Sunday, November 14, 2010

The "Blackamoor" of Peter the Great

Statue of A. S. Pushkin in St. Petersburg (on Pushkinskaya St.) 

[Note that the original title of this post was "The 'Negro' of Peter the Great." See the comments section for details.]

Curiosity about Pushkin's lineage seems as strong as ever: Serge Schmemann writes in The New York Times that an African historian, Dieudonné Gnammankou, has discovered that the Russian national poet's great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was probably born in the late seventeenth century in central Africa - not the more palatable Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, as Russians had thought. When he was seven years old, Gannibal was kidnapped, possibly by a neighboring chief, from the ancient sultanate of Logone-Birni (in what is now Cameroon), and given as a gift to the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. The Russian ambassador then "acquired" him and presented him to Peter the Great.

Precisely because of his blackness, Gannibal's close relationship with Peter has long held profound interest for Russians and - it seems to me - has contributed to their conception of his great-grandson as possessing literary gifts of an almost otherworldly origin. (That relationship also accounts for Gannibal's patronymic, Petrovich, or "son of Peter.") The racialist thinking that predominates in Russia nowadays can often be unsettling, regardless whether the group under examination comes off looking good or bad, and Pushkin's case is no exception. The implication seems to be that his dash of African blood somehow honed or magnified his Russianness, thereby nurturing him toward his destiny of becoming the greatest of Russian poets.

At any rate, the historian Gnammankou's research led to a ceremony this week in La Fère, France, where "luminaries of the town and province" rubbed shoulders with "high representatives of Russia and Estonia, as well as the ambassador of Cameroon and the sultan of Logone-Birni."  They all gathered to celebrate the life of Gannibal, whom Peter the Great dispatched to study military science at the French town's artillery academy in 1716. 

But that was before Peter's death and Gannibal's subsequent exile to Siberia. Things often go that way in Russian history, don't they?


  1. Wouldn't "moor" be a better translation for "арап" then "negro"?

  2. Except that "moor" is not used that way in contemporary English, and would be incomprehensible to most readers.

  3. On the other hand, "moor" is antiquated in the same way that "арап" is. I suppose "negro" is archaic too, but it remained an acceptable usage well into the twentieth century. Another problem with "negro" is that it is offensive in a way that I don't think "арап" is in Russian.

  4. "On the other hand, "moor" is antiquated in the same way that "арап" is." -- this is what I had in mind when suggesting it.

    Also, "арап" is just as incomprehensible to the majority of Russian speakers as "moor" would be to the English speakers, if I understand correctly; if it were not for the phrase "арап Перра Великого", it wouldn't be known at all to modern Russians, and very few know what is so "arabic" about a black man.

  5. Yes, I agree. To be honest, I didn't think much about it when I chose "negro" for the title of my post. I just went the word that came into my head. Now, you've convinced me that "moor" would have been a better choice, but the best solution, from my point of view, is the one that I see recent translators have settled on: "blackamoor."

  6. Having looked up "blackamoor", I can't but agree that it must be near perfect... I knew I would learn something from this. :-)