Samuel Kneeland: arrival in Iceland, 1874

When I introduced you to my friend, Samuel, I mentioned that he liked Iceland and Icelanders. He brings an American attitude with him. He is not a member of British nobility but an American medical doctor, a bit of an adventurer. He’s traveled widely, seen many different societies. He doesn’t make comparisons based on a life in the privileged, moneyed upper class. Perhaps that is why he finds Reykjavik a fine place.
He says, “I had expected to see a dirty, uncomfortable, ill-arranged town, judging from the tales of even the most recent travellers. Whether the visit of the king had caused a change or not, I cannot say, but we found the place tidy, the houses well-built and very pleasant, the streets clean, and every indication of a prosperous, well-ordered, and intelligent community. The shore was lined with boats, the harbor gay with merchant and war vessels, and every thing had a cheerful look, far more so than many of the fishing towns of Scotland and the northern islands. Piles of fish indicated the chief business of the people, and in some cases were not agreeable to the senses of sight ad smell; but the respectful salutations of the citizens, the neatness of their dress, the flowers and other evidences of refinement outside and inside the houses, the crowds in the stores, the trains of ponies, gave me a very good first impression of the capital of Iceland. The houses are of the same style as in the Faroes, the governor’s house, the church, and the prison being built of lava blocks the better ones of wood painted or tarred, and those of the poorer classes of lava and turf, with the roof overgrown with grass.
“We lived on board our steamer, remaining quiet for three days in port the beginning of the millennial celebration, which was to last a week, commencing Sunday, August 2. The time passed very pleasantly, visiting the officials, and observing the habits of the people. They are a strange compound of indifference and energy, like their country, which exhibits the coldness and stillness of snow with the fiery activity of the volcano. The society of the capital, chiefly Icelandic, is refined; their balls showed a beauty of feature and form and elegance of dress which one would hardly expect so near the arctic circle; the university and public library attract students from all parts of the island, and some of its professors are very learned men, especially in the departments of history and antiquities of the Scandinavian races. Three newspapers in the Icelandic language are published weekly in the capital.”
Samuel Kneeland, American, believer in the creation of republics, disposed to be a friend to Iceland and Icelanders has come a long way, has endured a vicious storm on the small yacht that he and his travelling companions have rented. He comes to be pleased, to see the wonders of Iceland, to help celebrate this first step in Iceland’s independence.
When we celebrate on June 17, we celebrate Iceland’s independence and Jon Sigurdsson’s role in achieving that independence but many contributed to this historic week in Iceland’s history and Samuel Kneeland participated and then wrote An American in Iceland and left us a precious description of events. When we gather at the Manitoba Legislative Buildings let us keep in mind all those people who gathered in August of 1874.