The Man Who Stole Himself

Gísli Pálsson. 2016. The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan. University of Chicago Press. Revised and updated from the original Icelandic edition Hans Jónatan, maðurinn sem stal sjálfum sér (Reykjavík: Mál og menning) by Gísli Pálsson and translated from the Icelandic by Anna Yates.

The Man Who Stole Himself takes its readers on an extraordinary odyssey from the birth of Hans Jonathan in 1784 as the slave of Ludvig Heinrich Ernst von Schimmelmann, sugar baron and governor in the Danish colony of St. Croix (now in the U.S. Virgin Islands), to his death in 1827 as a free man in rural Iceland. As a boy of seven, Jonathan was shipped to Denmark to serve as the Schimmelmanns' slave in Copenhagen. At seventeen, he tried to free himself in a months-long court case, The General's Widow v. the Mulatto. When, on May 31, 1802, the judges affirmed his status as chattel, he disappeared and quietly reappeared, perhaps that very summer, in Iceland, where he worked first as a factor and then, having married a local farmer's daughter, as a farmer. They had two children when he died suddenly in his field at the age of 43, perhaps of a cerebral hemorrhage like the men most likely to have been his father and his half-brother. His own lawyer, charged with defending him, considered that he had "stolen himself" (p. 113). How then "was he not guilty of theft, or kidnapping, paradoxical as that may seem? Could one and the same person be both the object and the perpetrator of human trafficking" (p. 134)? How did he identify himself in Iceland? The census taker records him as "a freed slave, formerly of 'Kantitusjanhill, St Croyx'" (ibid). How can we, having read his story, steal ourselves from the ideological prisons that confine us in systems of inequality and injustice worldwide?

The book's four parts correspond to the key locations and trajectories of Hans Jonathan's global account: "The Island of St. Croix," "Copenhagen," "Iceland," concluding with his far-flung "Descendants" in Iceland, Denmark, and the United States. In this cosmopolitan company, seemingly insular Iceland proves to be tied into the world at large, a centuries-old "melting pot" (162), with its own well studied histories of Icelanders raiding and trading for slaves in Europe, and being raided and traded as slaves in North Africa (122-123, 129). The scope of Pálsson's account is likely to surprise even readers who are already familiar with the literature on the slave trade in the South Atlantic and its aftermath.

Hans Jonathan's transnational passage from slavery to freedom forces the reader to confront the extent to which the so-called "peculiar institution" derived its peculiarities from the mundane complexities of relations within and between sovereign states. He passed through key points - customs offices and toll stations, in addition to governors' mansions and law courts - that marked state boundaries, but that also marked the convergence of disparate codes shaping forced and free labor relations in often unpredictable ways. Pálsson's historical analysis is grounded in the ethnographic specifics of these places: their buildings - many still standing, some in ruins their languages, the names of their inhabitants, and the cultural conventions of naming so crucial to structuring their webs of relations.

Through Hans Jonathan, Pálsson sets the reader in the thick of these relations. Alongside the people bent on confining him to slavery, others supported him: his mother and perhaps other kin; his shipmate and fellow slave, Peter Samuel (p. 84); the ship captain, Steen Andersen Bille, who got Prince Frederik of Denmark to write the letter in 1801 granting him the freedom ignored in court (pp. 84-85); and the shopkeeper Jon Stefansson, who gave him his first job in Iceland and in many other ways "showed him the way" (p. 126). Eventually Hans Jonathan himself became a mentor and guide to others (pp. 137ff); one instance is unforgettable (pp. 140-141).

Hans Jonathan's life history, and the history of his family, proves to be inextricable from the life histories of the many others who were crucial to his odyssey and the histories of their families. Thus The Man Who Stole Himself provides a rare relational analysis of kinship and slavery alike. People are reduced to slavery, or maintained in conditions of servitude, in large part by stripping them of their kin, officially if not always actually. People grow fat on the forced labor of others in part through the adroit expansion of their kinship networks geographically and generationally - be they sugar barons or their allies in business, politics, law and religion.

One of the most unexpected features of this surprising and inspiring book is its emergence from the very particulars of kinship-reckoning and history-making in Iceland shared by Hans Jonathan, his descendants, the anthropologist Gísli Pálsson, and several of the other scholars who collaborated in gathering the data on which the book is based. Largely through earlier works by Gísli Pálsson - for example, Anthropology and the New Genetics (2007) and Nature, Culture, and Society: Anthropological Perspectives on Life (2016), both published by Cambridge University Press - anthropologists and scholars in related fields have come to associate Iceland with the country's unique experiment in creating a national genetic database run by the biopharmaceutical company, deCODE genetics Inc, founded in Reykjavík in 1996. But, as Palsson's compatriot, anthropologist Adriënne Heijnen, has shown, Icelanders also relate to one another in many other ways, including their dreams and the names they derive from dreams and from their forebears (see, for example, "Relating through Dreams: Names, Genes and Shared Substance," History and Anthropology 21/3 [2010]: 307-319).

The Man Who Stole Himself grew out of Icelandic complexities of kinship, historicity, and serendipity combined: a woman's dream in her old age (xi); her grandson's archival investigations beginning in the 1980s, gradually involving more and more of Jonathan's descendants in Iceland and in the United States (xii); and professional scholars in a range of fields. Seemingly by chance - "The idea for this book came to me apparently out of nowhere in the summer of 2007" (p. 235) - they included Pálsson himself, who, as a boy, had been the dreamer's neighbor in the tiny fishing village in the Vestmannaeyjar of Iceland's south coast, islands said to have been settled by fugitive slaves, Celts called "Westmen" (225-226), centuries before Hans Jonathan settled in Iceland in the summer of 1802.

In weaving together multiple ways of reckoning relationships, Hans Jonathan's odyssey weaves together multiple ways of reckoning time, place, and change: integrating the memories of Hans Jonathan's descendants with diverse, and often fragmentary and ambiguous, numbers and texts from archives and libraries, and with fieldtrips to particular locations - houses, ruined homesteads, ancient slave forts turned tourist destinations - spanning countries, continents, and languages. The latest of these initiatives - deCODE genetics' effort to reconstruct sections of Hans Jonathan's genome (mentioned briefly at pp. 228-229) - is possible only because genetic data provided by 182 of his descendants can be analyzed in relation to genotypic data from over 160,000 Icelanders (over half of Iceland's adult population) who have voluntarily contributed to deCODE's computerized database, which is integrated with Iceland's genealogical records covering the past thousand years (see

Hans Jonathan's passage from slavery to freedom, grounded in his own birth, life, and death, is broadly sequential. The moral journey he passes on to his reader has no neat "before" and "after." As Pálsson points out, "several Schimmelmanns in Germany and Denmark were enthusiastic Nazi collaborators during World War II. . . . [T]he Holocaust of the twentieth century and the slave trade of the eighteenth were essentially the same phenomenon." Human trafficking and forced labor persist despite the legal abolition of slavery throughout the world; "more people are now enslaved than at any time in human history" (pp. 216, 219). In taking up Hans Jonathan's odyssey, some readers might recall with a shock the old puzzle about Odysseus's name and ask themselves: Who am I? With whom and for whom? Do I have the insight, strength, and courage to steal myself from enslavement to my own prejudices?