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Gannibal by Hugh Barnes

I suppose I should have known that Russian Tsar Peter the Great adopted a black African slave who not only became one of the leading military engineers of his day, but also Alexander Pushkin’s grandfather—but I didn’t. It makes one wonder what other fascinating historical tidbits have dropped below the radar.

Gannibal by Hugh Barnes
Gannibal, Hugh Barnes (Ecco Press, May 2006; Profile Books Ltd, July 2006)

Abram Petrovich Gannibal (that’s “Hannibal” pronounced in the Russian “aitchless” way, just as Hong Kong becomes “Gonkong”) was abducted into slavery as a boy, sent to Constantinople where he ended up in the harem serving the future Sultan, and from whence he was “rescued”, or perhaps purchased, by a Russian spy and sent to Moscow.

Gannibal is in many ways an eye-popping book. Several decades before the American Declaration of Independence declared, somewhat hypocritically, that “all men are created equal”, Gannibal rose to the highest levels of the Russian military, married into Russian society, was involved in the Byzantine politics of the Tsarist succession, spied for the Tsar in Paris, studied in Spain, was an accomplished linguist, mathematician and engineer—an intellectual by any description: he was about as integrated into 18th society as one could be. Indeed, his success is so startling and his adoption of contemporary European culture, mores and tradition so complete that one cannot help wondering why it seems to have only happened once.

The story is filled with weird and ironic twists and turns. Cast as Othello, he was cuckolded by his Russian Desdomona. Gannibal invented an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) ancestry for himself, Abyssinians being considered less “black” than other Africans. He was sent to Siberia, about as far from Africa geographically and culturally as one can get, and ultimately put to work built a fort on the Chinese border to thwart a threat that never materialised. And Gannibal himself ended up owning slaves (or at least serfs).

Hugh Barnes has done more than write a biography: he ventured into Africa to make a convincing case that Gannibal in fact hailed from Cameroon (the previously mysterious word “fummo” on Gannibal’s crest is the local language’s word for “homeland”) and, while it isn’t quite clear how one can manage to lose a fort, even one on Sino-Siberian border, the Russians managed it—but Barnes somehow finds Gannibal’s lost Novoselenginsk fortifications.

Gannibal ended up retiring to his estate. Truth really is really stranger than fiction.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.