Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Black Count: Review

Among the endless portraits and trinkets celebrating Napoleon, I discovered a framed sheet of miniature engravings of the other French generals of the Italian campaign. The portrait of Dumas leapt out from the rows of his lighter-skinned comrades, with their romantic pompadours and bushy sideburns. Dumas's hair was trimmed close and neat, his head turned in three-quarter view, an eyebrow cocked high. Most of the other generals looked off to the right or left or into the distance in a pose of destiny calling. Other presented themselves in full antique profile or looked straight at the artist with a self-satisfied air. But Dumas peered out with an open, almost quizzical expression, and I had the uncanny feeling that while the others were frozen in their lost worlds, he was alive within his oval--impatient, curious--staring back at me from the two-hundred-year-old paper. (p. 189)

So...somehow, to my great embarrassment, until The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss came out I missed all the memos that would have told me that Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo (one of my favorite books, by the way), came from a mixed-race heritage. 

It was amazing to read the remarkable story of General Alex Dumas who rose from life as the son of a slave in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) to the highest ranks in Napoleon's army. A man who was a fearless one-man fighting machine who led his men into battle, often wounding more of the enemy than his (at-first) own small band of Dragoons numbered. He never held back and directed his troops from behind, but rather led them into the fray. He was courageous and did not hold his life more dear than those of his men. And--when he had conquered, he refused to allow the bullying and pillaging that most armies indulge in after the battle.

In all his adventures, the main thing that set Dumas apart was his refusal to countenance the bullying of the weak by the strong....Dumas was unrestrained when outnumbered and outgunned, just as he was unrestrained when he disagreed with his superiors. But towards anyone less powerful than he was, Alex Dumas showed nothing but self-restrant, and a kind of violent love. (p. 157)

This is the real life story of a man of mixed race who saw people of color begin as slaves and rise to equality through the revolution, only to have it all snatched away under Napoleon. He was a hero to his country...but then he was captured by Neapolitans and imprisoned in the dungeon at Taranto and when he was finally returned to France he found his rights had been taken away and that even his pension as a member of army was in danger. He died in reduced circumstance that did not reflect the honor that his fellow white soldiers received upon home-coming, but he also died a hero to his small son who would take the stories of his father and turn them into great literature. Stories that would outlast the memories of many of those white soldiers who got their dues immediately. A fascinating historical read. ★★★★

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