Swashbuckling stories from the descendant of a slave…

Not much is known of Marie-Cessette Dumas; even her name is the subject of contention. One of only two primary sources mentioning her has her first names spelled two different ways in the same document and her surname has variously been claimed to be derived from the fang (west African language) word “dûma”, meaning “dignity” or merely from the French “du mas” meaning “of the farm”, a descriptive addition to her first names meant to signify that she belonged to the property.

Either way, she was a black slave, likely captured in West Africa and shipped to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti, where she was bought by Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie some time before 1762. They resided on the plantation of La Guinaudée where Marie-Cessette became his concubine and together they had three children.

It is unclear what fate befell Marie-Cessete. One source suggests she died in 1772 of dysentery. However, a more compelling theory, backed up by a 1776 letter from a retired official on the island, is that the Marquis sold her together with their two youngest children, and the daughter she had with another man prior to their relationship, to a nobleman from Nantes.

This occurred just prior to the Marquis arranging for the other child, the then 14-year old Thomas-Alexandre, to accompany him on his return to France whereupon he was freed. Thereafter, the Marquis spent lavishly on his son, ensuring his education and providing him, in 1784, with a swanky apartment near the Louvre Palace.

general Alexandre_Dumas_(1762-1806)

Alexandre Dumas – soldier

Two years later though relations between Thomas-Alexandre and his father broke down following the Marquis’ marriage to a domestic servant on his estate. Thomas-Alexandre joined the army as a private, his mixed race making it difficult for him to claim noble privilege and join as a commissioned officer, and from this time on he began calling himself Alexandre Dumas.

With the outbreak of Revolution, promotion came fast; lieutenant colonel in 1792, brigadier general by July 1793 and general of division just a month later. By the end of that year he was commander of the Army of the Alps and captured the strategic stronghold of Mount Cenis from the Piedmontese.

Somehow though he fell victim to the mad world of the politics of the day, was denounced and called to appear before the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror. However, he managed to delay his journey to Paris long enough so that Robespierre fell before he was seen.

Service with the Army of the Rhine and the Army of Italy under Bonaparte then followed but relations between Dumas and Bonaparte were strained as Dumas resisted the policy to expropriate local property indiscriminately. However, following Dumas’ heroic effort to single-handedly drive back an entire squadron of Austrian troops at a bridge over the Eisack River, Napoleon rewarded him by making him commander of all cavalry in the Tyrol and the following year giving him command of the cavalry he took to Egypt.

Within a few months the relationship between Napoleon and Dumas had collapsed with Dumas being accused of sedition and being removed from command. Things went from bad to worse for Dumas as his ship sank on the return journey to France and he was imprisoned in Taranto by the forces allied to the Kingdom of Naples.

During two years of captivity his health was broken and he never saw active service again.

In 1802, he and his wife Marie-Louise had their third child, a son, who they inevitably name Alexandre but they were struggling to make ends meet and when Thomas-Alexandre died of cancer in 1806 his widow and her children were plunged into poverty.


Alexandre Dumas – author

The next few years were hard but the family still had their father’s distinguished reputation and finally, after the restoration of the monarchy one of Marie-Louise’s letters to her late husband’s comrades finally paid off. General Maximilien Foy, impressed with Alexandre’s elegant handwriting, secured him a position as a clerk to the Duc d’Orleans, later King Louis Phillippe.

With the security of a steady income behind him he began to devote more energy to his own writing and by 1829 he was beginning to see success. That success would grow and grow. And alongside his publishing success he was to lead a life that was almost as exciting as the characters he wrote about.

He took part in the Revolution of 1830. He built a fantastic chateau on the outskirts of Paris and had to sell up two years later because acquaintances had taken such advantage of his generosity. He travelled widely to Belgium, to Russia and to Italy where he participated in the movement for the unification of Italy.

He wrote in a wide variety of genres and published a total of 100,000 pages in his lifetime. His works, including some all-time classics like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo have since been translated into a hundred languages and have sold more than any other French author.

alexandre dumas metroAnd he also has a Paris Metro station named after him!


EA 24; the code of the code-breaker…

rosetta stoneOn the 15th July 1799 soldiers under the command of a lieutenant of engineers, Pierre-François Bouchard, were digging foundations for an extension to Fort St. Julien at El Rashid in Egypt when their pick axes and shovels uncovered a slab of black rock with one side covered in masses of engraved text.

Luckily for history, Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt was accompanied by a large body of experts from a variety of disciplines from the Commission des Sciences et des Arts and Bouchard immediately recognised that the stone he had found at El Rashid, then known as Rosetta, would be of interest to the scholars.

bonaparte in front of the sphinx

Bonaparte in Egypt

The first report of the find, just a few days later, by Michel Ange Lancret noted that it contained three inscriptions, the first in hieroglyphs, the second being a language as then unknown and the third in Greek. Lancret rightly surmised that the three inscriptions would be versions of the same text so hopes were raised of it perhaps being able to unlock the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs that had completely defeated scholars.

By the time Napoleon himself inspected the find on its arrival in Cairo shortly before his return to France in August 1799, it had already begun to be called la Pierre de Rosette, the Rosetta Stone.

A few months later, in 1800, a gifted linguist attached to the French army in Egypt recognised that the middle text was written in the Egyptian demotic script, rarely used for stone inscriptions and, therefore, seldom seen by scholars at that time.

For the next 18 months, following the departure of Napoleon back to France, the remaining French forces were gradually worn down and ultimately surrendered to the British at the end of August 1801 whereupon the Rosetta Stone passed into the possession of the British Army. The grandly named, Colonel Tomkyns Hilgrove Turner escorted the stone back to England where it was presented to King George III in February 1802.


Report of the arrival of the Rosetta Stone in the English press

The King decreed that it should be placed in the British Museum where it was assigned the inventory code EA 24, EA standing for Egyptian Antiquities. It has been on display there ever since except for two years during World War 1 when it was removed due to fears of German bombing and housed in a station of the Postal Tube Railway 50 feet below Holborn.

Over the next twenty years scholars worked on the tablet and after initial breakthroughs by Silvestre de Sacy and the key discovery by Thomas Young that the cartouches contained phonetic characters. This led to Jean-François Champollion being able to construct an alphabet of phonetic hieroglyphic characters which was published in 1822.



It is perhaps fitting that the crucial break in deciphering the hieroglyphs should have been made by a French scholar.

Hierarchy, Seduction and Utility – the uniforms of the Napoleonic period…

marshal uniformsWhen you look at any text dealing with the armies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries one of the features which immediately stands out is the elaborate uniforms worn by the armies of every combating nation. My particular interest is in the Napoleonic period and the armies of that era excelled themselves in the splendour of their attire. Contemporary observers regarded the French uniforms with unreserved astonishment. The luxury of the French uniforms was overwhelming and veterans of the period, writing their memoirs in their old age, mourned the passage of such magnificence. They consoled themselves with the conviction that no greater military splendour, bound up as it was with the charisma of their Emperor, had ever been seen in Europe, or would ever be seen again.

But how did such colour and vibrancy come into common usage among the army rank and file?

Prior to the age of gunpowder, recognition on the battlefield of friendly versus unfriendly units could be achieved by a display of badges and flags – hence, men-at-arms sporting the heraldic emblems of their feudal lords on their shields and massing under the banner of their captain.

However, in the late sixteenth century and into the seventeenth century a revolution swept the battlefield. With the advent of reliable gunpowder-charged muskets and the musket fire from massed formations becoming the decisive factor on the battlefield this led to the crystallization of military organization into professional armies consisting of trained soldiers arranged in permanent organizations. Gunpowder also meant that as soon as the first volley was fired, the battlefield would be shrouded in thick smoke.

At this time, units were still raised by wealthy individuals much as they had been in feudal times but two factors led to the donning of standardised military uniform. As unit sizes grew the interests of economy and the building of an esprit de corps led commanders to the provision of uniformity of clothing within their units. Also, large units all wearing the same bright colour helped in identification when the battlefield was choked with smoke.

The development of military uniforms then followed three principles:

The Hierarchical Principle – essentially the differentiation of rank within an organisation and the differentiation of types of units both in terms of branches of the army and within a smaller unit – e.g. the designation of elite troops such as grenadiers.

The Seduction Principle – the innate desire for soldiers and their commanders to want to look smart and attractive – as Jane Austen commented in Pride and Prejudice regarding Mr Wickham “the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming”. This goes hand in hand with the idea of parades – the grandeur of the parade is in no small part due to the splendour of the appearance of the units taking part.

The Utility Principle – compromises made on campaign for the practicalities of warfare – e.g. the wearing of plain greatcoats in bad weather and the stowing of gaudy badges that might draw enemy fire.

On top of this there was a tendency for all armies to copy the appearance of particular units that were deemed the “best” – hence, hussars in almost every army copied the appearance of the original Hungarian hussars drafted into the Austrian Army in the eighteenth century. The dolman and pelisse, festooned with lace, and the shako and sabretache became ubiquitous.

French_military_headwearsBut whatever the principle, the outcome on the battlefields of Europe was spectacular.

All that having been said, I’m not quite sure what principle still drives the uniforms of senior officers in the army of North Korea – perhaps there is a Pearly King and Queen principle I have overlooked.

north korean military

Nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won…

Duke-of-Wellington1Written late in the night after the Battle of Waterloo, Wellington’s words have gone into the annals of military history as one of the most poignant descriptions of the aftermath of battle. In his letter he added, “My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers.”

Now Wellington was no bleeding heart liberal. Just the opposite, he was known as the Iron Duke, and he never hesitated to flog or hang the soldiers he commanded who he often described as the “scum of the earth”.  But as a diligent commander he was sparing with their lives. He knew he had limited resources and was always strapped for cash and men. Throughout his career he had sought to limit casualties where possible and never shied away from retreat if that was the most prudent course despite one of his other well-known quotes being “The hardest thing of all for a soldier is to retreat.”

At Waterloo he famously ordered the bulk of his force to withdraw beyond the brow of the hill on which they were drawn up and to lie down to minimise the target made by their massed formations. It is said this movement misled Marshal Ney into believing the Allies were retreating and precipitated his disastrous mass cavalry charges that broke helplessly on the formed squares of the redcoats.


The effect of small calibre roundshot on metal plate

Yet despite his prudence there was little he could do to protect especially the infantry from the merciless bombardment of the French artillery. More than anything else it was the artillery that was the real killer on the battlefield. With roundshot at distance and case or canister at close range, the guns could destroy whole swathes of men and horses and there were over 500 cannon on the field of Waterloo.

The carnage must have beggared belief. With some 200,000 men and 60,000 horses in action on a battlefield measuring only five square miles it meant the resulting concentration of death and destruction has rarely been equalled in the history of warfare. The average number of casualties per square mile suffered by Wellington’s army during that single day was nearly 2,300, a higher concentration than the British Army suffered at the Battle of the Somme.

Afterwards Wellington said, “I hope to God that I have fought my last battle. It is a bad thing to be always fighting.” And so it turned out. After Waterloo, aged just 46, he never fought another action. Promoted Field Marshal, he became commander in chief of the British Army and Prime Minister.

But there was another side to the stern Iron Duke. Later in life, the Duke once met a little boy, crying by the road. “Come now, that’s no way for a young gentleman to behave. What’s the matter?” he asked.

“I have to go away to school tomorrow,” sobbed the child, “And I’m worried about my pet toad. There’s no-one else to care for it and I shan’t know how it is.”

Keen to ease the little chap’s discomfort, the Duke promised to attend to the matter personally.  After the boy had been at school for just over a week, he received a note: “Field Marshall the Duke of Wellington presents his compliments to Master —- and has the pleasure to inform him that his toad is well.”

Let them eat cake…

AntoninCaremeOkay, the quote is attributed to Marie Antoinette but it was the original “celebrity chef”, Marie-Antoine (known as Antonin) Carême, the culinary genius named in honour of the Queen, who turned the words into reality for Parisian high society. Acknowledged as the father of classical French cuisine, Carême rose literally from the gutters of Paris to be the most celebrated chef of his, or perhaps any, age.

He was born in 1784 to a poor family, perhaps the sixteenth of up to twenty-four children and he was abandoned by his parents on the streets of Paris to fend for himself when he was eight or nine years old. Luckily for him he was taken in to skivvy at a Paris chophouse and there he began to learn the trade of cooking. At 14 he was apprenticed to Sylvain Bailly, a famous patissier and from there he never looked back.

In his two years under Bailly he began to work with the head chef of one of Paris’s most renowned society figures, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord and when Talleyrand bought a large country estate in 1804 he hired Carême as his head chef. It is said that Talleyrand set Carême a test, to concoct a year’s worth of menus without repeating a dish and using solely seasonal produce. Carême passed the test easily and was hired.


Some of Carême’s creations

While working for Talleyrand, Carême also ran his own specialist pastry shop, Patisserie de la Rue de la Paix, which became famous for his beautifully crafted decorative centrepieces made out of nougat, marzipan, sugar and pastry. Even Napoleon commissioned Carême and the master chef created the Emperor’s wedding cake.

After the fall of Napoleon, Carême moved to England for three years where he was the principal chef to the Prince Regent. But the climate in London did not suite him so Carême moved back to Paris where he was hired by Baron Rothschild with whom he remained until he retired in1829. By that time he was paid an annual retainer by the Baron of 8,000 francs (equivalent to about £125,000 today) to cook at a handful of setpiece dinners.


More of Carême’s creations, inspired by his interest in architecture

From 1829 until his death in 1833, brought on early due to the years of poisoning he had been subjected to cooking over charcoal, he dedicated himself to writing and became one of the most prolific and influential cookery writers.

Not bad for a boy from the gutter.

Madame Bubbles…

veuve clicquot

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin was born in December 1777 and was the daughter of a wealthy textile manufacturer and politician in Reims.  Through her father’s political nouse and careful choosing of sides the family survived the Revolution relatively unscathed and in 1798 Barbe-Nicole married  Francois Clicquot, whose family was active in textiles and wine. The young man was particularly interested in wine, and his new bride joined him in learning the business but they struggled to make it work.

In 1805, Francois Clicquot died suddenly, leaving behind a 27-year-old wife, a young daughter and a failing business. The widow Clicquot, rather than withdrawing into domesticity or finding herself another husband, instead threw herself into the business, focused on wine production and changed the company name to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. “Veuve” being the French for “widow”.

veuve-clicquot-labelThe task before her was daunting with the Napoleonic Wars raging across Europe, disrupting trade and flattening national economies. But her father-in-law believed in her and backed her with sufficient finances.

Under her management and her skill with wine, the company enhanced the production of champagne using a novel technique called riddling.



Prior to this invention the second fermentation of wine to create champagne resulted in a very sweet wine with large bubbles and sediment in the bottle from the remains of the yeast used in the fermentation. This residue resulted in the wine being cloudy. Veuve Clicquot’s technique still used the original English technique of adding additional sugar, but after this second fermentation was complete the bottles were held upside down. They were then turned a fraction each day so that the dead yeast would all gather near the cork. This is what became known as remuage (or riddling in English). Once the settling was complete, the wine near the cork was removed and topped up with fresh wine to refill the bottle.

The widow’s commercial breakthrough came in 1814, ironically with the defeat of France by the allied forces ranged against her. She managed to ship her 1811 vintage, regarded as the first truly modern champagne, to St. Petersburg where it was an immediate hit and opened the door to the Russian market which Veuve Clicquot would dominate for the next 50 years. Pushkin, Chekhov and Gogol all praised her champagne.

The company went from strength to strength. By the 1820s Veuve Clicquot was exporting 175,000 bottles of champagne a year. By the time of her death in 1866 the widow’s house was the largest champagne producer in the world. Now the company has a revenue of over one billion pounds a year.

By way of a footnote, in 2010, diver Christian Ekstrom discovered 46 bottles of Veuve Clicquot near the Åland Islands in the Baltic Sea. The bottles had been lost en route to Russia, dated back to 1825-1830 and were likely made by the widow. They were remarkably well preserved due to the dark and cold of the seabed and one of the bottles was auctioned in 2011, fetching €30,000 which was a new record for a bottle of champagne at auction.

auction bottle

The most expensive bottle of champagne in history

One other bottle was chemically analysed and showed some interesting results. The level of sugar was much higher than modern champagne. There were also much higher levels of salt, iron, lead, copper, and arsenic(!) compared with modern vintages. The iron probably came from nails used in the wine barrels, and the lead leached from brass valve fittings of the winemaking equipment. It is believed the arsenic and copper originated from antiquated pesticide applied to the grapes.


A courage and devotion of an age that is no longer ours…


Dominique-Jean Larrey

At the height of the fighting at the battle of Waterloo in 1815 the Duke of Wellington spotted a surgeon in the French lines working on wounded while under fire. When he was told it was Dominique-Jean Larrey he gave orders for his men not to fire in the doctor’s direction and doffed his hat in salute. When asked by the Duke of Cambridge what he was doing Wellington pointed at Larrey and said, “I salute the courage and devotion of an age that is no longer ours.”

By the end of the Napoleonic wars Larrey, the son of a humble shoemaker, was famous for his medical skill, his innovations in the field of battlefield medicine and his devotion to his patients.

Born in 1766, it was on his father’s death that he went to live with his uncle who was a surgeon. Deciding on a career in medicine he was a medical student in Paris when Revolution erupted in France. Fully believing in the ideals of the Revolution he took part in the storming of the Bastille in 1789.

In the early years of the Revolutionary Wars Larrey served in the Army of the Rhine and it was there that he noted the speed at which horse-drawn artillery could move around the battlefield.


Flying ambulance

Convinced that speedy treatment of battlefield wounds was the best way of saving soldiers’ lives he proposed the construction of lightweight carts which could be driven into the thick of the fighting to retrieve wounded and get them to the surgeons as fast as possible.

ambulance1During the next couple of years he developed his design and ideas for the use of what he called his “flying ambulances”. Each vehicle was manned by teams trained in first aid who would perform basic patching up of the wounded before transporting them back to central stations manned by surgeons and their medical staff. There, the injuries were assessed and the patients prioritised based on the nature of their wounds rather than rank, prestige or even nationality. In effect Larrey invented the practice of battlefield triage as we know it now.

In 1797 Bonaparte requested Larrey’s transfer to the Army of Italy and thereafter Larrey was closely associated with the man who was to become First Consul then Emperor.

At the end of the abortive Egyptian campaign when Bonaparte decided to abandon the army and return to France, Larrey was one of the few who Bonaparte selected to accompany him but Larrey declined, insisting that the wounded soldiers left behind needed him more than Bonaparte. Napoleon duly accepted the doctor’s suggestion and Larrey stayed behind. After the surrender of the French army he was finally repatriated to France and immediately promoted and made Chief Surgeon to the Consular Guard.

From 1805 for the next ten years Larrey was constantly on campaign.

At Eylau in 1807 the Russian attack on the French flank nearly overran Larrey’s field hospital. Refusing appeals to evacuate, he calmly carried on with his operations insisting that he would die with his patients if necessary. It was only the last minute counter-attack by General Lepic’s cavalry that saved the situation and Lepic was only able to ride because of the treatment he had received from Larrey that very morning.

In 1809 during the battle of Aspern-Essling he personally amputated the legs of his close friend Marshal Jean Lannes who had been struck by roundshot. Despite the emotions of performing the procedure on a friend, Larrey carried out the operation impeccably but the wounds became infected and despite his best efforts Lannes died six days later. Larrey hadn’t left his friend’s side for the last three days of his life.

larrey and durand

Larrey treating wounded

Rewards followed for Larrey. He was made Companion of the Legion of Honour and Baron of the Empire. But more important to him was the esteem in which he was held by the soldiery. This was to save his life in Russia in 1812.

On the advance to Moscow the French and their allies fought the Russians at Borodino. The carnage was unbelievable and Larrey estimated he performed over 200 amputations during the battle and in the following 24 hours. But it was on the infamous retreat at the catastrophic crossing of the Beresina where he came closest to death. In a letter to his wife he related how much he owed to the ordinary soldier:

“In truth I owe my survival to the soldiers. [They] helped me to my feet and supported me when, from physical exhaustion, I fell in the snow. Still others shared with me the rations they had. If I approached their bivouac fire they would make room for me and I was even wrapped in straw or their coats. How many generals and senior officers were rebuffed and sent away without pity by their own soldiers! But at the name of Larrey all rose to their feet and welcomed me with a respectful friendship. Anyone but I would have perished at the Beresina when I crossed for the third time at the most dangerous moment [he had crossed repeatedly to try and save his medical equipment from the ambulances which had to be abandoned on the east bank]. But hardly had I been recognised than I was seized by strong hands and passed from one to the other, like a bundle of rags, to the end of the bridge… These signs of the love of the army for me are the greatest rewards I could wish for.”  

Larrey continued to serve through the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 and when Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815 Larrey came back to serve the Imperial Guard again. At the end of the battle of Waterloo when the French were in full retreat Larrey was cut down by a troop of Prussian lancers and left for dead. When he regained consciousness and tried to head away from the field he was captured by more Prussians.  He was about to be peremptorily shot when the Prussian surgeon recognised him (he had attended some of Larrey’s lectures) and persuaded his commanding officer to spare the French doctor. The Prussian agreed and sent Larrey off to Marshal Blücher’s headquarters where he was recognised and treated with respect having saved the life of the Marshal’s son after the battle of Dresden two years previously.

When Napoleon died he left 100,000 francs to Larrey but it was not his legacy that made Larrey’s heart swell but the words Napoleon had used to describe him in his will,

“The most virtuous man that I have known.”

Dominique-Jean Larrey died on 25 July 1842, three days after the death of Charlotte, his beloved wife of 48 years.