The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss, which won America’s national book award for biography in 2013, tells the story of  Thomas Alexandre Dumas, father of the famous French novelist. Thomas Alexandre was born of a French nobleman and his Haitian slave in Haiti, then called Saint Domingue and a French colony.

Monte Cristo was a nearby island from where Dumas senior’s great uncle shipped sugar and slaves to Europe and America. Thomas Alexandre was enrolled in school in Paris, and later, he shone in the military, winning fame for his role in leading a unit of mixed race legionnaires during the French Revolutionary period (1789-1792). He was also the youngest to attain the position of general, commanding the Army of the Alps during Napoleon’s wars. However, it was during Napoleon’s Egypt campaign that disagreements between them surfaced and Dumas decided to return home. On the way he was captured near Naples and held in the dungeons for two years.

Although Thomas Alexandre returned to Paris, he never resumed military command and Napoleon’s new laws forced new humiliations on him. He died young at the age of 43. It is believed that Dumas’ father served as an inspiration for his son’s novels.  However, there is a near contemporary of Thomas Alexandre Dumas who could claim to be the alter ego of the Count of Monte Cristo, given that he had disappeared for two decades and was also given up by his family for dead.

Elusive Venus

Born in 1725, a French astronomer whose full name was the mouthful Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisière sailed to Pondicherry in 1760 to witness a unique stellar event called the transit of Venus. His journey has been described in and a French astronomy site, from where this story has been pieced together.

During the transit, predicted for 1761, the planet was to pass directly between the sun and the earth. As the astronomer Edmund Halley had calculated, this would allow the possibility of measuring the distance from the earth to the sun. It was an ambitious project and more than a hundred astronomers were sent to different corners of the globe. Le Gentil had been was commissioned by the French Academy of Sciences to observe the transit from Pondicherry, then a French colony.

He sailed in March 1760, arriving on the Isle de France, now Mauritius, in July, when he learned that war had broken out between France and Britain and his passage further east was curtailed. In February 1761, he moved ahead, and though the monsoons were expected, he was assured that he could reach Pondicherry by mid-April, giving him plenty of time for the transit scheduled for June 6. However, rough winds blew his ship off course, and for five weeks it wandered around the Indian Ocean and then the Arabian Sea.

As the ship neared Mahé on India’s west coast, the captain learned that the British had captured Pondicherry. A frustrated Le Gentil had to return to Isle de France. On transit day, Le Gentil found himself still on board a ship, unable to make any observations because the deck rolled and heaved around him. Planetary transits were usually paired events; this time, the next one was expected eight years later. Le Gentil decided to stay on in the Indian Ocean region until the next transit, in 1769, hoping to make careful observations on subjects like geography, natural history, physics, astronomy, navigation, winds and tides – that would help advance scientific knowledge of the East.

In May 1766, he sailed for Manila in the Philippines hoping that it would be the ideal spot to observe the transit, and arrived in August. The Spanish governor of Manila was suspicious of Le Gentil. Fortunately, Pondicherry was soon recaptured by the French and Le Gentil escaped on a Portuguese ship. On his arrival in Pondicherry on March 27, 1768, the governor welcomed him grandly, and the next day invited him to select a location for his observatory.

The day before the transit, the sky was clear; Le Gentil and the governor were able to view Jupiter’s satellites. Everything appeared favourable for observing the transit. But at night, Le Gentil was dismayed to find the sky overcast. The next morning, thick clouds brought in a storm and La Gentil’s telescopes were of no use all through the forecasted duration of the transit.

Ancient port town

A depressed Le Gentil fell sick and this delayed his journey homeward. It was during this time that Le Gentil noticed the remains of an old settlement by the river Arinyakuppam near Pondicherry. He noticed the huge bricks, ruined walls and remains of old wells, and was convinced that these were the ruins of a large ancient village or even a town, as described in historian Upinder Singh's book, Mysteries of the Past: Archeological Sites in India.

The settlement, now called Arikamedu, was known as Padouke in history, and mentioned in the Periplus Maris Erytheaae, a maritime geography of the east-west trade written around the first century CE. Tamil poems of the Sangam period refer to people called yavanas as foreigners, mainly Greeks, Romans and west Asians, who came bringing in goods such as fine lamps, gold and wine and buying, in turn, cargoes of pepper at the ports of south India between about 200 BC and 200 CE.

He left for France in March 1770 but was again forced to recuperate at the Isle de France. A hurricane confined him here for another few months and it was towards the year-end that he received news that his relations, believing him dead, had initiated efforts to carve his estate up. A year later in 1771, he left Isle de France for the last time and the ship endured a stormy voyage all the way to Cadiz in Spain. Thereon, he travelled on foot and by horse, reaching France on October 8, 1771. It was eleven years, six months and thirteen days since he had set out.

But not merely were his heirs at war over his estate, his wife had remarried and several crates of specimens he had collected on his journey had gone missing. He had also lost his seat in France’s prestigious Science Academy. But he found happiness of a sort: he remarried, regained his property and seat at the Academy and lived till 1792, having weathered the Revolution of 1789.

Excavations at Arikemedu were to begin nearly two hundred years later. It was Jouveau Dubreuil, the French archaeologist then residing in Pondicherry in the 1940s who rediscovered Arikamedu and its significance as an ancient trading town with connections with the wider world, according to Mysteries of the Past. The archaeologist, Aiyappan, began a systematic examination and mapping of Arikamedu, which revealed a settlement that served as a sizeable trading station and port, the book says.

Certain kinds of foreign pottery originating from lands around the Mediterranean Sea were also found, including jars known as amphorae, with a pink body, a yellow slip or coating and two handles. Archaeologists also found beads made of gold, glass and semi-precious stones (some with Greek or Roman designs), Roman lamps and Roman glass items at the site.

Arikamedu was excavated for six seasons, between 1941 and 1950, and then again between 1989 and 1992. The site was heavily damaged during the 2012 cyclone called Thane. It had already sustained substantial damaged during the tsunami of 2004. Little attempts had been made to preserve it, according to one news report. No sand walls exist around the remains and the mound that Le Gentil first noticed has by now largely eroded.