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Abram Petrovich Gannibal

Abram Petrovich Gannibal 
Portrait of German-Russian General Ivan Ivanovich Möller-Sakomelsky (identified by Natalya Teletova others identify it as a portrait of Abram Petrovich Gannibal) wikicommons

Abram Petrovitch Gannibal was the most prominent Black intellectual of the continent in the early 1700s. His genius shook the foundations of anti-abolitionist rhetoric throughout Europe and left an impact in both the fields of engineering and literature.

Abram was born circa 1696, and at the age of six was abducted and enslaved. At the age of eight, he was trafficked to the Russian court by the great grandfather of Leo Tolstoy. Over time, the Russian Tsar, Peter, began to think of Abram as his own adopted son and became his godfather. Abram’s natural cleverness and passion for the battlefield made him preferable to Peter’s biological child, Prince Alexei. For the next ten years, Abram stayed with his godfather during Russia’s war with Sweden on the campaign trail, becoming adept in the art of war, learning cunning field strategies, logistical supply routes, and even developing a written code system to protect sensitive information.

Abram’s education later continued in Paris at the Behest of his godfather. He captured the imagination of the French nobility and became a minor celebrity, rubbing shoulders with the likes of the Baron de Montesquieu, Diderot, and Voltaire who called Abram, ”L'étoile noir des lumieres Russes”. After training with the French Military Academy in Le Fere, Abram enrolled in the French Army. When the war of the Quadruple Alliance broke out and Spain attacked France, he was quickly promoted to Lieutenant-Engineer, and was given command of an artillery unit in the Pyrenees. Abram proved to be an exceedingly competent military strategist assisting in seizing a number of Spanish controlled towns in the Basque country. However, after suffering a head injury from a faulty discharge of a buckshot cannon of his own design, he was captured by the Spanish Army. Following his release, he was honourably discharged and given a hero’s welcome in Paris. Abram then returned to St. Petersburg where he built the redoubtable Fortress of Kronstadt on Kotlin Island, guarding the northern pass into the harbour. He also oversaw construction of a massive canal around Lake Ladoga, linking the White and Baltic Seas. 

In 1725, Peter the Great died, leaving Abram without his most powerful benefactor. Abram’s success at court meant that he was bitterly resented by some of the Russian nobility. Alexander Menshikov, an influential statesman with the ear of the new Tsar Alexei, saw Abram as a foreign interloper and sought to have him removed from court. Menshikov quickly took control of the nation as a military regent and in 1727 banished Abram to a remote posting in Selenginsk Siberia, close to the Chinese border far from the seat of Russian power. 

Despite his exile, Abram continued to serve Russia, directing the construction of a fortress to fend off potential invasions from Qing China. He worked on several additional construction projects, demonstrating his skills as a master engineer. Menshikov was soon overthrown and sent to Siberia, while Abram was recalled back to Moscow to serve the new Tsarina, Elizabeth, Peter the Great’s daughter. Abram became a prominent member of her court, rose to the rank of major-general and was appointed Commander of the Russian Army Garrison in Tallinn. The Germanic aristocracy of Tallinn were ultra conservative and treated the Black foreigner with suspicion. Abram set about to combat this racism by using his engineering genius to fashion a spectacular firework display that was equal to the pageantries of Moscow or St. Petersburg. He improved the city’s coastal fortifications and quickly became one of the politically influential people in the Baltics. The Tsarina awarded him with the Mikhailovskoye estate and hundreds of serfs to command.

When Russia found itself involved in the Seven Years War on its Western frontier, Abram was brought in to rapidly transform the Russian military from a motley militia into a professional standing army. Although he personally disagreed with fighting Frederick the Great’s Prussia, he was given high command, and freedom to develop his knowledge of gunpowder and experience with fireworks into weaponised rockets for the war effort. More of Russia’s top brass showed their resentment towards him and sought to have him removed from Russian Military Command. After this, Abram spent the remainder of the war building canals and fortifying coastal batteries. 

In 1762, Tsarina Elizabeth died and succession passed to Catherine. Abram knew that he was now a relic to most of the new nobles in the current Russian court; a remnant from an era of a long dead Tsar. Abram’s last official duty was to organise a magnificent firework display for the new Empress outside the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. He retired to his estate in Mikhaylovskoye where he lived in relative peace until the ripe old age of 82. He was succeeded by his eleven children, many of whom went on to be members of the Russian nobility, one of these bloodlines later fathering Alexander Pushkin. The father of modern Russian literature idolized his African great grandfather immortalising him in “The Moor of Peter the Great”.

Abram’s many achievements and impact challenged racism and left an indelible mark on Black history.

For further reading on the life and history of Abram Petrovich Gannibal at the Lit and Phil, we recommend: 

Frances Somers Cocks, The Moor of St Petersburg: In the Footsteps of a Black Russian, Goldhawk Press (2005)

Hugh Barnes, The Stolen Prince, Ecco Press (2006)

About the author

Chris Howell

Dr. Chris Howell is a Senior Innovation Associate at Newcastle University. 

Newcastle University is home of the National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise. NICRE officially launches on 1st September 2020. 

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