The Black Count is a complex work of political and social history masquerading as a fantastic adventure story with real-life twists. It tells, among other things, about the life and achievements of Alexandre- Alex- Dumas, a black man from the colonies, the son of a French aristocrat and a slave woman. He narrowly survived the French Revolution and then fought along Bonaparte, rising to command nearly 50 000 men as general-in-chief of the Army of the Alps, roughly the equivalent of a four-star general, easily the highest-ranking person of color of all time in a continental European army.
However in the early 1800s, General Alex Dumas was purposefully disappeared by his enemies. It cost him a lot and, although he managed to return home, he ended his life as an impoverished cripple, shunned by former friends and comrades. Although his son, a future famous French writer, sought to make him live through his classic novels, for too long his story has remained silenced and forgotten. Mind you it is an astonishing story, far better than the fictional adventures of the Count of Monte Christo.
This book has three main characters: Alex Dumas, his papa Antoine, the French marquis, and his son, Alexandre Dumas le pere, the well-known French novelist. Out of these three I liked Antoine the best. He was like a character taken from the best contemporary novel. My impressions will be centered around him although the author strived to make his son, Alex, the real hero. Tough luck. I really wanted to write a proper review but I couldn’t. I blame Antoine, that rogue, who hijacked my imagination. If you are not interested in his story or you’d rather read about him without being spoiled, jump to the ‘final verdict’ section below and you’ll know my opinion about this book in a nutshell.
Now back to my favourite villain 🙂 . Antoine started as your perfect romance novel main lead. The eldest son, a descendant of an old but impoverished aristocratic family with a seat in Normandy, he knew he had to make his fortune anew or sit in a mouldy, ruined castle and watch his estate crumble to dust. The problem was that work wasn’t exactly his thing. Antoine joined the army. Army proved to be not exactly his thing either. It was his younger brother, Charles, who, accidentally, gave him hope and indicated the right direction.
Charles Davy de la Pailleterie had a very good luck to be sent as an army officer to Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti), at that time one of the richest French colonies, and then he left the military to become a respected sugar planter . He did it in the truly aristocratic fashion—by marrying into money. His union with Marie-Anne Tuffé, a young, rich widow, brought a half stake in a plantation near Cap Français, the colony’s busiest port, where sugarcane grew best. Then, after a while, he was so successful that he was able to buy the second stake from his mother-in-law. It seemed his future was rosy, with a firm promise of wealth and power; after all sugar planting was the preserve of the great French families. However a malicious turn of fate intervened: Charles and his young bride had been married only a few months before they were surprised by Charles’s older brother Antoine standing on their doorstep. Antoine told them he meant to stay temporarily. He would live with them for the next decade.
Charles worked long and hard to make his new business prosper; Antoine, however was cut from a different cloth. He preferred to avoid productive work altogether, intending to sponge of the industry of his younger brother. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that soon the Pailleterie brothers began to quarrel, sometimes violently. The diligent, pious Charles resented supporting his older brother, who led a layabout, dissolute life, kept serial slave mistresses and expected a steady income, no matter what. One day in 1748, the quarreling took a dangerous turn. It seems that poor Charles had had enough and decided to treat his older bro the way he treated his slaves – with whipping or torture or both. He was fully entitled to do so, as the owner of a plantation, even if he was dealing with a member of his family. The situation was certainly serious, perhaps even life-threatening because the night of the incident, Antoine, an ex-soldier so after all a man who could defend himself, fled Charles’s house, taking three slaves with him— his latest mistress among them—and disappeared into the forest. He would not be heard from again for nearly thirty years.
The peculiar situation scandalized Saint-Domingue society: the ne’er-do-well brother of a respected planter had fled into the jungle with three slaves, officially stealing the property of his brother, and disappeared without a trace. Perhaps he was killed. Perhaps he went to Jamaica, to hide his shame among the British. Perhaps he married a rich heiress and lived happily ever after somewhere else. A romance author would undoubtedly choose the latter option but real life had more interesting plans for Antoine.
He and the small party of fugitive slaves he’d taken along arrived in the highlands region called Grand Anse (‘Great Cove’) and settled in a small parish of Jérémie. Hiding from his family and the world, Antoine buried his old name and reinvented himself as a coffee and cocoa grower, Antoine de l’Isle’—‘Antoine of the Island.” From now on every romance cliché was being broken by my lovely anti-hero. Antoine didn’t make a fortune, although he could have done that without problems as coffee prices were rising; instead he kept bad company, his favourite kind of company it seems, and bought himself a new mistress for an exorbitant price. Her name was Marie Cessette. On March 25, 1762, she bore Antoine a son they named Thomas-Alexandre. Despite the claims of Antoine’s grandson Alexandre Dumas, there is no evidence that Antoine and Marie Cessette were ever officially married. He was a real rogue – when Marie got older and uglier Antoine, hearing that his father and brother had died, decided to return to France. He gathered the necessary funds by selling Marie and her three children (all girls); as it wasn’t enough he also kind of ‘pawned’ his eldest and favourite son for 800 French livres in Port-au-Prince, officially to a Lieutenant Jacques-Louis Roussel (but unofficially to a Captain Langlois). This sale (with right of redemption) provided both a legal way to have Alexandre taken to France with Langlois and a temporary loan to pay for his father’s passage. The boy accompanied Captain Langlois to Le Havre, France, arriving on August 30, 1776, where his father bought him back and freed him.
It is obviously not the end of the story. What happened next? You’ll have to find out on your own.
A great historical book narrated in a compelling voice – if you are interested in history of the French Revolution, Napoleonic wars (especially his expedition to Egypt) and Haiti it is a position you shouldn’t miss out. Also if you like reading about people of colour who played an important historical role it presents one great hero (although, I have to say, not as colourful as his dearest papa).