The year is 1827. It is a chilly summer morning,
and in the edge of Northwestern Russia, a dim light shines from within Mikhaylovskoye
house. In the candlelit study of this humble estate sits a swarthy, curly-haired man, putting
ink to paper. He is Alexander Pushkin, the greatest poet in the history of Russia.
The novel he writes is full of intrigue and adventure. But, there is a twist. His story,
titled “The Moor of Peter the Great”, is based on his own family history. For Pushkin
was in fact the Great Grandson of an African Slave. But who exactly was this mysterious
dark-skinned ancestor of his? And why did the father of Russian literature take such
pride in being descended from him? To find that out, we must travel back another 130
years, to the steamy wetlands of central Africa. Thanks to Final Fantasy 15: A New Empire and
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below to download Final Fantasy 15: A New Empire yourself! The ancestor of the Pushkins was born in 1698,
and known to us by the name of Abram. The location of his homeland is the subject of
much scholarly debate. Having been abducted at only eight years old, Abram himself was
able to provide only a few details about his origins during his lifetime. In a letter to
Empress Catherine in 1742, he wrote the following: “I am a native of Africa, of the high nobility
there. I was born in the land ruled by my father, in the city of Lagone”.
The exact location of ‘Lagone’ remains uncertain. Pushkin asserted that his ancestor
was an Abyssinian Prince from Ethiopia, a romantic land with Biblical ties. However,
the modern day field-work of one Hugh Barnes has linked Abram’s cryptic ‘Lagone’
to the city of Logone-Birni, in modern day Cameroon. If Abram’s claim to nobility is
true, then he was most likely one of the many sons of Prince Bruha, a Kotoko chieftain who
founded the city of Logone in the year 1700. Bruha’s domain lay on the doorstep of the
Bornu Empire, an Islamic power whose wealth came largely from engaging in the lucrative
Slave Trade with the Barbary Pirate States of to the North. African Slaves were in high
demand across the Islamic world, yet religious law forbade the indenturement of fellow Muslims.
This made Logone, a pagan city ruled by a pagan Chieftain, a target of war. In this
geopolitical context, we can easily see how an eight year old boy, the son of an African
Prince, could be taken as a valuable captive amidst constant border warfare, and shipped
off to be a prized pet of a status-seeking ruler across the sea.
Given his status as a Chieftain’s son, young Abram was considered valuable, and eventually
sold to the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. He arrived at the Sublime Porte in the Spring
of 1703, and was quickly assigned to be a page to Prince Ahmed, the younger brother
of Sultan Mustafa II. Here, the slave boy laboured within the gilded walls of the Topkapi
palace, fluffing cushions, sweeping carpets, serving his master, and feeding his exotic
pets. Ottoman politics was a perfidious affair,
full of secrets and court intrigue. In 1703, Mustafa was deposed, and Ahmed became the
new Ottoman Sultan. As his personal page, Abram was now closer to the Sultan than most,
and as a result became a link in a chain of informants feeding secret and sensitive information
about the Imperial monarch. On one end of this chain was the Sultan’s treacherous
Grand Vizier, on the other, Pyotr Tolstoy, an Ambassador of the Empire of Russia, and
great grandfather of the famed author Leo Tolstoy.
Soon, the Grand Vizier was the victim of his own court intrigue, and was murdered by agents
of the Sultan. With his main connection to the Topkapi palace severed, Tolstoy lamented
his loss of contact with the ‘clever Africans’ spying on his behalf. One story claims that
when Tsar Peter the Great heard of this, he ordered that these Africans be smuggled out
of Constantinople and brought to him. It was a fairly inconspicuous request; African
slaves were in vogue at the time, an exotic status symbol that the Monarchs of Europe
kept in the palaces as a symbol of their wealth and influence. As such, Russian agents in
Constantinople set to fulfilling the Tsar’s will. How exactly young Abram was delivered
from the Ottoman Sultan is unknown. Through purchase or illicit smuggling, he came into
the hands of the Bosnian diplomat Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, who spirited him out of the Sublime Porte,
and on his way Northwards. Abram arrived in Moscow in the heart of Winter.
Never before had the boy experienced the frigid weather of northern Europe, and the Russian
snows chilled him to the bone. While he was ferried by sleigh through the frozen city,
observing the imposing red walls of the Kremlin and iconically onion-domed Cathedrals, he
surely felt as if he had been transported into another world entirely.
Abram first met his new master on Christmas Day of 1704, when he was presented to Peter,
Tsar of Russia, amidst a sea of yuletide revelry. Abram caused quite a scene in the Kremlin.
Most Russians had no knowledge of Africa, and to them, black-skinned men and women were
a mysterious, potentially sinister ‘other’, depicted often as bogeymen and devils in their
literature and plays. It was Abram’s status as an outsider that
had landed him before the great Tsar. Peter was a modernizer, a ruler who wished to transform
his country from what he saw as an isolated backwater into a European powerhouse. He was
famous for inviting foreigners into the highest rungs of his social strata, allowing them
to disseminate their ideas into Russian Society. With his new African acquisition, he hoped
to make a point to the traditionally xenophobic Russian nobility: young Abram was of a race
that many Europeans considered fit only for slavery. If even he could be transformed into
a bright-minded asset to Russia, then there could be no argument that the future of the
nation lay in openness, and not isolation. Over the next few months, Tsar Peter kept
Abram close to his side, delighting in the boy’s natural cleverness and gift for languages,
for in addition to Turkish, the African child had also picked up fluency in Russian fairly
quickly. In 1705, Peter went back on the campaign trail, and took Abram with him to the Baltics,
where war was raging against the Swedes. The African boy was baptized in Vilnius in 1705,
where he earned the name Petrovich – son of Peter.
Indeed, spending these formative years amongst kings and generals made Abram a fierce admirer
of science and military engineering, and the Tsar quickly began to see Abram as his own
adopted son. The African’s natural cleverness and passion of the battlefield made him preferable
to his own biological child, the bookish Prince Alexei.
For the next ten years, Abram stayed with his godfather on the campaign trail. He was
a quick learner, and by his mid-teens had become adept in the art of war, developing
a written code system to protect sensitive information, and becoming a trusted member
of the Tsar’s inner circle of advisors. Abram essentially grew up on the battlefield,
and over a decade of impromptu field education had turned him into an exceedingly intelligent
young man. In 1716, he accompanied Peter as he went on a grand tour of Western Europe
in one of the Tsar’s many efforts to connect Russia to the West. Naturally, one of these
stops was Paris, and here Abram stayed behind at the behest of his godfather, to continue
his education in the heart of the European Enlightenment.
The sheer novelty of a classically educated black man captured the imagination of the
French people, and Abram became something of a minor celebrity in the city. He became
friends with some big names, including the famous philosopher Voltaire, who called him
the “Dark star of the Russian Enlightenment”. On top of a traditional education in sciences
and mathematics, Abram enrolled in a Military Engineering Academy.
The skills he acquired there were put to the test a year later, when the war of the Quadruple
Alliance broke out, and France declared war on Spain. Abram enrolled in the French army,
was quickly promoted to Lieutenant-Engineer, and was given a unit of Artillery to command.
Deployed to fight the Spaniards in the Pyrenees, he proved to be an exceedingly competent military
strategist, helping to seize a number of Spanish controlled towns in the Basque country. He
played a key role in orchestrating the fall of the Fortress San Sebastien, but there he
also suffered a head injury from a faulty discharge of a buckshot cannon of his own
making. Honourably discharged, Abram returned to Paris
to a war hero’s welcome, more famous and admired than he’d ever been by the French
aristocracy. He had also acquired a new moniker: Hannibal. His comrades admired his military
genius, and drew parallels between him and his fellow African, the Carthaginian general
of old. The Russians would later adapt this title into their own language- and the name
Gannibal was born. In 1723, Abram Petrovich Gannibal journeyed
home to St. Petersburg where his Imperial Godfather lavished him with honours and gifts.
His thorough education was put to good use, and he spent the next few years serving his
new nation in the way Tsar Peter had intended. He built the redoubtable Fortress of Kronstadt
on Kotlin Island, which guarded the northern pass to St. Petersburg. He oversaw the completion
of a massive canal around Lake Ladoga, a perilous project that was considered impossible until
his triumph. These projects and more had made Gannibal one of the premier authorities on
civil and military engineering in the whole of Russia.
Yet this dreamy life was not to last, for in 1725, Peter the Great passed away. Abram
had already lost one father when he was abducted as a child, and now once more, he was an orphan.
To make matters worse, the African had also lost his most powerful benefactor. Abram’s
success in court also made him the subject of dangerous envy from various powerful people,
not least of whom was Alexander Menshikov, an influential statesman, who saw Abram as
a foreign interloper too close to the Tsar for comfort.
In the wake of Peter’s death, Menshikov quickly took control of the nation as a military
regent, and in 1727 banished Abram to a remote posting in Siberia, to toil out of sight and
out of mind, perhaps hoping the bitter Siberian cold would kill the young African for him.
Once more, Abram was forced to move a world away from the land he called his home. His
new station was in Seleginsk, deep in the territory of the Mongolic Buryats, and a stone’s
throw away from Lake Baikal, along the border with Qing China.
Even in exile, Gannibal never gave up his enterprising spirit. Despite his dour pseudo-imprisonment,
he continued to serve his nation in the hopes that one day he could return home. He directed
the construction of a fortress designed to fend off any invasions levied by the Chinese
Emperor. Lost on him perhaps, but not on us, was the novelty of an ethnic African, deep
in the heart of Mongolic territory, fortifying the borders of the Russian Empire on the edge
of the known world. In an event of poetic justice, Menshikov was
overthrown two years into his reign and himself exiled to Siberia. While Gannibal, one of
the nation’s foremost practical geniuses, was soon recalled back to the heart of the
nation. In 1741, Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, ascended to the throne. The new
Empress was keen to bestow upon Abram the same favour that her father had, and appointed
him the commander of the Russian Army Garrison in Reval, now Tallinn, Estonia. The predominantly
German aristocracy of Reval were ultra-conservative, and treated the black foreigner with cold
shouldered suspicion. Nevertheless, Abram endeared himself to the
locals using his engineering genius to fashion a spectacular fireworks’ performance that
even the most snobbish of connoisseurs declared was equal to the pageantries of Moscow or
St. Petersburg. Meanwhile, he improved the city’s coastal fortifications, and quickly
became one of the most politically influential people in the Baltics.
In 1742, Empress Elizabeth awarded Abram with the Mikhaylovskoye Estate, with 100 Serfs
upon it to command. Serfdom was an institution that bound Russian peasants to the land of
their master. Thus in an ironic twist, the man who was enslaved as a boy, was now himself
something of a slave owner. The twilight of Empress Elizabeth’s reign
saw Russia plunged into the seminal Seven Years War against Frederick the Great’s
Prussia. As one of the Empire’s foremost military minds, Gannibal was naturally placed
in a position of high command. He did not favour the war, but nonetheless helped to
rapidly transform the Russian military from a motley militia into a professional army.
Foremost among his martial projects were his beloved fireworks; far from being a frivolous
hobby, they were in fact part of the master engineer’s scheme to develop weaponized
rockets for the war effort. Nevertheless, bureaucracy would once more
drag Abram down, as just like clockwork, more and more of Russia’s top brass showed their
resentment towards him, a man they still considered to be an outsider of lesser stock. A smear
campaign against him saw him demoted from Russian military command, and he would spend
the rest of the war building canals and fortifying coastal batteries.
In 1762, Elizabeth died, and was succeeded by her nephew, Peter III, who famously pulled
Russia out of the Seven Years War out of admiration for his enemy, Frederick the Great. The young
Tsar was soon ousted in a coup by his wife, Catherine the Great, the Empress who would
bookend the career of Russia’s most prominent black man.
On the 9th of June, 1762, the African performed his last duty for the Romanov rulers of Russia,
organizing a magnificent fireworks display to cap off a lavish royal dinner outside the
Winter Palace. By now, Abram was considered a relic to most. A holdover from an era of
a long dead Tsar. He was wise enough to realize his career had run its course. He retired
to his estate in Mikhaylovskoye, where he lived in comfortable retirement for another
twenty years, passing away in the year 1782 at the ripe old age of 82.
Abram Petrovich Gannibal had several wives during his long life, and was succeeded by
11 children, most of whom went on to be members of the Russian nobility. The most prominent
of these bloodlines would birth Alexander Pushkin. The famed father of modern Russian
literature idolized his African great grandfather, and immortalized a grand, albeit fictionalized
story of his life. Nevertheless, Gannibal is more than a peculiar
foreign link in a noble genealogy. His legacy is one of struggle and perseverance. His genius
shook the foundations of anti-abolitionist rhetoric throughout Europe, for how could
slave owners claim Africans were fit only for servitude while such a brilliant mind
walked among their finest philosophers? From Spain to the border of Mongolia, Gannibal
worked among colleagues who saw only the colour of his skin, yet he rose above them, and defied
the odds to become one of the greatest military and civil engineers in Russian history, and
cement himself as the first and most prominent Black Intellectual of Europe. We always have more stories to tell, so make
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