1772. Think on it. One hundred years before our ancestors started fleeing Iceland for Amerika . Can you imagine it? The Vikings disappeared in 1066. Approximately, 700 years have passed. Generations upon generations, living and dying in isolated coves, on moors isolated by rivers and mountains, most of the people never seeing a foreigner, often never seeing anyone but their closest neighbours. Along the coast, ships from the Hanseatic League appear in summer—maybe–only maybe because the ships are sailing ships, and they travel according to the whims of the weather.
It is 1772 and Uno von Troil goes with Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland. That’s a hundred years before our ancestors began their pilgrimage to North America.
1773, when von Troil’s Letters On Iceland are published in book form the people of Boston defy the English king and dump the tea from the East India company into the harbour and refuse to pay the taxes on it. George III responds by passing an act that enrages the colonists and leads to revolution. In England, John Kay has invented the flying shuttle which will allow weavers to double production. In Iceland, small looms are being used to create that important Icelandic export: wadmal. Woven woolen goods and knitted goods are a critical trade good.
Improved transportation within the British Isles, within Europe, was making trade possible. There was a substantial network of roads and canals in various European countries and the first railway would appear in 1798.
For more than the next hundred years, though, in Iceland, goods would be transported on horseback, over trails that were often impassible and frequently dangerous.
Sir Joseph Banks was wealthy. He needed to be. There were no passenger ships to Iceland. If you wanted to go there, you needed to rent or own a yacht. That meant supplies and a crew had to be paid for. As well, Banks took various artists and scientists, cooks and Livery servants, but perhaps, most astoundingly, for the Icelanders, he took French horn players. He held elegant suppers.
Von Troile wrote a series of letters about the expedition. His book can be heavy going for the modern reader with its s’s that look like f’s. When I quote him, I take the liberty of modernizing his language. This is, after all, not an academic blog but an individual, eccentric one, meant only for those who might find it interesting.
The amazing thing to me is that what von Troile describes in 1772 is what is described time and again over the next hundred years right up to the time our ancestors left Iceland for Canada and the United States. Reading explorer and traveler’s accounts of Iceland over that period of time gives the reader a sense of country trapped in time like the wood and tree leaves in Icelandic suterbrand.
What is also surprising is that my long held impression of Iceland’s isolation from new ideas has been shown to be completely wrong. Travel did occur, particularly to Denmark, sometimes to Germany, sometimes to England. Visitors did bring knowledge of other ways of farming and fishing. Tradition, stubbornness and the selfish interest of the wealthiest group of farmers and clergy turned away any possible innovation. Iceland was not, as some travelers mistakenly state, a democracy of equals but a feudal society rigidly controlled by a small elite who got to make the laws and enforce them.
Much of Iceland’s grief and tragedy was imposed upon it by climate and lack of natural resources but that grief and tragedy was made greater by a society where a few clung to the past to preserve their privilege. For a long time, social conditions were blamed upon the Danes but an objective look at the Danish relationship to Iceland and the Faroes would, I think, make it clear that it was Icelanders who exploited Icelanders and held them in thrall. The kreppa, it would seem, is nothing new.
So, what is it that von Troile finds when he arrives with Banks in Iceland in 1773 when your lang lang lang lang lang afi and amma and mine were surviving in sod huts on the moors or tucked away at the foot of the mountains in some fjord?
He arrives on August 28, 1772. Not a propitious time. The summer season is coming to an end. Winter storms are going to commence soon.
He says their first view of Iceland is one of devastation, the results of volcanic eruptions past. Like many of the scientific visitors who would follow, the Banks’ party is overawed by the landscape.
He says that there are hot springs and attaches a story to them that is interesting. Poverty precludes an Icelandic groom giving his bride expensive gifts and the land does not provide bouquets of flowers so the groom to be cleans one of these pools and his bride comes to bathe there.
He describes the springs at Geysir and traveler after traveler will follow him with their own descriptions of this wonder of the world. The first visitors will be scientists making tests and trying to explain how these miracles of nature work.
However, with the appearance of steam ships, the scientists will be shoved aside by a stream of tourists visiting the Golden Circle. Just like you and me.
He says that Geysir spouted ten times a day. By the time that the Danish king came to visit in 1874, the great geyser did not spout during the entire time of his stay.
He tells us that he finds the Icelanders very superstitious and that they believe the great geyser to be the mouth to hell and they seldom pass by without spitting into it “or as they say, uti fandens men”, into the devil’s mouth.”
He says that “at first sight of such a country one is tempted to believe it impossible to be inhabited by any human creature, if the sea, near the shores, was not everywhere covered with boats.”
And what does he think of our lang lang lang lang lang lang afis and ammas?
“The Icelanders are of a good honest disposition; but they are, at the same time, so serious and sullen, that I hardly remember to have seen any one of them laugh. 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.”
When I read this, I thought of those Gimli fishermen who were inclined to be very serious until they’d had a drink or two. And I thought about how Icelanders in Gimli and Winnipeg loved to play cards.