For over half a decade I’ve heard great things about Tom Reiss’s 2012 book The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo. Robert, a former co-worker of mine raved about it. One of my favorite bloggers, Kim from Sophisticated Dorkiness also had great things to say about it calling it “a great example of the sort of exciting and readable nonfiction that I love and try to recommend.” Another of my favorite bloggers, Jean from Howling Frog Books absolutely loved it calling The Black Count “a great read”, proclaiming “if you haven’t read it, put it on your list; you won’t be sorry.” Evidently, Robert, Kim and Jean weren’t the only ones who enjoyed The Black Count because it won of tons of praise, winning both the Pulitzer and the PEN awards for best biography. Knowing much of the book recalls life in France during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods and needing something to representing France for Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge I secured a digital edition through my library’s Overdrive portal. Just like all the other highly praised books that took me years to finally get around to reading I happily burned through it, only to curse myself for not reading it sooner.
It’s common knowledge Alexandre Dumas is the celebrated author of time-honored classics The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Unless you’ve read The Black Count, you’re probably unaware his father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was the black son of a renegade minor nobleman and his Haitian slave girl. If you thought that was crazy, it only gets more incredible. Once Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’s father decided to leave Haiti and return to France, he sold his son into slavery to pay his passage. After arriving in France and settling his estate he purchased his son’s freedom and brought him to France where he was raised as a young French nobleman. Thomas-Alexandre received a education befitting a young man of his station, grew into a talented swordsman and embraced the life of an aristocrat.
After his father squandered the family fortune on his new wife, at the age of 24 Thomas-Alexandre enlisted in the army. This proved to be a wise decision because the young Thomas-Alexandre moved up the ranks with lightening speed thanks to his intelligence, bravery and swordsmanship. (Luckily for Thomas-Alexandre the revolutionary regime he served for all its shortcomings and excesses embraced a surprisingly high degree of racial egalitarianism.) He eventually rose to the rank of General, the highest of any black serving in a white army until the promotion of American General Colin Powell.
As we’ve seen time and time again throughout history, the wrath of a tyrant can derail even the most promising of careers. After challenging Napoleon over his decision to invade Egypt, he found himself a marked man in the eyes of the future French Emporer. Things then went from bad to worse. While en route back to France Thomas-Alexandre’s leaky ship had to make an emergency pit stop on the Italian coast and the hapless General and his shipmates were thrown in prison by the ruling locals. After surving two years of hellish imprisonment and nearly being poisoned to death he was released. (Years later, his son Alexander would find inspiration in his father’s wrongful imprisonment for his classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo.) With Napoleon on the throne France returned to its racist ways. Thomas-Alexandre’s services were no longer welcome and he died in his early 40s, his life cut short as a result of the cruelty he suffered at the hands of his Italian jailers.
The Black Count is a smart, swashbuckling romp through history. To those readers who yearn for a great piece of nonfiction that reads like fiction look no further than The Black Count.