The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan

Gísli Pálsson, trans. from the Icelandic by Anna Yates. Univ. of Chicago, $25 (264p) ISBN 978-0-226-31328-3
Scandinavia and slavery are rarely connected in the public imagination, but in this intriguing work of microhistory, Palsson, professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland, reminds readers that Denmark possessed Caribbean sugar plantation colonies as he shares the tale of Hans Jonathan, a mixed-race man born into slavery on St. Croix in 1784. Jonathan was brought to Copenhagen in 1792 and treated humanely by the standards of the era, being taught to read and write and allowed to spend his evenings out of the house with friends. But when his owner, Henriette von Schimmelmann, refused to allow him to fight against the attacking English in 1801, Jonathan ran away. Schimmelmann won a court case confirming ownership of the young man, but Jonathan was allowed to depart Denmark and head to Iceland, where he established himself as a farmer and businessman, married a local woman, and founded a family line that persists in Iceland today. Through this engaging tale of one man’s attempts to find a home as a man of color in 19th-century Scandinavia, Palsson uses Jonathan’s previously obscure but picaresque life as a lens through which to examine questions of imperialism, slavery, race, and cultural identity. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 08/22/2016
Release date: 09/01/2016
Genre: Nonfiction
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