Iceland: War With England

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Have you heard of the Napoleonic wars? Did you know that because of them, England and Denmark were at war? Did you know that Danish ports were blockaded by the English and that the trade ships that were supposed to supply Iceland with food and trade goods and take Icelandic goods in return were not able to leave port?

Did you know that the people of Icelandic were brought to the brink of starvation? That friends of Iceland in high places in England intervened and obtained a declaration from the English king to lift the blockade on Iceland?

That’s okay. Neither did I. Not, that is, until I began this arcane, strange research into life in Iceland in the late 1700s and the 1800s. I mean, most of us don’t know Canadian history, never mind what was going on in Europe in the early 1800s.

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However, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland has numerous references to the Napoleonic War and its consequences for Iceland. They are just tidbits, footnotes, brief mentions but by the time I’d finished re-reading Holland’s journal, I had a sense of Iceland being affected by something I’ve never heard anyone talk about.

In a footnote on page 114, Holland says” Bjarni (Sivertsen) may already have been engaged in negotiating the restoration (completed 1812) of funds pirated from Iceland during the 1808 Gilpin raid. Bjarni was no stranger to Britain. He was one of the Icelandic merchants whose ships were detained under war regulations at Leith 1807-1809; Sir Joseph Banks helped secure their release and offered financial support.”

Later, he says about the School House, “Behind the building which forms the present schoolhouse, a new range of buildings has been begun upon, with a view to an enlargement of the Institution. The war with Denmark, among its other consequent calamaties, has been the means of entirely suspending this scheme—from the want which it creates in Iceland of all the materials for building.”

Later in his trip he visits Mr. Jacobæus, whom, he says, “is one of the most considerable merchants in Iceland; and had much commercial connection with Denmark; though this trade has of course suffered greatly from the war between England and Denmark.”

He visits the Leira printing office, the only printing office in Iceland, and says, “It has latterly been much injured by the winter floods, & it is now in projection to construct a new building on the same spot – the execution of which is only delayed form the scarcity of timber in Iceland during the period of war.”

They visit a Mr. Gudmundson, a merchant, “who has commercial connections at Copenhagen, at Reikjaviik & at Havenefiord….We found from conversation with him that the war between England & Denmark had been greatly injurious to his trade—Three years have now elapsed since any vessel has come from Copenhagen to Buderstad; though previously to this time, it was usual for one or two vessels to enter the port annually – This privation of the accustomed inter course is severely felt by the inhabitants of the interior, who are greatly in want of corn, timber, iron &c. The warehouses at Buderstad, and other ports in this part of Iceland, are filled with the commodities of the country—fish oil, fox skins &c, which it is impossible at the present time profitably to dispose.“

When they visit Stappen, he says the merchant of the place is a Mr. Hialtalin. However, he is not there because “At the commencement of the war, he was taken prisoner, & carried into England –Thence he contrived to get into Norway, where he was about 1 1/2½ years ago. Since that time no intelligence what ever of him has reached Iceland. His wife, Madame Hialtalin, with a family of six children, continues to reside at Stappen, where she carries on the business as well as lies in her power.”

When he visits Mr. Clausen, another Danish trader, he discovers that “He collects for exportation, fish, oil, tallow, fox-skins, & the various woolen manufactures of the island–& sells to the inhabitants, both in a retail & wholesale way, different articles of foreign produce or manufacture, procured from the continent of Europe. The war between England & Denmark has been greatly detrimental to this trade. Beside the intercourse with Denmark much profit was formerly derived from the exportation of fish to France, Spain & the ports of the Mediterranean Sea; a branch of commerce which is now entirely suspended. The intercourse with England has not yet acquired a sufficiently settled footing to relieve these evils—Mr. Clausen’s warehouses are crowded with goods for which a market is wanting—He reckons that he has lying by him, (either under cover, or collected into large heaps upon the shore) many hundred thousand fish, salted or dried—Of the woollen goods, manufactured in Iceland, his stock is proportionally large. He has about 50,000 pair of mittens, or woolen gloves, and almost an equal quantity of stocking of different qualities of fineness.”

“Previously to the war, Stikkes-holm was a place of considerable trade, three or four vessels from Norway or Denmark generally coming to the port every year. The only vessel which arrived last year was one from Norway, & none has appeared here in the present summer.”

“Mr. H. had been present at the late unfortunate attack upon Copenhagen—his house & much of his property had been destroyed in the bombardment of the place. He shewed us an umbrella, broken by a shot whilst he was sleeping under it, in a tent.”

“Both Mr. Hialtalin (this is the brother of the missing Mr. Hialtalin) & Mr. Benedictsen spoke much of the distress produced in Iceland by the war between England & Denmark; & seemed to consider the English Order in Council as likely to afford only a very partial relief.”

Reykavik has an annual trade fair, “The Handel”, which Holland says is better this year, 1810, than the previous year “however, by no means equal to previous years.”

When they arrive at Hyindarmule, they attempt to buy some items of Iceland dress from the women. “We were unable, however, to effect any thing of this kind—Not that the people were unwilling to sell – they were all pleased but the impossibility, during the present period of war, of replacing any article with which they now parted.”

“We reached Eyarback at 5 in the afternoon…Previously to the war, three ships usually came there every year.”

“The merchant proprietor at Eyarback is a Mr. Lambasson—This gentleman being detained in Norway by the war, the business is conducted at present by his wife, & by an agent, Mr. Peterson. We were received by them with great hospitality, & remained at the house a few hours to refresh ourselves.”

It’s interesting that, time and again, where they stay is with Danish merchants. Their countries are at war. The English bombardment of Copenhagen resulted in 2,000 civilians being killed and 30% of the buildings being destroyed. Danish ports were effectively blockaded and the Danish navy neutralized.

However, except for one instance, Holland and his companions never felt any hostility or disapproval.

This was not a two way war between France and England but a complex web of alliances and re-alliances with Denmark having to not only fight England in order to avoid being invaded by France but by Sweden. Germany and Russia, at various times, were part of the mix.

When I get time, I’ll type up the letter of the English king who writes up the letter for the British Order in Council that is mentioned.

8 thoughts on “Iceland: War With England

  1. An Icelandic friend once told me that a large amount of priceless Viking age treasures, that were being held in Copenhagen at the time of the Napoleonic War, were melted down to make silver ingots to pay the English after Denmarks defeat in a major sea battle ( Battle of Copenhagen?).
    He told me that there were silver coated carved drinking horns and all sorts of other priceless items destroyed. As a student of Viking history and archeology I was almost brought to tears by this story!

    • That is shocking. I”ve never heard any such thing. Have you attempted to have it verified? There would
      be a record.

      • I have lost contact with my friend but I got the feeling that Icelanders knew of this. He said that the English demanded a crippling war reparation payment from the Danes and this is what was done. Incredible and horrifying but I guess they were desperate. England bears a lot of the shame of this covered up story as I have never come across it in 40 years of reading Viking scholarship

  2. Fascinating stuff. Since our Mogensen/Sveinsson ancestors are half Danish and half Icelandic, I am happy to hear that the Danes were not always completely at fault as the bad guys in trade as far as the Icelanders were concerned. Of course my humble farming relatives on both sides were not in a position of power anyway.

  3. I came across this page accidently. But I am fascinated. I live in Mexico, but I am from the north of England and speak Danish and some Norwegian. I am really interested in the vikings as I am from the area where ‘they’ settled, East Coast. I have a feeling that Robin Hood (Robin Hood’s bay East Coast) was a modern ‘dry land Viking’, and I wonder if we could find out if he was actually related to the settled ‘Vikings”?

    • Fascinating. It would be quite the coup if you could establish the relationship. I’m afraid that I know little of genealogy. Icelanders often claim that they can trace their ancestors right back to the time of settlement. However, I’ve had an historian tell me that records later than the 1700s are unlikely to be trustworthy. How good are English records? I have an English ancestor and one of my cousins has been tracking the genealogy of this fellow (a great great great grandfather) but I believe that the trail ended with the possibility of an illegitimate child of a nobleman. What starts as a river ends, often, in a swamp. The higher the rank the better the records, I would assume. How would you go about establishing the relationship?

  4. Bjarni Sivertsen is my ancestor, 7 generations back. When I decided to research my ancestry I discovered Bjarni. His daughter,Jarngerd Julie Sivertsen married Hans Wolner Kofoed and their son, John Michael Kofoed moved to Australia in the mid 1800’s to be goldfields in Ballarat. Through the work of Regina on Virtual Tourist (she is also related to Bjarni) I learned about his life, and was then contacted by Rosa from the Museum in Hafnarfjurdur. In October 2013 I travelled to Iceland from Melbourne, Australia to attend Bjarni’s 250th birthday celebration, and was then “guest speaker”. My story is a modern-day “Viking Saga”.

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