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.