In 1742, a Major General of the Imperial Russian Army petitioned the Empress Elizabeth for permission to establish a coat of arms. The crest created featured an elephant and the cryptic letters “FVMMO” now believed to be the abbreviation of the Latin motto, “Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Oppido” or, in English, “Fortune Has Changed My Life Entirely.” For Major General Abram Petrovich Gannibal, this was certainly true: in his life, his fortune had led him from a young 7 year old boy, kidnapped and made a slave to a position as a general and nobleman in Russia.
The story of Gannibal is not well known today, but it represents a classic- and true- story of someone who suffered great difficulties, but rose above them to great achievements. An inspirational life. His strength and fortitude enabled him to survive great hardships and his intelligence permitted him to see advantages and opportunities in his desperate plights, but most of all, his kindness and loyalty brought him friendships and honour.
There is some confusion about this man’s birth and early life, but it is believed that he was born to a tribe in what is now Cameroon (West Central Africa), in the province of Logon, south of Lake Chad. At the age of 7 he was kidnapped, apparently by members of a rival tribe, and sold to Arab slavers in West Africa. The usual method, at that time, was that slavers would march groups of their new slaves, bound around the neck by wooden collars and tied to each other by rope. The trip would have taken them in long columns, marching on foot from West Africa to the slave markets in Zanzibar – over 2,000 miles away. How a young boy survived such a trip, which must have taken a year, cannot be imagined, but he did live to finish the journey, only to be sold and taken to the court of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople.
Bought by the Russian ambassador
He would have probably have spent the rest of his life as a household slave of the Sultan except for the presence of one man, Sava Vladislavich- Raguzinsky, the Russian ambassador to the court of the Ottoman Empire. In 1704, just as the slave boy, known as Abram, arrived in Constantinople, the Russian was about to return to Moscow. Before he left, the ambassador asked the Sultan for permission to buy three young African slave boys to take back to Russia. Why Vladislavich-Raguzinsky would ask to do this is unknown: was it a request from Moscow or just a whim? In any case, one of the three boys selected for purchase was the newly-arrived Abram. So began the next stage of this young African’s life.
Moscow and a stroke of self-made luck
The conditions of the trip to Moscow, a distance of over 1,000 miles to the eastern side of Europe, were certainly less horrific than under the Arab slavers. The boys were not forced to march in chains, but instead were probably passengers in wagons or coaches. During this time, which must have been several months, young Abram adapted to his new situation and apparently learned some of the Russian language. We know this because of an incident that occurred soon after he arrived in Moscow. As the returning ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky had an audience before the Czar, Peter I, known to history as “Peter the Great”. During this audience, the young African boys were brought before the Czar and Abram was able to speak in Russian to the monarch. Surprised and clearly impressed, Peter the Great ordered that Abram stay as part of his household as a servant.
Relationship with the Czar, “Peter the Great”
For the next year, while serving in the royal household, Abram not only became a favourite of the Czar but also became friends with Peter’s daughter, Elizabeth. It was during this time that Russia was involved in the Great Northern War, in which Russia and its allies were fighting against Sweden to recapture control over the southern areas of the Baltic Sea. When Peter the Great would leave Moscow to go on military campaigns, diplomatic visits with his allies or to visit the new city he was building – Saint Petersburg – he would take Abram along with him as a personal servant. For his part, Abram began to take an interest in the military and engineering. The relationship between the Czar and his young servant became so close that, in 1705, when he decided to become baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, Peter the Great stood as his Godfather. As a result, the former slave and now friend of the Czar of all Russia, adopted the name Abram Petrovich Gannibal: the patronymic for his Royal Godfather and the last name in the Russian form of the name of the great Carthaginian general Hannibal.
Education and military service with a French flavour
In 1717, now 21 years old, Abram travelled to Metz, France, to study the arts, sciences and military subjects, including engineering. After a year of classes, he decided – with the Czar’s encouragement- to join the French army to obtain practical field experience in military engineering. During the campaigns of the French army against Spain, Abram was steadily promoted until he reached the rank of captain. At one battle, however, he was wounded and was unable to remain in active service. After he recovered from his wound, he spent a year attending artillery school in Metz and visiting Paris.
Exile to Siberia, redemption and marriages
Now that he had gained a university-level education and combat experience, Abram returned to Moscow in 1723. Not yet 30 years old, the young officer looked forward to a successful career in the Russian Imperial Army. Unfortunately, fate had other plans. After a long illness, Czar Peter I died at only age 52. His wife, Catherine, took the throne as Empress, but the real power of the throne came under the control of a group of “advisors”, particularly the corrupt Prince Aleksandr Danilovich Menshikov. The prince disliked Abram, not only because he was an African but also because he had friends and influence at the court. To remove Capt. Gannibal from Moscow, Prince Menshikov had him assigned to an army unit stationed in Siberia and gave him the task of using his engineering skills to measure the Great Wall of China, just over the Russian border. It was a brief exile, however. Although the Empress Catherine died after just two years on the throne, before she did, the corrupt Prince Menshikov’s pow er was broken and he himself was sent into exile: to Siberia. Gannibal returned to Moscow, where he resumed his career in the Imperial Army. He married Evdokia Dioper, a Greek woman, but the marriage was unhappy and she soon proved to be unfaithful – for which she was sent to a convent for life. Although Gannibal was not legally divorced from her until 1753, he began to live with Christina Regina Slöberg, daughter of a Swedish army captain and descended from the nobility of Scandinavia and Germany. This was a very happy relationship and, when he was formally divorced from Evdokia, Gannibal married Christina. During their long and loving marriage, they had 10 children.
Raised to the Russian nobility
During the next few years, Russia, although at peace militarily, was in embroiled in internal confusion due to a series of short lived monarchs. In 1741, the throne was successfully claimed by Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Gr eat and Gannibal’s friend since childhood. Once again, Gannibal’s fortunes changed: The new Empress promoted him to Major General and gave him important responsibilities to allow him to use his talents and training. He was commander of Revel from 1743 until 1751, and was also responsible for the construction of several fortresses. Perhaps his greatest success was to oversee the completion of the construction of the Ladoga Canal, a project begun over 20 years earlier by Peter the Great to improve navigation and trade. The Empress Elizabeth also raised him to the nobility (which allowed him to take a coat of arms) and gave him a large estate in Pskov province.
Gannibal’s legacy: Aleksandr Pushkin
Major General Abram Petrovich Gannibal continued to honourably serve Russia and the Empress Elizabeth throughout her long, twenty-year reign. Upon her death in 1761, Gannibal retired to his estates in Pskov, where he lived happily with his beloved wife Christina until his death in 1781, at age 85. His son Ivan went on to become a noted admiral in the Russian navy and his great grandson would be the Russian author Aleksandr Pushkin, who wrote a novel about his ancestor. His adventurous life has recently become the subject of a new biogr aphy, Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg by Hugh Barnes (Profile Books, 2005 ). Some British aristocrats descend from Gannibal, including Natalia Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster and her sister, Alexandra Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn. George Mountbatten, 4th Marquess of Milford Haven, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, is also a direct descendant, as the grandson of Nadejda Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven.