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The Black General in 18th Century Europe

Revolutionary France had a black general.

the black general in revolutionary France: Thomas-Alexandre Dumas

His name was Thomas-Alexandre Dumas. He was born in Haiti, the son of a French nobleman and an African woman enslaved on his plantation. Haiti was a French colony then, and young Dumas was a slave under French law. In fact, his father actually sold the boy when he was fourteen, in 1776 — but then bought him back. Father and son soon moved to France, where Dumas gained his freedom and a gentleman’s education. He enlisted as a private in the army at twenty-four. By thirty-one, he had soared to the rank of general, thanks in part to the French Revolution, which created unheard-of opportunities for humble-born men. Dumas led his men with brilliance and courage against many foes, particularly the Austrians, who called him the Schwarzer Teufel: the black devil.

Napoleon didn’t like the black general — possibly because Dumas was tall, dashing, and handsome. So when Napoleon seized power in 1799, Dumas had an enemy at the top. He’d been captured by the Italians and languished in a drafty dungeon, and Napoleon’s government was slow to work for his release. When Dumas finally gained his freedom in 1801, his health was broken. And Napoleon never restored his military career. In fact, the emperor soon reversed the Revolutionary government’s laws on racial equality. That ended the freedom that had made Dumas’ career possible.

Dumas died of stomach cancer in 1806, at age forty-three. He left behind a wife and two children, living in poverty. But Dumas’ legacy lives on. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because the general’s son was Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. General Dumas’ life inspired much of his son’s writing.

Painting: Général Alexandre Dumas, by Olivier Pichat (1825-1912)

© 2018 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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