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.

Þjóðhátíðardagurinn

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.

Embrace Our Heritage Part 5

Reykjavik


The stories in What The Bear Said are set in one or more of these three worlds. “Sigga’s Prayer”, takes place in the first world of Iceland and ends as she is leaving for Amerika. The title story of the book, “What The Bear Said”, takes place in New Iceland. “Sidewalk of Gold” begins in Iceland and ends in New Iceland. These are stories about the transition between the old world and the new world and how people joined both past and present to create these new lives. These are stories of emigration and immigration.
The Iceland of our ancestors was a harsh place. Poverty in the 1800s was endemic. Iceland was the poorest country in Europe and Europe was poor, so poor that people left their home countries in vast numbers.
We can embrace our heritage by embracing facts, by embracing numbers but that is not where memories lie. When we say let us embrace our heritage, we usually mean let us embrace our families, our ancestors, our people. Our people with all their quirks and virtues and faults. Just like us and our relatives today with our virtues and faults.
 The Great Geysir

In 1874, Bayard Taylor, a famous American journalist went to Iceland to report on the visit of King Christian IX. Bayard and his companions went to the geysers at the same time as the king and his entourage.
Bayard writes, “Soon afterward there came a married couple, the mother carrying a baby which, as it needed but a glance to see, was almost dying of croup”. Croup is caused by a viral infection and results in a barking cough and a narrowing of the airways. It interferes with a child’s ability to breathe. The child would have been struggling to breathe. “They had carried the child on horseback for five hours, in the hope of finding relief. There was no time to be lost; hot baths and poultices were ordered at the byre (farm) near at hand, and in the meantime an opiate was administered. The gasping and writhing of the child was too much for those strong Icelandic men. The mother stood calm and firm, holding it; but Zoega (the guide) ran away in one direction and Eyvindur (the other guide) in the another, crying like children, and the farmers turned aside their heads to hide their tears.”
“At the byre nothing could exceed the kindness of the farmer’s family,–in fact, of all who could help. The King’s purveyor furnished white bread for a poultice; a hot bath was made ready, and the father stuffed the child’s clothes into his bosom to keep them warm for it. All night the people watched with it, and the next morning everybody looked happy, on hearing that its condition had somewhat improved.”
“I made an effort to talk with a group of farmers, finding them ready enough, only a little embarrassed at the start; but when I asked: “Do you know Saemund’s Edda?” there was an instant flash and flame in their faces and all shyness vanished. The Njal and Volsunga Sagas, Snorre Sturlsson, with a score of obscurer Sagas of which I had never heard, were eagerly mentioned and discussed.”
There is everything in this account. The diseases that afflict Iceland, the lack of medical care, the stoicism of the people, the great difficulty of travel, the pride in the distant heritage and the belief that there was once a golden age.
Surely, all this is worth embracing. Reading Taylor”s various accounts of Iceland in 1874, I want to reach through time and embrace the people he describes. Taylor says “Within an hour I had seen tenderness, goodness, knowledge, and desire for knowledge”.

Shopping In Reykjavik, 1874

If your ancestors lived in Reykjavik or, more likely, visited there to trade, who would they have dealt with? Who were the people who decided what they’d be paid for their precious trade goods and what they’d paid for the supplies they needed to survive for a year?

Richard Burton, 1874, gives a good picture of who made up the business establishment.

Since the trading season was the summer when the weather was at its best, the traders would all be in Reykjavik but, not surprisingly, most of them left for Copenhagen as the trading season ended. From RB’s description, it sounds like the traders kept a good deal to themselves, making the best of this hardship post by having picnics at the Laxá River and by going riding in the countryside. The country folk, and since Reykjavik was little more than a small town, virtually everyone was country folk, might be working  long days getting in the hay, taking care of animals, pounding dried fish, knitting, doing everything possible to see that there would be enough food to last through the coming winter, but the traders, as they picnicked, had no such concerns. Come the end of the season, they were heading back to Denmark and civilization.

The storekeepers were called merchants (kaupmaðr). They were the big shots. They called the shots.  Their establishments had no signs or names on them but had prime positions facing the sea. The people who worked in these stores were mostly hired  help working for Copenhagen firms. They received fixed salaries rather than being on commissions.

According to RB, these are the people your ancestors would have had to deal with:

1.       Hr Egill Egilsson (Icelander), of the Glasgow House, and agent of the “Jón Sigurðsson‘ steamer
2.       2. Hr Fischer, A Dane, married to an Icelandic wife, settled at Copenhagen, and occasionally visiting the island. He occupies the corner tenement to the right of the Bridge House and he has large stores fronting his shop.
3.       Hr Havstein (Dane), who has not long been established; his private dwelling is attached to his store at the west end of Harbour Street, but he usually lives at Copenhagen. This house charters two or three ships a year to carry its goods.
4.       4. Hr Hannes Jónsson, an Icelander, son of the former Bishop Steingrimur Jónsson. His stock is furnished by Hr Jonsen of Copenhagen, who has also establishments at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.
5.       Hr Robb, the son of an English merchant, who settled at and was naturalised in Iceland. He speaks German, but not a word of English. It is the smallest of all the establishments and seems to do business only in lollipops. (Naturalisation is wisely  made easy in Iceland. The foreigner swears allegiance, pays $2, and straighway becomes a citizen.)
6.       Hr P.C.Knutzen, a Dane, whose agent is Hr Sviertsen. He trades on his own account, without a company and, being young and wealthy, he prefers Copenhagen to Rekjavik. At Hafnafjörð he has another establishment, and an agent(Hr Zimsen).
7.       Hr Möller. The Club is held at  his house.
8.       Hr Schmidt (Danish), who hires a house at Reykjavik, and passes the winter at Copenhagen. He is consul for Holland.
9.       Hr Th. A. Thomsen, a Dane of Flensburg, born in Iceland. He passes the winter at Copenhagen; and, besides being one of the principal traders, he is well-known for his civility and kindness to strangers.
10.   Hr Edward Siemsen, at the east end of the town. He is agent for his brother and their nephew, and he also acts as Consul for Denmark.

Only two of the traders are Icelandic, Egill Egillsson and Hannes Jónsson; however, Hannes is only an agent working for Jonsen of Copenhagen, a company large enough to not only have a trading post in Reykjavik but stores at Hafnafjörð, Papós, and Seyðisfjörð.

The Icelanders weren’t bringing money. There was very little silver (rigs dollars or the occasional shilling).

When they rode into Reykjavik with their pack train of horses, they were bringing “salt meat, beef, and mutton; tallow; butter, close packed; wool in the grease; skins of sheep, foxes, and seals; feathers, especially eider down;  oil of whales, sharks and seals; fine and coarse jackets of Wadmal, woolen stockings, and mitts; stock-fish and sulfur. The major items they wanted in return for their goods were timber, mostly pine and fir, salt, coal, grain, coffee, spices, tobacco and liquor. They could get beams for roofing and framing, twenty-two to twenty-four feet long, one inch boards for side-lining of houses, three-inch planks, and finer woods” for the cabinet maker.

They had to pay $2 for a 44 gallon barrel of salt. They had to have salt for the fishing season.

The coal that was available came from Britain. There was a chronic lack of fuel but coal was both expensive and difficult to transport on horseback. Split birch stove wood was imported but it wasn’t available to the ordinary Icelander.

The wheat and rye came as grain, flour and made into biscuits. Baking ovens, RB says, only exist in Reykjavik. Grain being taken into the countryside would be made as loaves cooked in the ground or as flat bread. An oven would take too much fuel.

Rice had become a staple commodity and was used for making rice-milk. A number of travelers from around this time mention being served rice milk.

There were luxuries. Cinnamon, pepper, cloves and nutmeg were available. Coffee was available but tea was very rare. A little chocolate, RB says, was brought from Copenhagen.

Large amounts of snuff were imported and sold at $3 a lb.

The trading shops sell port, sherry, claret, champagne, rum and cognac. They are expensive and of poor quality. The beer is used for commercial establishments. Brennivín, Korn-schnapps, or rye spirits are so cheap that there is no need to water them down unless you’re selling them to the peasants and adding a little water is a way the merchant can make a few extra cents. Apparently country merchants can sell 600 gallons of liquor a year.

So, there you have it. You ride into Reykjavik with your trade goods to get a year’s supply of everything you need to survive the coming winter and you  ride out with salt, lots of salt, enough grain, probably rye, to last the year, some wood planks if you’ve had a good year and can afford it, some bags of Rangoon rice and, if you’ve had a really good year, some spices to add to your daily diet of fish, skyr, rye bread and porridge.

You probably have a bottle of brandy in your pocket and sway a little in the saddle as you take some fresh snuff out of your horn.

There were more goods than that available, of course, but it will have to wait for tomorrow for a more detailed list of the items your great great grandmother hoped to buy when she arrived in Reykjavik.

(Material from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule, 1875.)