Iceland: War With England

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Have you heard of the Napoleonic wars? Did you know that because of them, England and Denmark were at war? Did you know that Danish ports were blockaded by the English and that the trade ships that were supposed to supply Iceland with food and trade goods and take Icelandic goods in return were not able to leave port?

Did you know that the people of Icelandic were brought to the brink of starvation? That friends of Iceland in high places in England intervened and obtained a declaration from the English king to lift the blockade on Iceland?

That’s okay. Neither did I. Not, that is, until I began this arcane, strange research into life in Iceland in the late 1700s and the 1800s. I mean, most of us don’t know Canadian history, never mind what was going on in Europe in the early 1800s.

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However, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland has numerous references to the Napoleonic War and its consequences for Iceland. They are just tidbits, footnotes, brief mentions but by the time I’d finished re-reading Holland’s journal, I had a sense of Iceland being affected by something I’ve never heard anyone talk about.

In a footnote on page 114, Holland says” Bjarni (Sivertsen) may already have been engaged in negotiating the restoration (completed 1812) of funds pirated from Iceland during the 1808 Gilpin raid. Bjarni was no stranger to Britain. He was one of the Icelandic merchants whose ships were detained under war regulations at Leith 1807-1809; Sir Joseph Banks helped secure their release and offered financial support.”

Later, he says about the School House, “Behind the building which forms the present schoolhouse, a new range of buildings has been begun upon, with a view to an enlargement of the Institution. The war with Denmark, among its other consequent calamaties, has been the means of entirely suspending this scheme—from the want which it creates in Iceland of all the materials for building.”

Later in his trip he visits Mr. Jacobæus, whom, he says, “is one of the most considerable merchants in Iceland; and had much commercial connection with Denmark; though this trade has of course suffered greatly from the war between England and Denmark.”

He visits the Leira printing office, the only printing office in Iceland, and says, “It has latterly been much injured by the winter floods, & it is now in projection to construct a new building on the same spot – the execution of which is only delayed form the scarcity of timber in Iceland during the period of war.”

They visit a Mr. Gudmundson, a merchant, “who has commercial connections at Copenhagen, at Reikjaviik & at Havenefiord….We found from conversation with him that the war between England & Denmark had been greatly injurious to his trade—Three years have now elapsed since any vessel has come from Copenhagen to Buderstad; though previously to this time, it was usual for one or two vessels to enter the port annually – This privation of the accustomed inter course is severely felt by the inhabitants of the interior, who are greatly in want of corn, timber, iron &c. The warehouses at Buderstad, and other ports in this part of Iceland, are filled with the commodities of the country—fish oil, fox skins &c, which it is impossible at the present time profitably to dispose.“

When they visit Stappen, he says the merchant of the place is a Mr. Hialtalin. However, he is not there because “At the commencement of the war, he was taken prisoner, & carried into England –Thence he contrived to get into Norway, where he was about 1 1/2½ years ago. Since that time no intelligence what ever of him has reached Iceland. His wife, Madame Hialtalin, with a family of six children, continues to reside at Stappen, where she carries on the business as well as lies in her power.”

When he visits Mr. Clausen, another Danish trader, he discovers that “He collects for exportation, fish, oil, tallow, fox-skins, & the various woolen manufactures of the island–& sells to the inhabitants, both in a retail & wholesale way, different articles of foreign produce or manufacture, procured from the continent of Europe. The war between England & Denmark has been greatly detrimental to this trade. Beside the intercourse with Denmark much profit was formerly derived from the exportation of fish to France, Spain & the ports of the Mediterranean Sea; a branch of commerce which is now entirely suspended. The intercourse with England has not yet acquired a sufficiently settled footing to relieve these evils—Mr. Clausen’s warehouses are crowded with goods for which a market is wanting—He reckons that he has lying by him, (either under cover, or collected into large heaps upon the shore) many hundred thousand fish, salted or dried—Of the woollen goods, manufactured in Iceland, his stock is proportionally large. He has about 50,000 pair of mittens, or woolen gloves, and almost an equal quantity of stocking of different qualities of fineness.”

“Previously to the war, Stikkes-holm was a place of considerable trade, three or four vessels from Norway or Denmark generally coming to the port every year. The only vessel which arrived last year was one from Norway, & none has appeared here in the present summer.”

“Mr. H. had been present at the late unfortunate attack upon Copenhagen—his house & much of his property had been destroyed in the bombardment of the place. He shewed us an umbrella, broken by a shot whilst he was sleeping under it, in a tent.”

“Both Mr. Hialtalin (this is the brother of the missing Mr. Hialtalin) & Mr. Benedictsen spoke much of the distress produced in Iceland by the war between England & Denmark; & seemed to consider the English Order in Council as likely to afford only a very partial relief.”

Reykavik has an annual trade fair, “The Handel”, which Holland says is better this year, 1810, than the previous year “however, by no means equal to previous years.”

When they arrive at Hyindarmule, they attempt to buy some items of Iceland dress from the women. “We were unable, however, to effect any thing of this kind—Not that the people were unwilling to sell – they were all pleased but the impossibility, during the present period of war, of replacing any article with which they now parted.”

“We reached Eyarback at 5 in the afternoon…Previously to the war, three ships usually came there every year.”

“The merchant proprietor at Eyarback is a Mr. Lambasson—This gentleman being detained in Norway by the war, the business is conducted at present by his wife, & by an agent, Mr. Peterson. We were received by them with great hospitality, & remained at the house a few hours to refresh ourselves.”

It’s interesting that, time and again, where they stay is with Danish merchants. Their countries are at war. The English bombardment of Copenhagen resulted in 2,000 civilians being killed and 30% of the buildings being destroyed. Danish ports were effectively blockaded and the Danish navy neutralized.

However, except for one instance, Holland and his companions never felt any hostility or disapproval.

This was not a two way war between France and England but a complex web of alliances and re-alliances with Denmark having to not only fight England in order to avoid being invaded by France but by Sweden. Germany and Russia, at various times, were part of the mix.

When I get time, I’ll type up the letter of the English king who writes up the letter for the British Order in Council that is mentioned.

Was Afi A Smuggler

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Many of us, I say us, because it was certainly true of me, had no idea of what life was like for Icelanders in the 1700s and 1800s even though it was social and economic conditions during these times that led to our ancestors leaving Iceland the latter part of the 1800s. What I heard, repeatedly, was that our ancestors left Iceland because of the volcanic eruptions. I’ve heard this repeated time and again, as if it were gospel, both in private conversation and in public speeches.

While it is true that the effects of volcanic eruptions contributed to people making the decision to leave for North America, another hardship piled upon previous hardships, there was much more to it than that.

Uno von Troil, writing his Letters on Iceland, based on his visit in 1772, gives a summary of what trade was like for the Icelanders. Some of the conditions he mentions in brief (unfortunately, he does not elaborate) give us a glimpse into life for our lang (x6 or so) ammas and afis.

Von Troil points out that over the centuries there had been many changes in the way that trade was conducted with the Icelanders. What is obviously the major problem is that the trade was not under the control of the Icelandic people. The days of Viking ships were long past. The Icelanders were in no position to carry their goods to various markets.

He points out that until around 1400, the Norwegians were virtually the only people trading with the Icelanders. What fish the Icelanders didn’t eat or export in their own ships (the Icelanders still had ships with which to export goods), the Norwegians bought.

The English took over this trade, he says, until the Reformation. Although the mention of the English is just in this one line, the relationship of the English to Iceland waxes and wanes but never stops. It is long and, sometimes, troubled relationship.

During the Reformation, trade with Iceland was given to the Germans, particularly traders from Hamburg. Christian IV prohibited the Hanseatic League towns from trading with Iceland in 1602 and gave the right to trade to Copenhagen, Malmo and some other cities that were controlled by Denmark.
The Iceland company had the trade rights from 1620 to 1662.

In von Troil’s notes, I found a most interesting comment about the Iceland Company and the Turkish raids. We all know about the pirate raids that resulted as a large number of Icelanders being taken and sold as slaves in Algeria.

According to von Troil, the king was upset with the Iceland Company because not only had the company, in return for their exclusive license, promised to provide the goods necessary for the Icelanders but to protect Iceland from marauders.

Von Troil doesn’t explain the situation in detail but he says that the people who owned shares in the company were paid for their stock holdings but those people who had 1000 rix dollar shares were only given 500 and those who had 200 rix dollar shares got nothing. The company had paid the king for every trading port plus two rix dollars to the governor. It also contributed to the king’s “magazines” on the Westman Islands.

After the Iceland company was done away with, the trade of every port was auctioned off to the highest bidder every six years. However, he says, since 1734, a trading company has been given exclusive trading rights to the Icelandic ports for a yearly sum of 6000 rix dollars.

In return for this payment, the company is supposed to send 24 to 30 ships a year. They bring (or are supposed to bring) grain, bread, wine, iron and wood, etc. There are 22 trading ports. There they get fish, meat, butter, blubber, skins , wool and woolen goods.

He says that he doesn’t know if the trading company actually makes much money from the trade. The reason for that, he says is that the Dutch, illegally, bring much better goods to trade with the Icelanders. The Icelanders, illegally, sell their goods to the Dutch. This is regarded as smuggling and a number of Dutch ships have been seized. The legitimate trading company knows that smuggling and illegal trading is going on because the Icelanders bring such a small amount of goods to trade with them.

Von Troil mentions that at Reykjavik there is a woolen “manufactory, where twenty or thirty workmen are employed” but he does not explain what it is that is manufactured. Is it wool being readied for market or is it finished products? Surprisingly, he says that there are only a few looms here and there. Later travellers make reports of looms but do say that they are small and primitive compared to the looms in Europe.

The state of the Icelandic economy can be judged by von Troil comments on money. He says there is so little actual money that in the entire country can’t amount to more than a few thousand rix dollars.
The Icelanders keep their accounts not in money but according to yards of wadmal and number of fish. Forty eight two pound fish are worth one rix dollar. Twenty-four ells (about two to two and a half feet) are worth one rix dollar.

He says that you can buy a horse for 150 fish. So that would be about three rix dollars. You can buy a farm for 6000 ells. Think of that as 1000 yards of woven cloth.

So, there you have it, in the lines and between the lines. The Danish company that was supposed to protect the Icelanders in return for their trading license, didn’t, and Icelanders were killed and taken into slavery. Profit before responsibility. Not by the king but by the trading company.

The goods supplied by the later trading companies was often of poor quality. This did not improve with time. Later reports in the 1800s make note of the fact that some ships, to increase profits, did not even bring poor goods to trade, but nothing except cheap Danish brandy.

Your ancestors, if they could, in the face of harsh penalties, traded smuggled goods because they were of better quality.

Your ancestors lived in an economy where there was no banking system, hardly any actual cash in silver or gold, and this would not change until the English and Scottish traders started coming and were paying cash for sheep and horses. That was still long in the future. When Anthony Trollope goes to Iceland on the yacht, The Mastiffe, owned by John Burns, in 1878, he comments on the fact that there is still no bank in Iceland. More than a hundred years have passed since von Troil’s visit in 1772. Trollope says “One deficiency in Reykjavik which the most surprised me was the want of a bank. There is no such thing as a commercial bank in Iceland.”

One must, of course, be wary of historical documents, particularly personal papers, for much is included that is hearsay. For example, von Troil says of the Icelanders kidnapped by the Turkish pirates that most were returned to Iceland. We know that is not true. Still, his observations are interesting and informative and give us some sense of what life was like for those great (x6) ammas and afis of ours, and a sense of the social and economic conditions that led, eventually, to our people going to the harbours and getting onto English ships to begin their journey to Amerika.