Mysterious origins of African who charmed Russian court

Gannibal - The Moor of St Petersburg
January 6, 2006

The Russian poet Pushkin was proud of his African ancestry. He was aware that his paternal great-grandfather, Abram or Abraham, had come from Africa: he was purchased as a slave in Constantinople and sent to Moscow, where Peter the Great adopted him as his godson. The Russians then knew precious little about Africa and, accordingly, called the young man Gannibal, their form of Hannibal - the ancient Carthaginian leader being one of the few African figures of whom they had heard.

Gannibal was, however, far more than merely the ancestor of Alexander Pushkin. Peter sent him to study in Paris (where he met Voltaire) and launched him on a brilliant military-cum-engineering career - which took him to Estonia, Siberia and the frontier of China. He was renowned as a mathematician, a linguist and an author, and he attained the rank of major-general - making him the most prominent son of Africa to rise to importance anywhere in the Europe of his time. Pushkin, fascinated by his ancestor, refers to him in notes to his poem Eugene Onegin . Pushkin also told of Abraham in his unfinished novel The Negro of Peter the Great , which is concerned mainly with the ex-slave's sojourn in Paris.

The poet failed, however, to find out much of substance about his great-grandfather, for the latter "wrote his memoirs in French, but in a fit of panic... ordered them to be burnt". Posterity was thus deprived of virtually any autobiographical data on Gannibal, and was left with only the scantiest information as to where he actually came from.

Only two contemporary or near-contemporary documents describing this interesting event are extant. The first was a petition written in 1742 by Abraham: it observes that he was "a native of Africa", born "in the town of Lagon". The other document was a biography of Gannibal, written after his death by his son-in-law Adam Rotkirkh: it declares that Abraham's father was an Abyssinian prince and "a vassal" of the Turkish or Ottoman Empire, against which he had rebelled. These statements led later commentators to differing conclusions.

Some, failing to trace a town in Africa called Lagon, dismissed the Gannibal petition and, after the Rotkirkh biography, concluded that Abraham, son of "an Abyssinian prince", was most probably an Ethiopian from the northern seaboard over which the Turks held intermittent sway - and from which hundreds of slaves were transported annually.

This view was strengthened when it transpired that the early 19th-century British traveller Henry Salt had visited a place in that area called Logo.

Others, searching harder for Lagon, later identified it with the old town, and slave market, of Logone, in Cameroon, south of Lake Chad - but probably beyond the sway of the Turkish emperor, and certainly no habitat of an "Abyssinian prince". Confronted by the intriguing question of whether Abraham hailed from eastern or west-central Africa, the time is perhaps ripe to investigate whether DNA testing of his descendants, who include the Mountbattens, could settle the matter.

Given such uncertainties about Abraham's origins - and his importance both in his own right and as the ancestor of Russia's best-loved poet - the publication of these books is timely. Hugh Barnes's Gannibal and Frances Somers Cocks's The Moor of St Petersburg , though very different, are complementary. Barnes, a British journalist specialising in Russia and with a good knowledge of its language, has attempted a biography of Gannibal in which he tries to take us to the latter's birthplace (wherever that may be) and the main locations in Africa, Europe and Asia associated with the former slave's life.

Gannibal is fast moving and well documented. But his attempt to see Abraham in Shakespearean terms as an 18th-century Russian Othello adds only speculation to our scarce knowledge of Gannibal's character. Both the imagined Othello and the real but still little-known African in Russia were both black military figures in a white society and at loggerheads with their wives, but they had little else in common.

Somers Cocks, an English teacher long fascinated by Pushkin's great-grandfather (and who called her son after him), is already the author of two lively children's books on the subject: Abraham Hannibal and the Raiders of the Sands and Abraham Hannibal and the Battle for the Throne . She is less concerned than Barnes with the details of Gannibal's life, and she looks in greater depth at the places he visited. Her work, which is well researched and interestingly presented, is thus largely a historical travelogue - in which her hero comes vividly alive.

One last problem arises from Gannibal's coat of arms. This embodies an elephant - presumably symbolising his African origin - and the letters FVMMO, conceivably representing the letters FUMMO. No contemporary, as far as we know, ever asked Abraham what these signified. Barnes, clearly mystified, quotes the local sultan of Logone as declaring that the Kotoko word Fu-mow meant "Homeland" - an improbable concept to place on a shield.

Somers Cocks, on the other hand, thinks that FVMMO represents the initials of the Latin motto " Fortuna vitam meam mutavit oppido " (Fortune has changed my life greatly). Barnes, unconvinced, claims that Gannibal "knew almost no Latin". We should perhaps ask how far studies in France might have taught the meaning of that phrase and whether other Russian coats of arms ever made use of such a motto.

Both Gannibal and The Moor of St Petersburg provide valuable insights into Abraham's life. Neither, however, satisfies us as to his land of origin, nor solves the conundrum of the motto on his shield.

Richard Pankhurst was the founder and first director of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg

Author - Hugh Barnes
Publisher - Profile
Pages - 300
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 1 86197 365 9

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