From African slave to Russian nobility – Gannibal
In 1827 Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) authored The Moor of Peter the Great, the story of an African slave who rose to prominence under the rule of Tsar Peter the Great. This romanticised work of adventure and court intrigue is based on the real-life experiences of the author’s own great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an African slave living amongst 18th century Russian nobility.
So; how did an African slave find his way to the halls of Russian power?
Born in approximately 1696, the boy named Abram or Ibrahim (his name is debated) was abducted and taken into slavery at the age of 8. It is believed that Abram was the son of the Kotoko chieftain Bruha, who founded the city of Logone (believed to be modern day Logone-Birni in Cameroon but potentially another city in Ethiopia). The slavers are thought to have been from the Bornu empire; an Islamic state whose wealth came from slave trading with the Muslim Barbary states of northern Africa. This was hugely sucessful due the prime location for raids against a pagan peoples, as Muslim law forbade the enslavement of fellow believers.
Abram was eventually sold to the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople (modern day Istanbul), and was assigned as a page to Prince Ahmed, the younger brother of the Sultan Mustafa the 2nd. It was here that Abram laboured in the gilded halls of the Tokapi palace; fluffing cushions and sweeping the carpets amongst many other jobs. The year he arrived in Constantinople Abram witnessed Mustafa being deposed by his brother Ahmed.
Abram was now in a unique position; as the personal page of the sultan he was the closest man in the empire to it’s leader. He became a vital link in a chain of informants that led all the way to the treacherous grand Vizire who was feeding information to the Russian ambassador Pyotr Tolstoy (great grandfather of Leo Tolstoy). Soon, however, the Vizire was killed by agents of the sultan and Tsar Peter the Great ordered Tolstoy to smuggle the African slaves out of the Tokapi palace and bring them to him, which at the time seemed a very inconspicuous request as it was the height of
fashion for European rulers to have African slaves in their court as a demonstration of wealth and power. How this extraction was carried out by the Russian agents is unknown, as is how many slaves they got out, but we do know that Abram was one of those removed. He was the most
valuable due to the vast amount of information he held about the sultan.
Spirited out of the sublime port, Abram found his way northwards towards Moscow and arrived there in the winter. Having never before experienced the harsh Russian winter he was taken through Moscow to the Kremlin on a sleigh, where he was presented to the Tsar on Christmas day 1704.
Abram’s arrival caused a stir as most Russians had no knowledge of Africa, and to them dark-skinned people were mysterious, potentially sinister “others”, and depicted as bogeymen and devils in their plays.
Peter the Great was ahead of his time, and he intended to modernise Russia, changing it from what he believed to be an isolated backwater to a modern European power. Peter always brought foreigners in to the highest rungs of Russian society in hopes to disseminate their ideas into Russia,
and with his new African acquisition he hoped to prove a point to his traditionally xenophobic nobility. If an African could be turned into a bright-minded asset to Russia then there would be no argument that Russia’s future lay in openness, and not in isolation.
Over the next few months Peter kept Abram close, intrigued by the boy’s natural affinity for languages and the speed with which he had become fluent in Russian. By 1705 Peter began campaigning once more and took the young Abram with him. As a result, Abram spent most of his
childhood in military camps, learning the art of war. In 1705 Abram was baptised in Vilnius and became known as Abram Petrovich (Son of Peter) with the Tsar becoming his godfather. The following years were spent in campaigns against the Swedish empire, and Abram became a fervent
admirer of military engineering and sciences. Soon Peter started to see Abram as his adopted son, admiring his natural cleverness and a passion for the battlefield – in contrast to the Tsar’s own son, prince Alexei, who was bookish and nothing like his father. For the next ten years Abram stayed by Peter’s side. He developed a code system for the Russian army as their communications were regularly intercepted, and became a close adviser to the Tsar.
In 1716 the Tsar went on a grand European tour in an effort to improve foreign relations and expand Russia’s influence. One stop was in Paris, where Abram was left behind at the behest of his godfather in order to study European enlightenment. There he met some of the most innovative
minds of France, such as Voltaire who described Abram as “the dark star of Russian enlightenment”.
Originally studying in Metz, where he became fluent in several more languages and excelled in science, mathematics and geometry, Abram later enrolled at the French military academy of artillery at La Fere in 1720 were he studied military engineering, eventually joining the French army (again at his godfather’s request), as an officer in the french artillery. During the war of the quadruple alliance (1718-1720) Abram earned the moniker ‘Hannibal’ after the Carthaginian general of old. He eventually became known as Gannibal due to the Russian pronunciation of Hannibal. Whilst fighting in the Pyrenees Gannibal was wounded and taken prisoner by the Spanish forces. He was released in 1722 and returned to Paris, lauded as a hero for his actions during the war which had led to the fall of many Spanish forts. Abram was now a celebrity in France, and he returned to Russia in 1723.
Upon his return he was lavished with gifts and honours by his imperial godfather and his education was put to good use while he laboured as his godfather had intended in building the great fortress of Kronstadt on Kotlin island, guarding the northern pass to Saint-Petersburgh. He also engineered the massive canal around lake Ladoga, a feat which was considered impossible until he accomplished it. Abram became Russia’s finest military and civil engineer, completing many great works. His stint as an engineer was not to last, however, as in 1725 Peter the Great passed away, leaving a power vacuum. Alexander Menshikov became Regent after seizing control and by 1727 Gannibal had been banished to Siberia to toil out of sight on less imposing engineering projects. He continued to serve Russia on the Mongolian border, building fortresses to guard Siberia against Mongol and Chinese invasions. Menshikov was overthrown in 1729 and exiled to Siberia, in a stroke of poetic justice. Gannibal was recalled to the heart of Russia, as he was the nation’s foremost practical genius.
In 1741 Peter’s daughter ascended to the throne and was keen to bestow the same honours on Abram that her father had. She made him commander of the Russian army garrison in Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), where the predominantly German aristocracy were very conservative. Gannibal won them over by creating a firework display – something that would normally only ever be seen in the great capitals of Europe. He worked on improving the coastal defences of the region and became one of the foremost politicians of the Blatic. By 1742 Tsarina Elizabeth awarded him with the Mikhaylovskoye estate, with 100 serfs at his command. Serfdom was an institution that bound peasants to a piece of land and the lord of that land – so thus in an ironic twist of fate the man who was once a slave became a slave owner of sorts.
In 1756 the world’s first truly global conflict had started. Gannibal was quickly put in a position of high command within the Russian army and transformed it from a motley collection of militias to a professional army. He was involved in the introduction of weaponised rockets, which were based on the designs of his beloved fireworks. However, bureaucracy was to drag Abram down and he was eventually demoted due to the prejudices of the Russian high commands. He spent the rest of war building canals and upgrading existing fortresses. Judging by Russia’s record in conflict against Prussia, he may have literally dodged a bullet as the Russian’s far larger armies could not outright defeat Prussia. Things only got worse for the Russian armies as they couldn’t keep up the necessary supplies for their troops in the field. In 1762 the Tsarina died and was succeeded by the Prussophile Peter III, who single handedly changed the course of the war for by not only ceasing hostilities with Prussia but also giving back all territorial gains made by the Russian army and forcing Sweden to give back Pomerania, which they had seized in the conflict.
That same year, under the rule of Catherine the Great (wife of now deposed Peter III), Abram Petrovich Gannibal would end his illustrious career in the service of the Romanov dynasty. On the 9th of June he performed his final duty with a magnificent firework display outside the winter palace, which was now considered a relic of a bygone era – a leftover from a long dead Tsar. After the final display Abram retired to his estate and lived comfortably for the next twenty years, dying at a ripe old age in his mid-80’s. He had many wives during his long life, and fathered a large number of children, some of whom are still remembered in Russian history as generals and poets.As a member of the Russian nobility, Abram had his own coat of arms. His design featured an elephant with the letters ‘FVMMO’ below. Historians have argued about the lettering, with some stating that it might actually read ‘Kotoko’ (homeland). However, but it is most likely the Latin initials for a quote that seems very poignant for a man born the son of a chief, abducted and sold into slavery, and then rising to a position of high importance in a foreign nobility –
“Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Omnino”
“Fortune has changed my life entirely”