The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography) [NOOK Book]


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 ...

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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Pulitzer Prize for Biography)

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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.  

Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography
Winner of the 2013 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The biography is bookended by meditations on remembering and record-keeping. In the novels of Alexandre Dumas, the worst crime is to forget; Reiss details the criminal forgetting of Alex Dumas, which results in Reiss's having to hire a safecracker to access the general's private papers. Since a statue to Dumas was melted down by the Nazis, a new monument recently appeared in Paris: an enormous pair of slave shackles, which honor him as a symbol, not as a man. This remarkable book stands instead as his monument.
—Joanna Scutts
The New York Times Book Review
His story inspired the novel The Count of Monte Cristo, written by his son, Alexandre Dumas, who also drew upon his father's adventures in The Three Musketeers. Posterity remembers this son as Dumas père, to distinguish him from Alexandre Dumas fils, also a writer…But the general was the first of the three Alexandres…and in The Black Count, Tom Reiss…has recovered this fascinating story with a richly imaginative biography.
—Leo Damrosch
Publishers Weekly
Alex Dumas, an extraordinary man whose sensational life had been largely lost to history solely because of his race, takes the spotlight in this dynamic tale. Thanks to Reiss’s excellent research, combined with the passionate memorial his son, Alexandre Dumas, consistently built in his own novels and memoir, Dumas’s life has been brought back to light. Father to the well-known novelist and clear inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo, as well as the adventurous spirit of The Three Musketeers and other stories, Dumas (1762–1806) rose through the ranks of the French army from a lowly private in the dragoons to become a respected general who marched into Egypt at Napoleon’s side. (The rivalry and juxtaposition between these two leaders proves fascinating.) Born in what is now Haiti to a French nobleman father and a slave mother, the biracial Dumas chanced to come of age during the French Revolution, a brief period of equality in the French empire; he was thus granted numerous opportunities that the son of a slave 20 years before him (or even 20 years later) would not have enjoyed. Reiss capitalizes on his subject’s charged personality as well as the revolutionary times in which he lived to create an exciting narrative. Agent: Tina Bennett, Janklow & Nesbit. (Sept.)
From the Publisher

Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Biography!

“Tom Reiss wrings plenty of drama and swashbuckling action out of Dumas’ strange and nearly forgotten life, and more: The Black Count is one of those quintessentially human stories of strength and courage that also sheds light on the flukey historical moment that made it possible.”

“A remarkable and almost compulsively researched account…The author spent a decade on the case, and it shows.”
—Christian Science Monitor

“Fascinating…a richly imaginative biography.”
—New York Times Book Review

"It would take an incredibly fertile mind to invent a character as compelling, exciting and unlikely as Gen. Alexandre (Alex) Dumas [hence] you might forget, while reading, that The Black Count is a work of nonfiction; author Tom Reiss writes with such narrative urgency and vivid description, you'd think you were reading a novel…The Black Count reminds us of how essential stories, whether true or invented, can be.”
—National Public Radio
“Vibrant…Sometimes the best stories are true.  This is one of them.”
“Reiss details the criminal forgetting of Alex Dumas…This remarkable book stands as his monument.”
—Washington Post
“Superb... as improbable and exciting as [Dumas’s] best books… but there is much more to this book than that.”  
—Newsweek/The Daily Beast
“Lush prose and insightful details make The Black Count one of the best biographies of 2012…a tale that is as easily engrossing as one of Dumas’ page-turning and timeless works.”
“Impressively thorough…Reiss moves the story on at an entertaining pace…fascinating.”
—Wall Street Journal
“To tell this tale, Reiss must cover the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon toward Empire; he does all that with remarkable verve.”
—Boston Globe
“Fascinating [and] swashbuckling...meticulously evokes the spirit of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France...Dumas comes across as something of a superhero...a monument to the lives of both Dumas and his adoring [novelist] son.”
—The Seattle Times
“A piece of detective work by a prize-winning author...brilliantly researched.”
—The Daily Mail (U.K.)
“Sometimes real life does, indeed, trump even the wildest of fiction…With a narrative that is engaging and entertaining, Reiss sets the literary table for one of the most satisfying adventure stories of the autumn.  Richly detailed, meticulously researched and beautifully written, this is the unlikely true story of the man behind one of the greatest books in literature.”
—Tucson Citizen
“Triumphant…Reiss directs a full-scale production that jangles with drawn sabers, trembles with dashing deeds and resonates with the love of a son for a remarkable father.”
—The Herald (U.K.)
“Fascinating….Reiss argues that Dumas is an important, criminally neglected figure [and] it’s difficult to argue with him…A truly amazing story.”
“A story that has everything…The Black Count has its own moving narrative thread, made compelling by Reiss’s impassioned absorption with the general’s fate.”
—The Literary Review
“A thoroughly researched, lively piece of nonfiction that will be savored by fans of Alexandre Dumas.  But The Black Count needs no partner: It is fascinating enough to stand on its own.”
“A compelling new work by literary detective Reiss, author of The Orientalist, tracks the wildly improbable career of [Count of Monte Cristo author] Alexandre Dumas’ mixed-race father…Reiss eloquently argues the General’s case.”
—Kirkus Reviews
“Alex Dumas, an extraordinary man whose sensational life had been largely lost to history solely because of his race, takes the spotlight in this dynamic tale…Reiss capitalizes on his subject’s charged personality as well as the revolutionary times in which he lived to create an exciting narrative.”
—Publishers Weekly
“Thrilling…Reiss makes clear that Alex lived a life as full of adventure, triumph, and tragic loss as any of his son’s literary creations…This absorbing biography should redeem its subject from obscurity.”

“From pike-wielding mobs to prisoners locked in a fortress tower, The Black Count is as action-packed as The Count of Monte Cristo. Unlike Dumas’s famous adventure novel, however, Reiss’s incredible tale is true.”
Candice Millard, New York Times bestselling author of The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic
“Tom Reiss has literally drilled into locked safes to create this masterpiece…. His portrait of a man who was arguably our modern age’s greatest unknown soldier is remarkable.”
—James Bradley, New York Times bestselling author of Flags of Our Fathers and Flyboys
“A masterful biography, richly detailed, highly researched, and completely absorbing. The Black Count is a triumph.”
—Amanda Foreman, New York Times bestselling author of A World on Fire and Georgiana
“It’s hard to imagine a more colorful or engaging subject than the man who inspired The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. In the wonderful hands of Tom Reiss, Alex Dumas comes to vivid life, illuminating far-flung corners of history and culture. This is a terrific book.”
—Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of American Lion and Franklin and Winston
The Black Count is a dazzling achievement. I learned something new virtually on every page. No one who reads this magnificent biography will be able to read The Count of Monte Cristo or any history of slavery in the New World in the same way again.”
—Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, Harvard University
 “Rousing and thought-provoking, The Black Count is an adventure like no other. I marveled at every twist and turn of this remarkable true story, brought to life with the charm and personal touch that has become the trademark of Tom Reiss.”
Laurence Bergreen, New York Times bestselling author of Columbus and Over the Edge of the World
“A riveting, beautifully written and well-researched story of the seemingly impossible. It could never have happened in the United States, and with great skill, Reiss shows how the moment that produced Alex Dumas was lost with the rise of nineteenth-century racism.”
—Annette Gordon-Reed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for
The Hemingses of Monticello
 “In the early 1800s, General Alex Dumas was purposefully disappeared by his enemies, and for too long his story has remained silenced. The Black Count vividly vindicates the great general, restoring him to his rightful place at the center of the Age of Revolution. Carrying us from the plantations of the Caribbean to Paris, the Alps, and Egypt, Reiss tells an engrossing tale of a life of social struggle, adventure, and courage—and of the frustrations and joys of a researcher on the trail of a forgotten truth.”
—Laurent Dubois, author of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History
“A tale worthy of Dumas himself—of impossible odds, shrinking before the irresistible forces of daring, ingenuity and in-your-face talent.”
—Ted Widmer, author of Ark of the Liberties
“The real-life history of General Alex Dumas is as poignant and swashbuckling a tale as any his novelist son could have dreamed. Tom Reiss has the dramatist’s sense of setting and scene, the reporter’s persistence, and the historian’s eye for truth. Would that the imprisoned Count of Monte Cristo had a copy of this book!”
—Darrin M. McMahon, author of Enemies of the Enlightenment and Happiness: A History
“Tom Reiss can do it all: gather startling research and write inspired prose; find life’s great stories and then tell them with real brilliance. In The Black Count the master journalist-storyteller opens the door to the truth behind one of literature’s most exciting stories, and opens it wide enough to show the delicate beauty of the lives within.”
—Darin Strauss, National Book Critics Circle Award–winning author of Half a Life
“Tom Reiss tells this amazing story, largely unknown today, with verve, style, and a nonpareil command of detail.”
—Luc Sante, author of Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts
The Black Count is a complex work of political and social history gallantly masquerading as a fantastic adventure story. As he did in The Orientalist, Tom Reiss has traveled far to stalk a forgotten legend, and has recovered for us a vivid, dramatic tale that delights, moves, and inspires.”
—Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction
The Black Count is totally thrilling—a fascinating, beautifully written, and deeply researched biography that brings to life one of history’s great forgotten characters: the swashbuckling, flamboyant, and romantic mulatto count whose true life belongs in a Hollywood movie or Alexandre Dumas story.”
—Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography and Young Stalin
“Tom Reiss tells the incredible story of Alex Dumas with the same excitement about uncovering history that he brought to The Orientalist.
—Nina Burleigh, New York Times bestselling author of Mirage: Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt
 “We believe we know the glories of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. We believe we understand the horror of slavery and the oppression of Africans. But what is the relationship between the grand goal of liberation and the deep tragedy of racism? As Reiss shows us, answers can be found in the extraordinary life of a forgotten French hero of the great revolutionary campaignsa hero who was black.”
—Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands and The Red Prince
“Reiss combines the talent of a thorough English detective with the literary flair of a French novelist to produce a story that is as fresh as today’s headlines but as old as the Greek classics.”
—Jack Weatherford, New York Times bestselling author of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World
“Colorful and utterly captivating . . . This is history that is vibrant, gripping, and tragic.”
—William Dietrich, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and New York Times bestselling author of Napoleon’s Pyramids and The Emerald Storm
 More Praise for Tom Reiss
"A wondrous tale, beautifully told… mesmerizing, poignant and almost incredible."   
The New York Times
“Spellbinding history… part detective yarn, part author biography, part travel saga… completely fascinating.”  
The Dallas Morning News
 “Thrilling, novelistic and rich with the personal and political madness of early twentieth-century Europe.”  
Entertainment Weekly
"An elaborate wonder-cabinet… as page–turningly compelling as any fiction."  
The Los Angeles Times 
 “Exhilarating… an endlessly inventive saga.” 
San Francisco Chronicle
“A brainy, nimble, remarkable book.” 
Chicago Tribune

Library Journal
Confronted with the surname Dumas, most readers are likely to think of Alexandre Dumas, author of such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. But in The Black Count, Reiss (The Orientalist) explores the life of the writer's father, a man of mixed racial and cultural heritage, born in Saint-Domingue to a slave mother (her last name was Dumas) and a French aristocrat. His father brought him to France, where, because of his tremendous courage and physical gifts, he rose through the ranks of the French military under Napoleon to become a general. He was taken prisoner of war when his ship returning to France from Cairo was captured near Sicily, and he died five years later, when his son was not yet four. Reiss seeks to demonstrate the great effect of the elder Dumas on his son's fiction, inspiring many of the characters and situations in those works. VERDICT While Reiss occasionally strays from the central narrative with an abundance of tangential detail regarding the French Revolution, this accessible read is recommended for fans of popular narrative nonfiction as well as for both casual and serious students of French history, and of the younger Dumas's work.—Ben Neal, Sullivan Cty. P.L., Bristol, TN.
Kirkus Reviews
A compelling new work by literary detective Reiss (The Orientalist: Solving the Mystery of a Strange and Dangerous Life, 2005) tracks the wildly improbable career of Alexandre Dumas' mixed-race father. Using records from Gen. Dumas' final residence and the military archives at the Chateau de Vincennes, the author provides a vivid sense of who Dumas was and how he attained such heights and fell so low after the French Revolution, being nearly forgotten by the time of his death in 1806. The simple answer seems to be racism. Born to an aristocratic French father and a slave mother in Saint-Domingue, Dumas became a general in the French Revolution and served under Napoleon, by turns lauded as a hero and vilified as a black insurgent. Taken prisoner on the way back from Egypt, his health was ruined after two years' imprisonment in Italy. His novelist son paid homage to his father's legendary stature, manliness, athletic prowess and bravery in his best-known protagonists--e.g., Edmond Dantès in The Count of Monte Cristo and the swashbuckling D'Artagnon in The Three Musketeers. The general's own father pawned the boy and took him to Paris to make a gentleman of him. Enlisting as a private in the Queen's Dragoons at age 24, he changed his name to Dumas, his slave mother's maiden name. Thanks to the republican spirit of the period and to his own dazzling exploits, he was handily promoted, yet as swiftly demoted by Napoleon, who later passed harsh racial laws. He was never provided the military pension allowed him, and his widow and children sank into hardship; Dumas the novelist was excoriated 40 years later for his black ancestry. Reiss eloquently argues the general's case. A rarefied, intimate literary study delineating a roiling revolutionary era.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307952950
  • Publisher: Crown/Archetype
  • Publication date: 9/18/2012
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 4,086
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Tom Reiss
TOM REISS is the author of the celebrated international bestseller The Orientalist.   His biographical pieces have appeared The New Yorker, The New York Times and other publications.  He makes his home in New York City.
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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      May 5, 1964
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      A.B., Harvard College, 1987; M.A., University of Houston, 1991
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt


the sugar factory

Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie—father of the future Alex Dumas—was born on February 26, 1714, in the Norman province of Caux, a region of rolling dairy farms that hung above great chalk cliffs on the northwest coast of France. A scrawled scrap of paper from the time states that he was baptized “without ceremony, at home, because of the peril of death,” suggesting he was too sickly to risk bringing in to the local church. He was the firstborn son of an old family that possessed a castle, a scarcity of cash, and an abundance of conniving members, though Antoine would one day outdo them all.

The boy survived, but the following year his sovereign, King Louis XIV, the Sun King, died after seventy-two years on the throne. As he lay dying, the old king counseled his heir, his five-year-old great-grandson: “I loved war too much, do not imitate me in this, nor in my excessive spending habits.” The five-year-old presumably nodded earnestly. His reign, as Louis XV, would be marked by a cycle of spending and wars so extravagantly wasteful and unproductive that they would bring shame not only on his person but on the institution of the French monarchy itself.

But the profligate, war-driven habits of its kings could not hold France back. In fact the “Great Nation” was about to unleash the age of the philosophes, the Enlightenment, and all that would follow from it. Frenchmen were about to shake the world into the modern age. Before they could do that, they would need money. Big money.

Big money was not to be found in Normandy, and certainly not around the Pailleterie château. The family’s coat of arms—three golden eagles holding a golden ring on an azure background—looked impressive but meant little. The Davy de la Pailleteries were provincial aristocrats from a region more abounding in old glories than in current accounts. Their fortune was not enough to sustain grandeur without work—or not for more than one generation.

Still, a title was a title, and as the oldest son, Antoine would eventually claim the title of “marquis” and the ancestral estate of Bielleville that went with it. Next in succession after Antoine were his two younger brothers—Charles Anne Edouard (Charles), born in 1716, and Louis François Thérèse (Louis), born in 1718.

Faced with their limited prospects in Normandy, all three Pailleterie brothers sought their fortunes in the army, which then accepted nobles as young as twelve into its commissioned ranks. Antoine received a commission in the Corps Royal de l’Artillerie, an up-and-coming branch of the service, as a second lieutenant at sixteen. His brothers soon followed him as teenage junior officers. The Pailleterie brothers were kept busy by His Majesty’s plunge, in 1734, into the War of the Polish Succession, one of a series of dynastic conflicts that regularly provided excuses for the gory quaintness of eighteenth-century European combat. The big-power rivals behind this little war were the traditional competitors for European land domination, the Bourbons and the Hapsburgs, France and Austria. (England would soon play a bigger role, especially on the high seas and in the New World, but that was still one or two wars in the future.)

In addition to his commission in the artillery, Antoine served at the front as gentleman in the entourage of the Prince de Conti, the king’s dashing, fabulously rich cousin. Antoine saw his main action at the Siege of Philipsburg, in 1734—later written into the military annals by Karl von Clausewitz, in On War, as the “perfect example of how not to site a fortress. Its location was that of an idiot standing with his nose against the wall.” Voltaire was also there, fleeing a royal arrest warrant, and working as a kind of one-man eighteenth-century USO show during the siege, offering bons mots and brandy between bouts of battle and composing odes to the military men.

The most notable event in Antoine’s service at Philipsburg, however, was that he served as a witness to a duel that took place on the night of the Prince de Conti’s birthday party at the front: it was between the Prince de Lixen and the Duke de Richelieu. The duke took offense when the prince mocked the Richelieu pedigree. The duke’s grandfather had been Cardinal Richelieu (later immortalized as the mustache-twirling nemesis of the Three Musketeers), an adviser to Louis XIII who had managed royal financial and building projects to great advantage—both for himself and for France. But such accomplishments did not measure up to the high standards of snobbery practiced by Lixen, who regarded the Richelieu clan as parvenus. To make matters worse, the duke had recently offended the prince by marrying one of his cousins.

At midnight, the illustrious in-laws met in the field of honor between the dining tents and the trenches. They began lunging at one another there in the dark, their lackeys lighting the swordfight with flickering lanterns. The prince took the advantage first, wounding Richelieu in the thigh. The lackeys switched from lanterns to bare torches, and the combatants chased each other in and out of the trenches, their blades reflecting fire. The prince stabbed the duke in the shoulder. At this point an enemy barrage lit the field of honor. One of the lackeys was hit and killed.

Richelieu counterattacked, and with Antoine watching, the duke sank his blade into the chest of his unfortunate in-law. Contemporaries considered it a sort of poetic justice, since Lixen himself had recently dispatched one of his own relations, his wife’s uncle, the Marquis de Ligneville, for a similarly trifling offense. Such were the friendly-fire deaths of the eighteenth-century battlefield.

In 1738, when the war ended, Antoine took the chance to get out of the army and Europe altogether. While he was stationed at Philipsburg, his younger brother Charles had joined a colonial regiment that went to the French sugar colony of Saint-Domingue, on the West Indian island of Hispaniola. This was a fortunate posting.

Sugar planting was the oil business of the eighteenth century, and Saint-Domingue was the Ancien Régime’s Wild West frontier, where sons of impoverished noble families could strike it rich. Barely sixteen when he arrived in the colony as a soldier, by twenty-two Charles Davy de la Pailleterie had met and wooed a young woman, Marie-Anne Tuffé, whose family owned a sizable sugar plantation on the colony’s wealthy northeast coast. Antoine decided to join him.

Today, the world is so awash in sugar—it is such a staple of the modern diet, associated with all that is cheap and unhealthy—that it’s hard to believe things were once exactly the opposite. The West Indies were colonized in a world where sugar was seen as a scarce, luxurious, and profoundly health-giving substance.

Eighteenth-century doctors prescribed sugar pills for nearly everything: heart problems, headache, consumption, labor pains, insanity, old age, and blindness. Hence, the French expression “like an apothecary without sugar” meant someone in an utterly hopeless situation. Saint-Domingue was the world’s biggest pharmaceutical factory, producing the Enlightenment wonder drug.

Columbus brought sugarcane to Hispaniola, the first European settlement in the New World, on his second voyage, in 1493. The Spanish and the Portuguese had been the first to cultivate sugar in Europe, and when they began their age of discovery, among the first places they “discovered” were islands off the coast of North Africa just perfect for sugar cultivation. As the Iberian explorers made their way down the African coast—the Portuguese going around the Horn to East Asia, the Spaniards cutting west to the Americas—both powers had two main goals in mind: finding precious metals and planting sugarcane. (Oh, and spreading the word of God.)

The Spanish established a colony on the eastern side of Hispaniola and named it Santo Domingo; eventually, the colony would extend over the eastern two-thirds of the island, roughly corresponding to the modern-day Dominican Republic. (The native inhabitants called the entire island by another name: Hayti.) The Spanish brought artisans from the Canary Islands, off the coast of West Africa, to build the elaborate on-site technology needed for sugar production—presses, boilers, mills—and then brought the most essential ingredient of all: African slaves.

Slavery, of course, had existed since antiquity. The Greek city-states had created democracy among a small elite by enslaving almost everybody else, in some cases up to a third of the population. Aristotle believed democracy could exist only because of slavery, which gave citizens the leisure for higher pursuits. (Modern versions of this argument held that American democracy was born of the slave society of rural Virginia, because slavery gave men like Washington and Jefferson the free time to better themselves and to participate in representative government.) In Greece and Rome, slavery was the fate of prisoners of war and barbarians, anyone not lucky enough to have been born Greek or Roman. When ancient slaves managed to buy their freedom or that of their children, they would assimilate into the free population, with no permanent mark on their descendants. Though ubiquitous in the ancient world, slavery was not based on any sense of “race.”

There was an ethnic connotation in the etymology of the word “slave,” which first appeared in the eighth century AD: the word was a corruption of “Slav,” since at the time nearly all slaves imported into Europe were ethnic Slavs. The Slavs were late converts to Christianity, and their pagan status made them vulnerable. “Slav markets” were established across Europe, from Dublin to Marseilles, where the people being bought and sold were as fair-skinned as those buying and selling them.

The rise of Islam led to a vast expansion of slavery, as conquering Arab armies pulled any and every group of “unbelievers” into bondage. Arab slave traders captured whites from the north via sea raids on European shipping, and blacks from the south via land raids or barter with the sub-Saharan kingdoms. Justified by religious faith, the Muslim slave trade was a huge trans-national business. Over time it focused more and more on black Africans. Yet there was still no fixed biological marker for bondage.

The European sugar trade changed this forever. As thousands of blacks were bought and sold out of Africa to harvest sugar, for the first time in history a biologically marked group of human beings came to be considered destined for slavery, created by the white landowners’ God for a life of permanent chattel servitude.

The Portuguese had first taken blacks to Madeira to cut sugarcane because the island was off the coast of North Africa and the Muslim traders there happened to deal in African slaves. When they sailed down the Guinea Coast, the Portuguese found the black African kingdoms were willing to supply them with slaves directly: the Africans did not consider they were selling their racial brothers to the whites. They did not think in racial terms at all but only of different tribes and kingdoms. Before, they had sold their captives to other black Africans or to Arabs. Now they sold them to whites. (The African kingdoms and empires themselves kept millions of slaves.) As time went on, Africans would learn of the horrors awaiting black slaves in the American colonies, not to mention on the passage over, yet they continued to export ever greater quantities of bois d’ébène—“ebony wood,” as the French called their cargo. There was no mercy or morality involved. It was strictly business.

Spain laid the foundations of this great wealth and evil in the Americas, then quickly became distracted and forgot about it. After introducing the plants, the technology, and the slaves into Santo Domingo, the Spanish dropped the sugar business in favor of hunting for gold and silver. They moved on to Mexico and South America in search of the precious metals, leaving the island to languish for nearly two centuries, until the French began to harness its true potential.

By the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the Saint-Domingue colony, situated on the western end of Hispaniola, where Haiti is today, accounted for two-thirds of France’s overseas trade. It was the world’s largest sugar exporter and produced more of the valuable white powder than all the British West Indian colonies combined. Thousands of ships sailed in and out of Port-au-Prince and Cap Français, bound for Nantes, Bordeaux, and New York. When the British, after winning the Seven Years’ War, chose to keep the great swath of France’s North American colonies and instead return its two small sugar islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique, they unwittingly did their archrival a favor.

Saint-Domingue was the most valuable colony in the world. And its staggering wealth was supported by staggering brutality. The “pearl of the West Indies” was a vast infernal factory where slaves regularly worked from sunup to past sundown in conditions rivaling the concentration camps and gulags of the twentieth century. One-third of all French slaves died after only a few years on the plantation. Violence and terror maintained order. The punishment for working too slowly or stealing a piece of sugar or sip of rum, not to mention for trying to escape, was limited only by the overseer’s imagination. Gothic sadism became commonplace in the atmosphere of tropical mechanization: overseers interrupted whippings to pour burning wax—or boiling sugar or hot ashes and salt—onto the arms and shoulders and heads of recalcitrant workers. The cheapness of slave life brushed against the exorbitant value of the crop they produced. Even as the armies of slaves were underfed and dying from hunger, some were forced to wear bizarre tin-plate masks, in hundred-degree heat, to keep them from gaining the slightest nourishment from chewing the cane.

The sugar planter counted on an average of ten to fifteen years’ work from a slave before he was driven to death, to be replaced by another fresh off the boat. Along with malnutrition, bugs and diseases could also eventually do in someone working up to eighteen hours a day. The brutality of the American Cotton Kingdom a century later could not compare to that of Saint-Domingue in the 1700s. There would be no shortage of cruel overseers in the United States, but North American slavery was not based on a business model of systematically working slaves to death in order to replace them with newly bought captives. The French sugar plantations were a charnel house.

Because Versailles loved laws and orders, France was the first country to codify colonial slavery. In doing so, King Louis XIV passed a law, in 1685, that changed the history of both slavery and race relations.

Le Code Noir—the Black Code. Its very name left no doubt about who were to be the slaves. It elaborated, point by point, the many ways in which black Africans could be exploited by their white masters. The Code sanctioned the harshest punishments—the penalty for theft or attempted escape was death—and stated that slaves could not marry without their master’s consent or pass on property to their kin.

But the very existence of a written legal code—a novelty of the French colonial empire—opened the way for unexpected developments. If there were laws governing slavery, then slave owners, at least in some instances, could be found in violation of them. By articulating the rules of white domination, the Code, theoretically, at least, limited it, and gave blacks various opportunities to escape from it. It created loopholes. One of these was on the issue of sexual relations between masters and slaves, and the offspring resulting from such relations.

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Table of Contents

prologue, part 1 • February 26, 1806  
prologue, part 2 • January 25, 2007  
book one
chapter 1 • The Sugar Factory  
chapter 2 • The Black Code  
chapter 3 • Norman Conquest  
chapter 4 • “No One Is a Slave in France” 
chapter 5 • Americans in Paris  
chapter 6 • Black Count in the City of Light  
chapter 7 • A Queen’s Dragoon  
book two
chapter 8 • Summers of Revolution   
chapter 9 • “Regeneration by Blood”   
chapter 10 • “The Black Heart Also Beats for Liberty”   
chapter 11 • “Mr. Humanity”   
chapter 12 • The Battle for the Top of the World   
chapter 13 • The Bottom of the Revolution   
chapter 14 • The Siege   
chapter 15 • The Black Devil   
book three
chapter 16 • Leader of the Expedition   
chapter 17 •  “ The Delirium of His
chapter 18 • Dreams on Fire   
chapter 19 • Prisoner of the Holy Faith Army   
chapter 20 • “ Citizeness Dumas . . . Is Worried
    About the Fate of Her Husband”   
chapter 21 • The Dungeon   
chapter 22 • Wait and Hope   
epilogue • The Forgotten Statue   
Author’s Note on Names   
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Interviews & Essays

A Conversation with Tom Reiss

Q. Who was Alex Dumas? What makes him relevant today?

A. Alex Dumas was one of history's most odds-defying figures, and his story is an inspiration to anyone. Born the son of a slave and briefly sold into slavery himself, he made it to Paris before the Revolution, and though he inherited a noble name from his white father, he threw it off, took his mother's slave name "Dumas," and volunteered for the army at the lowest rank. During the Revolution, Alex first rode with the Queen's dragoons—protecting people from revolutionary mobs—and then he helped form a group of revolutionary mixed-race horsemen called the Black Legion that rode to defend France's frontiers from invasion. In solo combat, Alex Dumas could fight off a dozen men (there are many eyewitness accounts of those exploits). But he also showed incredible leadership and was raised, by age thirty-one, to the rank of general. As commander-in-chief of the French army in the Alps, roughly the equivalent of a four-star-general today, this young man from the tropics, who had barely seen snow before, led 53,000 poorly supplied men in fierce glacier fighting against the best alpine troops in the world. He could be celebrated as the patron saint of all U.S. Special Forces today.

But even as he gave all for his side, his real character was shown in how he treated the enemy or those under his command. Here Alex Dumas was equally uncompromising, and he constantly clashed with his superiors. He was promoted to general at the height of the Terror when Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety assigned commissars to accompany the generals in the field with portable guillotines—dozens of generals and other officers were decapitated for supposed political offenses or for showing too much leniency. Dumas stood up to any intimidation (it was said he even burned one of the portable guillotines for firewood). I found many letters written years later by Dumas's former enemies thanking him for protecting their rights and defending them from his own army's abuses.

Dumas's jaw-dropping ascendancy as a black man through the white ranks of the French Army also represents a key turning point in the history of slavery and race relations—one that, incredibly, has been overlooked until now. General Dumas was a pioneering black leader in a modern white society—the precursor to Colin Powell and President Obama—but nearly two hundred years before them. His career realigns our understanding of racial politics in the era of slavery. It is also drenched with irony: at the same time that he led more than 50,000 white soldiers to honor and glory, a black man like him in the United States—which presented itself as the font of liberty—would be relegated to shining a general's shoes.

Finally, beyond his importance as a historical figure, Alex Dumas influenced literature and popular culture in ways that would have been unimaginable to him—not only books but movies and even comics. He was the red, white, and-blue?wearing superhero of the Revolution, and his exploits inspired his son to create the Three Musketeers, who were among the main prototypes for the modern action hero. (Alex's son basically divided up his exploits and gave them to the individual characters, because if all these feats had been credited to one man, it would have seemed too unbelievable.) And as the inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo, which became a template for the modern thriller protagonist—the wronged man in search of justice—the ghost of Alex Dumas lives in everything from Batman to The Bourne Identity.

Q. How did you find this story?

A. It began in my parents' basement when I came across the memoirs of Alexandre Dumas, the novelist. Dumas is one of the most famous writers in the world, having published The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, but the first two hundred pages of his memoir are all about his father. You can imagine it: Dumas had grown up in terrible poverty, hearing the stories of his father's fame and bravery at the height of the Revolution—and he knew that Napoleon was somehow behind his father's fall from grace but never knew the full story. While General Dumas died when his son was not yet four years old, young Alexandre deeply loved his father, and heard the tales of his exploits from his mother and from old soldiers who would stop by to pay their respects and reminisce about the incredible general, who had been unlike anyone they had ever known, in talents and courage but also in his humanity and invincible spirit. Dumas's memoir is impossible to read without being deeply moved by the loss of this towering man, but what really stuck with me is the love that shows through from the son, the writer, for his father, the soldier. The first part of the memoir ends with the writer describing the day his father died. His mother met him on the stairs in their house, lugging his father's gun over his shoulders, and asked him what he was doing. Alexandre replied: "I'm going to heaven to kill God—for killing daddy."
I couldn't get this out of my mind. It conveys so powerfully the rage we feel when the most important person in life is taken from us.

Q. In your previous book, the international bestseller The Orientalist, you revealed the surreal secret life of Lev Nussimbaum, a Jewish man who transformed himself into a Muslim prince and became a bestselling author in Nazi Germany. Now, in THE BLACK COUNT, you tell the little-known story of General Alex Dumas, a real-life epic hero, forgotten by history. How do you come to write about people few others even know existed?

A. I believe the past really is undiscovered country—that we've barely begun to chart it. I've always been drawn to unjustly forgotten people, those who've been marginalized for one reason or another. Alex Dumas is someone who was forgotten utterly because he did not fit the conventional narrative. The reason his life was forgotten was no accident—it was deliberate. On one level because he crossed a powerful and ruthless man, Napoleon, but on another level because he crossed history. Alex Dumas came of age during a unique and forgotten moment when France was forging the modern world's first post-racial society. The French Revolution was doing what the American Revolution had not done. Napoleon destroyed that moment and buried it—and he did the same thing to its shining human example: General Dumas. Napoleon even had Dumas's image removed from a famous painting of the Egyptian Expedition and replaced by a blond, blue-eyed officer.

Q. It took you seven years to research the life of General Dumas, traveling all over the world tracking down source material. What was that process like?

A. Tracking down the life of a man who died more than two hundred years ago was a new experience for me. I had to rely entirely on old documents—letters, diaries, memoirs, newspaper cuttings, and battlefield reports—to get at the truth. I went all around the world—I went to Egypt to follow Alex's campaigns there, and in the south of Italy I found the fortress cell where he'd been imprisoned for three years. But the place I returned to again and again, was a little gray cobblestoned town fifty miles northeast of Paris called Villers-Cotterêts.

I found an old man in the town who had grown up in the house where General Dumas had died, and who had lived his life devoted to what he called "the Dumasian spirit." He had lost the use of his leg in a traffic accident, decades before, and took inspiration from the story of General Dumas to persevere. He and a few others supported me in my quest to resurrect the general—they felt the injustice of his disappearance. In fact, these "Dumasians" actually helped me to achieve my greatest research coup—the thing that made this book possible—which was access to the most personal and valuable papers in existence about General Dumas, including the handwritten memoir of his captivity in the dungeon that was the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo as well as personal letters from Marie-Louise and many others. These papers were in a locked safe, to which no living person had the combination. The Dumasians helped me get access to the safe, which was in a government building, but I hired a professional to actually drill into the safe to get it open.

Q. How could a man of this stature and importance remain unknown for so long? Aside from his importance as a military figure and, through his son's stories, to world literature and culture, General Dumas led a career as a black leader in a white society that remained unequaled until our own time, when Colin Powell and Barack Obama have finally followed in his footsteps.

A. I think the answers go back to the Revolution—to its fundamental rejection of racial and religious categories, which has characterized the French republic ever since. But maybe more important, they go back to the forgotten road of racial emancipation and modernization that France alone took in the eighteenth century before reversing direction under Napoleon. In the course of my research, I discovered an entire forgotten civil rights movement under the King. And most of all—an entirely forgotten side of the revolutionary era that produced a kind of post-racial dawn in France that other countries would not see until our own times: Alex Dumas was the towering figure, but there were others—the head of the French senate was black, and Paris had the world's first racially integrated schools—a hundred and fifty years before Brown v. Board of Education!

I think his legacy was blotted out in part to hide the indignity of France's rapid retreat into racism and slavery—it was the betrayal of its own Revolution's greatest promise and accomplishment. With General Dumas in the picture, the full extent of France's fall would have been too painfully apparent.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 42 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 42 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 24, 2012

    The Power of Choice and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

    There is something profoundly important in Tom Reiss' The Black Count" that relates to how we define our personal stories and the stories of our collective consciousness. The Black Count details the life of Alex Dumas, father of Alexandre Dumas the author of the Count of Monte Cristo. Born to a titled white father and slave mother, Dumas was both sold into and bought out of slavery by his father. When Dumas joined the military, he eschewed the higher rank that was his birthright and entered as a common soldier, taking on his slave mother's name. He quickly earned his way up the ranks. What we can all learn from his experience is that he did not hold on to the wound of his slave experience: He allowed his personal history to define his values, but chose not to allow it to define him as a man. Reiss details the birth of race-based slavery as a relatively new phenomenon when viewed within the annals of all of human history, showing that it was based out of commercial expediency rather than racial superiority. He even gives mention to the fact that the chain of ownership began with black Africans, a fact almost always left out of the slavery discussion. I only mention this because this is a wound that needs closing. Is there racism? Most definitely. Should we stand up against it? Absolutely. But that does not mean people need to define themselves by it. Doing so creates a kind of self-imposed slavery, limiting what a person believes is possible for him/herself. With a good three quarters of black children in America living without a present father figure, Alex Dumas serves as a role model of what kind of person they can be and how powerful the concept of choice is in what they will believe about themselves.

    The other thing that Reiss does in The Black Count is to make intricate connections between historical fact and everyday life. There is a tendency these days to reduce complex situations into simplistic rhetoric. When terms like "collateral damage" replace the concept of human tragedy, campaigns are built on "don't you love America," and illegal war are begun over "bringing the evil-doers to justice," we desperately need a different way to understand the world we live in. Instead of interspersing dry historical fact within the Dumas story and expecting the reader to make his/her own connections, Reiss explains the context and consequences with the deftness of a great novelist. The result is that the reader sees the complexities of human history at every level and understands that life cannot be reduced to black and white, dichotomous thinking. Our society needs a paradigm shift into this more "wholistic" way of thinking, where we understand that all our choices have multiple, interconnected consequences. The Black Count is more than just history, it reflects a lesson back to us about our own personal stories and public dialogue.

    34 out of 40 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2012

    This needs to be widely read!!

    Wow. This is an amazing story about a man we SHOULD already know. I am so grateful that the author told this story so that Gen Dumas can be remembered. The story is very personally inspiring, but also a tale of revolution gone bad. If you like Mccullough or Ambrose and their style of vivid historical storytelling, then you will like this book.

    12 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 9, 2012

    Very Detailed History

    Much like "The Orientalist, Tom Reiss was able to deliver an interesting, detailed and ultimately surprising story about a character in history that I'm ashamed to admit didn't even know was a true historical character. Also much like "The Orientalist", there is a lot of history provided for the reader to get through. I admit, there were a few times that I felt my eyes glazing over, where I had to re-read a passage that my mind wanted to skip over, but it definitely was worth it. I can appreciate the amount of time, dedication, travel and research that went into the reconstruction of General Dumas' life. It clearly was a labor of love for Mr. Reiss, and it turned out beautifully. I learned a lot throughout the story of the two Dumas men, and I am thankful for that. But part of me also wonders if maybe a bit of the history could have been condensed - or left out completely - to make the story flow a little better. I did feel it got bogged down at times, especially when the story branched out from Dumas to the plight of a certain country. Yes, the history was important, but was it so important that it required so much detail? The best pieces of this story, for me, were the quotes (from letters and other writings) of both Dumas men, as well as Mr. Reiss' personal asides about his journey to piece this all together. I loved how much the son adored the father, and loved seeing how the father doted on the son. I appreciated Mr. Reiss pointing out the parallels between General Dumas' life and some of Alexandre Dumas' characters (for the slow ones like me). Before this book, my knowledge and interest in Napoleon were passing, at best. I know what I remember from school and what I've learned from various History Channel shows, but never really stopped to think about the person and/or ruler he was. After this book, though, my interest is piqued. The interactions between Napoleon and Dumas, as described in this book, add a whole new layer to the term "Napoleon Complex" in my mind.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2013

    Solid, slightly sensationalized

    This is a fairly well written book. The subject as largely unknown and the author clearly conducted as much research as was possible. I would have to surmise that the theme is the influence of Dumas, the general on Dumas, the author. Fans of the novelist will likely enjoy this read. I am more of a history fan, so I felt shorted at times. I would liked to have gotten more information about the battles. But overall this was a satisfying purchase.

    4 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 9, 2013

    I hate FINISHING Biographies. It's a moment of depression. The l

    I hate FINISHING Biographies. It's a moment of depression.
    The life of General Dumas is fascinating, exciting, and tragic. A life not to be missed. Tom Reiss does a wonderful job of expressing this man's life and the world he lived in while frequently making subtle reminders to the reader that he's working off of actual documents, reinforcing the author's credibility. Very skillful rendering of a fascinating life...
    .. just, as always with biographies of historical figures, don't hold your breath for a happy flowery ending.
    Thank you Mr. Reiss.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2013

    I bought this after hearing an author's interview on Fresh Air,

    I bought this after hearing an author's interview on Fresh Air, which has provided many good reads. I am not a bio buff, but I really enjoyed this book. The subject was indeed heroic and overcame odds that would be considered impossible today. This book had a good review of the first western nation to establish abolition of slavery. It has also given me a broader view of the French revolution than I previously had. If you are interested in war history, Europe post enlightenment, France, and it's revolution, colonialism, Napoleon, or any of the Dumas family I recommend you read this one.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 13, 2013

    I loved this book. The writing style was something different fro

    I loved this book. The writing style was something different from other authors of biographies I have read, but I really enjoyed it. It felt as if the author was sitting in my living room telling me this great story.
    If you are expecting to read detail after detail of Dumas's life, you won't get it. The author gives you the "big picture", the moment in history when this great General lived, then he places him in that moment so you can really understand what his life, his thought were. We finished the book really knowing this man and also understanding his background and the years he lived in.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 19, 2013

    This well written book provides a well written connection betwee

    This well written book provides a well written connection between the novels read in literature classes and the history that shaped them (which tends to only be read about in history classes).

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2013



    3 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 18, 2013

    Eye opening

    It reminded me tht no matter how much we think we know of the past we'll never really know the full story about these peoples lives.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2013

    Highly Recommend

    Excellent biography about an important but forgotten general.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2013

    Very interesting and educational at the same time!

    I am about halfway thru the book. I find it very interesting and educational and easy to read; It is not a textbook, but it is written in a modern way like a story. If you like history and this starts in the mid-1700's and later, it covers French history as well as touching on North America and the Caribbean during that period. Great for European history buffs!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2013

    Extremely well done. Reiss has performed remarkable research an

    Extremely well done. Reiss has performed remarkable research and brings Dumas to life. I really enjoy such a book that reveals a little known but important historical character.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 30, 2013

    A definite good read!

    One would be amazed at the writings surrounding the three Dumas and their parts played in history. I didn't know that Alexandre Dumas was such a brave and gallant count and how he rose to the ranks and how the rest of his life progressed. Napoleon played a big part in this book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2013

    Not what I expected.

    Not what I expected. Tedious. Cover photo led me to believe it would be an action novel. Didn't finish. Put it on the shelf.

    1 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2015

    Compelling Read!

    Really well done biography of a forgotten and ignored hero. Reiss does a thoughtful job of detailing the turmoil of the revolutionary period in France, the devotion of a gifted son to a father who died too soon, and the machinations of economic forces in re-instituting racism and slavery in France. Should be required reading for students of French history and Black History, as well as those who blindly idolize Napoleon.

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  • Posted March 20, 2015

    fascinating look at history from a forgotten point of view

    started a little slow but well worth it. I totally enjoyed the very well documented story of the father of
    alexander Dumas, Alex Dumas. I certainly hope he gains his rightful place in history. a remarkable story of a remarkable man

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 25, 2015

    A fascinating book.

    I loved this exploration of the life of author Alexandre Dumas's father. It is a brilliant look at a time and world that interests me. It's not a novel but if you've enjoyed The Three Musketeers and stories about the Napoleonic era you'll like this.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2014


    The story of Alexander Dumas's father. Beautifully and sensitively written. Loved it.

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  • Posted October 25, 2013

    Recommend to French History buffs and others

    The biography of Alexander Dumas, pere (which means "the father.") Extraordinary depiction of the author's father, a black Count with royal lineage and title born of a black slave in what is now Haiti. The book chronicles his very successful military career in France, his disdain and mistreatment by Napoleon, and his life as a Black person during the time of the French Revolution. For French history buffs, this is a must read. Well documented from archives, letters found during the author's research. BTW- Alexander Dumas, pere is the Count of Monte Cristo. Enjoy!

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