HAPPY HUMPDAY PRAG OBOTS!
We continue our look at Afro-Russians…
Abkhazians of African descent are a small group in Abkhazia of African descent who used to live mainly in the Abkhazian settlement Adzyubzha at the mouth of the Kodori River and the surrounding villages of Abkhazia (Chlou, Pokvesh, Agdarra, Merkulov, etc.) on the eastern coast of the Black Sea.
The ethnic origin of the Abkhazians of African descent — and how Africans arrived in Abkhazia — is still a matter of dispute among experts. Historians agree that the settlement of Africans in a number of villages in the village of Adzyubzha in Abkhazia (then part of the Ottoman Empire) is likely to have happened in the 17th century. According to one version, a few hundred slaves were bought and brought by Shervashidze princes (Chachba) to work on the citrus plantations. This case was a unique, and apparently not entirely successful, case of mass import of Africans to the Black Sea coast.
According to another theory, Abkhazians of African descent are the descendants of the Colchians, the inhabitants of the ancient kingdom of Colchis in present-day western Georgia. However, the question of the likelihood of at least some continuity between the ancient Colchians and current Abkhazians of African descent is not known, because there is no available, reliable evidence of the existence of an African population in historic Kolkhi. They may also derive from the Egyptian Copts or Ethiopian Jews. Abkhazian writer Dmitry Gulia in the book “History of Abkhazia” compared the place names of Abkhazia and the corresponding names in Ethiopia and claimed that some of the geographical names are identical: Bagadi – Bagadi, Gunma – Gunma, Tabakur – Dabakur, etc.
In 1927, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky, together with the Abkhaz writer Samson Chanba visited the village of Adzyubzha and met elderly Africans there. Based on his visit and comparison of his observations with the published data, he felt that the Ethiopian version of the origin of the Abkhazians of African descent is true.
There are a number of folk legends that might be based partly on true events. According to one of them, which is mentioned in the memorandum of Ivan Isakov to Nikita Khrushchev, an Ottoman ship wrecked near the Abkhazian coast during a storm, with slaves who were brought up for sale, and the current Abkhazians of African descent are the descendants of survivors from the ship, who founded the colony in Abkhazia. This legend, however, does not explain how such a ship could have entered the waters of the Black Sea, which is so far from major shipping lanes of the slave trade of that time.
Another legend tells about the dealings of Narts with certain “black faced people” from the Horn of Africa. The legendary Narts are said to have come back to the Caucasus from a long African campaign with hundreds of African escorts, who remained in Abkhazia.
In a third legend, the appearance of Abkhazians of African descent is involved with Peter the Great: he imported many black Africans to Russia, and it is said that those who were unable to acclimate to the northern capital of Russia, Saint Petersburg, were then generously given to the Abkhazian princes. According to the history candidate Igor Burtsev, there could have been a few dozen such “gifts of Peter” to Abkhazian princes.
Perhaps more than one of the several scientific hypotheses and legends has some truth: many of them are not inherently exclusive, but complementary.
History and present
The said memorandum of Ivan Isakov to Khrushchev on the Abkhazians of African descent says, among other things, that the governor of the Caucasus Hilarion Vorontsov-Dashkov, imitating Peter the Great, had his personal convoy of Afro-Adzyubzhi, who accompanied him in Chokha. Prince Alexander of Oldenburg, founder of Gagra, kept in his yard a few representatives from each of the peoples of the Black Sea coast of the Caucasus, including the local blacks.
It is known that already in the 19th century, Abkhazians of African descent spoke only in Abkhazian and considered themselves Abkhaz people. Their total number is estimated by different observers in the range of “several families” to “several villages”. They are not religiously homogeneous, either. Apparently in Abkhazia there are or have been in the recent past black Christians, black Muslims, and black Jews.
Abkhazians of African descent engaged in growing citrus, grapes, and corn, working in the coal mines of Tkvarchreli and enterprises of Sukhumi, working in knitting factories, etc. Like many Abkhazian people, Abkhazians of African descent today speak in Russian. Most today are of mixed race, as the Abkhazians of African descent have intermarried with other local ethnic groups. Many left Kodor to settle in other parts of Georgia and in neighboring Russia, as well as other nearby countries.
Abkhazians of African descent presence has also been noted among Abkhaz communities in Turkey.
In popular culture
- Abkhazians of African descent and their relationships with Abkhazians were featured in prose by Fazil Iskander.
Here’s a three-part series the Afro-American published in February 1973 on the African presence in the Soviet Union: