There is an episode from the eighteenth century that in a way seems to come from a work of fiction: that of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an African prince kidnapped by the Otmans but bought by a Russian ambassador who took him to his country, where, after a careful education, he reached high military and political positions, although above all he is known for having been the great-grandfather of Aleksandr Pushkin.

In fact, it is the famous Russian writer who provides the little information available about his ancestor, since he began a biography about him -which he never finished- entitled Arap Petra Velikogo (The Moor of Peter the Great, sometimes also translated as The Negro of Peter the Great). The book, the first one he did in prose, is in a novelistic key, so it is difficult to discern how much there is of reality and how much of imagination.

Moreover, it is believed that Pushkin possibly exaggerated Abram’s origins, assimilating him to royalty, in order to exalt his lineage. In any case, he wrote this work between 1827 and 1828, and during his lifetime he only published a couple of fragments, not editing the complete work (actually incomplete) until 1837.

Aleksandr Pushkin portrayed by Orest Kiprenski in 1827/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Being a nineteenth-century historical novel, Pushkin tries to trace a vision of the revolutionary era of Peter the Great through the vicissitudes of his great-grandfather, whom he calls Ibrahim, and with a plot centered on the amorous infidelity of his wife, who gives birth to a white child and is therefore condemned to enter a convent.

All this, as we say, with that contextual background of the tsar’s struggle against the boyars to modernize the country that Pushkin would return to a few years later in the narrative poem Poltava, replacing his relative with a Cossack.

So what do we know about Abram? It was traditionally said that he was Ethiopian, born around 1696 in the village of Logon or Lagone, which would be located in the vicinity of Medri Bahri (an ancient kingdom of Eritrea), based on a letter he wrote to Empress Elizabeth (eldest daughter of Peter the Great, who reigned between 1741 and 1762).

The Kotoko Kingdom was located between northern Cameroon and Nigeria and southwestern Chad/Image: Google Maps

In fact, at present there is a certain rivalry between Ethiopia and Eritrea to vindicate the character. However, historians are more inclined to place his birth in the central part of Africa, in a region called Lagona that is around Lake Chad, or in the ancient kingdom of Logone-Birni, in Cameroon. Both sites also claim to be the place of his birth.

The reasons for this change in the experts’ criteria are to be found in a terminological reference that appears in a document of noble evidence from 1742 and which has been identified as being of Kotoka language (the language used in that part of Cameroon) and, above all, in the map of the slave routes of his time, since Abram was captured and enslaved by Ottoman slave-drivers after they assaulted his village and killed his family.

Or so it is believed, since it is not known for sure what happened to the twenty or so brothers he had -his father, as was the custom among the wealthy, had a harem of many wives-, except that an older sister, Lagan, died during the trip to Constantinople when she threw herself overboard.

The famous letter sent by Abram to Tsarina Elizabeth from Tallinn in 1744/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

Therefore, Abram would have disembarked in the capital of the Sublime Gate when he was barely seven years old, staying one year as a servant in the house of Sultan Ahmed III (the dates are inaccurate, so it could have been also his brother and predecessor, Mustafa II); Abram, by the way, was a derivation of Ibrahim.

The Ottoman Empire was then living in a very tense relationship with Russia, so it would have started a rapprochement with Western powers like England; in fact, in a five-year period, war would break out. But before that, someone providentially crossed into Abram’s life, changing his present and his future.

He was Count Sava Lukich Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, an adventurer and fur merchant who had met Peter the Great in Azov in 1702 and the latter took advantage of the fact that the other was living in Constantinople on business to incorporate him into the Russian diplomatic delegation. Two years later he received a peculiar order from the ambassador, also Count Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy (curiously another great-grandfather of a famous writer): to look for a black child to give to the Tsar; this was not an eccentricity but a fashion of the European courts of the time.

Possible portrait of young Abram / photo public domain on Wikimedia Commons

That’s how Abram arrived in Moscow in 1704, being presented to Peter, who sponsored him in his baptism the following year, in the church of St. Paraskeva (Vilnius); since then, the young man used that date as his birth date, in gratitude. Since the Tsar did not want to limit himself to having something exotic but wanted to demonstrate his ability to educate someone uncivilized, probably as a national example in the face of the resistance he encountered to his modernizing efforts, he ordered that he be given a multidisciplinary education.

The boy accompanied the Tsar in all his campaigns as a valet (personal assistant) until 1717 and learned several languages, which favoured his being sent to Metz to study science. A year later he joined the French army to broaden his military knowledge and in 1720 he entered the artillery academy of La Fère.

During this period he had the opportunity to participate in combat, especially in 1717, when the Quadruple Alliance War broke out, in which France, Great Britain, the Holy Empire and the Dutch Republic allied themselves against a Spain that was trying to recover its Italian possessions lost by the Treaty of Utrecht. He was wounded and imprisoned by the Spaniards but was released in 1722 and earned the rank of captain.

Peter I the Great portrayed by Jean-Marc Nattier/Imagen: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

It was during this French period that he adopted his nickname Gannibal, which was nothing more than a tribute to his admired Hannibal Barca (in Russian it is said with a G in front). This was proof that he had already acquired a certain classical culture, to the point that some authors claim that he made friends with some of the French illustrated figures, such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, although there is no proof of this other than a phrase by the former calling him “the dark star of the Enlightenment” and that is why other experts doubt it.

The fact is that in 1723 he concluded his training period and wrote to the Tsar asking him for returning to Russia; he did it, moreover, begging to do it by land, perhaps remembering the bitter journey that took him out of his native land. The case is that he obtained permission and returned to Moscow exercising his profession as an engineer, to which he added that of professor of mathematics of the imperial guard.

But again things would change because Peter the Great died in February, 1725, and his widow, Catherine I, assumed the crown with the support of the new nobility, especially of the strong man of the state, the Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov, who was the de facto ruler with absolute powers.

Abram’s bust in Petrovsky Park / photo Ludushka on Wikimedia Commons

The problem was that Menshikov did not have a good relationship with Abram, whom he despised because of his education and his status as a foreigner, so the latter chose to get out of the way prudently, going into exile in Siberia in 1727. This situation lasted two years, which ended when the jealous prince died and Catherine decided not to continue wasting Abram’s talent as a military engineer.

He would still remain on Siberian soil for a couple more years but with a completely different status, directing the construction of a fortress, at the end of which he received the title of master engineer.

He also got something very different: a wedding ring. In 1731 he married the Greek Yevdokia Diope, who actually detested him but married him by royal imposition. The relationship, obviously, could not go well and, as Pushkin narrated, Yevdokia was unfaithful to him, giving birth months later to a girl whose white complexion revealed that there was another father involved.

Ivan, Abram’s son/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

That cost her a sentence of eleven years in prison in not exactly enviable conditions and, in the meantime, Abram met Christina Regina Siöberg, a paternal descendant of the Scandinavian and German aristocracies.

He married her in 1736, even though his divorce had not been formalized yet (he would not do it until 1753), something that meant he had to pay a heavy fine; but he should not have cared because this time the couple was happy. So much so that they had ten children while the previous one, called Dieper, was confined to a convent for life.

The firstborn, Ivan, became a high command of the imperial army and in 1773 he would found the Ukrainian city of Kherson, ending up as commanding general. However, the most outstanding offspring of that marriage was Osip because he would have a daughter named Nadezha who would become the mother of Aleksandr Pushkin.

Coat of arms granted to Abram Petrovich Gannibal with the mysterious inscription/Image: Floricord on Wikimedia Commons

At the end of 1741, after a bloodless coup d’état that overthrew Ivan VI (previously Anna Ioannova, Ivan V and Peter II had reigned), Elizabeth I, the second daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I (who had had twelve but all died in infancy except her and her sister Anna Petrovna), ascended the throne. Nicknamed the Clement for abolishing the death penalty, she developed a positive reign -except on the economic level-, substituting the Germanic influence in the government for the Francophilia she had always had. This benefited Abram, who entered the court with full honors and became a divisional general, being assigned to Reval (now Tallinn) as governor; he remained there for a decade.

It was also there that he wrote the aforementioned letter to the Czarina requesting the granting of a title and a coat of arms bearing an elephant and the mysterious word FVMMO. Some researchers used it to situate her birthplace, as they identified it as being in the Kotoko language, which would mean homeland; others believe it was just the acronym for “Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Oppido” (“Fortune has changed my life completely”).

In the end, Elizabeth I granted him a farm in Mikhaylovskoye, in the Pskov oblast (governorate) of northwest Russia, along with hundreds of serfs to work on it. Abram retired there in 1762, coinciding with the death of the Czarina. He died in St. Petersburg almost two decades later, on May 14, 1781; he was eighty-five years old and lived a fascinating life.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on May 15, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en Abram Gannibal, el esclavo africano que llegó a ser ingeniero militar, general del ejército ruso y bisabuelo del escritor Aleksandr Pushkin


The negro of Peter the Great (Aleksandr Pushkin)/Notes on Prosody and Abram Gannibal (Vladimir Nabokov)/The Stolen Prince (Hugh Barnes)/The Image of Peter the Great in Russian History and Thought (Nicholas V. Riasanovsky)/Gannibal. The Moor of Petersburg (Hugh Barnes)/Wikipedia

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