Statue to Honour the First Black Man to Settle in Iceland

Djúpivogur is home to Iceland's latest art museum

Like many countries around the world, Iceland has been touched by the Black Lives Matter movement and has been undergoing a moment of self-examination and reckoning as regards the realities of police relations with the public, racism, and inequality in its own society. As statues honouring the lives and legacies of colonisers and slaveowners are removed throughout the US and Europe, RÚV reports that Independence Party deputy MP Vilhjálmur Bjarnason has proposed that Iceland put one up: a statue to honour the life and legacy of Hans Jónatan, thought to be the first Black man to settle in Iceland.

Hans Jónatan lived a remarkable life. He was born into slavery in 1784 on the Caribbean island of St. Croix, then under Danish colonial rule. His mother was Emilía Regína, an enslaved African woman on a sugar plantation owned by a family named Schimmelman. His father is believed to be of European heritage.

See Also: Reconstructed Genome of Iceland’s First Black Settler

As a child, Hans Jónatan was taken to Denmark, where he lived in Copenhagen for ten years, even enlisting in the Danish Navy in 1801. Following his return from service, his superior officers advocated on his behalf to Denmark’s crown prince Frederik, who wrote a letter affirming that Hans Jónatan was “considered free and enjoys rights.” Nevertheless, the Schimmelmans tried to forcibly return Hans Jónatan to St. Croix. He asserted his freedom in Danish court, but for reasons currently unknown, could not produce the letter from Denmark’s future king and his case was dismissed.

As such, Hans Jónatan escaped to the fishing village of Djúpivogur in East Iceland in 1802, where he eventually married, had three children (two of whom survived), and ran the local trading post. He died in 1827.

“It matters how this is done”

“I hope that the MPs go through with erecting a monument [to Háns Jónatan in Djúpivogur],” remarked anthropologist Gísli Pálsson, who wrote a biography (translated by Anna Yates) about Hans Jónatan called The Man Who Stole Himself. “I can recall conversations with locals who want to honour his memory in some way. There’s definitely a demand for it.” Gísli notes that tour guides in the area are often asked about Hans Jónatan but there’s not much to show visitors. “There’s little to be seen about him outside the memorial in the cemetery where he was lain to rest somewhere in an unmarked grave.”

“I think it’s about time to put up a monument to him,” continued Gísli, “but it matters how this is done.” It’s important, said Gísli, to consider what’s being memorialised. “Is it his skin colour, his enslavement, his career, or his character?”

Hans Jónatan “Chose Freedom”

It’s important, said Gísli, to recognise Hans Jónatan’s character, his descendants, and the history of enslaved people who pushed and strove for justice. He stresses Hans’s agency, and emphasises that he “chose freedom.” While many have disparaged Gísli’s choice of words in this regards, arguing that enslaved peoples didn’t have choice, he considers it hugely important that pervading notions that the white elite in the US, the UK, and Denmark were the driving forces behind abolition be challenged; really, he says, it was pressure from the enslaved peoples themselves that led to slavery being abolished. “It’s an objection to this cliché that intellectuals in the United States, in their benevolence, eased laws [legalising slavery].”

A statue to Háns Jónatan, done well, would be a monument to the man himself, Gisli continues, but also more. “He has a thousand descendants and their story is remarkable. Many of those in the second and third generation had to struggle with adversity. A monument would also honour these people and speak to the present moment that we are living in. We would be memorialising these people and their fates no less than Háns Jónatan and his story.”

Columnar Basalt Damaged in Viewing Platform Construction

Some of the basalt columns in Stuðlagil Canyon in East Iceland have been damaged during construction of a viewing platform RÚV reports.

A video showing the damage was posted to social media and forwarded to the East Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which has issued a rebuke of the landowner’s association that owns and manages the canyon, one of the most popular natural attractions in Upper Jökuldalur and the whole region.

In the video, a crane digger is shown tipping three large boulders off the top edge of the canyon, sending them careening over the edge, breaking off large pieces of the basalt columns as they fall to the canyon floor.

“I have to express my astonishment that this extraordinary nature pearl has been treated in the rough manner seen [in the video],” Andrés Skúlason, the chair of the East Iceland Nature Conservation Association, told RÚV.

Screenshot, RÚV

Speaking for the landowner’s association, Stefanía Katrín Karlsdóttir said that the boulders were pushed over the canyon edge for safety reasons. The boulders were “detached and we’d never want to go down the path of having an unsafe work area for employees, not to mention it being hazardous for guests who come here to have detached boulders [on the cliff edge]. So these boulders went over the edge and down into the river and I can safely say that [this canyon] has a rather lot of boulders and stones and sand.”

Asked if the boulders might have been moved to a safer location rather than dumped into the canyon, Stefanía Katrín replied that “[i]t would have undoubtedly been possible to move them a little but there weren’t a lot of them. A few of them went down here and I can’t see that it matters that much for there to be a few more [boulders in the canyon]. All you have to do is to look in the river to see how things are.”

RÚV pressed Stefanía Katrín further, pointing out that the issue was that the boulders had broken pieces off the basalt columns, which is clearly visible in the video that Andrés provided the news outlet with (see here). “I disagree completely that anything was broken off the columns. They just dropped down onto the next ledge, which is usually submerged in the river. Just not now that the spring thaw is over.”

Asked if the landowners planned to tip any more boulders into the canyon, Stefanía said no. “This was only to get rid of the ones that were in the way to ensure people’s safety.”

Fewer Puffins Nesting at Two Major Breeding Grounds

Icelandic puffins have laid noticeably fewer eggs in the Westman Islands and Breiðafjörður this year. This was among the findings in the annual Icelandic Atlantic Puffin Monitoring Program report produced by the Westman Islands’ South Iceland Nature Research Centre (NS). NS surveyed twelve puffin nesting sites around Iceland.

The bay of Breiðafjörður in West Iceland and the Westman Island archipelago off the south coast are extremely important breeding grounds for puffins in Iceland. Indeed, 60% of the country’s puffin population lay their eggs one of these two grounds.

There are about half a million puffin burrows in Breiðafjörður. Each puffin burrow can accommodate two puffins (one breeding pair), but the usage of these burrows varies from year to year. According to NS director Erpur Snær Hansen, last year—a particularly good year where puffin breeding is concerned—puffins laid eggs in 88% of the Breiðafjörður burrows. This year, by contrast, only half the burrows are in use. This is a nearly 34% decrease in burrow usage. The Westman Islands boasts more than double the number of puffin burrows, that is, over a million. Last year, 78% of the burrows in the Westmans had eggs in them; this year, only half do.

Erpur attributes the decline in breeding in both of these areas to localized changes in puffins’ food sources.

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All but one of the other puffin breeding grounds surveyed had little to no variation in burrow usage since last year. And there is some good news: Lundey island in Skjálfandi Bay in North Iceland has seen a 13% increase in burrow usage this year.

Erpur says that puffins started laying eggs earlier than usual in the Westmans. In fact, he came across two pufflings during his survey of the islands’ nesting grounds. If they mature at the normal rate, these pufflings will leave the nest in early August. “That’s three weeks earlier than it has been for the last ten years or so,” said Erpur.

Iceland’s puffin stock has been declining in recent years and is having difficulty rebounding, despite good breeding seasons like last year. The puffin, along with the Eurasian curlew and the great skua, is currently listed as a “critically endangered” species on the Icelandic Institute of Natural History’s Red List for Birds.

NS will be surveying puffin breeding grounds again in July to find out how many pufflings have hatched and how they are faring.

Three Deaths in Reykjavík Fire

A housefire in the westside neighbourhood of Vesturbær in Reykjavík on Thursday afternoon led to three deaths. Two others are in critical condition at The National University Hospital of Iceland. One person has been discharged from the hospital. Two were pronounced dead at the scene while the third individual was pronounced dead at the hospital, RÚV reports.

The identification commission of the Reykjavík Metropolitan Police was called to the scene. Three individuals were arrested for not following police orders. Two of the arrests were at the scene of the fire. One individual is now in police custody as police are investigating the matter. A decision will be made today on whether he will be put into custody.

Eight of the residents stayed overnight in accommodation provided by the Icelandic Red Cross. The residents were both Icelanders and foreigners, according to the Red Cross. The Red Cross also offered crisis counselling to ten people following the fire. Among those were bystanders as well as relatives of those transported to hospital.

Difficult Circumstances

The fire took place on the corner of Bræðraborgarstígur and Vesturgata. The police investigation formally started once the fire brigade finished their work at around 3.30am. Between 50 to 60 people from the fire brigade took part in the operations yesterday. It’s thought that six to ten people were in the house at the time it caught fire.

Jón Viðar Matthíasson, marshal of the Reykjavík fire brigade, said that the firefighting proved to be difficult as the heat was significant and the house is only partially concrete. Therefore, the house was at risk of collapsing. The brigade ended up removing the roof and a gable, a method normally reserved for industrial housing. The house burned very quickly. “There could be a number of explanations for that,” Jón Viðar said. The police investigation will hopefully shed a light on the matter. “Hopefully they can put together a picture from what is left of the house,” Jón Viðar added.

Jón Viðar told RÚV that the blaze was one of the most difficult that the fire department had ever had to battle. He said that the nearby homes had not been at risk of catching fire, but smoke damage is not unlikely and residents in the area were encourage to close all their windows. The house was so badly damaged in the fire that it was torn down by authorities at the first possible opportunity and a guard was stationed to keep watch at the site overnight.

Eyewitnesses described a terrifying scene. Personal trainer Ingi Svansson was working nearby when he heard screams from the house, saw the flames, and called the fire department. “We heard the screams of the people and tried to bring a ladder around to the front, but it was too short,” he told Fréttablaðið. Then we went around the other side of the house and found some big trashcans and told them that they should jump [into them]. Otherwise, they would have suffocated in there.” Three people jumped from the top floor in order to escape, at least one sustaining injuries in the process.

Illegal Residential Building

The house, situated on Bræðraborgarstígur 1, is on a list of illegal residential housing published by the fire brigade in 2017. The first floor of the house is classified as commercial property, as it was originally furnished as a kindergarten. 73 individuals in total are registered as having legal residence in the house. The investigative journalism programme Kveikur took up the matter of illegal residence in the house in 2017. The registered owner of the house is local contractor HD Verk, whose owners have not yet been available for comment. The building was at one point rented by the temporary work agency Seigla, as well as the temporary work agency Menn í Vinnu before that.

“I do not know whether an investigation will reveal that there have been illegal modifications to the house, or if there are any inadequacies. It will take more time to investigate. But the house has been modified,” Jón Viðar answered when asked about potential changes to the building. The house was originally built in 1906. The building will be fully demolished once the police have finished investigating the scene.

HD Verk has been investigated previously by authorities for a different building on Dalvegur street in Kópavogur. The cities fire brigade along with the police, Administration of Occupational Safety and Health, along with the Directorate of Internal Revenue inspected the house. Rooms on the second floor of the house on Dalvegur were found to be illegally rented and fire protection in the house was deficient. HD Verk applied for rights to operate a guesthouse on Bræðraborgarstígur 1, the house that burned down. They applied for a guesthouse with seven rooms and lodging for 14 people in total. The application was denied. The building was reported on in Stundin newspaper in 2015 when a resident commented on the substandard housing that a large number of people lived in. At the time, a Reykjavík city building inspector commented that the house was to be inspected.

Updated on June 26 at 1.12pm.