Tom Reiss, author “The Black Count” on France’s First Black General Alex Dumas


I’m sure you’ve heard of the French
novelist Alexandre Dumas. He’s the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers. Well, Dumas’ father, also named Alexander
Dumas, was actually the inspiration for those
stories. He was a soldier during the French Revolutionary Wars and quickly rose through the ranks by
his feats of strength and bravery. As a general, he led fifty thousand men
in battle and he was black. Born in present-day
Haiti Dumas was the son of a French nobleman
and a black slave. As a general he was a celebrated war hero but then he
got on the wrong side of that other French general, Napoleon. Alexandre
Dumas, the father, was pretty much forgotten to
history until now. Bestselling author Tom Reiss has written
a biography of General Dumas It’s called the Black Count and he joins
me in the studio. Tom, welcome to the program.
Thanks Mimi. Hi.
This is quite a story. How did you find out about this? Ah, well
yes, it’s a it’s an exciting story and I found out about it actually as a kid; I was a big fan of the writer
Alexandre Dumas and Three Musketeers and the Count of Monte Cristo was my favorite book and I liked these stories so much that I
actually hunted down the memoirs of the author and he wrote them when he was 45, at the height of his fame, after he
published those novels and he was really the most
popular writer in the world at the time. And the remarkable thing about the
memoirs is that he doesn’t talk about himself for the
first 200 pages; he only talks about this man, this incredible man, who was his father and to read the life story of his father
told by the son is like reading The Count of Monte
Cristo and the Three Musketeers and All into one? The Man in the Iron Mask all in one, only more outlandish and more exciting
because the main character is a black man Living in a white world–well describe– rises to the sort of top before falling to the
absolute depths. It’s sort of a triumph and tragedy story. Well,
describe Alex Dumas physically. What did he look like? Oh, well Alex Dumas physically hmm, looked kinda of like a movie star. I mean he was incredibly imposing, handsome. He was very
tall for this time; he was over six feet tall and I mean just all the descriptions of
him are of someone who is almost
like a they like to compare him to Greek
hero to sort of people that were in statues And he definitely looked black though? Oh I’m sorry, yes, I mean skin color wise he was unmistakably black; there was no way that
this man could have passed I mean he was he was half black, his
father was white but Um–there’s a–happened to have dark skin and he just was physically really stood out. Imposing.
Very imposing and as all the descriptions at the time say
incredibly handsome and what’s interesting is that these are descriptions written all by white people you know in a slave society
yet they don’t find his skin color or the
fact that he’s obviously of African descent to be at all a drawback they in fact write
about..Tom. let’s talk about your sources because there’s little museum in a
village in France. Yeah. And you go there and there’s a safe
locked up with all these great letters inside and nobody’s got the combination. Yeah, its a kind, kind of research story that
could only come in an Alexandre Dumas novel but appropriately enough it happened to me
when I went looking for this story in rural France. I, you know, I, it’s sort of
a strange story for me I, I’ve usually done more modern, um,
kinds of investigations, modern for me meaning sometime in the 20th century where I could
find at least some living witnesses uh, even if they were ninety or ninety-five years old; in this case the story took place two
hundred years ago and it was effectively buried and um.. Intentionally buried. Intentionally buried and so the records hadn’t been destroyed, but most records, the best records had not been looked at in almost a hundred fifty years and in
fact um I did what seemed obvious I went to the
town where Alex Dumas died in 1806 and the woman that I went there to meet
who had been sitting, who was sitting on this
interesting collection of documents that she had been gathering died two weeks before I arrived and so oh, and as you mentioned she was a bit paranoid and she put everything of
value into this big uh, huge tall safe that she had in this government office that she
worked in, in the back of this little municipal museum and when she died she didn’t tell
anybody the combination and she wasn’t you know she… they actually
searched the office and everywhere. No one could figure out how to get in the safe
so I talked to all the people in the town and the mayor’s office and the bureaucracy
and they say well there’s really nothing we can’t blow up the safe so what are we
gonna do? And the woman who… the only person who the combination is dead.
so…So you went out drinking with the deputy mayor, got him drunk and then…Well don’t don’t give away everything that happened and then blew open the safe. Well, yes, yea, yea otherwise we couldn’t have the book so uh,
yea, actually not blew blew it open; I, I, we we used a steth…You cracked it? a stethoscope and some drills, yea, yea.. It was very good. The book we’re discussing is called the Black Count Glory Revolution Betrayal and the real Count of Monte Cristo. Tom
Reiss is a best-selling author. He’s in the studio with me. Going back to Alex Dumas’ origins, his
father was essentially a loser from France. He was a nobleman That’s uh…the first time I’ve heard anybody
describe him so candidly and correctly, yea and he went to the French colony which
is now Haiti What happened there? Yes. Yeah he was the–Alex’s father Antoine was really a renegade nobleman. Kind of a ne’er-do-well
who had gone to this colony that later is called Haiti
at the time was called Saint Domingue and this was at the time when this was
the most valuable piece of real estate in the world–it was the
center of the French colonial empire–it was really where all of the money that built royal
France came from, Versaille. Because of the sugar. Because of the sugar. It was the center of
the world sugar trade it had the most and the best sugar in the world at a time
when sugar was both a medicine as well as
just this incredibly sought out commodity
so sugar was sort of the oil of the 18th century and this
colony was the Saudi Arabia of the 18th century. And so all of
these um basically young men of fortune, young
nobles who didn’t know what else to do it themselves would go. It was like the Wild
West, the gold rush. They would all go there to try to make their fortune. But this guy, Antoine, he was really going
there to sponge off of his younger brother who was a… Who was really
working. Who was really working and who was also, among other things, a big slave
trader then and traded slaves and sugar out of
a little piece of land in the north of Haiti called Montecristo and so that is uh, as you might imagine
related to what later happens. So then, Antoine has a
relationship with his slave; he has several children and the youngest is
Alex. Exactly, the the youngest and the boy
that he is most attached to is his son Alex and but as you say
Antoine is really not a very good guy and he essentially…well, among other things
he has, I mean well, there are amazing stories, family
stories, I discovered in all these documents but one of them is that he has a fight with
his younger brother and the younger brother almost kills him and
Antoine takes three of his brothers’ slaves,
including one that after thirty years he gets wind…He decides its time to go back to France Well, he gets he gets wind of an inheritance a massive inheritance for himself plus
the title that he could get but he’s going to have to come out of hiding He decides to risk it. He goes down to Port-au-Prince. But… But he can’t afford a ship ticket back to
France. So he sells his own children. Absolutely. He sells his own children and he
is such a bastard but he has this
relationship with his son, Alex, so I found actually the piece of paper he wrote selling his son and he didn’t sell Alex, he pawned him what it was was a pawn ticket
that said he had a right to buy him back and the father goes to France
inherits the fortune and sure enough within a year he buys Alex out and brings him and um And spend lavishly on him. Well, first I
should say are the first record I have of our hero
in really in arriving in history is in the year 1776. It’s very important cause its this revolutionary period; he arrives at the moment of our revolution in France listed in the ship’s manifest
as the slave Alexandre the slave of this other guy on the
ship but shortly afterwards he gets off the
ship and as you say his father brings him suddenly into this
life of luxury in the shadow of the Court of Versailles. So what would you say is the relationship between father and son? Tense. Um, I mean the father was a very
weird and capricious man I mean. Selfish. Oh incredibly selfish. He shortly after coming back and, you know
he’s, when he was in hiding for thirty years and during Alex’s first 15 years, his
father’s just known as Antoine of the Islands. Antoine de because he’s going under the pseudonym and then soon as he gets back to France he’s
suddenly inherited the title that he’s now The Marquee Antoine Alexandre David de les (inaudible) and his son. I love those long French names. Yea, yea, well it’s beautiful
well suddenly Alex who’s listed in as the slave Alexandre a year
later his name is Count Thomas Alexandre David de les (inaudible)…..the relationship between Alex and his father is tense and his
father decides to marry their servant who’s
fifty years younger than he is or about give or take a few and um Alex has seen his own mother being sold
and this is sort of, probably his father’s fourth mistress that he’s taking on and uh, Alex is only able to take it for a few
years and then he has a huge break with his father. And that break really is him joining the army as a private. It’s him joining
the army at the lowest rank and it is also, for history and for our
story, an amazing moment because it is when he decides to throw off his noble name and throw off all
connection to this noble family and he invents, when he signs up for the
enlistment, he invents a new name. He takes his real
name, his first name, Alexandre but, for his second name he writes down
his, what we believe, is his mother’s name Dumas, meaning of the plantation and he
writes Alexandre Dumas and that’s the first
record record we have of that name and that’s the name he goes by for the rest
of his life, although he prefers to be called Alex. The book we’re discussing is called the
Black Count. Its about the father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas Tom Reiss is a best-selling author– he’s
in the studio with me. So why did he join as a private not as
an officer cause he had the right to join as an officer Yes, indeed this was a strange thing and
this is part of his break with his father. He’s deliberately throwing off
all of his noble right. At the time even a…at the time the French army
was very corrupt and even a twelve or fourteen year old boy if they were the
son of a noble, as I found out, they could get an
officer’s commission in the Army They could, there even, there were 13 year old colonels. And Alex joins at the lowest rank and he
just joins this very rough and tumble kind of
group of Queen’s Dragoons. It’s still the last
couple years of royal France before the revolution and these guys are stationed on France’s
borders both to protect the borders but also to kind of chase down high women and um essentially combat robbery in the countryside and..
Did he face racism though in France during that time?
This is the remarkable thing I found out even before the revolution, there is this incredible space that has opened up in
the 1770s, even a little before, even
before that in France as a result of what is I would say the world’s first civil
rights movement and this is an incredible there so many incredible forgotten
things in this story and aside from the life of Alex Dumas which
has been suppressed, I would say that the civil
rights movement has in a way been deliberately
suppressed by by the French uh, by the powers that be in
France, for various reasons we get into but it’s a bizarre thing that they suppress
it because they had the world’s first civil rights
movement and even though they were paradoxically the empire and the country
that benefited the most from slavery and they had the cruelest conditions for
slaves at the same time, there were these
crusading lawyers and um, people in Paris who won incredible
rights for black people, decades before these rights were won
in any other country. So within a year, Dumas goes from being
a corporal to a brigadier general and Yeah, And he’s leading you know ten thousand men. And this is just the beginning, yeah.. How do you account for that rapid
rise? Well I mean Alex Dumas is just an amazing soldier and in fact um, I mean they’re so many examples but I like
to quote one from… I like to quote a summary from a memoir that I found of another officer from the, of the
time and I think it’s an interesting quote
because this other officer from reading his memoirs is clear that
he is a thoroughgoing racist he hates blacks he hates anybody-He actually says that he can’t stand to be in the same
room as a Negro and you know he’s, gives you all the
reasons why, but he says right there in his memoirs, no
matter how I may feel about negroes, yet I must confess there’s this man
Alexandre Dumas and he may be the finest soldier in the
world. Anyway, Alex, at the time, was riding
around with these guys on the border and he just did these incredible things. Basically, he
would ride in and you know there’s the first
time he comes in the records is when he, unfairly small-scale, he takes 13
prisoners almost single-handedly without firing a shot, gets all of their weapons, marches all the
prisoners back and then donates the weapons to the French senate.
So I mean enormous feats of strength bravery but how is his leadership skills? Audacity, audacity in leadership I think this is it. It’s not just brave
like the way that he takes prisoners without firing a shot is that he just knows how to psych people
out and he has an incredible sense of when to, uh, when and how to attack. Um and he just and how to lead
men I mean he just, ver, very soon… A natural leader He’s a natural leader. Very soon it’s not
13 men or even 500 men as you started to mention, I mean he is, he finds
himself within two years leading 53,000 white French soldiers in some of the most
rugged terrain in Europe. They’re actually on a glacier
in the Alps and here’s a guy who grew up in Haiti, you know and has never seen
snow till you know just that you know a few years before. I
should also say this is a time when the French armies are very dangerous for
officers; dozens of generals are being murdered
by their own troops Alex Dumas only inspires the absolute
opposite he inspires adulation and love from everybody. You
know there, men are willing to follow him almost
anywhere. And you said here was this black man that was leading white troops and this wouldn’t happen again until two
hundred years later with Colin Powell. Yeah, its its remarkable. I mean there are
other um, officers in of color and then there are
a few generals in the 20th century but nobody would rise as high in a white army or in a white majority
society as Alex Dumas in some ways until our own time. And in some ways he is really like a precursor for Colin Powell and
even for President Obama I mean he’s really in many ways, he lived a life in the 18th
century a kind of post-racial, a life of.. He lived a kind of 21st century life in the 18th century as a post-racial
leader in a white society even though he was black. We’re discussing the book called the Black Count; it’s about the father of the novelist Alexandre Dumas. Tom Reiss
is a best-selling author and he’s in the studio with me. What happens when he meets Napoleon? What are the circumstances and how do they not get along? Well here, this is it it becomes almost
like a Greek tragedy, a conflict between these two great warriors who are absolutely the opposite in every way. Dumas this incredible physical leader who leads out in front
of his men with courage, audacity and who inspires his men on this emotional
level and Napoleon this kind of calculating um, you know quite scheming, but brilliant
strategist. And in fact the first time they meet, um Dumas outranks Napoleon and Napoleon
asks him for guns um because he, uh, needs some and uh, Dumas is at the time, as I said, he’s in the
Alps fighting very treacherous conditions
and uh, he actually has a three-month deadline
to take the Alps from France and he basically sends Napoleon back a note saying I’m
sorry I can’t spare any guns uh, my friend so uh, that may, sets the first, I found I mean
these are, you know, I had to sift through hundreds and actually thousands of these
military letters that no one had gone through and
so you know when I mention some incident like that I should say it’s
because I’m searching through hundreds of letters and then I suddenly I’m like, whoa, wait, does this say
Napoleon here and it’s in actually spelled in this kind of
funny way and is Dumas talking to him as though he is
this underling and it’s quite it’s quite exciting when you found when I found that
letter and I realized that’s uh, the first contact. But was the animosity from Napoleon because Dumas was so much bigger and
better than him or was it racism? Well it’s a combination
and it certainly I wouldn’t say that he was better than him. I mean they were
just very very different kinds of leaders obviously but what and any way the animosity
didn’t come from that one incident that small incident where
they first crossed paths. They actually next really got involved
with each other during the campaign um, to um, liberate Italy from
the Austrians which was a very very big part of these French Revolutionary Wars; essentially
it’s when this mmm first Essentially this is the beginning of
modern Italy. The French sweep into Italy and with the help of Italian
patriots, they throw out these enemy forces but then there’s fierce
fighting and Alex Dumas becomes instrumental to driving the Germans and Austrians up north, back into
the mountains, and out of Italy. In fact, um Dumas does much of this old, even though he’s a general, he does
much of this sorta old-style Dragoon style warfare where he’ll take small bands– he’s almost like a special forces general and he he loves to fight with small groups
of men that can use stealth and lots of secret, he likes to use spies
and a lot of secret kind of stuff and he actually gets the
Austrians in the hills and there’s a certain point where he has all of them on this bridge and
the Austrians outnumber the French so much that the men that Dumas is
leading, even though they’re very brave, they all freak out and they run away and
Dumas left alone on this bridge and you know the records from that day
describe him being shot, horses are shot out from under him, he’s
being slashed with sabres any other man would have fallen. Alex
Dumas not only doesn’t fall he fights so hard that by the time
reinforcements arrive, the Austrians are just routed and they run and instead of
accepting medical care Dumas leaps on a horse and with a couple
of guys he chases the Austrians up towards the Brenner Pass and out of
Italy and at this point, in this campaign, Napoleon even though he’s taken a dislike to
Dumas has to give him, acknowledge what a
fabulous soldier he is and so he celebrates him as the reincarnation of the hero
who saved Rome from the barbarians by keeping these
germanic forces out. But the reason that Napoleon doesn’t
like Dumas from the beginning is that Dumas his fatal flaw, Alex Dumas’ fatal flaw is
really that he can’t keep his mouth shut or that he Alex Dumas’ fatal flaw is that he
speaks his mind, no matter what and he’s just, he will not be kept down and so, first this happens in Italy where he sees Napoleon taking the revolution in a
different direction. Basically Napoleon sees the revolution has a chance to
establish his own power and Dumas is a he’s a red white and blue revolutionary.
He staked his life on genuine um fight for liberty equality
and fraternity especially because he has seen what this can do for people of color. He
this is in his letters, this is everywhere that he writes. But Napoleon was kinda more in it for himself. Napolean is entirely in it for himself
and then, the next year, the two of them go to Egypt and Napoleon is commanding an expedition to invade
Egypt supposedly to liberate the Egyptians. But Dumas who goes along as his cavalry
commander is instantly very suspicious of why
they’re there and he brings up a kind of insurrection among the troops and
the generals. I mean doesn’t cause an insurrection but he publicly questions Napoleon as the
French are losing thousands of men to disease
and he says, you know, I don’t think we’re
really here for the reasons we say we’re here. We’re here so that you can build up an empire
in the desert and Napoleon cannot tolerate it. Doesn’t like that. Yeah he doesn’t like it and he can’t pay– its its Napoleon is building up this myth of
himself and here’s this big you know uh, glamorous man, Dumas. And
Napoleon only comes up to his chest. The memoirs of Napoleon’s doctor on the
Egyptian expedition described what the Egyptians thought
when they first saw the French troops marching across the desert to Alexandria and they saw first, this, they described this incredible tall black man on his horse
who was so at one with the horse that he
looked like a centaur and he looked like a great hero and they were sure that this
man was the leader of the French expedition. Not that little guy. Yes and they say the Egyptians described seeing
this scrawny little man following him who is Napoleon and they were sure well
he has to be some underling so they just, they
clashed from the beginning because of this great discrepancy between them but
then there was also the racial issue. And you
know a lot happens, um, Alex Dumas is captured after he leaves
Egypt and spends time in prison but Napoleon really essentially takes
power in France, becomes a dictator, and then completely rolls back all of
these racial equality laws. Yes and well, I should just say that Alex Dumas doesn’t
only spend time in prison it’s really a dungeon, and in fact, in
that safe that we spoke about at the beginning that I found so many important records to um write this book, probably the most
important record in the safe was a description written in Dumas’ own
hand, in Alex Dumas’ own hand, of his imprisonment in this dungeon and it was that
description that his son the novelist would use as an inspiration to write the
beginning of The Count of Monte Cristo so um, its kind of, for somebody who’s a Dumas fan that’s a, was a remarkable document to be holding
in my hand. But you know you you alluded to this earlier where he kinda
rose to the top and then you know fell really to the bottom. When he-absolutely–went back to France. you know there’s all these racial laws
now that were uh, you know, um, black and white people
can’t get married, all that kind of stuff Yea, yea, that is I didn’t mean to deflect from that with
the dungeon. The dungeon is really the personal tragedy that
happens to Dumas where he’s being poisoned and he’s sort of out of the picture
for two years and as you say, when he comes back to France
a mere two years later Napoleon has imposed this dictatorship
and what people don’t know is that Napoleon’s dictatorship was largely
financed by the sugar and slave traders and
there’s incredible money poured in, essentially, it’s like a political pac,
that and and one of the deals they uh, are trying to get and clearly get is, the reimposition of slavery and the
end of this post racial society which has been you know costing them money uh, and the, when when Dumas gets back to France
he suddenly finds this country that had a mere couple of years before had had
integrated, the world’s first integrated school system in in Paris and had had they were
so the head of the French senate was black and there were a lot of mixed race and
black legislators Napoleon is kicked all of them out and
there were a lot of blacks in the, officers in the army, Dumas was by far the highest, but there were others.
And Napoleon actually passes laws kicking them out of the army essentially putting anybody who has black
or African heritage into the equivalent of chain
gangs. They’re They set up deportation camps. They create
a zone around Paris that no person of color is
allowed to live in of course Alex Dumas’ house, in that
little village, happens to be within that zone ,so I found this very, you know
heart-rending letter that he had to write, essentially
asking for a dispensation from the racial law even though he was one of France’s great
heroes one of the great heroes of the revolution He has to get a special permission to
live in his own house, uh, they’ve banned mixed marriages and of
course Dumas’ sweetheart and his love of his life, Mary Louise is white is so
he’s living almost illegally for that reason. And you know
in every way, it’s just this tragic tragic reversal. What’s your next book gonna be about? Um, well um I think I’ve gotten kind of addicted
to heroes and I can’t say what it is but I’m looking
into another kind of great unsung hero and I go for stories that have a certain
kinda bittersweet quality about them and that expose uh, the kind of underbelly of history but
I always have to find some kind of inspiration in it so like in this story no matter how bad things got at the end,
I am so deeply inspired by the fact that out of all this, even in this tragic
period we’re talking about Alex Dumas had a son and that son seeing his father wronged, pushed out of
history, decided I’m gonna write him back in as these great heroes that we know today
as the Count of Montecristo and the Three Musketeers so I’m always looking for the combination
of the two things. Tom Reiss is a best-selling author. The
book is the Black Count: Glory Revolution
Betrayal and the real Count of Monte Cristo. It’s published by Crown Books. Tom thanks
so much for being on the program. Hey thanks, great questions Mimi.

16 thoughts on “Tom Reiss, author “The Black Count” on France’s First Black General Alex Dumas

  1. So much I didn't know…Thank you for posting this video…I had no clue about General Alexander Dumas and his son…I read the book but I had no clue a black man wrote it and it was about his father who was a great black general who fought for France…wow…so much they don't teach you in School..As a black man I feel that we are made to believe black people did nothing to advance this world…very sad when stories like this get suppressed from the public…This was very refreshing! Thank You!

  2. Really enjoyed this interview…….. doing a book review on this book, and this helps give me a little better insight….

  3. Thomas dumas was not black, he was a french creole of partly african descent. And he was not a black man in a white society, because there were a lot of officers or artists etc. of african descent in those days. Also the music teacher of marie antoinette who was even more famous in paris than dumas. Passing was irrelevant, the only thing relevant was if someons was of noble ancestry. Passing is an american invention.

  4. What is this historian talking about. There was no cilvil rights case.
    The low profile racism was not only in france, but everyehere in europe. German, austria, russian empire, spain etc. This was not a topic until 1820, 1830…
    A precursor? Of what.
    The highest colonial french officer in 1900 was born in senegambia, and looked similar to colin powell.
    Also something the author does not seem to know.
    The author surrogates about a european history of racism that in fact did not exist, and only started to develop after the british empire and its successor the united states began to rule the world in mid 19.th century. And this trend was exported to continental europe, insofar that around 1900 being of african descent became a huge stigma. But only thanks to angloamerican rule.

  5. Napoleon was married to a wealthy woman from the planter class of martinique. She hated the slaves and the french revolution because of those rebellions she had to flee back to the motherland, losing her wealth. And she was influential on napoleon, therefore the racial laws.
    But after 1818 all those racial laws were liquidated. There were no such things like forbidden mixed marriage, or forbidden living areas for persons of african descent after 1818.

  6. Napoleon led from the front too early in his career. He just stopped doing that later because he was too important to risk losing.

  7. Thank you, for your exciting hard work in uncovering this story! Excellent interview! Plus in your book you mentioned Chevailer St Georges! Really puts historical significance and ties things together! Would really like to know more when you mentioned France First Civil Rights Movement comparison, and even Reconstruction. Bravo!

  8. Great stuff, well researched, not sensationalised, and great props to Reiss. Super interesting interview, I'll be looking for the book!

  9. What does the interviewer even mean with visibly black. This differntiation of visibly black and black without much visible african
    appearance did never exist anywhere except in south africa or the united states.
    Noone even spent a thought if someone had an african grandfather or some other african distant relative. If you looked white you were white. One of the main colonial generals of the french army in late 19th century was born in senegambia for example.
    The founder of french socialist party and son in law to karl marx, paul lafargue was of afro carrebean ancestry among others.
    The idea that even a person of non visible african ancestry having problems has only ever been an american pathology.
    Anywhere else this would sound crazy.

  10. I think that "race" of white and black was really just something emphasized on with America. I don't think it was really something emphasized on with France.

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