Thomas Alexandre Dumas was born on the 25th of March, 1762, to a white father and his black slave consort in Jeremie in Saint-Domingue (modern Haiti). He would be raised by his father Alexandre Antoine Davy De La Pailleterie, a French nobleman who went to Saint-Domingue to seek his fortune after being cut off from his father’s fortune until he would inherit it at his father’s death.
When Thomas-Alexandre was 14 (or 13 according to some sources) his grandfather died and his father sold him for 800 livres in order to secure enough money to get back to France to claim his inheritance. This was very complex affair, as he was officially sold to a Lieutenant Jaques-Louis Roussel, however in reality he was sold to a certain Captain Langlois with a right of redemption, so that the boy could be legally purchased back and freed in metropolitan France, which had outlawed slavery in 1315 (although serfdom was still accepted). His mother, brother and sister had been sold to the Baron of Nantes and remained enslaved.
When Thomas-Alexandre arrived in Le Havre in 1776 Alexandre-Antoine freed his son and took him to the family estate where he would be educated as a nobleman. He went on to attend the academy of Nicolas Texier de la boessiere, where he learnt mathematics, sciences, literature, philosophy and of course swordsmanship; which he was personally taught by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, another mixed-race man from the Caribbean who also happened to be the most famous fencing instructor in all of France. From the age of 15 to 22 Thomas-Alexandre lived a life of leisure. His father spent lavishly on him and he had the best money could buy. He was the talk of Paris high society and was part of an incident involving a French naval officer, a beautiful creole woman and a tirade of verbal abuse and racist remarks. Everyone involved was arrested and the captain later dropped the charges of physical assault made upon his person.
In 1786 Alexandre Antoine remarried and tightened his son’s allowance and thus Thomas Alexandre decided to join the army. However, a new law brought into the army stated that all officers must be of noble birth and be able to prove this going back at least 4 generations. Thomas-Alexandre could do this, but French race laws made it very difficult for mixed-race nobles to claim their rights and titles. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas joined the Queen’s Dragoons as a private, and his father made him renounce his family name so as to not drag it around the lower ranks. Thomas-Alexandre took his mother’s maiden name and became known as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas.
Dumas spent his first years with the Dragoons in Laon, Picardy until the15th of August 1789 when his unit was posted Villier-Cotterets, where he stayed Hotel de L’ecu and became engaged to the hotel owner’s daughter; Marie-Louise Labouret.
On July the 17th 1791, Dumas’ unit were serving as riot police under the command of the Marquis de LaFayette in the champs de mars massacre, where between 17-50 people died when a large crowd demanded that the king be removed. A year later, during the revolutionary war, Dumas had his first taste of combat against the Austrian army where in one engagement he captured 12 Austrian soldiers while leading a party of eight. That same year a new unit had been formed and Dumas accepted a commission as a lieutenant-colonel in the Legion franche des americains est du midi or La legion Noire, an all-black unit led by the Chevalier de Saint-Georges. They defended the city of Lile against a coup led by general Dumouriez. In the summer of 1793, the legion was disbanded due to a misuse of government funds by Saint-Georges.
Dumas was promoted twice in 1793 and by December he was commander in chief of the army of the alps where he fought at the little Bernard pass and mount Cenis where he gained an incredible victory against the Austrian and piedmont forces and took between 900-1700 prisoners. However, the ironically named ‘Committee of Public Safety’ accused Dumas of treason and had him arrested. Whilst Dumas was awaiting trial, Robespierra was overthrown and sentenced to the guillotine, and all charges against Dumas were dropped, leading to his release. He was then reassigned, first to a military academy and then as the commander of the army of the west in Vendee which had descended into a brutal slaughter of the local population. Dumas fought against this, ordering his men to follow strict military discipline and punishing those who abused the locals.
In 1795 Dumas was reassigned to the army of the Rhine where he served under Kleber, and was wounded during the assault on Düsseldorf. After this engagement he was sent home to recuperate before being reassigned to the army of Italy under the command of the up-and-coming young general Napoleon Bonaparte. The tension between these two soldiers started immediately as Napoleon let his men forage and steal food from the local population in order to keep his army mobile and fast, which Dumas disapproved of. Because of the “tensions” between the two generals Napoleon was placed in charge and Dumas was given commands reserved for those well beneath his rank, despite a petition against this by the men under his command and favourable reports about him being sent to the directory by general Massena who was in command of Dumas’ subdivision.
Dumas’ unit successfully besieged the city of Mantua and repelled counter attacks, taking the city on the 16th of January. General Berthier, Napoleons aid de camps, spoke of Dumas unfavourably in his reports and Dumas was later omitted from any of the after-action reports from his commander in chief and Berthier.
In February of 1796 Dumas earned a reputation with the Austrians as “der schwarze teufel” or “the black devil”. These terms were used by the republic’s propaganda services to display their new equal society to the rest of Europe. Dumas was transferred to the command of Joubert won many small victories, earning the respect of his new commander. Again, he drove the Austrians back over a bridge on the Eisack River in Clausen, after which his men started calling him the Horatius Cocles of the tyrol after the ancient roman hero. Napoleon also complimented him by that name, making Dumas his cavalry commander and presenting him with a pair of pistols. Dumas spent the rest of 1797 as a military governor in Trevisio province.
In 1798 Dumas received new orders for an unspecified mission. He had to report to Toulon where a large force was being assembled, with their secret objective being to conquer Egypt, cutting Britain off from India so that Britain would sue for peace. The initial mission went well, seizing and conquering Malta in order to create a supply base for the invasion force. During the assault Alexandre Dumas’ men were the first over the wall and this is where the tensions started again between Dumas and his commander, as the locals believed that due to his size and stature compared to Napoleon Dumas was in fact the French commander, injuring Napoleon’s pride.
Dumas, along with many other generals, criticized Napoleon’s leadership during the expedition, and after the battle of the pyramids Napoleon confronted his men about the “mutiny”, threatening to have Dumas shot for sedition. Dumas requested leave to return to France, but alas the French fleet had been sunk by the British Royal navy at the battle of the Nile and no-one was going home any time soon.
Dumas helped to crush a riot in Cairo where he stormed the Mosque on horseback and Napoleon claimed he would have a painting done with Dumas at the centre. 11 years later, when a similar portrait was finally painted, it simply featured a non-identified white guy on a horse.
Eventually Dumas decided he had enough of Napoleon and was granted leave to go home with some other generals and 40 wounded French troops. On the way home the ship almost sank in a storm, and landed in Taranto in the kingdom of Naples. The soldiers were imprisoned by the holy faith army which was a counter revolutionary force that had just recovered Naples from a short-lived republic which overthrew it’s monarchy. It was expected that the French would ransom Dumas in exchange for either captives or gold. Unfortunately for Dumas, his now-nemesis Napoleon had also returned from Egypt and in a coup took power as first consul of France in a triumvirate which he later overthrew. Despite Dumas’ wife petitioning the new government to find and free her husband, who had sacrificed so much for France, Napoleon would not allow it.
It’s safe to say that Dumas, upon hearing that he had been abandoned, probably plotted his revenge on those who betrayed him, but the once-proud warrior was now deteriorating fast in his cell. By the time he was released in 1801 when General Joachim Murat went to deal with Naples on behalf of Napoleon, Dumas was blind in one eye and partially paralysed. He claimed he had been fed small doses of poison whilst in captivity (this was never proved but he was very harshly treated and kept in deplorable conditions).
Dumas was sent back home to his wife but Napoleon refused to give him his due payments for his service in Egypt, or his back pay from the time while incarcerated, also refusing him any commission in the French army. To make matters worse, Napoleon had reintroduced slavery in Haiti and the rest of the French empire as a means to fund his war machine. New race laws were introduced forbidding mixed marriages in France and taking away all the rights of non-whites within the French empire. This resulted in Dumas losing his rightful military pension.
Thomas Alexandre Dumas died on the 26th of February 1806 as a result of stomach cancer (which lends credence to his claims of being poisoning during his incarceration). He was survived by his wife, daughter and his 3 ½ year old son Alexandre. The family was now so poor that the children never received a secondary education but Alexandre had something no one could take away from him – a vivid imagination and endless war stories about his father. These gifts led to the creation of some of the greatest works of fiction ever written – The Three Musketeers, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Count of Monte Cristo, to name a few.Dumas’ grandson was also a famous French author (Alexandre Dumas fils) and his great-great grandson was the famous athlete Alexander Lippmann who won two Olympic gold medals, plus a silver medal in fencing.
And Napoleon…well, how do I put this? He became emperor of France, declared war on all of Europe on multiple occasions, won most of these wars, eventually lost most of his army to the Russian winter, got deposed and was exiled to Elba where the allied forces called him emperor of Elba (they must have been in stitches thinking of that one). He escaped and retook France and then had war declared against him, lost that war, was exiled to Saint Helena and kept there by 2000 British troops and eventually died of stomach cancer in 1821.