Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was a French Revolutionary War general of mixed-race ancestry born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (today Haiti) who was the highest-ranking black leader in a modern white society until recent times. He was born March 25, 1762 in the town of Jérémie, to Alexandre-Antonie Davy de la Pailleterie (known as Antoine), a French aristocrat, and Marie-Césette-Dumas, a black slave owned by Antoine. Antoine's brother Charles was a rich sugar plantation owner who lived on the north coast of the island in the area of Monte Cristo. His father and Charles clashed often, and in 1748 Antoine left Monte Cristo, never to see his brother again until Charles’ death in 1773. He established a small cacao plantation with his slave and concubine Marie-Cessette. It was at this plantation in Jérémie where Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was born in 1762. French colonial law meant that Dumas inherited his mother’s status as a slave.
When Charles died in 1773, his father Antoine left Haiti for France to try to claim his inheritance. Antoine was not well off, and sold Marie-Cessette, Dumas’ mother, alongside her two daughters to pay for his passage to France. Dumas, his favorite, was only pawned. After Antoine successfully obtained Charles’ estate, Antoine sent for Thomas-Alexandre. He arrived in France in 1776 at the age of sixteen. He lived in Paris with his father, a marquis, where he was part of high society and educated as a nobleman. His relationship soured with his father after Antoine married his housekeeper and lowered his son’s allowance.
In 1786, Thomas-Alexandre decided to join the French military. Because he was mixed-race, he was unable to join as an officer so he entered at the lowest rank. His father, ashamed that his noble son was serving at a level beneath him, forbid him from using his family name. From that point forward, he was known as Alexandre Dumas, taking his mother’s last name.
When the French Revolution began in 1789, Dumas’ military career became much more successful. It was also during this period where he met his wife, Marie-Louis Labouret, while his regiment was based at Villers-Cotterêts, northeast of Paris. As a member of the revolutionary Army of the North, he was quickly promoted to corporal, and by 1793 had been promoted to first brigadier general, and later general of division (the equivalent of a U.S. four-star general). During the French Revolution, Dumas earned great praise for his actions. He saved many lives at the Champ de Mars Massacre in 1791, and captured a large German-Austrian enemy patrol that was marching on Paris in 1792 without firing a shot. His rise through the military was facilitated by the departure of much of the aristocratic officer corps during the Revolution. Dumas became the highest-ranking black leader in a modern white society for almost two centuries.
During the Revolutionary period, Dumas served as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Pyrenees in 1793, the Army of the Alps in 1793-4, and the Army of the West in the Vendée in 1794. While the head of the Army of the Alps, he commanded 53,000 white troops who captured the western Alps. Dumas also provided key intelligence in the 1796 siege of Mantua, but Napoleon omitted his role from official reports, and lowered Dumas’ command in anger. Dumas gained back Napoleon’s trust after defeating an Austrian squadron with a small unit of men in northern Italy, and Dumas was then appointed to govern the conquered province of Trévisan in northern Italy.
Dumas even became commander-in-chief of calvary when Napoleonic forces invaded Egypt, helping to stamp out the revolt of Cairo in 1798. During a desert march, Dumas criticized Napoleon’s leadership, and after a dispute, Dumas requested to return to France. On his way back to France, his ship began to sink, and he sought safe harbor in the Italian city of Taranto. In Taranto, Dumas was taken prisoner and held for two years in an enemy prison of the Holy Faith Army.
After Napoleon returned to France and seized power, he continued his conquests and defeated the army of King Ferdinand IV of Naples and Sicily, securing Dumas’ release. However, the relative freedom for people of color during the early Revolutionary period soon led to Dumas’ downfall. Napoleon particularly targeted Dumas given their history, denying him of his full pension and refusing his admission into the French Legion of Honor. He even had Dumas replaced by a blonde, white man in a painting of the French capture of Cairo’s Great Mosque. The events of these years weighed heavily on Dumas who died at the age of 43 on February 26, 1806 in Villers-Cotterêts as a result of stomach cancer.
Dumas’ name and story strike many as familiar today, as a result of his much more famous son, the writer Alexandre Dumas. Alexandre’s famous novel The Count of Monte Cristo was inspired by his father’s life and travels, and he featured his father in his novella Blanche de Beaulieu.
For almost two centuries, Alexandre Dumas’ role in Revolutionary France was underplayed and relatively forgotten, primarily due to racism. In recent years, however, his trailblazing role in the French military has returned to the public eye. In 2002, Dumas was interred in the Panthéon, a mausoleum in Paris for great French men. In the nineteenth century, the writer Alexandre Dumas attempted to get a statue built of his father, which eventually neared completion around the outbreak of World War I. After the war, the statue was forgotten, only to be destroyed during World War II by occupying Nazi forces as “offensive.” In 2009 a monument to Dumas was unveiled in Paris. The monument is a set of shackles, one open and the other closed, to represent Dumas’ slave origins and his eventual freedom. The monument also refers to all victims of French enslavement.
Daniel Brown, “France's first black general once fought a cavalry squadron by himself — and emerged unscathed,” Business Insider, March 13, 2018:
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Who Was Napoleon’s ‘Black Devil,” The Root:
Mimi Geerges Show interview of Tom Reiss, author of Dumas’ biography, The Black Count:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vQmwvvMMsbQBritish Library gallery of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas:
NPR Weekend Edition, “'The Black Count,' A Hero On The Field, And The Page,” discussion of The Black Count, September 15, 2012:
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Martone, Eric. "'A French Precursor of Obama': The Commemoration of General Alexandre Dumas and French Reconciliation with the Past." in The Black Musketeer: Reevaluating Alexandre Dumas within the Francophone World. edited by Eric Martone, pp. 207–47. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2011.
Martone, Eric, and Tom Reiss. "Dumas, Thomas-Alexandre." Oxford African American Studies Center. May 31, 2017. Oxford University Press. Date of access 7 Oct. 2020, https://oxfordaasc.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195301731.001.0001/acref-9780195301731-e-73842
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Reiss, Tom. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. London: Vintage Books, 2013.
David Glovsky and Elizabeth Timbs
Hutchins Center for African & African American Research, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Oxford University Press (USA) African American Studies Center.