Was Afi A Smuggler


Many of us, I say us, because it was certainly true of me, had no idea of what life was like for Icelanders in the 1700s and 1800s even though it was social and economic conditions during these times that led to our ancestors leaving Iceland the latter part of the 1800s. What I heard, repeatedly, was that our ancestors left Iceland because of the volcanic eruptions. I’ve heard this repeated time and again, as if it were gospel, both in private conversation and in public speeches.

While it is true that the effects of volcanic eruptions contributed to people making the decision to leave for North America, another hardship piled upon previous hardships, there was much more to it than that.

Uno von Troil, writing his Letters on Iceland, based on his visit in 1772, gives a summary of what trade was like for the Icelanders. Some of the conditions he mentions in brief (unfortunately, he does not elaborate) give us a glimpse into life for our lang (x6 or so) ammas and afis.

Von Troil points out that over the centuries there had been many changes in the way that trade was conducted with the Icelanders. What is obviously the major problem is that the trade was not under the control of the Icelandic people. The days of Viking ships were long past. The Icelanders were in no position to carry their goods to various markets.

He points out that until around 1400, the Norwegians were virtually the only people trading with the Icelanders. What fish the Icelanders didn’t eat or export in their own ships (the Icelanders still had ships with which to export goods), the Norwegians bought.

The English took over this trade, he says, until the Reformation. Although the mention of the English is just in this one line, the relationship of the English to Iceland waxes and wanes but never stops. It is long and, sometimes, troubled relationship.

During the Reformation, trade with Iceland was given to the Germans, particularly traders from Hamburg. Christian IV prohibited the Hanseatic League towns from trading with Iceland in 1602 and gave the right to trade to Copenhagen, Malmo and some other cities that were controlled by Denmark.
The Iceland company had the trade rights from 1620 to 1662.

In von Troil’s notes, I found a most interesting comment about the Iceland Company and the Turkish raids. We all know about the pirate raids that resulted as a large number of Icelanders being taken and sold as slaves in Algeria.

According to von Troil, the king was upset with the Iceland Company because not only had the company, in return for their exclusive license, promised to provide the goods necessary for the Icelanders but to protect Iceland from marauders.

Von Troil doesn’t explain the situation in detail but he says that the people who owned shares in the company were paid for their stock holdings but those people who had 1000 rix dollar shares were only given 500 and those who had 200 rix dollar shares got nothing. The company had paid the king for every trading port plus two rix dollars to the governor. It also contributed to the king’s “magazines” on the Westman Islands.

After the Iceland company was done away with, the trade of every port was auctioned off to the highest bidder every six years. However, he says, since 1734, a trading company has been given exclusive trading rights to the Icelandic ports for a yearly sum of 6000 rix dollars.

In return for this payment, the company is supposed to send 24 to 30 ships a year. They bring (or are supposed to bring) grain, bread, wine, iron and wood, etc. There are 22 trading ports. There they get fish, meat, butter, blubber, skins , wool and woolen goods.

He says that he doesn’t know if the trading company actually makes much money from the trade. The reason for that, he says is that the Dutch, illegally, bring much better goods to trade with the Icelanders. The Icelanders, illegally, sell their goods to the Dutch. This is regarded as smuggling and a number of Dutch ships have been seized. The legitimate trading company knows that smuggling and illegal trading is going on because the Icelanders bring such a small amount of goods to trade with them.

Von Troil mentions that at Reykjavik there is a woolen “manufactory, where twenty or thirty workmen are employed” but he does not explain what it is that is manufactured. Is it wool being readied for market or is it finished products? Surprisingly, he says that there are only a few looms here and there. Later travellers make reports of looms but do say that they are small and primitive compared to the looms in Europe.

The state of the Icelandic economy can be judged by von Troil comments on money. He says there is so little actual money that in the entire country can’t amount to more than a few thousand rix dollars.
The Icelanders keep their accounts not in money but according to yards of wadmal and number of fish. Forty eight two pound fish are worth one rix dollar. Twenty-four ells (about two to two and a half feet) are worth one rix dollar.

He says that you can buy a horse for 150 fish. So that would be about three rix dollars. You can buy a farm for 6000 ells. Think of that as 1000 yards of woven cloth.

So, there you have it, in the lines and between the lines. The Danish company that was supposed to protect the Icelanders in return for their trading license, didn’t, and Icelanders were killed and taken into slavery. Profit before responsibility. Not by the king but by the trading company.

The goods supplied by the later trading companies was often of poor quality. This did not improve with time. Later reports in the 1800s make note of the fact that some ships, to increase profits, did not even bring poor goods to trade, but nothing except cheap Danish brandy.

Your ancestors, if they could, in the face of harsh penalties, traded smuggled goods because they were of better quality.

Your ancestors lived in an economy where there was no banking system, hardly any actual cash in silver or gold, and this would not change until the English and Scottish traders started coming and were paying cash for sheep and horses. That was still long in the future. When Anthony Trollope goes to Iceland on the yacht, The Mastiffe, owned by John Burns, in 1878, he comments on the fact that there is still no bank in Iceland. More than a hundred years have passed since von Troil’s visit in 1772. Trollope says “One deficiency in Reykjavik which the most surprised me was the want of a bank. There is no such thing as a commercial bank in Iceland.”

One must, of course, be wary of historical documents, particularly personal papers, for much is included that is hearsay. For example, von Troil says of the Icelanders kidnapped by the Turkish pirates that most were returned to Iceland. We know that is not true. Still, his observations are interesting and informative and give us some sense of what life was like for those great (x6) ammas and afis of ours, and a sense of the social and economic conditions that led, eventually, to our people going to the harbours and getting onto English ships to begin their journey to Amerika.

1772, Iceland: making a living


If, when you transported yourself to the Iceland of 1772 with the help of a green bottle’s contents, you had stayed more than a day and a night, you might have discovered quite a bit about how lang lang ammas and avis managed to survive in this inhospitable climate.

You’d have quickly discovered that they survived by fishing and stock raising.
When your avi was fishing on the coast, he’d clean and gut the fish, then give them to your lang amma. The job of the women was to dry the fish. Once dried, the fish can last a long time, can be easily transported on the back of a horse, and provides protein. The drying takes a lot of work for the fish have to be lain out and turned. If rain threatens, lang amma has to take the fish inside inside or pile it up and cover it for if it gets wet, it will be spoiled.

In summer, your lang avi mows the grass, digs turf, collects whatever he can to use as fuel. Men and women go searching for sheep and goats (it is interesting that von Troil mentions goats but it is unlikely that any such goats existed in 1772. They were too destructive of grazing ground. He probably took that information from an earlier publication.) and butcher cattle for the winter.

When your lang amma wasn’t milking goats, sheep and cows, taking care of the animals, raking grass, cooking food, sewing, spinning, gathering eggs and eider down, she worked at weaving wadmal, a coarse cloth that was used locally but also traded to the Danish trading ships.

Von Troil mentions that the Icelanders make use of urine for cleaning the wool. This wasn’t uncommen in other countries. Farms would have containers for people to pee into as the urine was important for the treating of wool.

The men, he says, prepare leather, but gives no description. Later travellers describe the process in some detail. He says that in the tanning process, the Icelanders use meadow sweet.

He does mention that there are a few who work in gold and silver and others have been instructed in mechanics but he makes no mention of what kind of mechanics or to what purpose.

If you had been in the right place at the right time, you might have seen a sledge that a farmer built like a ship with sails. It was big enough to hold four or five people. In the winter, it was used to sail over even country (frozen lake, maybe?). Unfortunately, two of the farmer’s sons took it out and sailing home from church they overturned it and it was broken to pieces. (When my father was a boy, people in Gimli were building ice-boats, that is ships with sails meant to travel over the ice of Lake Winnipeg. I wonder if any of them knew they were following an old example?)

You would find that the amount of work your lang afi and amma did on the farm was laid down by local bylaws. One such bylaw said that “a man is to mow as much hay in one day, as grows on thirty fathoms square of manured soil, or forty fathoms square of land not manured, or he is obliged to dig 700 pieces of turf eight feet long and three broad.

“In winter, if the snow drifts reach to the horses bellies, then your afi was to clear snow off an area for a hundred sheep.

In talking to your host and his workers, you’d discover that wages are fixed by law. Your lang afi would tell you that his wages are four dollars and twelve yards of wadmal. Your lang amma would tell you that her wages are two dollars and five yards of wadmal. Imagine trying to save enough to put a down payment on a small farm such as Summerhouses. It takes Bjartur, the main character in Independent People, eighteen years to save up enough to make a down payment on a poor piece of land.

In summer your lang amma is to rake together as much hay as three men can mow. She is to weave three yards of wadmal in a day.Those rules are set out in the bylaws of the sysla.

When your lang avi is sent fishing in the winter, that is from 25th of September to May 14, he is allowed six pounds of butter and eighteen pounds of dried fish every week. This is all he gets to eat. No puddings, pies, cakes, roast beef, hot porridge, bacon and eggs. He’ll wash his food down with whey mixed with water. When he goes out fishing, he takes no food with him. This is the North Atlantic, in winter, with howling winds, high seas, bitter cold, in an open boat, rowing. No hot food. No food. Just whey and water to drink.

So there you are, this is what von Troil has observed and heard about the life of your lang, lang, lang, lang, lang, lang afi and amma in 1772, a hundred years before our ancestors started leaving for North America. This is what you’d have heard if you’d slipped away from Islendingadagurinn, vinartera, rulupylsa, good beer, laden tables and spent a day or two with the people you are supposed to be honouring at The Icelandic Celebration.

Time Travel: Food You’d Eat, 1772, Iceland

fishskeltonSo, there you are, a few drinks of Black Death have transported back to Iceland in 1772 and you’ve wakened hungry. What’s to eat? You start walking and what you get, if you get anything, because that will depend whether or not it is a time of plenty or a time of famine.

Surprisingly, if you do get something to eat, traditional food has changed so little since 1772, that you would recognize some of it from Thorrablots.

You’d be served milk, warm from the cow or cold, and sometimes, boiled. You might be served butter milk, straight or diluted with water.


If you get any bread, it will probably be sour biscuit imported from Copenhagen but there isn’t much of this because it is expensive. You might get some rye bread if your host was able to get some from the trade ship because all the rye flour comes from Copenhagen. Your host’s wife will have mixed the flour with some fermented whey (syra) and kneaded it into a dough. She’ll then have made a flat cake about a foot long and three inches thick. She’ll have boiled this dough in water or whey and then dried it on a hot stone or an iron plate. If you host has an iron plate.

If you are lucky enough to be offered butter (fat of all kinds is always in short supply), you’ll get sour butter. The Icelanders seldom ate fresh or salted butter. The advantage of that it that it kept for as long as twenty years. According to von Troil, the Icelanders thought so highly of sour butter that they figured one pound of sour was worth two pounds of fresh.

You might get served mysost. Or, you might get beinga-ftriug, that is the bones and cartilages of beef and mutton, and bones of cod that have been boiled in whey until they are so soft and fermented that they can be served with milk.

If you are fortunate, you might get a piece of dried cod with a bowl of sour butter.

If you are on the coast, you’d probably get a drink of blanda, that is water mixed with one twelfth syra which is quite acidic. If it is winter time, you might get some black crow berries in your blanda. That would be good to stave of scurvy.

You might get a drink of sour milk. Our host would have paid two-fifths of a Danish rigs dollar for a cask. If you were visiting a well off farmer you might get a drink of beer imported from Copenhagen or he might have brewed some of his own. If you were lucky enough to be at one of the important farmsteads where the farmer owned a lot of land and sheep and cows, you might get coffee. If you were at an ordinary person’s house, you’d likely get a kind of tea which they’d make from the leaves of Speedwell which they could collect wild.

Iceland was no different than any other country then or now. If you were an important farmer, you could afford to eat meat, butter, shark and whale. If you were a crofter or hired help, indentured servant, you had to make do with fish, blanda, milk pottage made with rock-grass (Icelandic moss), and boiled and fermented bones.

Most of the time, the diets were very monotonous, the ingredients unvarying but adequate. However, Iceland suffered tremendous famines. Large numbers of people died of hunger. According to von Troil, these came about because the ice from Greenland came in great quantities into the harbours and prevented the grass from growing and kept people from fishing.

What he thinks of the Icelandic diet, remember this is a person from the upper class on an expedition financed by a wealthy nobleman, can be seen in that they drank “port, and several other sorts of good wine, and a French cook prepared for us some savoury dishes, and excellent puddings.”

They did ask a wealthy Icelander to provide them with a supper made from Icelandic ingredients. The fish and lamb were wonderful. The dried fish and sour butter were only tasted but the rotted shark drove them from the table.

So, there you have it, what you’ll get to eat if you try time travel, Icelandic style.

One thing is for certain, unless it was a time of famine, although food was often short, even the poorest people would give you something to eat. When people entered a home, they invoked god, and although we may have fallen away from the church, they took their religious lessons seriously and did as the Good Samaritan for the stranger even though he was of a different faith.

Your family in 1772


1772. Think on it. One hundred years before our ancestors started fleeing Iceland for Amerika . Can you imagine it? The Vikings disappeared in 1066. Approximately, 700 years have passed. Generations upon generations, living and dying in isolated coves, on moors isolated by rivers and mountains, most of the people never seeing a foreigner, often never seeing anyone but their closest neighbours. Along the coast, ships from the Hanseatic League appear in summer—maybe–only maybe because the ships are sailing ships, and they travel according to the whims of the weather.

It is 1772 and Uno von Troil goes with Sir Joseph Banks to Iceland. That’s a hundred years before our ancestors began their pilgrimage to North America.

1773, when von Troil’s Letters On Iceland are published in book form the people of Boston defy the English king and dump the tea from the East India company into the harbour and refuse to pay the taxes on it. George III responds by passing an act that enrages the colonists and leads to revolution. In England, John Kay has invented the flying shuttle which will allow weavers to double production. In Iceland, small looms are being used to create that important Icelandic export: wadmal. Woven woolen goods and knitted goods are a critical trade good.

Improved transportation within the British Isles, within Europe, was making trade possible. There was a substantial network of roads and canals in various European countries and the first railway would appear in 1798.
For more than the next hundred years, though, in Iceland, goods would be transported on horseback, over trails that were often impassible and frequently dangerous.

Sir Joseph Banks was wealthy. He needed to be. There were no passenger ships to Iceland. If you wanted to go there, you needed to rent or own a yacht. That meant supplies and a crew had to be paid for. As well, Banks took various artists and scientists, cooks and Livery servants, but perhaps, most astoundingly, for the Icelanders, he took French horn players. He held elegant suppers.

Von Troile wrote a series of letters about the expedition. His book can be heavy going for the modern reader with its s’s that look like f’s. When I quote him, I take the liberty of modernizing his language. This is, after all, not an academic blog but an individual, eccentric one, meant only for those who might find it interesting.
The amazing thing to me is that what von Troile describes in 1772 is what is described time and again over the next hundred years right up to the time our ancestors left Iceland for Canada and the United States. Reading explorer and traveler’s accounts of Iceland over that period of time gives the reader a sense of country trapped in time like the wood and tree leaves in Icelandic suterbrand.

What is also surprising is that my long held impression of Iceland’s isolation from new ideas has been shown to be completely wrong. Travel did occur, particularly to Denmark, sometimes to Germany, sometimes to England. Visitors did bring knowledge of other ways of farming and fishing. Tradition, stubbornness and the selfish interest of the wealthiest group of farmers and clergy turned away any possible innovation. Iceland was not, as some travelers mistakenly state, a democracy of equals but a feudal society rigidly controlled by a small elite who got to make the laws and enforce them.

Much of Iceland’s grief and tragedy was imposed upon it by climate and lack of natural resources but that grief and tragedy was made greater by a society where a few clung to the past to preserve their privilege. For a long time, social conditions were blamed upon the Danes but an objective look at the Danish relationship to Iceland and the Faroes would, I think, make it clear that it was Icelanders who exploited Icelanders and held them in thrall. The kreppa, it would seem, is nothing new.

So, what is it that von Troile finds when he arrives with Banks in Iceland in 1773 when your lang lang lang lang lang afi and amma and mine were surviving in sod huts on the moors or tucked away at the foot of the mountains in some fjord?
He arrives on August 28, 1772. Not a propitious time. The summer season is coming to an end. Winter storms are going to commence soon.

He says their first view of Iceland is one of devastation, the results of volcanic eruptions past. Like many of the scientific visitors who would follow, the Banks’ party is overawed by the landscape.

He says that there are hot springs and attaches a story to them that is interesting. Poverty precludes an Icelandic groom giving his bride expensive gifts and the land does not provide bouquets of flowers so the groom to be cleans one of these pools and his bride comes to bathe there.

He describes the springs at Geysir and traveler after traveler will follow him with their own descriptions of this wonder of the world. The first visitors will be scientists making tests and trying to explain how these miracles of nature work.

However, with the appearance of steam ships, the scientists will be shoved aside by a stream of tourists visiting the Golden Circle. Just like you and me.

He says that Geysir spouted ten times a day. By the time that the Danish king came to visit in 1874, the great geyser did not spout during the entire time of his stay.
He tells us that he finds the Icelanders very superstitious and that they believe the great geyser to be the mouth to hell and they seldom pass by without spitting into it “or as they say, uti fandens men”, into the devil’s mouth.”

He says that “at first sight of such a country one is tempted to believe it impossible to be inhabited by any human creature, if the sea, near the shores, was not everywhere covered with boats.”
And what does he think of our lang lang lang lang lang lang afis and ammas?

“The Icelanders are of a good honest disposition; but they are, at the same time, so serious and sullen, that I hardly remember to have seen any one of them laugh. Their chief amusement, in their leisure hours, is to recount to one another the history of former times; so that to this day you do not meet with an Icelander who is not well acquainted with the history of his own country; they also play at cards.”

When I read this, I thought of those Gimli fishermen who were inclined to be very serious until they’d had a drink or two. And I thought about how Icelanders in Gimli and Winnipeg loved to play cards.