Hans Jonatan (1784–1827) was the subject of an important test case in Danish law on slavery, and a groundbreaking DNA study. Fleeing to Iceland, he became one of the first people of colour to live in Iceland. A biography of Jonatan by Gísli Pálsson was published in Icelandic in 2014. An English edition was published in 2016. Danish and French editions are forthcoming.
Hans Jonatan was born into slavery in 1784 on the plantation at Constitution Hill on the island of St Croix in the Caribbean, which had become a Danish colony in 1733 when purchased by the Danish West India Company from France. His paternity is uncertain, but Pálsson argues in his biography that his father was a white Dane, Hans Gram, who was the secretary of his owners for three years; his mother was Emilia Regina, a black 'house slave' who is first recorded in 1773 at the St Croix plantation of La Reine, where she was presumably born. In 1788, Emilia had a daughter, Anna Maria, this time by a black man, Andreas, who at the time was a house slave too; but their fates are not recorded. The details of the West African ancestry of Hans's mother were unknown prior to a genetic study.
Hans Jonatan was owned by Heinrich Ludvig Ernst von Schimmelmann and his wife Henriette Catharina. In 1789 the Schimmelmann family moved to Copenhagen as the plantation business took a downturn, bringing Emilia Regina and, later, Hans Jonatan with them. Not long afterwards, Heinrich died, bequeathing Hans to his widow Henriette Catharine. In 1802, at the age of seventeen, Hans Jonatan escaped from Copenhagen to join the Danish Navy and fought in the Napoleonic War, for which he received recognition.
Later, when he was detained by the police, he and his lawyer argued in 1801 before a Copenhagen court under judge Anders Sandøe Ørsted that although slavery was still legal in the Danish West Indies, as slavery was illegal in Denmark, Hans Jonatan could not be kept as a slave. However, in the case Generalmajorinde Henriette de Schimmelmann contra mulatten Hans Jonathan 1802, Ørsted sentenced him on 31 March 1802 to be returned to the West Indies.
Hans Jonatan escaped, and his fate remained unknown to the Danish administration. It was only around the 1990s that the rest of his story was pieced together. In 1802 he arrived in Djúpivogur in Iceland. One of the first records of Hans Jonatan after 1802 is in the diary of the Norwegian cartographer Hans Frisak for 4 August 1812:
- The agent at the trading post here is from the West Indies, and has no surname ... but calls himself Hans Jonatan. He is very dark-skinned and has coal-black, curly hair. His father is European but his mother a negro.
His grandson, wife and their five children are shown in this family photo from around 1900.
In 2018, scientists achieved a genetic breakthrough when they reconstructed a part of Hans Jonatan's genome solely using samples from his descendants. This was the first time that a human genome had been reconstructed without using physical remains. For the study, 788 of his descendants were identified, and DNA samples from 182 family members were taken. The study was aided by the extreme rarity of African heritage in Iceland, the homogeneity of the country's population, and its comprehensive genome database. The samples were analyzed against known signs of African DNA, recreating about 38% of his mother's DNA profile and thus 19% of his own.
It was determined that that Emilia Regina's ancestral origins were from a region now encompassing Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon. So her forebear must have been captured or sold to slavers on the African coast and shipped to the Caribbean in the early or middle years of the 18th century.