The bitterly divisive spectacle staged by President Trump in front of Mount Rushmore on Friday was powerful proof once again that icons of heroes from the past are social and political flashpoints in the present—not only in the U.S. but around the world. This is the first of three essays examining the often ambiguous and surprising history behind public monuments in Paris, in London, and in Hong Kong.
PARIS—Some statues should be toppled. Some should be put back up.
After the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940, they tore down the bronze monument to Gen. Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, whose father was a French nobleman and whose mother was enslaved in what is now Haiti.
The general, who eschewed his aristocratic family name and title and signed his papers simply Alex Dumas, was one of the bravest and most celebrated senior officers in the army of revolutionary France, for a time outranking Napoleon. The first biographical sketch of him, in 1797, asked “who has a greater right to public respect than the man of color fighting for freedom after having experienced all the horrors of slavery? To equal the most celebrated warriors he need only keep in mind all the evils he has suffered.”
In Paris today, a bronze statue of Gen. Alex Dumas’ son, the great novelist Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, and a stone sculpture of the general’s grandson, also an author, are in the same square where the general’s once stood. But they were not touched by the Nazis. There is nothing about the writers that would have threatened the manhood of those white supremacist paradigms, whereas the image of the general, that tall, handsome, powerfully built warrior with a rifle in his hand—everything about him was a challenge to the Nazi kind.
Tom Reiss, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Alex Dumas, The Black Count, writes that “he was a consummate warrior and a man of great conviction and moral courage. He was renowned for his strength, his swordsmanship, his bravery, and his knack for pulling victory out of the toughest situations. But he was known, too, for his profane back talk and his problems with authority. He was a soldiers’ general, feared by the enemy and loved by his men, a hero in a world that did not use the term lightly.”
Yet there is now no monument to this hero in Paris, a city so full of bronze and marble. The most famous painting depicting him, a dramatic canvas by Olivier Pichat claiming to be Gen. Dumas on horseback, certainly was painted decades after his death and, according to Reiss, probably used his shorter, plumper son, the author, as a model. The destroyed statue, on the other hand, was created using more contemporary images of the hero.
Alex Dumas was born in the French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1762. His father was a ne’er-do-well at the time, with eventual hopes of inheriting a title but little else, who lived under an assumed name and at one point sold his young son Alex, born into slavery, to raise money.
Alex’s mother, Marie Cessette, who was purchased “at an exorbitant price,” died when Alex was 10 years old. When the father’s fortune changed, he bought back his boy and took him to France in 1776, at the age of 14, to be raised as a gentleman and the heir to the title of Marquis de la Pailleterie. Alex was enrolled in a royal academy that gave him a rigorous education in many disciplines, but especially fencing, and he soon proved himself a prodigy.
Reiss writes in fascinating detail about the way some people of color were able to rise in French society under the Bourbon monarchs. Overseas, the conditions of enslaved people in French colonies were horrific, and the trafficking of humans from Africa to the sugar plantations on French ships, as on those of the English and Americans, had about it a genocidal cynicism. The economies of the sugar-producing islands and territories of the Americas were built on the practice of importing slaves from Africa to labor in the brutal cane breaks, working them to death over the course of a very few years, then replacing them with new slaves cheaply bought in West Africa.
But under the “Code Noir” of Louis XIV, decreed in 1685, a special exception was made if an owner married an enslaved woman, in which case the wife and children would be “free and legitimate.” As a result, especially in Saint-Domingue, a new class developed of free, and in many cases wealthy, people of color.
There was also an idea accepted by Louis XIV that people on the soil of France itself were never to be enslaved and, sometimes with lawyers inspired by the Enlightenment fighting for their rights—or their white fathers giving them social advantages—people of color were able to live with a level of equality in continental France unknown anywhere else in Europe or the Americas.
Dumas was not the only man of mixed parentage to have gained great prominence. Another son of a nobleman and a freed Black woman from Guadeloupe became one of the most renowned fencers—and violinists—of the mid-18th century. Taking the title Chevalier de Saint-Georges, he had the patronage of Marie-Antoinette and served in the king’s honor guard. When the American founding father John Adams visited Paris in 1779 he wrote that this “mulatto man is the most accomplished man in Europe in riding, shooting, fencing, dancing, music.”
The French Revolution that had begun in 1789 was, by 1792, fighting desperately to defend the national territory against royal enemies all over Europe. Dumas dropped his titles and enlisted as a corporal in the revolutionary forces, where he attracted considerable attention by capturing 12 enemy soldiers single-handed.
When the Chevalier de Saint-Georges took command of a corps of Black and multiracial soldiers that became known as the Légion Noire he made Dumas his second-in-command. And when the unit was disbanded the following year, Dumas, now distinguished as an officer, was offered a commission as brigadier general in the regular army of the new French Republic. A month later he was promoted to general of division with 10,000 men under his command. (He had become the highest ranking officer of color not only in France, but in any Western army, and would hold on to that distinction for more than 150 years.)
But as Reiss writes, “Revolutionary opportunities came with revolutionary risks: it took a special sort of courage to accept a general officers’ commission in the summer of 1793.” This was at the height of The Terror. Louis XVI had been executed in January. Marie-Antoinette was awaiting the same fate. And the guillotines were working overtime all over the country at the behest of Robespierre’s “Committee of Public Safety.” Among the thousands of victims were many officers loyal to the Revolution who were deemed by ambitious and bloodthirsty politicians to have failed it. At least two of Dumas’ predecessors in the command had been murdered for political reasons.
But Dumas did not fail the revolution. He won a stunning victory high in the Alps that eventually opened the way for France to invade Italy under another rising star, Napoleon Bonaparte.
The two men did not get along. Dumas believed in the ideals of the Revolution that in February 1794 abolished slavery. He fought for the Republic that claimed to guarantee liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Napoleon saw all that as merely a means to an end—his own rise to power—and as an exportable ideology that would open the way for the expansion of French influence and, then, French rule.
Before the Italian campaign, Dumas had served a brief tour as commander of forces in the rebellious Vendée region of western France, reining in at last the savagery of soldiers encouraged by his predecessors to rape, pillage, and burn their way through the provinces in the name of the Revolution. Dumas had earned a reputation for humanity at a time where that could be said of few officers in any war. In Italy, he and Napoleon often clashed over the treatment of civilians.
When Napoleon launched the French invasion of Egypt in 1798, he made Dumas the commander of his cavalry but, as Reiss notes, “it was there that the two very different soldiers came to loathe each other. The clash was ideological—Dumas saw himself as a fighter for world liberation, not world domination—but it was also personal.”
“Among the Muslims, men from every class who were able to catch sight of General Bonaparte were struck by how short and skinny he was,” wrote the chief medical officer of the expedition quoted in The Black Count. “The one, among our generals, whose appearance stuck them more was … the General-in-Chief of the cavalry, Dumas. Man of color, and by his figure looking like a centaur, when they saw him ride his horse over the trenches, going to ransom prisoners, all of them believed that he was the leader of the expedition.”
When the British navy defeated the French at the Battle of the Nile in August 1798, the occupation of Egypt and plans to threaten British India were doomed. Napoleon eventually launched a disastrous campaign along the coast of the Holy Land, then slipped back across the Mediterranean in August 1799, leaving many of his officers and men stranded. Dumas already had headed home in March, but was captured by the enemies of France and spent the next two years in a dungeon suffering the kind of horrific conditions his son would describe so vividly in The Count of Monte Cristo.
When Dumas finally made it back to France, the Revolution was over. Napoleon had seized power in a coup d’état, making himself dictator with the title of First Consul, on his way to proclaiming himself Emperor.
And with the rise of Napoleon came the return of slavery.
In sugar-growing Saint-Domingue, the events in France in 1789 had inspired revolution, a vast slave uprising, and horrific violence on all sides that had vastly reduced sugar production in the richest of French colonies.
“Much support for Napoleon’s coup,” Reiss tells us, “had come from a coalition of slavers and exiled plantation owners, who calculated that a dictator in tricolor trimmings would mean a better chance for reestablishing slavery than any sort of actual representative government—especially one that included Blacks, abolitionists, and assorted revolutionary idealists.”
On May 20, 1802, Napoleon effectively reinstated slavery in the islands by decree, and two weeks later banned all officers and soldiers of color who had retired or been discharged from the army from living in Paris and environs. By July, a new order blocked “Blacks, mulattos, and men of color … from entering the territory of the Republic under any cause or pretext, unless supplied with special authorization.” The following year, Napoleon outlawed marriages between people of different skin colors.
Alex Dumas, physically almost broken by his imprisonment, denied support by the government, and abandoned by many comrades-in-arms he thought were friends, died in 1806 leaving his wife and children virtually destitute.
The French Republic never did erect a monument to this extraordinary figure in its history, but around the beginning of the last century a group of admirers led by the writer Anatole France and the actress Sarah Bernhardt raised the money to put up a striking bronze figure of the man by the sculptor Alfred de Moncel. Even then it languished for a year under a tattered shroud before a formal unveiling in 1913.
After the Nazis had Dumas and several other statues symbolizing democracy and freedom melted down in 1941 and 1942, ostensibly for bullets, its place sat empty until 2009 when a new sculpture was unveiled, not of Gen. Dumas, but a much more generic set of big broken shackles. They have since become a rendezvous for bourgeois teenagers from the upper 17th Arrondissement neighborhood near the Parc Monceau.
I wrote to Dumas biographer Tom Reiss to ask what he thought of all this at a time when we are pondering as never before what monuments should stand, and which should fall.
“I’ve had the statue question on my mind quite a bit recently,” Reiss wrote back. “It’s always seemed like a double insult to me that General Dumas’ statue was melted down by the Nazis and then never replaced after the war by the French government... The French Republic has gone out its way for 200 years not to erect a statue to the great Black hero of its revolution.
“I believe the reason is because celebrating General Dumas brings up a convoluted national anxiety around France’s history with slavery,” said Reiss. “Drawing attention to the fact that she was the first white power to abolish slavery and attempt racial equality, France would also have to face the fact that she, shortly thereafter, reimposed slavery and created a kind of white power state as reactionary as Jim Crow. For France, as for the U.S., it’s not only the crime of racism that burns, it’s the hypocrisy.
“And to me, the recent ‘shackle and chain’ sculpture is worse than no monument at all. General Alex Dumas was no faceless victim of the barbaric French slave trade; he was a towering hero and leader of the French Revolution, a rare purely ‘good’ face of that revolution—a founding father for France to celebrate, if anyone was such. ...
“In an age when everyone is tearing down statues,” said Reiss, “Paris really needs to put one up—to General Alex Dumas.”