Abraham Hanibal was a fascinating character in the history of Imperial Russia. Kidnapped as a child from his African home in the early eighteenth century, he was brought over by the Ottoman Empire and offered as a gift to Peter the Great. Baptized into the Orthodox Church and adopted as the Tsar’s own godson, he became one of Peter’s closest confidants, serving beside him in battle and often sleeping in the next – or even the same – room. He was also great-grandfather to Russia’s national poet, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. Hanibal contributed significantly to Imperial Russia’s military engineering, architecture and infrastructure and became revered in his own right, as well as for his famous benefactor and equally illustrious descendant. His life was fascinating : it included a stint as a student in Paris and a period of exile in Siberia, all of which is recounted in great detail in Dieudonné Gnammankou’s book Abraham Hanibal, Prince of Logone.
Though a much-studied personage, little was known about Hanibal’s origins before Gnammankou’s study, beyond the fact that he was African. The book aims not only to provide a comprehensive overview of Hanibal’s life in Europe, but also to uncover the mystery of his African origins in such depth as has never been done before.
Hitherto, Hanibal was generally believed to be from Ethiopia or Eritrea. This – most probably incorrect – analysis was first suggested by the Russian anthropologist and ethnographer Dmitri Anuchin, who in his 1899 biography proclaimed Hanibal to be of “Ethiopian-Hamitic” origins. Gnammankou’s extensive research, however, reveals that Hanibal was far more likely to have come from modern day Cameroon. Anuchin’s theory about Hanibal’s “Ethiopian-Hamitic” origins were – Gnammankou argues – cooked up in an age of widespread, institutionalised racism, to scotch the possibility Russia’s national poet might be descended from a black African. Gnammankou’s arguments for Hanibal’s originating from Logone Birni, a town in today’s Cameroon, are certainly very compelling.
Published in French in 1996 and subsequently translated into Russian, it wasn’t until late last year the book finally became available to the English speaking world. Reading any literature in translation is, of course, a different experience from reading the author’s original words, and there are occasional inconsistencies here: names, for instance, transcribed according to English conventions in the text but left French style in captions to illustrations, while some awkwardly rendered phrases appear (‘Compare Pushkin with another Hanibal’s descendant’ reads one caption). This is purely technical though, and Gnammankou’s skill in bringing his subject to life is evident even in English. With his colourful prose, he includes anecdotes from Hanibal’s life that bring the characters off the page. Citing one incident, where Peter the Great stops to removes a worm from his godson’s intestines with his bare fingers, he shows the considerable closeness between the two. In another, he relates the great lengths Hanibal went to once an established landowner (including a court battle) to ensure that none of his serfs was beaten. Gnammankou uses this patchwork of stories to weave together a picture of a great military man, a humanitarian, a father and a husband.
His admiration of Hanibal is clear, but this leads at times to a reductive view of the other figures that come into his story – principally his first wife, Evdokia Dioper (also known as “Eudoxia”), the daughter of a Greek Captain in St Petersburg. Forced to marry Hanibal against her will, Evdokia had several extra-marital affairs, and gave birth to another man’s child. From then on, her life was a misery, ostracised by society and separated from her daughter, yet Gnammankou affords Evdokia little sympathy. He writes of Hanibal’s “terrible experiences of his marriage to the faithless Eudoxia Dioper” and – referring throughout to her “guilt” – recounts with some contempt her efforts to escape the death penalty by claiming Hanibal had beaten her. While we can understand this unforgiving approach to adulterous wives in eighteenth century Russia, it’s hard to see why a 20th century scholar should take the same attitude.
Despite the two-dimensional portrayal of the book’s central figures – Abraham Hanibal as faultless humanitarian, Peter the Great as magnanimous benefactor, Evdokia Hanibal, immoral adulteress – Dieudonné Gnammankou manages a detailed analysis of Hanibal’s birth, life and death while at the same time maintaining an upbeat, lively style. A detailed biography of an eighteenth century Russian military engineer might not be your typical summer holiday beach-book, but for anyone interested in European – or, for that matter, African – history, it’s certainly worth a read.
Dieudonné Gnammankou’s ABRAHAM HANIBAL, Prince of Logone is published by Books of Africa Ltd., and is priced at £24.50.