As a young child, Hans Jonathan, who had been born into slavery in the colonial island of St. Croix in 1784, was taken to Denmark by his „owner“. Aged 17, he managed to escape, enlisted in the navy and fought in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. After the war, he declared himself a free man, believing that he was entitled not only because of his patriotic service, but because while slavery remained legal in the colonies, it was outlawed in Denmark itself. The widow of his „owner“, Henriette Catharine von Schimmelmann, disagreed and went to court. Hans Jonathan thus became the subject of one of the most notorious slavery cases in European history, which he lost. Then Hans ran away, or better: he stole himself – never to be heard from in Denmark again, his fate unknown for more than two hundred years. It is now known that Hans fled to Iceland, where he became a merchant and peasant farmer, married, and raised two children. Today, he has become something of an Icelandic icon, claimed as a proud and daring ancestor both there and among his descendants in America. Gísli Pálsson will present the case of Hans Jonathan, combining it with a portrait of the Danish slave trade, legal arguments over slavery, and the state of nineteenth-century race relations. Imperial dreams, colonialism, human rights, and globalization all come together in the life of a single, remarkable man.
Gísli Pálsson is professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland and author, editor, or co-editor of numerous books, including Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of V. Stefansson (2001), The Textual Life of Savants: Ethnography, Iceland, and the Linguistic Turn (1995). In 2014, he published a biography of Hans Jonathan in Icelandic, which subsequently appeared in English as The Man Who Stole Himself. The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan (2016).