Tom Reiss: The Black Count

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. 

Remember a few years ago when I wrote that post about trying to read French literature and not knowing enough French history to comprehend any of it? I’ve been looking for something to fill that void ever since.

The Black Count is the French history lesson I’ve been searching for. It’s so much more than a biography on Alexandre Dumas the First (yes, the author’s father was ALSO named Alexandre–though not originally Dumas!).

General Dumas led a pretty unlikely life–a black guy in slave-time, becomes a super badass general, is a COUNT, becomes best friends with Napoleon (though that doesn’t turn out to be such a great thing). His biography is interesting enough for all of those reasons alone. However, Reiss builds upon Dumas’ adventures to form a vivid history of the French Revolution, all the way through Napoleon’s rise and eventual imperial rule. It’s not just that, though, because I’m sure that could be found in other books. We get a unique perspective in The Black Count–through General Dumas and other “Americans” in France and the French colonies in the eighteenth century, we get to see how the Revolution brought about emancipation while Britain and America were still neck deep in the slave trade.

As a lover of history, I was enthralled by General Dumas’ story. The Black Count captured me as many nonfiction history books can’t. There was no droning textbook feel to this at all–it read more like an adventure story, than a telling of a man’s real life. Even the footnotes were fascinating. I now want to go back and reread The Three Musketeers–and I really need to get to The Count of Monte Cristo, which was based on General Dumas. If you’re a fan of Alexandre Dumas, the author; or if you just like history–this is a must read for sure.

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