Mackenzie, 1810: Danish war


In 1810, Sir George Steuart Mackenzie, Baronet and Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh went on an expedition to Iceland. He later wrote a book, Travels in the Island of Iceland. He took with him a number of other distinguished or, soon to be distinguished, men. One of whom was Dr. Holland who wrote his own book.

None of these people were your average English or Scotsman. You note that good old George was “Sir” and he was a Baronet and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Not exactly a laborer on a farm or a clerk in retail business. Getting to Iceland was expensive. There were no steamships, no tourist packages. You either had to rent a yacht and crew or own a yacht. When you got to Iceland, you had to hire guides and horses. You would bring most of your food with you. You would come with letters of introduction which would instruct the important figures in Iceland, government appointees, religious figures and Danish traders, to provide you with all assistance possible.

I don’t know about your ancestors but my ancestors certainly weren’t the people providing assistance to the important visitors. If they got a glimpse of them, it would be among the indentured servants who throng about the visitors’ tents inspecting everything, clothes, food, utensils, because they probably had never seen a foreigner. Sort of like us if someone dropped in from Mars.

It’s 1810 when Mackenzie, that is Sir and Baronet, arrives in Reykjavik and starts to make forays with his team of scientists into the countryside. Thank goodness he is intelligent, educated, and curious and while he and his companions collected rock samples, plants, female costumes, just about anything they can, to take back to Scotland, he also carefully records his impressions of the farms where they stay. Not all of his descriptions are flattering, especially his descriptions of the Icelandic farmhouses. However, you have to keep in mind that in Scotland, he wasn’t spending much, if any, time visiting the homes of the local peasants.

One place he is quite complimentary about is Stappen. He says

“Stappen…is a trading station, and consists of a merchant’s house, two or three storehouses, and a few cottages inhabited by fishermen. We were met at the door of the house by Madam Hialtalin, a Danish lady, whose husband, brother to our friend the priest at Saurbar, had been absent for some years. He had been taken prisoner on a voyage to Denmark, and had afterwards contrived to reach Norway; but since his arrival in that country he had not been heard of. The situation of his wife, and her family consisting of six children, was highly deserving of pity; and we had but a melancholy satisfaction in receiving the numerous marks of hospitality which they lavishly bestowed upon us. The manners of Madam Hialtalin were those of a lady, and appeared to us, who had seen no one in Iceland entitled to this appellation, to the greatest advantage. The house was perfectly clean, and the rooms neatly furnished. The principal bedroom was really a most refreshing sight to us, after the places of nightly abode to which we had for some time been accustomed. From the roof was suspended a small glass chandelier. There were three windows with festooned curtains of white muslin; a handsome canopy bed, with very neat cotton furniture, sheets white as snow, and as usual a heap of Eiderdown upon it.”

Sir George Mackenzie and his companions explore the Stappen area and he comments on how unique is the landscape. He adds that “It was our original design to have attempted the ascent of the Snæfell Jokul from the side of Stappen; but having been disappointed in this by the foggy state of the weather, we took leave of our kind hostess on the 2d July, and set out for Olafsvik, situated on the northern coast of Snæfell’s Syssel, to visit Mr. Clausen. On our leaving the house at Stappen, we were honoured by the displayof the Danish flag, which was hoisted on the roof.”

England is at war with Denmark. Mrs. Hialtalin is Danish. In spite of that, in spite of the fact that her husband was taken prisoner, has managed to make his way to Norway but has disappeared there and his wife is left with six children in an isolated trading station in Iceland, Mrs. Hialtalin plays the good host and Mackenzie is sympathetic about her plight. When Mackenzie and his companions leave, she has the Danish flag raised in their honour. Mackenzie is unstinting in his praise of her managing of her household.

There seems to be no awareness of any irony in their actions or awareness of how the trading station has luxuries unavailable to the vast majority of Icelanders. Those luxuries are provided by the profits made by the Danish traders who have a monopoly on trade in Iceland and can set both the price they´ll charge for goods they bring and the price they´ll pay for the goods Icelanders provide.

The war is between two important countries, Denmark and England. Iceland has no army and, although merchants licensed by the Danish king are able to make money, not much gets back to the crown. Iceland is a distant problem and, when all is balanced out, perhaps, a liability.

Iceland is a curiosity because of its geology and the state of scientific knowledge. It´s people are a curiosity because they live in a time warp, still medieval although it is 1810.

Mackenzie in his journal does not make as much mention of the war with Denmark as his companion, Henry Holland, but he can´t avoid seeing its effects, either. The effects are everywhere.

Iceland: War With England


Have you heard of the Napoleonic wars? Did you know that because of them, England and Denmark were at war? Did you know that Danish ports were blockaded by the English and that the trade ships that were supposed to supply Iceland with food and trade goods and take Icelandic goods in return were not able to leave port?

Did you know that the people of Icelandic were brought to the brink of starvation? That friends of Iceland in high places in England intervened and obtained a declaration from the English king to lift the blockade on Iceland?

That’s okay. Neither did I. Not, that is, until I began this arcane, strange research into life in Iceland in the late 1700s and the 1800s. I mean, most of us don’t know Canadian history, never mind what was going on in Europe in the early 1800s.


However, The Iceland Journal of Henry Holland has numerous references to the Napoleonic War and its consequences for Iceland. They are just tidbits, footnotes, brief mentions but by the time I’d finished re-reading Holland’s journal, I had a sense of Iceland being affected by something I’ve never heard anyone talk about.

In a footnote on page 114, Holland says” Bjarni (Sivertsen) may already have been engaged in negotiating the restoration (completed 1812) of funds pirated from Iceland during the 1808 Gilpin raid. Bjarni was no stranger to Britain. He was one of the Icelandic merchants whose ships were detained under war regulations at Leith 1807-1809; Sir Joseph Banks helped secure their release and offered financial support.”

Later, he says about the School House, “Behind the building which forms the present schoolhouse, a new range of buildings has been begun upon, with a view to an enlargement of the Institution. The war with Denmark, among its other consequent calamaties, has been the means of entirely suspending this scheme—from the want which it creates in Iceland of all the materials for building.”

Later in his trip he visits Mr. Jacobæus, whom, he says, “is one of the most considerable merchants in Iceland; and had much commercial connection with Denmark; though this trade has of course suffered greatly from the war between England and Denmark.”

He visits the Leira printing office, the only printing office in Iceland, and says, “It has latterly been much injured by the winter floods, & it is now in projection to construct a new building on the same spot – the execution of which is only delayed form the scarcity of timber in Iceland during the period of war.”

They visit a Mr. Gudmundson, a merchant, “who has commercial connections at Copenhagen, at Reikjaviik & at Havenefiord….We found from conversation with him that the war between England & Denmark had been greatly injurious to his trade—Three years have now elapsed since any vessel has come from Copenhagen to Buderstad; though previously to this time, it was usual for one or two vessels to enter the port annually – This privation of the accustomed inter course is severely felt by the inhabitants of the interior, who are greatly in want of corn, timber, iron &c. The warehouses at Buderstad, and other ports in this part of Iceland, are filled with the commodities of the country—fish oil, fox skins &c, which it is impossible at the present time profitably to dispose.“

When they visit Stappen, he says the merchant of the place is a Mr. Hialtalin. However, he is not there because “At the commencement of the war, he was taken prisoner, & carried into England –Thence he contrived to get into Norway, where he was about 1 1/2½ years ago. Since that time no intelligence what ever of him has reached Iceland. His wife, Madame Hialtalin, with a family of six children, continues to reside at Stappen, where she carries on the business as well as lies in her power.”

When he visits Mr. Clausen, another Danish trader, he discovers that “He collects for exportation, fish, oil, tallow, fox-skins, & the various woolen manufactures of the island–& sells to the inhabitants, both in a retail & wholesale way, different articles of foreign produce or manufacture, procured from the continent of Europe. The war between England & Denmark has been greatly detrimental to this trade. Beside the intercourse with Denmark much profit was formerly derived from the exportation of fish to France, Spain & the ports of the Mediterranean Sea; a branch of commerce which is now entirely suspended. The intercourse with England has not yet acquired a sufficiently settled footing to relieve these evils—Mr. Clausen’s warehouses are crowded with goods for which a market is wanting—He reckons that he has lying by him, (either under cover, or collected into large heaps upon the shore) many hundred thousand fish, salted or dried—Of the woollen goods, manufactured in Iceland, his stock is proportionally large. He has about 50,000 pair of mittens, or woolen gloves, and almost an equal quantity of stocking of different qualities of fineness.”

“Previously to the war, Stikkes-holm was a place of considerable trade, three or four vessels from Norway or Denmark generally coming to the port every year. The only vessel which arrived last year was one from Norway, & none has appeared here in the present summer.”

“Mr. H. had been present at the late unfortunate attack upon Copenhagen—his house & much of his property had been destroyed in the bombardment of the place. He shewed us an umbrella, broken by a shot whilst he was sleeping under it, in a tent.”

“Both Mr. Hialtalin (this is the brother of the missing Mr. Hialtalin) & Mr. Benedictsen spoke much of the distress produced in Iceland by the war between England & Denmark; & seemed to consider the English Order in Council as likely to afford only a very partial relief.”

Reykavik has an annual trade fair, “The Handel”, which Holland says is better this year, 1810, than the previous year “however, by no means equal to previous years.”

When they arrive at Hyindarmule, they attempt to buy some items of Iceland dress from the women. “We were unable, however, to effect any thing of this kind—Not that the people were unwilling to sell – they were all pleased but the impossibility, during the present period of war, of replacing any article with which they now parted.”

“We reached Eyarback at 5 in the afternoon…Previously to the war, three ships usually came there every year.”

“The merchant proprietor at Eyarback is a Mr. Lambasson—This gentleman being detained in Norway by the war, the business is conducted at present by his wife, & by an agent, Mr. Peterson. We were received by them with great hospitality, & remained at the house a few hours to refresh ourselves.”

It’s interesting that, time and again, where they stay is with Danish merchants. Their countries are at war. The English bombardment of Copenhagen resulted in 2,000 civilians being killed and 30% of the buildings being destroyed. Danish ports were effectively blockaded and the Danish navy neutralized.

However, except for one instance, Holland and his companions never felt any hostility or disapproval.

This was not a two way war between France and England but a complex web of alliances and re-alliances with Denmark having to not only fight England in order to avoid being invaded by France but by Sweden. Germany and Russia, at various times, were part of the mix.

When I get time, I’ll type up the letter of the English king who writes up the letter for the British Order in Council that is mentioned.