Joel A. Rogers, the famous African American historian of Carribean descent wrote in his book, Great Men Of Color (Vol. II) that destiny had been good to Hannibal from the beginning (I'll use the complete quote at the end of the introduction). But has fame been fair to Abraham Hannibal when it comes to being known for his accomplishments, at least, for English language readers? I tend to think not. Unlike the norm, whereby the achievements of off spring have been overshadowed by famous parents, here is a case of a renowned literary genius, Alexander S. Pushkin, whose achievements overshadow those of his maternal great grand father, a "great man of color", the brilliant military and civil engineer, Abraham Petrovich Hannibal.
In my last post, I mentioned that two books had been published since I wrote a series of articles on Abraham Hannibal and his descendants in 2003. Thanks to the works of Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks, English language readers can finally read in detail about this incredible historical figure. In Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg, Hugh Barnes brings Abraham P. Hannibal out from the shadows of Alexander S. Pushkin, and projects him into a full blown biography. Like a good eye surgeon, Barnes removes the cataract that had been obstructing us from seeing the complete life of Abraham P. Hannibal. Barnes succeeds in removing most of the cataract that had been the cause of the blurriness before. However, like a cataract that has not been fully removed and keeps coming back, Barnes' Gannibal's original birthplace remains opaque. To be fair though, it is understandable that proving a birthplace is very difficult given the unavailability of original documents and strong evidences from 17th century Africa.
It is normal when people or countries tend to claim renowned personalities as their own. In Africa, the number of countries claiming Hannibal or Pushkin (through Hannibal) as their own is increasing. The latest addition to the fold is Cameroon. One thing should be clear, though. First of all, all of Africa should be proud of the extraordinary lives and brilliant accomplishments of Hannibal and his descendants, because as you will see, their stories should not be confined to a particular place and time, but should be hailed as a triumph for the resilience and perseverance of the timeless human spirit.
Historian Dieudonne Gnammankou is the first advocate of Cameroon as the historical birthplace of Abraham P. Hannibal. He believes that Logone-Birni, which is located south of Lake Chad is the birthplace of Abraham P. Hannibal. Gnammankou wrote his book on Hannibal in French, therefore, I couldn't follow his argument first hand. However, through Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks (both of them visited Logone-Birini for their respective books), I am able to follow the argument of Logone-Birini as Hannibal's birthplace. Since this is not a book review, I'm not going to go in detail and argue as to why Logone-Birni is not a potential place as Hannibal's birth, but rather I will put forth the argument that Eritrea is the best candidate as Hannibal's origin of birth.
Oral Tradition/Orature (Oral Literature)
Oral history has a long tradition in Africa. It is important to note that there is a tendency to believe that oral tradition is suspect when it comes to recording history. Even though oral tradition might raise a red flag, it should not be dismissed outright, however. Oral tradition can be preserved in the form of poetry, songs, music and stories. Before people invented writing, their history was preserved and communicated to the next generation through oral tradition. Eritrea has a long history of both written and oral history. As a matter of fact, Eritrea is one of the very few countries in Africa that has its own script and has a long written tradition.
Early on, written tradition in Eritrea was limited mostly to the clergy, therefore, churches were the main depositors and chroniclers of local history. Eritrea also has a long history of customary laws. These customary laws were both written and oral. Many villages in Eritrea had their own customary laws (Note: For more discussion of Eritrean customary laws by Memher Tewoldebrhan Amdemeskel, check out my post entitled "Eritrea: sketches of a trip" Sketch four, part two). Since Eritrea was and still is an agrarian society, these customary laws addressed land issues, such as land usage, etc; they subliminally also addressed genealogy and census. Therefore, in Eritrea there is a long tradition of knowing one's genealogy. To give you an example from my family, I can recite up to twelve of my ancestors on my father's father side and more than ten on my father's mother side and also ten on my mother's side, which were all written and handed down to me.
In 2000, I videotaped my late grand-mother-in-law, who was 92 years old at the time and who recited for me the genealogy of her husband's famous great uncle, Degieat Bahta Hagos, the Eritrean patriot who fought and was killed by the Italians in late 19th century. In the same conversation, she also told me stories of Diegeat Bahta that I had never heard before, from oral tradition. In part one of the series that I am writing now, I mentioned that the village of Lagwen had published its own genealogy. As I have tried to argue above, oral and written tradition about one's genealogy (whether at the family or at the larger society level) is not unique but the norm in the narration of Eritrean history.
Logon, Logo, Logone, Lagwen, etc.
Looking at the number of villages that start with the letter "L", it would not be surprising if all the villages in Africa that start with the letter "L" claim to be the origin of Abraham's birthplace.
How did the letter "L" became the first candidate? The main source of the story is Abraham Hannibal himself. In a letter addressed to Czarina Elizabeth in 1742, Abraham mentioned that he was born in a place called Lagone in Africa. He also mentioned that he was the son of a local ruler, hence the source of the idea that Abraham was the son of a ruler or was a prince. The last part could be an exaggeration on the part of Hannibal since he was petitioning Empress Elizabeth in the same letter for the rank of the nobility. The notion that Abraham Hannibal was the direct descendant of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, was first advocated by Abraham's son-in-law, Adam Rotkirkh. Abraham, it must be noted, did not add Hannibal to his name before he went to France. Rotkirkh is also believed to be the source of the"Abyssinian birth" of Abraham.
Abyssinia is the former name of Ethiopia. With the "Abyssinian birth" theory the area of Mereb which borders Eritrea (Ethiopia directly ruled Eritrea from 1962 to 1991) was the main candidate as the birthplace of Abraham. Hugh Barnes and Frances Somers Cocks both visited potential villages that would have qualified as the birthplace of Abraham. None of the people who had ever written or searched for the birthplace of Abraham ever visited a village called Lagwen, which is located 12 kms. outside of Asmara(the capital of Eritrea). That means all the researchers had been searching in the wrong area. None of the places (Logo, Logo Sarda, Logone..) that were visited by the aforementioned authors or the previous authors claimed that Abraham was from there. Even Logone-Birini was not aware of its "famous son" until researchers came and start asking them about Abraham and Pushkin. Unlike all the other potential villages, Lagwen, on the other hand, has an oral history and written genealogy of Abraham Hannibal. According to the oral tradition of Lagwen, Abraham was abducted from a small hill called Gobo Una Mariam. Lagwen's claim should be studied thoroughly.
Abraham was taken from Africa and then taken to Turkey. Hugh Barnes pretty much has covered Abraham's life from the time he left Turkey up to his death in Russia. How did Abraham get to Turkey? What was the relationship between the countries who claim Abraham's birth as their own and Turkey? Again, Eritrea is a much better candidate than Cameroon for the following reasons.
1.Parts of Eritrea (especially Massawa and the coastal areas) were under the direct rule of Turkey for centuries. Turkey's incursion into highland Eritrea is also known (Lagwen is located in the highlands of Eritrea). One might hear the term "Gez'at Turki" (the rule of Turkey) in Eritrea. This is in reference to an authoritarian and brutal domination that Eritrea went through under the rule of Turkey.
2. Geography. Eritrea which is located in the Horn of Africa on the Red Sea coast is much closer to Turkey than Logone-Birini's which is located south of Lake Chad in West Africa.
3. Abraham was taken by ship to Turkey. Massawa, a major port in Eritrea, was under the direct rule of Turkey. Massawa was a major port for exporting slaves and other commodities to the rest of the world. Most of the slaves taken through Massawa were taken to the Middle East and India. (Note: There are a group of people in India known as Habishis who had been in India for four centuries who claim the area of the Horn of Africa as their homeland).
Finally, I highly recommend that people read Hugh Barnes' Gannibal : The Moor of Petersburg for detailed life of Abraham P. Hannibal. There are several important findings in Barnes' book. The first is the information of the newly found book written by Abraham Hannibal entitled Geometry and Fortification and an unpublished book entitled Artificial Fireworks. The second important information concerns Abraham's life in France. Abraham knew leaders of the French Enlightenment. According to Barnes, Montesquieu even praised Abraham as the "dark star of Russia's enlightenment". Third is the fact that Abraham's role in using fireworks to investigate the military potential of rocketry is highly significant. Barnes in his book quotes works by Simon Werret entitled Projecting Modernity: A Social History of Rocketry, which argues that (H) Gannibal's work on the 'secret howitzer' paved the way for the development of the first military rockets by the British inventor Sir William Congreve in the early nineteen century. And much more.
Below is what I had posted in 2003.
TO THE RUSSIAN DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE
ABRAHAM P. HANNIBAL: THE ODYSSEY BEGINS
Double-headed eagle of Imperial Russia
J. A. Rogers in his book World’s Great Men of Color Vol. II starts Abraham Hannibal’s story like this: "History contains few figures more extraordinary than Abraham Hannibal. Stolen from his parents in Africa and sold into slavery, he became general-in-chief of one of the leading white empires of his day. Destiny was so kind to Hannibal from the beginning; instead of being sent to America, where he would have been at best a house servant, he was sent to Turkey…”
From Turkey he was taken to Russia where he became a general and one of the leading engineers of Imperial Russia. Abraham P. Hannibal’s odyssey begins in 17th century rural Eritrea. The Atlantic Slave Trade that took African people into bondage to the Americas and the Caribbean was beginning on the west coast of Africa. Turkey was ruling part of Europe and Asia. The coastal areas of Eritrea were also under Turkey. The Arab Slave Trade on the eastern part of Africa which predates The Atlantic Slave Trade had shown no sign of slowing down.
The destinations of the African people taken from East Africa were Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and India...). This was the situation of the world in which Abraham Hannibal was born. When he was eight years old he was kidnapped from Lagwen, Eritrea- according to Tweldi Lagwen from Gobo Enda Mariam- and was taken to Turkey. On his way with his abductors, legend has it that, his older sister followed them to Massawa and drowned in the Red Sea while trying to rescue her brother.
Once he was taken to Turkey he was sold as a slave to Sultan Mustapha II in Constantinople. While he was a slave at the palace, in a far away Russia, Czar Peter the Great (I) at the age of 25 was trying to “modernize/westernize” "old" Russia. He wanted to make Imperial Russia among equals of royals of Western Europe. He thus traveled disguised as a simple private individual among a Russian delegation of 250 supposedly headed by three ambassadors. Peter’s secret mission was two-fold. One, to secure Holland’s assistance in any future conflict with Turkey, and two, to apprentice himself and his men to Holland’s superior ship builders ( Lavlenko). This opportunity led him to personally witness the advancement of the various technological feats of Europe. He also witnessed the cultural aspects of the various European empires that he visited. As a sign of the times among royals of Europe, to have a portrait taken by famous artists with their black page boys was a sign of fashion, haute couture and vogue.
Back in Turkey, Russia’s Ambassador, Count Savva Raguinsky, was finishing up his duty and was returning to Russia. Being a “cultured” man himself whether through bribe or actual purchase he took back page-boys to Czar Peter. One of the pages was Abraham. It is not clear if Count Raguinsky took the boys from Turkey on his own or by a request from the Czar. Czar Peter was so determined to modernize Russia(the wife of Abraham or someone in her family) wrote the following : He (Czar Peter) wished to make examples of Russians and put them to shame by convincing them that out of every people and even from among wild men-such as “negroes”, whom our civilized nations assign exclusively to the class of slave, there can be formed men who by dint of application can obtain knowledge and learning and thus become helpful to their monarch.”(Pushkin Genealogy)
Once in Russia, Abraham was unusually bright for his age. He quickly picked up the Russian language and alphabet. His inquiring mind was curious with numbers. The Czar realizing the potential of Abraham put him under his wings. Abraham started to accompany Peter through out Russia and foreign countries. It was during one of those trips, in 1707, in Vilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) that Abraham-since his days in Turkey was called Ibrahim- was re-baptized in the Russian Orthodox faith. His Father-in-Christ was none other than the Czar himself and Christina the Queen of Poland who became his god-mother (Hugh Barnes disputes that Christina Queen of Poland was even there).
In 1717, when Peter went on his second European trip, he took his god-son and private secretary, Abraham, to France and left him in Paris to study for a career as a military and civil engineer. He studied at the Ecole d’ Artillerie of la Fere under Bernard Forest de Belidor and afterwards, at the Ecole d’Artillerie of Metz, an institution founded by Sebastian le Preste, Marquis de Vauban. While in France a war broke out between France and Spain. He joined the French against the Spaniards and fought in many battles. It was in one of these battles in a place called Fontaine d’Arabie that he was hit in the head. After the war was over he returned to Paris. In Paris, he became the talk of town. With the women folk of Paris, shall we say, he was the most sought after, with his tall, dark and handsome complexion. His friends were people like Duke d’Orleans, who was the regent. According to J. A. Rogers, the Duke even asked him to remain in
France for a high position in court if Abraham transfers his allegiance to Duke d’Orleans. Abraham's allegiance was of course to Czar Peter.
To Russia with Love.
After his studies, it is believed that Abraham took with him over 400 volumes of books to Russia (Troyant). There is some debate whether the name Hannibal was added after he returned from France or when he was baptized in Vilno. After returning to Russia, Abraham Hannibal was appointed an officer in the perobrajensky guard-regiment. He became an engineer –lieutenant in the bombardier-company of which the Czar himself was the captain (Albert Parry). His career in Russia seemed to be promising. Czar Peter the Great appointed Abraham Hannibal to be the tutor of the crown prince, Peter II. His influence in the palace of Peter the Great became great. Consequently, with that influence came the jealousies, the distrust, and the hatred, ten-fold. Even though, he moved back from France to Russia with love to build Russia and serve his monarch, for those involved in the court intrigues, the response was from Russia with hate.
Tackling the Russian Bear.
On Czar Peter's death in 1725, the throne was seized by his wife, Catherine I, grandmother of Peter, the real heir (who was set aside). However, the real power was held by Prince Menshikov (J. A. Rogers). To diminish Abraham's influence on the real heir, Hannibal was first sent to Kazan and then to the Chinese frontier, where, under the pretext of being put in charge of fortification works, he was left to stagnate in a dreary exile (Troyant). Hannibal was sent to tackle the Russian bear (symbol of Russian beauty, wilderness, cold, country) in the hope that the bear would devour him. It was believed that Abraham would not survive the exile. The exile was imposed on him after Abraham declined a bribe from Menshinkov for trying to influence the real heir to the throne, Peter II. He was to remain in exile until the death of Catherine I in 1730. In the meantime, he was appointed to be in charge of the fortress at Pernau. It was here that
Abraham P. Hannibal resolved to marry Eudoxia the daughter of a Greek captain. After their marriage Eudoxia had a baby from a white navy officer. As a result Abraham asked for a divorce (which was ugly). The divorce would take almost five years to finalize.
Upon hearing of the ascension to the throne by Peter II and that of his old friend, Dolgouriki, Abraham decided to come back. But, he was arrested at Tomsk. Dolgouriki feared Abraham’s influence with Peter no less than that of Menshinkov's (who had been exiled). As a result, Abraham was held at Tomsk until Peter II’s death (J. A. Rogers). Peter was then succeeded by the niece of Peter the Great, Anna Ivanovna. Anna fearing that Abraham Hannibal belonged to a faction who wanted to put Princess Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great(the real heir to the throne) wanted to arrest him. Field Marshall Munich, a friend from his France days, smuggled him out and sent him to the Swedish border near the city of Reval (modern day Tallinn in Estonia), where he would spent the next twelve years of Anna’s reign, forgotten (J. A. Rogers). In the meantime, in domestic life, Abraham Hannibal had remarried. His second wife, the daughter of a Baltic German captain, was called Regina Von Schellberg. Abraham and Regina had eleven children. And they were: 1. Ivan 2. Yevedkia (girl) 3 . Elizabeta 4. Anna 5. Peter 6. Ossip (grand father of Pushkin) 7. Agribna (girl) 8. Issac 9. Ekaterina (Catherine) 10. Yacov (Yacob) & 11. Sofia. I guess Abraham, despite being away from his birth place, had not forgotten the Eritrean psyche, Qol’U b’ Edlom iyom zAbyu , (children will grow up on their own luck), to heart.
General Abraham P. Hannibal (Barnes believes this is a picture of a white man not that of Abraham Hannibal's)
Engineering equipments of General Abraham
The Seal of General Abraham P. Hannibal
A Big Russian Bear-hug and an Offering of an Olive-branch from the Double-Headed Eagle.
While Abraham Hannibal was in exile and members of his family were increasing, Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great came to the throne. Instead of being devoured, Abraham had tamed the Russian bear and the bear had offered a big Russian bear hug. From St. Petersburg, the seat of Imperial Russia and home of the double-headed eagle (coat-of-arms of the Romanov's), Abraham was offered an olive branch. In her gratitude to Abraham's unswerving devotion and loyalty to the family of Peter the Great, Elizabeth Petrovna, Empress of All Russia, showered honors and riches upon him. Among the riches is found a vast property in the province of Pskov, where the estate of Mikhailovskoe is located. Mikhailovskoe would play a major role in Pushkin’s life. And it was in Mikhailovskoe that Pushkin would write his greatest works. The riches also included ten villages, with thousands of white serfs (Parry). Since all that exile life had worn Hannibal out he politely declined offers by Empress of All Russia, to stay in the royal court. He asked permission to return to Reval, for semi-retirement, where he was made a commander. With a border dispute between Russia and Sweden, he was recalled to active duty and was appointed head of the Russian commission.
General Abraham P. Hannibal’s study
The main house at Petrovskoe
The main house at Mikhailovskoe.
Next, part three.
Tackling the Russian Bear: the Second Generation
The Odyssey Continues