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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

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Here is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo – a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.

The real-life protagonist of The Black Count, General Alex Dumas, is a man almost unknown today yet with a story that is strikingly familiar, because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used it to create some of the best loved heroes of literature.

Yet, hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave -- who 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 was briefly sold into bondage but made his way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy. Enlisting as a private, he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution in an audacious campaign across Europe and the Middle East – until 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. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.

414 pages, Hardcover

First published September 18, 2012

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About the author

Tom Reiss

10 books206 followers
TOM REISS is 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 lives with his wife and daughters in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,472 reviews
Profile Image for Lisa (Harmonybites).
1,834 reviews341 followers
July 2, 2016
I'm sure a lot of people are going to think the same thing reading this biography: "How in the world did I not know about this man?" Everyone knows Alexandre Dumas, père--or at least knows his The Three Musketeers. I haven't read his books, but I've watched several adaptations and homages to them, everything from toons to allusions on Star Trek. I knew that this 19th century author was both French and black--yet nevertheless celebrated even in his lifetime. I knew of his son, who wrote the play that was the basis for Camille and Verdi's La Traviata. But I didn't know about his father Alex Dumas. General Alex Dumas. Son of a marquis and a slave, born in Haiti, who his own father pawned into slavery, then redeemed and brought to Paris. He enlisted as a common soldier and when the French Revolution briefly swept away race as a bar, he rose to the rank of what would be considered today a four star general--commanding at one point over 50,000 troops--and was a genuine hero.

That's not all to his story either. So many of the events in this biography sound like out and out adventure fiction. Yet Reiss obviously researched this meticulously--he doesn't just go by his son's memoir, but sought out confirmations and contradictions and complications in the story. There are plenty of quotes from letters of General Dumas that bring his personality to life. The book also deals with the backdrop of his life: the sugar plantations of Haiti and the creole culture, Paris of the ancien regime and the French Revolution and rise of Napoleon.

I'd been reading biographies and other books dealing with the American Revolution lately, and it struck me in those books how deeply the American and French revolutions were intertwined, so it was interesting seeing it from the other side. (The French helped us win our revolution, and it bankrupted them helping touch off their own; The Marquis de Lafayette fought in both; Thomas Jefferson, who wrote our Declaration of Independence, helped draft their Declaration of the Rights of Man.) Whenever I'd read of the French Revolution, the Reign of Terror, the dysfunction of its government and its totalitarian aspects were what was emphasized. Reiss highlights by the nature of this biography what was hopeful and inspiring in it. Reiss claims the revolutionary government was the "first in history to abolish slavery." (I'd dispute that; I've read of examples in antiquity--notably Cyrus of Persia and Ashoka of India banned slavery in their dominions.) Blacks not only rose high in the military of revolutionary France, they were part of the legislature and in that period made strides socially and politically: until Napoleon. The glimpses we get of him here are not pretty. Reiss refers to Napoleon's "maddeningly contradictory legacy" as both "dictator" and "liberator"--his reign marked the resumption of racial discrimination and even slavery--what then was done to Dumas' native Haiti was a tragedy.

So both as the biography of a neglected historical figure and a window into his times this succeeds wonderfully. A great read.
Profile Image for Brina.
933 reviews4 followers
January 13, 2019
The 2019 edition of my Pulitzer challenge is off to a swashbuckling start with The Black Count: Glory, Betrayal, Redemption, and the Real Life Count Of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. A 2012 winner, Reiss had been influenced by his mother’s tattered copy of El Comte de Monte-Cristo, a copy she brought to the United States from France when she fled Nazi Europe. Reiss grew up in a household where the tales written by Alexandre Dumas were family favorites and each tale a treasured treat. Years later Reiss became a historian, starting with the Orientalist that gained international acclaim. His thoughts and research turned back to Dumas and his heroine Edouard Dantes and the stories he grew up reading. Determined to learn the identity of the real life Count, Reiss spent ten years researching the his identity and the result was an award winning tale of racial identity and political intrigue in early republican France.

Alexandre Dumas was born circa 1759 on the island of Sante-Domingue to Antoine Alexandre Davy de Pailleterie and his wife the freed slave Marie Cessette Dumas. During the second half of eighteenth century while racial politics were not widely discussed, Americans, as blacks were known on French soil, enjoyed more rights in France and her territories than in most other places in the Western Hemisphere. Antoine Pailleterie was a marquis for many generations yet experienced a rivalry with his brother Charles for the family’s land and holdings. Yet, the family was destitute, having survived poor sugar harvests and business decisions on Sante-Domingue. When Alexandre Dumas arrived in France at age fourteen, he took the surname of his mother, denouncing his marquis family now in turmoil. Despite some laws racial prejudicial laws existing in France, Dumas was free and spent his teenage years prior to the revolution in Paris, where he was influenced by French culture and attempted to school himself in the ways of a young Count, making up for lost time. Yet, what interested the young Dumas the most was swordsmanship. On the dawn of the revolution, he had become an accomplished fencer and horseback rider, and at six feet tall and swarthy, presented himself as quite a contrast to the majority of Frenchmen of his age.

During the revolution, Alexandre Dumas entered the French army but not as an officer befitting of a marquis but as an unranked officer. Knowing that he had to attain the rank of sergeant in order to win his future wife Marie-Louise Labouret’s hand in marriage, young Dumas embodied the French spirit of fraternity, liberty, and equality, and excelled at each assignment he was given, eventually rising to the rank of general. Early 19th century Europe was still governed by the Holy Roman Empire and the Hapsburg and Ottoman dynasties, and the new French Republic had an eye on conquering the entire continent. Dumas lead surges and battles along France’s borders as his nature thirsted to be on the front lines of action. He lead campaigns in the Alps into Italy as France designed to win the peninsula. Yet, Dumas’ exploits on the battlefield were noted by a rising star in the military, one General Napoleon Bonaparte. By 1798, Napoleon already believed that he was destined for greatness and perhaps feared Dumas as a rival for power and glory. The General was quick to put Dumas in his place, resulting in the rise of the Napoleonic age and Dumas nearly becoming a historical footnote.

Dumas was well regarded by the majority of those he encountered in the army. Perhaps Napoleon reinstated race laws in France after a half century of freedoms with his old rival in mind. As a result, Dumas never received accolades in his lifetime. Prior to Reiss unearthing two hundred year old documents what the public knows about Alexandre Dumas comes from memoirs written by his famous son of the same name, the novelist Alexandre Dumas. The younger Dumas bases his protagonist Edouard Dantes on his father, who was imprisoned in an Italian fortress from 1799-1800. Dumas was only four when his father passed away, but between his mother and his father’s colleagues, he was able to piece together a memoir befitting of a decorated general. Reiss cites passages from these memoirs throughout the text, giving Dumas’ accounts of events that were often altered by Napoleon and his cronies. Unfortunately, even after the publication of The Count Of Monte Cristo, few Frenchmen remembered the elder Alexandre Dumas and his battlefield heroics; Edouard Dantes was a memorable hero but few equated him with war hero Alex Dumas.

What I find remarkable is that Alex Dumas achieved glory in the late 18th century at a time when most people of African descent were chained as slaves. That he nearly became the top general in the entire French army speaks to his character and that the French were race blind. And perhaps if Napoleon did not have a complex, history would have turned out different for both Dumas and for France. Having never read the Count Of Monte Cristo and now feel that I must read this classic novel, Tom Reiss does an impeccable job of bringing the real life tale to life for me. I have not read much on European history since high school so I was reminded of an age of revolution as the average person asserted themselves in the face of monarchy and aristocracy. While I am usually drawn to American history and Pulitzer winners of this nature, I was enlightened by the Black Count and respect the research that Reiss undertook in unearthing the Count’s true identity. I look forward to reading his other history of middle eastern politics.

4 stars
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,255 followers
October 6, 2015
Nothing can live up to the exciting, over-the-top adventures Alexandre Dumas concocted, except maybe the real life exploits of his father.

The subtitle "The Real Count of Monte Cristo" is speaking of the writer's father Thomas Alexandre Dumas, a mixed race soldier from the former French colonies in the Americas. He was the basis for the tragic, wronged, swashbuckling heroes of The Count of Monte Cristo, the Three Musketeers tales, and more.

Tom Reiss' biography tries to bring back the memory of an unfortunately forgotten hero of the French Revolutionary Republic. General Dumas rose up from a common soldier to lead thousands during France's Revolutionary Wars. Reiss portrays a man passionate about the cause and willing to risk his life in the most daring of ways for the ideal of equality for all.

The Black Count marches linearly ahead at an admirable pace, mixing the history of father and son (and even grandfather as it applies to his future generations), tantalizing and revealing at just the right moments. A high quality history text that, regardless of dwelling rightly upon human atrocities, can't help but entertain considering its adventuresome subject matter.

Reiss certainly seems biased towards his subject and even tries to put General Dumas on a pedestal...literally by the end there is discussion and lament over a statue of him. However, if you can forgive him his slant, I think you'll find this a highly enjoyable read!
Profile Image for Kelly.
889 reviews4,124 followers
November 1, 2014
This is a really tough project to have been blessed with, I think.

On one hand, for the second time , Reiss has been lucky enough to stumble into a fascinating subject for a biography. Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Palleterie's (aka "Alex Dumas'") life is enthralling in its own right, even told in a straightforward encyclopedic way. The son of a ne'er-do-well French aristocrat and one of his black slave mistresses (whom he seems to have taken up with while in hiding from his family and his creditors both), Thomas-Alexandre was briefly sold into slavery by his own father. Quickly redeemed, he was taken from the island life he knew and taught to lead the dissolute life of a noble Parisian dandy by his reprobate father for years afterwards, until a rift between them lead him to enlist in the army. From there, like many of the major figures of late eighteenth century France who survived anywhere past the Terror of 1794, his life is a series of attempts to stay in favor and alive through the various changing regimes. While this was difficult enough for anyone with noble blood and any political or military involvement whatsoever, Alex Dumas' attempts were complicated by being a person of color and having the dubious fortune of coming far too frequently into contact with a Napoleon the rise. It's got inherent drama, tension and all the sorts of anticipatory questions you want in the heads of people who are probably somewhat familiar with this era: What's going to happen next? How's he going to get past x thing or y person? When will he run up against blah? How is this thing going to square with that thing I know is coming? So far, so good.

Furthermore, as with any biography worth its salt, Reiss takes a wide-angle view on his subject's life that fills us in on what's going on around him rather than the simple events of his own life. Given Alex Dumas' unique experience, there are a lot of details about French life at the time that are treated extensively when they might be tangential or footnoted at best anywhere else. For example, I had no idea how much France's colonies were worth at that time (particularly the sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, which could produce such wealth that they could be almost literally king-making). It was also fascinating to learn about the rather, by the standards of the time, liberated lives of the "mulatto" and free-black population of the island and especially their larger effect on the cultural life of the colonies. Jeremie, one of the growing towns of the island had a:

"growing role as a mixed-race cultural mecca. While distancing themselves as much as possible from enslaved blacks and poor whites, free people of color learned to dance, ride and fence like the white colonists, whom they often surpassed in sophistication and snobbishness... Fashion wars broke out between white and black hostesses to see who could throw the most impressive balls. The femmes de coleur nearly always won, Moreau reported.... Largely as a result of this kind of aspirational mixed-race society, Saint-Domingue and the other French colonies became cultural capitals of the New World, excelling in the performing arts... Saint-Domingue was home to the world's first black superstars, the mulatto opera singers Minette and Lise."

I also don't remember the last history of 18th century France that I read that so much as mentioned the changing racial policy of the revolutionaries, never mind monitored it in such detail. The racial policies and the opportunities available for people of color at each stage of the revolution was an interesting and revealing reflection of the constantly shifting liberal, conservative and terrified-in-between place that categorized a lot of the policy during this time. It helped to clarify some important things for me. For instance, there is a pretty much never-ending debate in France over when the Revolution technically "ended" (the Terror, the Directory, the coup d'etat of Napoleon or his coronation, the Congress of Vienna, 1848, Louis-Napoleon... not yet?), a debate on which I've never been able to come to a firm opnion. But Reiss' discussion of Napoleon's conservative, repressive and even eerily 20th-century type racial policy helped to pull me personally in the direction of those who choose the coup d'etat as the turning point. As Napoleon consolidated his power, he slammed shut the doors of opportunity that had opened to so many men and women during the Revolution, but it fell the hardest on any person of color in the army, especially and unfairly, on those who, like Alex Dumas, had wildly succeeded. All senior officers were put out of the army or simply not given any more commands. The only work on offer was in "Black Pioneer" regiments that did dirty, exhausting advance work for the army (some officers, previously proud heads of regiments and armies, were reduced to begging for work in these regiments). Interracial marriages (like Alex Dumas', who married the daughter of a prosperous French innkeeper) were outlawed and he barely escaped, unlike many others, being actually deported from the country due solely to the color of his skin. While the revolutionaries had not found a way to justify the continuance of slavery, given that their power was propped up, supposedly, by ideals that, if not adhered to, could get your head cut off, Napoleon's power came from quite another source. It was not long before he sent a brutal invasion force to reconquer Saint-Domingue, barely bothering to cover its purpose with any veneer of revolutionary dogma.

All of this was absolutely worth reading about, and as I said, I gained at least one great new insight on the period that I would not have had otherwise.* Moreover, as another point in his favor, Reiss was lucky enough to find some primary sources to do with the general that had been locked up in a safe in a village in rural France for god knows how long. He had the safe broken open, with only hours to photograph and digest as many of the hundreds of letters, dispatches and other documents he found that may or may not have had to do with the general. That's a thrilling experience for any historian of whatever kind. I completely understand his need to share the results of what he found there.

However. However. When one is blessed by finding a topic such as this, with so many attractive qualities, I think that there can be some unintended consequences that result. This topic is SO GOOD that I think that he probably developed infatuation with it to the point that he was willing to gloss over a lot.

For a start, Reiss has clearly discovered some valuable primary source documents that illuminate the character of the general. However, he also just as clearly does not have enough material to tell the kind of story that he wants to. Reiss is a big fan of the same sort of history I love- the narrative sort, with story arcs and character development and Thackeray-style commentary by arch, all-knowing narrators. But he just doesn't have enough material to fill in exact dialogue and exchanges, to justify how people are feeling or what their faces look like in any detail. So he makes it up. There are a really unacceptable amount of recurrences of the phrase, "he must have felt x emotion when...." when he was describing his characters' experiences. " He let his own imaginative projections fill in for the gaps in his research far too often.

Partly as a result of this, some of Reiss' analysis is ridiculously facile. We're going to analyze a meeting between Napoleon and some of his officers, including Dumas, (which we have confirmation of, but very little confirmable information on) by saying that Napoleon must have acted the way he did partly because he was feeling really intimidated by the tallness of the men he was speaking with? Really? We're also going to speculate that maybe Dumas' jailer in Italy started being nice to him because he was possibly motivated by "a kind of southern Italian enjoyment of defying authority- of thumbing his nose at his fancy-pants boss from here in his drafty provincial fortress"? I know that Reiss can do better than this because I saw him do it at many other points in the book (there are a couple great zingers in his analysis for sure). But these are not the only times where this comes up, either. This sort of thing happened when Reiss REALLY wanted to know what happened in a room, especially a room with a person of any importance that Dumas ran into. It's a sign of his excitement of about his subject, which is nice. But it's also excitement carried too far.

Thirdly, and this is a challenge of anyone working in the Revolutionary era, Reiss sometimes had difficulty balancing the amount of the story devoted to the "life and times of" Alex Dumas with the story of Dumas himself. Part of the problem is that so many things that happened to people in this era are perfectly bewildering if you don't understand the minute politics of which minister was currently on the rise and which other had just had his head chopped off, which means that one can devote a dozen pages to a background explanation and one to the actual event in a person's life. This can make it hard to keep track of the thread of the subject's life. It's also really hard to not get sidetracked and start telling the story of the Revolution rather than your subject. There are a couple people for whom the story is nearly one and the same (Talleyrand is a great example of this, which is another reason why that Cooper biography was so great), but for most people, they're going to fall on and off the map and you've got to fill in enough to get is from Point A to Point B without wandering too far. And honestly, sometimes I think he didn't tell us enough, either! For someone who knows a bit about the era, sometimes he rushed through a basic recounting of events and left out pretty important details about the way things happened in order to get back to the general's story. The problem with a generalist history like this is that I'm bothered by the thought that people who are picking this up and don't have familiarity with the Revolution will think that that's actually how it happened. And, given some of the very basic relation imparted about events, I'm pretty clear that this is a book written to cater to those with very little expertise.

Finally, speaking of overshadowing, for all that Reiss is attempting to bring out the importance of the father, let's all agree that it was probably REALLY hard for him not to overuse the son. Alexandre Dumas' writing (the one generally referred to as pere, but in this case fils) is charismatic enough that it seems like Reiss was sometimes really tempted to be drawn into his web of father hero-worship. Sometimes he stated his independence of it and his recognition of Dumas' , but he used his memoirs a lot anyway, however biased they were. Why? Because they're good goddamn stories, that's why. It took away another smidge of credibility to see how often Reiss would be like, "you know what, I have no certain evidence of whether or not this is true, but you know what, it sounds true, so I'm going to tell you the story anyway." I mean, it's totally understandable, and Dumas-the-son's version was way more satisfying anyway. I get it! And given, as I mentioned above, his apparently insufficient amount of primary source material, it makes sense that he would want to use this fill in whenever possible. There was only one time that I recall where he seemed to have enough documents to compare the son's version of events to his father's version to an independent, third party official version and then dismiss the son's version as hopelessly embellished. But even after that he kept using the material extensively. It makes it even tougher to trust him after that.

In the end, while I agree with all the reviews that praise the fascinating and unique topic of this biography, I'm not sure that I agree that it deserved a Pulitzer from the perspective of the writing. The story of the research is stronger than the research itself, and Reiss' imagination is sometimes obviously more at work than the primary source materials themselves. Each time these faults showed themselves they made me trust him a little less, which lessened my enjoyment of the ultimate product. I would recommend it, but I would also recommend that any reader keep their eye out for the sort of thing I'm talking about and make sure that you keep a healthy dose of skepticism intact.

*Despite all this,I also want to credit Reiss with several other interesting subjects he discussed as well, that people should definitely be aware that they will enjoy when reading this: a discussion of Mameluke soldiers and the French Army in Egypt, interracial schooling in Paris and the fate of the son of Henri-Christophe of Haiti, the awful experience of being a POW in 18th century Italy with no functioning government to help you, a discussion of the French concept of citizenship and all the interesting figures who flocked to Paris to fight in the revolutionary armies and why. I want to do him justice enough to let you know that there are plenty of interesting tidbits that await you, even if I have some reservations about the writing of the main subject.*
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,989 reviews17 followers
January 13, 2018
Bettie's Books

This Count came from Haiti - a shithole country, according to the racist-in-chief. I also take a moment to remember the 2010 earthquake, and take pause as to reflect why US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are being ignored.
Profile Image for Aubrey.
1,358 reviews794 followers
September 17, 2014

Fascinating person, exciting time period, amazingly well researched writing. The prose could use some work, but hey, this is the uncorrected proof. Taking that into account, the work done so far is simply extraordinary.

I will admit it, I had no idea that the famous author Alexandre Dumas' father was so. Well. Larger than life, really. And the time period that he lived in that enabled him to reach such heights was almost as unbelievable. Before reading this, the extent of my knowledge regarding the French Revolution could be nearly encompassed by books like Les Misérables, A Tale of Two Cities, The Eight: A Novel, and other historical fiction that loved to mention the guillotine. Not exactly comprehensive, as none of these books touch on the hugely successful and extremely paradoxical civil rights movement that accompanied this tumultuous time.

In fact, most of the other books focused on illustrating the rampant bloodthirst running through France, but this book was especially successful at drawing connections between the politically motivated guillotine and Stalin's USSR. It was disconcerting seeing how both historical periods had a penchant for conspiracy and execution; however, it must be said that France managed to maintain some measure of humanity due to its acceptance of mixed races on all levels of society. Without this, Alex Dumas, the 'Black Count', would be as fictional as his son's protagonist, Edmond Dantès.

It's simply a travesty that no one has heard of this man. From the sounds of it, he very well single-handedly kept the Revolution going, while managing to not succumb to its political machinations. Throughout the book, General Dumas goes through life conquering armies despite overwhelming odds, yet he never loses his humanity when dealing with captured villages and other non-fighting entities. Many times he was willing to place the blame on those under his own command, as his goals were freedom and fair play for all, not just victory for his side. You don't get people like that nowadays.

Also, major kudos to the author. If he had dictated Alex Dumas' life, the book would've been half as long, if that. Instead, he chose to lay out all the historical background necessary before setting Alex up, so when the main character does something, the reader knows exactly why and how this relates to the bigger picture. I'm a big fan of this, not only because it's so much easier to know what's going on, it also offers many amazing snapshots full of juicy historical tidbits. For example, I now know what led up to the creation of Haiti, as well as the fact that Napoleon was a major twat. Not to mention how the US really got over the whole colonies business. Liberty or death is one thing, but if you forget to mention the fact that the whole of Europe, especially France, basically fought Britain for you, it's a bit cheap.

So. Read this. You learn so much, whether your interest is the man or the history. Either way, it's definitely a story to be remembered, especially since it actually happened. That always makes things cooler.

PS: Before I forget, I got this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.
Profile Image for 'Aussie Rick'.
423 reviews214 followers
August 28, 2018
This new book on the life of General Alexandre Dumas; father of the French author; Alexandre Dumas, père (The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers), offers the reader an enjoyable account of this famous but apparently forgotten hero.

In The Black Count we get a good look at the life and career of a French Revolutionary soldier and officer, and later Napoleonic General, who served in Italy during the Revolutionary Wars and later in Egypt under Napoleon.

However this is not just a military account, it offers an insight into slavery in the French empire; the life of a man of ‘colour’ in 18th-century France; the French Revolution; Napoleon’s campaign in Italy & Egypt and finally how the son & author saw his father and how he presented him and his life in some of his most famous novels.

Overall this is a very interesting and enjoyable book in which I learnt a few things about General Dumas and France that I was not aware of previously. I think anyone who enjoys a good history book will love this account however if you are looking for just a military account of this officer I would recommend the book; General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution by John Gallaher.

General Alexandre Dumas Soldier of the French Revolution by John G. Gallaher General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution by John G. Gallaher
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,459 followers
March 11, 2019
The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss is a book of nonfiction. Reiss is an historian. The book looks at the life of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famed author who wrote the classics The Three Musketeers and The Count Of Monte Cristo. The books’ author, Alexandre Dumas, based much in his books on his father’s life, and he and his father’s life were shaped by history. The author’s son, a famed playwright, goes also by the name Alexandre Dumas. In an attempt to keep straight who is who, the author of the classics is frequently referred to as père and his playwright son as fils. This book is about the father of Alexandre Dumas, père. This Dumas lived from 1762 to 1806, dying at the age of forty-three. This Dumas became a famed general under Napoleon Bonaparte. This Dumas was born in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue, present day Haiti, to a white father from Normandy, France, and a black slave mother. He had the body of a giant, was over six feet tall, frizzy-haired and dark skinned. The book starts by speaking of the general’s parents and grandparents, so you must keep careful track of which Dumas is being spoken of. Actually this isn’t as hard as it might seem, once you have straight in your head who begot whom. The black slave mother and the Normandy father begot the general who begot the author who begot the playwright. Now, stop and think about this. Why is the famed general who fought under Napoleon forgotten in history? Why isn’t he referred to as père, and the author as fils and his son the playwright as grandfils? You will see as you read the book.

The book is a biography and a book of history. It is set during the Age of Enlightenment. By the time the general has been born in 1762, the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), a conflict between the French and the British colonies over land and Native Americans, had taken place. That it had taken place is important. Thomas-Alexandre is of mixed race. He will take part in the French Revolution, a fight for liberty, equality and fraternity. Then he fights magnificently in the Napoleonic Wars. We observe the fight for racial equality in one man’s life. We observe how racial inequalities changed during the general’s lifespan, before and during Napoleon’s reign.

I hesitated before picking up this book. I was not all that enthused about reading of military battles. Reiss shows us these battles through Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’ life. The focus is not on the military strategies themselves, but on the attainment of goals. In southern Italy, the general is imprisoned for two years; we feel his frustration and suffer with him. We hear of his wife’s efforts to have him freed and we find ourselves rooting for him. We observe what he has fought for and the changes that take place as he sits imprisoned. Reiss makes history interesting by showing why history matters, how one event leads inexorably to another and by looking at world events through one man’s life.

The book has exceeded my expectations!

Paul Michael narrates the audiobook. He reads it well—clearly, with appropriate pacing and not too quickly, which is extremely important in the reading of a book of non-fiction. The reader needs time to absorb the factual content of the text. I have given the narration performance four stars.

*The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo 4 stars
*The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life 4 stars
to be read with
*Ali and Nino 5 stars by Kurban Said
Profile Image for Trish.
2,016 reviews3,434 followers
September 13, 2020
This book caught my attention for three reasons:
1) I had no idea the Dumas family had black blood in them (and subsequently wondered why this wasn't known more).
2) I LOVE both The Count of Monte Cristo as well as The Three Musketeers.
3) I'm a history nut.
The book delivered on all three counts.

If you google "Alexandre Dumas", you get "père" and "fils" (father and son). What you don't know from a simple google search is that there were actually THREE subsequent males in the family called Alexandre. The third was actually the first, the grandfather. The author of my two beloved books was the one called "père".
Why was this important? For the reason this book's author correctly states in the prologue already: the afore-mentioned books are both about making a name for yourself and the Count, more than any other, was about memory. It was about the fact that people can do worse things than kill you. And it turns out, he learned that lesson from HIS father, Alex Dumas, about whom this book is.

Believe it or not, France was actually relatively liberal about Blacks' rights back in the day. Funnily (hypocritically) enough though, that was mostly meant to regulate the colonies in the most cost-effective way possible. France itself and especially Paris could be a cruel place for black people.
And yet, while slavery existed and many noblemen did not want equality, that included slaves of all skin colour and you nevertheless had the very real opportunity to gain/buy your freedom.
Alex Dumas was the son of a white father and a black woman. I'm not gonna give you the full spoilers of his childhood, but at one point, young Alex was sold into slavery to pay for his father's passage to France from one of the colonies. In France, he managed to regain his freedom and rose through his athletic skills, most notably his fencing and sword-fighting.

He grew up to live, as a young man, through the French Revolution after France had bankrupted itself - not only by but definitely also thanks to bankrolling America's revolution against Great Britain.
Eventually, Alex fought alongside none other than Napoléon himself. But while Alex was an idealist and the embodiment of a general, a leader, the emperor was small (though brilliant) and didn't want to fight for freedom and justice but in order to eventually rule all the corners of the world. So yeah, they had a falling out.

The brilliant strategist was wiped out of people's memories, no mention in history was to be given to him. Like I said: there are worse fates than death.
It made his son crazy to know so little about his own father and not being able to give the man the fame and respect he deserved for his brilliance in strategy alone (to say nothing of his noble hehavior on and off the battlefield). So instead, he immortalized his father in his adventure stories and gave him his proper revenge and happy ending through a number of fictional characters - undoubtedly also to soothe his own heartache.

In addition to wonderfully recounting Alex's story, this book has a brilliant way of bringing to life France's history. From the colonies and sugar / coffee plantations there to the monarchies, the bloody revolution and its reasons, to the diplomatic ties to (especially) America and, ultimately, to the Napoléonic wars. Giving such context is not only brilliant and interesting but also very important to explain where Alex Dumas came from, why he grew up to be who and how he was, and why he ended the way he did. Thus, this is a rich telling of people, their actions and the consequences thereof. A wholesome reading experience that left me almost speechless.

What I adore about this author, apart from him passionately persuing his quest to uncover as much about Alex Dumas as possible, is how he cunningly interwove the man's story with that of at least one country (technically more) and how, through his engaging writing style, he simultaneously emphasized the peculiarity of this man while also letting the story almost tell itself so as not to draw away any spotlight (no wonder this book won the Pulitzer prize for biographies back in 2013).

I mean, think about it: one of THE fictional characters and one of THE swashbuckling literary adventures were both based on a very real person who happened to also be black! And this black man not only made it to Paris, but he became successful, respected and famous! In 18th century Europe!!!
More people need to know about this fantastic man and his life!

P.S.: Looking back at photographs of Alexandre Dumas père, I'm noticing the hair more than ever. It should have been a dead giveaway regarding the black heritage. It amazes me how things can just get covered/swallowed/forgotten over time.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,100 followers
September 13, 2020
Honestly fascinating and hitherto fully neglected, the hook of this biography is appropriately fantastic. The author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeer's father was a bonafide hero having commanded 50,000 troops... as a black man.

The author of this biography, Reiss, performed a heroic feat, himself, with his research. It's not only full of Alexandre Dumas's reflections on his father General Alex Dumas, but it's corroborated with extensive confirmations AND a truly excellent focus on the historical context, places, events, and significance.

I'll be honest here: I knew a bit about the French Enlightenment and the idealism and its ties to America. I also knew a bit more about the French Revolution. The rise of Napoleon? Yes. His reactionary and full-on return to racism and exploitation of slaves? Yes.

But this book opened my eyes to a much broader look at this surrounding history that showed a quite sympathetic eye racism issue. This isn't simply a modern take on it This is regarding France's own positive Enlightenment developments that preceded and were active during the American Revolution. (So much of this goes hand-in-hand with each other.)

France briefly insisted that all slaves ought to be free. It wasn't universal and it was quite uneven, but it DID exist before Napoleon. Alex Dumas had been an Enlightenment star, highly educated with fantastic martial prowess, and distinguished himself with all the best ideals, and was universally admired even before his successes in the field.

But we know of what happened during the French Revolution. We know how idealism was co-opted by craven power-hungry opportunists and demagogues. How people more interested in power can take advantage of terror to consolidate power and propel their own agendas.

Keeping our OWN world out of this is rather difficult. I'll admit that. I see too many similarities between what happened before the French Revolution to what's happening in the USA today. Bright ideals can quickly be twisted by demagogues to promote massive chaos... and bloodshed.

But as for this book, by itself, I'm MORE than happy with everything I learned. History is beyond important. I'm amazed at the truth of the saying, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it."

I fear that we have dark times ahead of us.
Profile Image for Jo Walton.
Author 77 books2,880 followers
March 30, 2017
This is exactly the kind of book I love and want there to be more of. It's well written, thorough, solidly researched and about a really interesting intersectional person. Alex Dumas was the father of Alexandre Dumas the writer, he was also a black slave from the Caribbean, he was also the son of a French aristocrat who sold his partner and his other children for the price of tickets across the Atlantic, and he became a general during the French Revolution. He had a remarkably exciting life, and Reiss also gives us context and history and background. Fun to read, informative, and just an excellent piece of work.
Profile Image for Hana.
522 reviews300 followers
March 10, 2015

"To remember a person is the most important thing in the novels of Alexandre Dumas. The worst sin anyone can commit is to forget."

In this dramatic and often poignant book Tom Reiss sets out to reconstruct the life of a long forgotten hero, the father of French author Alexandre Dumas and a man of extraordinary skill, courage and integrity.

At its heart, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo tells the story of Alex Dumas, the mulatto son of a French nobleman and a slave, raised on Sainte-Domingue and then brought to France by his father where he received a gentleman's education in the classics and the arts of combat. Dumas, in the years immediately following the French Revolution, would rise to high rank and play a major role in key French military victories.

Reiss' sweeping and meticulously researched history also sheds light on neglected chapters in French history: some shocking, many utterly fascinating, and just a few--glorious. Reiss does not flinch at depicting the charnel house that France created in her Caribbean sugar-growing colonies, the brutal chaos of the Revolution, or the bloodbath of the Terror.

Ironically one of the worst of the slave islands, the French colony of Sante-Domingue (now Haiti), was also home to a growing population of mixed race and black free men and women many of whom settled in Jeremie, a port city in the wilder mountainous areas of the Island. "The town became a thriving center of French-influenced high culture, open to people of color, with lavish mixed-race balls, theaters, opera and music." This was the world in which Dumas would spend his earliest years.

At the age of 15, young Dumas was taken by his father to live in a suburb of Paris, a sort of satellite Versailles, and enrolled in a the academy of the royal fencing master, de La Boessiere, where he soon developed the prodigious combat skills that would serve him well in later years. The subsequent twists and turns of young Dumas' career read like something right out of The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers.

Dumas' rise could only have happened at that exact moment in French history. During the reign of the Bourbons, Enlightenment thinkers had already begun pressing for the rights of man and the emancipation of slaves living in France, but it was only for a brief time following the Revolution that a true era of emancipation ensued in which many men of mixed race, including Dumas, were able to live free lives and reach positions of great prominence. Napoleon's ascent put a period on that chapter in French history and denied Dumas the HEA ending the son would give to the heroes of his books.

It takes a while before Alex Dumas begins to emerge in the narrative and then it is wonderful to hear the authentic voice of the man himself, speaking clearly and with extraordinary (but possibly reckless) courage in his dispatches and letters home to his beloved wife. Dumas is totally incorruptible, an enlightened leader and administrator with a great passion for detail and dedication to ideals of the Revolution. I have excerpted some of those dispatches in the comments section below @11-13, but better yet read the book!

I knocked off one star because Reiss indulges in just a few too many excursions off the main path of the story, and also because there are no pictures, even though he found a photo of the statue of Alex Dumas that the Nazis destroyed.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,114 followers
October 27, 2015
This book was the October selection for my book club, and I probably would not have read it otherwise. It is obviously well researched, and the author includes his own journey to access the Dumas family documents even after the keeper of the documents (and the code for the lock) passes away. Alexandre Dumas who we all know as the author had a legendary father who was well known in the French military but because of his ethnicity and competition with Napoleon, has lost attention over the years.

I wish I had read The Count of Monte Cristo first, because much of the character and adventures of the count are based on Dumas's father's actual life. He was a soldier of legend, able to take out the enemy and outsmart his foes beyond what could normally be expected. His invasion into the Alps in impossible weather feels like the stuff of superheros or myth but Reiss goes back to find the paper trail for these events in history.

I learned more about post-revolution France, and its relation with the foundling USA in its early days of revolution and nationhood. It was also interesting to read about how French philosophers/politicians were able to outlaw slavery, paving the way for people like Alex Dumas and other sons of rich land owners to receive excellent schooling and serve in leadership roles in the military; then to see these respected thinkers' views of slavery in America. But even they were overturned, for when Napoleon took control back in France (with his newly established Italian regions, largely won by Dumas's leadership) and banned people with any African descent from living within a certain radius of Paris, of owning property, and reinstated slavery within the empire.

I was most engaged in the beginning (with the story of Dumas and early Haiti) and the end (post-war) but I will never enjoy reading about military strategy, sorry. If you do, you will like this book. The research and story that must be told are 5 stars; my experience in actually reading it is 3 (which I feel I need to remind you is fine, good even, but not a favorite.)
Profile Image for Krystal.
1,645 reviews383 followers
October 15, 2021
Finally finished it! This is an excellent, well-researched biography that not only delves into the life and career of General Dumas but also provides an exceptional insight into the military history of France. At times, the thread of Dumas's story disappears amongst the history lesson, which can make it slightly tedious reading, but when the thread resumes the history given is revealed as a key element to our hero's story. The parallels between the real history of Dumas and the fictional works of Alexandre are a special treat and a delight to read for any fan of the Musketeers books or The Count of Monte Cristo. And Dumas is such a genuinely likeable character that it warms the heart to know that he was a living, breathing man. If there were more men like him in positions of power, the world would be a better place. Massive props to the author, the minute details of this book show the care and dedication that went into preserving the life of this man with utmost respect. Very impressive, and an honour that the subject very much deserves.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 28 books5,675 followers
October 2, 2022
It's truly wild to see how much of Alexandre Dumas' fiction was inspired by his own father's actual life. Brilliant, educated, a bold strategist, talented swordsman and horseman, rising so rapidly through the ranks that everyone would have been jealous of him if they hadn't admired him so much. And yet, like Edmond Dantes, he was finally betrayed by jealous friends. He was imprisoned without knowing why, and freed seemingly at random after suffering for years in horrible conditions.

What was really fascinating, and by fascinating I mean horrifying, was how the French "attitude" toward people of color changed during Alex Dumas' lifetime. Especially after Napoleon came to power, the racist asshole. The slave trade was a huge part of France's wealth, since enslaved people were the ones who cut and processed the sugarcane that was the backbone of their economy. But those who were freed, or biracial, enjoyed quite a bit of freedom. There were excellent schools in France, they could inherit titles and property, marry where they chose. And then . . . Napoleon gave in to the pressures of the plantation owners and slave traders who were no longer sitting pretty, and made interracial marriage illegal, inheritances illegal, and on and on. Deeply disturbing. I always like to think that society is always progressing, learning, getting better . . . not taking giant strides BACKWARD.
Profile Image for Laura.
6,908 reviews565 followers
January 25, 2013
Location 1139:
“Man is born free but is everywhere in chains,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in The Social Contract in 1762.

Location 1160:
Slavery was one thing for the empire, however, and another thing entirely within France itself.

Location 1236:
Everything is free in a Kingdom where liberty is seated at the foot of the throne, where the least subject finds in the heart of his king the feelings of a father.… No one is [a] slave in France.”

Location 1240:
The problem was not slaves in France. The problem was blacks in France.

Location 1362:
In late-eighteenth-century France, the term “American” was usually used synonymously with “man of color.”

Location 1372:
Louis XVI’s government supported the Americans to get back at England for France’s humiliating defeat in the Seven Years’ War— for the loss of French North America and humiliation in French India.

Location 1860:
The Estates-General got its name from the traditional division of France into three “estates”: clergy, nobility, and commoners.

Location 1897:
Yet on July 14, instead of doing their job and defending the Bastille, the French Guards joined the rioters, and would soon declare themselves the National Guard.

Location 1924:
It is said that when the mayor first presented the cockade to the king, it was only red and blue. Then Lafayette stepped in to propose adding the Bourbon color white to acknowledge the king’s gesture of accepting the Revolution.

Location 2010:
These words were written by Lafayette, with the help of Thomas Jefferson, then serving as American ambassador in Paris, and formed the preamble to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, approved by the National Assembly in that tumultuous month.

Location 2040:
The hall’s strange, narrow design, with tiered seating on both sides, caused the deputies to divide themselves according to their political opinions: radicals to the left of the Assembly’s president, conservatives to his right, the origin of the political terms “left” and “right.”

Location 2101:
For the first time Louis used his new title, “King of the French”— not “King of France”— thus symbolizing his duty to the people.

Location 2395:
The government had already begun experimenting with a new system for recruiting fighting men based on an archaic French model dating back hundreds of years: the “free legions,” units independent of the regular army that could be called up in war and disbanded during times of peace.

Location 3730:
He was disturbed by the generals’ growing idolization of General Bonaparte.

Location 3781:
The man the Austrians called the Black Devil continued to rout them out of the Adige River Valley.

Location 3831:
Napoleon also gave Dumas a new nom de guerre, hailing him as “the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol”— high praise indeed in that era.

Location 4081:
He (Napoleon) was a dictator, a destroyer, and a harbinger of totalitarian leaders to come; he was also a liberator from a tyranny that had stalked Europe for a thousand years.

Location 5147:
France had a new government, with Napoleon appointed first consul at the head of a ruling body of three consuls.

Location 5151:
The decade of French republicanism and democracy— the age of seemingly infinite emancipation, with all its expansive horrors and hopes— was over.

Location 5460:
Citizens! The Revolution is made fast to the principles which began it; it is finished.”*

Location 5779:
And of course Napoleon is ultimately the man behind Edmond Dantès’s suffering and imprisonment;

This is a splendid historical research work performed by Tom Reiss revealing the military career of Dumas' father - the Black Count.
January 15, 2013
OMG! This incredible book depicts the life of the man who was the inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo. It is the story of General Alexandre Dumas (father of the famous author), born mixed-race of noble blood, sold into slavery by his father then subsequently freed by the same man, then raised in luxury and who later became one of the great heroes of the French Revolution, only to be betrayed by the very country he fought so valiantly for. The Black Count reads less like a boring history book filled with dry facts and dates and more like a swashbuckling adventure tale with daring escapades, romance and tragedy.

Moreover, this is a history that needs to be taught--that people of color did in fact play prominent roles in world events. It is sad indeed that those who need to read this book more than likely will not. Tom Reiss took what had to be mountains of documents and lots of dusty scholarship and made something compulsively readable and gripping. General Dumas is the kind of hero I would have liked to have known. This is a tale of slavery in its most cruel forms, of racism and of overcoming great hardships to assert one's basic humanity. It is a story of hope and of pride. Because of it, I am currently re-reading The Count of Monte Cristo and discovering layers that I had not known existed.

If you read one non-fiction biography this year, I highly recommend this one. You will come away with a newfound respect for the genius that was Alexandre Dumas--both of them, as well as a sadness that prejudice destroyed the life of yet another great human being. It is also a book of triumph, that the incredible life of an unknown hero has finally been told.
Profile Image for Tittirossa.
986 reviews228 followers
November 22, 2020
Il titolo italiano (il diario segreto di Montecristo) è un insulto. Lui è il generale Thomas Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie - padre di Alexandre Dumas père e nonno di Alexandre Dumas fils – uno dei pochi che mandò a quel paese Le Général Bonaparte (intuendone l’aspirazione e cercando di far saltare i suoi maneggi per impadronirsi del potere).
Una storia, la sua, che per mirabilie rivaleggia certo con quella del Conte di Montecristo (e sì, Dumas mescolò ricordi, finzione, diari, memorie degli amici del padre, personaggi reali – scoprire che l’Abate Faria ha un riscontro nella realtà …. Wow!) e che Reiss descrive con penna felicissima, con ampi scorci storici documentatissimi. Ad esempio, la storia della schiavitù col passaggio culturale da schiavi a neri=subumani, così come le contraddizioni della Francia rivoluzionaria prima e napoleonica poi, dove le Lois noires convivono con il diritto a dichiararsi uomini liberi una volta messo il piede sul suolo francese. O l’excursus sul detonatore intellettuale che – pur con la lama della ghigliottina che livellava a tutto spiano –ha rappresentato la rivoluzione francese.
Affascinante, il gigante nero (come era conosciuto dai suoi adoranti commilitoni che con lui si sentivano sempre al sicuro, forte dell’aver vinto tutte le battaglie non solo con la forza ma con un notevole acume tattico, acume non sufficiente a difendersi da Napo, ahimé), colto e amorevole verso la famiglia, capace di suscitare nel figlio e negli amici un amore appassionato e fedele.
#obsessionfrançaise #jesuisdumafiste
Profile Image for Diane S ☔.
4,781 reviews14.2k followers
May 13, 2013
The author snared me at the beginning with a personal look at a grief stricken moment between mother and son. He than went on to set the stage with the genealogical data of Alex Dumas. The part set in what is now Haiti, with the plantations run by titled Frenchmen was very interesting as it also relayed the history of slavery. So the first half of the book was probably my favorite. The second half related to the French Revolution, what led up to it and the part Dumas would play in this revolution. There was a brief appearance of Ben Franklin as he asked the French Crown for aid in the American fight for freedom from the British. Learned much I had never been taught in school about how vital the French were to our winning this battle. All in all this was a good dense book, some parts a little dry as many books relating facts can be, but interesting for the most past. That a man of color could become a General in the French army was amazing but at times I almost felt like the author was fawning over this character instead of presenting a clear and unbiased view. He also meandered off topic at times, relating bits of arcane facts. I found this interesting but some readers might find this propensity distracting. All in all am glad I read this, it was interesting finding out how much of his family's history he inserted into his famous novels.
Profile Image for Andrea AKA Catsos Person.
792 reviews103 followers
March 17, 2015

Thank heavens for this book. The details of the extraordinary life of Alex Dumas deserve to be known and should not be lost to history.

Reiss did a a masterful job of interweaving French history for someone like me who is rather weak in this area of knowledge.

Also, as this biography was NOT a dry historical tome, I recco to anyone who likes an exciting and easy to read story.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,064 reviews239 followers
December 12, 2022
Biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (called Alex Dumas), father of the famous author Alexandre Dumas, and the inspiration for the protagonist of The Count of Monte Cristo. Alex Dumas was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today’s Haiti) to a French father and black enslaved mother. He joined the French Army as a soldier and rose rapidly through the ranks, eventually attaining the rank of General. He was a natural leader, a man of integrity who knew how to win the hearts and minds of his troops. This book also relates the advancements in civil rights under the new French government, which unfortunately did not last but was ahead of its time. The narrative non-fiction covers Alex Dumas’s personal story against the backdrop of the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars.

This book is well-researched and well-written. The author excels at describing Alex Dumas, giving the reader a good idea of what he was like as a person. He was physically substantial, well-liked by his men, courageous, and merciful to opponents. He set a good example for others to follow. The events are told in chronological order and describe Dumas’s many postings, as well as Napoleon’s role in his downfall. Alex Dumas was captured by anti-French forces and spent several years imprisoned in a remote area of Italy. His wife wrote numerous letters to influential people to try to find where he was being held and to get him released. This part of his life is articulated in The Count of Monte Cristo, and Reiss does an excellent job of delineating what parts were based on fact versus what was embellished or changed. I enjoyed reading this account of a lesser-known person in history. I found it inspirational, educational, and entertaining.
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,015 followers
April 21, 2015
To be honest, I only knew of one of the three Dumas men: the one who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. My French history is pretty patchy, too, so this book was full of information that was new to me — it’s amazing how little one can know about Nelson and Napoleon despite knowing their names and historical significance. It focuses on General Dumas: not the father or the son we know from literary works, but the father and grandfather of them. I had no idea he was a man of colour, the son of a slave and a white aristocrat.

The book covers a lot of more general history about race in Europe at the time, as well, and the French Revolution, but it also reveals General Dumas for a passionate, earnest, thoroughly decent sort of man. Too often we seem to idolise people whose legacy is mixed, but everything here suggests that while Dumas was a soldier, he abhorred unnecessary violence and pillaging. Yes, he killed, and gladly, for his cause, and sometimes in great numbers. But that was in the heat of battle, and he didn’t approve of the guillotine.

You can tell throughout the book the warmth that the author Dumas felt for his father, how he idolised him, and Reiss’ liking as well. And it’s amazing how much General Dumas has been erased from the history of a country he served with all his heart. Someone Reiss interviewed called it racism, and I can’t help but agree.

Originally posted here.
Profile Image for Camelia Rose.
672 reviews92 followers
November 23, 2022
The Black Count is a biography of General Alexandre Dumas, a mixed race General of the French Revolution and the father of the French novelist, Alexandre Dumas.

When I read The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers, The Black Tulip, The Man in the Iron Mask and other popular books by the author many years ago, it never occurred to me that the quintessential 19th century French novelist was a direct descendant of a Black slave. The novelist’s grandfather was a French aristocrat and a playboy, who had several children with a Black slave in Saint-Dominique, the modern day Haiti. He later sold his older mixed-race children and their mother but brought his youngest son back to France and gave him education. When his father’s money ran out, the young half-black, half-white Thomas-Alexandre joined the French army as a low rank soldier. It was on the eve of the French Revolution, excellent timing for a military minded, mixed-race gentleman of his era. Dumas rose to the rank of general. He led the French army and won many important battles, most famously the Siege of Mantua. He was the Commander of Cavalry in the French Campaign in Egypt, fought side by side with Napoleon Bonaparte. On the way back from Egypt, he was put to jail in the Kingdom of Naples. His son later would model Edmond Dantès’ imprisonment based on his father.

The book is also a history of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte up until General Dumas’ death in 1806.

What strikes me most is how revolutionary the late 18th century French Revolution was. It was the most radical implementation of European Enlightenment ideas and the beginning of the trinity of democracy–Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. French First Republic was the first country on earth to abolish slavery and grant men of all colors, including those in French colonies (but sorry, women not included), equal rights, which was unthinkable outside France at the time. On the other hand, the French Revolution also brought the Reign of Terror. What the Committee of Public Safety did was a harbinger of the 20th century political cleansing. Napoleon Bonaparte was indeed a man of many contradicting legacies.
Profile Image for Becky.
832 reviews155 followers
February 29, 2016
Wow. Unbelievable. There are not many times that I read a 500+ page history book and want to begin re-reading it the moment I finish, but this was one of those. There was just so much new information to me, so many stories, so many "characters", and so much that was important and that I want to remember, that I just don't feel that on one read through I could have possible gotten it all.

The fact that this story isn't told all the time, is a crime. Alex Dumas lead an impossible, heroic, and ultimately heart breaking life, and he is a figure that history should hold up. A light in a dark place. Instead, it took people about a hundred years to get a statue of him in France (WHICH IS LIKE MOSTLY POPULATED BY STATUES), then it was never properly placed, and ultimately melted by the Nazi's because, of course, the Nazi's can't have a statue of a half-Haitian man that fought for freedom and equality continue to stand. The statue has never been replaced. The stories has remained forgotten for two hundred years except for the love and devotion of a few.

It is a testament to the authors devotion that after the sole curator of a museum died, he convinced the chancellor of the town to blow open a safe and let him ravage the contents and letters therein for a period of time before another curator took over. This gave Reiss unprecedented information for this book, but it's still ridiculous that he literally had to blow open a safe to get this story to us. Let us not waste this opportunity.

There is so much in this story that is particularly important right now. The rhetoric of the Revolution seems so similar to some of the things that I hear on the presidential debates. When Alex Dumas left for Egypt he was black, and yet he was still a general of the French Republic's cavalry, he was free, and he was in charge of thousands of white men, who, by all accounts, admired him and were fiercely loyal. When Alex Dumas returned to France a few years after his POW imprisonment and Egyptian tour, he returned to a France that was no longer free- Napoleon had made slavery legal again, whites and blacks were no longer allowed to marry, Dumas was not allowed to hold a position, and even had to beg favors from his fellow white generals to be allowed to stay in his own bought-and-paid for house. He returned to discrimination. Now we are facing a time when, love him or hate him, our first black president may be followed in office by a madman that refuses to condemn the KKK because he wants any voter base he can get. Do we really want anyone that's that willing to do anything to get into power? Ugh. UGH. PEOPLE.

This is an amazing book, a story that should be common and known, and one that everyone should read. It is perfectly researched and presented, keeps a decent pace throughout, and contains just the right amount of background and side information to continue a forceful presentation of events. Read this book.
Profile Image for Anna.
1,737 reviews673 followers
August 4, 2019
‘The Black Count’ tells the epic life story of the novelist Alexandre Dumas’ father, an incredibly successful general of the same name who was figuratively and literally larger than life. Reiss argues, with copious support from a memoir Dumas wrote of his father, that the son’s fictional heroes were heavily inspired by his father’s actual exploits. His life story is very exciting; full of duels, battles, peril, narrow escapes, captivity, and success against the odds. However Alexandre Dumas is not just interesting as an exceptional individual. His life also charts the evolution in laws and social attitudes around race in France. Britain likes to think we took an unprecedented moral stand against slavery in the 19th century, but France had already banned it in the 18th century during the revolution. In fact, the association between the revolution and abolition proved a setback for British abolitionists, given hostility to the revolution! Reiss recounts how Alexandre Dumas, son of a dissolute white Count and an enslaved black woman, rose from slavery in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to command armies in France. Then he incurred the rancour of Napoleon, who effectively pushed him out of the army. Under the Empire, slavery was reinstated and the law changed from racial equality to explicit anti-black racism. (Reiss also notes that the revolution outlawed antisemitism, which likewise returned under the Empire.) Dumas married a white woman, to the joy of both families, yet under Napoleon such unions became illegal.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, however I am always sensitive to the treatment of the French Revolution in histories that do not focus on it. In particular, I find it interesting how the Terror is often treated as an atrocity unprecedented in history, somehow vastly more shocking than anything ever perpetrated by a monarch or emperor during the same period. This asymmetry is glimpsed in ‘The Black Count’ as Reiss recounts the pressure put on commanders in the French army during the 1793-4 wars. They were at risk of being deposed, even lynched, by their soldiers. The paranoia caused by conflict on so many fronts undoubtedly made the effective organisational functioning of the army difficult. For one thing, it had transformed completely in a few short years. However, why is the risk of soldiers attacking their commander so much more serious than the prior of centuries of commanders buying their ranks then abusing their soldiers with impunity? I appreciated that Reiss showed the viciousness of reactionary micro-kingdoms in Italy as a contrast to France. He also demonstrates the gradual loss of freedoms gained under the revolution, as Napoleon consolidated his power and rewrote the law.

In the late 18th century Dumas fought with spectacular success in an amazing variety of places, from the peaks of the Alps to the sands of the Sahara. I know much less about the Directory and early Napoleonic period than that of the revolution, so found the account of Napoleon’s rather futile invasion of Egypt particularly interesting. It seems like a bizarre choice now; an invasion of Britain was the most obvious option at the time. Reiss recounts such military exploits by drawing on a pleasing array of primary evidence, including copious letters. I smiled at his comparison between the constant letters between army commanders in the field and the eternal circulation of emails in an office. The minutiae of resource management may not have been so very different. Reiss does not mythologise his subject, nor treat him as an unalloyed hero. He certainly killed a lot of people in battle, although he also exhibited a strong sense of justice and lack of venality. He was undoubtedly highly skilled at war and much liked by his peers (except Napoleon) and subordinates. His son absolutely idolised him and, Reiss suggests sought to memorialise him through fiction. As history is so frequently white-washed, I hadn’t come across him before hearing about this book. Apparently there was a statue of him in Paris, until the Nazis melted it down during the occupation. 'The Black Count' reads well with The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, which recounts in much greater detail how France turned from abolishing slavery to trying and failing to brutally suppress the Haitian Revolution.
Profile Image for Jason.
1,216 reviews118 followers
September 10, 2019
I am not a fan of biographies, I've read a few and always find them to be bogged down with dates and facts and references and quotes, I soon lose interest and throw the book at the dog. I needed to pick an award winner for a reading challenge and as I really enjoyed the Count of Monte Cristo I gave this one a go. Lucky break for me this is a bloody good read. Tom Reis comes across more of a detective than a biographer, as he tries to find info on the elusive General, sudden deaths of experts and strange fires makes his job that much harder. His writing style is more like a fiction writer, he takes you on a journey through the brief life of a Hercules.

One odd thing depressed me about this book, my education, my history lessons were given by a PE teacher (who I think got the job cos he owned his own tracksuit), he knew nothing at all about the subject and just read slowly from a text book each lesson. I was taught that the USA was where all the important stuff about abolishing slavery happened, I had no idea that the French did so much over a 100 years before hand...until that psychopath Napoleon came along and undid everything.

Reis really captures the atmosphere of the time when Alex Dumas was becoming a man, the birth of the guillotine and the rise of the French republic. Then it goes into the French conquest of southern Europe and the part the Dumas played it that. He comes across as being one scary dude to be up against, 6ft2, incredibly strong, agile and talented with any weapon, he seemed to have a supernatural ability to avoid getting hurt, no wonder so many surrendered before him. He rises up the ranks, something very rare for a black man, whilst always on the sidelines was that wee little man Napoleon waiting for his moment to unravel everything.

The inspiration for the Count of Monte Cristo is blatantly obvious throughout the book, the treachery, imprisonment and the dashing hero. Alexandre Dumas' love for his dad really comes out in the book for me now, I think I shall have to re-read it as I have all this extra info.

A cracking biography, well researched and brilliantly written. One of those rare moments where I can see why a book has won an award.

Blog review: https://felcherman.wordpress.com/2019...
Profile Image for Alex.
1,419 reviews4,484 followers
January 2, 2015
Alexandre Dumas' dad was a Revolutionary War hero general who once held a bridge by himself against a whole squad of bad guys with a friggin' sword and took the Alps basically singlehanded and then languished as a POW for years and died a pauper and was written out of history because Napoleon is an asshole, and also he was a black guy, and this is all pretty awesome.

Terrific book, handling not only Dumas' actual story but a fair amount of history along the way, from the French Revolution to the beginnings of Napoleon's whole...thing.

Ideally you'll have read Count of Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers and maybe Georges first; Reiss will talk about how each may have been inspired by Dumas' lionized image of his dad. No major spoilers that I can remember.
Profile Image for Anna Kļaviņa.
797 reviews198 followers
December 15, 2015
My copy: ibsn The Black Count Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss 9780099575139

An interesting account of the French Revolution and General Dumas life.

My main complaint is that except for few maps there are no images, photographies or illustrations. I would've loved if the book had a picture of the sculpture of 3 Dumas (Dumas the general, Dumas the novelist and Dumas the playwright) by Alfred de Moncel. (In 1942 the Nazi melted it along with hundreds other French statues.)

The author was able to find & read letters by Dumas and I would have appreciated if at least one was photocopied and included, it would've been interesting to see the man's handwriting.

But as I said, nothing.

Very disappointing. Even the man on the book's cover isn't General Dumas but his son "dressed up as his father, in full military uniform on a rearing horse."
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