This is a fabulous non-fiction narrative that rivals many of the best novels ever written. Even the fact that it made the New York Times bestseller list and also won the Pulitzer Prize hardly does it justice. Tom Reiss obviously spent many months, even years, doing very original research on at least two continents and as many languages. But let’s begin at the beginning
If you have ever read the novel The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, and you liked it, or like me, loved it, Reiss’ book is a must-read for you. Dumas also wrote The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, as well as dozens of other fiction and non-fiction books and articles. The Count of Monte Cristo is a story of revenge; the story of a man imprisoned for life on unknown charges as the result of a conspiracy of three enemies he didn’t know he had. He is condemned to a medieval prison, whose castle walls are several feet thick. He makes a daring and miraculous escape aided by another prisoner, an aging abbe, who reveals to him the location of great treasure. The hero becomes fabulously wealthy and the rest of the book is about how he wreaks revenge on those who had condemned and then forgotten him. The Hollywood movie version in my opinion ruined the story by changing the ending.
What I didn’t know is that the author of these sagas, Alexandre Dumas, was a mulatto, and his father, Alex Dumas was a very dark black man from the island of Haiti who intermarried with a white French woman. Through the real story of this man, Reiss takes us on a global panoramic tour of the institution of slavery itself, with many surprises along the way.
Slavery of course, has been around since the beginning of man’s recorded history, and obviously predated that history. All acquisition of property and power throughout the ages was through conquest, and the victor took all, including the vanquished as slaves. Slavery was not racially tinged until the 18th century. Before then, anyone anywhere was at risk of becoming a slave if a predator group won the battle. For example, when Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, he made slaves of the Egyptians, but he also imported lots of white slaves from what are now eastern European nations populated by ethnic Slavs, which is where we got the word slave. Christians during this time period thought slavery was fine as long as the slaves weren’t other Christians. So making slaves of non-Christians and especially the Moors, was acceptable. In time these ethnic Slavs, who became known as Mamelukes, revolted against their Egyptian masters, and the Egyptians became their slaves–until Napoleon came along and drove off the Mamelukes.
In the western hemisphere, there were large population centers located among the Mayans, the Aztecs, and the Incas. One of the Incan cities had a larger population at the time than the European city of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Each of these south and central American civilizations had slave populations themselves. When the Spanish conquistadors invaded they absorbed the existing slave populations and also made slaves of the former masters. Those who didn’t die of the white man’s diseases were turned into slaves and were sent to die in brutal, murderous silver and gold mines. None of this was race related.
When other imperial explorers reached the islands of the Caribbean, they didn’t find precious metals as they had hoped, but instead found sugar cane, which they learned how to refine into sugar. The sugar capital of the world became the island of Haiti, then known as Saint Domingue. Growing sugar cane was labor intensive, and unlike in central and south America, there were no large concentrations of population that could easily be enslaved. The African slave trade in the 18th century was largely concentrated around the sugar plantations of Saint Domingue. There were few African women imported to Saint Domingue, and the men were treated so brutally they died quickly of starvation and beatings. This rapid turnover further exacerbated the labor shortage, requiring more and more slaves.
Reiss traces how the imperial expansion into the western hemisphere took place concurrent with the philosophical movement of The Enlightenment with its special emphasis on liberty and individual rights. The French were the first to attempt to come to grips with the contradictions between slavery and liberty. The French were intrigued by the American experiment and the principles embodied in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and of course our revolution only came to a successful conclusion due to the assistance of the French navy. As a matter of fact, the French involvement in our revolution drove their nation into bankruptcy, and precipitated food riots and their own Revolution. The French Revolution championed the rights of man at the same time that it engaged in a Reign of Terror against its own citizens, sending thousands of innocent people to the guillotine.
The French resolved the slavery/liberty debate at first by declaring that any black man who made it to the shores of France proper was a free man, and the French sort of washed their hands, Pontius Pilate-like, of what happened in the slave-holding colonies such as Saint Domingue. Activists pressed the issue however, and within a short time freedom was being promised to slaves in the colonial territories, which of course enraged the plantation owners, who withdrew their support from the French Revolution. This facilitated Napoleon’s rise to power, culminating in his naming himself emperor of France and ending the centuries-old monarchy.
Alex Dumas, the father of Alexandre, came to France as a young man and entered the military, and quickly distinguished himself. For a while he actually outranked Napoleon, but in time came to report to him. He was captured in what is today Italy, and spent several short years in a medieval prison, held without charges. His prison experience broke his spirit and his health. Napoleon meanwhile, in an effort to placate the very wealthy plantation owners of the French Caribbean colonies, rescinded many of the freedoms that the Revolution had instituted for blacks.
After many years of valiant service to the Revolution in which he devoutly believed, Alex Dumas found himself without a pension, without a home, and with no means of support. Napoleon, who knew him well and personally, ignored his requests and his lieutenants ignored the requests and pleas of his widow after Alex died, still fairly young and impoverished.
This is broad brushing this delightful narrative, which holds many insights you’re not going to find in a history book. Reiss approaches his topic without bias or political correctness, and what I came away with was that the lot of the common man of any race, color, or origin from time immemorial has been to serve as the cannon fodder of the ruling class of every nation, and that the golden rule prevailed: he who had the gold ruled.
Reiss is quick to point out many of history’s ironies:
Napoleon and Alex Dumas fought against the Spanish in southern Italy. This is the same Spain that was colonizing the central and southern Americas. And that is how the South American tomato made it’s way to southern Italy, which of course made it famous. or was it the tomato that made Italian cuisine famous?
The French continued to refer to black and mixed race people in France as “Americans”, in America members of its Congress would not permit blacks into their presence except to serve refreshments or sweep up. Says Reiss: “But having enjoyed prestige as “Americans” during the[French] Revolution, black and mixed-race soldiers now found themselves denigrated as “Africans.”
The French helped us achieve the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness, and were also the first to give blacks freedom, at a time when General George Washington said he didn’t think Virginians were ready for that step yet. French General Lafayette of Yorktown fame had to flee for his life from his own Revolution. He was captured by the Prussians and spent the next five years in prison. His friend George Washington was powerless to help him because Prussia [parts of what is now Germany] and Austria at the time refused to recognize the new United States.
Miscegenation , or racial intermarriage, was common until it too was outlawed. Haiti, the sugar capital of the world and probably the richest island on the planet, experienced the first successful major slave rebellion. The slaves fought 80,000 of Napoleon’s troops to a standstill; the French left, the plantations closed, and today Haiti is quite possibly the poorest island on the planet. Today Haiti has experienced something of a brain drain as their best and brightest have abandoned her to seek their fortunes in the United States and elsewhere.
New post-revolutionary France decided to deflect attention away from their internal problems by invading most of their neighbors, which is how Napoleon and Alex Dumas came to know each other and fight almost literally side by side. As always, the government attempted to finance their wars with debt, in the form of bonds backed by property–that had been seized from the Church. These bonds were on pieces of paper called assignats, which were used as money, and of course they printed more assignats than there was real estate collateral, which resulted in devaluing the assignats and creating massive inflation. Eventually the floor under the assignats gave out–literally. At the Paris printing house someone piled up too much of the worthless paper in one place and the floor of the building collapsed under the weight. Their real-estate secured bonds were worthless. Nothing familiar here, is there?
Reiss peppers his story with personal vignettes such as this description of one French revolutionary: “. . . his main character flaw was that of so many French revolutionaries: a zeal for human rights so self-righteous that it translated into intolerance for the actual human beings around him.” I’ve often thought the same of the purported champions of the war on poverty; their concerns are usually self-serving and they wouldn’t want to get too up close and personal with real poverty. They preach humanity but don’t like poor people moving into their neighborhood.
Reiss weaves a wonderful and complex tapestry of events that spans the globe and leads to even more questions. Life is never quite what it appears to be, and the more it seems to change the more it stays the same. If you have strong opinions about modern race relations in the U.S., read Reiss’ book for a more global perspective. Without our Constitution and limited government, there is nothing left but the governments guns, the moneyed powers behind the throne, and the ragtag mob. Without individual freedom that cannot be voted away by any block of voters of any color for any reason, there is no freedom except by permission, and that is not freedom at all.
For author Alexandre Dumas, his novel The Count of Monte Cristo was the fantasy version of his father’s life. Indeed part of the story begins in an obscure little village in Haiti (Saint Domingue) near the border with the Dominican Republic (Santo Domingo) called Monte Cristo.
Many parts of this biography of Alex Dumas, and his legendary fictional counterpart, the Count of Monte Cristo, read like a Kafkaesque novel. Until we figure out a way to change human DNA, the possibility of a return to this world should never be dismissed lightly. Liberty is and always will be under siege.