Abram Petrovich Gannibal: nobleman of the Russian Empire

Abram Petrovich Gannibal

Traditional depiction of Abram Petrovich Gannibal
Born 1696
Died May 14, 1781 (aged 85)
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Major-General Abram Petrovich Gannibal, also Hannibal or Ganibal or Ibrahim Hannibal orAbram Petrov (Russian: Абра́м Петро́вич Ганниба́л; 1696 – 14 May 1781), was an African kidnapped and brought to Russia as a gift for Peter the Great. He became major-general,military engineer, governor of Reval andnobleman of the Russian Empire. He is perhaps best known today as the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, who wrote an unfinished novel about him, Peter the Great’s Negro.

Early life

His origins are uncertain. The main reliable accounts of Abram’s life come from Pushkin’s Peter the Great’s Negro. Scholars argue that Pushkin’s account may be inaccurate due to the author’s desire to elevate the status of his ancestors and family. There are a number of contradictions between the biographies of Pushkin and the German novel, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great. Writings about Gannibal suggest he was born in 1696 in a village called “Lagon”, in present day Eritrea, located “on the northern side of the Mareb River…” (which serves as much of the modern border between Ethiopia and Eritrea). On an 1810 map by Henry Salt, “Logo” appears in Ethiopia (the area corresponds to today’s Loggo Sarda, which had its own rulers, and which is inhabited by Christian Tigrinyans and Muslim Saho; others claim it to correspond to nearby Loggo Chewa further west in Eritrea). The research (1996) of Dieudonné Gnammankou suggests he may actually have been from what is now the Sultanate of Logone-Birni on the Logone River, in Cameroon, south of Lake Chad.
In an official document that Gannibal submitted in 1742 to Empress Elizabeth, while petitioning for the rank of nobility and a coat of arms, he asked for the right to use a family crest emblazoned with an elephant and the mysterious word “FVMMO” (means homeland in Kotoko). However, FVMMO has also been suggested to stand for the Latin expression “Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Oppido” which means “Fortune has changed my life entirely.” 
At the age of seven (c. 1703), Gannibal was stolen and taken to the court of the Ottoman Sultanat Constantinople. Based on the year, the Sultan was either Mustafa II (reigned 1695–1703) orAhmed III (reigned 1703–1730). The German biography of Gannibal, compiled anonymously from his own words, explains that “the children of the noble families were taken to the ruler of all the Muslims, the Turkish sultan, as hostages”, to be killed or sold into slavery if their fathers misbehaved.
In 1704, after one year in Constantinople, Gannibal was ransomed and brought to the Russian capital by the deputy of the Russian ambassador Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, on orders of his superiors (one of whom was Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy, great-grandfather of the celebrated writer Leo Tolstoy). Emperor Peter the Great is noted to have taken a liking to young Abram’s intelligence and potential for military service and brought the child into his home.  Abram had a close relationship with Peter, and starting at a young age Abram would travel alongside Peter during his military campaigns.  During these military journeys, Abram served as his godfather’s valet. Abram valued his relationship with his godfather, as well as Peter’s daughter (Elizabeth), and loyal to them as if they were family. 
Gannibal was baptized in 1705, in St. Paraskeva Church in Vilnius, with Peter the Great as hisgodfather. The date of Gannibal’s baptism held personal significance and he used the date as his birthday because he did not know his actual date of birth. 


In 1717, Gannibal was taken to Metz (although Pushkin claimed Paris)  to continue an education in the arts, sciences and warfare. By then he was fluent in several languages and knew mathematics and geometry. In 1718 Gannibal joined the French Army with hopes of pleasing his godfather by expanding his military engineering education.  He fought with the forces of Louis XV of France against those of Louis’ uncle Philip V of Spain and rose to the rank of captain. It was during his time in France that Gannibal adopted his surname in honor of the Carthaginiangeneral Hannibal (Gannibal being the traditional transliteration of the name in Russian). While fighting in the French war against Spain, Gannibal received a head injury. Abram returned to Metz to further his education at a new artillery school. In Paris he met and befriended suchEnlightenment figures as Denis Diderot, the Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire. (This claim by his biographer Hugh Barnes is disputed by reviewer Andrew Kahn. ) Voltaire called Gannibal the “dark star of the Enlightenment”. [Should be cited to Voltaire]In 1723 Gannibal returned to Russia to fill a post as a military engineer. 
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Letter signed by A. Ganibal on 22 March 1744. Tallinn City Archives.

Under Peter & Elizabeth

Gannibal’s education was completed by 1722 and he was due to return to Russia. It is rumoured that he was met on his return by Peter himself, a few kilometers away from Moscow. After the death of Peter in 1725, Prince Menshikov gained power in Russia due to his good standing with Peter. However, Menshikov was not fond of Abram and was suspicious of his foreign origins and superior education. 
Gannibal was exiled to Siberia in 1727, some 4,000 miles to the east of Saint Petersburg. He was pardoned in 1730 because of his skills in military engineering. After Peter’s daughter Elizabethbecame the new monarch in 1741, he became a prominent member of her court, rose to the rank of major-general and became superintendent of Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), a position he held from 1742 to 1752. A letter signed on 22 March 1744 by “A. Ganibal” (note only one ‘n’) is held at the Tallinn City Archives. In 1742, the Empress Elizabeth gave him the Mikhailovskoye estate in Pskov province with hundreds of serfs.He retired to this estate in 1762.
It is rumoured that the great general Alexander Suvorov owed his career as a soldier to Gannibal, who convinced Suvorov’s father to let his son pursue a military career.


Gannibal married twice. His first wife was Evdokia Dioper, a Greek woman. The couple married in 1731. Dioper despised her husband, whom she was forced to marry. The marriage between Dioper and Gannibal was very volatile and he suspected her of infidelity early in their marriage. Gannibal’s suspicions were confirmed when Dioper gave birth to a white daughter.When Gannibal found out that she had been unfaithful to him, he had her arrested and thrown into prison, where she spent eleven years living in terrible conditions. Gannibal began living with another woman, Christina Regina Siöberg (1705–1781), daughter of Mattias Johan Siöberg and wife Christina Elisabeth d’Albedyll, and married her bigamously in Reval (nowTallinn, Estonia), in 1736, a year after the birth of their first child and while he was still lawfully married to his first wife. His divorce from Dioper did not become final until 1753, upon which a fine and a penance were imposed on Gannibal, and Dioper was sent to a convent for the rest of her life. Gannibal’s second marriage was nevertheless deemed lawful after his divorce. Gannibal’s second marriage to Christina was much happier and he appreciated her fidelity and affection towards him.
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Gannibal speaking with Alexander Suvorov.
On her paternal side, Gannibal’s second wife was descended from noble families in Scandinavia andGermany: Siöberg (Sweden), Galtung (Norway) and Grabow (Denmark and Brandenburg). Her paternal grandfather was Gustaf Siöberg, Rittmester til Estrup, who died in 1694, whose wife Clara Maria Lauritzdatter Galtung (ca. 1651–1698) was the daughter of Lauritz Lauritzson Galtung (ca. 1615–1661) and of Barbara Grabow til Pederstrup (1631–1696). Abram Gannibal and Christina Regina Siöberg had ten children, including a son, Osip. Osip in turn would have a daughter, Nadezhda, the mother of Aleksandr Pushkin. Gannibal’s oldest son, Ivan, became an accomplished naval officer who helped found the city of Kherson in 1779 and attained the rank of General-in-Chief, the second highest military rank in imperial Russia.
Some British aristocrats descend from Gannibal, 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 the grandson of Nadejda Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven.

Popular culture

Abram Gannibal is a protagonist of the Soviet comedy movie How Czar Peter the Great Married Off His Moor, although the film’s plot has almost nothing to do with Gannibal’s real biography. The film is partly based on Alexander Pushkin’s book Peter the Great’s Negro.
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Ivan Gannibal, Abram’s son
There are several portraits thought to depict Gannibal which include a painting of the Battle of Lesnaia by Pierre-Denis Martin the Younger. The young boy present in Martin’s painting is argued to be Gannibal because of the young boy’s role as valet to Peter during military campaigns and Gannibal’s possible connection to the artist while in France. A portrait by Adriaan Shoonebeeck is also believed to portray Gannibal during his time with Peter the Great. In Shoonebeeck’s portrait of Peter the Great, the young servant boy directly behind Peter is thought to be Gannibal. Although there are variety of portraits that claim to contain Gannibal, there is little evidence to suggest the claims are accurate. In the Lesnaia painting, the young boy is dressed in traditional slave attire, which Gannibal did not wear due to his status under Peter the Great.

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