Friday, July 26, 2013

The Garden of History

"The Black Count" by Tom Reiss is the best and most intriguing piece of history writing I've read in a long while, in part because it told me so much about the events of the decade of Revolutionary France following the Declaration of the Rights of Mankind in 1789. This is a stunning book told with perceptiveness, a feeling for the times, occasional humor, and deft use of original sources. It also restores to his rightful place a figure with a singular biography and a central role in the revolutionary period who seems to have been forgotten by almost everybody.
Reiss's account of a general whose battlefield heroism led to major French Republican triumphs, in particular the liberation of Italy from its Austrian rulers and its monarchial and feudal past, falls into the truth is stranger than fiction category. Even today, when Hollywood gives us an ex-slave gun-slinging his family to freedom over degenerate white Americans, audiences would likely dismiss as too improbable the story of a dark-skinned Haitian boy of mixed black and white parentage, sold into slavery by his disgraced aristocratic father, rising to prominence in 18th century Europe. The boy's father later redeemed him -- Reiss found the pawn ticket in the course of his almost baroquely persistent research -- brought him back to France and put him in the finest fencing school in Paris where he soon becomes the country's finest swordsman at a time when the sabre was still an important battlefield weapon. His mother and siblings are left behind, however, in the French colony known then as Saint-Domingue, where African slaves were worked to death to produce a commodity, sugar, that powered a nation's economy the way fossil fuels do in our day.
The son is Alex Dumas, none other than the father of the writer Alexandre Dumas, the author of perhaps the world's most popular swashbuckling tales,"The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers." As Reiss's books shows in convincing detail -- he found both father and son's journals and other writings -- the black man who was the author's father and a legitimate hero of the Revolution is the model for the heroism, and suffering, of the "Count of Monte Cristo" and of the high style of the heroics of the "Musketeers."
Alex Dumas, even more engagingly for a world still trying to get over racial divisions, was a perfect embodiment of the idealism of revolution based on "liberte, fraternite, and egalite." For a brief period -- nearly a hundred years ahead of its time -- French law explicitly extended "egalite" to people of color while eliminating the privileges of birth. No one believed in and personified these ideals more strongly than Dumas.
A common soldier before the revolution (when only aristocrats able to buy their commissions became officers), Dumas rose quickly as the Revolution offered opportunity for merit no matter who possessed it. As the author points out, France's revolutionary government was also passing laws banning slavery in its colonies in addition to guaranteeing people of color what we now call civil rights. (None of these advances, unhappily, would survive the Napoleonic period.)
On the field of battle at the head of troops or picked swords, large cavalry units and sometimes whole armies, Dumas engineered and led the breakthrough victory in the Alps that opened northern Italy to French Republican armies. He then led the cavalry charges that turned near disaster into victory in a string of battles that drove the Austrians out of Italy -- including the crucial siege of Mantua -- and opened the entire peninsula to a campaign that overthrew duchies and kingdoms left and right in favor of new republican governments.
As a French commanding general reported, Dumas "performs fantastic charges, capturing two thousand prisoners here, one thousand there." And as he drove them back to their own borders, the Austrians came up with a name for this relentless French battlefield scourge, "the Black Devil."
An angel in his personal life as well as a revolutionary idealist, Dumas's career ran afoul of Napoleon's jealousy of his success. When at the end of Napoleon's hubristic Egyptian campaign, Dumas's ship ran aground on the coast of Sicily and he was imprisoned by a hostile regime, the now dictatorial French government allowed him to rot in prison as his health deteriorated. After his eventual release the now emperor Napoleon disappeared him from the French military and civil establishment, denying him back pay and his widow a pension after his early death, probably from the poisoning and obscene medical treatments he suffered during his imprisonment.
The neglect of an iconic Revolutionary figure persists even today in France, as the author points out. Part of the pleasure of the "Black Count" is the story behind the author's discovery of so many original documents in a long-past-its-peak French town with more bureaucrats than brains. But I'll stop here and leave that pleasure, along with so many others, for other readers of "The Black Count" to discover for themselves.