Abram Petrovich Gannibal: The African prince who became one of the leading generals of Peter the Great
Abram Petrovich Gannibal’s life was nothing short of extraordinary. Enslaved in Africa and sent to Moscow, he gained the favor of Tsar Peter the Great and rose to become one of the best military officers and most educated men in Russia.
Today, he is best known as being the great-grandfather of the renowned Russian novelist and poet, Alexander Pushkin, as well as starting the family line of several modern-day British nobles and aristocrats.
Read on to learn more about the life of the African slave who rose to become one of Russia’s most prominent figures in the 18th century.
Gannibal’s Origins & Enslavement
Gannibal’s early origins and where he was born has been the subject of debate among historians for many years. What is mostly known about his life was recounted in his great-grandson Alexander Pushkin’s book, “Peter the Great’s Negro.” However, some scholars believe that Pushkin might have exaggerated his grandfather’s life in an attempt to raise his family’s prominence in Russia.
Some writings suggest that Gannibal was born in either 1696 or 1698 in a village called Lagon, on the northernmost side of the Mareb River. This location suggests Gannibal was born in that East African region, perhaps in what is today Ethiopia.
Gannibal’s son-in-law, Rotkirkh, wrote a biography, which insinuated that he was born in Sudan. However, more recent findings appear to suggest that he might have originated from Central Africa, where the former Sultanate of Logone-Birni once existed. In modern times, that area is located in Cameroon.
The future Russian military general was likely raised in wealth and practiced Islam. His father owned many slaves, had several wives, and his children numbered up to nineteen. Abram’s name was mostly the anglicized version of Ibrahim.
When the Ottoman Turks invaded his home, Gannibal’s father died while trying to protect his land. The young Gannibal was then taken by the Turks; and if his home was truly located in Central Africa, he and several other slaves trekked over 2,000 miles to Zanzibar, East Africa to board a ship bound to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. Aside from losing his father, Gannibal also lost his sister, Lagan, who reportedly drowned at sea when she tried to rescue her brother.
It was an arduous journey, but once it was completed, Gannibal was sold and purchased by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.
Life in Constantinople
The young African slave lived in Constantinople for roughly a year. He worked in the court of Sultan Ahmed III. While there, he showed that he was intelligent and very well-mannered. During that time, the sultan received a visitor from Russia, a man named Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky. The Russian emissary was visiting the empire on behalf of the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great.
It’s said that the Russian visitor was on a mission to find “a few clever little African slaves” to serve in the Tsar’s court. At the time, a Kammermohr, which was a term given to a black servant, was seen as a symbol of uniqueness and extravagance. Vladislavich selected Gannibal and two other boys to join him on his journey back to Moscow.
Abram Petrovich Gannibal’s relationship with Peter the Great
The trip to from Constantinople to Moscow was long, but it wasn’t as difficult as ardious one from Africa to Constantinople. The group likely traveled in coaches, and the trip took a couple of months. Known as a fast learner, Gannibal reportedly picked up certain Russian terms and phrases during that period.
The group arrived in Moscow in 1704 and were sent to meet Peter the Great. While meeting him, the Tsar was impressed by Gannibal’s grasp of the Russian language and made the young boy stay in his home as a servant.
Peter the Great grew fond of Gannibal, especially for his intelligence. The Tsar also saw that the young African servant would likely succeed in the military. In 1705, Gannibal was baptized at the St Paraskeva Church and became the king’s godson. From then on, Gannibal used his baptism date as his birthday.
The two had a very close and loving relationship. As a result, Gannibal also grew very close to the Tsar’s daughter, Elizabeth. He escorted Peter on military campaigns, often assisting the Russian ruler as a valet.
Education & Military Career
Gannibal was said to be in his early 20s when he arrived in France to study in 1717. He spent one year studying a host of subjects, including science, art, mathematics, and geometry. He was an excellent student and spoke multiple languages. He also studied the art of warfare, where he focused on engineering.
To gain more experience in engineering, he joined the French Army in 1718. He had a successful military career, and in 1720, Gannibal enrolled at La Fere, an artillery school in France. But his studies were cut short when France went to war with Spain. The young military officer fought in the War of the Quadruple Alliance (1718-1720), and during that time rose through the ranks to become captain. Unfortunately, his time in active service had to end after he sustained a head injury. He resumed his studies in 1722.
It was around that time that he took up the name “Gannibal” as his surname. He drew inspiration from Hannibal, the Carthaginian general famed for being one of the best military minds in ancient history.
After completing his studies, he returned to Moscow, where he taught engineering and mathematics to some of Peter the Great’s guards.
Exile & Return
Sadly, Peter the Great died in 1725 and Prince Menshikov rose to power. But unlike Peter the Great, Menshikov had a strong dislike for Gannibal. Much of the Menshikov’s disdain for the military officer stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t of Russian descent, had received quality education, and pulled some influence in court.
So, Menshikov exiled Gannibal, sending the African to Siberia in 1727. Later, the Tsar sent him to the Chinese border to conduct some studies on the Great Wall. In 1730, he received pardon from Menshikov and was sent back to Siberia, where he spent his years there overseeing a number of important construction projects. It was there that he further developed his engineering skills.
In 1741, Gannibal’s luck changed. Peter the Great’s daughter, Elizabeth Petrovna, was crowned Empress of Russia. The new Russian ruler, like her father was very fond of the African general. Empress Elizabeth brought Gannibal back to Moscow, where he continued his military career and became a major general. Thanks to their lifelong friendship, the empress also gave him more power in her court and appointed him superintendent of Reval, a region in today’s Tallinn, Estonia.
Coat of arms of Abram Gannibal
One year into Elizabeth’s reign, the empress gifted her loyal friend the Mikhailovskoye Estate located in Pskov Oblast. He wrote a letter to Elizabeth requesting that he be recognized as part of Russian nobility and have a coat of arms. Gannibal’s family crest featured an elephant, as well as the word “FVMMO.” Some historians believe that the word meant “homeland” in his native African language whereas others believe it’s an abbreviation of the Latin term “Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Omnino”, which means “Fortune has changed my life entirely.”
Gannibal’s ranking in the Russian military also continued to rise. He became the chief military engineer in 1756, and three years later attained the rank of general-in-chief. He retired in 1762 and moved to his estate. That same year, Empress Elizabeth died and Catherine the Great succeeded her.
Personal Life & Descendants
Throughout his life, Gannibal was married two times. His first marriage took place in 1731 to a Greek woman named Evdokia Dioper. The marriage was already doomed right from the outset. Dioper hated him, especially because she had been forced to marry him. Gannibal also deeply suspected her of having numerous affairs. His suspicion was confirmed after his wife delivered a white baby girl. Upon this discovery, he had Dioper imprisoned for eleven years.
Gannibal was still married to his first wife when he married Christina Regina Sioberg, a Swedish noblewoman. In 1736, they welcomed their first child. He finally divorced Dioper 1753, which resulted in him having to pay a fine.
He was much happier in his second marriage, which produced ten children. One of their sons was called Osip, whose future daughter, Nadezhda, gave birth to the acclaimed Russian writer Alexander Pushkin.
Another famous descendant of Gannibal was his oldest son, Ivan, who became a very distinguished officer in the Russian navy. Ivan Gannibal is credited with setting up the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine in 1779. Like his father, Ivan ultimately became a general in the Russian military, rising to rank of general-in-chief, the second-highest military rank in imperial Russia.
When did Gannibal die?
He died on April 20, 1781.
Other descendants of Abram Petrovich Gannibal
Gannibal’s first son, Ivan, was also a successful officer in the Russian navy. He is credited for partly helping establish the Ukrainian city of Kherson in 1779. Like his father, he also became general-in-chief. The Gannibal family was extremely prominent and many British nobles can trace their ancestry back to the African-Russian military officer, including Natalia Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster, and her sister, Alexandra Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn.
Another direct descendant of Gannibal is George Mountbatten, 4th Marquess of Milford Haven. George, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II (1921-2022), is the grandson of Nadejda Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven.
Legacy of Abram Petrovich Gannibal
Back in Africa, both the Eritrean and Ethiopian governments maintain that Gannibal originated from either one of their territories. As a result, the Ethiopian government in 2002 named one of its streets after Gannibal’s great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin. In 2002, the government also put up a bust of the acclaimed writer close to the African Union headquarters.
Likewise, the Eritrean government in 2009 put up a statue in honor of the great Russian poet and descendant of Gannibal. A street was also named Pushkin.
In 2010, Gannibal was posthumously honored in a ceremony at La Fere, where a commemorative plaque was put up to celebrate his life.
Other interesting facts about Gannibal
- Abram Petrovich Gannibal was also known as Hannibal or Ganibal. In some cases, he was called Ibrahim Hannibal or Abram Petrov.
- He was the inspiration for Pushkin’s uncompleted novel “The Moor of Peter the Great”, where the main character was named Ibrahim. Much of the information that Pushkin heard about his great-grandfather came from his grand-uncle, Peter, the last surviving son of Gannibal. In 2001, playwright Carlyle Brown adapted the novel for theater and it premiered at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
- In 1976, Russian actor Vladimir Vysotsky starred as Gannibal in the comedy “How Czar Peter the Great Married Off His Moor.”
- Abram Gannibal’s image and likeness have also been depicted in several artworks, including the “Battle of Lesnaya” by Pierre-Denis Martin the Younger. He is also thought to have been portrayed as a young servant boy standing behind Peter the Great in Adriaan Schoonebeeck’s painting of the Russian Tsar.