Synopses & Reviews
In the spring of 1703, a young African boy stepped off a slave ship in Constantinople, the gateway between East and West. Huddling in chains, with other frightened captives, the seven-year-old claimed to be a prince of Abyssinia, a "noble Moor" kidnapped and stolen out of Africa. His tragedy was shared by millions of black people caught up in the Islamic slave trade, but his destiny was unique: rescued by Peter the Great, the young African became Abram Petrovich Gannibal.
Russia's westernizing tsar adopted the child and, in a bizarre nature-and-nurture experiment, lavished on him the best education available in the new "European" capital of Saint Petersburg. Gannibal, the "Negro of Peter the Great," soared to dizzying heights as a soldier, diplomat, mathematician and spy. He was fêted in glittering salons, from the Winter Palace to the Louvre, and came to know Voltaire and Montesquieu, who praised him as the "dark star of Russia's enlightenment." At the same time, his military exploits, from northern Spain to the icy wastes of Siberia -- to say nothing of his marital problems -- sealed Gannibal's reputation as the Russian Othello.
African prince or not, the ex-slave founded a dynasty of his own in Russia, where he came to embody the strengths and weaknesses of the country itself -- volatile, courageous, handsome, gifted and always astonishing. His descendants included not only Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet, but also, in England, several Mountbattens and others close to the royal family.
"In this disappointing biography, Russian scholar and journalist Barnes claims to seek the truth behind the story of Alexander Pushkin's black great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal (1696 1781), who was born a slave, raised as a Russian prince and employed by Peter the Great as a military engineer, diplomat and spy. Pushkin's account of his elusive ancestor mutated into an unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great. Traveling to the Logone Delta in Chad, Barnes impressively sleuths Gannibal's likely origins. He entertains with his description of 18th-century Constantinople, where the boy Gannibal was taken as a slave to work as a page in the sultan's harem. But the author becomes pedantic when weighing the evidence for Gannibal's removal by Russian ambassadors, supplying far too much information on Russian foreign emissaries and court politics. Indeed, throughout the biography we periodically lose sight of Gannibal altogether. Despite meticulously tracing his subject's career (even visiting a ruin of one of Gannibal's fortifications), evoking the racism of the Enlightenment and detailing the strife of Gannibal's first, singularly unsuccessful marriage, this biography lacks a historical purpose or thesis, hovering tentatively around a cluster of facts. 16 pages of b&w photos. (June 6)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
About the Author
Hugh Barnes, a journalist and Russian specialist educated at Cambridge and Oxford, covered the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan for newspapers in the UK and abroad.