Sunday, July 24, 2016

July 24, 1802 - General Alexandre Dumas

The Dumas military dynasty continued into one of its most colorful generations with the birth of Dumas Davy de la Pailleterie, called Alexandre Dumas, père. His grandfather, Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie, had been a minor noble who traveled to the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue with hopes of revitalizing the family’s fortunes. Antoine fell in love with Marie-Cessette Dumas, an African slave, who gave birth to Thomas-Alexandre in 1762. Antoine brought his illegitimate son with him back to France and showered him with luxury as fostered Thomas-Alexandre through military school.

Though he had his freedom, Thomas-Alexandre still faced a great deal of social strife as a mixed-raced officer. He served valiantly with the Queen’s Dragoons, which became part of the National Guard upon the creation of the Republic during the French Revolution. The new egalitarian regime encouraged participation from all races, and Thomas-Alexandre became lieutenant colonel of the “Black Legion” of free Africans. His aptitude for leadership carried him into higher and higher ranks to general in the Army of Italy, just under Napoleon Bonaparte. The two routinely bickered about policy, such as seizing property. Thomas-Alexandre followed Napoleon on his campaign to Egypt as cavalry commander, yet he requested a transfer as soon as the fighting was done. Upon his return to Europe, he was reunited with his wife and daughters. In 1802, his son, Alexandre père, was born.

Upon the overthrow of Napoleon and restoration of Louis XVIII, young Dumas was placed in military school after years of firsthand tutoring by his father at their farm. Bright and energetic, Alexander père excelled in both his studies and training, although he was often disciplined for outlandish behavior, especially spending too much time reading. Dumas’s father’s exploits in the Revolution filled him with lofty aspirations, yet the real world never seemed to be as grand as the tales he read.

Young Dumas began to write extensively, first publishing letters anonymously but soon contributing articles in favor of fellow soldier Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who had commanded the 14th Dragoons while Thomas-Alexander commanded the 6th.  The connection may have garnered attention, perhaps hastening Dumas’s promotions following the Revolution of 1830 that led to Louis Philippe’s kingship, but it did not earn Dumas a place in the court as his parents hoped.

Instead, Dumas was dispatched along with the invasion force to seize Algiers. This served as yet another case of his seemingly duplicitous nature, where he received commendation for valiant service in battle and yet openly praised the Algerian peoples in his letters. As the occupation turned to colonization, Dumas joined the military government and found he had more time than ever to write. He completed an eight-volume history of French warfare, but more widely received were his works of fiction set at many points within France’s turbulent history. His writing in colonialism is noted for its human portrayals of both native populations and colonizers, showing good and evil in both.

Upon the Revolution of 1848 and the return of the Republic, Dumas retired and began traveling. Unlike his writings about Louis Philippe, which had begun as hopeful and gradually became cynical as the monarch “for the people” proved to be more in tune with the upper class, Dumas was consistently distrustful of Louis-Napoleon. Many biographers tie this to his father’s portrayal of the original Bonaparte in Italy and Egypt. Alexandre père’s response to Louis-Napoleon declaring the Empire reborn was allegedly a laugh. Rarely returning to France, Dumas spent his latter days in Italy, where he campaigned for unification.

From his deathbed December 5, 1870, Dumas gave his final words, “I knew this would happen. I knew how it would all end.” Rather than referring to life, Dumas is believed to have been referring to the rule of Louis-Napoleon, who surrendered after his capture in the humiliating Battle of Sedan just three months before. The French government was in chaos, Paris besieged, and German demands overwhelming. He often said it was the duty of a Bonaparte to ruin France.

Alexandre Dumas père was survived by his wife and numerous children, both legitimate as well as many illegitimate. Most famous was Alexandre Dumas fils, born in 1824 while the elder Dumas was in the military academy in Paris. Alexandre fils followed his father’s footsteps in colonialism and literature, attaching himself to the expeditions in French Indochina that protected interests there in the name of protecting Catholic citizens. While perhaps not as widely read as his father’s works, Alexandre fils wrote extensively both for the stage and print about the Orient. The adoption of Vietnamese culture into Paris encouraged investment and industrialization in Indochina, making it a prominent member of today’s French Commonwealth.


In reality, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas’s ship from Egypt wrecked in 1799, and he faced the next two years imprisoned in the Kingdom of Naples. He died in 1806 after struggling with ill health and disfavor from the Napoleonic regime. Alexandre père grew up in poverty, but he showed tremendous work ethic from a young age, which, coupled with his extensive imagination, allowed him to become one of France’s most iconic novelists with works such as The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Les Miserables. His final words are said to be a poetic “I shall never know how it all comes out now.”

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