Mrs. Finsen, the Danish Governor’s wife
Bayard Taylor was a famous American travel writer. He wrote articles and travel books and gave public lectures. He had just been in Egypt when his paper instructed him to go to Iceland to attend the visit of Christian IX. It would be the first visit of a king to Iceland and was particularly symbolic because after hundreds of years, Iceland was being granted a constitution. The first step toward regaining her independence was being taken. Americans who were soon to celebrate their hundred year anniversary of independence were particularly interested in political events in Iceland.
A group of seven men, one English, one Icelandic and five American, were able to obtain the use of the Albion with its crew to make the trip from Scotland to Iceland. In all, the boat would carry twenty crew and seven passengers. Since the boat was not a passenger ship, the travellers had to sign on as crew members, even though as Taylor says, it was simply a convenient fiction.
One of the travellers was S. Kneeland, a medical doctor. After the voyage, he wrote a book about this historic event. As a doctor, he was a trained observer but he was not the travel writer that Taylor was. Taylor knew that to get the attention of his audience, he needed to be specific, to report details that would make scenes come alive.
Talor describes the Reykjavik of 1874 this way. “As soon as our steamer was fairly moored last evening we got into the boats and went ashore. There is a beach three or four hundred yards long, with several wooden jetties running down into the water, the rise of the tide here being seventeen feet. There was quite a little crowd waiting to receive us, and our friend Magnusson no sooner landed than he was recognized and heartily embraced by both ladies and gentlemen.”
Travellers in the past had often described Reykjavik as dirty, smelly and unimpressive. Whether the city had gradually improved or a great effort had been made to clean it up, Taylor has nothing but praise for it.
“Smooth, tolerably Broad streets of volcanic sand and gravel, with flagged sidewalks ; square wooden houses, which seemed stately in comparison with those of Thorshavn ; merchant’s store-houses, without signs, yet generally thronged with people ; little gardens of cauliflower, radishes, and turnips; white curtains, pots of geranium, mignonnette, and roses in the windows.
“Flags floated from all the larger buildings, and a new jetty, with a crimson canopy, was in preparation for the royal landing.
“Finding that I had a letter to the Danish Governor, Finsen, Mr. Thomsen accompanied me to the Government House, a white mansion on a knoll which slopes down bright and green to a little canal, connecting the harbor with a lake behind the town. In the official chamber I found a courteous gentleman in uniform, who regretted that his Majesty’s coming would lessen his power to show the desirable amount of attention to our party. He volunteered, however, to secure us good places for the services in the Cathedral, next Sunday; and this was really all we needed. Coming forth from the presence, I followed the tracks of my friends, and presently found them
at the house of Dr. Jon Hjaltalin, editor of the Saemundur Frodi, a strong, ruddy-cheeked, gray-haired son of the North, in whose welcome there was no uncertain sound. He spoke English readily, gave evidence of much and various knowledge, and seemed rejoiced to meet his journalistic brethren of other lands. We had a most agreeable visit of half an hour, and then returned through the main street, seeking the house of Sheriff Thorshenson. I asked a man who was mending the street whether he spoke Danish; he shook his head but called another workman,
who at once guided us to the Sheriffs door, and when I offered him a piece of money, laughed as if it were a good joke, and ran away.
“The royal pier sloped down to a platform, between a double row of Danish flags hung with green garlands. The gentlemen stood on this platform, and none of their addresses or the replies
There to were audible at a distance of thirty feet. A small crowd of people, gathered on the sand at the edge of the water, cheered with some heartiness, but the main body of the people, about two thousand in number, kept silent, as they heard nothing. In ten minutes all was over: the Governor came up the pier, followed by the King and Prince, -both walking rapidly and looking very cheerful and amiable. They were received with a cheer which was evidently genuine.
“After the King’s suite came the chief officials, the bishop in velvet and satin, a snowy Elizabethan ruff, and a high hat, the clergyman, and the members of the native committee—the latter strong, ruddy, farmer looking men, whose white gloves did not harmonize with their heavy brown coats. There were about forty persons in all, and the whole crowd fell in behind them as they advanced toward the Governor’s residence.
“The door of the Governor’s house opened and Madame Finsen appeared, dressed in a simple black silk, without any ornaments. She descended the steps of the first garden terrace, curtsied at the right moment to the royal guest, a little less deeply to the Prince, and accompanied them to
the door. This sounds like a very simple matter ; but not many ladies would have accomplished it with such admirable grace, tact, and self-possession.
“All Rejkiavik was looking on ; the sun flashed out as if on purpose to light up this little episode, and thus the first landing of a Danish king on the soil of Iceland came to an end.”
(Notes and quotes from Egypt and Iceland in the year 1874, Bayard Taylor)