Death by drowning

There have been in our family since it arrived in New Iceland, three drownings. Alfred and Herbert Bristow, sons of Fredrikka Gottskalksdottir and William Bristow, drowned with three other young people when they were returning on a sailboat from a berry picking expedition. My father, in an old tradition, was named after them. My brother drowned when his front end loader went off the side of a barge into the Mackenzie River.
These drownings, while tragic, were part of an old tradition. Can we call it that? When something is done repeatedly over a very long time?
To drown was the fate of many men in Iceland. According to Richard Burton, in Iceland there was an “unusual loss of adult males, which is said to average forty per cent drowned.”
Every year, in a land where only one crop, hay, could grow, where arctic ice filling the bays, could lower the temperature enough that the ground would not thaw and the hay would not grow, producing enough food to last the coming winter was a struggle. Hay and sheep and cattle alone would not provide the food necessary. 
Fishing was essential. It provided the second part of the people’s diet but it also provided something to trade for the many products that could not be produced in Iceland.
To produce boats, a builder needs wood. Iceland, in the 1800s, had long ceased to have wood. What had been there had been used for building and fuel and, perhaps, more importantly, for charcoal. Iceland has little in the way of minerals but it does have bog iron and bog iron, to be smelted, requires charcoal.

What was available was driftwood.

When Richard Burton arrives in Iceland in 1872 he observes what he calls “the mosquito flotilla of fishing-boats”.
The largest of the fishing boats carry two masts, he says. They are clinker-built, high in the stem and stern with a high projection for the rudder. When the sun is hot, and the wood shrinks, the boats are exceptionally leaky. The boats are not well cared for and do not last very long.
He sees no decked boats. The decked boats that do exist, sixty-one or sixty-three, are nearly all used for shark fishing on the north coast. There are 3,092 open boats. These have two to twelve oars. These boats are preferred by the fishermen because they can hold a lot of fishermen. The problem is that when they sink and the crew drown, there are a lot of deaths.
The open row boats go out three to six miles to get to the fishing ground. Then they have to row back. Burton considers this arrangement a waste of both effort and time.
The crews have guts. If necessary, they’ll cross Faxa Fjörð which is around fifty miles broad.
Basalt blocks are used for ballast. The sails are just strips of cloth. He is amazed, even perplexed by how narrow the oars are. The locals say that narrow oars are necessary because of the strong currents. He doesn´t believe it and thinks it is just tradition and folklore. The oars fit into thwarts that are lined with hoop-iron or they are set between two wooden pins. 
Having rowed a skiff on Lake Winnipeg as a boy, I found the oarlocks we used that set into the thwarts worked very well. They would seem to have been more efficient than the hoop-iron or the wooden pins. Iron in Iceland was expensive and the wooden pins more readily available but without the equivalent of oar locks, oars are useless and I can’t imagine that wooden pins under the strain of the constant rowing did not often break. In a heavy sea, the loss of even one oar would be serious.
The Icelandic nets, he says, are ridiculously small. The floats are gourd-shaped bottles made in Denmark.
Burton compares the boats and fishermen he sees with the images of Viking long ships and Viking sailors and finds the current fishermen and their craft deficient. He thinks the crews perform well in good weather but in poor weather, they often do not work as a crew or team effectively but all want to be in charge with the result that no one is in charge.
The fishermen have given up the old way of dressing and now dress much like English fishermen. However, they wear three or four pair of coarse woolen socks and the socks retain water. Burton thinks Icelandic fishermen must enjoy having wet feet.
I found most interesting that the fishermen were using the Icelandic glove with two thumbs. When the palm gets wet or worn, the glove can be flipped over and the other side used. Many years ago when I was giving a reading at a school on an island in Ontario, I was shown such a pair of mittens with two thumbs, not gloves, and asked if they were Icelandic. Apparently, around the turn of the century there had been some Icelandic people living in the area and these mittens had been kept and now were in a local museum.
Burton mentions, as do many others, that the fishermen take little in the way of food with them even though they may be at sea for twelve hours doing strenuous labor, working in a cold wind, often soaking wet. They do take a mixture of whey and water to drink and lots of snuff.
The fishermen, he says, rarely live for long. Poor food, fatigue, the tremendous hardship of the work and environment, constant wet feet, poor hygiene. The fishermen suffer from chronic rheumatism that is so severe that the fingers bend backwards. Death often comes from lung infections, gout or paralysis.
Since What The Bear Said was published with its fourteen folk tales, many people have talked to me about their families. Time and again, people have said, my great great grandfather drowned. It is a constant refrain. If forty percent of male deaths were by drowning, what family could escape such a fate?
When men were not needed for hay harvest, they rode or walked to the coast and joined a fishing crew. They lived in rudely built huts near the shore. No stove. Sometimes not enough fuel to cook their food. They were wet all the time. There was no chance to sit before a blazing fire or even close to a wood stove.
Fall fishing in Manitoba was often brutal with winds from the north, ice freezing on both men and skiffs but, at the end of the day, there was a stove and an abundance of wood. Both men and clothes could dry out and get warm. There was hot food. The waterproof clothes, the rubber boots, most of the time, kept the fishermen dry.
That Icelandic fishermen survived at all seems like a miracle. Each year when they went to the coast, they knew the odds, they knew the living conditions, but they lived in a world with no choice because they fished or died of hunger. As dangerous and difficult was the fishing, the greater tragedy was when the harbours filled with drift ice and there could be no fishing. Then there wasn’t much left to be done except pray and, sometimes, those prayers were answered with the stranding of whales. They must have seemed like manna from heaven. A gift of meat and fat from God.
Embrace my heritage? Yes, I embrace these men on their trek through the mountains, their nights on hard beds made of sand and seaweed, of dark winter days spent in open boats hauling in fish. They may, as Burton says, no longer be Vikings and their boats may be poor craft but they went to sea day after day to put out a line and what could be braver than that?
(With notes and quotes from Richard Burton’s Ultima Thule or A Summer In Iceland, 1875. Although the book was published in 1875, Burton was in Iceland in 1872 so he describes the Iceland of our immigrant ancestors.)

Logberg-Heimskringla’s birthday party

Publishing in Iceland has a long and honorable tradition. Jón Arason, the last Catholic bishop, and a well-known poet, brought the first printing press to Iceland around 1530.

In 1584 Guðbrandur Þorláksson printed the first translation of the Bible into Icelandic. This printing had far reaching consequences because it helped to preserve the Icelandic language.

Most early publications in Iceland were religious. However, gradually, secular material was published. By 1773 the Icelandic journal ‚Islandske Maaneds Tidender‘ was in print. It was mostly intended for a Danish readership. It stopped publishing in 1776. Other publications that followed it were written for the upper, ruling class in Iceland. Around 1848 new newspapers appeared. During this time and up to about 1910, the papers were essentially editorial sheets expressing opinions about Iceland‘s struggle for independence. The editors were also the owners of these often short-lived papers and they used them to express their personal point of view.

According to Richard Burton in his book of 1875, Ultima Thule, “The first newspaper printed in Iceland began in 1775.” By the time Burton went to Iceland, the paper had failed but he says that back issues were available in the College Library.

At this time, three periodicals were being published. Two of these were published in Reykjavik. Thjóðólfr was printed twice a month. The editor was Hr Procurator Jón Guðmundsson. The Tíminn appeared once a month. The third periodical was Norðanfari, published in Akureyri. It was usually published every two weeks.

Burton was in Iceland in 1872 but his book, Ultima Thule, came out in 1875. His interest in Iceland was intense. He made many contacts and friends in Iceland and managed to keep up on Icelandic news so even though his book was published three years after his visit, his information was current.

It is at this time that our ancestors are beginning to leave Iceland. It was this view of newspapers and their role that the emigrants take with them. They were used to the idea of a newspaper being a single sheet printed on both sides. Or two sheets. They were used to the idea that the paper‘s purpose was to express the views of the editor and the editor would be the owner of the paper. The paper would take a political position. It wouldn’t attempt to be objective. It would be less a news paper than a paper expressing the editor‘s opinions.

In 1876 in New Iceland, Jon Gudmundsson started a handwritten paper, Nýi þjóðólfur. This was the same name as the paper mentioned by Richard Burton. By choosing the name of an Icelandic newspaper, Jon was making it clear that he would attempt to create a paper like the one in Iceland. He wouldn’t try to create a new paper for a new world. The Icelandic influence was very clear. Jon took his newspaper from house to house and read the news aloud.

When the large group of Icelandic settlers arrived, the writing out of a paper and taking it around to read at individual homes became impractical. Some form of publication was needed to to provide the settlers with news, with information, and with a place to present their opinions and their ideas. In spite of the smallpox epidemic and all the other hardships, The New-Iceland Printing Company was established. Shares were issued at ten dollars each. The surprising fact is that in spite of the poverty of the settlers, there were subscribers. Enough to pay for a printing press.

Rev. Jon Bjarnason was in Minneapolis. At the request of the settlers, he purchased a printing press and shipped it to New Iceland. The paper was named Framfari (Progress). It was printed at Lundi (Riverton). The first issue appeared in 1877.

Heimskringla appeared in 1886. Lögberg was created in opposition to it in 1888. Both papers were highly political. Heimskringla supported the Conservative party and the Unitarian church. Lögberg supported the Liberal party and the Lutheran church. As had been the tradition in Iceland, the papers were filled with polemics. The papers not only reported on controversies in the community, they stirred up controversy. There were often bitter battles. However, in 1959, faced with declining subscriptions and financial problems, the papers amalgamated. It was an uneasy marriage at first and the way to keep it from being a divorce was to avoid taking positions on politics and religion. That still holds true, for though the fierce battles of old have faded with the secularization of society, there are still enough people who have strong opinions about religious matters to start a war. Old political divides, now not just between Liberals and Conservatives but, also, with the NDP, have meant avoiding taking political positions.

We‘re celebrating Lögberg-Heimskringla’s 125th birthday shortly. It totters, teeters, on the edge of going out of business. It’s teetered and tottered for years. There are discussions about it turning into a monthly magazine, into a newsletter for the INL. It depends for its survival on donations and, although the Icelandic North American community has spread out, been largely integrated, the cheques keep coming. The community is both generous and loyal. However, fifth generation kids are a Canadian hodgepodge of every national group you can imagine. A youngster might have an Icelandic name like Valgardson but be English, Irish, Russian, Scots, and one sixteenth Icelandic. The Snorri program and Nuna both try to help remedy this but they can only take in a small number of young people. What is needed are subscribers. That will keep the paper going. The paper, in turn, will help keep the community going. The current editor is Joan Eyolfson Cadham. She’s producing a paper worth buying and worth reading.

Because Icelanders integrated so quickly, the paper, a long time ago, lost its immigrant purpose. It doesn’t need to help people find jobs, learn English, get training or education. It now is about preserving our heritage, providing communication among the far-flung Icelandic organizations and communities, and providing a voice for the writers of our community.

One hundred and twenty-five years is a long time. Long enough to make LH the longest, continuously published ethnic paper in Canada. It’s a tradition worth having pride in, worth supporting. Take out your credit card and subscribe. Jón Arason started this tradition a long time ago. He lost his head. Let him at least keep the tradition.

(There is going to be a birthday party at the LH offices on Oct. 13).