FT.com -- By what criteria should recherche historical figures be plucked from obscurity and granted a fresh lick of paint for a modern audience? Insofar as the reputation of Gannibal endures, it is chiefly because he is known for being the greatgrandfather of Russia’s national poet, Alexander Pushkin. Hugh Barnes, journalist and Russian scholar, wants to make amends for that, and succeeds brilliantly in his task.
The boy Abram Petrovich Gannibal, from humble origins in Ethiopia, became a godson to the Russian tsar Peter the Great via the unusual route of being bought as a child slave in Constantinople. He was initially regarded as nothing more than a curiosity; he was brought to Russia at a time, as Barnes records, when black people were routinely depicted as alien bogeyman figures. Very soon, however, Gannibal became much more important than that. By the age of 12, he was a soldier in the Russian army and was winning garlands for his courage in fighting in the war against Sweden. Very soon, he became Peter’s adviser and house-intellectual, as well as one of his most educated officers.
Peter hoped to introduce Russia to the outside world to create a more cosmopolitan kind of Russian, and his exotic godson became the perfect ambassador for his reformist ambitions. Gannibal became, says Barnes, “a polymath in the Enlightenment mould, a man of eclectic skills: a linguist, a diplomat, a cryptographer, a spy, and also on occasion an able military commander”.
The philosopher-soldier Gannibal was soon talking differential calculus with Leibniz and philosophy with Voltaire. His intellectual and practical career, Peter wrote proudly, “furnished the most striking proof of the injustice of that odious prejudice which assigns to the Negro race a reputation of intellectual and moral inferiority. He has immense spirit, a prodigious facility for study... [and] was blessed with a mobile and elevated character and an incorruptible probity”.
Gannibal’s chief talent, however, was for military strategy and intrigue. In a brilliant career he fought as a commissioned officer for the French against the Spanish, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-engineer.
He became the tsar’s spy in Paris, and even used his engineering genius to build a wall of fortifications around Russia from the Arctic Circle to China.
That a black slave should have shot up so high in the Russian elite is in itself a marvel. But Barnes wants to use the breadth of Gannibal’s experience as a foil for a much larger story, one which takes on everything from Russian literature to the geopolitics of Muslim slave-trading in Africa. For an essentially military man, Gannibal’s fate was supremely intertwined with Russia’s literary culture. Following his death, he seems to have pricked the conscience as well as the muse of Russian writers - his greatgrandson Pushkin, for example, wrote an unfinished and rather sentimental account of his ancestor, titled The Negro of Peter the Great. In the 20th century, Nabokov was moved to write an essay about Gannibal’s life. Even the man who first bought him from a slave market in Constantinople, the Russian ambassador Pyotr Tolstoy, was an ancestor of the novelist and author of War and Peace, Barnes points out. In an attempt to further enhance his mercurial hero, Barnes wants to make a case for him as the “Russian Othello” - a literary allusion too far, possibly. But then Gannibal’s personality, at least in Barnes’ telling, does resemble that of a Shakespearean hero - he was an insomniac who worried ceaselessly about his ancestry and his place in posterity.
Gannibal died in 1781, at the plum age of 85, in relative obscurity after having fallen foul of shifting court loyalties. His tombstone pays tribute to “a Russian mathematician, a builder of fortresses and canals”, but makes little mention of his military career.
In Barnes’ story, Gannibal appears as a self-shaper nimble enough to make a myth out of his own circumstances. It was only during his time in France, for example, that he began signing his name Gannibal, a Russian variant of Hannibal. Like other former enslaved Africans who made their way to the top of western societies, such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, Gannibal was something of a canny operator - he seems to have played his colonial hosts at their own game, alternately revelling in his exoticism and suggesting the nobility of his African origins, a claim which he never managed to corroborate.
That this former slave eventually became the owner of slaves is a delicious irony for a biographer. But Barnes makes it clear that even Gannibal’s formidable presence could do little to overturn intellectual racism. Even Montesquieu, he records, who tended towards the view that Africans were lazy and immoral, was impressed by Gannibal. Among friends such as Voltaire and Richelieu, says Barnes, “it was as if Gannibal’s wit bleached the pigment of his skin”.
Barnes has dug himself up a most engaging subject. He carries his story along in an unpretentious fashion, wearing his research lightly and never failing to intrigue. Only when it descends into travelogue - when Barnes walks around the places associated with Gannibal trying to sound reflective - does the pace begin to falter. The story is so rich that it has no need of being dressed up in this way.
Gannibal’s life made for an almost unique encounter between Europe and Africa. His story is all the more relevant, Barnes argues, because of the recent resurgence of racism in post-Soviet Russia. Nowadays, he says drily, many ordinary Russians take a rather dim view of the dark-skinned Muslim peoples of Chechnya and other republics. They are known disparagingly as the chorniye, or the blacks, of Russia. Among some Russian scholars, too, it remains controversial to point out their national poet should have had a negro ancestor.
While this may sound a little worthy, what Barnes has written is an intelligent Boy’s Own story, an adventure stuffed full of encounters with history - a ripping good yarn which has the merit of being entirely true.
FOR MORE INFO
GANNIBAL: The Moor of Petersburg
Author: Hugh Barnes
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