The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo - Tom Reiss

I'd been meaning to read this book for a while, partly because of seeing it mentioned after watching the BBC series of The Musketeers (in which, for anyone who doesn't know the show, a Black actor plays the part of Porthos in recognition of Dumas' own ethnic origin - the central figure in this book is the author's father, General Dumas). Although I'd studied this period of history at school, many years ago, that had very much focussed on what was going on in France and I don't recall any mention of the events alongside the Revolution in its colonies.

 

What this book does well, I think, is talk about a period of time where briefly France was a place of massive contradictions - on the one hand, someone like General Dumas could succeed (for a time at least) regardless of where he came from, while on the other hand the country was allowing slavery to exist in some of its colonies and abolishing it in others. The rise of Napoleon to power made life even more difficult for those former residents of the French colonies living in France itself, with Dumas himself having to plead for the right to remain where he's living, on the outskirts of Paris.

 

Prior to his arrival in France as a teenager, Dumas is 'pawned' by his father and then reclaimed later; his siblings and mother are sold and never heard of again, with no mention of Dumas himself making any effort to locate them (though of course he was in the middle of a war at time, but still it seems an omission on his part). And that's where this book doesn't cope so well, that it doesn't really give us much of an idea of Dumas as a man, not helped by what seems to be very little source material for the author to work with.

 

I was also surprised and a little disappointed by the lack of any photographs or illustrations (bar a few maps, focussed on the location of places concerned rather than battle movements, for example) in the paperback edition my library sourced for me. Towards the end of the book, the sorry state of a statue of the General that stood for some years in Paris is mentioned, but a photograph would have been even more poignant, I think. I get the feeling the author did the best with what he could - he talks about being allowed as little as 2 hours with the contents of a particular safe in a local museum - but there were clearly limitations and those affect the book as a whole.