Sunday, August 07, 2005


The Moor of St. Petersburg

There's some amazing stuff in today's Times of London review of Gannibal: The Moor of St Petersburg by Hugh Barnes. I will quote the review at length here because -- good lord, what a story this guy has dug up:

In 1704, a seven-year-old black boy arrived at the court of Peter the Great, the tsar of Russia. Peter noticed his intelligence, adopted him as his godson, and had him christened Abram Petrovich Gannibal. As was customary with court blackamoors, he was given the Russian version of Hannibal as his family name, after the Carthaginian general and enemy of Rome, “his African precursor,” Hugh Barnes writes, “in the heart of Europe”...

Gannibal was thought to be Ethiopian but, in a tour de force of historical research and travel-writing, Barnes convincingly proves that he was the son of a chieftain from Chad, finding and visiting his native village, as well as meeting his descendants.

As part of Peter’s entourage, Gannibal went on to fight against Charles XII of Sweden, and also trained as an engineer, just as the tsar was to train as a shipwright and carpenter. In 1709, aged only 12, he fought at the great battle of Poltava that smashed the Swedish empire and secured Peter’s new capital St Petersburg. By now, Gannibal was Peter’s secret secretary... [later] Gannibal was exiled to build a fortress on the distant Chinese border, where — in another great display of how travel writing and adventurous trips can dovetail with history and biography — Barnes discovered his long-forgotten works....

Barnes rightly highlights the extraordinary trajectory of Gannibal’s life journey: that a black slave from Chad moved from being the servant of an Ottoman sultan to the godson of the Russian emperor, and went on to become an outstanding engineer, general and landowning nobleman is an amazing tribute to the cosmopolitanism of the 18th century as well as to Gannibal’s own talents.

It gets better: Gannibal also happened to be a great-grandfather of none other than Alexander Pushkin, who wrote (but never finished) a novel about him titled The Negro of Peter the Great.

The AP Watt agency website lists Ecco as the US publisher for Gannibal, but I don't see any listings for the book release yet. It is out already in Britain, though, and published there by Profile Books.

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