The Blue Man: The Man Who Stole Himself

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In the early 1800s, Hans Jonatan, a black man hits the shore of Djupivogur, a small Icelandic village. He arrived at Iceland long before racism came into their consciousness. This buttresses that racism was learnt, and was wired through trade.

But, how he came through the vast water bodies, and lands was not far-fetched.

Hans was born a slave to Emilia Regina (a slave woman) in 1784 on La Reine sugar plantation- a Caribbean island of St Croix (now US Virgin Islands), it is believed that his father could be an elite or of Western origin though there are no news of him. Researchers and a study traced Hans’ maternal genome in the absence of his physical remains. It was traced back to West Africa, entailing his mother may be from Benin, Nigeria or Cameroon.

Fun fact by a professor of anthropology, Gisli Palsson of University of Iceland, stated Denmark was amongst “the big powers” of slave trade that “caught or bought lots of slaves in West Africa and ran these colonies in the Virgin Islands”.

Moreso, Hans was not made to work on the field but was used as a home-slave and according to Professor Gisli, “…he was exposed to an aristocratic life” in a 2019 interview.

His slaveowner, Frau Schimmelmans took him to Copenhagen, Denmark from St Croix. Hans was seven-years of age. It was there his awareness about colonies and freedom from slavery awakened through reading and engaging in discourse on the topic at that time. Hans was there for about ten years.

Hans Jonatan’s desire for freedom must have caused him to enrol into the Danish Navy in 1801 and participated in the Copenhagen battle, thinking that he would help them to attain victory — in triggering his freedom. His thoughts were valid as his bravery was rewarded by his superiors who put word in to Denmark’s crowned prince and future king, Frederik VI who wrote a letter saying Hans Jonatan “is considered free and enjoys rights”.

His master refused this decree saying Hans is his property, and he could decide his fate or “sell him back to St Croix”. Hans then filed a case against his owner. But in the court, he couldn’t produce the document of King Frederik VI decreeing him a freeman. The court then ruled in favour of Frau, which also meant Jonathan’s freedom lies in not getting caught or else, he would be transported back to the Virgin Islands.

A 19th century photo of Djúpivogur, where Hans Jonathan arrived around 1802.(Nicole Marie Elsie Weywadt via National Museum of Iceland)

Hans Jonatan who wanted to enjoy his freedom absconded on one of the last ships to set sail before winter sets in. For this act, Professor Gisli Palsson named the biography he wrote for Hans Jónatan ‘The Man Who Stole Himself’. With his path dictated by trade routes from Copenhagen, he arrived at Djupivogur, Iceland.

Hans Jonathan was referred to as a “Blue man” because of his colour, our vast Professor on this case mentioned that it is very Icelandic to call a black person blue as at then.

Hans lived the rest of his life there, first working as a store keep, and then a peasant farmer. He died at age 43 when he slid off snow covered slopes, got affected by stroke and died from the resulting incident. He was survived by Katrin, his wife and their two children.

The story of Blue Man: The First Known African to Settle in Iceland

In the early 1800s, Hans Jonathan, a black man hits the shore of Djupivogur, a small Icelandic village. He arrived long before racism came into their consciousness. This buttresses that racism was learnt, and wired in the genomes. But, how he came through the vast water bodies, and lands was not far-fetched.

Hans was born a slave to Emilia Regina (a slave woman) in 1784 on La Reine sugar plantation- a Caribbean island of St Croix (now US Virgin Islands), it is believed that his father could be an elite or of Western origin though there are no news of him. Researchers and a study traced Hans’ maternal genome in the absence of his physical remains. It was traced back to West Africa, entailing his mother may be from Benin, Nigeria or Cameroon.

Fun fact by a professor of anthropology, Gisli Palsson — University of Iceland, stated Denmark was amongst “the big powers” of slave trade that “caught or bought lots of slaves in West Africa and ran these colonies in the Virgin Islands”.

Moreso, Hans was not made to work on the field but was used as a home-slave and according to Professor Gisli, “…exposed to an aristocratic life” in a 2019 interview.

His slaveowner, Frau Schimmelmans took him to Copenhagen, Denmark from St Croix. Hans was seven-years of age. It was there his awareness about colonies and freedom from slavery awakened through reading and engaging in discourse on the topic at that time. Hans was there for about ten years.

Hans Jonathan’s desire for freedom must have caused him to enrol into the Danish Navy in 1801 and participated in the Copenhagen battle, thinking that he would help them to attain victory — in triggering his freedom. His thoughts were valid as his bravery was rewarded by his superiors who put word in to Denmark’s crowned prince and future king, Frederik VI who wrote a letter saying Hans Jonathan “is considered free and enjoys rights”.

His master refused this decree saying Hans is his property, and he could decide his fate or “sell him back to St Croix”. Hans then filed a case against his owner. But in court, he couldn’t produce the document of King Frederik VI decreeing him a freeman. The court then ruled in favour of Frau, which also meant Jonathan’s freedom lies in not getting caught or else, he would be transported back to the Virgin Islands.

Hans Jonatan who was escaping from his  slaveowner, hence, The Man Who Stole His Freedom. He absconded on one of the last ships to set sail before winter sets in. With his path dictated by trade routes from Copenhagen, he arrived at Djúpivogur, Iceland.

Han Jonatan was referred to as a “Blue man” because of his colour, our vast Professor on this case mentioned that it is very Icelandic to call a black person blue as at then.

Hans lived the rest of his life there, first working as a store keep, and then a peasant farmer. He died at age 43 when he slid off snow covered slopes, got affected by stroke and died from the resulting incident. He was survived by Katrin, his wife and their two children.

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