, part 1 • February 26, 1806  
prologue, part 2 • January 25, 2007  
book one chapter 1 • The Sugar Factory  
chapter 2 • The Black Code  
chapter 3 • Norman Conquest  
chapter 4 • “No One Is a Slave in France” 
chapter 5 • Americans in Paris  
chapter 6 • Black Count in the City of Light  
chapter 7 • A Queen’s Dragoon  
book two chapter 8 • Summers of Revolution   
chapter 9 • “Regeneration by Blood”   
chapter 10 • “The Black Heart Also Beats for Liberty”   
chapter 11 • “Mr. Humanity”   
chapter 12 • The Battle for the Top of the World   
chapter 13 • The Bottom of the Revolution   
chapter 14 • The Siege   
chapter 15 • The Black Devil   
book three chapter 16 • Leader of the Expedition   
chapter 17 •  “ The Delirium of His
chapter 18 • Dreams on Fire   
chapter 19 • Prisoner of the Holy Faith Army   
chapter 20 • “ Citizeness Dumas . . . Is Worried
    About the Fate of Her Husband”   
chapter 21 • The Dungeon   
chapter 22 • Wait and Hope   
epilogue • The Forgotten Statue   
Author’s Note on Names   


A Conversation with Tom Reiss

Q. Who was Alex Dumas? What makes him relevant today?

A. Alex Dumas was one of history's most odds-defying figures, and his story is an inspiration to anyone. Born the son of a slave and briefly sold into slavery himself, he made it to Paris before the Revolution, and though he inherited a noble name from his white father, he threw it off, took his mother's slave name "Dumas," and volunteered for the army at the lowest rank. During the Revolution, Alex first rode with the Queen's dragoons—protecting people from revolutionary mobs—and then he helped form a group of revolutionary mixed-race horsemen called the Black Legion that rode to defend France's frontiers from invasion. In solo combat, Alex Dumas could fight off a dozen men (there are many eyewitness accounts of those exploits). But he also showed incredible leadership and was raised, by age thirty-one, to the rank of general. As commander-in-chief of the French army in the Alps, roughly the equivalent of a four-star-general today, this young man from the tropics, who had barely seen snow before, led 53,000 poorly supplied men in fierce glacier fighting against the best alpine troops in the world. He could be celebrated as the patron saint of all U.S. Special Forces today.

But even as he gave all for his side, his real character was shown in how he treated the enemy or those under his command. Here Alex Dumas was equally uncompromising, and he constantly clashed with his superiors. He was promoted to general at the height of the Terror when Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety assigned commissars to accompany the generals in the field with portable guillotines—dozens of generals and other officers were decapitated for supposed political offenses or for showing too much leniency. Dumas stood up to any intimidation (it was said he even burned one of the portable guillotines for firewood). I found many letters written years later by Dumas's former enemies thanking him for protecting their rights and defending them from his own army's abuses.

Dumas's jaw-dropping ascendancy as a black man through the white ranks of the French Army also represents a key turning point in the history of slavery and race relations—one that, incredibly, has been overlooked until now. General Dumas was a pioneering black leader in a modern white society—the precursor to Colin Powell and President Obama—but nearly two hundred years before them. His career realigns our understanding of racial politics in the era of slavery. It is also drenched with irony: at the same time that he led more than 50,000 white soldiers to honor and glory, a black man like him in the United States—which presented itself as the font of liberty—would be relegated to shining a general's shoes.

Finally, beyond his importance as a historical figure, Alex Dumas influenced literature and popular culture in ways that would have been unimaginable to him—not only books but movies and even comics. He was the red, white, and-blue?wearing superhero of the Revolution, and his exploits inspired his son to create the Three Musketeers, who were among the main prototypes for the modern action hero. (Alex's son basically divided up his exploits and gave them to the individual characters, because if all these feats had been credited to one man, it would have seemed too unbelievable.) And as the inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo, which became a template for the modern thriller protagonist—the wronged man in search of justice—the ghost of Alex Dumas lives in everything from Batman to The Bourne Identity.

Q. How did you find this story?

A. It began in my parents' basement when I came across the memoirs of Alexandre Dumas, the novelist. Dumas is one of the most famous writers in the world, having published The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but the first two hundred pages of his memoir are all about his father. You can imagine it: Dumas had grown up in terrible poverty, hearing the stories of his father's fame and bravery at the height of the Revolution—and he knew that Napoleon was somehow behind his father's fall from grace but never knew the full story. While General Dumas died when his son was not yet four years old, young Alexandre deeply loved his father, and heard the tales of his exploits from his mother and from old soldiers who would stop by to pay their respects and reminisce about the incredible general, who had been unlike anyone they had ever known, in talents and courage but also in his humanity and invincible spirit. Dumas's memoir is impossible to read without being deeply moved by the loss of this towering man, but what really stuck with me is the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. The first part of the memoir ends with the writer 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. Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God—for killing daddy."
I couldn't get this out of my mind. It conveys so powerfully the rage we feel when the most important person in life is taken from us.

Q. In your previous book, the international bestseller The Orientalist, you revealed the surreal secret life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish man who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. Now, in THE BLACK COUNT, you tell the little-known story of General Alex Dumas, a real-life epic hero, forgotten by history. How do you come to write about people few others even know existed?

A. I believe the past really is undiscovered country—that we've barely begun to chart it. I've always been drawn to unjustly forgotten people, those who've been marginalized for one reason or another. Alex Dumas is someone who was forgotten utterly because he did not fit the conventional narrative. The reason his life was forgotten was no accident—it was deliberate. On one level because he crossed a powerful and ruthless man, Napoleon, but on another level because he crossed history. Alex Dumas came of age during a unique and forgotten moment when France was forging the modern world's first post-racial society. The French Revolution was doing what the American Revolution had not done. Napoleon destroyed that moment and buried it—and he did the same thing to its shining human example: General Dumas. Napoleon even had Dumas's image removed from a famous painting of the Egyptian Expedition and replaced by a blond, blue-eyed officer.

Q. It took you seven years to research the life of General Dumas, traveling all over the world tracking down source material. What was that process like?

A. Tracking down the life of a man who died more than two hundred years ago was a new experience for me. I had to rely entirely on old documents—letters, diaries, memoirs, newspaper cuttings, and battlefield reports—to get at the truth. I went all around the world—I went to Egypt to follow Alex's campaigns there, and in the south of Italy I found the fortress cell where he'd been imprisoned for three years. But the place I returned to again and again, was a little gray cobblestoned town fifty miles northeast of Paris called Villers-Cotterêts.

I found an old man in the town who had grown up in the house where General Dumas had died, and who had lived his life devoted to what he called "the Dumasian spirit." He had lost the use of his leg in a traffic accident, decades before, and took inspiration from the story of General Dumas to persevere. He and a few others supported me in my quest to resurrect the general—they felt the injustice of his disappearance. In fact, these "Dumasians" actually helped me to achieve my greatest research coup—the thing that made this book possible—which was access to the most personal and valuable papers in existence about General Dumas, including the handwritten memoir of his captivity in the dungeon that was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo as well as personal letters from Marie-Louise and many others. These papers were in a locked safe, to which no living person had the combination. The Dumasians helped me get access to the safe, which was in a government building, but I hired a professional to actually drill into the safe to get it open.

Q. How could a man of this stature and importance remain unknown for so long? Aside from his importance as a military figure and, through his son's stories, to world literature and culture, General Dumas led a career as a black leader in a white society that remained unequaled until our own time, when Colin Powell and Barack Obama have finally followed in his footsteps.

A. I think the answers go back to the Revolution—to its fundamental rejection of racial and religious categories, which has characterized the French republic ever since. But maybe more important, they go back to the forgotten road of racial emancipation and modernization that France alone took in the eighteenth century before reversing direction under Napoleon. In the course of my research, I discovered an entire forgotten civil rights movement under the King. And most of all—an entirely forgotten side of the revolutionary era that produced a kind of post-racial dawn in France that other countries would not see until our own times: Alex Dumas was the towering figure, but there were others—the head of the French senate was black, and Paris had the world's first racially integrated schools—a hundred and fifty years before Brown v. Board of Education!

I think his legacy was blotted out in part to hide the indignity of France's rapid retreat into racism and slavery—it was the betrayal of its own Revolution's greatest promise and accomplishment. With General Dumas in the picture, the full extent of France's fall would have been too painfully apparent.

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