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 19th-century Iceland, is improbable and compelling, the stuff of novels.
Join Gíslí Pálsson, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iceland, as he discusses his new book The Man Who Stole Himself (University of Chicago Press, September 2016), in which Pálsson lays out Jonathan’s story in stunning detail. Born into slavery in St. Croix in 1784, Jonathan was soon transported to Denmark. At age 17 he escaped and eventually enlisted in the Danish navy, later fighting in the Battle of Copenhagen. Following the war, he declared himself a free man, sparking one of the most notorious slavery lawsuits in European history, which he lost. Jonathan fled to Iceland, where he became a merchant, peasant farmer, husband, and father—and an Icelandic icon.
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 19th-century race relations in the Northern Atlantic world. Throughout the book, Pálsson 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 courage to steal himself.
Copies of The Man Who Stole Himself will be available for purchase and signing following the book talk.
About Gíslí Pálsson
Gíslí Pálsson is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iceland in Reykjavík. He is the author, editor, or coeditor of many books including Writing on Ice: The Ethnographic Notebooks of V. Stefansson (University Press of New England, 2001),
The Textual Life of Savants: Ethnography, Iceland, and the Linguistic Turn (Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), and Nature and Society: Anthropological Perspectives (Routledge, 2003).