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Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

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.

Creator

Glovsky, David

Editor

Timbs, Elizabeth

Online Resources

Daniel Brown, “France's first black general once fought a cavalry squadron by himself — and emerged unscathed,” Business Insider, March 13, 2018: 
http://www.businessinsider.com/thomas-alexandre-dumas-france-first-black-general-napoleon-bonaparte-2018-3

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Who Was Napoleon’s ‘Black Devil,” The Root:
https://www.theroot.com/who-was-napoleons-black-devil-1790898131

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:
http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/features/blackeuro/dumasfather.html

NPR Weekend Edition, “'The Black Count,' A Hero On The Field, And The Page,” discussion of The Black Count, September 15, 2012:
https://www.npr.org/2012/09/15/160969342/the-black-count-a-hero-on-the-field-and-the-page

Bibliography

Alexandre Dumas. My Memoirs. translated by E.M. Waller New York: Macmillan, 1907-09.


André Maurois. The Titans: A Three-Generation Biography of the Dumas. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1957.


Eric Martone. “‘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.

John G. Gallaher. General Alexandre Dumas: Soldier of the French Revolution. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1997.

​Martone, Eric and Tom Reiss. "Dumas, Thomas-Alexandre." Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography , edited by Ed. Franklin W. Knight. , edited by , Henry Louis Gates Jr.. Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com/article/opr/t456/e690 (accessed Thu Sep 05 09:12:46 EDT 2019).

​Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars, 2011.Tom Reiss. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. London: Vintage Books, 2013.

“General Alexandre Dumas,” painting by Olivier Pichat (after Dumas’ life).

Key Events

March 25, 1762

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas born in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue. His father was a French aristocrat, and his mother a black slave.

1773

Thomas-Alexandre’s uncle, Charles, dies. Charles was a rich sugar plantation owner who had an estranged relationship with his brother, Thomas-Alexandre’s father Antoine. After Charles’ death, Antoine travels to France to claim his inheritance. In order to gain enough money for his voyage, he sells Thomas-Alexandre’s mother, Marie-Cessette Dumas, along with his sisters. Thomas-Alexandre is pawned.

1776

After receiving his uncle’s estate, Antoine sends for Thomas-Alexandre, who arrives in France

1786

Thomas-Alexandre joins the French military. Due to his mixed-race ancestry, he is not allowed to enlist as an officer. His father, ashamed at his low rank, forbids him from using his last name (da la Pailleterie). From this point on, Thomas-Alexandre would be known as Alexandre Dumas, taking his mother’s last name.

1789

The French Revolution begins, and Dumas’ career begins to take off.

July 17, 1791

Dumas saves many lives at the Champ de Mars Massacre.

1792

Dumas captures a large German-Austrian enemy patrol marching on Paris. He accomplishes this without firing a single shot.

November 28, 1792

Dumas marries Marie-Louis Élisabeth Labouret. Together, they have three children: Marie-Alexandrine (born 1794), Louis-Alexandrine (born 1796), and their most well-known child, the writer Alexandre Dumas (born 1802).

1793

Dumas serves as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Western Pyrenees.

1793-4

Dumas serves as commander-in-chief of the Army of the Alps.

1794

Dumas serves as commander-in-chief of the Army of the West in the Vendée.

1796

Dumas provides key intelligence in the Siege of Mantua.

1798

Dumas becomes commander-in-chief of cavalry in the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt, and helps to stamp out the revolt of Cairo.

1799

The Belle Maltaise ship holding Dumas and his companions begins to sink, and facing bad weather, they land in Taranto, in the Kingdom of Naples.

1799-1801

Dumas is imprisoned by the Holy Faith Army in Taranto. During his captivity, his physical condition deteriorates rapidly.

March 1801

After Napoleon’s forces defeat King Ferdinand IV’s army, Dumas is released from prison and returns to France.

February 26, 1806

Dumas dies of stomach cancer at the age of 43 in Villers-Cotterêts, France.

1844-45

Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo (Le Comte de Monte-Cristo) is released. The novel is based in large part on the life of Alexandre’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.

1913

A statue of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas is inaugurated in Place Malesherbes (today Place du Général Catroux, alongside previously existing statues of his son and grandson (the writers Alexandre Dumas père and Alexandre Dumas fils). The statue was destroyed by the German military during World War II.

2009

A new sculpture is erected in Place du Général Catroux in honor of Dumas, to replace the statue destroyed by the Germans during World War II.