Did Peter the Great Have a Black Son?

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

Editor's note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these "amazing facts" are an homage.


(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 25: Did Russia's Peter the Great adopt an African man as his son?

During my first Black History class back at Yale in 1969, I remember reading about two famous Russians in Joel A. Rogers' book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof. Amazing Fact No. 75 described a great black general who served in the court of Peter the Great: "Abraham Hannibal, captured as a slave in Africa, was adopted by Peter the Great as his son and taught military engineering. Later Hannibal became tutor to the heir of the throne, and commander-in-chief of the Russian army. He died in 1782 at the age of 90, owning vast estates and 2000 white slaves." And in the section "List of World's Greatest Men and Women of African Descent," Rogers listed "Alexander Pushkin, Russian Poet," who is widely known as "the Father of Russian Literature." Two famous black Russians, one a general and one the veritable Shakespeare of the Russian literary tradition? I remember wondering if both could really have been "brothers."

It turns out that Abraham Gannibal (Rogers anglicized his surname as Hannibal) was indeed a member of Peter the Great's court; in fact, Peter was his godfather, not his adoptive father, as Rogers thought. Moreover, it turns out that Alexander Pushkin was Gannibal's great-grandson, which Rogers did not point out in this book, but which he noted in his entry on Pushkin in volume two of his monumental 1947 book The World’s Great Men of Color. Scholars today refer to this great black general as Abram Petrovich Gannibal, who was born sometime around 1697 in Africa and who died in 1781. Gannibal most probably took his surname, in an early form of filial piety and cultural nationalist bonding, from Hannibal, the great general from Carthage and Gannibal's fellow African.

But how did a black African end up in Russia 300 years ago, find a place in the court of Peter the Great, become his godson and then a general in his army?

Since Russia, unlike the other imperial powers, had no African colonies, a black person was a rarity and quite exotic, even as late as the 1980s. Three centuries earlier, when Gannibal arrived, a black person would have been the rarest sight of all. The achievements of these two black Russians — given the fact of slavery and the racist attitudes toward black people in the 18th and 19th centuries — would have been unimaginable in the United States.

Proximity to Greatness

The Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov imaginatively reflected on Gannibal's life, but the most reliable sources are Dieudonné Gnammankou's Abram Hanibal: L'aieul noir de Pouchkine (1996), Hugh Barnes' Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg and N.K. Teletova's essay in Under the Sky of My Africa: Alexander Pushkin and Blackness, a book edited by Catharine Nepomnyashchy, Ludmilla Trigos and Nicole Svobodny (and for which I wrote the Foreword).


Though Gannibal has often been referred to as a "blackamoor" or an "Ethiopian," these terms were commonly used interchangeably for black people from sub-Saharan Africa. ("Ethiopian" is Greek for "burnt-face," for instance.) Scholars have discovered that Gannibal was born, as he always claimed he was, in a place called Logone (now Logone-Birni in present-day Cameroon) around the year 1697, a member of the Kotóko ethnic group. According to Teletova, he was enslaved following a military battle, taken to Tripoli and then to Constantinople, "where he was part of the seraglio [the secluded quarters of wives and concubines] of the Sultan Ahmed III, sovereign of the Turks." A Russian spy then transported him to St. Petersburg "as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great, who was known for his love of the exotic and the odd," Nepomnyashchy explains.

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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