Gannibal: the moor of Petersburg by Hugh Barnes

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The Independent Culture

Pushkin was undoubtedly preoccupied by his ancestor. While most of his Romantic contemporaries were plumbing the depths of the Russian soul, Pushkin found his mother tongue elsewhere, exclaiming in Eugene Onegin: "my own skies are African". He began writing this strange long poem, which is all about a life lived on the fringes, at Mikhailovskoye, the country estate that Gannibal had been awarded in 1742. He clearly kept Gannibal in mind throughout this period, when he also started work on an abortive biography, "The Negro of Peter the Great".

But it is equally clear that Pushkin found the memory of his black ancestor hard to deal with, complaining that "the strange life of Gannibal is known only through family legends", and slipping helplessly between fact and fiction. In a forgivable detour from the incredible truth of Gannibal's life, he began to embroider the story with elements of myth - taken from Shakespeare's Othello. But just as his increasingly fictional hero was about to throw away his military career for the love of an unattainable white woman, Pushkin abandoned the work. The analogy between the two African generals had led him into a narrative dead end. For Gannibal's life was far stranger than Shakespeare's tragedy. He married not one but two Russian women, and acquired an impressive array of estates which he farmed and gardened well into his eighties.

In 18th-century Europe, Gannibal must have been mindboggling to encounter, whether debating calculus with Leibniz, conspiring with French insurrectionaries or building forts on the Russian border with Mongolia. But, as Hugh Barnes admits, the documentary evidence relating to his life is so sparse, and frequently so unreliable, that any attempt to recreate it is doomed to half-truths and speculation. Gannibal continues to hold biographers at arm's length. Even Barnes, despite penetrating into the badlands of Chad and Ethiopia in search of Gannibal's birthplace, can't quite discover whether he was, as he claimed, the son of a local ruler. Blinded by what Nabokov called the "bibliographic dust" of Gannibal's career, Barnes hedges in his biography with so many qualifying footnotes that it's sometimes difficult to see the man for the theses.

Gannibal's character is best experienced, not through Barnes's parentheses, but in Pushkin's romanticised observations, which, if not strictly true, do at least convey the extent of Gannibal's achievements. Pushkin proudly reminds us that Peter the Great "was close to my granddad, / And the purchased blackamoor / Grew up zealous, incorruptible, / The Tsar's secret sharer, not his slave". In a society where everyone could technically be classed as "serfs" or slaves of the Tsar, this was a grand claim, marking Pushkin's pride in his ancestor. It is no wonder that members of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s claimed Pushkin himself as a black author, although when he described his profile as that of a "blackamoor" he did not mean it flatteringly.

Barnes refuses to see Gannibal through the nostalgic prism of his great-grandson's poetry, or the eyes of the Russian court, but as an Enlightenment man, whose "ideas and actions invest [his] life with far more significance than that of a famous ancestor or a Negro of Peter the Great". This is all very well, but he tries to do too much with the limited facts available. Significance is one thing, but a narrative is something else. Whereas Pushkin got derailed by too much storytelling, Barnes is hampered by too little.