Iceland, 1810: Henry Holland


Have you heard of Henry Holland? Are you hot for Iceland? Are you proud of your Icelandic roots? Do you want to get a sense of Iceland in 1810? That’s 62 years before a lot of our ancestors made the perilous journey to Amerika.

But even those who were 35 years old or 25 years old or 5 years old were leaving an Iceland that had changed little from when Uno Von Troil visited in 1772. They were leaving an Iceland that had changed little from when Henry Holland traveled around Iceland in 1810 with his companions, staying at farmhouses and in churches, fascinated by Iceland’s famous geology but, for us, more importantly, describing the people and places where he stayed.

Who was this Henry Holland? He was, according to the cover of his book, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland 1810 “one of Victorian London’s most celebrated physicians and most tireless travellers”.

Toward the end of their journey, Holland tells us

We resumed then our journey after dinner to day; being attended to by Odde, the first stage, by the Sysselman & his secretary – The former was good enough to supply us with his horses, that our own might be reserved for the remainder of the journey. The road to Odde, (which is 14 o 15 miles from Hlidarende) led us down the valley of the Marker Fliot….The farms & the pasture in this district are greatly superior to any we have seen elsewhere in Iceland. The farm houses are numerous, & neat in their appearance. A few miles from Hlidarende, we passed the church & hamlet of Breida-bolstadr –This is the richest living in the whole island, the nominal salary of the minister being 182 specie-dollars – (Danish cash) his real profits from the church much more considerable – Odde is situated on the western side of the Eastern Rangaá, at no great distance from the river, & only a few miles from the sea — Arrived here, we found a church of a very superior kind, large, neat, & ornamented with some degree of taste — a very large house too, appropriated to the minister of the parish…Though we did not arrive until late in the evening, it was thought necessary to prepare a meal for us, & a little before 12, a repast of baked mutton, & rice milk was brought upon the table.”

This is a hospitality that is recounted time and again over Holland’s months of travel in Iceland.

Holland is a trained observer. He misses nothing. He is curious about everything. And, the Icelanders are every bit as curious about him and his companions. Most of them have never seen an Englishman, may never have seen a foreigner unless it is a Danish merchant.

He says “our persons & pursuits had been curiously & minutely examined by the Icelanders – In no place, however, did we observe this curiosity more strongly manifested than at Buderstad. A short excursion which we made this evening into the Lava, with our hammers & specimen bags, was attended by a numerous groupe of women and children, who followed all our steps, & allowed not a single movement to escape observation.“

No wonder everyone came to see the Englishmen, these strange creatures from a far country doing the strangest of things. Going to the lava beds and chipping off pieces of rock, bringing them back and wrapping them in paper. They must have thought the Englishmen quite mad. Here was a country made up of lava. Lava was everywhere. And these strange men were chipping off pieces to take back to England.

I can just hear people going back to their own homes and saying, “Do you know what those Englishmen were doing?“

In Grundeviik, the bondi, a M Jonson, who is the principle farmer, is elderly. When Holland questions him, he says that “we were the only Englishmen, who had visited Grundeviik…He recollected to have once seen a Frenchman there“.

These are our people. Maybe not in a direct line of ammas and afis, but our ancestors were just the same. Most of them had not seen a foreigner. Most of them had not traveled far from the farm on which they lived. Travel was still difficult and dangerous, often impossible.

When you read Holland’s journal and he daily recounts traveling in the pouring rain, the fierce wind, the dangerous bogs where men and horses could be mired and die, the snow in the mountains even in summer, the cold even in summer, you begin to understand what it meant for our people to decide to leave their farm, travel for days to the nearest harbour where they could get passage on a boat to England or Scotland.

These are still the days of the sailboats. Everything depended on the weather. At the beginning of Holland’s journal, he says they were delayed for over a week because bad weather delayed their ship. When they are ready to leave Reykjavik, weather, once more, delays their leaving and even after the ship sails, the weather keeps them from making any progress. The storms are so bad that they decide to get off the ship at the earliest opportunity.

Sixty-five years would pass before our ancestors would reach New Iceland but they still endured the conditions Holland describes in 1810 because so little had changed between 1810 and the 1870s. They endured the travel he described because all travel was still on horseback. Travelers stayed in tents or in unheated churches.They rode in rain. And wind. And cold.

There were many foreign travelers after Holland who wrote about their experience exploring Iceland but he is well worth reading because his journal is detailed, specific, intelligent and reading the works of the early travelers and the later travelers gives a clear picture of a country trapped in time. A country where there was little opportunity to live the better life promised by Amerika.