Ebenezer Henderson’s Iceland

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Ebenezer Henderson was the first British traveler to stay over a winter in Iceland. Other travelers had come but they stayed only during the summer. To stay longer was to risk being trapped by the weather. Raging storms regularly sank sailboats. There are many reports of foreign fishing vessels being sunk with no survivors. The evidence of such shipwrecks came in bits and pieces washing onto shore.

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There were no Inns in Iceland, no hotels as in mainland Europe. There were no roads. The weather that modern day tourists in Iceland talk about, horizontal rain, sudden bitter cold winds off the sea, having to take a set of warm underwear even though it is summer, all existed and, to make matters worse, today’s modern insulated, weather proof clothes didn’t exist.

Today, there are cafes and restaurants of many kinds, the tourist can buy a hot dog on the street or a fancy European style meal at the Pearl. In Henderson’s day, you brought your food with you plus all your equipment: cooking utensils, tents, clothes, gifts for farmers where you might stay.

Henderson endured an Icelandic winter because he was driven by his passion for spreading the Bible in a country where there were few Bibles. He was a messenger from both the English and Foreign Bible Society and God. Unlike the Mormon bishop forty years later in Laxness’s novel, Paradise Regained, Henderson was welcome wherever he went. That has to be qualified, of course, by the fact that he was, in spite of being a representative of his church and of God, a snob. He was not a street minister responsible for the welfare of the poor. He was welcome in the homes of Iceland’s upper class. In his daily life, he didn’t spend his time visiting the poverty stricken cottages of tenant farmers or labourers in whatever country in which he happened to be as he distributed bibles.

In Iceland, the ministers, whether pagan or Christian, served their political masters. It was no different in places like England. As Jane Austen, in Pride and Prejudice, makes fun of Collins, the minister who is Elizabeth’s distant cousin, but who will inherit her family’s land through entailment, she gives us a clear picture of how he kowtows to his patron, Lady Catherine. It is Lady Catherine’s right to bestow a living upon the local minister. Collins knows that it is more important to please her than to please God. What the local dignitary can give, she can also take away.

Henderson pays no attention to the misery around him when he is in Iceland. He only wants to associate with those he feels are his social equals. He wants to discuss religious philosophy not the misery in the huts of the fishermen.

He comes with a purpose and a narrow view but, like travelers before and after him, Iceland captures his imagination. In the introduction to his book,

Iceland, Or, The Journal of a Residence in that Island, During the Years 1814 and 1815, he says “It is impossible for a stranger to take a single step in Iceland, without having some uncommon object of this description presented to his view; and I, in taking down notes of his progress, his principal difficulty lies in the selection of subjects where such a multiplicity claim his attention. It not infrequently happens that he is denied the pleasure of seeing a human being for several days together, when proceeding from one part of the island to another. In crossing the deserts of the interior, he may travel two hundred miles without perceiving the smallest symptom of animated being of any description whatever; and, even in traversing the inhabited parts, he still finds himself more surrounded by nature than by human society, owing to the distance from one farm-house to another.”

Today, the population has grown from 40,000 to over 300,000. Where there were horse tracks through the wilderness, there are now paved highways and tunnels. Iceland is the most wired country in the world. Airplanes and ships bring more visitors than there are Icelanders. The isolation Henderson describes has largely disappeared. Iceland is the Connected Country.

Iceland, over the last two hundred years, has drawn explorers and scientists, then wealthy tourists and, finally, the burgeoning of ordinary tourists. Henderson was not an ordinary tourist but, still, he left silver behind. There was a bit of money in some people’s pockets after his visit. Today, there is a lot of money left behind. Iceland has few natural resources outside of hydro electricity, other than its striking natural beauty. The uniqueness of the landscape brings people. They come for the Icelandic experience.

The danger is that in trying to attract those dollars and yen and marks and pounds people will create that which is not Icelandic, that which is something people can find anywhere. Tivoli is a historic part of Copenhagen. Coney Island is an integral part of New York. Disney Land is as brash as America.

The challenge for Iceland as it works to repair its economy and finds sources of wealth that will allow it to purchase all those things it does not produce at home (this is a struggle that has existed from the time of Settlement) is to retain its Icelandic character. People came and come for the sagas, for the Viking golden age, for the landscape, for the history, and , nowadays, for the artistic and intellectual events that are regularly held, not to participate in experiences they can better have elsewhere. I don’t want to sound like those Icelandic bishops that got a law passed that said, essentially, that Icelanders shouldn’t be allowed to have any fun but Carnival is best held in sunny climes.

In all the places I have traveled, what has intrigued and interested, fascinated me was the difference between my life and the life of the local people. If there hadn’t been this difference, I might as well have stayed home. Like Henderson, Waller, Burton and uncountable numbers of others, I love those things that make Iceland uniquely Icelandic. The challenge for Icelanders will be to bring tourist money to Iceland to help heal the wounds of the kreppa while retaining their historic, cultural and artistic heritage in this new, connected world.