The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Book Review - The Moor of St Petersburg: In the Footsteps of a Black Russian

Frances Somers Cocks

Reviewer - Christian Curle

The Moor of St. Petersburg: In the Footsteps of a Black Russian by Frances Somers Cocks joins the genre of books which retrace the travels of ancestors. But from the very first page when Frances describes her first tentative thoughts on the seed of an idea we are carried along by her youthful enthusiasm. The descriptive prose is most evocative of all the countries she travelled through including particularly Ethiopia. Her goal is to retrace the footsteps of her hero Abraham Hannibal who was the great grandfather of Pushkin, the great Russian writer and poet. All her travelling is done on a tight budget in holidays from teaching with the result that she really gets under the skin of the countries.

Her travels start in Ethiopia and from Addis Ababa she travels by bus to Eritrea where she does find the village called Logo where Abraham is supposed to have come from before being kidnapped or sold into slavery. There she indeed finds traces of old stone paving. In the early trails Frances sees the country through the eyes of the child hero; being a primary teacher as well as a mother she is well equipped to do this. In Istanbul she tracks down the rather shabby slave market where Abraham was presumably sold which is not exactly on the usual tourist route. In 1704 Abraham was spirited out of the Sultan's service and ended up in the service of the Tsar of all the Russias. Frances travels by sea from Istanbul across the Black Sea to Odessa and thence by train to Kiev and Moscow. Frances knows that Abraham did this part of the journey by wagon arriving in Moscow in November 1704. Her evocative descriptions of Moscow in the time of Abraham and in the present day are fascinating. Her research led to numerous invitations to stay with Russians in their homes.

According to the traditions of the Pushkin Society Abraham soon graduated from being a page boy to secretarial duties and then a drummer boy in the Tsar's favourite regiment. The Tsar, after noticing Abraham's aptitudes in battle, sent him to France where he ended up in the most elite of military colleges. All this time Abraham was becoming increasingly more educated and started amassing a fine library. Many of these books ended up in the Pushkin family library. Abraham returned to France as a qualified military engineer.

After the death of Tsar Peter, Abraham finds himself in exile in Siberia. Not to be daunted Frances continues following his trail by train. However, three years on our hero is allowed to return to European Russia and finally to his beloved St. Petersburg. In 1742 he designed a crest for himself with an elephant in the centre representing Africa. At this period he was loaded with privileges and given an estate by the new Empress. He showed an unusually philanthropic approach to the running of his estates. The memory of his time as an underdog never left him. Finally he was invested as a knight of the order of St. Anne. The slave boy had indeed made good.

There is a conflicting story that Abraham Hannibal came from a Logone in the Cameroons. Amazingly Frances takes her eight-year-old son with her by boat across Lake Chad, by car and finally motor bike to research this story for herself.

What a story and travelogue and very well written. The select bibliography at the end of the book is fascinating in itself. You'll just have to read the book yourself and make your own judgements as to where our hero came from.

The Moor of St Petersburg by Frances Somers Cocks, published by Goldhawk Press, London, 2005.
Paperback, 384 pages. 48 black and white illustrations plus 2 maps and decorative motifs by Eric Robson
ISBN: 0954403428
Price £8.99

First Published in News File Winter 2005

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