The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan - Gisli Palsson

Staff Pick

Palsson has much to teach about 18th-century Dutch colonialism, the Dutch West Indies, and the trade in sugar and slaves, but this deeply-considered book is not the typical “epic history” of world events. Rather, in its portrait of one man who became extraordinary by claiming his rights to an ordinary life, it puts the monstrous on a human scale. Child of a black house slave and an unknown white man, Hans Jonathan was born on St. Croix in 1784. His mother was taken to Europe when he was three; he joined her and his owner in Copenhagen when he was eight. Ten years later, after heroic service in the Danish war against the British, he went to court, suing for possession of himself. He lost the case, sailed to Iceland, and lived as a free man. Palsson pieces together this unusual trajectory (which he traces into the present, tracking down his subject’s descendants), asking questions and looking at possible scenarios, seeing the world as his subjects might have. Holding off on an exposé of the brute horrors of slavery until the end, he highlights the inescapable indignity and logical absurdity of one person “owning” another. In sentences like, “little is known of the fates of enslaved persons in Copenhagen in general,” Palsson speaks volumes about an era’s priorities. Yet, as he reminds us, human trafficking is outlawed, but it still goes on—and what do most of us know of the fates of today’s human chattel?

The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan By Gisli Palsson Cover Image
ISBN: 9780226313283
Availability: Special Order—Subject to Availability
Published: University of Chicago Press - September 16th, 2016