A French General with a difference

The Black Count by Tom Reiss (which I listened to on audio narrated by Paul Michael) is a biography of Alexandre Dumas – not the novelist, but his father who was a soldier in the French army. It is a quite extraordinary story and the author also informs the reader about the political situation of France at the time of his life which helps us to understand the context in which he lived and fought.

Dumas was born in what is now Haiti. He was the child of an indolent French Count and an enslaved black woman. When his father left the island to return to France he brought this son with him although he abandoned other children. Alexandre Dumas was of a mixed race background and looked different from his peers but France at the time was relatively benign to people of other ethnicities so initially his life was not hard. Dumas joined the army and worked his way up until he became a General and he was able to marry a woman with a respectable background.

As the Revolution dawned Dumas thrived and became very successful but as the character of the leadership changed his life, like those of others with an aristocratic background, was in danger. He survived this threat but later became an enemy of Napoleon which created new issues. The equality which was very much part of the Revolution changed in the new Empire and his colour began to become a restricting factor again.

This book is clearly written with lots of social context to help you understand the treatment of people from an enslaved background at this time and how it changed with the politics of the day. I did get a bit bogged down in some of the details of the military campaigns but not enough to make me abandon the book and overall I found it fascinating.

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