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The Black Engineer of 18th Century Russia

Updated on November 7, 2014

Abraham Petrovich Gannibal

Abraham Petrovich Gannibal
Abraham Petrovich Gannibal | Source
Alexander Pushkin his great grandson
Alexander Pushkin his great grandson | Source
Ivan Gannibal, a General and his son
Ivan Gannibal, a General and his son | Source

The Black Engineer of 18th Century Russia

Abraham Gannibal, a black man from Africa, was the father of modern engineering in Russia. Peter the Great loved him. He was black and from Central Africa, very likely in Cameroon. He was as described by his contemporaries as “A pure Negro - thick lips, flattened nose, woolly hair.”

His success in Russia was tremendous by the time he died at 85. He had had hundreds of serfs and cultivated potatoes which he promoted on his estates. Also a humanist, he did not allow punishment of his serfs and put limits on what they were required to do. Among his many accomplishments he built numerous Russian fortresses, fought in the French army, built canals and even measured the Great Wall of China. Pushkin, the greatest poet of Russian history was his great grandson.

How did he end up in 18th century Russia? Slave traders could not sell people of the book, Christians, Jews or Muslims, and so went down to Central Africa in order to find pagans. Most sources say he was from Cameroon, part of the Logone people of the Kotoko empire. By all standards his origins were extraordinary. He was born an African prince. He was captured and sold as a slave by Arab traders with his sister Lehana who died on the trip, and brother who was renamed Alexei when he converted in Russia. This was a common punishment for those whose fathers were found to be unruly by the local potentate.

He was sent to Russia by Peter Tolstoy, diplomat sent to set up relations with the Ottoman Empire. He had heard of a captured prince from the Russian Ambassador Vladislavich-Raguzinsky in Constantinople. The child was serving in the court of the Sultan. He had him sent to Peter as an oddity around 1701.

There is no doubt Peter liked the 'present' very much. From the age of eight he and his brother Alexei were raised with Peter's children which was a great honor, and they were educated. Later as a teenager he would travel with Peter to many battlefields serving as his personal valet. Only those with favored status could do this, he was not a servant. Peter himself stood as his Godfather when he was baptized Russian Orthodox in Lithuania. When grown he slept in the royal bedroom and was a secretary to Peter, who loved him more than his own son, heir to the throne.

Abraham accompanied him abroad and remained in France to receive an education in mathematics and engineering. Apparently he was very good in geometry. He was to have a career in the Russian military. To this end he served in the French military and obtained the rank of Lieutenant Captain fighting the Spanish in the War of the Quadruple Alliance before being injured and discharged.

In France he was a novelty. His great grandson Pushkin wrote that a married woman he identifies only as L. became pregnant with his child. The child could not be from passed off as from husband as it was black. So the child was given away and raised by a couple in the country.

When he returned to Russia three years later in 1723 Peter himself met him outside of St. Petersburg to talk to him privately and welcome him home. Afterward he worked for Peter in the army as an engineer and math professor. He reinforced the fortress outside of St. Petersburg. Then Peter died in 1725.

Abraham opposed the plans of Alexander Menshikov tto marry his daughter to the Tzar. Menshikov was the most powerful man in Russia for about three years. So Abraham was ordered far away from the capitol to Tomsk, Siberia, where he was paid only 10 rubles a month, and Menshikov ordered that he be given no paper. Then Menshikov thought of an even better scheme. He sent him to China to measure the Great Wall. For a while he was forgotten.

In the end Menshikov was exiled by Peter II. He died in Siberia. Abraham came back into Russia two years after Menshikov died. It was about this time he chose the last name Gannibal. This was the Russian version, the great General of Carthage known as a brilliant strategist.

In 1731 he married Evdoxia Andreyevna Dioper, the daughter of a Greek sea captain. Alas she had been happily engaged to an Alexander Kaisarov. In this instance being black did not work in his favor. Pushkin wrote when she was told that she was to be married to Gannibal she fainted. At any rate the marriage was a failure that ended in divorce. They fought and she did not like him.

He took her to Estonia where he taught mathematics and drawing and for four years was the Commander of a Russian fortress.

She had a child that was very white and he asked Evdoxia for a divorce. It was not easy to get a divorce in those days. She would not give him one, as in those days that would be admitting she had committed a crime. She tried to argue that it was possible for the child to be white. It has been written that he raised the child and gave her a good education. This could be apocrypha.

She started an affair with a man named Jacob Shishkov and it was rumored she was planning to poison Gannibal and marry her lover. He locked her in her room and tortured her to get a confession. Then he turned her over to authorities and she spent eleven awful years in prison under horrible conditions, where she was starved. Evdokia was of jail on bail in 1743 when she became pregnant again. This time she agreed to the divorce. But altogether the divorce took ten more years.

Five years after his unfortunate marriage in 1736 he illegally married a Swedish girl named Christina Regina von Schöberg, whose father was an army Captain. She came from a noble but poverty stricken family. His first wife was still in prison and they were not divorced, which made him a bigamist. But he found a priest to marry them. His second wife was very fond of her rich husband and they had 11 children, seven of whom survived. His son Ivan became a distinguished General. The daughter of his son Osip was the mother of the poet Pushkin.

The divorce was finalized in 1753. It had taken 20 years to divorce her. Evdoxia was sentenced to spend the rest of her life in the Staraya Ladoga Convent. His second marriage was recognized as legal although a cash penalty was administered.

The rest of the story is pretty much a tale of his many successes. In 1740 Elizabeth the daughter of Peter placed him in charge of the fortress at Reval, where he remained for 8 years. He commanded the Corp of Engineers for all of Russia and built forts from Riga to St. Petersburg. Gannibal created hospitals and schools for those working on his projects.

Gannibal would serve Russia all through the 18th century. He started with Peter the Great and died working for Catherine the Great. He was made Chief General. Abram Petrovich Gannibal died in 1781 having outlived Menshikov by 52 years.


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