The Black Count by Tom Reiss

Here is the remarkable true story of the real Count of Monte Cristo – a stunning feat of historical sleuthing that brings to life the forgotten hero who inspired such classics as  The Count of Monte Cristo  and  The Three Musketeers.

The real-life protagonist of The Black Count, General Alex Dumas, is a man almost unknown today yet with a story that is strikingly familiar, because his son, the novelist Alexandre Dumas, used it to create some of the best loved heroes of literature.

Yet, hidden behind these swashbuckling adventures was an even more incredible secret: the real hero was the son of a black slave — who rose higher in the white world than any man of his race would before our own time.  Born in Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Alex Dumas was briefly sold into bondage but made his way to Paris where he was schooled as a sword-fighting member of the French aristocracy. Enlisting as a private, he rose to command armies at the height of the Revolution in an audacious campaign across Europe and the Middle East – until he met an implacable enemy he could not defeat.

The Black Count is simultaneously a riveting adventure story, a lushly textured evocation of 18th-century France, and a window into the modern world’s first multi-racial society. But it is also a heartbreaking story of the enduring bonds of love between a father and son.

Summary from Goodreads


I wanted to start reading at least one non-fiction book a month. I am so glad I chose to start reading about General Alex Dumas, father of the writer Alexandre Dumas. I never thought I would see anyone who fought under Napoleon as a hero, but Alex Dumas is certainly now one of my historical heroes.

Tom Reiss builds a portrait of General Dumas’ life through letters, encyclopedia entries (from the period), eye-witness accounts written from third parties, and the memories of Alexandre Dumas, who listened to many of his father’s stories at his knee before he passed when Alexandre was only four.

It may seem odd for someone so young to remember as much as he did (and certainly much of his memory is embellished by fondness) but having gained my own picture of Alex Dumas from both Tom Reiss and Alexandre, his son, I don’t find it hard to imagine that this man would be easy to remember.

Apart from the facts known about General Dumas’ life, Reiss also paints a portrait of France, the French military, and its society during the French Revolutionary period and just before Napoleon declares himself Emperor, once and for all crushing the hopes of the people for true liberty and equality.

The Black Count is not only an account of a Saint Dominguan-born (Haitian) French soldier, but of a black man in Revolutionary France. Tom Reiss builds a narrative of war, betrayal, black history, politics, friendship, and the heights that a love of country and honor could bring a man.

I was astonished, and heartbroken, over the accomplishments that were achieved, and the dreams that were crushed when the French Republic ended. Though the French Revolution started with terror, Alex Dumas’ life story shows that, if Napoleon had not entered the picture, perhaps the Republic France had dreamed of would have brought an end to slavery quicker than it did. And Alex Dumas would have gotten the honor and reward he had earned. Perhaps, Alexandre Dumas would have never been inspired to write the tale of Edmond Dantés in The Count of Monte Cristo, but that is a loss I would have gladly endured, for like much of history, and much like the character he inspired, Alex Dumas ended his life betrayed by those who should have stayed loyal to him.

The personal vendetta I now have against Napoleon aside, The Black Count is also one of the most engaging non-fiction I have read. While still able to impart historical facts, Reiss narrates the General’s life with verve, wit, and passion. Enough passion, in fact, to extend to the reader (i.e., me) and ignite a passion for the hero of the book of their own.

I highly recommend The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss. Let me know in the comments if you have read it (or intend to) and what you think!

*Originally posted on previous blog on June 20, 2019

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