Why you should care
Truth is stranger than fiction, Abraham Hannibal’s story is strangest of all.
President Obama likes to call his own journey “improbable,” but compared to Abraham Hannibal’s it looks as conventional as, well, living in a white house, with a wife, two children and a dog. What we know about the life of General Abram Petrovich Gannibal, a.k.a. Abraham Hannibal, seems so far-fetched that it reads more like a screenplay assembled from the castoffs from Quentin Tarantino’s 1987 Smith Corona word processor: It’s like Citizen Kane, Othello and Love and Death spawned a love child, and one who does not look a thing like Woody Allen (thankfully).
If you think Allen looked a bit out of place as a Russian soldier in the Napoleonic Wars, picture a large, black man in full Prussian military dress roaming the streets of St. Petersburg or presiding over the palaces of 18th-century Moscow alongside Peter the Great. Now imagine that same man at Versailles and in the salons of Paris expounding on Newtonian mechanics, flirting with spellbound women at court or conversing with Enlightenment figures like Diderot, Montesquieu and Voltaire.
If your imagination needs a break, then chew on this for a second. Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet and no less than Hannibal’s great-grandson, summarized the great man’s passage through the Alps of courtly society as follows: “The black African who had become a Russian noble ended up living like a French philosopher.” But how on earth did all those words ever come to be found in the same sentence?
A young, fatherless Barack Obama boarded a plane to Jakarta when he was just 6, but the boy who would become General Hannibal alighted from a slave ship in Constantinople in chains at the same age, having been abducted by pirates and separated (permanently) from his family and his homeland (likely modern-day Chad). A Russian spy took an interest in the exotic-looking boy belonging to the Sultan of Turkey, rescued him from a life of slavery and brought him back to Moscow as a present for Czar Peter the Great, who adopted the precocious boy as his godson.
At 6 feet 8 inches tall, Peter the Great was literally head and shoulders above his noble peers, once famously greeting King Louis XV of France by lifting him high into the air. Peter was also a ruthless warlord who hoped to establish a new Russian capital in the Baltic swamp in what came to be know as … you guessed it, St. Petersburg. The new capital city and the young Abraham grew up quickly under the czar’s influence. After his extensive education, Peter’s African protégé not only spoke several languages but also was an expert mathematician, cryptographer and military engineer who had learned the art of warfare firsthand as a captain in campaigns from Spain to the Baltic.
After meeting him, Voltaire famously labeled him the “dark star of the Enlightenment.”
Hannibal was both a soldier and a diplomat for his adopted Russia, serving for a time as a spy in Paris, where he charmed everyone he encountered with the perfect cover — the first black intellectual of Europe. After meeting him, Voltaire famously labeled him the “dark star of the Enlightenment.” But, like so many courtly figures, Hannibal’s star began to fade with his patron’s. He was exiled to Siberia for a time after Peter’s death and — ultimately and ironically — given a country estate to retire on that was equipped with hundreds of serfs.
The former African slave-boy transformed by fate into an aged Russian slave owner. How’s that for stranger than fiction?