Abram Petrovich Gannibal

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Podcast Transcript

Abram Petrovich Gannibal was one of the most notable Russians of the 18th century. 

He was the godson of Peter the Great. 

He was among the most educated men and best engineers in the Russian Empire. 

He served as a general to Catherine the Great. 

..and one of his great-grandsons was the greatest poet in the history of the Russian Language. 

There was, however, one thing that set him apart from all other Russians. 

He came from Africa. 

Learn more about Abram Petrovich Gannibal and his incredible story on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The story of Abram Petrovich Gannibal, hereby just referred to as Abram Petrovich, using the Russian patronymic naming convention, is too unbelievable to possibly be fiction. 

His story starts sometime around the year 1696. Details surrounding his early life are very sketchy. Originally it was said he came from the modern-day country of Sudan. Others placed his birth somewhere in what is today Eritrea. 

However, subsequent research has placed his birth near Lake Chad in what is today the nation of Cameroon. 

His father was, by all accounts, very wealthy. He was a Muslim, had multiple wives, owned multiple slaves, and had 19 children. 

Abram’s birth name was probably Ibrahim, which is just the name Abraham in Arabic. 

When he was around six years old, he was captured by Ottoman slavers and sold into slavery. He was sent to Constantinople to serve in the household of the Sultan, Ahmed III.

It is possible that he had a sister by the name of Lagan, who was captured with him and drowned on the way to Constantinople in an attempt to save Ibrihim’s life. 

Ibrahim served in the house of the sultan for about a year. During this year, despite his youth, he distinguished himself by proving to be clever and intelligent. 

He caught the eye of the Russian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky.  

The ambassador was always looking for gifts to send back to Tsar Peter I, or as we know him, Peter the Great. Having clever Africans had become very trendy at European courts at the time, so Sava Vladislavich bribed one of the vizirs in the sultan’s palace to let Ibrihim go so he set to Moscow and be presented to the Tsar.

When he arrived in Moscow, the Tsar took a liking to the boy.  Peter saw in Ibrahim not a mere toy that would be an adornment at court but an intelligent young man who could be an actual asset to the Russian Empire. 

He was taken into the Tsar’s house, was educated alongside the Tsar’s children, and he was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church in 1705.

After his baptism, he went by the name Abram Petrovich. Abram, being the Russianized version of his birth name Ibrihim, and Petrovich, being the Russian patronymic name that refers to his father. In this case, it referred to his godfather, who was none other than the Tsar himself, Peter the Great.

For the rest of his life, he used the date of his baptism as his birthday because he didn’t know the day he was born. 

Peter’s initial suspicion about Abram turned out to be correct. He was incredibly intelligent, arguably the smartest person in the Russian court. Peter invested in Abram’s education. In return, Abram became fiercely loyal to both the Tsar and his family. 

When he was in his early 20s, Peter sent Abram to France for further education. Peter was a Europhile and wanted Russia, which he saw as backward, to adopt the best practices of countries in Europe. 

In 1717, he went to Metz to continue his studies. By this time, he was already fluent in multiple languages and had mastered mathematics. 

In 1718 he joined the French army to learn about military engineering. He excelled in his position and, in 1720, was appointed to the French royal artillery academy.

During his time in the academy, war broke out between France and Spain, and Abram served in the French army, rising to the rank of captain. 

During one battle, he received a head wound and was captured by the Spanish. After recovering, he returned to France to complete his education. 

While he was in France, he made an important decision. He adopted a surname. 

The name he chose was “Hannibal,” or, as it is pronounced in Russian, Gannibal. The decision to go by Hannibal reflected the pride he had in his African heritage. He decided to adopt the name of the most famous African and one of the most famous generals in history. 

While in France, he became a regular feature in the salons and got to know many of the French intellectuals of the era, including Montesquieu and Voltaire. 

Abram Petrovich returned to Russia in 1723. 

He was first assigned to a job as a military engineer and then later as the mathematics instructor for the Tsar’s personal guard. 

Abram Petrovich’s fortunes changed for the worst in 1725 with the death of Tsar Peter. 

Peter had been Abram’s mentor, patron, and for all practical purposes, his father. Now that he was gone, the throne passed to his wife, the now Tsarina Catherine I. 

The problem was while Catherine was the titular leader of Russia, the real power behind the throne was Prince Alexander Danilovich Menshikov. 

Menshikov appointed himself to the rank of Generalissimo, a position that no Russian has held before or since.  Menshikov also didn’t like Abram Petrovich. He found him too foreign, too French-educated, and quite frankly, he was a threat. 

Given Abram’s talents and the fact that he was a favorite of Peter, it was better if he was out of the way. 

So, he was exiled to Siberia, near the border of Mongolia, in 1727. 

He made the best of his time in Siberia, putting his engineering skills to use, building several forts on the Russian frontier. 

Prince Menshikov was eventually ousted from power in disgrace, and Abram Petrovich received a full pardon. He continued in Siberia until 1733, when his projects were finished. 

Around the time of his exile, he married his first wife, a Greek woman named Evdokia Dioper. It was a horrible marriage. Neither one liked the other, and Abram accused her of infidelity.

In something which could have been taken straight from the first season of House of Dragons, his accusations of infidelity were proven true when she later gave birth to a daughter who was completely white. 

He had her thrown into prison for eleven years. 

While she was in prison and still legally married, he married another woman Christina Regina Siöberg.  He eventually divorced his first wife, who was put in a convent for the rest of her life, and had ten children with his second wife. More on them in a bit.

His personal issues aside, now back in the good graces of the court, his career once again began to rise. 

In 1741, his childhood friend and the daughter of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, ascended to the throne. 

Abram Petrovich was promoted to the rank of Major General and was appointed the superintendent of the city of Reval, which is now known as Tallin, Estonia. He held the position for ten years.

In 1742 he did something unexpected. He applied to become a member of the Russian nobility. As part of his application, he submitted a coat of arms for his family. The crest consisted of an African elephant with mysterious letters below: FVMMO.

The elephant was clearly a reference to his African heritage. The letters have remained a mystery. The two theories are that it is the word for ‘homeland’ in his native language, which was probably Kotoko. 

The other theory is that it represents the Latin phrase, Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Omnino, which means “Fortune has changed my life entirely.” 

His application was approved. 

He was given an estate by Tsarina Elizabeth, complete with 100 serfs. 

His career kept going upward. He was responsible for the completion of the Ladoga Canal, which was a major project of Peter the Great. 

He was appointed the chief engineer of the Russian Army in 1756 and, in 1759, was promoted to the rank of General in Chief, the highest military rank possible. 

Finally, in 1762, after Catherine the Great came to power, he retired to his estate. 

Abram Petrovich Gannibal died in 1781 at the age of 85. When he passed away, he was one of the most distinguished and honored figures in all of Russia. 

However, this isn’t the end of his story. 

As I mentioned before, he had 10 children. Many of those children and his descendents went on to have noteworthy careers themselves. 

His eldest son Ivan became a distinguished naval officer and was a founder of the Ukrainian city of Kherson. 

Perhaps his most famous descendant was his great-grandson, Alexander Pushkin. 

Pushkin is considered to be the greatest Russian poet. He is to Russian what Shakespeare is to English. 

Pushkin was very proud of his great-grandfather and his African ancestry and often brought it up so he could differentiate himself from other Russians. 

In fact, when Pushkin died, he was working on a semi-biographical novel about his great-grandfather called The Moor of Peter the Great.

There are also many descendants of Abram Petrovich amongst the aristocracy in Britain today, including cousins of Queen Elizabeth. 

Before I close, there is one thing I should mention because many of you might be thinking it. 

There is a cocktail called a Black Russian. Abram Petrovich Gannibal was a black Russian, and there weren’t a whole lot of black Russians. 

Was the cocktail named in honor of Abram Petrovich? 

The answer is…..no. In fact, the Black Russian wasn’t invented until 1949, and it was, believe it or not, named after the US Ambassador to Luxembourg, Perle Mesta. She supposedly threw the best parties in Washington, DC, but she was neither black nor Russian.

That being said, if you should ever happen to be somewhere and you or someone you know orders a black Russian, it is an excellent opportunity to raise a toast and tell the incredible story of Abram Petrovich Gannibal. 

The boy who was sold into slavery became the godson of a Tsar  and became one of the greatest engineers and highest-ranking military officers in Russian history.