Sunday, October 16, 2016

Gísli Pálsson's "The Man Who Stole Himself"

Gísli Pálsson is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Iceland.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Man Who Stole Himself: The Slave Odyssey of Hans Jonathan, and reported the following:
Every biography emphasizes some life-changing moments that redefine the road ahead for the person in question, the life course that follows. One of the key dramatic moments in the case of Hans Jonathan, the enslaved man who stole himself, the son of a West African house slave, was the verdict of the legal case of 1802 at the Copenhagen court which sentenced him to remain someone’s property, liable to be sent back to the plantations in the West Indies to be sold to the highest bidder. During the court proceedings, the lawyer representing the slave-owner Henriette Schimmelmann, who owned several sugar plantations on the island of St. Croix in the West Indies, spent some time on establishing Hans Jonathan’s background and identity. Knowing that Hans Jonathan was the son of a white man since he was classified as a “mulatto” in court documents, the defendant used the opportunity to complicate the case by asking an obvious and tricky question: Who was the father of Hans Jonathan? The drama begins on p. 99:
The question that cannot be asked

When the advocates had made their arguments, witnesses were called. ... On Monday 1 March 1802, court officers met with Hans Jonathan .... He appears to have been present at some of the proceedings. ... The two lawyears took turns, Bierring posing the first set of questions: he wanted to know when Hans Jonathan was born....
The paternity question may have served the purpose of appealing to parts of the white community in Copenhagen, the biological relatives of the Hans Jonathan. However, it was repeatedly dismissed by the court. While the legal proceedings were detailed and formal and the defendant had the right to speak, one gets the impression that the case had been decided before the court began its work. The case has for long illuminated the legal debate on rights in humans in Denmark. Had the proceedings taken place a year later, the conclusion would have been different as slavery was becoming illegal in Denmark. And the fate of Hans Jonathan would have been very different. Following the verdict, Hans Jonathan escaped to East Iceland where he would live as a free man for the rest if his life, marrying a local woman, Katrin Antoniusdottir, and having two children.
Learn more about The Man Who Stole Himself at the University of Chicago Press website.

My Book, The Movie: The Man Who Stole Himself.

--Marshal Zeringue