A brief history of one of the worlds most dynamic small nations

The unique and hardy horses of Iceland

I had the great good fortune to live and work in Iceland from 1998 – 2003. It was a wonderful life experience and the natural beauty of the country is awe inspiring. The people are generally very friendly and hospitable, and most below the age of fifty can speak English to an extremely high standard. Obviously there were downsides too, such as the long, dark and cold winters, the insipid summers and the very high cost of living but hey, no nation on Earth is ever perfect. Below is a potted history of this wonderful country. If you ever get the chance to travel there, I would heartily recommend it.

The First Settlers

The first people said to have inhabited Iceland were Irish monks who settled there during the 8th century, but they left with the arrival of the pagan Norsemen, who then settled in various parts of Iceland during the period 870-930 AD. Iceland was in fact the last European country to be settled, having no native population prior to the arrival of the Irish monks and the Norsemen.

The main source of information regarding the settlement period in Iceland is the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements), written in the 12th century, which gives a detailed account of the first settlers. According to this book Ingolfur Arnarson was the first settler. He was a chieftain from Norway who arrived in Iceland with his family and dependents in 874. He built his farm in the area of what is now Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland.

While there is some argument as to the motives of the first widespread Nordic settlement, convention holds that the Norsemen were fleeing the tyranny of King Harald the Fairhaired, who was uniting the whole of Norway under his rule at the time, and who had driven them from their ancestral lands in southern Norway.

Another contingent of settlers were Nordic folk who had been raiding and living in the Celtic world, until King Harald the Fairhaired extended his dominions outside the borders of Norway and drove them out with all of their freemen and slaves. Most of these slaves were of Celtic origin, and contributed their genetic inheritance to modern Icelanders, which can still easily be seen to this day.

The Icelandic alphabet

The exiled Norsemen quickly developed their own sense of national identity, creating in 930 what is regarded as the world's first parliamentary system, 'The Althing'. Local chieftains gathered at Thingvellir, a natural amphitheater, where they elected leaders on an annual basis. The founders of The Althing could hardly have chosen a more appropriate place to meet, for Thingvellir tells the story of Iceland's land as much as it does its people, being the meeting place of the tectonic plates that separate North America from Europe.

To prevent leaders from abusing power, The Althing had no military to enforce its will, a stipulation that would later cause problems when regional chiefs decided to take matters into their own hands. But for the most part, these early years following the development of the Althing were peaceful.

It was an era of optimism, even for Erik the Red who arrived after he was banished from Norway for murder. When he committed the same crime in Iceland and was exiled from there, too, he managed to convince 25 ships to follow him on a colonial expedition to Greenland. His son, Iceland born Leifur Eiriksson, later sailed further west, becoming the first proven European to reach North America, which he called Vinland due to the lushness of the countryside.

1262 Iceland becomes a Norwegian colony

The first naval battle in Iceland took place in 1244 at Húnaflói, and has subsequently been called The Bay Battle. This particular action occurred towards the end of a series of conflicts and bloody clashes, which raged more or less continuously between 1208 and 1258. By the early 13th century, the enlightened period of peace that had lasted 200 years had well and truly come to an end. The country thence forward entered the infamous Sturlung Age, a turbulent era of political treachery and violence. The opportunistic Norwegian King, Hákon Hákonarson promptly stepped in and Iceland became a Norwegian possession that he plundered mercilessly.

1380 Iceland and Norway, become Danish colonies

The active volcano, Mt. Hekla, erupted in 1300, 1341 and 1389, causing widespread death and destruction. Recurring epidemics also plagued the country, and the devastating outbreak of the Black Death that struck Norway in 1349 effectively cut off trade and supplies.

At the end of the 14th century, Iceland was brought under Danish rule. Disputes between church and state resulted in the Reformation of 1550, and the imposing of Lutheranism as the country's religious doctrine. Throughout the next two centuries Iceland was crippled by rampant Danish profiteering, beset by international pirates, and subject to an increasing number of natural disasters. The eighteenth century marked the most tragic and miserable age in Iceland's history.

In 1703, when the first complete census was taken, the population was approximately 50,000, of whom about 20% were beggars and dependants. From 1707 to 1709 the population sank to about 35,000 due to a devastating smallpox epidemic. Twice more the population declined below 40,000, during the years 1752-57 and 1783-85 owing to a series of famines and natural disasters.

Emigration to Canada and the USA

In the last quarter of the 19th century the Icelandic nation was beset by problems with hardship, overpopulation, diseases and famine. Icelanders had been heading west to North America since 1855, but the first organized journey was undertaken in 1873 when a large group sailed from the northern city of Akureyri.

The greatest exodus to the west took place shortly after 1880. At that time the nation was faced with more poverty and hardship, brought about by the greed of the Danish ruling class. The situation lasted until 1890, when living conditions finally began to improve.

The majority of those who emigrated to North America settled in Manitoba, Canada. An Icelandic settlement was formed there in 1875 and given the name of Nýja Ísland ('New Iceland'). The colony was located on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg, about 60 miles north of the city of Winnipeg itself, and encompassed about 300 square miles of territory. Interestingly, many of those who first left Iceland after 1855 converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah in the United States, settling in Spanish Fork.

From 1855 to 1914 about 15,000 Icelanders in all had emigrated to North America. Many never returned and were sadly missed; however some returned with new insights and technological knowledge. Today it is estimated that about 60,000 North Americans can trace their roots to Icelandic origin. About 18,000 are believed to reside in British Columbia, Canada, and Washington State, USA. Some 25,000 more are located in the Manitoba and North Dakota areas. The remainder are to be found in groups of several thousands in and around large urban centres like Toronto, New York and Los Angeles. There are also notable settlements in Saskatchewan and Alberta. These people and their descendants are often referred to as 'Vestur-Íslendingar' among Icelanders.

Stepping Stones toward full independence

By the end of the 18th century the Althing had been dissolved and the old diocese replaced by a bishop residing in Reykjavík. Due to the plight of the populace the trade monopoly was modified in 1783 and all subjects of the Danish king were given the right to trade in Iceland.

Denmark's grip on Iceland was broken in 1874 when Iceland drafted a constitution which gave it permission to handle its own domestic affairs. 1904 brought Home Rule to the country and the appointment of the first Icelandic government minister.

1918 brought the Act of Crown Union with Denmark, Iceland assumed full control of virtually all its domestic affairs, whilst the Danish King remained as head of state. Iceland was thus released from direct Danish rule making it an independent entity within the Kingdom of Denmark, with Copenhagen retaining responsibility for defence and foreign affairs. 1930 saw the Millennium of the establishment of the first Althing parliament, which was enthusiastically celebrated at Thingvellir.

17th June 1944, the Republic of Iceland proclaimed

Following the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany in 1940, the island's vulnerability and strategic position became a matter of concern for the Allied powers. In response, British and US troops were moved in. The Americans remained at the NATO base in Keflavik until September 2006, when it was finally decommissioned. The base had been of vital importance in protecting the free world during the Cold War, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991 that threat had diminished. The impoverished Russian Federation did not pose the same kind of threat that the old Soviet Union most certainly did.

The British government incurred Icelandic wrath, when they refused to recognize Iceland's unilaterally declared expanded territorial fishing rights during the 1970s. For a few years, clashes between Icelandic and British gunboats during the so-called 'Cod Wars' became a regular feature of the fishing season and news broadcasts.

This old dispute looked like reigniting internationally when certain interests in Iceland suggested proclaiming a 500 mile area of exclusive fishing rights, greatly expanded from the current 200 mile limit. This idea was firmly rejected by the international community as being unacceptable, most notable amongst those objecting were the Canadians.

Myself and friend astride Icelandic horses in the west of Iceland

In recent years, Iceland's economy has had to change as fishing quotas have been cut back. This necessary policy unfortunately caused unemployment to rise and the Icelandic Króna to devalue. Clashes between environmental organisations and the Icelandic whaling industry, which split from the International Whaling Commission in 1992, also added to the troubles.

However, realizing that Iceland could not rely solely on the fishing industry for its long term national income and future, steps were taken by the government to diversify the economic base. Banking and Financial services have been greatly expanded and new activities introduced, especially in the computer, high technology and bio technology fields.

In less than ten years, Iceland had managed to greatly shift the emphasis of its economy and place less reliance on fishing, although that sector still plays a very important role in the financial well-being of the nation. Unfortunately the diversification of Iceland’s economy into the financial and banking sector left it heavily exposed to the financial crisis that engulfed the planet in 2008. It caused the collapse of the Icelandic banking system and the virtual bankruptcy of the nation. The situation was so bad that there was even talk of Iceland applying to join the EU. Fortunately common sense prevailed and that did not happen.

Despite this terrible economic crisis, today Iceland has a highly educated and growing young population, a recovering economy and one of the highest standards of living in the world. For a very small nation in a remote location, that has been through so much pain and suffering over the past centuries, it has achieved much to be proud of and celebrated. To my mind, Icelanders are amongst the most hardworking and dynamic people on the planet and are a shining example of what can be achieved by a nation that has a drive and motivation to succeed. Many nations with far more resources than Iceland could learn valuable lessons from their example.

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