Icelandic population, 1861-1870

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Our lang lang and lang lang lang ammas and afis lived through these times. 1871 and 1872 were yet to come. Take a look at the relationship between births and deaths. In 1862 in Iceland there are more deaths than births and the population falls slightly. 1864 and 1865 must have been good years because there is a major increase in the population.However,in 1866 the population falls again but it is still well above 1861. More people are surviving. In 1867 there is a large increase, nearly a thousand more births than deaths. And by 1870 the population has climbed to 70,084.

Year Births Deaths Computed pop Percentage
1861 2525 2391 66,973 +0.20
1862 2693 2874 66,797 +0.27
1863 2648 2115 67,325 +0.80
1864 2760 2001 68,084 +1.13
1865 2757 2100 68,741 +0.96
1866 2662 3122 68,281 +0.67
1867 2743 1770 69,254 +1.42
1868 2449 1970 69,733 +O.69
1869 2177 2404 69,506 +O.33
1870 2276 1698 70,084 +0.83

There was the belief–I’ve run across it in a number of places– that Iceland could not sustain more than 60,000 people. If the population rose over that number, then starvation or disease would cut the number back.

When Icelanders were locked into a medieval system of land owner and serf or indentured servant with a severely limited supply of land and that land useful for nothing but grazing, the relationship between population and productivity was pretty predictable. You can only graze so many sheep or cows per acre.

There were no grain crops because there were not enough frost free nights for grain to ripen. The highly variable factor was the weather. Get three or four good years in a row and marginal land could be farmed. That led to families being established and families meant children being born. The population increased. But bad weather was inevitable and when that happened, snow and frozen ground in summer, harbours filled with ice, bitter cold winds, and the hay crop failed, sheep and cows died. People farming on the margins soon followed. In really bad years, it wasn’t just people on the margins.

However, even though it took a long time to break the hold of the land owning farmers over the right to fish, fishing was gradually increasing. Farmers wanted to keep the system going because it provided lots of cheap labour. Indentured servants don’t get much, if any, say in their pay or working conditions. The problem was that what existed was a system with predictable and limited means of production. Only fishing could increase wealth so that a temporary increase in population could be sustained.

From our historic hindsight we know what is coming after 1870. There will be volcanic eruptions and with them the destruction of grazing land, the destruction of livestock and the relationship of people to land, hay, and cattle, will be thrown out of whack.

Iceland wasn’t like Canada. There were no great frontier areas to farm. The pressure on what could be produced was huge. It was compounded by the fact that from 1861 to 1870 the population had gone from 66,973 to 70,084.

The people who left for Amerika because there was land, lots of it, vast amounts of it, did what was necessary for their own survival given these two factors: the increase in the size of the population and the destruction of grazing land. They also did everyone who stayed in Iceland a tremendous favour because their leaving brought the relationship of land to population back into balance.

Iceland missed the Industrial Revolution. The new technology wasn’t going to save it. When the emigrants left, there were still no roads. A Medieval system of land ownership and crofts and indentured servants still existed. There were no factories. No banks. If there was a wheeled vehicle, it was a wheelbarrow.

Iceland had not embraced the change sweeping through Europe. It’s salvation would be when the large land owners removed the restrictions on fishing. Icelanders had been fishing with one hook to a line while just offshore the Portuguese were laying fishing lines that were miles long and had thousands of hooks.

In Gimli, in my childhood, I heard of men crying because they felt they’d betrayed Iceland by leaving. Poetry books from that time and earlier, written in Icelandic, are filled with poems praising Iceland’s beauty. They are poems filled with regret and guilt. There is no reason for either. The emigrants betrayed no one. Their leaving left more food for those left behind and, indirectly, improved the lot of the indentured and wage workers, by removing some cheap labour and forcing up wages.

My great grandfather, Ketill, who, in Iceland, would have had nothing because he would have been paid so little, came to Canada in 1878 with nothing. He worked as a labourer, then he had a dairy, then a general store. He had a fine home. He owed no one anything. He kept his coffin in the basement because like many who started out with nothing, he didn’t want to be buried a pauper. He died with money in the bank.

As this table shows, the population had grown to what was considered unsustainable. Then there was volcanic disaster. The choice was stark. To die of hunger on a mountain path or leave for the unknown.

In Independent People, Laxness makes fun of the romantic movement created and populated by the well-to-do, the privileged in Iceland. They come to Bjartur’s farm, Summer Houses, to extoll the virtues of the peasant farmer. They are ridiculous, self-indulgent, dishonest for they know nothing of the real hardships of being a small holder.The emigrants knew reality.

Many in Iceland had a strong belief in the need to stay in Iceland to fight for its Independence. They saw Iceland rising toward its golden, glorious past. Others saw enough opportunity to satisfy them. Others would have left but didn’t have the means.

Eventually, it sorted itself out. One can write nostalgic poetry or make nostalgic speeches but, eventually, our lives are consumed by earning a living, raising a family, being part of our local community. Enough to eat, clothes, a place to live, necessities, some luxuries, for a few, wealth. But when I stand in the graveyard in Gimli and the wind is blowing in from the lake and I look at the graves of my great grandparents, my grandparents and my parents, I think, you did fine. Over three generations,you made a life.