The Curious Case of Mr. Hans Jonatan: Iceland, the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and Genetics in Archaeology

"Islanda", a map of Iceland by Benedetto Bordone in 1547, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“Islanda”, a map of Iceland by Benedetto Bordone in 1547, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Recent research into genetics and the complicated history of the Transatlantic slave trade has revealed an unlikely but important ancestor of nearly 500 Icelandic people: Hans Jonatan. EUROTAST, a Marie Curie-funded research initiative from a consortium of international universities into “The History, Archaeology and New Genetics of the Transatlantic Slave Trade” has shed light onto the mass forced migrations of people from Africa to the colonies in the west as a whole, but also expressed as the fascinating experiences of a formerly enslaved man.

Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on a sugar plantation in St. Croix, a Danish colony in the Caribbean, transferred to Copenhagen, sentenced to go back to St. Croix after the abolition of slavery in Denmark, then escaped to Iceland, where he raised a family. His illegal retention in Copenhagen by his former Mistress, Henriette Catharine Schimmelmann, was at the center of an historic court case that tested the legality of new abolition legislation—did Jonatan’s stay in Denmark set him free, or did his birth in the Danish West Indies make him a slave regardless? The judge determined that slavery was still illegal in Denmark, but that Jonatan was to go back to St. Croix as Schimmelmann’s property.

After this unfortunate sentence, Jonatan escaped immediately, and turned up in a tiny port in East Iceland several years later. Two centuries would pass before authorities in Copenhagen would learn Jonatan’s whereabouts. He settled down, married Katrín Antoníusdóttir, and lived until 1827. It is not known how he was received or perceived by the community of Icelanders, many of whom had never seen a “Negro.” Two of his three children survived and became respected citizens of the community, perhaps indicating a wider acceptance of Jonatan.

The life and eventual ancestors of Hans Jonatan highlights the complicated genetic legacy of the Transatlantic slave trade, and changes the collective perception of historic ethnic “purity.” EUROTAST fellow Anuradha Jagadeesan at the University of Iceland is reconstructing the genome of Hans Jonatan from genetic data available through his descendants. Jagadeesan is using an innovative technique based on the detection of shared identical chromosome segments to determine parental origin. From this gathered information, scientists will reconstruct Hans Jonatan’s genome to make inferences about his phenotype and biogeographical ancestry, setting the standard for the use of genetics to understand the legacy of long dead individuals as well as to better understand the temporal fragmentation of the genome.

Hans Jonatan’s compelling story shows the unique interplay of historical research and genetics in a surprising venue—the seemingly remote and homogenous population of Iceland, as well as the potential for monumental shifts in our understanding of ethnic origins.

ResearchBlogging.org

Kristín Loftsdóttir, & Gísli Pálsson (2013). Black on White: Danish Colonialism, Iceland and the Caribbean Scandinavian Colonialism and the Rise of Modernity: Small Time Agents in a Global Arena DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4614-6202-6_3

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