The real Monte Cristo

The real monte cristo

Général Alexandre Dumas, XIXesiècle
Olivier Pichat
Musée Alexandre Dumas, Villers-Cotterëts

The father of Alexandre Dumas (Père), famous author of The Count of Monte Cristo and of The Three Musketeers, was the son of a French nobleman and a black Caribbean slave. During the turmoil of the French Revolution, Alex Dumas, for that was the name he adopted, rose through the ranks and became the first ever black general in the French army. Serving with Napoleon during his expedition to Egypt, he attempted to return in a dilapidated ship that soon began to take water from all sides, forcing them to set ashore in Sicily in the them hostile kingdom of Naples. Imprisoned in a damp cold cell in a fortress in Taranto, he slept on straw atop a stone bed and was kept in solitary confinement for one year without ever knowing who had accused him or of what. In that, he later served as inspiration for his son’s novel, in which Edmond Dantès, the future Count of Monte Cristo, was imprisoned under similar circumstances.

Already in Egypt the general’s health had deteriorated – from what is described as a strange paralysis of his face. In his cell he became acutely ill, suddenly collapsing from abdominal pain, later found lying half delirious in a puddle of vomit. A servant brought him a little goat milk, but the pain grew worse. Then the servant gave him spoonfuls of olive oil mixed with lemon juice, and within three hours over forty enemas, which later he claimed saved his life.

At last a doctor came. He ordered treatments that may have been accepted practice at the time but led him to suspect he was being poisoned. He gave him cold water to drink, which made him worse. Then the servant resumed his ministrations of lemon juice, olive oil, and more enemas. Later the doctor returned and prescribed blistering, bloodletting, and also ear injections that for a time apparently left him totally deaf. Other doctors came and concluded that his symptoms, loss of vision, deafness, and facial paralysis, were signs of “melancholia.” Then suddenly one of the doctors himself dropped dead, reinforcing suspicions of foul play by somebody.

Then a new doctor arrived. He prescribed more injections into his ears, a powder blown into his eyes, and half an ounce of cream of tartar. The abdominal pain grew worse, leading to more blistering of the arms and the nape of the neck and behind the ears. He was now suffering from perpetual insomnia. Again suspecting poisoning, he would pretend taking the pills they gave him but secretly threw them away. Then the tide of war turning in favor of France, some French sympathizers secretly sent him a large chunk of chocolate and some medicinal cinchona. He improved “marvelously,” though still deaf in the left ear, practically blind in the right eye, with terrible headaches and permanent buzzing in the ears.  As Napoleon’s troops drew closer to Naples, he was moved to Brindisi, then released and repatriated to France after one year’s captivity. He was partially blind and deaf, weakened by malnutrition, and walking with a limp because bloodletting had “severed a tendon.” In France he lived until 1807, never reinstated nor receiving a pension, having earlier on incurred the enmity of Napoleon, who at that time had also abandoned the egalitarianism of the French revolution in favor of policies against French citizens of color.

Abstracted from the Black Count, by Tom Reiss, Random House 2012.


George Dunea, MD, Editor-in-Chief