Sheep make you rich

Without sheep our Icelandic ancestors would have been driven from Iceland or died. Sheep, more than any other animal, fed and clothes our people. From such a humble animal came life. Today, sheep are no longer the centre of existence for Icelanders or for Icelandic North Americans. While sheep are still often seen in Iceland, they are only seen in Canada occasionally. Their breeding is specialized. Their wool has been replaced by synthetics. Their milk is seldom used. Mutton is seldom seen in stores and when lamb is found, it is usually from New Zealand and Australia.
Icelandic lamb is universally praised. However, it is no longer the staff of life. Here, on the West Cost of Canada, there are Icelandic sheep being raised. The wool from them is processed at a mill on Salt Spring Island. What once came from Icelandic sheep, wool, meat, milk is exotic, specialized, no longer the products necessary for life.
It seems a hard fate for an animal that was central to the survival and prosperity of our Icelandic ancestors.
Wealth in Iceland was measured in the number of sheep a farmer owned.
In 1772 when von Troil visited Iceland, he had much to say about the importance of sheep.
“There is no breed of cattle so much attended to in Iceland as that of sheep. As these can easily find subsistence there, the Icelanders look upon it as less troublesome and less expensive to breed them; and there are many peasants who have from two to four hundred sheep. Before the epidemical disease which raged among the sheep from 1740 to 1750, it was not uncommon to see flocks of one thousand or twelve hundred, the sole property of one person.”
By 1863 Burton says, “Paijkull assigned 350,000 sheep and 22,000 head of black cattle to 68,000 souls. In 1871 the official numbers are Milch ewes and lambs, 173,562; Barren ewes, 18,615; Wethers and rams above one year old, 55,710; Yearlings, 118,243.” This was a total of 366,130.
Those numbers seem impressive until you compare them with John Barrow’s report that in 1834-35 that there were 500,000 sheep. In 1845 M. Eugene Robert gives the total as 617,401. But then in 1855 scabies appears and kills 200,000 sheep. When Burton is writing in 1874 scabies is still raging.
Sheep were the major food supply. In two years, 200,000 sheep are killed by scabies. No wonder there was hunger. 200,000 sheep not producing milk, wool or meat.
“The Icelandic sheep differ from ours in several particulars; they have strait ears standing upright, a small tail, and it is common to meet with those that have four or five horns: in some places they are kept in stables during winter; but they are generally left to seek their food themselves in the fields.”
Von Troil says that the sheep like hiding in caves. That’s not surprising given the dreadful weather on the heaths. He says that some people believe that there are wild sheep but it is not true. The Icelanders mark there sheep and when they are driven into the mountains to grave, they are scarcely ever without a shepherd.
He admires Icelandic sheep for being fat. The farmers figure that it requires one kapal of hay grown on the tún but two kapals if grown from unfertilized meadows. Like the cows, in a bad year with not enough grass harvested, the fodder is made of chopped fish bones mixed with hay.
The value of a sheep is greater alive than dead for the milk it produces is a greater source of food than its flesh. “Good sheep give from two to six quarts of milk a day…it has likewise a good taste when boiled.”
But the principal benefit from the sheep comes from the wool. It is not shorn but stays on the sheep until the end of May. At that time, it becomes naturally loose and is stripped off. This is called Ultafat. If there is a cold, wet spring, a piece of wadmal is cinched around the stomachs of the weakest sheep.
A good sheep, he says, is defined by by-laws as a sheep that provides four pounds of wool. Many sheep produce more.
The ewes often have twins and sometimes three lambs. When they do, the farmer takes one lamb and gives it to a mother who has lost her lamb. If lambs are too weak to follow their mothers, they are fed milk using a quill and a wet piece of skin.
How valuable were these sheep? What was the calculated wealth of a farmer’s herd? According to von Troil, “The price of six ewes, from two to four years old, together with their lambs and wool, is four dollars in autumn….a weather of four years old is sold for one dollar.” It is interesting that if someone butchers a lamb, its value is determined by the amount of fat it has. The meat, without the head, feet, entrails, fat, skin and wool is valued at twenty yards of wadmal. The law says that a pound of dried mutton is worth half a yard of wadmal. The skin is sold by weight.
Wadmal, the coarse woolen cloth that the Icelanders wove, was supposed to be produced at three yards a day. So the meat of a lamb by itself is worth 20/3 = 6 2/3 day’s labor. One pound of dried mutton is worth 1/6 of a day’s labor.
However, the yearly wages of a man were fixed by municipal law at four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal and those of a woman at two dollars and five yards of wadmal. A laborer who wanted to buy a lamb, meat only, would need to work two years to get enough wadmal.
It is no wonder that von Troil says “Their food principally consists of dried fish, sour butter, which they consider as a great dainty, milk mixed with water and whey, and a little meat. They receive so little bread from the Danish company, that there is scarcely any peasant who eats it above three or four months in the year.”
To understand value today is difficult for as von Troil says, “Their accounts are not all kept in money, but according to yards and fishes. In 1878, 106 years later, Anthony Trollope comments on the fact that there is no bank in Iceland. It would be difficult enough to compare value in Iceland in 1772 or, in 1884, even if there was enough silver coin in the country to cause a bank to be established. Everything financial is comparative, after all. If you put a dollar on the table, its value is what objects can be purchased with it.
To make matters more difficult, there were constant new issues of money in Norway, Denmark and Sweden. Money was being debased by inflation.
“In the late 18th century coins were issued in denominations of ½, 1, 2, 4, 8, 24 and 32 skilling, 1/15, ¼, 1/3, ½ and 1 rigsdaler.” (Wicki) Those, travellers changed into English sterling. Complicated? You bet. Especially without any computer but your head. The best way to figure out what your sheep were worth was how much wadmal, butter, or fish you could get for one sheep.

Uno von Troil: cattle

Uno von Troil says “Next to fishing, the principal support of the Icelanders is the breeding of cattle.
“Their beeves are not large, but very fat and good. It has been reported by some, though without foundation, that there are none among them with horns: it is however true that they seldom have nay.”
“The large cattle are kept at home in their yards the greater part of the year, though some have places appropriated for them in the mountains which they call fatr, where they send their cattle during the summer, till the hay harvest is over. They have a herdsman to attend them, and two women to milk them and make butter and cheese. It is common to meet with oxen running wild about the mountains, which are however drove home in autumn, as everyone knows his own by a particular mark put upon them.
“The principal food of the cattle is hay, and they reckon that a stack of  hay for a cow’s winter provision; a stack consists of thirty cocks (kapal) of hay, grown on manured land, and forty cocks kapal grown on un-manured land. When there is a scarcity of fodder, they feed them in some pars with steenbitr, a kind of fish, which, together with the heads and bones of cod, is beat small, and mixed with one quarter of chopped hay. The cattle are fond of it and yield a good deal of milk after it; but yet it is said to have a bad taste, and they only make use of this food in time of need.
“Their cows yield four kanne of  milk a day, though they have some that give from eight to fourteen in four-and-twenty hours. A cow that yields six quarts is reckoned a good one, and must not stand dry above there weeks before she calves.
“A young calf is fed with milk for ten days or a fortnight, afterwards the milk is mixed with water and chopped hay, and at last they give it whey instead of milk
“The usual price of a cow, as well as of a horse, is one hundred and twenty ells, thirty of which make a dollar. However, sometimes the better sort of horses are sold for eight or ten rix-dollars. They have less trouble with their horses than their cows; for though some saddle-horses are kept in stables during winter, the greater number of them are obliged to provide for their own subsistence, and when they cannot find this on land, they go in search of sea-weeds on the coasts; but when a great quantity of snow has fallen, the natives are obliged to clear it away for them.”
To get this stack of hay needed for each cow to survive the winter, every farm worker (and the small farm owner), has to scythe an area 180 ft. by 180 ft. every day. That’s on the tún where the soil is manured and where the grass grows more thickly. To get that stack of hay for each cow from unfertilized meadows, a man has to scythe a square 240 ft to a side every day. The women working in the fields have to rake as much hay as three men can mow. Every day. The hours were long, The work hard. In Paradise Reclaimed, after the farm at Steinahliðar has been destroyed and Steina has been sent by the parish council to work on a farm, the narrator says, “She was worn out after a summer of drudgery, long days of toiling in the rain with her rake far into the night.” 
Uno von Troil writes about life in Iceland in 1772. Laxness sets Paradise Reclaimed around the year 1874. We know this because the Danish king comes to visit. Little, if anything, has changed.
In 1874, there has been no mechanization. The cattle depend on harvested grass for the winter. The grass was still cut with a scythe and, although there are many tales of witches who can command a host of scythes to cut her grass, the reality is that one man can only wield one scythe. The grass has to be raked. It has to be dried. It has to be stacked. An experienced farmer can look at his stacks of hay and his herd and calculate how long the hay will last and whether or not, before the year is over, he‘ll be feeding his cattle hay mixed with hammered fish bones and sea weed. In a good year, the milk will taste sweet and in a bad year, it will taste of fish. In a very bad year, there‘ll be no milk to taste.
Cows, in a way, were regarded as a luxury because they required more grass than sheep for an equal amount of milk. In Independent People, Bjartur of Summerhouses resents it when he is given a cow unasked. With the milk from the cow, the health of his family improves but only at the cost of less feed for his sheep.

When their cow is starving for lack of hay, Bjartur’s wife, Finna asks him to visit some of the other farms to borrow some hay. He refuses and says,
“No power between heaven and earth shall make me betray my sheep for the sake of a cow. It took me eighteen years work to get my stock together. I worked twelve more years to pay off the land. My sheep have made me an independent man, and I will never bow to anyone. To have people say of me that I took the beggar’s road for hay in the spring is a disgrace I will never tolerate. And as for the cow, which was foisted on me by the Bailiff and the Women’s Institute to deprive the youngsters of their appetite and filch the best of the hay from the sheep, for her I will do only one thing.” That one thing is to kill the cow which he does quite happily.
Not all farmers, however, were like Bjartur. The original settlers had brought over dairy cattle before 1000 AD. The cattle though perhaps not as efficient users of grass as the cows, were still efficient. That was good because no grain ripened in Iceland after the Little Ice Age began. Importing grain was prohibitively expensive even for human consumption. There was no tradition of growing vegetables to feed animals. The climate made it increasingly difficult to grow vegetables and those who did or tried to were mostly Danes.
In spite of the preference for sheep, the settlers in New Iceland followed the tradition of raising dairy cows. In the New Iceland area, just outside of Gimli, the tradition is still carried on by the Narfason family. In 1915, Magnus Narfason was selling fluid milk to the City dairy in Winnipeg from a farm he established in 1897. His sons Elli and Mundi took over the farm after Magnus died in 1931. Oli Narfason, who is Elli‘s son, became involved in the farm in the late 1940s. His son Clifford took over the farm when Oli retired. Today, in 2012, that‘s 115 years of commitment to those cows that Bjartur saw as competing with his precious sheep.
My great grandfather, Ketill, after working as a labourer on the railway and in Winnipeg, saved enough money to start a large dairy business in Winnipeg in 1894. He bought a parcel of land on the N. W. Corner of Simcoe St. And Ellice Ave. What is now in the heart of the city was grazing land. He carried on business there until 1903.
Cows. Hay. Milk. Survival. A way of life. Transferred to North America. First just to provide the milk that was a staple in the diet of the Icelandic settlers but, gradually, as many settlers took other opportunities, there came the possibility of producing milk for the community.
Today, there is little evidence of the critical role dairy cattle played in the survival of both the Icelanders and the North American Icelandic settlers but no history of either group is complete without an understanding of how the cattle Uno von Troil describes were critical to our ancestor‘s survival. Gimli has a large viking statue. We all like it. We take relatives and friends to stand in front of it for pictures. Perhaps, what there should be is a statue of an Icelandic dairy cow, our own Bukolla. The Viking raids left nothing for following generations   to eat. Their plunder disappeared. The cows were more faithful. They have fed us for over a thousand years. Maybe a statue of an Icelandic cow standing beside the Viking, as large as he is, would recognize what we owe to whom.
Perhaps, when we reach for the skyr, we should pause for a moment and think of people scything grass long into the night, raking hay in the rain, pounding fish bones and collecting seaweed to mix with hay, so that the milk, cream, butter and skyr would last longer than the winter.
     
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  

Icelandic farm workers, 1772

In 1774, Uno von Troil wrote about how Icelanders were employed. They principally fish and take care of cattle.
In both summer and winter, they fish. When they return home after having cleaned their fish, they give them to their wives to dry them. During the winter, when the weather is so bad they can’t fish, they take care of their sheep and cows and spin wool. In summer, the mow the grass, dig turf, collect fuel and search for their sheep and goats that have wandered away. They also butcher their cattle. They weave wadmal that they wash in urine. Wives tan leather. A few men work with gold and silver.
The women, he says prepare fish, take care of cattle, the milk and the wool, sew, spin and gather eggs and down.
The amount of work farm workers have to do is set out in local bylaws. A man has to mow an area of 30 fathoms square of manured soil (as would grow on a tún) of hay. That’s a square of 180 feet. Or, if the land is not manured, then he has to scythe forty fathoms square, 240 feet to a side.
If he is not scything grass but digging turf, then he has to dig 700 pieces of turf eight feet long and three feet wide in a day.
If there is a snow fall and the snow piles up so it reaches the horses bellies (small Icelandic horses, remember, their bellies are close to the ground), he has to clear away snow from enough ground to feed a hundred sheep.
As for women, they have to rake as much hay as three men can scythe. That’s a square 90 x 90 fathoms or 540 feet to a side. If a woman is weaving, she has to weave three yards of wadmal in a day.
 The wages of man are four rigs dollars and twelve yards of wadmal. A woman gets two rigs dollars and five yards of wadmal.
When working men aren’t needed at the haying and are sent to the coast to fish from the 25th of September to the 14th of May, the farmer is to supply them with six pounds of butter and 18 pounds of dried fish every week. Von Troil thinks this is quite generous but then points out that when they are at the farm, they can get milk, skyr, etc. and that is not available at the fishing stations. When they are at the farm, the working men are to be fed five pounds of dried fish and three quarters of a pound of butter each week.
A hundred years later when our ancestors were faced with one natural calamity after another, cold weather, volcanic eruptions, communicable diseases, and they saw that it was now possible, because of the English ships that came to buy sheep and horses, that they could leave, conditions had not changed much for the people working on the farms.
Someone writing in 1872 would have said the chief occupations of the Icelanders is fishing and taking care of their cattle. There were no forests, mines, cities. Iceland was still a country of farms with the wealthy farm owners doing everything possible through politics and control of the law, to keep society the same. Why wouldn’t they? They had a supply of cheap labour. While the resources of the country were such that there was no wealthy aristocracy, descriptions of the well-to-do farmers show that they lived in comfort, that their children were educated, were given preference for positions in the civil service, the church and in business.
Given the scarcity of land, the poor wages that meant it was difficult to save enough money to buy even marginal land, the rules that restricted people from fishing more lucratively, it was no wonder that stories of land and opportunity were passed from farm to farm. If a man could scythe a field 180 feet square of manured hay in a day for someone else, he could scythe it for himself. If a woman could rake a square plot of hay 540 feet to a side in a day for a farm owner, she could rake it on her own farm just as well.
There was no way of creating more grazing land in Iceland. There were no opportunities for young people. Icelandic women, von Troil, says are very fertile, many have twelve or fifteen children. A farm could not be divided into twelve or fifteen plots. The eldest son might get the farm but that left a dozen brothers and sisters having to become indentured servants. This wasn’t just a problem in Iceland. The same problem, although perhaps not so severe, existed in other countries. In an agrarian society, everything depends on ownership and control of land. There is only so much of it.
A hundred years would pass from the time of von Troil’s visit until the emigration to North America began but little would change except, finally, the giving up of the Danish trade monopoly, the coming of the English and Scots with silver and gold that could be used to buy passage to the New World. The availability of ships that would take people to England and Scotland and others that would take them from there to North America. And, finally, the need of both the United States and Canada for settlers, a need that meant both governments and businesses such as the railways, would encourage and assist the emigration.
As a boy, I used a scythe but the most I scythed in a day was half a lot, 66 feet by 75 feet. It was hard work. To do it well, your body has to work like a machine, your arms and body swinging, not stopping until you need to take out a whetstone and sharpen the blade and that blade must be razor sharp. There is a skill to it. 
It demands much of your arms, your back, your legs. It is mind-numbing like any repetitious physical job. Paintings of the noble workers scything and raking hay may look romantic, nostalgic, but there is nothing romantic or nostalgic about work that turns people into machines. In Canada, the settlers worked on farms at harvest time to earn cash. The work was brutal but, at least, they said, there was lots of food. They were paid in cash and there was lots of food. And they were already living on their own land.

Icelandic hardships, von Troil, 1772

Besides the calamities caused by cold summers, icebergs, unseasonal storms, von Troil say that other calamities occur that make the life of Icelanders difficult.

Polar bears arrive every year and kill sheep. The Icelanders, as soon as they see a polar bear, get together and drive them away. Because they don’t have guns, they have to use spears. The government encourages the killing of the bears by offering ten dollars to anyone who kills a bear and also buys the skin of the dead bear. The bear skins can only be sold to the Danish king.
Another disaster is landslides. Von Troil says that these are so large, at times, that both farm land ad houses are destroyed. He mentions that in 1554 an entire farm in Vatndal was ruined and thirteen people killed.
The other disaster is created by huge snowfalls that result in avalanches. One night, in 1699, two farms were buried in an avalanche that killed all the people and animals.
He says that he cannot pass over the effects of earthquakes that often happen, before a volcanic eruption. In 1755, there were fifteen violent shocks that were so strong that they destroyed farmhouses and buildings.
He adds that at one time the population was larger but that contagious diseases have reduced the number of people. The plague killed many and many places have been entirely depopulated by famine. “In the years 1707-1708, the smallpox destroyed 16,000 person; so that the number of inhabitants cannot exceed 60,000.”
He thinks that the “food and mode of living in Iceland do not at all contribute to the strength of the inhabitants. One seldom meets with any of t hem above fifty or sixty years of age, and the greater part are attacked in their middle age by many grievous complaints.
“It is remarkable that among the female sex, who there, as almost everywhere else, live to a greater age than the men, those particularly who have had many children attain to an advanced age….the women are commonly very fruitful; and it is no rare thing to meet with a mother who has twelve or fifteen children.”
He says that the diseases most common are scurvy, leprosy, gout and rickets. It is obvious from his descriptions that there are no real treatments or medications that would be of any use. With a very restricted diet, malnutrition, extremely hard labour, the constant damp both inside and out, the harsh weather, it is surprising that the Icelanders manage to survive as long as they do.
The life von Troil describes in 1772 is brutal with few pleasures. Every day is a struggle to get enough hay, to get enough milk, to get enough fish, to survive. For a hundred years more, the Icelandic peasant had to endure this life but all things change and although those alive in 1772 wouldn’t live to see the change, their descendants would.
At last, when the opportunity to emigrate to North America came, it is no wonder that the Icelanders survived the harsh conditions in New Iceland. They were used to difficult, punishing weather, used to struggling to find enough to feed themselves, used to working at hard labour. They were used to walking long distances. The men were used to rowing boats on the North Atlantic in winter. They were used to living in small, crowded spaces with only the barest amenities. The first years in New Iceland there was cold, lack of food, disease, poor living conditions but they’d seen all this before. The difference was that there was all around them the possibility of a better life. The coming year didn’t have to be like the one before. There was arable land to clear and sow, land that was theirs, the opportunity to fish for themselves with no share for the landowner/boat owner, no share for the church, no Danish stores that set both the buying and selling prices, all the wood they could possibly want for building and fuel.
They still suffered from scurvy, small pox, rickets but, soon, that would be over. Soon they no longer had to live on boiled fish heads, on sheep bones softened in whey. Women working as domestics in Winnipeg no longer spent entire days hammering dried cod to eat with butter. They didn’t have to rake hay for ten hours a day or longer.
The Icelandic emigrants took their lives in their hands and voted for change. The cost was alienation, sometimes death, but they broke the cycle that had gone on for hundreds of years, gone on with so little change that von Troil’s observations were as accurate and valid in 1872 as they were in 1772.
Many emigrants did not grow rich but they had a place of their own to live, food to eat, clothes to wear, they weren’t indentured servants. It was enough.
  

Agriculture in 1772, Iceland, von Troil

Just in case anyone has thoughts about how their ancestors must not have been very good at agriculture and if they’d just worked harder, been smarter, they could have grown oranges and watermelon, or even wheat and oats, here’s an account an abridged account of agriculture in Iceland in 1772 by Uno von Troil.
As may be seen in many passages of ancient Icelandic accounts, grain formerly grew in Iceland. At the current time (1772) “Governor Thordal sowed a little barley which grew very briskly but a short time before it was to be reaped, a violent storm utterly destroyed it, so that only a few grains were found.
“If we consider besides these strong winds, or rather hurricanes, the frosts which frequently set in during May and June, we shall realize there are a number of difficulties that check the progress of agriculture in Iceland. If notwithstanding these obstacles, it can ever be brought to a thriving condition, it must certainly be under the present indefatigable governor, who has the welfare of the country much at heart, and, in conjunction with the government, studies every possible means to promote it.
“I consider these violent winds, and the Greenland floating ice, which every year does great damage to the country, as the chief cause of the diminution of the growth of wood, as well as of the ill success in the late attempts for introducing agriculture.
“The ice comes on by degrees, always with an easterly wind, and frequently in such quantities, as to fill up all the gulphs on the north-west side of the island, and even covers the sea as far as the eye can reach. It also sometimes drives to other shores. It generally comes in January, and goes away in March. Sometimes only reaches the land in April, and remaining there a long time does an incredible deal of mischief. It consists partly of mountains of ice that are sometimes sixty fathoms high above the water”.
“The ice caused so violent a cold in 1753 and 1754 that horses and sheep dropped down dead on account of it, as well as for want of food.”  Hunger was so great that “horses were observed to feed upon dead cattle, and the sheep ate each other’s wool. In the year 1755, towards the end of the month of May, in one night the ice formed more than one inch thick. IN 1756, on the 26th of June, snow fell to the depth of a yard, and continued falling through the months of July and August. In the year following, it froze very hard towards the end of May and the beginning of June in the south part of the island, which caused a great scarcity of grass, insomuch that the inhabitants had little or no fodder the ensuing winter for their cattle. These frosts are generally followed by a famine.”
“Followed by a famine.” What do we know of famine in North America where grocery stores throw away vast amounts of food every day? Where even street people can get food from various agencies? Where schools often provide food? Where churches have programs to feed the poor? There is waste on a tremendous scale. There is unfairness built into the system. There are poor diets and hungry kids in school. But there is no famine. Famine is when there is no food. No food. Where people slowly die of hunger because there’s been cold weather, storms, no grass. There’s no food no matter where you look or how far you walk before you can’t walk anymore.
An inch of ice in May. Three feet of snow in June. Farm that! 
There was nothing Icelandic farmers could have done against the storms. Nothing they could have done against the icebergs. Nothing they could have done with ground too cold to grow grass. Three months they had every year to harvest enough grass to feed their sheep and cows over the nine months of winter.

It was like a mathematical formula. Twenty people on the farm. Twenty people times nine months of skyr, Icelandic moss, preserved meat, dried fish, rye flour, butter, seaweed. Enough grass to feed four cows, fifty sheep times nine months. The horses, although critical to travel and trade, were on their own. Grass from the home field was too valuable to be wasted on horses. The sheep came first because they provided milk and milk meant staying alive and if you didn’t stay alive, you didn’t need a horse. Dead men don’t ride horses.   

(Notes and quotes from Uno von Troil’s letters, 1772)

Uno von Troil, Iceland, 1772

 Uno von Troil
In 1772, Uno Von Troil, joined Joseph Banks in a journey to Iceland. Afterwards, he wrote a series of letters about the expedition. The language is now archaic and, for many people, difficult to read. Therefore, I have “translated” as best I can, some of his writing into modern day English. There will, of course, be errors, for I am no scholar, but hopefully they will be minor and will neither mislead the reader, nor interfere with the pleasure of reading about Iceland a hundred years before our ancestors began to leave for North America.
Because I must change the archaic spelling so much, I’ll use quotation marks only to indicate that the material is taken from von Troil.
“The Icelanders are of a good honest disposition, but they are, at the same time, so serious that I hardly remember to  have seen any one of them laugh; they are by no means so strong as might be supposed, and much less handsome. Their chief amusement, in their leisure hours, is to recount to one another the history of former times; so that to this day you do not meet with an Icelander who is not well acquainted with the history of his own country; they also play at cards.
“Their houses are thatched with turf and so small that you can hardly find room to turn in. They have no floors; and their windows, instead of glass, are composed of thin membranes of certain animals. They make no use of chimneys, as they never light a fire, except to dress their victuals, when they only lay the turf on the ground. You will not think it strange, when I inform you, that we saw no inns, except shops and warehouses; and on our journey to Hecla we were obliged to take up our lodgings in the churches. 
“Their food principally consists of dried fish, sour butter, which they consider as a great dainty, milk mixed with water and whey, and a little meat. They receive so little bread from the Danish company, that there is scarcely any peasant who eats it above three or four months in the year. They likewise boil groats, of a kind of moss (Lichen Islandicus) which has an agreeable taste. The principal occupation of the men is fishing, which they follow both winter and summer. The women take care of the cattle, knit stockings, etc. They likewise gut and dry the fishes brought home by the men, and otherwise assist in the preparing this stable commodity of the country.
“Besides this, the company has yearly sent fifteen or twenty ships hither, and who possess a monopoly which is very burdensome to the country, export from hence some meat, eider-down, and falcons, which are sold in the country for seven, ten and fifteen rix-dollars apiece. Money is very rare, which is the reason that all the trade is carried on by fish and ells of coarse unshorn cloth, called here wadmal; one ell of wadmal is worth two fishes; and forty-eight fishes are worth a rix dollar in coin.”
The startling thing about von Troil’s letters is that they differ very little from Mackenzie’s account of Iceland in 1810, 38 years later, or even from Kneeland’s description in 1874, just over a hundred years later. It is accounts like these that make clear how trapped the people were by the small amount of useable land (one cannot say it was arable for it was only used as pasture except for the home fields and those were not cultivated, only fertilized), by the weather that would not allow grain to ripen, and by a Danish monopoly that sold commercial rights to a group of traders whose sole purpose was to extract as much wealth from the country as possible.However, something that is occasionally mentioned is that the lack of progress was also the result of a land rental system (share cropping) that penalized any land renter who improved his land. If he leveled the frost mounds in his home field, for example, the land owner would raise the rent.Any benefit from making improvements would not go to the renter but to the large land owner.
As much as the Hanseatic League traders exploited Icelanders, the turning over of trade to a commercial  monopoly was not unique. Numerous governments sold the rights of trade to companies, including the English government when it gave the Hudson Bay Company the right to vast amounts of Canada. There was no kinship between the kings and queens and the natives in North America, South America, Australia, the Dutch Indies, India. The people there were there to be exploited so that wealth could be accumulated in the “mother” country.
The surprising, even shocking element in Iceland’s story, is that there was, in fact, kinship between the Icelanders and the Norwegian and Danish crowns yet they were exploited as if there were no kinship. The Icelanders were not savages in a distant land. They were the descendants of Norwegians, Irish, Scottish, some Danish, settlers. They were Lutheran. They spoke a Scandinavian language. The farming landowners often sent their children to Denmark for their education. It made no difference. For whatever reason, the Icelanders were “other”.
When the Danish king came in 1874 to give Iceland a constitution, he said he was sorry that he could not speak or understand Icelandic but that his son was learning it. Iceland had been a vassal state of Denmark’s for hundreds of years but was so unimportant to the Danish crown that Icelandic was not learned by members of the royal family. The language, except for the romantic aura of the sagas, was relegated to all those other colonial languages that weren’t worth learning.