1874:Kneeland, the Constitution

Our good friend Samuel, is most interested in the new “constitution” that Christian IX has brought to Iceland. Being an educated American, he doesn’t think much of it. He goes through it in detail and points out that the king still holds supreme power over the legislature. Anything he doesn’t like, he can reject. Below is his summary. 
“It is no exaggeration to say that the profession of the power of self-government made in this “new constitution” amount to little or nothing; as the royal prerogative opportunely steps in when there is any danger of additional liberty. It was perfectly well understood by the people as illiberal, almost despotic, though some demagogues chose to see in it a Magna Charta; they accept it, however, as the best they can get, and especially as being the beginning of a political education, which, in course of time, will enable them to demand and to obtain political independence.
In the words of Mr. Taylor (Bayard Taylor, the American journalist who is also in the party of five Americans) “The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense, the 1stof August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.”
Samuel Kneeland agrees with Bayard Taylor. Jon Sigurdsson has done something important, even heroic, for Iceland. He hasn’t been Joan of Arc. He hasn’t led the Icelanders in armed rebellion. He’s done something much more important. He’s convinced the Icelandic people that their situation is not hopeless. They can ask for better treatment. They can work at getting better treatment. They can even insist on better treatment. Centuries of oppression have made it seem impossible that there can be a better way of being governed. Jon Sigurdsson has convinced people that there is a better way and it is achievable. Iceland has no army. It has no resources to raise an army and equip it. It must depend on persuasion. It must move gradually toward independence.
Samuel is a smart guy. He’s traveled. He’s educated. He looks at this turning point in Iceland’s history and he makes a list of the things that need to be done to make Iceland prosper. Many of them have come to pass.
“What Iceland especially wants are better means of communication than the small uncomfortable steamers which now make about eight trips a year; foreign capital to develop their fisheries and mineral wealth, and improve their breeds of sheep, horses, and cattle; larger and better boats and tackle; the making of roads and deepening of harbors; with better accommodations for the summer tourists who would be glad to visit its magnificent and peculiar scenery; and, at the present time, the sympathy and assistance of other nations to enable the people to recover from the recent volcanic eruption which has devastated the south-eastern portion of the island.”
The stranger, it is said, has a keen eye.

Austurvelli

In diplomacy, momentous decisions are often made not in the heat of battle or even argument but over the dinner table, at celebrations, in nooks and corners, by men (in 1874, it was all men) dressed formally and immaculately. The appearance belies the raging undercurrent, the years of meeting, negotiating, the successes and failures, the vested interests.
King Christian IX arrives in Iceland, not as a conqueror but as an absent and distant king. Iceland has not suffered conquest and war but centuries of neglect and exploitation. It has been seen by the Danes as little more than colony from which some profit might be extracted. However, unlike the natives of South America, they are not enslaved to work in the gold mines. There are no gold mines. There are, for a time, sulphur mines but economics means they are abandoned. There are no diamonds, rubies, no minerals, no vast forests that can be used for buildings ships, no exotic spices. There is fish. There is wool. There is meat pickled and smoked. There are horses. None of the products are in great demand, nor does the size of the population mean that what products there are, mostly woolen goods, can be produced in vast amounts. 
There is no mechanization. Everything is done individually by hand.
Iceland and Icelanders are more than anything, a curiosity. Unknown largely, enough off the beaten track that foreigners who want to visit need to rent or buy a yacht, man it, provision it, sail into unpredictable and often fierce weather.
With no wood suitable for building, no lime for mortar, so little fuel that houses don’t have stoves, Icelanders have taken to building houses from layered rock and turf. There are no great cathedrals, no vast public buildings, no great residences. There are farm houses, some as good as those of a well-to-do Scottish farmer, others no more than hovels where people live as if they are underground.
None of this keeps Icelanders from wanting their independence back. They agitate for the right to their own government. They negotiate, they argue, they wear down the opposition of the few people who make themselves wealthy on the current system.
When, at last, King Christian IX comes to Iceland for the first time to bring them a constitution in 1874, there are festivities. The people put on the best show they can manage.
Bayard Taylor, an American reporter, describes one of the major events that is held in the open after the King has been feted at a banquet in Reykjavik.
“The road which was so broad and smooth that it must have been specially made for the festival, now   crossed a long hollow in the stony soil, and climbed a hill opposite, nearly a mile away, where flags and tents, and a moving multitude announced the location of Austurvelli. The broad, rounded summit of the hill had been laboriously cleared of stones, and furnished a space where four or five thousand people could have been accommodated; but not more than two thousand were present. There were a a rostrum for speeches, a tent for the King, another ten which suggested a possibility of refreshments—and that was all. But the elevation, slight as it was commanded a singularly bleak and sublime panoramic view. On all sides the eye overlooked great spaces of sailless sea or barren shore, until, fifty miles away, ranges of dark volcanic hills inclosed the horizon. The level evening sunshine fell coldly across the vast view, the wind blew sharp and keen from the north, and, with every allowance for the tough constitutions of the Icelandic people, I could not see how much festivity was to be extracted from the place, time and temperature.
“Nothing was done, of course, until the King’s arrival….In Iceland nothing is done without singing, and it is the most attractive feature of the celebration thus far. The song was followed by speeches from the rostrum, chiefly greetings to the people, winding up with sentiments and cheers. Admiral Lagercrantz spoke for Sweden, Rolfsen, the author, for Norway (and his eloquence awoke a real enthusiasm), and then various others followed, the admirable male choir of Rejkiavik (sic) interrupting the speeches with national songs.”
It is one thing to say we celebrate June 17 at the statue of Jon Sigurdsson on the Legislative Grounds. Hip hooray. But have you ever wondered what it must have been like in Iceland on this momentous occasion? 
Did you imagine the cleared hilltop, the flags, the tents, the stage, the dignitaries. These are our ancestors participating, listening, discussing observing. This is what this important event was like for them.
Terrible weather. Cold wind. Rain. As usual. They partied anyway. And why shouldn’t they? There weren’t a lot of reasons to celebrate. These events would give them something to talk about all through the next winter and for many years after that. Who came, what they said, how they behaved would be described and analyzed. After all this time, the King had come, he’d been friendly, outgoing, pleasant, talking to Icelanders of different social classes, shaking hands. He’d brought and left behind a constitution.
After a very long time, there was, at last, hope. That, in itself, was worth celebrating.
This visit was the culmination of many years of discussion, arguments, persuasion, agitation, not violence, no bombs, not bullets, not slaughter, and the agreements that had been come to were now being implemented with banquets, with speeches, song and poetry. Would that song and poetry could celebrate the separation of those geographic entities that do not want to be joined. Would that both sides could join in.  Would that Croat and Serb, Southern and Northern Irish, Chinese and Tibetans, all could follow the Icelandic-Danish solution.

The Great Feast at Thingvalla 1874

At Geyser, the famous water fountain has refused to perform even though a king waits expectantly. Finally, reluctantly, the king leaves because he has to return for the formal ceremonies that will take place at Thingvalla, that place where the early Icelandic parliaments were held. Here, there will be great celebrating. Many speeches will be made, many toasts drunk, many songs sung. Icelanders, famous for their choirs, will serenade the king. But the Icelanders, not quite knowing what to do with a king since none has come to Iceland before, and because they are intent on breaking free of Denmark after centuries of oppression, greet the king politely but not enthusiastically. They have little in the way of resources with which to entertain but they do their best. In Reykjavik, the banquets were made from food brought from Denmark. Here, on the great plain, most of the food is simple, Icelandic food. 
Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

 

Bayard Taylor, with his party, leaves the geysers and rides to Thingvalla. The landscape is greatly decorated. A village of tents has sprung up. People have gathered from all over Iceland. Here the festivities with the King will be held.
Iceland lost its independence centuries before. Now, there was the possibility that they would regain that independence. In 1845, the Danish government had made some small concessions but, compared to the Faroes and other Danish colonies, Iceland was still treated badly.
Although the liberalization had not been much, it had been enough to create both hope and action for self-rule.
Taylor says, “The leader of the movement is Jon Sigurdsson, a name dear to the people of Iceland, although its bearer could not be present at this memorable anniversary. The Constitution which, as the King declared, he “brought with him,” is mainly due to the persistent claims and representations of Jon Sigurdsson at Copenhagen.”
Taylor summarizes the major clauses. There are seven parts.
The first part sets out the relationship; of the King and Danish Government with the Althing. Legislative power belongs to the King and the Althing. The King has the executive power. The judges have judicial power. The Governor is the most powerful person in the country and he is appointed by the King. The Althing only sits for six weeks and that once every two years.
The King has to approve any laws passed by the Althing.
In part two, the structure of the Althing is set out. There will be thirty deputies elected and six chosen by the King. If the government is dissolved, the King’s appointees continue to hold their positions. There’ll be an upper and lower house.
The third section lays out the legislative roles of the two houses. The regular Althing will meet on the “first work-day in July in Reykjavik. Each house can introduce and pass bills. The Althing has entire control of the finances of Iceland but any Danish appointees have to be paid first.
Section four describes the judiciaries’ powers.
Section five makes the Lutheran Church the state church but people have “liberty of conscience.”
Section six contains the details governing daily life. It describes the right to private property, poor-laws, elementary education, the freedom of the press, freedom of association, taxation,
The seventh section describes how the constitution shall be amended.
Royal power and Danish supremacy is guaranteed by the constitution. Still, it is a beginning. Icelanders have waited hundreds of years. They can wait a bit more.
Taylor say, “Yet, with all its illiberal and even despotic restrictions, the people accept the Constitution, for it is something. If nothing else, it is the beginning of that political education
which they have utterly lost for so many centuries, and which alone can finally qualify them to obtain their just demands.
“The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this Constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense the list of August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.
 “I have rarely, if ever, been so profoundly interested in a race. Not Thingvalla, or Hekla, or the Geysers—not the desolate, fire-blackened mountains, the awful gloom of the dead lava plains, the bright lakes and majestic fiords—have repaid me for this journey, but the brief glimpse of a grand and true-hearted people, innocent children in their trust and their affections, almost more than men in their brave, unmurmmering endurance.”
(With notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)

1874 The King of Denmark Visits

Bayard Taylor was a famous American travel writer and lecturer. He was in Egypt when he received notice from his employer that he should immediately go to Iceland to cover the visit of Christian IX. The king’s visit and Iceland receiving its constitution was that important.
Look at the illustration accompanying this article. Imagine the contrast between Egypt in 1874–palm trees, sand, heat, blue skies, warm ocean—and then Iceland. In this five part series, you’ll read about Taylor and his journey to join the Icelanders as the king of Denmark gives them their constitution.
 He first travels to London, England. He finds London much changed since he visited six years previously.  There is so little coal smoke that “the dome of St. Paul’s can be seen six miles away, with new thoroughfares cut through the narrow and tangled old alleys, and gay suburbs planted wherever you remember a field or common, the city seems to have become a soberer Paris. The embankment along the Thames, with its spacious drive, its trees and gardens.”
In Iceland, conditions are dire. It’s 1874 and Iceland is still suffering the effects of disastrous weather, volcanic calamity, oppressive Danish trade laws and its own rigid adherence to the past.
Meanwhile, Taylor says, he travelled four hundred and one miles from England to Scotland in less than ten hours by rail but complains that there are no sleeping cars and baggage isn’t checked in.
In Edinburgh he is joined by his travelling companions and Herr Hjaltalin. The Edinburgh and London Shipping Company has offered the use of their steam yacht, the Albion, to make this historic journey.
On the Albion, they first make their way to the Orkneys, then the Shetlands and, finally, the Faroes (the sheep islands).
“On approaching Thorshavn, two Danish men-of-war showed themselves through the mist. The royal standard floating at the stern showed that we had overtaken His Majesty Christian IX., on his way to Iceland. It was nearly nine o’clock, and cloud and twilight combined dimmed the picture of the town; yet its roofs of grassy turf were so bespangled with the white cross of Denmark on its red field, that the effect was something like that of an illumination. Our boats were lowered as soon as the anchor held, and we made for the shore. There are one or two small and rude landing-places, and at one of them a group of friendly
Faroese assisted us to get ashore.
“There are no streets, properly speaking, but a multitude of irregular lines, winding and climbing among the houses, some roughly paved, some leading over the natural rock. The buildings are all of wood, tarred for better preservation, with roofs of birch bark, upon which is a sod a foot thick, always kept green and luxuriant by this moist, temperate air. The poorer dwellings, into which I glanced as we passed, are often but a single room, in which the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps.
“Fields of grass, oats and potatoes, inclosed by stone walls, stretched for a mile or two back of the town.
“At eleven we went to church, a neat white building, large enough to accommodate five hundred persons. The people flocked in until all the seats were taken—sturdy, sun-burnt frames, women apparently as hardy as men.
“The bells chimed, not very musically ; the front door of the church—the portal of state—was unbolted, and finally Gov. Finsen, in full uniform, holding a white-plumed chapeau on his arm, entered, preceding the King. Christian IX. and Prince Waldemar followed, the latter in a plain morning suit of gray. The King must be near sixty years of age, but looks considerably younger. He has a good nose and chin, wears a heavy mustache, and would be quite handsome but for a lack of expression in the eyes. He walked quickly up the aisle, nodding to the right and left, and took his place near the altar, whereon (as is customary in the Lutheran Church of Denmark and Sweden) large wax candles were burning. Prince Waldemar is a ruddy, gray-eyed, stout young man of twenty-one. The Minister of Justice, Klein, a chamberlain or two, naval officers, Carl Andersen the poet, and others, about twenty in all, followed the royal personages, took their seats, and the service began.
“The people, I noticed, all saluted the King very respectfully, but with a simple, quiet dignity of their own. There was no running after him, no pressing to get near, no cheering, or any other token of special enthusiasm. Personally, I believe be is liked; but he represents a dynasty almost new, and possesses no traditions of loyalty. The Faroese have always been more liberally treated by Denmark than the Icelanders, and they have no important favors to ask at this season. This is, it is true, the first time a King of Denmark has visited the islands ; but it hardly has a further significance.
“Stromoe has a length of fifteen or twenty miles, but very little of the soil can be cultivated, and the population is mostly centered in the little coves where fishing boats can find shelter.
“There were many visitors to the royal frigate Jylland during the afternoon, including a number
of Faroese ladies, and, to judge from the tunes played by the band, there must have been much and lively dancing on deck. A dozen boat-loads of exceedingly merry human freight were carried to shore, and then the King followed, to pass another night at the Governor’s house.
“Their (the Faroese) lives are rude and hard, for high waves and furious currents in the fiords,
and windy hurricanes on the hills, limit even their possible labor, and the best fortune barely gives them enough barley, fish, and milk to live upon.
“Thorshavn lies in latitude 62° north, yet the Winter temperature never falls below 14 , rarely below 20 , and the sheep continue to pasture in the valleys. There were formerly forests of birch trees in sheltered parts, but they have long since been exterminated, and peat is used for fuel. A vein of coal has been discovered on one of the islands. Barley grows tolerably well, up to a height of about three hundred feet above the sea : beyond that line it will not ripen.
“The summits of the mountains, which are broad, flat table-lands from one to three thousand feet high, are swept by such furious gusts of wind that no vegetation can exist there. The earth and hardy herbage are torn from the rock, rolled up like a sheet of paper, and hurled far into the valleys.
“For the sum of three English shillings the obliging postmaster sent off a boat, at two in the morning, for our last letters, and then we got up steam for departure.
“The two frigates were to sail in the afternoon, and it was necessary that we should get the start
of them, in order to secure the simplest accommodations in Iceland. “
(With notes and quotes from Bayard Taylor’s Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874. A slightly different version of this series appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. If you don’t have a subscription, you miss out on some good stuff.)