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Book Review: The Stolen Prince by Hugh Barnes

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Fame by association is hardly the stuff of dreams. History is peppered with the fleetingly famous who have scrambled into the chronicle of time merely by dint of their connection to people in high places. For some — Stalin’s daughter, Carter’s brother, Thatcher’s son — relative fame comes at a high price. Their flaws are magnified and their failings written in the sky. For others obscurity beckons, but for all of them, in life and in death, they must forever exist in someone else's shadow – and so it might have been for Abram Petrovich Gannibal.

Long one of history's footnote figures whenever he was mentioned, if mentioned at all, it was always in reference to the towering influence of his godfather, Tsar Peter the Great, or to the genius of his great grandson, the beloved Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Yet Gannibal's own life story rivals that of any iconic leader or cultural superstar.

In the entertaining and scholarly biography, The Stolen Prince: Gannibal, Adopted Son of Peter the Great, Great-Grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, and Europe's First Black Intellectual, author Hugh Barnes takes the reader across three continents in search of his fascinating, elusive subject. Describing Gannibal's life as eventful is a Siberia-sized understatement.

Continually reinventing himself, he was at various turns a mathematician, linguist, secret agent, philosopher, military engineer, naturalist, soldier, author, farmer, husband, and father. It’s all the more extraordinary that, but for an unlikely turn of events, this eighteenth-century polymath might have lived out his life as an African slave.

Hard facts about Gannibal are frustratingly thin on the ground, and one of the biggest gaps comes at the very start: no one knows where he was born. Barnes does his best to settle the matter, making a dangerous journey to Ethiopia in search of clues that might confirm Gannibal’s own claim to have been an Abyssinian prince, but Barnes’ research points also to Logone, south of Lake Chad, as Gannibal’s birthplace. Gannibal himself muddied the waters by his adoption of the Russified name of a Carthaginian general and the use of an elephant on his coat of arms.

His earliest days may be lost to history, but this much is known: at the beginning of the 18th century, while still a child, Gannibal was snatched from his homeland and sold into slavery at the court of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople. There, he might have lingered in obscurity, ending his days in the closed world of the Topkapi palace. Instead, little over a year later, he found himself heading north on another life-changing journey.

Smuggled out of Turkey, Gannibal arrived in Moscow and was presented as a gift to Tsar Peter I. He was one of many African slaves at the Russian court, but while most were harshly treated, Gannibal's innate intelligence instantly impressed the Tsar, who adopted Gannibal as his protégé and later as his godson. He had the young man educated and took Gannibal into his confidence about his plans for the new city of St Petersburg.

While still a teenager, Gannibal was being feted in the salons of Paris by Leibniz and Voltaire. Before the phrase had ever been thought of, Gannibal was the very embodiment of "young, gifted and black." Barnes shows that the same enlightenment scholars who hailed Gannibal as Europe's first black intellectual viewed his African brothers as little more than savages. It was not the last time the colour of Gannibal's skin would generate hostility.

Throughout the book Barnes shares with the reader his exasperation at the number of fabrications, falsehoods, claims, and counter-claims surrounding his subject. Not only was he hampered by a lack of documentary evidence, but also by unreliable accounts of Gannibal’s life, including Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, which twisted the truth out of all recognition. While Barnes may grumble at the use of poetic license, he himself is not averse to bursts of purple prose. Describing Gannibal’s banishment to Siberia after Peter the Great’s death, the author is almost breathless with excitement: "…one can imagine the Negro of Peter the Great on the road to Tobolsk, hurrying through forest-blackened hills towards the huge glimmering emptiness of Siberia – a twelfth the landmass of the world – the scenery wrapping itself around him like a fog."

The drift into fiction is excusable given the paucity of solid evidence, but in his forensic attention to what is known about Gannibal and his use of intelligent guesswork about what isn’t, Barnes never shortchanges his subject or his readers – and no one can say this author didn’t go the extra mile. Following in Gannibal’s footsteps takes him from the dark heart of Africa to the white nights of the Baltic and beyond. The account of his travels is as rewarding as the biography itself. In Siberia, close to Russia’s border with China, Barnes sees for himself the outline of a fortress Gannibal designed during his exile from the court of St Petersburg.

Unsurprisingly, confusion surrounds the precise date of Gannibal’s death, some time in 1781. His funeral was sparsely attended and no death notice was published. It was left to his great grandson, Alexander Pushkin, to revive interest in the "Negro of Peter the Great," but the real credit for uncovering the true Gannibal must go to Hugh Barnes. By dismantling the fairy tales and fraudulence surrounding Gannibal's life, Barnes has revealed a figure richer in intelligence and stronger in character than even the most gifted of writers could invent.

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