Abram Gannibal, the African slave who became a military engineer, a general in the Russian army, and the great-grandfather of the writer Aleksandr Pushkin

If days ago we saw the story of Sara Forbes Bonetta, a Yoruba princess rescued from slavery who ended up being sponsored by Queen Victoria, we had previously reviewed how Yasuke, another slave, became a samurai in 16th century Japan. Today we are going to tell an 18th-century episode that in a certain way seems to be a combination of both: that of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, an African prince kidnapped by the Ottomans but bought by a Russian ambassador who took him to her country, where, after a careful education , 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 started a biography about him -which he did not finish- entitled Arap Petra Velikogo (The Moor of Peter the Greatsometimes also translated as The black of Peter the Great). The book, the first that he wrote in prose, is in a novel key, so it is difficult to discern how much is reality and how much is imagination.

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

Being a nineteenth-century historical novel, what Pushkin tries to do is draw a vision of the revolutionary time of Pedro the big one through the adventures of his great-grandfather, whom he calls Ibrahim and with a plot centered on the infidelity of his wife, who gives birth to a white child and is therefore sentenced 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 treat a year later in the narrative poem Poltavaexchanging his relative for a Cossack.

So what do we know about Abram? Traditionally it was said that he was Ethiopian, born around 1696 in the town of Logon or Lagone, which would be located in the vicinity of Medri Bahri (an ancient kingdom of Eritrea), based on a letter that he himself wrote to the Empress Elizabeth (eldest daughter of Peter the big one, who reigned between 1741 and 1762). In fact, there is currently some rivalry between Ethiopia and Eritrea to claim the character. However, historians are more inclined to place his birth in the central part of Africa, in a region called Lagona that is in the surroundings of Lake Chad, or in the ancient kingdom of Logone-Birni, in Cameroon. In both places they also claim the origin.

The Kotoko Kingdom was located between the north of Cameroon and Nigeria and the southwest of Chad / Image: Google Maps

The reasons for this change in the criteria of the experts must be sought in a terminological reference that appears in a document of nobility probanza of 1742 and that has been identified as the Kotoka language (the one used in that part of Cameroon) and, above all, the map of the slave routes of his time, as Abram was captured and enslaved by Ottoman slavers after they raided his village and murdered his family.

Or so it is believed, because it is not known for sure what became of the twenty brothers he had -his father, as was customary among wealthy people, had a harem of many wives-, except that an older sister, Lagan, He died during the voyage to Constantinople by throwing himself overboard.

Therefore, Abram would have landed in the capital of the Sublime Porte when he was barely seven years old, remaining one as a servant in the house of Sultan Ahmed III (the dates are inaccurate, so it could also have been his brother and predecessor, Mustapha II ); Abram, by the way, was a derivative of Ibrahim. The Ottoman Empire lived then in a very tense relationship with Russia, hence it had initiated a rapprochement with Western powers such as England; in fact, in five years the war would break out. But first, someone providentially crossed Abram’s life, changing his present and his future.

It was Count Sava Lukich Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, an adventurer and fur trader who had met Pedro the big one in Azov in 1702 and he 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 assignment from the ambassador, also Count Piotr Andreyevich Tolstoy (curiously, another great-grandfather of a famous writer): find a black child to give to the Tsar; It was not an eccentricity but a fashion of the European courts of the time.

This is how Abram arrived in Moscow in 1704, being introduced to Pedro, who sponsored him at his baptism the following year, in the church of Santa Paraskeva (Vilna); Since then, the young man used that date as his birthday, in gratitude. Since the tsar did not want to limit himself to having something exotic but he wanted to demonstrate his ability to educate someone uncivilizedprobably as a national example in the face of the resistance he encountered to his modernizing effort, ordered that he be provided with multidisciplinary training.

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

In that period he had the opportunity to participate in combat, especially in 1717, when the War of the Quadruple Alliance broke out, in which France, Great Britain, the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch Republic allied against a Spain that was trying to recover its possessions. Italians lost in the Treaty of Utrecht. From the experience he was wounded and taken prisoner by the Spanish but was released in 1722 and earned the rank of captain.

It was in that French stage when he adopted his nickname Gannibal, which was nothing more than a tribute to his admired Hannibal Barca (in Russian it is said with the G in front). Proof that he had already acquired a certain classical culture, to the point that some authors affirm that he made friends with some of the French enlightened figures, such as Voltaire and Montesquieu, although there is no proof of this other than a phrase from the former calling him “Dark Star of Enlightenment” and that is why other experts question it.

The fact is that in 1723 he concluded the training period and wrote to the tsar requesting him to return to Russia; he did it, moreover, begging to do it by land, perhaps remembering the bitter journey that took him out of his homeland. The fact is that he obtained the permit 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 were going to change because Pedro the big one he died in February 1725 and his widow, Catherine I, took over the crown with the support of the newly minted nobility, especially the strongman of the state, Prince Aleksander Danilovich Menshikov, who was the ruler de facto and with absolute powers.

The problem was that Menshikov did not have a good relationship with Abram, whom he despised for his education and his status as a foreigner, so the latter prudently chose to get out of the way, going into exile in Siberia in 1727. This situation lasted for two years, which it ended when the jealous prince passed away and Catherine decided not to waste Abram’s talent as a military engineer any longer. He would remain on Siberian soil for another couple of 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 she married the Greek Yevdokía Diope, who actually hated him but she married him by royal imposition. The relationship, obviously, could not go well and, as Pushkin narrated, Yevdokía was unfaithful to him, giving birth months later to a girl whose white complexion revealed that there was another father involved. That cost her an eleven-year prison sentence in not exactly enviable conditions and, meanwhile, Abram met Christina Regina Siöberg, a paternal descendant of the Scandinavian and German aristocracies.

With her he contracted a second marriage in 1736 despite the fact that his divorce had not yet been formalized (he would not do so until 1753), something that meant he had to pay a heavy fine; but he shouldn’t have cared because this time the couple was happy. As much as to have ten children while the previous one, called Dieper, was confined in a convent for life.

The eldest son, Ivan, rose to high command in the imperial army and in 1773 founded the Ukrainian city of Kherson, ending up as general-in-chief. However, the most prominent offspring of that marriage was Osip because he would have a daughter named Nadezha who would become the mother of Aleksandr Pushkin.

At the end of 1741, after a bloodless coup d’état that overthrew Iván VI (Ana Ioánnova, Iván V and Pedro II had previously reigned), Elizabeth I, Pedro’s second daughter, ascended the throne. the big one and Catherine I (who had had twelve but all died in infancy except her and her sister Ana Petrovna).

nicknamed the Clement By abolishing the death penalty, she developed a positive reign -except in the economic plane-, substituting the Germanic influence in the government for the Francophile that she had always had. This benefited Abram, who entered the court with full honors and became a division general, assigning Reval (present-day Tallinn) as governor; there he remained a decade.

It was also there that he wrote to the tsarina the aforementioned letter in which he requested the granting of a title and a coat of arms that included an elephant and the mysterious word FVMMO. Some researchers used it to locate her place of birth, since they identified her as a Kotoko language, in which it would mean homeland; others, on the other hand, believe that they were only the acronym for «Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Oppido» (“Fortune has totally changed my life”).

In the end, Elizabeth I granted him an estate in Mikhaylovskoye, in northwestern Russia’s Pskov Oblast (Governorate), along with hundreds of serfs to work it. Abram retired there in 1762, coinciding with the death of the Tsarina. He died in Saint Petersburg almost two decades later, on May 14, 1781; he was eighty-five years old and leading a fascinating existence.


The black 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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