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.