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.

1874: Samuel Kneeland at Thingvellir

Samuel Kneeland has much to say about Iceland and his experiences in and around Reykjavik but he is in Iceland to observe and participate in the action so he and his party head for Thingvalla. He says, “Late in the afternoon we came in sight of the large lake of Thingvalla,–a magnificent sheet of very deep water, at least fifteen miles long and six wide…We knew by this that we were approaching the valley of Thingvalla, into which we must descend by the great fissure of the Almannagja, the grandest and most awful scenery in Iceland, and probably unsurpassed in beauty.”
The ride is hard. The day is long. He says that they were tired. “Chilled at the start, stewed under our Mackintoshes when the sun came out, with feet wet form the splashes of the icy-cold streams, hungry and thirsty, we were very glad to know that the of our day’s work was nigh.”
“This verdant plain, once the place of assembly of the “Thing,” or “national Council,” but, for three fourths of a century, almost deserted, was now dotted with white tents and flags, and with crowds of men and horses, indicating the expected approach of  the royal party, who were some hours behind us. It was a very lively and unexpected scene, though somewhat marred by a commencing drizzle, which added another discomfort to our cold and weary bodies. We descended by a narrow pathway, a natural shelf on the side of the shattered cliff, so steep that most of the party dismounted, to prevent being thrown by the slipping of their saddles on to the necks of the horses. Dashing through the shallow river, and up a muddy hill and narrow lane, we arrived at the forlorn-looking parsonage and church, by the side of which—permission having been asked and granted in Latin,–we pitched our tent, after the usual vexatious delays attending the unloading of the ponies.”
“All the available surrounding green was covered with the king’s tents, and liveried servants were hurrying about, getting things ready for his arrival. We were entirely independent, having our own servants and guides, and everything necessary for our comfort and food. Our tent was pitched near a pool of icy cold water…the cleft of a neighboring rock served admirably for a fireplace; and the neighboring parsonage fire was permitted, for the first night of our Icelandic picnic, to warm the water for our tea and coffee.”
The next morning, Samuel and his companions head for the Geysers because this is the destination of the king. They stay there three days, after which they return to Thingvalla for the formal festivities.  When they return, he says, “Almost every available space was crowded with tents, large and small; flags of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, England, and America were flying around the great pavilion; while the flag of free Iceland—a white falcon on a blue ground, the banner of the Vikings—floated from the Mount of Laws. Crowds of people were moving to and fro, and the many camp-fires, streamers, and songs indicated an important occasion.”
When we celebrate Iceland’s independence on June 17, think on that, on Thingvalla, on the plain, crowded with tents, with flags, with Iceland’s white falcon, crowds of people gathered for this great event. Think on that, all the people who have come on horseback across the mountain paths of Iceland, long lines of horses, coming from all directions through the mountains passes, descending into Thingvalla. What a sight it must have been. All the tents, the banners, the flags, the people, gathered here waiting for the arrival of Christian IX and his party to join them in this historic place.
The next time you go to Iceland and visit Thingvalla stand there, at the top of the cliffs and imagine the scene that Samuel Kneeland saw that day. A scene that only came about because of the determination of Jon Sigurdsson and his followers.

1874: Kneeland, stormy trip

How easy it is nowadays to travel to Iceland. Hop on a charter and fly over the Pole. Or even take a regularly scheduled flight from Seattle or Minneapolis. The most one can complain about is seats that are a bit tight, or some turbulence. A few years ago a plane was hit by lightning but no one was the worse for it. There’s a bit of jet lag when you get to Reykjavik but a cup or two of Icelandic coffee, a day’s meeting relatives, visiting the various shops, then a good night’s sleep and all is right with the world.
Think of our poor Samuel. Things weren’t so easy for him.
“The wind began to increase, turning more to the westward, and with it the waves; the clouds looked black and angry, and the rain drove us all below. The barometer kept falling, and the captain, knowing a gale would soon be upon us, changed his course more to the west, and more in the face of the gale. At midnight we reached the Westmann Islands; after a severe buffering from the storm, every thing above and below decks wet….
“So furious was the gale that we tried to put into the Westmann Islands, sending up rockets and blowing the whistle all the time; but as it was midnight no notice as taken of our signals, and we were forced to breast the gale. Had we sails only, we must have been driven on a lee shores, whose jagged rocks would  have instantly destroyed us; but armed with steam we defied the wind and waves, and pushed on our course, though our staunch little craft fairly staggered under the heavy blows she received, rolling and plunging so that it was quite impossible for any of us to walk or even stand….The coast was now and then visible, enabling us to keep at a safe distance. The gale increased during the night, and in the morning, I think, the breakfast table was deserted…We passed a miserable forenoon, but now and then caught a peep of high mountains…At noon we sighted Cape Reykianess.”
If you had to go through that, how often would you go to Iceland? Thrown about so wildly that all you can do is try to jam yourself into your bunk so you aren’t thrown onto the floor. So tossed this way and that you can’t hold down food. Waves and rain so fierce that everything in your cabin, including you, is soaking wet. 
Samuel is someone who really, really wants to go to Iceland.
And, after all this being tossed about, what does he say about his first view so Iceland? “white clouds appear on the horizon, which soon become the outlines of mountains; and finally are recognized as the magnificent piles of snow-capped peaks, the so-called Jokuls; Snaefells is seen more than one hundred and forty miles from land; and Hekla, glittering in the sun, its internal fires, at present, not powerful enough to melt the snow from its summit, gives you the first grand emotion on visiting Iceland, long before you touch it.”
I have not been fortunate enough to see Iceland from a ship but I’ve seen it a number of times from an airplane and, each time, its mountains, its jokuls, its coastline are a thrill. I’m not sure that I’d have been as brave and adventurous as Samuel, ready to risk life and limb to be at the granting of Iceland’s constitution but I think I get the same thrill, seeing this vast land of fire and ice.