Statue proposed in honour of first black Icelander

26.06.2020 - 16:04
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Hans Jónatan moved to Iceland in 1802 and is believed to be the first black person to live in the country. He came to Iceland fleeing slavery and lived in Djúpivogur as a free man. Now a proposal has been put to Alþingi to erect a memorial to Hans in the East Iceland village.

Hans Jónatan was born on the Caribbean island of St. Croix and had lived in Copenhagen for ten years before escaping from domestic slavery in the home of a Danish-German couple and ending up in Iceland.

In Djúpivogur, he became a businessman and married a local woman. They had two children together and are thought to have around a thousand descendants today.  

The timing of the parliamentary proposal comes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in the USA and the following Black Lives Matter movement in countries around the world, including Iceland. It is also considered symbolic that Iceland potentially stands to erect a statue at the same time as controversial statues of slave traders are being torn down overseas. The proposal was put to Alþingi by Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (Independence Party) alternate MP Vilhjálmur Bjarnason. 

Gísli Pálsson, who wrote The Man Who Stole Himself, a biography of Hans Jónatan, told RÚV this week he thinks the statue is a good idea and that it should be used as an opportunity to dispel the myth that rich, benevolent white people in Denmark, the USA, the UK, and elsewhere decided to end slavery. The movement that forced the end of slavery was driven by the effort and struggle of slaves themselves, he says. 

The picture above is from a documentary based on Gísli Pálsson's biography of Hans Jónatan.

Hans Jónatan is believed to have faced very little racial discrimination in Iceland, but his descendants were less lucky as attitudes changed over time. Many went to considerable lengths to hide their ancestry. 

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Alexander Elliott
Project manager
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