In Honor of Black History Month

Jul 2017
An unknown hero of the civil war.
Robert Smalls

Robert Smalls was born into slavery on a South Carolina plantation. As a youth, he was permitted to go to Charleston and work, though he was forced to send most of his wages back to his master. He began taking jobs at the docks in Charleston Harbor, and later on some of the ships that came and went from the port. By the time the Civil War came around, Smalls had become an experienced seaman, so he was assigned to steer a Confederate Navy vessel called the Planter, based out of Charleston. The crew consisted of a few white officers and a number of slaves.

Smalls went to great lengths to show the Confederates that he was trustworthy and content; they never knew that he was hatching an elaborate plan to escape from slavery and deal a blow to the Confederacy, and that he had secretly recruited most of the enslaved crew in his plot. Then one night, when the Planter had docked in Charleston with a shipment of heavy guns aboard, Smalls put his plan into action. When the officers went ashore for the evening and left the ship in the care of the enslaved crew, Smalls led them in hijacking the vessel. They made one stop at another set of docks to pick up the families of Smalls and other crew members, who waited in hiding after having been notified of the scheme in advance.

They weren't in the clear yet, though, because they still had to sail past a number of Confederate checkpoints on their way to freedom. But Smalls had a plan for that, too: he had been watching the captain and learning the hand signals he used at the checkpoints. Donning the captain's uniform and trademark straw hat, he guided the Planter past five Confederate harbor forts by impersonating the captain and displaying the correct signals. By the time anyone realized the Planter had gone missing, it was too far gone to catch. He had his crew replace the Confederate flags aboard the ship with white ones, and they were intercepted by a Union vessel who saw the white flags just before they were about to fire. The Union sailors were perplexed by the sight of an all-black crew, until Robert Smalls came forward and shouted, "Good morning, sir! I've brought you some of the old United States guns, sir!" He then asked the Union sailors to give him a United States flag to raise on the Planter.

Robert Smalls' story would be amazing if it ended there, but it doesn't. After receiving a large sum of prize money for his delivery, he entered service in the Union Navy as a pilot on several vessels, including the repurposed Planter. In this role, he removed mines that he had helped lay as a slave, and participated in a number of sea battles. During one battle, the fighting grew so intense that the captain of the Planter hid in the interior of the ship and ordered the crew to surrender. Fearing that the black crewmen would be enslaved or killed if captured, Smalls refused to surrender; instead, he took command of the ship and navigated the Planter through the Confederate onslaught to safety. Because of his bravery, Smalls was promoted to captain himself, becoming one of the highest ranking and highest paid black officers in the Civil War.

Smalls leveraged his resulting fame into social activism, throwing his support into an initiative to educate former slaves, and becoming literate himself (in most Confederate states, it was illegal to teach a black person to read). While riding a streetcar in Philadelphia, he was ordered to give up his seat to a white passenger; Smalls left the car, rather than suffer the indignity of being forced to ride on the overflow platform. When word got out that a decorated hero of the Civil War had been humiliated thusly, it prompted a backlash that led to the integration of public transportation in Pennsylvania.

But Robert Smalls STILL wasn't finished. He entered politics, serving in the South Carolina legislature before becoming one of the first black people elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1874. And he remained active in public life into the 20th century; in 1913, he prevented the lynching of two black men accused of murder in his town by warning the mayor that the local black population would burn the city to the ground if the mob was not stopped.

And the plantation where Smalls had grown up a slave? He purchased it after the war, and lived there until his death in 1915. The monument at his grave is inscribed with this quote: "My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be the equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life."

And that is the story of the great American hero Robert Smalls, known by too few people today. I hope this post inspires some folks to learn more about his impressive life.


The Man

Former Staff
Jul 2011
I'll leave a contribution too:

Viola Irene Desmond (July 6, 1914 – February 7, 1965) was a Canadian businesswoman of Black Nova Scotian descent. In 1946 she challenged racial segregation at a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia by refusing to leave a whites-only area of the Roseland Theatre. For this she was convicted of a minor tax violation for the one-cent tax difference between the seat she had paid for and the seat she used, which was more expensive. Desmond's case is one of the most publicized incidents of racial discrimination in Canadian history and helped start the modern civil rights movement in Canada.

In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon, the first to be granted in Canada.[2][3] The government of Nova Scotia also apologized for prosecuting her for tax evasion and acknowledged she was rightfully resisting racial discrimination.[4] In 2016, the Bank of Canada announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman (as compared to British born royalty) to be featured on the front of a Canadian banknote, but that honour went to Agnes Macphail, who appeared along with three men on a small print run commemorative note issued in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

In late 2018 Desmond became the first Canadian-born woman to appear alone on a Canadian bank note—a $10 bill which was unveiled by Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz during a ceremony at the Halifax Central Library on March 8, 2018.[5][6] Desmond was also named a National Historic Person in 2018.[7]
Viola Desmond - Wikipedia

Viola Desmond's younger sister looks at the presentation of the new $10 bill with her image on it, with Bill Morneau

Halifax also has a ferry named for her

The Man

Former Staff
Jul 2011
And another, even more fascinating character in a more unlikely setting.

Abram Petrovich[a] Gannibal, also Hannibal or Ganibal, or Abram Hannibal or Abram Petrov (Russian: Абра́м Петро́вич Ганниба́л; 1696 – 14 May 1781[1]), was a Russian military engineer, general, and nobleman of African origin. Kidnapped as a child, Gannibal was taken to Russia and presented as a gift to Peter the Great, where he was freed, adopted and raised in the Emperor's court household as his godson.[2]

Gannibal eventually rose to become a prominent member of the imperial court in the reign of Peter's daughter Elizabeth. He had 11 children, most of whom became members of the Russian nobility; he was a great-grandfather of the author and poet Alexander Pushkin.[3]
More: Abram Petrovich Gannibal - Wikipedia

Gannibal was taken from his home by the Ottoman Turks and later given to the Russian Tsar as a gift or whatever, I guess it was one of those rare periods when the two Empires were in relatively good relations...

Richard Pankhurst, the former professor at the Institute of Ethiopian Studies at the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, believed the young Abram, Ibrahim or Abraham, as he named him, was born around 1698. He was the son of a minor "prince" or chief whose capital was Logon (now part of present-day Cameroon). His father was relatively affluent taking several wives and having 19 children. However, after his father died in battle trying to defend his territory from the Ottoman Turks, Abram was abducted and taken to Constantinople by ship. His sister, Lagan, is said to have drowned in the sea in a desperate attempt to save her brother.

Abram stayed in the Ottoman Empire for about a year in the service of Sultan Ahmed III's household. At the time, the Russian ambassador Sava Vladislavich-Raguzinsky, representing Peter the Great, was looking for "a few clever little African slaves" for the Tsar's palace in Moscow, as was the custom in those days at the great courts in Europe. On orders of Vladislavich's superiors (one of whom was Pyotr Andreyevich Tolstoy, great-grandfather of the celebrated writer Leo Tolstoy), Abram was selected for this purpose and soon ransomed from the Sultan's viziers with a bribe. In 1704, the ambassador immediately dispatched him by land to Moscow in order to be presented to Tsar Peter the Great.

The Tsar is noted to have taken a liking to the boy’s intelligence and potential for military service, and brought the child into his household.[4] Abram was baptized in 1705, in St. Paraskeva Church in Vilnius, with Peter as his godfather.[2] The date of Gannibal’s baptism held personal significance; he used that date as his birthday because he did not know his actual date of birth.[4]

Abram valued his relationship with his godfather, as well as that of Peter's daughter (Elizabeth), and was loyal to them as if they were family.[4] Starting at a young age the boy Abram would travel alongside the emperor during his military campaigns, and at these military journeys he served as his godfather’s valet.[6]
He grew up in the service of Peter the Great

He was he Tsar's valet, arms bearer, adjutant, secretary, if necessary - cook and nurse too; basically, took on pretty much any and every task as was required of him. They became super close over the years. Eventually, Peter granted him freedom and allowed him to pursue an education:

In 1717, Abram was sent to Metz to receive an education in the arts, sciences and warfare from the highest institutes available. By then he was fluent in several languages and excelled in mathematics and geometry. In 1718 Abram joined the French Army with hopes of pleasing his godfather by expanding his learning in military engineering.[6] He enrolled in the royal artillery academy at La Fère in 1720.

During Abram's studies, conflict broke out between France and Spain, and he fought for France in the War of the Quadruple Alliance, rising to the rank of captain. While fighting in the French war against Spain, Abram received a head injury and was captured by the Spanish army. He was released in 1722 and continued his studies in Metz.[6]

It was during his time in France that Abram adopted the surname "Gannibal" in honor of the Carthaginian general Hannibal (Gannibal being the traditional transliteration of the name in Russian).[7] In Paris he met and befriended such Enlightenment figures as the Baron de Montesquieu and Voltaire (this claim by his biographer Hugh Barnes is disputed by reviewer Andrew Kahn[8]). Voltaire called Gannibal the "dark star of the Enlightenment".[9]

Gannibal returned to Russia the following year and his advanced training enabled him to apply and successfully acquire posts first as an engineer and then as a mathematics tutor for one of the Tsar's private guard units.[6]
He later had a fascinating life and career:

Gannibal's education was completed by 1723 and he was due to return to Russia. After the death of Peter in 1725, Prince Menshikov gained power in Russia due to his good standing with Peter. However, Menshikov was not fond of Gannibal and was suspicious of his foreign origins and superior education.[6] Gannibal was exiled to Siberia in 1727, some 4,000 miles to the east of Saint Petersburg. He was pardoned in 1730 due to his technical skills, and completed his service in Siberia in 1733. During this time he built a fortress and led several construction projects, where he became a master engineer.

Elizabeth of Russia became the new monarch in 1741. Gannibal became a prominent member of her court, rose to the rank of major-general, and became superintendent of Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia), a position he held from 1742 to 1752. A letter signed on 22 March 1744 by "A. Ganibal" is held at the Tallinn City Archives. In 1742, the Empress Elizabeth gave him the Mikhailovskoye estate in Pskov Oblast with hundreds of serfs.[9][10] He retired to this estate in 1762.

In an official document that Gannibal submitted in 1742 to Empress Elizabeth, while petitioning for the rank of nobility and a coat of arms, he asked for the right to use a family crest emblazoned with an elephant and the mysterious word "FVMMO", which may mean "homeland" in the Kotoko language. In his book, Gannibal: The Moor of Petersburg, Hugh Barnes writes of meeting with the sultan of Logone-Birni, who gave him the same translation of the word.[3] However, Frances Somers-Cocks, author of The Moor of St Petersburg: In the Footsteps of a Black Russian, met the same sultan and received a different translation for FVMMO. She also suggested that FVMMO stands for the Latin expression Fortuna Vitam Meam Mutavit Omnino which means "Fortune has changed my life entirely."[3]
His family life would have been worthy of any modern Kardashian-type reality show:

Gannibal married twice. His first wife was Evdokia Dioper, a Greek woman. The couple married in 1731. Dioper despised her husband, whom she was forced to marry. The marriage between Dioper and Gannibal was very volatile and he suspected her of infidelity early in their marriage.[11] Gannibal’s suspicions were confirmed when Dioper gave birth to a white daughter.[4] When Gannibal found out that she had been unfaithful to him, he had her arrested and thrown into prison, where she spent eleven years.

Gannibal began living with another woman, Christina Regina Siöberg (1705–1781), daughter of Mattias Johan Siöberg and wife Christina Elisabeth d'Albedyll, and married her bigamously in Reval, in 1736, a year after the birth of their first child and while he was still lawfully married to his first wife. His divorce from Dioper did not become final until 1753, upon which a fine and a penance were imposed on Gannibal, and Dioper was sent to a convent for the rest of her life. Gannibal's second marriage was nevertheless deemed lawful after his divorce. Gannibal’s second marriage to Christina was much happier and he appreciated her fidelity and affection towards him.[4]

On her paternal side, Gannibal’s second wife was descended from noble families in Scandinavia and Germany: Siöberg (Sweden), Galtung (Norway), and Grabow (Denmark) / von Grabow (Brandenburg).[1][12] Her paternal grandfather was Gustaf Siöberg, Rittmester til Estrup, who died in 1694, whose wife Clara Maria Lauritzdatter Galtung (ca. 1651–1698) was the daughter of Lauritz Lauritzson Galtung (ca. 1615–1661) and of Barbara Grabow til Pederstrup (1631–1696).[13]

Abram Gannibal and Christine Regina Siöberg had ten children, including a son, Osip. Osip in turn would have a daughter, Nadezhda, the mother of Alexander Pushkin. Gannibal's oldest son, Ivan, became an accomplished naval officer who helped found the city of Kherson in 1779 and attained the rank of general-in-chief, the second-highest military rank in imperial Russia.

Some British aristocrats descend from Gannibal, including Natalia Grosvenor, Duchess of Westminster and her sister, Alexandra Hamilton, Duchess of Abercorn. George Mountbatten, 4th Marquess of Milford Haven, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, is also a direct descendant, as the grandson of Nadejda Mountbatten, Marchioness of Milford Haven.[14][15]
Ivan Gannibal, his son who became accomplished in the Navy

Osip (also known as Iosif) Gannibal, he too did well in the military

In point of fact, Abram's kids, ironically, helped Russia smash on more than one occasion the same Turks who had abducted and enslaved their father... :) Some poetic justice there lol

Osip is indeed better known, however, as the grandfather of Alexander Pushkin, Russia's greatest poet and playwright, whom many there see as "our Shakespeare" and "father of the modern Russian language"!

Alexander Pushkin - Wikipedia

Pushkin was also someone who was known to challenge the ruling authorities, in his time, even was exiled for it, at one point, for writing bad things about the ruling royalty; and, today, Pushkin Square in Moscow is a popular site for anti-government protests


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