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Iceland’s successful struggle for independence ended in 1944

Posted in Historical articles, History on Monday, 29 October 2012

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This edited article about Iceland originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 774 published on 13th November 1975.

Iceland, picture, image, illustration

Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland

Earthquakes, erupting volcanoes, plagues and waves of invaders from overseas made Iceland an island of terror for the hardy people who braved the enmity of man and nature to create their homes in this unfriendly land

A glowing hot river of ash and lava crept remorselessly towards the Icelandic fishing town of Heimay. Helgafell, a supposedly extinct volcano, had burst into life and, from a wide fissure, was pouring molten destruction on to the little town.

Within five days in January, 1973, a third of the town had been buried, and Iceland had been marginally enlarged by the lava which had flowed into the sea and built up on the shoreline.

Today, despite reeking lava and high ground temperatures near the surface, nearly all the inhabitants have returned to clear up and re-build their town. This is proof of the strong-mindedness of the Icelanders, who wage a continuous war against the elements of nature.

Since the first settlements, the population has struggled for survival – to maintain a toehold of life on the edge of the habitable world. At the end of the eighth century, Irish monks had set up scattered dwellings in Iceland to continue their lives in voluntary isolation. However their seclusion was to remain short-lived, for no sooner had they arrived than the notorious Vikings also chanced upon the island. Unwilling to share their lonely island with heathens from the north, the Irish were thus obliged to seek their solitude elsewhere.

The reports brought back to Scandinavia by the Norse seamen were conflicting, to say the least. Naddod, a pirate of ill-repute, having been accidentally blown towards the island, found it apparently deserted, and told his fellows at home of the desolation of Snaeland (Snowland), which he had named it after sighting heavy snow showers over the mountains. The Swede, Gardar Svavarson, however, who shortly afterwards circumnavigated the island, was far more enthusiastic about its possibilities.

His view was borne out by the tales of Thorolf, a sailor under the Norwegian Floki Vilgerdarson, who claimed that butter dripped from every blade of grass.

Floki, though, was decidedly against colonisation. Through lack of foresight, he had lost all his livestock during a particularly harsh winter, and the cheerless sight of drift-ice blocking the fjords in spring prompted him to call the country Island (Iceland), the name which has since survived.

However, these were troubled times for the Vikings. Their hold over foreign conquests was slipping, especially in the British Isles, where defeats such as those inflicted by Alfred in England were crumbling their armies. Domestic affairs were no better. Harald Haarfargar (Fair Hair) had successfully staked his claim over most of the scattered kingdoms of Norway and in 872 AD put down the last opposition at the Battle of Hafursfjord. The defeated nobles found themselves with little choice but self-exile in Iceland.

The first permanent settler was Ingolfur Arnarson, who, with his foster-brother Leif, set sail in 874. Upon sighting his adopted country, Ingolfur ordered the sacred pillars from his old home to be thrown overboard, vowing to the gods that wherever they came ashore, he would begin his new life.

Unfortunately, a storm subsequently separated him and the pillars, and it was only after three years of searching that they were found in a bay on the southwest coast from which steam could be seen rising above nearby hot springs. He thus called the place Reykjavik (Smoky Bay) and it is today the site of the modern capital of Iceland.

After the initial wave of colonization, the number of inhabitants had swollen to over 30,000. The land had been divided up by the first settlers into large sections over which they presided as local leaders. By 930, the need was felt for a form of common government, and the result was the establishment of the Althing, the oldest parliamentary body in the world. Meeting annually for a fortnight by the shores of the great lake, Thing Vallavatn, huge numbers flocked to attend, entertaining themselves with poetry, song, sports and story telling. All legal business was carried out there, of great importance being the recitation by the law-speaker of one-third of the law during each year of his office.

Perhaps the single most significant event in its history occurred during the Althing’s seventy-first gathering. An increasing number of missionaries had been sent to Iceland to convert the settlers to Christianity. Threatened by a religious civil war, it was agreed that the law-speaker, Thorgeir Ljosvetningagodi, a heathen, should decide the country’s future. He voted for Christianity with the condition that pagans could continue their practices provided they did so in private. As a result, the nation consented to baptism – though many refused the icy river waters in preference to the warm springs farther away.

With time, increasing amounts of land were held by fewer individuals and their families. The distribution of power was no longer evenly balanced and the twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the upsurge of blood feuds and terrible violence. Coupled with the greater demands imposed upon them by the Church, the majority of Icelanders grew weary of the senseless killings of their own kind and turned to the King of Norway for help, and in 1262 acknowledged Norwegian sovereignty with the signing of the “old pact”.

But the years ahead were to be just as bitter. In surrendering her independence Iceland had become ever more dependant upon outside nations for essential supplies. When they came under Danish rule with Norway in 1380, a trading monopoly was gradually enforced upon the Icelanders, permitting them to sell goods only to selected merchants.

The standard of living fell drastically. Between 1306 and 1314, only two years had been free of plagues, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. Buildings, livestock, crops: all were destroyed during the devastating upheavals. As one contemporary author wrote, “at night there came up fire out of the Earth . . . There was once a homestead where there is a lava mound now.”

When an eruption, the greatest in Europe since the destruction of Pompeii, occurred beneath the ice-cap of Oraefojokull in 1362, the accompanying floods swept no less than forty farmhouses with their inhabitants and livestock into the sea. Birds literally fell dead to the ground when engulfed by the ash thrown into the air during such an eruption. Mount Hekla, the “Queen of Volcanoes”, became known throughout the world as the mouth of hell, from whose depths the shreiks of the damned could easily be heard.

Indeed, by 1709, after a smallpox epidemic had ravaged the country killing 18,000 people, the population was reduced to only 35,000, and not for the first time was the total evacuation of Iceland considered.

However, while the rest of Europe was engaged in a series of conflicts, there began a reawakening of pride in Icelandic hearts. Under the leadership of men such as Jon Sigurdsson, Iceland took her first step to independence in 1874 – a millenium after Ingolfur’s first settlement – when a new constitution was agreed with the Danish king, Christian IX. Eighty years later, on 17th June 1944, the island was formally declared a republic.

After nearly seven centuries under foreign rule, Iceland had once again won her freedom. Regarded as a backward nation, she now faced the tremendous task of forging her way into the twentieth century. It was a challenge the Icelanders were determined to accept.

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