The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Abraham Hannibal - Ethiopian or Central African?
Author - Frances Somers Cocks
Abraham Hannibal, or Gannibal, distinguished Russian general and greatgrandfather of Alexander Pushkin, was undoubtedly an African by origin, but both East and Central Africa have staked vigorous rival claims to him. The evidence for any of these claims is no more than tenuous, but behind them lies the intriguing question: what does it take to be a 'real African'?
Hannibal himself only says that he came from Africa, from a town with a name something like 'Lagon' - which has never been securely identified. The longest-established view, that he came from Abyssinia, hangs on the fact that his own son-in-law, Adam Rotkirch, says that he did, but Rotkirch's grasp of geography (and of history too, for that matter) was extremely hazy. A Russian journalist called Dmitri Anuchin, researching Hannibal's origins in 1899 for the centenary of Pushkin's birth, gave this view firmer substance by identifying the hamlet of Logo, just outside the town of Dibarwa in the Tigrayan highlands in northern Ethiopia (in today's Eritrea), with Hannibal's 'Lagon', simply on the grounds of the similarity of their names. As he saw it, this had the tremendous advantage of making the poet's ancestor a pale-skinned aquiline featured 'Hamitic' or 'Semitic' type: Anuchin could not stomach the notion of him being a true Negro.
However, in 1995, a biography of Hannibal by the francophone West African scholar Dieudonné Gnammankou picked up on a casual suggestion made by Vladimir Nabokov three decades earlier that he could just as plausibly have come from Logone-Birni in Cameroon, not far from its borders with Nigeria and Chad. Gnammankou dismisses Anuchin's theory as fatally tainted by racism, and uses the similarity of the name 'Logone' to Hannibal's 'Lagon' as the foundation for a detailed claim that this is the true birthplace: he is just as passionate in his determination to make Hannibal a true Negro as Anuchin was to make him anything but! More recently, a British journalist, Hugh Barnes, has followed up Gnammankou's views in his biography Gannibal - The Moor of St Petersburg, and describes a visit to Logone-Birni in Cameroon, in which the Sultan tells him that 'FUMMO', the mysterious motto on Hannibal's crest, means 'homeland' in the local Kotoko language. For Barnes, just as eager as Gnammankou to make Hannibal a scion of 'real', black Africa, and not an Abyssinian, this is conclusive proof. However, when I went to Logone in 2004 to research my biography The Moor of St Petersburg - In the Footsteps of a Black Russian, the Sultan denied that he'd ever said anything of the kind; the word meant 'fighting', or 'let's fight'. (This has since been confirmed by the world's leading authority on Kotoko linguistics, the French scholar Henry Tourneux of the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique in Paris.) It seems to me that Barnes succumbed to over-enthusiasm for Logone-Birni's claim, and has been less than rigorous in his use of evidence. My view is that we may never know where General Abraham Hannibal was born, but he was as real an African whether he came from the centre of the continent, or from the Horn.
Frances Somers Cocks is the author of The Moor of St Petersburg - In the Footsteps of a Black Russian, and of two children's adventure stories, Abraham Hannibal and the Raiders of the Sands, and Abraham Hannibal and the Battle for the Throne.