The Story of Hans Jonathan (1784-1827)

By David Johnson |

Striving to ensure that liberty and justice for all is deeply woven throughout our society’s entire fabric is a struggle that continues today.   In the U.S., many examples of courage and resilience are found in those who were enslaved.   And still there are stories of pain and suffering down to present day.

Worldwide, discussions about of race and equality have exploded and move us forward, including discussions in Iceland.   Here is one unique Icelandic story we want to share with our INLUS supporters and friends.

The story of Hans Jonathan begins on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, then a land under Danish rule just as Iceland was.   Hans was born in 1784 to an enslaved black woman and a white father of an enslaver family whose identity is still in question.   By 1796, at the age of 12, Hans was in Denmark trying to earn his freedom.  But even after serving in an 1801 battle for the Danish Army, the Danish judicial system ruled against him in 1802 and denied his ability to live as a free man.  Rather than be forced back into an enslaved life, he found a way to leave Denmark aboard a ship bound for Iceland, showing up next in the small Eastern Iceland village of Djúpivogur.

Djúpivogur harbor

Djúpivogur harbor, 2014

Hans’ arrival must have captured the attention and imagination of the all-white country where he landed.   By working hard and learning the language and culture, Icelanders opened their hearts to Hans.  He certainly must have felt alone and his former life as an enslaved person not fully appreciated.   In 1820, he married Katrín Antoníusdóttir and they had two children that we know of that lived to adulthood and had children themselves.   He lived out his life in Eastern Iceland in the area known as Suður-Múlasýsla and died in 1827 at the age of 43.

In 2018, through both genetic analysis and traditional genealogy records research, nearly 800 individuals were determined to be direct descendants of Hans and Katrín.  Several of those individuals are Vestur-Íslendingar (Western Icelanders) living here in the United States.  What a unique legacy Hans and his emigrant descendants provide this group of 800 people.

Book cover photoThe Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan is a book by Gísli Pálsson about Hans’ life, published in 2016 by the University of Chicago Press.  (Amazon Link to book description)  It’s an engaging story you’re encouraged to add to your summer reading list.  If reading an entire book isn’t your thing, check out this recent Iceland Review article about Hans and a statue being contemplated in Iceland in his honor:

Link to Iceland Review Article

Speaking of reading, we’d love to find a volunteer willing to host periodic book club discussions around any genre of Icelandic books.   If you’d like to learn more about this opportunity, please reach out to our Secretary, David Johnson at