Our ancestors, our heroes

Farm on Snaefellsness

Farm on Snaefellsness, Collingwood

The letters Uno von Troil sent to his patron are, for me filled with intriguing details. Unfortunately, there are no footnotes to expand some of these details.
Probably the most interesting thing he says about the economy of Iceland is that in spite of the harsh laws, the Icelanders manage to trade in smuggled goods. Iceland has a rugged coast. There are many possible harbours where a boat can anchor while word can be spread from farm to farm and the farmers can load up their horses with sheep skins, wool, preserved meat, knitted goods, wadmal, and eider down, anything that they might use to barter for desperately needed goods.

Remember, there were no mineable metals in Iceland. Everything made of metal from horse shoes to sewing needles had to be imported. Every farmer, it was said, was his own blacksmith but blacksmiths need coal, charcoal, and metal bars that can be shaped to whatever is needed.

Since grain could not ripen, barley, rye, and later, rice, needed to be imported. The Icelanders preferred rye biscuit, probably because the biscuit could be stored for long periods of time and, unlike the grain and flour, were not moldy.
According to von Troil, the Dutch smugglers brought better quality goods. Why wouldn’t you deal with the smugglers if they gave a better price for your goods and provided you with higher quality items?

The king could collect his 6000 rix dollars for providing a license, and instruct the trading companies to send 24 to 30 ships a year to Iceland and even instruct a company to provide good quality goods but the king was in his court and Iceland was far away and more of a nuisance than a benefit. Companies driven by the desire to make their owners rich weren’t good at self-regulation any more than they are today. Horsemeat in your hamburger isn’t a new phenomenon. Breast implants with poor quality silicon that leaks isn’t a new problem. If a merchant ship that has an exclusive license to a harbour so there’s no competition sells you rotten grain, low quality metal, poor cloth, watered brandy and then sails away there’s no place to complain to or to which to return the inferior goods.

What we need is someone like Jonas Thor to slow down long enough to translate descriptions of this smuggling. If Dutch ships were being seized then there will be court records of the seizures, the people involved, the penalties. A translation of the laws regarding smuggling would be a great help in understanding conditions of the time and the risks that our ancestors took to obtain decent goods to help them survive the coming winter. If not Jonas, then surely there must be others, university students, graduate students, history buffs who could unlock the lives of those people we celebrate at every Icelandic Festival.

I’ve been told that some people don’t like being reminded of how poor our people were, what terrible conditions they often lived under, how harsh was the weather. To ignore these things is to cheat our ancestors of the credit they deserve for their accomplishments. How dreadful! People who faced what seemed like impossible odds just to survive, who, generation after generation, made lives for themselves in conditions that required fierce strength and determination, were heroic. Getting out of bed in the morning when there is no food, no heat, the very real possibility of dying from hunger and cold and not giving up is heroic.

Those who stayed in Iceland, determined to make it a better place, were heroic. Those who risked everything by travelling to foreign places were heroic. They were heroic because of the obstacles they overcame. Pretend that those obstacles didn’t exist and you strip them of their heroism.

Their enemy wasn’t a foreign army. They did not face lines of troops with cannons and bayonets. They faced just as deadly enemies, though: incredibly bad weather, commercial exploitation, political neglect, natural disasters, rampant diseases. They died, at times, in great numbers, facing these enemies. They were cut down in the thousands by hunger and disease. They didn’t give up.

If we are going to celebrate the heroism of these people, we have to tell the stories of the battles they fought, the battles they lost and won.

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