Did Peter the Great Have a Black Son?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: How Russian black history came to include two famous relations.

Peter the Great with a black page, artist: Gustav von Mardefeld. c. 1707, Victoria and Albert Museum
Peter the Great with a black page, artist: Gustav von Mardefeld. c. 1707, Victoria and Albert Museum

Peter, “the ruler of the largest contiguous empire on earth,” took Gannibal as his godson, standing over his baptism in 1705, Nepomnyashchy describes. The two became quite close: Gannibal traveled with Peter to Europe, visiting the Netherlands in 1716 and Paris in 1717, where he studied military engineering at the artillery school at La Fère. When he returned to Russia six years later, he became Peter’s personal secretary and then engineer-lieutenant in the Preobrazhensky Regiment, where he taught mathematics and wrote a two-volume textbook on the subjects of geometry and fortification.

After Peter suddenly died, Gannibal had the good fortune to be named the tutor of the future Peter II during the two-year reign of Peter’s wife, Catherine I. But when Catherine died, Gannibal “found himself at the mercy of the powerful Prince Menshikov against whom he had plotted, and was sent to Siberia, ostensibly to design and oversee the building of fortifications in the remote town of Selenginsk,” writes Nepomnyashchy. After three years of effective exile in Siberia, Gannibal returned to St. Petersburg.

In 1731 he married Evdokia Dioper, the daughter of a Greek captain. The marriage was rocky from the start, Teletova tells us, and deteriorated further when Evdokia gave birth to a white baby girl. Gannibal did not believe that she could be his daughter, and he charged his wife with adultery. He also used extreme measures in attempts to force her to confess: “Legal documents had described a torture chamber Gannibal built in his home to use to force Evdokia to testify … and allege multiple infidelities,” according to Nepomnyashchy.

Long before their divorce was final (the proceedings would take 21 years), Gannibal began a relationship with a Swedish noblewoman, Christina Regina von Schoberg. The two had seven children and enjoyed a happy marriage until their deaths, just months apart.

Return to Prominence

When Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth I, became empress in 1741, Gannibal was promoted to major-general and governor-general of the city of Revel, in Estonia. He was also given an estate at Mikhailovskoe, which, Nepomnyashchy tells us, nearly a century later “would become important to his great-grandson’s life and work.” A gift from the Empress Elizabeth, the estate was “populated by — according to the census of 1744 — 806 serfs,” explains one of Pushkin’s biographers, T. J. Binyon, in Pushkin: A Biography.

In 1759, he was promoted to the rank of general and a year later was awarded the Order of Saint Alexander Nevsky, which, “presented by the empress in person,” Teletova writes, “was the pinnacle of his career.” Gannibal retired to the estate of Suida outside of St. Petersburg, where he dictated his reminiscences, a copy of which his great-grandson would own.

Gannibal died in 1781, during the American Revolution. No less an embodiment of the Enlightenment than Voltaire himself incredibly called Gannibal “the dark star of the Enlightenment.” At a time when most persons of African descent were enslaved throughout the New World, Gannibal — a black African accorded all of the rights and privileges of Russian nobility — was an important symbol of the follies of anti-black racism, and of the inherent equality of the African with the European.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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