Who Was Napoleon’s ‘Black Devil’?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: His life, exploits and legacy had a profound effect on literature.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas portrait by Olivier Pichat (Bruno Arrigoni/Musee Alexandre Dumas)
Thomas-Alexandre Dumas portrait by Olivier Pichat (Bruno Arrigoni/Musee Alexandre Dumas)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 47: Which French general under Napoleon had African ancestry, and was a forebear to two French literary greats?

At the height of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a mixed-race child born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean grows up to cast aside his white father’s noble heritage — and his family name — to join the French military. With strength and courage in battle, he is eventually promoted to its highest ranks. Over time, the future emperor of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, comes to resent this outsized “black devil,” but it is the soldier’s son, a novelist, who will have the last word. By immortalizing his father in legend, the son not only makes the family name immortal; he becomes one of the most celebrated French writers in history.

Prepared to be amazed, as Joel A. Rogers might have put it. “The real Count of Monte Cristo,” Thomas Alexandre-Dumas, was “a black man who rose to be a four-star general — the highest rank for a man of color in an all-white army before Colin Powell,” Dumas’ biographer, Tom Reiss, told The Root last November. When asked to describe the experience of researching his book, The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, which won the Pulitzer Prize this year, Reiss responded, “mind-blowing.” Rogers couldn’t have put it better.

A Nobleman’s Son, a Slave’s Name

Dumas was born Thomas-Alexandre Davy de la Pailleterie (“Alex” for short) on March 25, 1762, in Jérémie, Saint-Domingue, a French colony occupying the west of Hispaniola island in the Caribbean Sea (in the country that we know as Haiti today). Alex’s mother was a black or mulatto slave, Marie Cessette Dumas. His father was the French nobleman, Alexandre Antoine Davy, whose title was the Marquis de la Pailleterie. The marquis (known as Antoine) had ventured to Saint-Domingue to live with his brother, Charles, a prosperous sugar planter. When the two brothers had a falling-out, Antoine fled to the countryside, taking three of Charles’ slaves with him. 

Though no record exists indicating they ever married, Antoine and Marie Cessette had four children, all of them “mulattoes and mulatresses,” as a detective for Antoine’s brother’s family reported, according to Reiss. (To be sure, Alex’s mother was not one of the slaves his father plundered, but one for whom he paid “an exorbitant price,” the detective noted.) Given the blending of his parents, Reiss writes, Alex “had the unique perspective of being from the highest and lowest ranks of society at once.”

It didn’t last long, however. In order to finance his trip back to France, Antoine ended up selling Marie Cessette and three of his four children into slavery  (it is also possible Marie had died three years earlier, perhaps in a hurricane, Reiss notes, but no solid evidence of her passing has been found). Antoine’s favorite child, Alex, he eventually sold, too, at Port au Prince, but only “conditionally,” Reiss explains; when Antoine assumed control of his family’s chateau in Normandy, France, in 1775, he bought Alex back (but not the others) so that he could come and live with him.   

On this score, Joel Rogers was too charitable toward Alex’s father, romanticizing him as a French “nobleman” who “shunned” the planter class “to live among the Negroes, little knowing at the time that in so doing he was to add a thousand glories to his name” (World’s Great Men of Color, Volume 2). Incidentally, Rogers also was wrong about the “thousand glories to his name” part, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In 1776, the year of America’s Declaration of Independence, Alex Dumas found himself heading east across the Atlantic, to the Old World, where, as a member of his father’s household, he received an excellent education and embraced the nobleman’s lifestyle with extravagant clothing, expensive dinners, hunting, horseback riding, dancing, dueling and the company of women. Whatever domestic bliss there was, however, ended in 1786 when Alex’s father, by then 71, married his 33-year-old housekeeper and, in doing so, cut back on his contributions to Alex’s lifestyle. 

With no resume to speak of and few apparent options, Alex decided to join the military, even though that meant starting at the bottom as a lowly private. If Alex’s future son Alexandre Dumas, père, is to be believed (the label père, which means “father” in French,  can be confusing, given that he was a son — but more about that later), Antoine Davy was so appalled he told Alex, “I don’t intend for you to drag my name through the lowest ranks of the army,” according to Reiss. In response, a defiant Alex, without knowing it, changed the course of literary history by dropping his father’s noble name in favor of his slave mother’s name. Thenceforth, he would be known as Alex Dumas — not Davy — a break from his father that proved permanent three weeks later when Antoine Davy died.