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: how lang afi and amma lived


According to Uno von Troil, the houses in different parts of the country are different. On the north side of the island, he says, the houses are very bad. The only decent places are those of the governor at Bessestedr, the physician’s house at Seltiarnarnes, and the sheriffs at Wido. (his spellings)These houses have been built of stone and paid for by the Danish king.

In other parts of Iceland, the buildings are made of drift-wood and in other places of lava with moss stuffed between the lava. In some houses, the walls are lined with wood. The rafters are covered with sod. In places where people can’t get wooden rafters, the ribs of whales are used. However, the whale ribs aren’t free. They are more expensive than wood. The walls are about nine feet high and the door is not high.

If you come into one of these houses, you’ll find yourself in a hallway that leads to a first room with some holes in the roof. These will be covered with a skin stretched over it to let in light. At the far end of the hallway there will be a room where the women do their work and the farm owner and his wife sleep.

The walls of this room, being the room of the owner, are panelled. There will be a ceiling and a floor and, if you are fortunate, and stumbled on a better sort of house, there might be some small glass windows but there won’t be a fireplace.
On both sides of the hallway there will be rooms. You’ll find one of them to be a kitchen, a room to eat in, the dairy, and the servant’s room. If you are looking for lang lang lang lang lang lang amma and avi, you’ll probably find them here if they aren’t cutting hay or milking sheep. These rooms won’t have any ceilings or floor. There won’t be any wood panelling.

If there are windows they’ll be made from a hoop of wood with the intestines of a sheep stretched over it.

There will be no chimney and no fireplace. So, if you woke up on a dreary, wet day, and hiked to the closest house, there’d be no place at which to warm yourself. There might be some stones on the floor making an enclosure and in that there’ll be some dried manure burning—that is, if food is being cooked or heated.

Hopefully, you don’t have asthma, because with no chimney, the smoke spreads throughout the house before it escapes through a hole in the roof.
In the more prosperous farms, there may be a shed for storing fish, and another for people’s clothes, and a stable for the sheep and cows.

However, if you come across a poorer sort of farm, everything will be in one building, dried fish hanging from the ceiling (watch your head), very low beams (watch your head), there will be no furniture except the beds people sit on along the walls to eat their meals and which they share, sleeping head to foot. There won’t be any privacy but you probably won’t care because there are no stoves, no fireplaces and hardly any fuel so people sleep together for body heat. Fleas may be a problem but you’ll need to get used to it. They’re a problem everywhere and there are no convenient insecticides.

The people, unless it is a time of famine, are hospitable. They are known for being kind and generous. They’ll almost certainly provide you with shelter and food and expect no payment, although a gift would be appreciated when you leave to try to find your way back home. If you’ve stumbled into a better off farm, you may even get a mug of cheap Danish brandy to send you back the way the brennevin has propelled you.

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.