If you’ve seen “Napoleon” or even a trailer for the movie, you may have noticed a Black officer in the army of White 18th century France. This wasn’t just an open-minded casting choice. The officer has no lines, but the credits list him as General Dumas (played by Abubakar Salim). General Thomas-Alexandre Dumas is a historical figure. He fought on the battlefields of Europe and Egypt and became a hero of Revolutionary France. But then he fell from power, largely thanks to Napoleon.
From Slave to General
Dumas was born into slavery in Haiti, then a French colony. He was the son of an enslaved African and her master, a French nobleman. 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 the young Dumas gained his freedom and a gentleman’s education. In 1786, at age twenty-four, he enlisted in the army. The scion of an old noble family would typically enter as an officer, but France’s race laws forced him to serve as a private. In 1789, however, the French Revolution reduced racial discrimination. Dumas’ career soared, thanks to his courage, brains, and charisma. By age thirty-one, he had reached the rank of general.
Dumas repeatedly distinguished himself in combat, leading his troops in the thick of the fighting. He commanded more than 50,000 men as General of the Army of the Alps in 1794, opening mountain passes so that the Revolutionary armies could invade Italy. He also commanded French cavalry forces in Napoleon’s 1789 expedition to Egypt (portrayed in the “Napoleon” movie). France’s Austrian enemies called Dumas the Schwarzer Teufel: the black devil.
Dumas and Napoleon
The French Revolution opened doors for many talented men outside the old elite, including Napoleon Bonaparte: a very minor nobleman from Corsica. Dumas served under General Napoleon in Italy and Egypt. Napoleon once called him the Horatius Cocles of the Tyrol, after the hero who saved ancient Rome. But the relationship eventually soured. 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 opponent at the top.
Italian enemies captured Dumas that same year, and he languished in a drafty dungeon. Napoleon’s government was slow to work for his release, probably because of the two generals’ rivalry. Dumas finally gained his freedom in 1801, but two years in the dungeon had broken his health. 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. That left his wife and two children poverty-stricken. But General Dumas’ legacy lives on. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because his son was Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, among many other novels. Much of the author’s writing features adventures inspired by his father’s life.
For a great biography, check out The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo: the Pulitzer Prize winner by Tom Reiss. And for more on Napoleon, see these posts.
© 2023 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.