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.’

Hans Jonathan left only a few traces of himself in the historical record, but they’re enough to allow Gisli Palsson, a professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland, to sketch a remarkable life. ‘Solid facts are so often lacking,’ he writes, ‘because silence served the interests of the rich and powerful.’ Slaves were itemised as property, or even categorised as livestock; only house slaves were deemed census-worthy. Otherwise they were recorded in slave registers – frequently given a number, or listed under first names given to them by their owners – but rarely showed up in other documents (unsurprisingly, they weren’t usually deemed fitting subjects for portraiture). There’s no diary kept by Hans Jonathan, no sheaf of letters from which to extract biographical details or a sense of his own voice, but a few accounts do refer to him in passing. He was also involved in a significant court case, and, in dealing with that event, the book, for a while at least, becomes a more traditional narrative history. Mostly, though, Palsson mixes informed hypothesis and imaginative reconstruction with cultural analysis in an attempt to fill in the gaps.

While his enslavement was deplorably commonplace – approximately 12.5 million Africans were transported across the Atlantic between 1527 and 1866, with Danish slave traders accounting for around 1 per cent of that figure – his eventually successful escape makes him a rare exception. Hans Jonathan was born into slavery in 1784 on the island of St Croix, then part of the Danish West Indies. The island had been bought from France in 1733 and its economy was founded on the sugar trade. A slave population of around twenty thousand laboured on the island’s plantations; there were between 1500 and 2000 white residents, including plantation owners, government officials, priests, doctors, craftsmen and police. At the time of Hans Jonathan’s birth, his mother, Emilia Regina, was a slave in the household of Henrietta Cathrina and her husband, Ludvig Heinrich Ernst von Schimmelmann, who was descended from a family of Danish sugar barons: his grandfather, a Prussian-born commodity trader who became the Danish king’s commercial adviser, had bought four plantations in the West Indies in 1763, along with a sugar refinery in Copenhagen and a fleet of slaving ships. These plantations were among the most profitable in the Danish colonies, and that profit depended on the use of slaves: in the year of Hans Jonathan’s birth the Schimmelmanns owned more than a thousand. Ludvig Heinrich briefly became the governor general of the islands of St Croix, St Thomas and St John, moving to the governor’s mansion in Christiansted, the seat of Danish government in the West Indies, but then, in 1788, he resigned and returned with his family to Copenhagen. Emilia Regina travelled with them, and her son followed a couple of years later.

In Copenhagen, the Schimmelmann family lived in a mansion in the newly completed district of Frederiksstaden. Ludvig Heinrich died in 1793, but a census of 1801 shows that Henrietta Cathrina still kept nine servants, five of whom were ‘negroes’, to serve a household of two: Henrietta and her son. The census listed Hans Jonathan fourth, after Henrietta, her son and another servant; Palsson wonders whether he had some special status, and whether the degree of freedom he was granted resulted from that. Palsson visited the house, now (bitter irony) the offices for the immigration department of the Danish Ministry of Welfare, and was told about the ‘legend of a young black slave who once had to live in that dark little space beneath the staircase’ and subsequently ran away.

Palsson’s book pays attention to ostensibly unremarkable spaces that are, on closer examination, intimately connected with the industries and societies that profited from the slave trade. He travelled to St Croix and found a hut behind the Schimmelmanns’ house where the house slaves may have lived. He wonders if Hans Jonathan was conceived here, or in the fields of sugarcane, and if he was the result of rape. Palsson’s attention to place is part of his larger anthropological project of recalling the world in which Hans Jonathan lived, and the differing cultural, philosophical and legal contexts – in St Croix, in Copenhagen, in Iceland – of his enslavement and freedom.

When Hans Jonathan left the Schimmelmanns’ house in 1801 he intended, as Henrietta Cathrina suspected, to join the militia. Denmark had joined Russia, Sweden and Prussia to form the League of Armed Neutrality, intended to enable continued free trade with France during the Napoleonic Wars, and Britain saw this as a threat. In early 1801 the British navy sailed to Copenhagen to attempt to force Denmark to leave the league. The Battle of Copenhagen took place on 2 April 1801, with Danish and English ships firing on one another at close range. Hans Jonathan was aboard the Danish ship Charlotte Amalie: he survived, but 39 other crewmembers didn’t. The battle ended in a truce. Palsson wonders why Hans Jonathan ‘was so keen to join the military power that had enslaved him’. Perhaps he was just swept up in the fervour that descended on the city, an atmosphere in which ‘every citizen of Copenhagen felt like a warrior,’ according to a letter written by Charlotte Schimmelmann, the wife of the minister for finance (and Henrietta’s sister-in-law). Or perhaps, as Palsson thinks likely, he assumed his service to Denmark would mean that ‘the dispute about his alleged theft and dereliction of duty would disappear.’ But if he thought his freedom was now secure, Hans Jonathan was mistaken. When he returned to the Schimmelmann house Henrietta Cathrina locked him up in the yard. Two days later she handed him back to the Danish navy. Soon afterwards Hans Jonathan met another enslaved man, Peter Samuel, and together they decided to petition for their freedom. Their ship’s captain, Steen Andersen Bille, who was also a privy councillor, met Prince Frederik, the de facto ruler of Denmark, on their behalf and procured a letter from him that stated that ‘this person’ – presumably Hans Jonathan but it also applied to Samuel – should be treated as a free man. They were both freed on 14 May 1801. But when Hans Jonathan rented a room at a local tavern Henrietta Cathrina found out and told the police to arrest ‘a mulatto boy, who belongs to me and is my born slave’. When the police served the complaint on Hans Jonathan he told them he had been freed by royal order.

Eventually, after Henrietta Cathrina tried unsuccessfully to sell him to the Danish navy, Hans Jonathan was arrested. Although he claimed that Prince Frederik had granted him liberty, he had no written proof. (Palsson found Frederik’s letter in the archives of the ship’s captain, Bille, and wonders if it was ever passed on.) Henrietta Cathrina tried to assert her ownership, and the case went to court in May 1802. The General’s Widow Henrietta Schimmelmann v. the Mulatto Hans Jonathan, the trial lasting four months, set out to establish whether property rights in a human being could travel from the West Indies to Copenhagen, or whether those rights were weakened, or ceased to exist, after such a journey. A royal decree had banned the transport of enslaved persons from the colonies to Denmark, but not until 1795, after Hans Jonathan made the voyage. In England, the judgment in the case of Somerset v. Stewart (1772) found that the ownership of humans could not be transferred from the colonies to the metropole, and a 1794 decree held that any slave setting foot on the soil of France would become free. But the Danish court found in Schimmelmann’s favour, and she was instructed to arrange Hans Jonathan’s return to St Croix. After the verdict was read, he was released – he hadn’t committed a crime – and told to give himself up within 15 days. Instead, he left the city and sailed to Iceland.

Iceland was a long way from Denmark, but, as a Danish colony, it was relatively straightforward to reach – merchant ships sailed from Copenhagen during the summer months. Hans Jonathan settled in Djupivogur, a trading post in the south-east, and was taken on as an apprentice by Jon Stefansson, the manager of the town’s general store. Stefansson was the founder of a reading group, had established a lending library and was a collector of medieval manuscripts. A few years later, he translated into Icelandic a collection of essays about the iniquities of the slave trade. It seems likely that Hans Jonathan’s freedom in Iceland was dependent on his not being discovered and returned to Copenhagen. This doesn’t appear to have worried him: he didn’t change his name and made no discernible attempt to hide his identity, and he happily introduced himself and recounted his story to the Danish surveyor.

There’s considerable evidence that he integrated comparatively easily into Icelandic life. Palsson writes that he ‘was a member of the largely Danish commercial class and accepted as such’. He became an assistant at the store, and, after Jon Stefansson’s death in 1819, its manager. (An image of a transaction record is reproduced, showing Hans Jonathan’s elaborate signature.) In 1820 he married a local woman, Katrin Antoniusdottir, and they had two children. He was called as a witness in court several times, a sign of his respected status in the community. But many years after his death, jokes were still told about ‘the “black” man who had “coloured” whole generations on the East Fjords’: attitudes shaped, Palsson argues, by the growing focus on skin colour and racial purity that accompanied the rise in nationalist feeling in Iceland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Hans Jonathan died on 18 December 1827, at the age of 43. He had moved on from the general store and now owned a tenant farm. He was working in the fields when he collapsed, and in an emotional passage Palsson imagines what might have gone through the dying man’s mind:

From Constitution Hill, Christiansted, Amaliegade, Langabud, the sheiling [hut] in Bulandsdalur, and his croft at Borgargardur – mixed emotions about the sugar plantation, the Schimmelmanns, his long ocean journeys, the great sea battle, his unsettled debts – and his deep affection for his mother, his wife and his children. He had only a moment to look back over his extraordinary life before it was over. There was no time to say goodbye.

Hans Jonathan’s death certificate recorded that he had died of a stroke, but Palsson believes it could have been a cerebral haemorrhage. He speculates that Hans Jonathan’s father was Hans Gram, the secretary to the governor of St Croix. Gram left the island soon after Hans Jonathan’s birth, becoming a musician and composer in Boston, and died from a cerebral haemorrhage, as did his legitimate son Hans Burch.

Palsson moves on to examine how changing attitudes to colour affected the way Hans Jonathan’s descendants approached the fact of his existence – at first as a secret to be kept, later as something to be celebrated. His relatives include doctors and lawyers in America, where his grandson emigrated in 1913, and a footballer who played for Reading. A new project aims to reconstruct significant parts of Hans Jonathan’s genome using the code of his living descendants in Iceland, making it possible to identify further descendants, and trace his forebears.

Hans Jonathan’s attempt to secure his emancipation through lawful means took place against the background of changes in Denmark’s relationship with its colonies and with slavery. These changes led to the ambiguities and contradictions evident in his treatment. Denmark’s ban on the trade in slaves came into force in 1803, a year after Hans Jonathan’s trial. The trade ended, but slavery persisted until, in 1847, the governor of the Danish West Indies declared that all children born on the islands would be considered free, creating a situation whereby free children would be born to parents who remained slaves. In 1848 black islanders marched in protest on the Danish fort at Frederiksted, threatening to set fire to the sugar fields. They demanded freedom, ownership of the land and the right to profit from it. Their emancipation followed. In 1917 Denmark sold the islands to the United States. By then the world created by the slave trade was slipping away, but its vestiges, Palsson’s book suggests, can still be seen in cultural attitudes to race, in the architecture of the cities that profited from slavery and even in the dark space beneath the staircase of an old house.