Updated: Jul 30, 2020
July 24 of 1802, prolific French author Alexandre Dumas was born.
Best known for writing The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, all of his published works total beyond 100,000 pages and have been adapted to more than 150 films!
Although there are very few recorded anecdotes about the obstacles Dumas must have endured in time of ruthless racism, crucial evidence stands in the memory of his father. Dumas' father was born a slave and became the first black general in French history, and so is widely believed to have been a major inspiration in his son's historical novels.
General Dumas was born in modern-day Haiti. His father was a white French nobleman, Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, and his mother an enslaved woman of African descent, Marie-Cessette Dumas. He was born into slavery because of his mother's status, but his father took the boy with him to France in 1776 and had him educated. Slavery had been illegal in metropolitan France since 1315 and thus any slave would be freed de facto by being in the country. Although social status was more important than skin color in French society at the time, there is a lot of meaning behind Dumas’ choice to enlist under his mother’s name instead of his father’s when he joined the military at 24 years of age. He went on to quickly rise through the ranks and play an important role in the French Revolutionary Wars.
Dumas served as commander of the French cavalry forces on the Expédition d’Égypte, a failed French attempt to conquer Egypt in 1798. On the march from Alexandria to Cairo, he clashed verbally with the Expedition's supreme commander Napoleon Bonaparte. When Dumas fell into enemy hands on the return from the Egyptian expedition, the French high command left him to rot for two years in the enemy’s fortress. The new Emperor Napoleon, meanwhile, had expelled black officers from the armed forces and reinstituted slavery in France's overseas possessions.
This war story may sound familiar to readers of Alexandre Dumas as it clearly inspired his many novels of patriotic sons who valiantly keep faith with slighted fathers, who were victims of gross injustice and chase vengeance and vindication. At the start of The Three Musketeers, d'Artagnan's father tells his son, "never submit quietly to the slightest indignity", for "it is by his courage alone that a gentleman makes his way nowadays… Have no fear of many imbroglios, and look about for adventures". He, and his creator, did exactly that.
Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d'Artagnan (who only formally joins them at the end of The Three Musketeers) are gentlemen at arms in the strife-ridden France – and England – of the early 17th century. They dedicate their swords to an ideal of their homeland more than to the scheming statesmen and wayward monarchs who really govern it. This self-fashioned patriotism, immune to the misdeeds of the powerful, feels very close in spirit to the career of the author's father. He was a man betrayed by his superiors, but not by his idealised patrie.
But even in his fame, Dumas experienced racism and was constantly referred to as ‘the negro’ even when the critics and the French society preferred his book to those of his contemporaries. He lacked the financial education and backing of banks as he had fame of spending his wealth as fast as he published his novels. He famously purchased a mansion country-house on the outskirts of Paris and named it Château de Monte Cristo. Another hint at the gray area between his life’s experiences and the imagination of his novels.
In 2002, for the bicentennial of Dumas's birth, French President Jacques Chirac had a ceremony honouring the author by having his ashes re-interred at the mausoleum of the Panthéon of Paris, where many French luminaries were buried. Chirac acknowledged the racism that had existed in France and said that the re-interment in the Pantheon had been a way of correcting that wrong, as Alexandre Dumas was enshrined alongside fellow great authors Victor Hugo and Émile Zola
For your next visit to France you may want to read one of Dumas’ masterworks on the way, and visit the island fortress prison Château d’If near Marseille (which was the inspiration for the novel The Count of Monte Cristo) and learn about the prisoners incarcerated here and get amazing views of the Vieux Port! You can reserve your priority tickets HERE
And if you are in Paris and you want to pay a visit to his to his iconic resting place you can get your flexible-entry tickets to the great Panthéon HERE