Preface: Sri Lanka is in crisis and to write on anything else at this juncture would leave one open to the charge of being a Nero indulging himself by playing the flute while Rome was on fire. But other things, though temporarily relegated to the background, exist, and I hope this short (but, I trust, not vacuous) article will provide a brief distraction.
Of the hundreds of books on Napoleon, few dwell on his attitude to, and treatment of, non-white people. The following is taken from The Black Count by Tom Reiss, a biography of General Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous writer whose works include The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Page reference in what follows is to this work. The portrait painting reproduced on the book’s cover is not of the General but of his internationally famous son, the writer, in the uniform of his father.
Dumas was born in Haiti in1762. His father was a white Frenchman of noble birth, his mother a black slave. (As Reiss comments, given the reality then, almost all sexual relations between whites and blacks was rape.) In a life marked by precipitous plunges and heady heights, the boy was once sold into bondage by his father but was then brought by him to France and enrolled in an elite school. Tall and with “an athletic figure”, Dumas was “educated in the classics, philosophy, fine manners, riding, dancing and duelling” (page 10). Rejecting his father’s name, he opted for that of his mother – Dumas, often signing his name not as Alexandre but simply as Alex. Enlisting as a private, his intelligence and outstanding courage led to rapid promotion in the army of the Revolution, a revolution in which he sincerely and passionately believed. As Reiss observes, he rose to the rank of General by the age of thirty-one; commanding divisions and armies. While Napoleon sought domination and personal glory, the ideal of Alex Dumas was liberation.
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam there are stories of a persecuted person falling asleep and waking up years later to find that the beliefs for which he had suffered now had official sanction and popular following: “Oh brave new world” (Shakespeare: ‘The Tempest’). Of the French Revolution, the Wordsworth wrote in a poem: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”. But Napoleon turned a potential Utopia into a dystopia for people of colour: as Joseph Conrad wrote in his novel, Under Western Eyes, revolutionary success can mean hopes ”grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured… There have been in every revolution hearts broken”. The Revolution had abolished slavery but Napoleon reinstated that most cruel of systems. “Rekindling the cruellest traditions of slavery in the sugar islands, French soldiers tortured, raped and murdered blacks in every gruesome way imaginable” (page 311).
Francis Toussaint (1743-1803), born a slave, led the only successful slave revolt in modern Western history. (He added Louverture to his name: the French word can be rendered as ‘opening the way’). On the orders of Napoleon, French troops tricked, captured and sent the hero to France. I cite from page 311: This man of the tropics was thrown into a freezing cold cell with dripping wet walls and a fire that, on orders from Napoleon, was inadequately fed with wood. His iron frame now huddled before the logs measured out by the orders of Bonaparte. The hitherto unsleeping intellect collapsed into long hours of coma.
The so-called Directory government that ran France in the mid-to-late 1790s “instituted the world’s first colour-blind elite secondary school. It gave the sons of former slaves […] one of the world’s finest educations at a time when the English-speaking world still considered it a crime for black children to learn to read” (pages 185-6). Under Napoleon, such children were unable to attend any school at all (p. 187). On the 20th of May1802, Napoleon re-imposed slavery which had been abolished by the French Revolution. “Two weeks after the slavery decree, Napoleon issued a law banning all officers and soldiers of colour who had retired or been discharged from the army from living in Paris and the surrounding area […] The following year, Napoleon outlawed marriages between people of different skin colours” (p. 314). It is significant that such a man, one who had betrayed the principles of the Revolution; a racist is uncritically admired by so many: his treatment of black people simply does not register. When General Dumas died, the pension due to the widow was not paid and the family was plunged into poverty (page 321). His wife “would spend the next decade petitioning the emperor through every possible channel for the minimum of support to which she and her children were entitled” (ibid).
Napoleon and Dumas had been comrades-in-arms. Indeed, Dumas was a general when Napoleon was still a captain, and continued to outrank him until December 1795 (page 196). Dumas believed in the ideals and principles of the French Revolution, while Napoleon’s goal was personal power and glory – at all and any cost. For example, “Dumas clashed with Napoleon on the issue of how to treat civilians” (193). Regarding the treatment of women, Dumas told Napoleon that the law may command but humanity demands (page 195). He also told Napoleon: “I believe that the interests of France should come before those of a man, however great this man may be. I believe that the fortune of a nation cannot be subdued to that of an individual” (250).
Dumas, the writer, tried to have a statue of his father erected but without success. However, after his death a group of his ardent admirers fulfilled that wish: it was to honour ‘their’ writer rather than his father, the General. The statue was demolished by the Nazis during their occupation of Paris: Napoleon would have applauded.