Under the Staircase

Karl Whitney

  • The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan by Gisli Palsson, translated by Anna Yates
    Chicago, 288 pp, £19.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 226 31328 3

In the spring of 1801 a young man called Hans Jonathan left the mansion in Copenhagen where he worked as a slave. Going for a walk was allowed: despite his status, he had a degree of autonomy within the walls of the city, then a thriving port with around one hundred thousand inhabitants. But this time he didn’t return. His owner, Henrietta Cathrina Schimmelmann, reported his escape to the police, claiming he had stolen money from her son. ‘Today, this mulatto ran away from me,’ she wrote. ‘He is 16 years old, of small stature, and has a yellowish complexion and short curly hair.’ With war between Denmark and Britain looming, she suspected he had run off to join the militia. Eleven years later, and more than a thousand miles across the sea, a surveyor carrying out a study of the Icelandic coast for the Danish government was guided through the barren landscape by a man who worked in a local shop. The surveyor wrote in his journal that his guide was ‘very brown skinned, with coal-black woolly hair. His father is a European, but his mother is a negress … He is from the West Indies, and has no surname … but calls himself Hans Jonathan.’

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