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.
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.”