Swashbuckling U.K. journalist Barnes displays his more cerebral chops in a far-reaching biography of the African captive who rose to Peter the Great’s inner circle.
He was also the great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, whose romantic, unfinished novel, The Negro of Peter the Great, became a proxy biography widely accepted as definitive. But the iconic Russian poet’s portrait of Abram Petrovich Gannibal (as the African came to be known) sprang from haunting personal questions and was largely fictional in its details. Barnes corrects the legend to remind us that Gannibal was every bit as vibrant in real life as his great-grandson imagined him to be. “The Moor of St. Petersburg” was also the builder of Kronstadt, the ruler of territorial Estonia, a close correspondent of Voltaire’s and the man who brought Diderot to visit Catherine the Great. What he probably wasn’t was the Abyssinian prince his social-climbing descendants claimed him to be. Barnes leaves the issue of royal birthright unresolved, a caution his American publisher failed to heed in its choice of title. (The U.K. original was called, simply, Gannibal). A veteran of war reporting in Kosovo and Afghanistan, the author spared no shoe leather tracking down his subject’s native village in Chad and visiting the other far-flung locales of Gannibal’s story. Barnes has likewise exhausted all archival resources, compiling a formidable bibliography and index for such a slim history. Most remarkable of all is the author's ability to find the linked threads of his story in the vast tapestries of Petrine Russia, Enlightenment Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Barnes vigorously conveys the impression that this Afro-Russian engineer, cryptographer and confidant to the Tsar was at the center of nearly every intellectual, political and military adventure of his day.
Near-perfect treatment of a fascinating, though esoteric subject.