When I am researching a subject, the strangest bits of debris turn up, sort of like driftwood on the beach, not surprisingly there but still a surprise. I stumbled across a copy of Nature Magazine, 1879 and lo and behold, there was a report on conditions in Iceland.
I was most pleased to see the report because 1879 is right in the thick of the emigration from Iceland to Amerika. To stay or to leave was not only a difficult choice for many because it would mean leaving everything they knew behind for an uncertain future, leaving family behind, leaving farms that may have been where their people had lived for centuries.
One of the arguments for not leaving was that conditions in Iceland were improving. However, I’ve never come across any precise description of these improving conditions. Until, that is, I discovered Nature, 1879. There are a number of parts to the report but the one I immediately was drawn to was the following:
“Improvements in Iceland.—During the year which has elapsed since we last visited Iceland, several very marked improvements have been set on foot. In no respect is this more conspicuous than in the case of the roads. A few years ago a writer made an assertion “there are no roads in Iceland.” At the present time road-making is making great progress, and many scores of miles of excellent roads exist. Of course we mean such roads as alone are possible, without great expenditure of money and labour, in a country which is one vast volcano. Driving roads are impossible, but excellent pony roads are being constructed, and will greatly facilitate despatch of business and intercommunication. The first bridge in Iceland is about to be commenced. It will cross the Olfusa, and materially help to establish a better communication between the east and the west. A second bridge is to be thrown across the Thjorsa. The first lighhouse in the island was erected a year ago, and the light-dues paid by ships at the port of Reykjavik have already almost paid for its construction. There is some talk of founding a school of farming at Modrudalr in the north- west, and a law school in Reykjavik, where a divinity school and a a medical school already exist. In Reykjavik new houses are being built; there is a proposition on foot to build an hotel, and a new house for the Althing, which now holds its biennial meetings in the Latin school. Hafnafjord and Eyrarbakki are flourishing little ports; Akureryri does a fair trade in shark liver oil, and in ponies; and the Krisuvik sulphur mines appear to be in good working order and to yield a rich product.
Reykjavik, September 2 G. F. RODWELL
My thanks, these many years later, to G.F. Rodwell for his report. Think of the importance of what he says. Travel, every writer says, is difficult and dangerous. People die because of the weather, they drown crossing rivers, they suffocate in bogs, they fall from their horses. There are no roads, just tracks made by horses over the centuries, tracks often cut so deep that they are often filled with water. Travel, even in summer, and Rodwell gives a detailed account of his summer travel, is often painfully slow and filled with hardship. Yet, there, right at the top of improvements is that the pony tracks are being improved. Not roads for wheeled vehicles. That will have to wait but in this land of lava and morass an improved pony track is a blessing.
Not only that but a bridge is going to be built. The first in Iceland and a second one is being planned. Imagine what that means. No more having to ride horses through rivers dangerous with unpredictable bottoms, glacial debris that can break a horse’s leg, knock it over, ice from glaciers, no getting soaking wet with no place to dry out.
Not only that but a lighthouse has been built the year before. It seems unimaginable in a country like Iceland that there have not been lighthouses for hundreds of years. Iceland is an island with a hostile coast. Safe travel by ship is critical and yet there have been no lighthouses. Now, a lighthouse has been built. As an aside, look at what Rodwell has to say about his visit to the lighthouse keeper. Rodwell is the first visitor during the entire year. How is that for living in isolation. It is, for us, with our highways and cars and buses and trains and planes nearly impossible to imagine living in such isolation.
In Reykjavik, new houses are being built. Not only that but there’s going to be a new building for the Althing. There’s talk of founding a school of agriculture. These are events as foundation shaking as an earthquake. Iceland has depended on agriculture for survival since its founding and, yet, there has been no school of agriculture. It seems impossible to believe but, now, in 1879, enough has changed in the way people think for such an idea to appear. Iceland is poor and that limits everything but poverty can often be overcome if you can just change the system. The proof of that is in Rodwell’s report. Only a year has passed and that first lighthouse has nearly been paid for by dues charged to ships. The money was there. The way of thinking had to be changed.
Yes, there are changes happening in Iceland in 1879 but the biggest change of all is that the way of thinking has begun to change. First you have to imagine something like roads, bridges, lighthouses, before you can build them. In Rodwell’s report we see the beginning of the possible, of what could be but those changes would be slow coming and would make little difference to our people who chose to emigrate. They needed change now, in 1872 and 1873 and, perhaps, it was their leaving forced those who stayed, especially the wealthy landowners, to grudgingly accept that change was necessary.