The Nordic Africa Institute

A Conversation with author and Professor Gísli Pálsson


Date: 18 April 2023

Time: 16.00-17.00

Venue: NAI Library, First floor, Villavägen 6, Uppsala

The island nation of Iceland is known for many things—majestic landscapes, volcanic eruptions, distinctive seafood—but racial diversity is not one of them. So, the little-known story of Hans Jonathan, a free black man who lived and raised a family in early nineteenth-century Iceland, is improbable and compelling, the stuff of novels.

During the conversation with author and Professor Gísli Pálsson, we will examine the story of Hans Jonathan through moderation by Dr Guðrún Sif Friðriksdóttir, senior researcher at NAI. Hans Jonathan was born into slavery in St. Croix in 1784 and later taken as a slave to Denmark. There he eventually enlisted in the navy and fought on behalf of the country in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen. After the war, he declared himself a free man and he became the subject of one of the most notorious slavery cases in European history, which he lost and was forced to flee. It’s now known that Hans fled to Iceland, where he became a merchant and peasant farmer, married, and raised two children.

The Man Who Stole Himself brilliantly intertwines Hans Jonathan’s adventurous travels with a portrait of the Danish slave trade, legal arguments over slavery, and the state of nineteenth-century race relations in the Northern Atlantic world. Throughout the book, Palsson traces themes of imperial dreams, colonialism, human rights, and globalization, which all come together in the life of a single, remarkable man. Hans literally led a life like no other. His is the story of a man who had the temerity—the courage—to steal himself.

The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan (2016) received the Vinson Sutlive Book Prize in Historical Anthropology administered by the College of William & Mary, and was listed as one of the Times Literary Supplement Books of the Year in 2017.

Gísli Pálsson
Professor Gísli Pálsson holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Manchester. He has been Visiting Professor at King’s College London and the Universities of Stavanger, Cambridge, California Berkeley, Miami, and Iowa. Pálsson was elected Honorary Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. He received the Rosenstiel Award in Oceanographic Science from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science of the University of Miami. His current work focuses on environmental issues within the framework of environmental humanities. Pálsson was the Vice-Chair of RESCUE (Responses to Environmental and Societal Challenges for our Unstable Earth), a “Frontiers of Science” initiative of the European Science Foundation and COST during 2009–2011.

Guðrún Sif Friðriksdóttir

Guðrún Sif Friðriksdóttir has worked on gender and violence, both as a researcher and in programming in international development. Her current research looks at forced migration within Africa and the role of socio-economic status within forced migration.

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