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  • Maxine Knight

Russian Edition: Abram Petrovich Hannibal

Bear with me while I let my ignorance show for a moment.

Now for me, a black person living in 18th Century Russia simply does not compute. Throw in an African slave that goes on to become the greatest engineer and military man in 18th Century Russia and...mind blown!

Maxine Knight Writes - copywriter
Abram Petrovich Hannibal

But, that is the story we have in Abram Petrovich Hannibal, whose name came to me from a friend, who had stumbled upon his story while reading Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Written in History: Letters that Changed the World.

I’m taking dedications.

Also, you may want to stay with me for the surprise literary appearance.

Abram went by several names: Abram Petrovich Gannibal, Ganibal, Abram Hannibal, Abram Petrov – take your pick.

I'd also like to make a side note. I want to bring your attention to the dramatic fluctuations in skin complexion in each painting of Abram. Last month I did a bit of 'adulting' and attended a fascinating talk given by Art Historian Michael Ohajuru called “How the Black female image was whitewashed from Renaissance art. I want to revisit this topic in a general sense in a later post, as it may help to explain the inconsistencies I came across.

But for now, let us start at the top, with a boy called Ibrahim.

Where was he from?

On the west bank of the Logone River, in the far north of Cameroon lies a small town and commune you will not find on maps called Logone-Birni. Logone-Birni – meaning Fort Logone – was founded around 1700.

It is this sandy terrain where a young boy called Ibrahim is said to have come from. I say “said” because there has been extensive debate over the years as to his true origins. Some early Russian biographers often suggested he was Ethiopian.

His origins are often vague, including his year of birth – which is thought to have been around 1696 – and whether or not he had actually been the son of a reigning African Prince, making him of noble birth. I use the name “Ibrahim” as this can be traced to his time as a slave. However, I can't be sure that it was his birth name.

Logone Birni - Maxine Knight Writes
Logone Birni By Elisee Reclus - NYPLDigitalGallery, Public Domain

The beginning

Logone-Birni was often attacked by the Sultan of Bagirimi (a neighbouring kingdom). But it was during one of these assaults in 1703 that everything changed.

With the town heavily under siege, Ibrahim, now roughly 7 years of age, was abducted from his family, his native lands and everything he knew. Lagan, his little sister, in desperation to save her big brother from kidnap, swam out into the sea. I keep thinking how this little girl could have changed the course of history had she succeeded in his rescue attempt. A little girl caught in such a selfless act of bravery... right up until the moment the sea finally claimed her.

Where next?

Ibrahim’s story continued as he was driven far from home to the Ottoman territories, now present-day Turkey, to the City of Constantinople where he was put to work as a servant in Sultan Ahmed III's palace.

Roughly a year later the Russian Ambassador Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky came to Constantinople in search of, ‘...a few clever little African slaves...’ for his representative in Moscow.

And so... in the year 1704, young Ibrahim was transferred to Moscow and the court of the Tsar, Peter the Great of Russia.

The Tsar

Peter the Great took a liking to this young boy from Africa, and even more so his intelligence, seeing the potential of military might in this impressionable young man.

Peter adopted him and Ibrahim was baptized in 1705, in St. Paraskeva Church in Vilnius, with the Tsar acting as his godfather. It was the Tsar's wish to have his name bestowed upon the boy.

But what say did Ibrahim have when so many other plans seemed to be mapped out on his behalf?

Young Ibrahim wept so bitterly that instead he was called Abraham, the Christian equivalent of his own name. For the purpose of the blog we’ll use Abram.

Abram Hannibal- Maxine Knight Writes
St. Paraskeva Church in Vilnius,

Serving as his godfather’s valet, Abram traveled alongside the Tsar on all his military campaigns, rising to become a close confidant.

Maxine Knight Writes
Peter the Great, (1672–1725), and Abram by the German artist Baron Gustav


Young Abram learned languages: Russian, French and Dutch, but more than anything he developed a love for mathematics – which the Tsar took note of.

A gift be harnessed.

In 1717 Abram is in Metz, France, learning sciences, mathematics and engineering from the most prestigious institutes available. And it is in France that he took a storied African military name, that of the Carthaginian General Hannibal, for his own.

In the five years that followed, Abram began his journey through his own military career, joining the French Army in 1718. In 1720 he enrolled in King Louis XV’s just opened artillery academy at La Fère (only finally closed in the 1990s). He went on to fight with the French against Spain in the War of the Quadruple Alliance, and then rose to the rank of captain. This led to his capture by the Spanish army, although he was released in 1722 and returned to continue his studies in Metz.

Lordy! That five years is a blog post in itself!

Six years after leaving Moscow he returned with a certificate of engineering and the rank of captain in the French army.

Peter the Great died in 1725, leaving Abram dependent on Prince Menshikov the Royal Advisor. Unfortunately for Abram, there was one problem. Menshikov, suspicious of Abram’s intelligence and education, wasn’t much of a fan. Such was his disdain, he assigned Abram first to Siberia and later to the Chinese border where his task was to measure the Great Wall!

Now I have been to the Great Wall of China (5,500 miles long and visible from space) I can say firsthand that if someone sends you there to measure it...they’re not wanting you home anytime soon.

However, Abram had a lifeline in his deceased godfather's daughter – Empress Elisabeth, who took the throne in 1741. Abram was given permission to return from his exile, although in fact, he had already done so on the sly in 1731.

Abram wanted nothing more than to retire. After all, he had fought in a war, been captured and exiled, but Elisabeth had other plans. How could she allow one of the greatest military engineering minds to just...go do whatever retired people did in 18th century Russia?

So, he was made military commander of the city of Reval, and by 1760 had been promoted to the rank of full General. During his military career he oversaw various projects, including part of the expansion of the 73-mile Ladoga Canal near St. Petersburg, which linked the Neva and Svir Rivers and Russian fortresses throughout the empire.

Was Jeremy Kyle needed?

Abram married twice, the first being a forced marriage in 1731 to Evdokia Dioper, a Greek beauty who despised her husband with a fierce venom. He suspected his wife was having an affair, so when Evdokia gave birth to what he thought was their first child, well things became quickly apparent that she was committing adultery. The child, a baby girl, was white and with that Abram had Evdokia arrested and imprisoned for just over a decade.

But what about the child?

So I did a little digging and found a passage in a biography called, Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness” :

“His first wife, a beauty, of Greek origin, bore him a white daughter. He divorced her and forced her to take vows in the Tikhvinsky Convent, and kept her daughter Poliksena with him, gave her a rigorous education, a rich dowry, but never allowed her into his presence.”

Enter his new love, Christina Regina Siöberg, descended from nobility, nonetheless. In an act of bigamy, Abram marries again in the Estonian city of Ravel, now known as Tallinn.

His divorce from Evdokia did not become official until 1753, by which point Abram had been fined and given a penance for his act of bigamy, and as previously described, after imprisonment, Evdokia was sent to live out the rest of her days in a convent.

Now, I need you to keep up with the next part of the story – because if you thought Abram would be the most famous person in this lineage you would be mistaken. In fact, Abram’s line is filled with many accomplished people, including a high-ranking naval officer. But, I want to draw you to someone else, for Abram and Christina had 10 children in total, which would include a son named Osip. Osip, in turn, would have a daughter called Nadezhda. It is Nadezhda’s son that we draw you to. For she had a boy, and his name was ... Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin.

And for your consideration – a helpful visual that I prepared earlier.

Pushkin...romance is my middle name

Now I don’t expect everyone to know who Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin is, and to talk about Pushkin would require a whole separate post. But if you don’t know, he is one of Russia’s greatest poets and literary authors. Adaptations of his work are strewn across our screens and he is still taught in many a literature class all over the world.

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin- Maxine Knight Writes
Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin

For those of you who, like me, love to read but don’t have the time because you may be busy trying to keep small children alive, I have helpfully provided you with the full audiobook of one of Pushkin's classics – Eugene Onegin.

You’re welcome.

...a good innings

Now we come to the 14th May 1781 in the second largest city of Russia, Saint Petersburg. On this day, at the grand old age of 85, Abram Petrovich Hannibal – one of the leading military figures in his country and probably the first outstanding engineer in Russian history – drew his last breath.

But as we all know, bloodlines continue…

Following that bloodline

So where did the lineage of a noble African boy who became a slave and then a great military figure end up?

Maxine Knight Writes
Abram Hannibal, bust in Petrovskoe.

Well, lets take a look at some of the British aristocrats who have descended from Abram, including:

Natalia Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster and her sister, Alexandra Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn. George Mountbatten, 4th Marquess of Milford Haven, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, is also a direct descendant, as is the grandson of Nadejda Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven.

When researching the descendants I expected to see the genealogy stop at Pushkin, so I was happy to see that they took it back...all the way Ibrahim aka Abram Petrovich Hannibal.

Abram Petrovich Hannibal's signature

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