We’ve all heard of the ships of the emigration but how many of us have actually seen a travel schedule for those ships?
These were real ships, real crews, with fares to be collected, schedules to be met. These are the ships that took you to your destination in Iceland or, if you were leaving Iceland, took you away to the distant shores of your dreams. Here is one of the posters your ancestors would have seen and studied closely.
Think how intently they would have read the information, the dates, the cost, the accommodation.
If they were thinking of leaving Iceland, taking young children, how important would be the length of the voyage to Scotland? If they had carefully saved their rigs dollars, had them hoarded in a sock under their pillow, they would have memorized the cost of the fares and, at night, counted their coins once again to see if there were enough silver there to buy a passage and, if there weren’t, they’d have lain in the dark, thinking about how they might get the rest.
These posters held people’s futures. Ameríka. Ameríka. The land of dreams and opportunity. In Independent People Laxness has the fare of the youngest of Bjartur’s sons paid for by a relative already in Amerika. That youngest son later sends money so that one of his brothers can follow him to Amerika but the brother squanders the money on a horse because he has become infatuated with a girl who is above his social station. There will be no Amerika for him.
In Paradise Reclaimed, the main character, Steinar of Hliðar, does go to Amerika where he eats turkey and porridge but only at the ruination of his family. He eventually sends money so that they may join him in Utah.
Amerika was on everyone´s mind. Many left. Many more would have left if they could have raised the cost of the fare.
The well-to-do farm owners were opposed to emigration and the loss of cheap labour and tried to keep information about Amerika from reaching their workers. In one instance, an agent who was to give a talk in Reykjavik about the opportunities in Amerika was unable to do so because a group was organized to make so much noise that he could not be heard. In spite of the actions of the farmers, word did spread, small-holders who had sheep and land to sell, often could raise the necessary money. However, many were unable to take their entire family so some children were left behind, sometimes wives were left behind, but with a promise that when there was money to pay for their passage, the family members would be brought to Amerika.
Some families sold everything, travelled to the ports to meet the ships that would take them to England or Scotland for the first leg of their journey only to have the ships come so late that the potential emigrants, having had to spend their money for room and board, could no longer could pay for a ticket. There are many stories of individuals borrowing money from friends and family and, when they arrived in Amerika, making their first priority paying off their debt.
In Paradise Reclaimed, when the unscrupulous purchasing agent who works for the Scots’ buyers of cattle wants to stop Steina from taking their son to Amerika, he goes to his friend the sheriff and says, “I demand that the Hliðar folk be restrained from leaving while the case is being investigated.” He’s objecting to Steina, the young girl he’s got pregnant, taking their son to Amerika. That’s in spite of the fact that he’s denied being the father and driven the family to ruin with the result that they all have become paupers.
The sheriff replies, “Have you considered what sort of a favour you are doing the taxpayers by interdicting parish paupers from emigraitng?” “I know of parish councils that thank God for the chance of being allowed to pay t hem their fares to America.”
So it was not just those who could pay for their fare who went to Amerika but, sometimes, it was the indigent, the paupers, the poorest of the poor, those who were paid for with a special tax that was then given to the farmer who would keep them for the least amount of money. However, they, too, would have been intensely interested in what the posters had to tell them about the coming trip to a distant wilderness.
The emigrants seldom had large dreams. The poverty in which they lived was such that they often just hoped that life would be improved. In Amerika, a woman could get a job at five dollars a month with board and room. Five dollars, for some farm workers, was the equivalent of two year’s wages. Ameríka, where the letters said, there was lots of food and it was good. Where a man didn’t have to be worth four hundreds (the equivalent of the value of four cows) before he could legally marry. Ameríka. Where your employer didn’t have the right to beat you with a rod or a tree root. And the first giant step to having your own land was a voyage to Scotland.
Allthough many North Americans of Icelandic descent can say in what year their lang afi or amma came to Amerika, it’s important for us to understand what this voyage was like. This original poster will provide a lot of information about conditions on the voyage.
Think of them standing before this poster and how it must have affected them.
(image from The Home of the Eddas, Charles G.
Warnford Lock, 1872. A somewhat shorter version of this article originally appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla. Consider subscribing.)