1874:Kneeland, the Constitution

Our good friend Samuel, is most interested in the new “constitution” that Christian IX has brought to Iceland. Being an educated American, he doesn’t think much of it. He goes through it in detail and points out that the king still holds supreme power over the legislature. Anything he doesn’t like, he can reject. Below is his summary. 
“It is no exaggeration to say that the profession of the power of self-government made in this “new constitution” amount to little or nothing; as the royal prerogative opportunely steps in when there is any danger of additional liberty. It was perfectly well understood by the people as illiberal, almost despotic, though some demagogues chose to see in it a Magna Charta; they accept it, however, as the best they can get, and especially as being the beginning of a political education, which, in course of time, will enable them to demand and to obtain political independence.
In the words of Mr. Taylor (Bayard Taylor, the American journalist who is also in the party of five Americans) “The great service which Jon Sigurdsson has rendered to Iceland is not so much in the gift of this constitution as in the fact that he has broken the long apathy of the people, persuaded them to ask, and secured them a result which means courage for the future, if not satisfaction with the present. In this sense, the 1stof August, 1874, is the opening of a new era in Iceland’s history.”
Samuel Kneeland agrees with Bayard Taylor. Jon Sigurdsson has done something important, even heroic, for Iceland. He hasn’t been Joan of Arc. He hasn’t led the Icelanders in armed rebellion. He’s done something much more important. He’s convinced the Icelandic people that their situation is not hopeless. They can ask for better treatment. They can work at getting better treatment. They can even insist on better treatment. Centuries of oppression have made it seem impossible that there can be a better way of being governed. Jon Sigurdsson has convinced people that there is a better way and it is achievable. Iceland has no army. It has no resources to raise an army and equip it. It must depend on persuasion. It must move gradually toward independence.
Samuel is a smart guy. He’s traveled. He’s educated. He looks at this turning point in Iceland’s history and he makes a list of the things that need to be done to make Iceland prosper. Many of them have come to pass.
“What Iceland especially wants are better means of communication than the small uncomfortable steamers which now make about eight trips a year; foreign capital to develop their fisheries and mineral wealth, and improve their breeds of sheep, horses, and cattle; larger and better boats and tackle; the making of roads and deepening of harbors; with better accommodations for the summer tourists who would be glad to visit its magnificent and peculiar scenery; and, at the present time, the sympathy and assistance of other nations to enable the people to recover from the recent volcanic eruption which has devastated the south-eastern portion of the island.”
The stranger, it is said, has a keen eye.

Loftur: background notes INLreads

“Loftur” starts with Sigurbjörg, a pretty young girl being courted by a number of older men. She is pressured by her parents to choose one of them. This was very much the case. For a man to marry he had to have enough resources to prove that he could support a family. The minimum amount was four hundreds. Since the only means of support in Iceland was farming, that meant having enough land to support four cows or their equivalent. Few men could manage this before they were middle aged. 
S. E. Waller in his book, Six Weeks In The Saddle, gives a description of a wedding he attends where the groom is a fat, old man and the bride a pretty young girl. There was no birth control and families were often large. The houses were small, often with everyone sleeping in the same room, two to a bed, head to foot. 
Food was frequently in short supply, especially in the spring. When one could marry off a daughter to someone with land and cattle, it was an opportunity not to be missed. For the young woman, there were no other opportunities except taking work on a farm as a domestic servant. Not only was the work sheer drudgery but young women working on farms were often regarded as property like the cows and sheep and sexually exploited.
Sigurbjörg is fortunate. A young man, Páll, has inherited land and cattle and, although his holding is small, he can afford a wife. He wants to marry Sigurbjörg.
They marry but the scorned suitors decide to take revenge for their rejection. They hire a magician to capture the ghost of a man who has died during the Móðuharðindin, the death mist.

 The Móðuharðindin, the Mist Hardships of 1783-85 came after the Laki eruption. This was no tourist eruption like Eyjafjallajokull. Lava continued to flow for five months. But worse than that were the poisonous gases. Even if a lava flow is large, it is still localized. Poisonous gases can spread over vast distances. Florine and sulpher dioxide from the eruption destroyed and poisoned grazing areas. Some historians believe that 80 percent of the sheep and cows died. Eighty percent in a country where life depended on milk products. 

There were 50,000 people in Iceland at the time. Ten thousand of them died. Imagine what it would be like if, when Mr. St. Helens erupted, twenty percent of the population of North America died. In a small municipality like Gimli, Manitoba, with 8,000 residents, that would mean 1,600 people would die. How would we cope?

Loftur died at this time. Crazy times make people crazy and he is treated unjustly. Turned away from farm after farm, he dies of starvation and exposure. His angry ghost is vulnerable, available for revenge.
The belief in magic and magicians was wide spread. So was the belief in ghosts. Today, with the magic of antibiotics, surgical procedures, etc. we have little experience of death. In the 1800s there were four doctors for all of Iceland. Their medications were, on the whole, useless. Operations were largely confined to chopping off arms and legs. Diseases like measles and diphtheria killed people in massive numbers. Inoculations were not available. Poor nutrition weakened people and made them susceptible to disease. With death appearing suddenly, unexpectedly, frequently, it is no wonder that people believed in ghosts. How could people, losing loved one´s time and again, having their lives shattered, their hopes destroyed with a cold summer, a sunken row boat, an avalanche, an outbreak of smallpox, not believe that there were malevolent, unseen forces at work?
There were Móri and Skotta, male and female ghosts. There were sea ghosts and talking skeletons, ghosts for every occasion. These Icelandic ghosts weren´t like North American ghosts, like swamp gases, insubstantial. They were like flesh and blood, they ate, drank, fought, committed murder and mayhem. They could be called up and controlled, given tasks. Many of them were angry and why wouldn´t they be? There was lots to be angry about.
The farmers were not satisfied with having Loftur torment the young couple. They also started law suits against Páll. Their goal was to beggar the couple, have them separated and to have Sigurbjörg under their control. As paupers, neither Páll nor Sigurbjörg would have any legal rights. Accept help from the parish and all rights were extinguished until the money loaned for your keep was paid back. Sigurbjörg says she doesn’t want to have any children except Páll´s. She knows what is in store for her if they are made paupers. In some syslas, one third of the children were born out of wedlock. The attitude of some farmers toward young girls can be seen in Laxness´s novel, Paradise Reclaimed. Bjorn of Leirur, a wealthy, married farmer, travels the countryside buying sheep and cattle for the Scots and leaves a trail of pregnant young women behind. To make sure we understand that it is not just Bjorn, Bjorn´s friend, the sherrif says that he is kept busy having to find men to bribe to marry young women whom Bjorn and his friends have got pregnant. In Independent People the woman Bjartur of Summerhouses marries is pregnant with the child of the wealthy landowner´s son.
Páll and Sigurbjörg flee to North America. There, they escape the lawsuits but not Loftur. Times are hard but there are opportunities. The new world also creates new possibilities and solutions.
 When Pál and Sigurbjörg are talking about Loftur, they mention that with his bones were found a copy of The Passion Hymns. The Passíusálmar or Passion Hymns by Hallgrímur Pétursson were frequently placed in a coffin. The hymns were well known, revered, and the fact that Loftur kept them with them all through his suffering means to Pál and Sigurbjörg that no matter what he did as he struggled to survive, he must still be redeemable.
Local histories frequently say that a newly arrived family stayed with so and so for the winter or until they could get their house built. The sharing of food is a common occurrence. In some ways, in the new world, kindness is more possible. 
As hard as pioneering was in Canada, the land was good, surpluses were possible. The struggle, as told by pioneers in books like Broadfoot’s The Pioneer Years, was because the settlers were naïve, inexperienced, not because the land was marginal. Hard, endless work in Iceland on poor land, subject to an unpredictable climate, often didn’t produce enough for people to survive. In Canada, a wide range of crops of grain and vegetables and fruit could be grown. Even the wilderness, once people learned about the plants and how to hunt and fish, provided abundance.
The ghosts who have come with the settlers, like their memories, gradually fade. The circumstances that gave rise to them have changed. You might say that like Loftur, there is a place for them, for people´s memories of past injustices, but it´s a new world and, although it is not perfect or anything like it, there has been food and shelter, slavery (indentured servitude, serfdom) has disappeared or mostly so, and it is possible to be at peace with the past.

1874: Samuel Kneeland at Thingvellir

Samuel Kneeland has much to say about Iceland and his experiences in and around Reykjavik but he is in Iceland to observe and participate in the action so he and his party head for Thingvalla. He says, “Late in the afternoon we came in sight of the large lake of Thingvalla,–a magnificent sheet of very deep water, at least fifteen miles long and six wide…We knew by this that we were approaching the valley of Thingvalla, into which we must descend by the great fissure of the Almannagja, the grandest and most awful scenery in Iceland, and probably unsurpassed in beauty.”
The ride is hard. The day is long. He says that they were tired. “Chilled at the start, stewed under our Mackintoshes when the sun came out, with feet wet form the splashes of the icy-cold streams, hungry and thirsty, we were very glad to know that the of our day’s work was nigh.”
“This verdant plain, once the place of assembly of the “Thing,” or “national Council,” but, for three fourths of a century, almost deserted, was now dotted with white tents and flags, and with crowds of men and horses, indicating the expected approach of  the royal party, who were some hours behind us. It was a very lively and unexpected scene, though somewhat marred by a commencing drizzle, which added another discomfort to our cold and weary bodies. We descended by a narrow pathway, a natural shelf on the side of the shattered cliff, so steep that most of the party dismounted, to prevent being thrown by the slipping of their saddles on to the necks of the horses. Dashing through the shallow river, and up a muddy hill and narrow lane, we arrived at the forlorn-looking parsonage and church, by the side of which—permission having been asked and granted in Latin,–we pitched our tent, after the usual vexatious delays attending the unloading of the ponies.”
“All the available surrounding green was covered with the king’s tents, and liveried servants were hurrying about, getting things ready for his arrival. We were entirely independent, having our own servants and guides, and everything necessary for our comfort and food. Our tent was pitched near a pool of icy cold water…the cleft of a neighboring rock served admirably for a fireplace; and the neighboring parsonage fire was permitted, for the first night of our Icelandic picnic, to warm the water for our tea and coffee.”
The next morning, Samuel and his companions head for the Geysers because this is the destination of the king. They stay there three days, after which they return to Thingvalla for the formal festivities.  When they return, he says, “Almost every available space was crowded with tents, large and small; flags of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, England, and America were flying around the great pavilion; while the flag of free Iceland—a white falcon on a blue ground, the banner of the Vikings—floated from the Mount of Laws. Crowds of people were moving to and fro, and the many camp-fires, streamers, and songs indicated an important occasion.”
When we celebrate Iceland’s independence on June 17, think on that, on Thingvalla, on the plain, crowded with tents, with flags, with Iceland’s white falcon, crowds of people gathered for this great event. Think on that, all the people who have come on horseback across the mountain paths of Iceland, long lines of horses, coming from all directions through the mountains passes, descending into Thingvalla. What a sight it must have been. All the tents, the banners, the flags, the people, gathered here waiting for the arrival of Christian IX and his party to join them in this historic place.
The next time you go to Iceland and visit Thingvalla stand there, at the top of the cliffs and imagine the scene that Samuel Kneeland saw that day. A scene that only came about because of the determination of Jon Sigurdsson and his followers.

1874: Beginning the millenium celebrations

Today, the church and its ministers are barely tolerated or totally ignored. At one time, they held an important place in society and, particularly, Icelandic society. The ministers were educated, having gone to upper classes in Reykjavik and even Copenhagen. Society, having thrown over God for the newer god of Technology, now has little time for religion in Iceland or North America. The Lutheran church has, I’ve been told, a need for thousands of new ministers and less than a handful graduate each year. Churches, unable to even meet basic expenses, close down and become restaurants (Bru) or they are kept open in summers when the weather is good (Grund). In places like Gimli and Selkirk, the Lutheran churches struggle, constantly needing more parishioners, more money and ministers. The story is the same everywhere.
In 1874, in England and in Iceland, ministers were still community leaders with both religious and secular power. They still determined if you knew your Bible lessons well enough to be confirmed and, if you didn’t, there were serious repercussions for both you and your parents. If a minister examined children and they didn’t know their lessons, he could recommend that they be removed and sent to somewhere where they would be prepared properly. Many country ministers were paid very badly but those near the top of the hierarchy in Reykjavik were well paid and usually had strong Danish connections. They were part of the ruling elite of rich farmers, Danish traders and highly placed Divines.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that on the first day of the millennial celebration, August 2, the day began with a church festival. The American visitors were fully aware of how important it was to attend. Samuel Kneeland says that he didn’t understand a word of the sermon and that the audience wasn’t the slightest bit interested in what the minister was saying. He also does not know the hymns sung but he was greatly affected by the music. He describes it as “sweet, solemn, and slightly plaintive, the chorus of “Iceland’s thousand years,” words and music of Icelandic origin, brought tears into most eyes, and I am sure it did into mine.“
He is so affected by “Iceland’s thousand years” that he includes both the music and the song in his book.
He is not so impressed by the church. He describes it as an old building of brick, stone, and stucco; dingy and dilapidated; capable of seating some twelve hundred person; the interior is dismal, the colors faded, and the light and ventilation poor…Thorwaldsen, the famous sculptor, claimed by Denmark, was the son of an Icelander, born at sea, Nov. 19, 1770; and a baptismal font made and presented by him in token of his birth, in no way beautiful, is the only noteworthy object in the cathedral.
Not being able to understand either the service or the music, he spends his time looking over the congregation. He enjoys the opportunity to observe the national costume, especially the headdresses and “gaily embroidered jackets and veils of the women.” Like nearly every other visitor to Iceland, he comments on the strange helmet like head coverings of the women. The men’s clothing he dismisses by saying they’re dressed like the men in the Faroes.
However, he has come a long and dangerous way to participate in what he hopes will be the birth of a new republic, and he isn’t going to miss a moment of it.
Think on him, an American, having travelled with great effort and hardship to the Reykjavik of 1874, sitting in a pew listening to an Icelandic sermon, to Icelandic singing, being moved to tears, caught up in the exotic quality of it all. How fortunate we are for his curiosity, his determination for he has left us a picture of events we can all share as we approach June 17.

1874: Kneeland, stormy trip

How easy it is nowadays to travel to Iceland. Hop on a charter and fly over the Pole. Or even take a regularly scheduled flight from Seattle or Minneapolis. The most one can complain about is seats that are a bit tight, or some turbulence. A few years ago a plane was hit by lightning but no one was the worse for it. There’s a bit of jet lag when you get to Reykjavik but a cup or two of Icelandic coffee, a day’s meeting relatives, visiting the various shops, then a good night’s sleep and all is right with the world.
Think of our poor Samuel. Things weren’t so easy for him.
“The wind began to increase, turning more to the westward, and with it the waves; the clouds looked black and angry, and the rain drove us all below. The barometer kept falling, and the captain, knowing a gale would soon be upon us, changed his course more to the west, and more in the face of the gale. At midnight we reached the Westmann Islands; after a severe buffering from the storm, every thing above and below decks wet….
“So furious was the gale that we tried to put into the Westmann Islands, sending up rockets and blowing the whistle all the time; but as it was midnight no notice as taken of our signals, and we were forced to breast the gale. Had we sails only, we must have been driven on a lee shores, whose jagged rocks would  have instantly destroyed us; but armed with steam we defied the wind and waves, and pushed on our course, though our staunch little craft fairly staggered under the heavy blows she received, rolling and plunging so that it was quite impossible for any of us to walk or even stand….The coast was now and then visible, enabling us to keep at a safe distance. The gale increased during the night, and in the morning, I think, the breakfast table was deserted…We passed a miserable forenoon, but now and then caught a peep of high mountains…At noon we sighted Cape Reykianess.”
If you had to go through that, how often would you go to Iceland? Thrown about so wildly that all you can do is try to jam yourself into your bunk so you aren’t thrown onto the floor. So tossed this way and that you can’t hold down food. Waves and rain so fierce that everything in your cabin, including you, is soaking wet. 
Samuel is someone who really, really wants to go to Iceland.
And, after all this being tossed about, what does he say about his first view so Iceland? “white clouds appear on the horizon, which soon become the outlines of mountains; and finally are recognized as the magnificent piles of snow-capped peaks, the so-called Jokuls; Snaefells is seen more than one hundred and forty miles from land; and Hekla, glittering in the sun, its internal fires, at present, not powerful enough to melt the snow from its summit, gives you the first grand emotion on visiting Iceland, long before you touch it.”
I have not been fortunate enough to see Iceland from a ship but I’ve seen it a number of times from an airplane and, each time, its mountains, its jokuls, its coastline are a thrill. I’m not sure that I’d have been as brave and adventurous as Samuel, ready to risk life and limb to be at the granting of Iceland’s constitution but I think I get the same thrill, seeing this vast land of fire and ice.

Samuel Kneeland: arrival in Iceland, 1874

When I introduced you to my friend, Samuel, I mentioned that he liked Iceland and Icelanders. He brings an American attitude with him. He is not a member of British nobility but an American medical doctor, a bit of an adventurer. He’s traveled widely, seen many different societies. He doesn’t make comparisons based on a life in the privileged, moneyed upper class. Perhaps that is why he finds Reykjavik a fine place.
He says, “I had expected to see a dirty, uncomfortable, ill-arranged town, judging from the tales of even the most recent travellers. Whether the visit of the king had caused a change or not, I cannot say, but we found the place tidy, the houses well-built and very pleasant, the streets clean, and every indication of a prosperous, well-ordered, and intelligent community. The shore was lined with boats, the harbor gay with merchant and war vessels, and every thing had a cheerful look, far more so than many of the fishing towns of Scotland and the northern islands. Piles of fish indicated the chief business of the people, and in some cases were not agreeable to the senses of sight ad smell; but the respectful salutations of the citizens, the neatness of their dress, the flowers and other evidences of refinement outside and inside the houses, the crowds in the stores, the trains of ponies, gave me a very good first impression of the capital of Iceland. The houses are of the same style as in the Faroes, the governor’s house, the church, and the prison being built of lava blocks the better ones of wood painted or tarred, and those of the poorer classes of lava and turf, with the roof overgrown with grass.
“We lived on board our steamer, remaining quiet for three days in port the beginning of the millennial celebration, which was to last a week, commencing Sunday, August 2. The time passed very pleasantly, visiting the officials, and observing the habits of the people. They are a strange compound of indifference and energy, like their country, which exhibits the coldness and stillness of snow with the fiery activity of the volcano. The society of the capital, chiefly Icelandic, is refined; their balls showed a beauty of feature and form and elegance of dress which one would hardly expect so near the arctic circle; the university and public library attract students from all parts of the island, and some of its professors are very learned men, especially in the departments of history and antiquities of the Scandinavian races. Three newspapers in the Icelandic language are published weekly in the capital.”
Samuel Kneeland, American, believer in the creation of republics, disposed to be a friend to Iceland and Icelanders has come a long way, has endured a vicious storm on the small yacht that he and his travelling companions have rented. He comes to be pleased, to see the wonders of Iceland, to help celebrate this first step in Iceland’s independence.
When we celebrate on June 17, we celebrate Iceland’s independence and Jon Sigurdsson’s role in achieving that independence but many contributed to this historic week in Iceland’s history and Samuel Kneeland participated and then wrote An American in Iceland and left us a precious description of events. When we gather at the Manitoba Legislative Buildings let us keep in mind all those people who gathered in August of 1874.

Background notes: The Troll Wife

Folk tale collections often include stories of wishes gone wrong.
Many cultures have stories about the danger of making wishes based on greed or pride.
Sometimes, though, they are about wishes gone right. Those are usually about rewards for those whose behaviour is exemplary.
“The Troll Wife” is about both of these: first, a wish that is granted but not with positive consequences and second, goodness being rewarded.
Such tales often include a challenge or test that requires kindness or an act of faith. That test is usually issued by a woman or a woman disguised or hidden by a curse or spell and it is made to a man. In cultures with royal figures such a young man is often a prince, wealthy, handsome and the troll or ugly figure turns out to be a beautiful maiden worthy of a prince.
You can make much or little of such a tale. It can be seen as a story about the need to test the true love of young men and/or a statement about the relationship of men and women in a given culture. It was not long ago that there was no birth control and folk music and folk stories are filled with sorrow and lamentations caused by young men who seduce maidens, then abandon them.
The most popular song of servant’s maids was “Early One Morning”. “Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, I heard a young maid sing in the valley below, Oh, don’t deceive me, Oh, never leave me. How could you use a poor maiden so.”
It is no wonder that tests of a young man’s faithfulness are a quite common theme. However, it is also not surprising that the emotions of love, jealousy, the desire to be beautiful, are frequent subjects.
In “The Beauty and the Beast” it is love that turns a beast into a human. It is love that rescues Ragnheiður from the curse placed upon her.
“The Troll Wife” goes beyond that to a statement about the difference in substance and appearance.
“The Troll Wife” has a lot to say about values. The values of Eva, the wife, who puts beauty above everything, wants nothing more than popularity, and seeks materialistic fulfillment from other people. The values of Ragnheiður who sees in Eva’s husband, Svein, not a man with a physical deformity but a man with many virtues. The values of Svein who is practical, hard working, kind and loyal.
Ragnheiður is a night troll. If she is touched by daylight, she will turn to stone. She has magical powers for she knows what Eva has wished and she can grant the wish. She is ethical, moral, for she makes no effort to undermine the situation between the husband and wife. She helps Eva with untangling the nets and she offers a warning to Eva about her future life and wishes her well.
Night trolls were usually considered dangerous and terrifying. But Ragnheiður is only a night troll because of a curse. She is actually, under her outward appearance, a beautiful woman. She implies that the curse was the result of jealousy brought about by her beauty. Certainly, beauty is two-edged. It can bring popularity but also jealousy and envy. Ragnheiður, from her experience, grants beauty to Eva but, based on her own experience, doubts it will bring her happiness.
Ragnheiður and Svein prosper because they love each other and work as one, expecting nothing from each other but giving much to each other.
The story also might have something to say about the power of love to transform people.

My friend, Samuel Kneeland

Benedikt Gröndal’s millennial card 1874.

I want you to meet a friend of mine. I’m going to write about him and his trip to Iceland. His name is Samuel Kneeland. He’s a medical doctor. He’s quite distinguished. He’s a graduate of Harvard. He got  his medical degree there. He received the Boylston Prize for his thesis on “The Contagiousness of the Puerperal Fever”. He won it a second time for an essay on “Hydrotherapy”. He studied in Paris. He lectured at Harvard.

Samuel is a traveller. He has spent some time in Brazil and around Lake Superior. He’s been to the Philippine Islands and Hawaii to study the volcanoes and earthquakes there. As mentioned earlier, he also has been to Iceland. He has written a book about his Icelandic trip, An American in Iceland. He also has written another book called Volcanoes and Earthquakes.
When he’s not practicing medicine, he’s editing medical books, writing medical articles for publications in the Medical Cyclopaedia.
When he went to Iceland, he went with a group. There were five Americans: Mr. C. W. Field. Field isn’t W. C. Fields, the entertainer. C. W. is the head of the American Telegraph Company that has laid the first transatlantic underground cable. Isaac Hayes is another of Samuel’s travelling companions. You may not  have heard of him but he, too, is a medical doctor with an urge to travel and explore. He’s led an expedition to Ellesmere Island. There’s Bayard Taylor, the journalist and poet. His most popular literary book is “A Book of Romances, Lyric and Songs”. He’s a world traveller. He’s been to England, Austria, Egypt, and China on just one tour. He’s made others. His newspaper column in The Tribune has made him famous and he is in constant demand to give lectures. The fifth American is M. Halstead. He’s a well-known newspaper editor and owner of the Cincinnati Commercial newspaper.
Samuel’s other companions are the son of the former prime minister of England and an Icelander, Eric Magnusson, sub-librarian at Cambridge and professor of Scandinavian languages.
Samuel says that he is going to Iceland because it, “has done much for liberty, the advance of knowledge, and the preservation of historic records; and at a time when other more favored nations were stationary or going back to the darkness of ignorance and superstition,–and under conditions of isolation and hardship, which prove that man is superior to his surroundings, and that misery cannot stifle the aspirations of liberty, nor degrade a poetic and heroic race.”
He had a great visit and says so in his book about it.
Take a look again at the men who made up this group. Distinguished, wealthy, well-connected, established. These are important people who have come to Iceland to help celebrate the granting of a new constitution by Denmark and, by their presence, to support Iceland’s bid for independence. Two years in the future, 
America will celebrate one hundred years as a Republic and they see the throwing off of royal shackles as something to be celebrated. They would like all countries to be republics, not kingdoms.Kings and queens are to them synonymous with repression.
Samuel Kneeland, an amazing man, a man worth getting to know. You can look him up in Wickipedia. You can download and read his book, An American in Iceland, about his visit to Iceland in 1874. I’ve read it a number of times and I’ve read about him and I’ve got to know him fairly well. I don’t know him well enough to call him Sam. He’s not a Sam kind of guy. I’m still glad I’ve got to know him. Why don’t you do the same?


In diplomacy, momentous decisions are often made not in the heat of battle or even argument but over the dinner table, at celebrations, in nooks and corners, by men (in 1874, it was all men) dressed formally and immaculately. The appearance belies the raging undercurrent, the years of meeting, negotiating, the successes and failures, the vested interests.
King Christian IX arrives in Iceland, not as a conqueror but as an absent and distant king. Iceland has not suffered conquest and war but centuries of neglect and exploitation. It has been seen by the Danes as little more than colony from which some profit might be extracted. However, unlike the natives of South America, they are not enslaved to work in the gold mines. There are no gold mines. There are, for a time, sulphur mines but economics means they are abandoned. There are no diamonds, rubies, no minerals, no vast forests that can be used for buildings ships, no exotic spices. There is fish. There is wool. There is meat pickled and smoked. There are horses. None of the products are in great demand, nor does the size of the population mean that what products there are, mostly woolen goods, can be produced in vast amounts. 
There is no mechanization. Everything is done individually by hand.
Iceland and Icelanders are more than anything, a curiosity. Unknown largely, enough off the beaten track that foreigners who want to visit need to rent or buy a yacht, man it, provision it, sail into unpredictable and often fierce weather.
With no wood suitable for building, no lime for mortar, so little fuel that houses don’t have stoves, Icelanders have taken to building houses from layered rock and turf. There are no great cathedrals, no vast public buildings, no great residences. There are farm houses, some as good as those of a well-to-do Scottish farmer, others no more than hovels where people live as if they are underground.
None of this keeps Icelanders from wanting their independence back. They agitate for the right to their own government. They negotiate, they argue, they wear down the opposition of the few people who make themselves wealthy on the current system.
When, at last, King Christian IX comes to Iceland for the first time to bring them a constitution in 1874, there are festivities. The people put on the best show they can manage.
Bayard Taylor, an American reporter, describes one of the major events that is held in the open after the King has been feted at a banquet in Reykjavik.
“The road which was so broad and smooth that it must have been specially made for the festival, now   crossed a long hollow in the stony soil, and climbed a hill opposite, nearly a mile away, where flags and tents, and a moving multitude announced the location of Austurvelli. The broad, rounded summit of the hill had been laboriously cleared of stones, and furnished a space where four or five thousand people could have been accommodated; but not more than two thousand were present. There were a a rostrum for speeches, a tent for the King, another ten which suggested a possibility of refreshments—and that was all. But the elevation, slight as it was commanded a singularly bleak and sublime panoramic view. On all sides the eye overlooked great spaces of sailless sea or barren shore, until, fifty miles away, ranges of dark volcanic hills inclosed the horizon. The level evening sunshine fell coldly across the vast view, the wind blew sharp and keen from the north, and, with every allowance for the tough constitutions of the Icelandic people, I could not see how much festivity was to be extracted from the place, time and temperature.
“Nothing was done, of course, until the King’s arrival….In Iceland nothing is done without singing, and it is the most attractive feature of the celebration thus far. The song was followed by speeches from the rostrum, chiefly greetings to the people, winding up with sentiments and cheers. Admiral Lagercrantz spoke for Sweden, Rolfsen, the author, for Norway (and his eloquence awoke a real enthusiasm), and then various others followed, the admirable male choir of Rejkiavik (sic) interrupting the speeches with national songs.”
It is one thing to say we celebrate June 17 at the statue of Jon Sigurdsson on the Legislative Grounds. Hip hooray. But have you ever wondered what it must have been like in Iceland on this momentous occasion? 
Did you imagine the cleared hilltop, the flags, the tents, the stage, the dignitaries. These are our ancestors participating, listening, discussing observing. This is what this important event was like for them.
Terrible weather. Cold wind. Rain. As usual. They partied anyway. And why shouldn’t they? There weren’t a lot of reasons to celebrate. These events would give them something to talk about all through the next winter and for many years after that. Who came, what they said, how they behaved would be described and analyzed. After all this time, the King had come, he’d been friendly, outgoing, pleasant, talking to Icelanders of different social classes, shaking hands. He’d brought and left behind a constitution.
After a very long time, there was, at last, hope. That, in itself, was worth celebrating.
This visit was the culmination of many years of discussion, arguments, persuasion, agitation, not violence, no bombs, not bullets, not slaughter, and the agreements that had been come to were now being implemented with banquets, with speeches, song and poetry. Would that song and poetry could celebrate the separation of those geographic entities that do not want to be joined. Would that both sides could join in.  Would that Croat and Serb, Southern and Northern Irish, Chinese and Tibetans, all could follow the Icelandic-Danish solution.


In 1874, the Danish king, Christian IX, visited Iceland for the first time. He brought with him a constitution for the Icelanders. It was not a document giving them independence but it was a beginning that would eventually lead to Iceland’s independence from Denmark.
Iceland was originally settled when Norwegian farmers fled the rule of King Harald. These were not Vikings set out to conquer but farmers who didn’t want to have to swear allegiance to this ambitious king who was consolidating small areas under his rule. These settlers brought cows, sheep, horses, families, slaves. They wanted land and independence. For a time they had that. However, because of internal conflict and bloodshed, a treaty was signed in 1262 with Norway and the descendants of those who had risked everything to escape Norway’s rule voluntarily placed themselves in a union with Norway that, in essence, made them subject to Norway.
In 1380 the kingdoms of Denmark and Norway were united and, since Iceland was considered part of Norway, Iceland came under Denmark’s control. The Danes had no need of Iceland’s exports but were able to exploit Iceland for whatever value they could find. The result was hundreds of years of exploitation and poverty.
June 17 is celebrated because it is the birthday of Jon Sigurðsson. While many people worked to obtain Iceland´s indpendence, Jon was considered the leader of the independence movement.
There were many stages to the gaining of independence. However, the king´s visit in 1874 was the critical first step. The king still held the power of a veto over the decisions made in Iceland. However,he had come to Iceland. He´d stood on Icelandic soil. He´d met the people. He´d gone to see the wonder of the Great Geyser and even though the Great Geyser was unimpressed by royalty and didn´t spout, the king had still camped there in the midst of the blasted wilderness. He dined at Thingveller and met Iceland´s upper class, the well-to-do farmers. Perhaps the most telling detail of the king’s visit was that n neither he nor his son could speak Icelandic. The king could not speak to his subjects unless they spoke Danish.
Change is often a slow process. The constitution was revised in 1903. A minister of Icelandic affairs who was to live in the capital city, Reykjavik, was appointed. In 1918 Iceland was recognized at the Kingdom of Iceland. In 1944, Iceland was recognized as a fully independent country.
On this June 17, think on this process. The agitation for independence and self-rule began well before the visit of Christian IX. The process went on for 70 years. With not a shot fired. With no  houses blown up. With no children murdered. This is utterly remarkable, not just on the side of the Icelanders but, also, on the side of the Danes. Think on Libya, on Syria, on the French Revolution, on Ireland, on Ethiopia, on the disintegration of Jugoslavia, on, on, on.
Let us celebrate June 17th in 2012 with prayers for all those vocal and silent Icelanders who were determined to have independence but let us also let us pray for those in Denmark who listened, who thought, who agreed and negotiated in good faith. Let us give thanks for the violence that did not occur, the deaths that did not happen.
Praying seems to be out of fashion today. But science won’t give thanks to those Icelanders and Danes who, over a long period, gave the world a lesson that was and is badly needed. Ask the dead in Homs how they would have valued a dialogue, a conversation, an argument, a dispute in words, in a framework where murdering children was not an option. ]
Celebrate Jon Sigurðsson for the world is desperately in need of more Jon Sigurðssons. But celebrate more than Jon Sigurðsson. Celebrate what, in human history, was a remarkable event, so remarkable that it has left nations friends instead of enemies.