The island nation of Iceland is known for many things majestic landscapes, volcanic eruptions, distinctive seafood but racial diversity is not one of them. So the little-known story of Hans Jonathan, a free black man who lived and raised a family in early nineteenth-century Iceland, is improbable and compelling, the stuff of novels. In The Man Who Stole Himself, Gisli Palsson lays out Jonathan's story in stunning detail. Born into slavery in St. Croix in 1784, Jonathan was brought as a slave to Denmark, where he eventually enlisted in the navy and fought on behalf of the country in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. After the war, he declared himself a free man, believing that not only was he due freedom because of his patriotic service, but because while slavery remained legal in the colonies, it was outlawed in Denmark itself. Jonathan was the subject of one of the most notorious slavery cases in European history, which he lost. Then, he ran away never to be heard from in Denmark again, his fate unknown for more than two hundred years. It's now known that Jonathan 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. The Man Who Stole Himself brilliantly intertwines Jonathan's adventurous travels with a portrait of the Danish slave trade, legal arguments over slavery, and the state of nineteenth-century race relations in the Northern Atlantic world. Throughout the book, Palsson traces themes of imperial dreams, colonialism, human rights, and globalization, which all come together in the life of a single, remarkable man. Jonathan literally led a life like no other. His is the story of a man who had the temerity the courage to steal himself.
Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
Number of pages: 264
Weight: 680 g
Dimensions: 229 x 152 x 28 mm
"With wondrous sleuthing, Palsson has recreated the life of a runaway slave, whose story lay hidden for centuries in the memories of an Icelandic family. Hans Jonathan, born to a slave mother in St. Croix and transported to Copenhagen as a boy, escaped in secrecy to Iceland. There he lived as tradesman, farmer, and married man. Palsson paints vividly the multiple worlds that Hans Jonathan saw--from vindictive slave-owners to folks willing to challenge the doctrines of race. A gripping read, The Man Who Stole Himself shows the powerful resonance that slavery and freedom have for our own time."--Natalie Zemon Davis, author of The Return of Martin Guerre
"If you're a history buff, this incredible story of an escaped slave will enthrall you. . . . The Man Who Stole Himself is an amazing story about how one lucky man used his wit and education to escape slavery, but it's also about how people in small Icelandic communities understood race at a time when none of them had met anyone of African ancestry before. It's simply riveting."--Ars Technica
"A welcome addition to the use of biography in anthropology and for its contribution to our understanding of slavery."--Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute
"There can be no doubt that Palsson has with this fine monograph rendered a great service."--American Ethnologist
"The Man Who Stole Himself is absorbing and captivating. Palsson engagingly assembles and thoughtfully narrates the biography of Hans Jonathan, who was born into slavery on St. Croix, came of age enslaved in Denmark, and claimed his freedom in Iceland. Palsson offers up a meditation on slavery and race--past and present--thoughtfully raising complex issues involving race, memory, and family. Palsson does not offer easy answers either; rather, he pushes readers to ponder through these issues on their own. A beautifully written and accessible book."--Terri L. Snyder, author of The Power to Die: Slavery and Suicide in British North America