Ebenezer Henderson’s Iceland

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Ebenezer Henderson was the first British traveler to stay over a winter in Iceland. Other travelers had come but they stayed only during the summer. To stay longer was to risk being trapped by the weather. Raging storms regularly sank sailboats. There are many reports of foreign fishing vessels being sunk with no survivors. The evidence of such shipwrecks came in bits and pieces washing onto shore.

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There were no Inns in Iceland, no hotels as in mainland Europe. There were no roads. The weather that modern day tourists in Iceland talk about, horizontal rain, sudden bitter cold winds off the sea, having to take a set of warm underwear even though it is summer, all existed and, to make matters worse, today’s modern insulated, weather proof clothes didn’t exist.

Today, there are cafes and restaurants of many kinds, the tourist can buy a hot dog on the street or a fancy European style meal at the Pearl. In Henderson’s day, you brought your food with you plus all your equipment: cooking utensils, tents, clothes, gifts for farmers where you might stay.

Henderson endured an Icelandic winter because he was driven by his passion for spreading the Bible in a country where there were few Bibles. He was a messenger from both the English and Foreign Bible Society and God. Unlike the Mormon bishop forty years later in Laxness’s novel, Paradise Regained, Henderson was welcome wherever he went. That has to be qualified, of course, by the fact that he was, in spite of being a representative of his church and of God, a snob. He was not a street minister responsible for the welfare of the poor. He was welcome in the homes of Iceland’s upper class. In his daily life, he didn’t spend his time visiting the poverty stricken cottages of tenant farmers or labourers in whatever country in which he happened to be as he distributed bibles.

In Iceland, the ministers, whether pagan or Christian, served their political masters. It was no different in places like England. As Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, makes fun of Collins, the minister who is Elizabeth’s distant cousin, but who will inherit her family’s land through entailment, she gives us a clear picture of how he kowtows to his patron, Lady Catherine. It is Lady Catherine’s right to bestow a living upon the local minister. Collins knows that it is more important to please her than to please God. What the local dignitary can give, she can also take away.

Henderson pays no attention to the misery around him when he is in Iceland. He only wants to associate with those he feels are his social equals. He wants to discuss religious philosophy not the misery in the huts of the fishermen.

He comes with a purpose and a narrow view but, like travelers before and after him, Iceland captures his imagination. In the introduction to his book,

Iceland, Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815, he says “It is impossible for a stranger to take a single step in Iceland, without having some uncommon object of this description presented to his view; and I, in taking down notes of his progress, his principal difficulty lies in the selection of subjects where such a multiplicity claim his attention. It not infrequently happens that he is denied the pleasure of seeing a human being for several days together, when proceeding from one part of the island to another. In crossing the deserts of the interior, he may travel two hundred miles without perceiving the smallest symptom of animated being of any description whatever; and, even in traversing the inhabited parts, he still finds himself more surrounded by nature than by human society, owing to the distance from one farm-house to another.”

Today, the population has grown from 40,000 to over 300,000. Where there were horse tracks through the wilderness, there are now paved highways and tunnels. Iceland is the most wired country in the world. Airplanes and ships bring more visitors than there are Icelanders. The isolation Henderson describes has largely disappeared. Iceland is the Connected Country.

Iceland, over the last two hundred years, has drawn explorers and scientists, then wealthy tourists and, finally, the burgeoning of ordinary tourists. Henderson was not an ordinary tourist but, still, he left silver behind. There was a bit of money in some people’s pockets after his visit. Today, there is a lot of money left behind. Iceland has few natural resources outside of hydro electricity, other than its striking natural beauty. The uniqueness of the landscape brings people. They come for the Icelandic experience.

The danger is that in trying to attract those dollars and yen and marks and pounds people will create that which is not Icelandic, that which is something people can find anywhere. Tivoli is a historic part of Copenhagen. Coney Island is an integral part of New York. Disney Land is as brash as America.

The challenge for Iceland as it works to repair its economy and finds sources of wealth that will allow it to purchase all those things it does not produce at home (this is a struggle that has existed from the time of Settlement) is to retain its Icelandic character. People came and come for the sagas, for the Viking golden age, for the landscape, for the history, and , nowadays, for the artistic and intellectual events that are regularly held, not to participate in experiences they can better have elsewhere. I don’t want to sound like those Icelandic bishops that got a law passed that said, essentially, that Icelanders shouldn’t be allowed to have any fun but Carnival is best held in sunny climes.

In all the places I have traveled, what has intrigued and interested, fascinated me was the difference between my life and the life of the local people. If there hadn’t been this difference, I might as well have stayed home. Like Henderson, Waller, Burton and uncountable numbers of others, I love those things that make Iceland uniquely Icelandic. The challenge for Icelanders will be to bring tourist money to Iceland to help heal the wounds of the kreppa while retaining their historic, cultural and artistic heritage in this new, connected world.

What They Stole

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I grew up in Gimli, Manitoba. Gimli is regarded as the heart of New Iceland. It is, in many ways, the focal point for the individuals of Icelandic extraction in North America and for the various Icelandic North American communities.

When I was growing up in the 1940s, 50s, 60s, Gimli still retained much of its Icelandic character. Relatives and friends still spoke Icelandic over coffee and in the stores. The Lutheran ministers were often from Iceland. A lot of the food was Icelandic, particularly the desserts. We ate skyr and rullapylsa and kleiner and ponnokokur. Iselendingadagurinn was a local celebration for locals and their extended families. People came from near and far to renew acquaintances.

People were tremendously proud of their Icelandic heritage.

Until around 1971 there wasn’t much travel between Iceland and North America, at least not from New Iceland. With increased ease of air travel and lower costs, visiting back and forth began

One of the outcomes of the separation between the people in Iceland and the immigrants and their descendants for decades was that a romantic notion of Iceland developed. That’s quite normal with all immigrant cultures.

Cherished by the immigrant community was the belief that Icelanders were exceptionally honest. All through my childhood and adolescence, I heard people talking about how honest Icelanders were. There were no police because there was no need for them.  Even though a prison had been built by the Danes there was never anyone in it.

The exceptional honesty of Icelanders sprang from fertile soil. Early explorers commented on this honesty and generosity of spirit in the face of poverty and hardship. Travel writers always read what had been previously written about Iceland and seldom questioned it. They’d come to visit for a few weeks in the summer when the weather permitted. They’d travel about the countryside, staying in farms, study birds, look at saga landscapes, investigate the mineralogy, then return to England or Scotland or America before the weather trapped them in Iceland for the winter. Attitudes in a previous book got incorporated in the next book by the next author.

In New Iceland there was a culture of dignity and honesty. That didn’t mean that everyone of Icelandic descent was honest or dignified but there was an attitude about appropriate behaviour and it was an attitude that transcended poverty. I remember once, as an adolescent, doing something foolish and my mother saying to me, “Why would you do that? You’re a Valgardson.” Within the community there was a certain standard of behaviour expected. Although that standard was broken at times, everyone was aware that it had been broken.

Romantic visions are important. Some would dismiss them for cold, hard facts. That is a mistake. Romantic visions often help hold us together, give us unity in the face of difficulty.

Cold hard logic would have instructed the first settlers to look after themselves first, to follow the saying “What’s in it for me?” Instead, in the face of tremendous hardships, they shared their homes, their food, their resources with friends, neighbours, countrymen. They had a romantic vision of who they were and what their ethnic background required of them in terms of compassion and justice.

When the idea that greed is good, that there was no social responsibility to ones relatives, friends, neighbours, countrymen spread through Iceland and making money in vast amounts seemed to be possible, people in the Icelandic community in North America were initially impressed. It was a bit like the PeeWee hockey team winning the NHL. The cry of look at our people, powerful, strong, like the Vikings, although the people saying it seldom knew anything about the Vikings outside of Hollywood movies or comic books. They had it wrong, of course. They should not have said look at those Vikings.  They should have been saying look at those Turkish pirates who have come to steal and do harm to us.

When the kreppa came and Iceland’s economy crashed and the behaviour of those who created the crash was revealed, we discovered that a lot of Icelanders got hurt by other Icelanders. The people who created the crash cared nothing for their relatives, friends, fellow Icelanders. Community ceased to exist. There was a large cost to the people of Iceland so that a small handful of Icelanders could benefit. This financial disaster wasn’t done to the Icelandic people by foreigners. This was like the Turkish raids. Except this was Icelanders pillaging their own people.

The Turkish raiders sold Icelandic men, women and children into slavery. The reckless, irresponsible behaviour of the bankers who caused the kreppa, if the penalties demanded by England and Holland had been enforced, would have been turned into economic slaves for decades to come.

However, the cost wasn’t just internal. The cost also occurred in the diaspora, not just because some Icelandic North Americans got conned into investing money in this banker’s folly of greed. Few had the kind of money that attracted these pirates who came to North America on their raiding. I was told when Landsbanki had representatives in Gimli that they weren’t interested in anyone unless he had a million dollars to invest. Our unimpressive wealth saved many of us from folly.

No, the cost to Iceland is not the hostility of a few individuals who lost money in the banker’s schemes. The loss was of our belief in the honesty of Icelanders. It was a cherished belief. It was a belief of which the community was proud. It was part of our identity and our heritage.

The community could say, yes, we come from a tiny country. Three hundred and twenty thousand people. That’s the population of a small Canadian city. It has no large role to play in world politics. However, the characteristics of its people are unique and one of those characteristics is an exceptional honesty.

No one I meet says that anymore. The bankers took people’s money, their savings, their investments, their pensions, everything they could. That the Turks would raid Iceland, stealing, enslaving, killing was cruel but understandable. They were foreigners from a different culture. That Icelanders could beggar other Icelanders, deprive them of their incomes, their homes, their savings, was not understandable. Hopefully, the money can be replaced.

Unfortunately, there are things that once lost cannot be replaced. One of those things is people’s belief in the honesty of the people from which they are descended. This cost is far bigger than the money lost. These Turkish raiders should live in shame, should be shunned, disowned, cast out. Yes, they’re our relatives. That makes their crimes much worse. Iceland would be better off without them. Banishment  was used in the sagas. Perhaps it is time to implement it again.

Banker Babies

 

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Angry Viking banker who has been told he can’t have everything he wants.

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Happy Viking banker after he finds out he can take all he wants.

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Viking banker told that he has to give back some of the money he took that wasn’t his.

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Viking banker satisfied when he finds out that he isn’t going to jail and can keep most of his money.

 

Independent People No More

Lately, I’ve been writing some posts about the drop in housing prices here on the foggy West Coast. I’ve been intrigued because it reminds me of something that happened to an old friend of mine, Bjartur of Summerhouses.

I went back to visit him, particularly that part of his life called Years of Prosperity. All his life, he struggled against poverty. He worked for eighteen years to save enough money to buy a scrappy bit of land with a falling down sod and rock hut. Like most of us, he couldn’t pay cash. He had to take out a mortgage. In Iceland, the way to independence was not by farming, for there were no crops grown except a bit of hay in the home field, but by raising sheep. Dairy cows were more a luxury because the sheep produced wool, meat and milk on less grass. As Bjartur says more than once, sheep are everything. The narrator of Independent People says, of the farmers, “They lived for their sheep.”

Bjartur allows neither himself nor his family any luxuries. He lives in his turf house and makes all his decisions based on how his actions will help to make him independent of the rich farmer at Rauthsmyri who sold him the land and holds the mortgage. He is plagued with bad weather, with sheep diseases such as tapeworm and lungworm.

But these were the times of hardship and this essay is about the times of prosperity. Some say every cloud has a silver lining. If a store burns down, a competitors business improves. If a tornado devastates a town, the contractors and building suppliers are guaranteed work. So it was in Iceland, except the fire and tornado struck in Europe with WWI. When millions of men are needed for warfare, they must be fed and clothed. They are not available for farming or manufacturing. The demand for supplies of all kinds increases by leaps and bounds and with demand, prices rise.

Bjartur and the other farmers (sheep herders) in Iceland found, with the beginning of the war in Europe that there was an insatiable demand for everything they could produce. Europe needed, demanded vast amounts of supplies that were consumed without concern for cost.

The Icelandic farmers don’t understand what is happening in Europe and when they discuss the war it is “This so-called World War, perhaps the most bountiful blessing that God has sent our country since the Napoleonic wars saved the nation from the consequences of the great Eruption and raised our culture from the ruins with an increased demand for fish and whale-oil.”

With unprecedented prices for everything they could produce, the “tenant farmers undertook the task of purchasing form their landlords the land they held, and those who already before the outbreak of hostilities had gone through fire and water to acquire t heir began now to think of renewing their buildings. Those who were in debt were given opportunities of incurring greater debts, while upon those who owed nothing, smiled with an incredible seductive sweetness….In some houses there were to be seen not one but as many as four china dogs of the larger size, even musical instruments; womenfolk were walking about wearing all sorts of tombac rings, and many persons had acquired overcoats and wellington boots, articles of apparel that had previously been contraband to working people.”

“Now, in this welter of money and joyous prosperity that had burst like a flood upon the country’s scattered homesteads, some, it was to be regretted, appeared to have lost their powers of sound judgment for there was no disguising the fact that holdings were being bought a prices which were ridiculously high, that the passion for building was exceeding the bounds of good sense.”

Bjartur, that crotchety old guy, doesn’t fall for any of it. He says “He who is without debt is as good as any king.”

However, fashion and profit that seems like it will never end, cause him to give up his life-long principles and when the Fell King stops by Bjartur’s croft, he says, “Someone was saying you were thinking of building yourself a house.”

They discuss the possibility of Bjartur getting the money to build a proper house to replace the rock and turf house that has provided Icelanders shelter from the wind, rain, cold and frost for hundreds of years. Left alone to make his decision Bjartur would probably have stayed with what he had but driven by pride, he says “Oh, I don’t suppose I’d need more than a year or two before I was square with them again. Some people thought prices could collapse at the end of the war, but the wool touched record heights in the spring there, and I’ve heard form a responsible quarter that they’ll be giving us more than ever for the lambs this autumn.”

The Co-op manager meets with him again, tells him that they’ve got a large load of cement and that lambs will sell for fifty crowns a head. “and there on the paving, before the crofter has quite waked up to the fact, lie the first loads of cement for building.”

Bjartur is proud that no matter how bad the situation at Summerhouses, “we never ate other folk’s bread. Other folk’s bread is the most virulent form of poison that a free and independent man can take; other folk’s bread is the only thing that can rob him of independence and the one true freedom.” Yet, having decided he will have a house, he wants “A big house or nothing at all.” He is persuaded to have a basement and two stories.

No granite countertops, no swimming pool, no Macassar Ebony flooring, but there were four rooms and a scullery on the main floor. Money ran out before the upper storey and the roof were built. So many people were building that there was a shortage of corrugated iron for roofs and there was little window-glass. Lamb prices held up that fall and Bjartur got another loan and bought timber and window-panes and corrugated iron. There were the kitchen “a range with three grates” plus a concrete stairway. The doors had been overlooked and could not be obtained and Bjartur’s suggestions of knocking a few boards together, using some ordinary door-hinges were rejected by the builder. After all, when you build a real house, you need nothing but the best.

There’s no furniture, either. You don’t have furniture in a croft. You’ve beds along the walls. People sit on them to eat, sleep in them. The stove was a hole in the floor. There was nothing to move into the concrete house.

The narrator says, “People take more upon themselves than they can manage if they aim higher.”

It was, the narrator says, usual for people to owe a merchant money and when they owed too much, to be refused any more credit for coffee, rye flour, a needle and thread. People, refused credit, did die of hunger. Bjartur, owing money to the bank, sells his better cow to pay wages, some money off the loan and interest.

In the autumn when Bjartur’s house was one year old the market for wool and meat collapsed. No longer killing each other, the Europeans had time to raise their own sheep.

The big farmers, the ones with political power, who were able to arrange large financings for modernizing their farms, arranged for people like Bjartur to be put on rations on credit, the equivalent of a today’s soup kitchens or food banks, so they could keep paying the interest on their loans. However, the day came when Bjartur could no longer pay interest. He was no longer of any use to the money machine.

The bank forecloses on Bjartur’s property. It is to be sold by auction. The eighteen years he has spent working to raise a down payment, the interest he has paid on the mortgage, the principle he has managed to pay off, all is lost. When land was rising in value, when lamb and wool were bringing high prices, the sheriff had offered Bjartur 15,000 crowns for his property but Bjartur turned it down for prices were going up, prosperity was everywhere, prosperity had arrived and would stay. Instead, she proved fickle. What he could have sold for a small fortune, he held onto, he abandoned his belief that owing nothing meant independence and freedom and built a house that he could not afford.

Only the rich prospered. What they had sold, they collected interest on and when they could no longer collect interest, they took back. Those who had worked, who had struggled, lost everything in their desire to own a modern house.

It is a cycle that occurs over and over again. What would Laxness have said of the kreppa? Of the housing crises in the USA, of the housing crises that is descending on the West Coast, that may very well spread across Canada? What would Bjartur of Summerhouses, having left Summerhouses for Urtharsel, the croft abandoned by his mother-in-law many years earlier, think if he were watching land falling in value by 55% in Maple Ridge, BC?

What would Bjartur think as he watched house after house foreclosed on, as he watched people walking away from their homes as he walked away from Summerhouses? That the banks always get everything? That the banks have not changed? That as they pushed easy money out the door with their advertisements, as they drove up prices with easy credit and liar loans, as they encouraged people to use their houses as ATMs to pay for holidays, vehicles, new furniture, that they were already getting ready to take back what they’d sold to people who wouldn’t be able to afford what they’d bought as soon as there was the slightest downturn.

Would Laxness think that the bankers and financiers of today, the wealthy elite, the one percent, are any different from the bankers and rich farmers of Bjartur’s day? Or would he only think that now that they have a larger reach, they are able to grab more for themselves?

(All quotes from Laxness, Independent People)