His son wrote a book loosely based on his life. That book is The Count of Monte Cristo.
The Austrians called him “Schwarzer Teufel” (‘Black Devil’). He is the highest-ranking black person of all time in a continental European military. He was general-in-chief of a French Army. His son was Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Oh, and he was born a slave. Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie lived his forty-four years to the fullest.
Born in 1762 in Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), Alexandre Dumas was a slave by birth. His mother was a slave, and his father was a French nobleman. When Dumas was fourteen years old, his father sold him. However, this wasn’t nearly as heartless a decision as it seems. Dumas was sold to a French captain who then took him from Haiti to mainland France. Once in France, his father bought him back, and because slavery was outlawed in France, Dumas was freed.
In France, Dumas lived the privileged life of a nobleman’s kid. At the age of 22, Dumas was attacked by a white French officer who tried to “tried to force him to kneel before his attacker and beg for his freedom.” If I had to guess, I’d say that this was a stark reminder to the young Dumas that he was still a black man in a white man’s world.
At age 24, Dumas joined the French Army. Dumas, due to his noble birth, qualified for an automatic officer’s commission but, due to his black skin, he was denied that honor. He was forced to enlist as a private. His father, embarrassed by his son’s low military status, insisted that Dumas take a nom-de-guerre. That was how Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie abandoned his noble father’s name and took his slave mother’s name, Dumas.
During the French Revolution, Dumas’ unit intervened to put down a brewing riot. This act nearly cost him his head two years later when he was summoned before Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Dumas dragged his feet in reporting for his summons and by the time he did, Robespierre had already lost his own head.
At age 30, he was placed as second-in-command to a French legion composed of free men of color.
At the age of 31, he was promoted three times in the same year.
In the winter of 1796, Dumas had a disagreement over pillaging with Napoleon Bonaparte which resulted in Dumas being omitted from battlefield reports. Later, Dumas was demoted.
Two years later, he was appointed Commander of the Cavalry in the “Army of the Orient” which meant the French army in Egypt. Dumas must have been attempting to mend his relationship with Napoleon when he turned over a cache of gold and jewels found in Egypt. Also, Dumas sacked a stronghold at Al-Azhar Mosque. Napoleon commissioned a painting of the taking of the mosque. The figure at the center of the painting is a white man.
While returning to France from Egypt, Dumas’ ship was damaged, and he was forced to land in Naples. Naples just so happened to be at war with France.
For two years, he was imprisoned in Naples. Napoleon was unconcerned. Eventually, Dumas was freed when French forces conquered Naples. By this time, Dumas was blind in one eye and partially paralyzed due to the hardships of the prison.
After returning to France, Dumas and his family sank into deep poverty. Napoleon denied Dumas the pay he deserved for the two years he was imprisoned and also denied him the pension for retired officers.
Dumas died in 1806. His wife never received her widow’s pension.
Why he’s been forgotten: Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the largest figures in history, wanted Dumas forgotten, and Napoleon often got what he wanted. Also, when studying the French Revolution, we focus on the electrifying figures such as the murderer Maximilien Robespierre and the conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte; the stalwart republican nobleman doesn’t excite us in the same way.
Read more about Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the real Count of Monte Cristo.
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Photo— Flickr/ Skara Kommun