Revolutionary France had a black general.
His name was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, and he was born a slave in Haiti — then a French colony — the son of a French nobleman and his African slave. Dumas’ father had little money and actually pawned the boy in 1776, when he was fourteen, but then bought him back. Father and son moved to France, where Dumas gained his freedom and a gentleman’s education. He enlisted as a private in the army at age twenty-four and soared to the rank of general by thirty-one, thanks to courage, brains, and charisma — and thanks to the French Revolution, which created unheard-of opportunities for humble-born men. Dumas repeatedly distinguished himself in combat, and France’s Austrian enemies called him the Schwarzer Teufel: the black devil.
Napoleon Bonaparte was another talented young officer, and Dumas served under the future emperor in Italy and Egypt. Napoleon had risen even faster than Dumas, and he was a military genius, but he was insecure. And Dumas — tall, handsome, athletic, and capable — made for a threatening rival. The two clashed more than once, so when Napoleon seized power in 1799, Dumas had an enemy at the top. He’d been captured by Italian enemies the same year and languished in a drafty dungeon, and Napoleon’s government was slow to work for his release. When Dumas finally gained his freedom in 1801, his health was broken, and Napoleon never restored his military career. In fact, the emperor soon reversed the Revolutionary government’s egalitarian race laws, ending the freedom that had made Dumas’ career possible.
Napoleon’s empire didn’t even pay Dumas his pension or back pay. The black general died of stomach cancer in 1806, at age forty-three, leaving his wife and two children poverty-stricken. But his legacy lives on. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the general’s son was Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Much of author Dumas’ writing features adventure inspired by his father’s life.
For a fun biography, check out The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss — winner of the Pulitzer Prize.
Painting: Général Alexandre Dumas, by Olivier Pichat (1825-1912)
© 2017 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.