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THE TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT

Friday July 18 1997

The rise and fall of Hanibal
T. J. Binyon

ABRAHAM HANIBAL. L'Aieul noir de Pouchkine.
By Dieudonne Gnammankou. 251pp. Paris: Presence Africaine. 155fr. ISBN - 2 7087 0609 8

Towards the end of November 1704, Count Golovin, Peter the Great's Minister of Foreign Affairs, was pleased to learn that the present for the Tsar he had ordered some time earlier had been delivered to his mansion in Moscow. It consisted of two young negro boys, brothers, whom a merchant, Savva Raguzinsky, "with great fear and danger to his life", had acquired from the Turks in Constantinople. Golovin presented them to Peter in December. The elder, baptized as Aleksei, received a musical education and played in a regimental band; he then vanishes from the pages of history. Peter took a liking to the younger boy, Abraham, who was probably then eight years old and who was to become, in time, great-grandfather to the poet Pushkin.

In 1705, after taking Vilnius from the Swedes, Peter had Abraham baptized in the cathedral, standing as his godfather. Abraham accompanied the Tsar to France in 1716 and remained there to study military engineering. Returning to Russia seven years later, he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Preobrazhensky Guards. But Peter died in 1725, and Abraham's sub-sequent career waxed and waned with the rapid changes in regime which followed. Still in favour under Catherine, Peter the Great's wife, he taught Peter's grandson geometry and forti-fication, and presented the Empress with the manuscript of a long work on these subjects. After her death, however, he was suspected of political intrigue and posted to Siberia, where he built a fort at Selenginsk, on the Chinese border; it was at this time that he took the surname Hanibal.

In 1730, now a major, he was transferred to Pyarnu in Estonia, but, beset by marital difficulties and again out of favour, retired from the service for seven years. Called back in 1740, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and given a command in Reval. His fortunes bounded upwards with the accession of Elizabeth, Peter the Great's younger daughter. Made a major-general and governor of Reval, he was given a large grant of land in the Pakov province. In charge of military engineering throughout Russia, he oversaw the building of the Ladoga canal and the fortification of Kronshtadt, but with Elizabeth's death Abraham's career came to an end; retired without promotion or gratuity, he lived on his estate at Suida, near St Petersburg, until his death in 1781.

One of Abraham's sons, Osip, an irrespon-sible and dissolute junior naval officer, married Mariya Pushkina. Their daughter, Nadezhda, married a distant cousin, Sergei Pushkin; the couple's first son, Alexander, born in 1799 and killed in a duel in 1837, was Russia's greatest poet; among his works is an unfinished novel, entitled The Blackamoor of Peter the Great: his great-grandfather.

Dieudonne Gnammankou takes us through Hanibal's life in a brisk and lively manner, but, like his Russian predecessors, he never really manages to penetrate the stiff eighteenth-century exterior and reveal the man behind. Hanibal was obviously talented, energetic and strong-willed, but was he also, as some have made out, cruel, despotic and arbitrary, or, as Gnammankou prefers, "genereux, tolerant, solidaire, et d'une moralite irreprochable"? As this suggests, Abraham Hanibal displays some partiality towards its hero: the degree of Peter's intimacy with Abraham in the latter's youth is perhaps exaggerated, while its account of Hanibal's marital problems is decidedly one-sided.

In January 1731, he married Evdokiya Dioper; against her wishes, since she was engaged to a young naval officer, Kaisarov. Hanibal took her to Estonia, where he was then stationed, but soon, accusing her of adultery and attempting to poison him, began proceedings for divorce. Gnammankou resurrects the canard, first put about by Pushkin, but supported by no evidence and rejected by most scholars, that Evdokiya gave birth to a white daughter (supposedly Kaisarov's) after arriving in Estonia. While she probably did commit adultery, that she attempted to poison her husband is less certain. The author dismisses out of hand the contemporary testimony that Hanibal hanged her by her wrists from rings in a cellar and beat her until she confessed to the crime. He also glosses over the fact that Hanibal had probably already begun an affair with Christina-Regina von Schoeberg, whom he married, illegally, using a forged certificate, in 1736, after the birth of their first son.

As far as Hanibal's life in Russia is concerned, this biography contains nothing new, but it does put forward an interesting and original hypothesis on his origins. Petitioning Elizabeth for a coat of arms in 1741, Hanibal wrote: "I am a native of Africa . . . was born in the town of Logon, in the domain of my father, who besides had under him two other towns." A manuscript biography, written in German in the 1780s, presumably by Hanibal's son-in-law, states that he was "by birth an African blackamoor from Abyssinia", that his father was a "powerful and rich prince", a Muslim and vassal of the Ottoman Porte, who after an unsuccessful revolt was forced to send his son as a hostage to Constantinople. Although, as Vladimir Nabokov pointed out in his essay "Abram Gannibal" (appended to his translation of Eugene Onegin), this is wildly at variance with the situation in Ethiopia at the time - and though no town in the region can be identified with Logon - Ethiopia has been generally accepted as Hanibal's birthplace.

Gnammankou, however, has discovered in the extreme north-east corner of the present state of Cameroon, on the border with Chad, the town of Logone, situated on a river of the same name. Towards the end of the seventeenth century Logone was the capital of a minor kingdom, which, unlike the neighbouring state of Baguirmi, had not converted to Islam. His contention is, therefore, that, around 1703, during a raid by the forces of the Sultan Abd El Kader of Baguirmi on Logone, Abraham, the son of the prince, Brouha, was taken prisoner with others, transported north along the slave trails to Libya, and then by ship to Constantinople. This is a seductive conjecture, which certainly is more in agreement with the sparse evidence on Hanibal's origins than the Ethiopian hypothesis. But since the evidence is not only sparse, but to some extent untrustworthy and contradictory, and is based on the memories of a six- or seven-year-old child recollected between forty and eighty years later, it is difficult to say any more than that this is a highly plausible solution to an insoluble question.

T. J. Binyon is a Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford and the author of Murder Will Out: The detective in fiction, 1989.

LETTER TO THE TLS

 

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