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22 Jul 2019 7:33
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  •   Home > News > International

    The odyssey of Hans Jonathan, a slave who became the first black settler in Iceland

    In the early 1800s a young man stepped ashore in a remote Icelandic fishing village after escaping a life of slavery. More than 230 years later, his descendants are still fighting for his freedom.

    In the early 1800s a young man named Hans Jonathan stepped ashore in a remote Icelandic fishing village.

    Born a slave, he had escaped a colonial empire, refusing to be seen as property.

    He is said to be Iceland's first black settler — though in the early accounts, the villagers described him as blue.

    "Colour functions differently in the Icelandic language. It's more Icelandic to say he is a blue man — a blár maður," says Kari Stefansson, whose father was born in the village.

    By all accounts, Hans was warmly welcomed into the community; the contemporary concept of race — and racism — didn't yet exist.

    "The concept of race is hardly present in the old Icelandic literature. It was not present in our language," says Dr Stefansson, the founder of genetics laboratory Decode.

    "It was a foreign concept and actually then when you introduce an individual of a very different race into a community, he's accepted with open arms.

    "The concept of race, as an influential phenomenon in our culture, is a very late addition."

    A fighter called Hans

    Hans's life was shaped by the forces of the slave trade, capitalism and the desires of the Danish colonial empire.

    He was born in 1784 on La Reine sugar plantation on the island of St Croix, now the US Virgin Islands, then the Danish West Indies.

    Gísli Pálsson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland who has authored a book on Hans, says it's not well known that Denmark was among "the big powers".

    "They caught or bought lots of slaves in West Africa and ran these colonies in the Virgin Islands," he says.

    Hans and his mother, Emilia Regina, lived as slaves toHerr Schimmelmann, the plantation owner and the governor of the Danish West Indies.

    Hans's father was probably a white Dane.

    "[Hans] lived as a house slave somewhat protected from the rough field sites, the dissent and rebellions in the fields and somewhat exposed to the nice sides of aristocratic life," Professor Pálsson says.

    Sensing the impending collapse of the slave trade, in 1788 the Schimmelmann family moved back to Copenhagen.

    Hans's mother travelled with them, but mysteriously, Hans was left behind in St Croix.

    When he joined them several years later in the vibrant and bustling city, he moved into a home one block from the royal palace, literally in the heart of the colonial regime.

    "His sense of possibility of freedom is born during these encounters, I imagine," Professor Pálsson says.

    "He was reading Rousseau and engaging with the growing discourse in Copenhagen about colonies and plantations and freedom and slavery."

    This growing sense of freedom could explain why Hans enlisted in one of the major battles in Denmark's history — the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen.

    He perhaps thought if he showed his allegiance to the Danes, they might set him free.

    He survived the war, and returned still a slave, but a changed man.

    "After that he rebels and he's resisting," Professor Pálsson says.

    Hans began to ignore his curfew, coming and going at all hours.

    "Eventually Frau Schimmelmann mounts a legal case against Hans to establish that she was his owner and could sell him back to St Croix, for the amount he was worth," Professor Pálsson says.

    The court decided that Hans was the property of Schimmelmann.

    He was now liable to be caught and brought back to the West Indies.

    But Hans had other plans.

    Within weeks of the verdict, the last ships set sail from Copenhagen, before the winter seas rolled in.

    Hans was on board one of them.

    His path, dictated by the trade routes, led to another Danish colony.

    The blue man arrives

    Hans arrived on the shores of Iceland around 1802, in Djúpivogur, a small village on the remote east coast.

    "He lands before racism arrives from Europe," Professor Pálsson says.

    "Before that you had friction of course between people and groups, but not necessarily a hint at something in their genes, or the colour, or the character.

    "It's only with slavery and sugar and capitalism that this massive brutality and fundamental distinction between categories of people — black, Caucasian — arrives.

    "Racism, in other words, is born in this context."

    Hans lived out the rest of his days in Djúpivogur, first as the store keep in the trading post, and later as a peasant.

    In 1827, when he was 43, he fell on the snow-covered slopes, suffered a stroke and died.

    He left behind his wife, Katrin, and two children.

    There are no known images of Hans.

    He lived too early for photography and was too poor to have his portrait painted.

    Considered property, even now

    It was only in the early 2000s that Denmark found out where Hans had escaped to.

    "It's a turning point in the sense that two narratives are finally fitted together," Professor Pálsson says.

    "The descendants of Hans Jonathan in Iceland are exploring their roots and the archives, and Danish journalists and historians are exploring what happened to the slave from the famous court case of 1802.

    "And it all comes together, and the story was finally out."

    Even now, Hans is still considered property.

    "I thought perhaps there's a way to address that and to posthumously declare him a free man," says Kirsten Pflomm, a fifth-generation descendant of Hans.

    Last year, she asked Denmark's Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen if that could happen.

    The Prime Minister responded that no, it wouldn't change anything.

    But the tides seem to be turning and Denmark is slowly addressing its colonial past.

    "I think about a year ago there was a statue erected here in Copenhagen of a female slave who led a revolt in the Danish West Indies and I think that is the first public acknowledgement of any sort of ties to slavery," Ms Pflomm says.

    "It's often hard to look at your own past and acknowledge the terrible things your country was engaged in."

    A story that is still being written

    About 20 years ago, Dr Stefansson had the idea to re-create Hans' genome.

    About 10 years ago, his laboratory started work.

    "We knew that a bunch of people had African ancestry and we could go into the genomes and pull out the pieces … and we could patch them together into a half of an African genome," he says.

    "When you sequence, you are sequencing a chromosome going from one end to another, when you come into an African piece that is so vastly different.

    "There is so much more polymorphism, so much more diversity."

    The study was able to reconstruct 38 per cent of Hans' maternal genome in absence of any physical remains.

    It also pointed to where Hans' mother may have come from — somewhere in West Africa, potentially Benin, Nigeria or Cameroon.

    But one question remains: who was Hans' father?

    Again, science may hold the answers.

    Work is now underway to unearth ancient skeletal DNA that could prove the paternity.

    There are still more chapters of Hans's story to come.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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