STRUGGLES for independence generally originate in emotion. In the case of Iceland the emotion that feeds the present movement for independence is in turn based to a greater extent than usual on literature and history. Economic reasons come in too, of course, and there are many other contributing causes, but these have been correspondingly less important in Iceland than among most nations engaged in struggles to regain or win separate statehood. A sketch of Icelandic history and literature is necessary, therefore, for an understanding of the country's present relationship to Denmark and the rest of the world.

For those who think that racial temperaments are inherited, whether biologically or sociologically, it is important first of all to study the blood of the Icelanders; I therefore shall emphasize that part of their colonial history which shows the sources from which the population was derived.

It is a common error to suppose that Iceland was discovered by the Norsemen (Vikings) and that the discovery took place about 860 A. D. In reality it is clear that the original discoverers, or at least the earliest we know of, came from Ireland. The source of this information is in a writing of the Irish monk Dicuil about 825 A. D. He refers to a discovery and colonization a hundred years before, or around 725, of "Islands in the ocean north of Britain," and continues with a description which has usually been thought to fit the Faroe Islands. He then says that it has now been thirty years since certain priests had been on the island of Thule, or Iceland, which may mean that the Faroes were discovered around 725 and Iceland only shortly before 800. It may be, however, that he means to date only the Icelandic colonization around 795, and that the discovery was earlier.

Around and shortly after Dicuil's time the Vikings overran Ireland, as well as England and Scotland, conquering large parts and setting up various governments and overlordships. Whether the Norsemen heard of Iceland from the Irish is debated. Anyway, they sailed there shortly after 850. They may have carried Irish pilots and it is probable that they were at least following directions given them by the Irish. One of their early wintering parties gave to the country its present inappropriate name. The sagas tell that this happened when, the spring after the wintering, a mountain was climbed and floating ice was seen in a bay. The dictum of this saga has generally been accepted, but some scholars believe it to be nothing more than an instance of "popular" or mistaken etymology, and that the name comes from "isa," or haddock.

The first real Norse colonization of Iceland is considered to have been in 872. There has been much dispute as to how many Irish these Norsemen found ahead of them. Some have maintained that there were merely a few anchorites, with perhaps some peasant retainers, and that all of these were on the south coast. Others have claimed that there were Irish colonies throughout the country, even around the north coast.

Though there is great vagueness about this Irish question so far as it antedates 872, there is a remarkable clarity about the whole colonial story thereafter. It has been said, and probably correctly, that we do not have as clear and complete accounts of the settlement of the thirteen original states of the Union as we have for all the pioneer settlements around Iceland. The names of more than 400 chieftains are given in the records, and we know certainly where each settled, with considerable detail of the boundary between estates, the number of retainers, the comparative dignity and power of the chieftains, and, as said, information in general that is scarcely surpassed even by our records for the settlement of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

There is little doubt that between 872 and 930 the number of colonists in Iceland grew to the vicinity of 50,000. But there is much dispute as to whence they came, and even more argument as to their blood. The extreme positions are, on the one hand, that 90 percent of the colonists were from Norway and 10 percent from England, Scotland and Ireland, but chiefly from Ireland, and on the other hand that 40 percent of the Icelandic blood is Irish, with a little Scotch, less English, and the rest, of course, Norwegian. There seems no indication that there were originally colonists, in any number, from Denmark, Sweden or any countries except those named.

Those who argue for a high percentage of Norwegian blood in Iceland cite the indisputable fact that most of the chieftains had Norwegian names and are known to have been partly or wholly of Norwegian descent. The counter contention is that these chieftains had many of them come to Iceland by way of Ireland, and some had resided there for several years, while a few had even been there for one or several generations. The wives of many of these chieftains are known to have been Irish, and there were Irish servants. Still more Irish are known to have joined themselves voluntarily to the Norse chieftains, bringing in their train retainers who almost certainly were Irish.

Following the colonization, trading voyages to the South came to have a place in the Icelandic social scheme comparable to the university training of today, or the "grand tour" of a century back. The son of a wealthy leader had his own ship, or perhaps more than one. He employed sailors and men-at-arms, and spent three years or more trading from one land to another, in some cases going as far south as the north coast of Africa and east through the Dardanelles. In winter they were usually honored guests at the court of some king or earl. These voyages often were in part "Viking," or piracy. On the final return they not infrequently sailed up the Irish coast around harvest time, went ashore and captured an entire farm, taking master and servants along with live stock and property. They even tore down buildings and carried them along, for timber was always scarce in Iceland. These and other captures were the basis of the slavery which flourished in Iceland for a time. But the number of captives was so much in excess of what was needed or could be used in Iceland that it is estimated that the average time of servitude was five years, the older slaves becoming freedmen as newer captives stepped into their places. These slaves and freedmen were chiefly Irish, and therefore of the same physical appearance as their masters, so that they disappeared readily in the population. Aside from trade, there was a social advantage in being for a while in service at the courts of foreign kings. There are records of Icelanders in the bodyguard of the rulers of the Empire of the East at Constantinople, and at one time or another they served as life guards or mercenaries for almost every king from the Mediterranean north.

The tongue of the Vikings, because of their power and prowess, was fashionable in northern Europe at this time, and widely understood. Poetry was a gift and a passion with the Icelanders, and many of them were court poets, not only in the Scandinavian countries but in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere. But they seem to have had a longing for their home land and usually returned there eventually, bringing their foreign wives and perhaps dependents with them.

When Icelandic sailing expeditions slowed down, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, partial compensation was found in the trading voyages which were made to Iceland from other countries. It was the custom for the trader to arrive in summer or autumn. He would put up his tents, display and sell his goods, and then be invited by some local chieftain to spend the winter, leaving the following spring laden with Icelandic wares. The records show, however, that many of these traders never sailed south again but married into the families of their hosts. The ninth to the thirteenth centuries were an aristocratic time, and we have records of nothing except the doings of chieftains, but it is probable that the sailors and underlings of the trading ships married in Iceland and settled down there much as their commanders did.

Thus do the Celtophiles arrive at the conclusion that while Iceland is 99 percent Norse in language it is no more than 50 percent Norse in blood. No one disputes that the Irish made up at least 10 percent, and those authorities who claim 20 percent to 35 percent Irish (and Scotch and English) blood are numerous.

The view that the Icelanders are almost wholly Norwegian has been deduced fallaciously from the complete triumph of the Norwegian language. You might as well deduce one hundred percent English descent of the American nation from the disappearance of all languages but English. Moreover, while the Norse triumphed completely in language, it did not do so in the fundamentals of the literature. The Icelanders owe a heavier debt to the Irish than America does to any literature except the English.

Since the political struggle in Iceland, and the resulting political status, depend so much on the literature, it is a pity that its very extensiveness makes it impossible for us to discuss it here in detail. In lieu of discussion we shall assume the correctness of the view expressed by Lord Bryce after his careful study of the country's language and institutions. He gave it then as his opinion that there were three great literatures in the older Europe, Greek, Latin and Icelandic, and that Icelandic literature was as much superior to the Latin as it was inferior to the Greek. Of course the evaluation of a literature lies within the field of taste rather than statistics, and it is therefore easy to disagree with Lord Bryce. The fact remains that Icelandic prose and poetry are studied today in most of the great universities of the world. What is more pertinent here is that Icelandic literature has exerted an influence upon Iceland much greater than the combined influence of Shakespeare and the King James Bible upon England.

Modern Danish, Norwegian and Swedish differ as much from the common Norse of a thousand years ago as French, Italian and Spanish differ from Latin. But the current Icelandic differs less from that same Norse than modern newspaper English differs from the speech of Shakespeare. The explanation usually put forward is that the three Scandinavian tongues changed so much because of intimate commercial and other relations with foreign countries, but that Icelandic remained stationary because of the geographic isolation of the country in the north Atlantic. But the larger share of the truth is in the literary view, that the sagas and poems stabilized the language.

The Dark Ages descended in full gloom upon the rest of Scandinavia but only the penumbra of their shadow fell on Iceland. Throughout that dull and, in the rest of Europe, unliterary time, the Icelanders almost alone remained literary in their tastes if not in productive genius. For a thousand years, right down to our time, it has been the custom there for the entire family to gather in a large room during the long sub-arctic winter evenings and, while the rest worked wool quietly, carding, spinning and knitting, one man with a good voice read or recited prose or chanted poetry. It was through these evenings of prose and verse, fashionable in Iceland as never in Norway, Sweden or Denmark, that the literature secured the effective stabilizing hold on the language that makes the present vernacular almost identical with the classic records, and makes the Icelanders still so passionately aware of their former independence and their former literary and political importance.

The sagas tell, and scholars have usually agreed, that one of the chief motives which the Vikings had for quitting Norway in the ninth century was the unwillingness of chieftains previously independent to suffer the dictation and taxes of the first king of all Norway, Harald the Fair-Haired. These same chieftains, whose united efforts could not prevail against one of their own number at home, yet had the strength to scatter in many directions, with each band or horde still capable of conquering and in some cases administering large territories. The greatest success, of course, was that of the Normans in France, but there were notable administrative successes, too, in the British Isles. The forces that made the Norsemen overlords in Scotland and farther south made them an independent nation in Iceland. It was an aristocratic republic. There was a half-defined understanding that things should go by majorities of the whole free population, but, in some cases at least, they really went by majority of swords rather than noses.

Soon after the colonization of 872 there started up in various parts of Iceland minor parliaments somewhat similar to the New England town meeting. Towards 927 there developed a feeling that there should be a central government under a code of law. So a learned chieftain, Ulfljot, went to Norway for three years to study the "Gulathing" laws and government procedure, with a view of establishing in Iceland a similar parliamentary government, but minus a king. The actual founding of the parliament took place in 930. The body resembled the English House of Lords in being a legislature and a supreme court in one. There came times, centuries later, when the law-giving power waned and even died down completely; but in some other ways, especially as a court, the parliament has functioned continuously for a thousand years, except for a break between 1800 and 1843.

The weakness of the Icelandic government was in the lack of a centralized executive. They could pass laws but there was no machinery for enforcing them except public opinion. For a while this sufficed, and then disruptive forces came into play. One of the chief forces operating against the integrity of the republic was the growing power of the church, not only as an organization but in its hold over the minds of the people. From the doctrine of the divine right of kings it was logically deduced that self-government was to a degree impious. Opposing a king was opposing God; unwillingness to have a king was similarly disrespectful to God.

When Europe settled into the general lethargy of the Middle Ages the commerce of Iceland declined. The kings of Norway were ambitious and they agitated in Iceland to get the country to renounce its sovereignty and become a part of Norway, one of the most enticing promises held out being improved shipping facilities.

A third factor operating against the republic was increasing power of a few chiefs. Feuds developed, and there was practically a state of civil war.

For these and other reasons parliament finally agreed in 1262 that Iceland and Norway should become a confederate union. But each was to retain extensive powers of self-government; this the King solemnly guaranteed. But kings have short memories, or at least they don't seem to transmit memories from father to son, and the very things the Norwegian king promised not to do his successors began to do. With a continuity of policy on one side, and no definite policy or organization on the other, the power and influence of the Icelandic government continually declined, until finally the King felt himself strong enough to abolish the parliament entirely.[i]

According to the treaty which the Icelanders made with the Norwegian King, Hakon Hakonarson, in 1262, the Icelanders swore allegiance to the King and his descendants and promised to pay certain annual taxes. In return the King promised numerous privileges. The Icelanders looked upon the treaty as providing for a personal union between Iceland and Norway. In 1380 Norway and Iceland came under Denmark, or at least under a Danish king. From that time Iceland was ruled by the King of Denmark. Iceland was, however, pretty much a sovereign state, functioning through the Althing (or Parliament) until after the introduction of the Reformation in 1550. Then the Danish crown took possession of all church property and a rigid trade monopoly was established. In 1662 the Icelanders swore a new oath to the King of Denmark and Norway as absolute and hereditary sovereign. Through this the legislative power of the Althing really became nil, though it was not formally declared abolished till 1800. The Parliament was reëstablished as a consultative assembly in 1843.

In 1849 when the absolute power of the King was abolished in Denmark, but not in Iceland, the Icelanders began their struggle for independence under the leadership of Jon Sigurdsson. This strife finally culminated in 1874 when the King issued a constitution for Iceland granting legislative power to the Althing and establishing self-government for Iceland in domestic affairs, but with executive power vested in Copenhagen in a Danish Ministry for Iceland.

The constitution was modified in 1903 to the extent of appointing an Icelandic minister in Reykjavik, with other changes which really amounted to home rule. Still the Icelanders were not satisfied. Increased prosperity, the creation of an independent steamship line, and the influence of the World War caused them to make more marked efforts to gain autonomy. This they finally obtained in 1918 through the Danish Icelandic Act of Union, which is subject to a plebiscite in 1940. By its provision, Iceland becomes an independent kingdom, maintaining a personal union with Denmark through the same King. According to the agreement, both countries are sovereign states, neither superior to the other. But Denmark is to act for Iceland in foreign affairs. It is guaranteed that in the Danish foreign ministry there shall be a member well acquainted with Icelandic needs and interests.

In anticipation of the plebiscite, the relations between Iceland and Denmark are now being somewhat affected by an Icelandic echo of the Norwegian claims against Denmark for either ownership or special rights in Greenland. The Norwegians maintained that Greenland was theirs by discovery, Eric the Red having been born in Norway. They strengthened this claim by pointing out that while Denmark undoubtedly has cultivated the west coast and even the southern portion of the east coast, it is chiefly the Norwegians who have made use of the northern two-thirds of the east coast of Greenland -- for sealing, fishing, hunting, etc. They claimed in addition whatever moral rights there are in favor of a nation that needs an outlet, the Norwegians being active fishermen, already in the habit of using Greenland, whereas the Danes, not much given to fishing, would not suffer if another country fishes Greenland waters or controls that part of the coast which is, so far as we now can see, mainly useful as a fishery. It was no doubt partly in reply to these claims and contentions of Norway that Denmark recently established a colony at Scoresby Sound in N. Lat. 70°, thus permanently occupying a part of the territory which the Norwegians were claiming on the basis of frequent visits.

Of course the Icelanders, good historians and keen in dialectic, were quick to see that the Norwegian arguments were even stronger in their hands. Eric the Red, they pointed out, was only a baby when he left Norway and certainly lost his Norwegian citizenship through being outlawed with his father. Neither the Danes nor the Norwegians deny that Iceland was an independent country at this time. Therefore Eric became a citizen of Iceland, when he grew up there in his father's new home, thus cancelling his Norwegian citizenship even if the Norwegians had not themselves already nullified it by the expulsion. It was therefore as an Icelander and not as a Norwegian that Eric the Red sailed on the momentous voyage which led to his discovery of Greenland, to its colonization, and to the inevitable discovery of North America.

Furthermore, say the Icelanders, if the Norwegians have a moral claim because they are fishermen and need fishing grounds, Iceland has a still greater claim, for fishing is a more important item in its national economy than it is in the Norwegian. Moreover, Iceland is much closer to Greenland geographically and can more easily cultivate the fisheries.

Accordingly there is in Iceland a small but aggressive party who demand as one of the prerequisites for continuing the tenuous bond with Denmark that the Danes shall give the Icelanders free access to Greenland's natural resources, especially the fishing. To this the Danes cannot agree without renouncing their enlightened and unique policy of administering Greenland for the benefit of the Eskimos rather than for the benefit of any Europeans, whether Danish or not. Of course, Iceland has world precedent on its side in demanding that the territories of aborigines be thrown open to modern commercial development. But the Danes have the support of humanitarian arguments when they point out that the Eskimos are the real owners of Greenland and that it is a paramount moral duty to conserve the country's resources in their interest.

This Greenland argument is used as a weapon in the contest with Denmark, but it is not really a reason for Icelanders to desire complete separation, because their one hope for privileges in Greenland is to continue their special relationship with the Danes. For now that the Danes have pretty clearly won their dispute with the Norwegians about northeast Greenland, they hardly would fail to win a similar dispute with the Icelanders, even if the latter have somewhat stronger claims than the Norwegians along the Norwegian line of argument.

The modern fashion is to assume that economic reasons lie behind any struggle for autonomy or independence. But it is very hard to see any reality in these issues in the case of Iceland, excepting only the fear that the Danes may monopolize Icelandic fisheries, a matter referred to below.

Some feel that Iceland has a new reason to desire complete independence because of its potential importance in aviation. A realization has grown up during the last ten years that this island in the mid-Atlantic is a logical way-station on flights between Europe and America. It lies on the direct or short route between Seattle and Paris, Chicago and Berlin, New York

and Moscow, besides many others. Flying conditions on these routes are on the average better than on the Newfoundland-Ireland route that has been so much used already. We know this theoretically for the whole route, and it was reported as a fact by Hassel and Cramer the past summer when they flew two-thirds of it, from Rockford (Chicago) to Greenland. Besides, the over-water jumps are much shorter, a thing of no consequence perhaps to dirigibles but crucial for air-planes that count on maintaining regular traffic, such as a mail service.

In a flying age, Iceland will therefore be tied close into the network of commercial countries. Many dirigibles will pass over, and some of them will stop for commercial or tourist reasons. The air-planes will have regular way stations there, as they will in Labrador and Greenland and in the Faroes, halfway between Iceland and Scotland. All these are on the direct route from Chicago to Paris; they are so little out of the way on the New York-Paris route that many planes will doubtless fly that way for increased safety as well as for the comfort of being able to allow passengers to stretch their legs occasionally and to get meals and relaxation on the ground.

The above considerations, and doubtless others, were behind a debate which took place on February 25, 1928, in the Parliament of Iceland, sitting at Reykjavik. The news of this debate brought consternation to Denmark, caused lively and even excited discussion in all Scandinavian countries, and attracted general interest throughout the world. The most conservative and reliable papers in Europe agreed in reporting that "all Icelandic parties favor the abrogation of the treaty of confederation" (Berlinske Tidende, Copenhagen, February 25). The London Times on the same date reported: "The Government was opposed to a continuation of the connection. Conservative and Socialist leaders expressed similar views. Such unanimity is unprecedented." In Iceland itself the debate was similarly understood. The press there said that the party in power had announced a policy looking toward complete separation from Denmark after 1940 and that both the other parties, Conservative and Socialist, had agreed with the Government through speeches by their leaders. The sentiment was declared unanimous.

But the next month the Icelandic Minister in Copenhagen, Sveinn Bjornsson, announced through the Danish press that the text of the parliamentary debates had arrived in Copenhagen. This text, he maintained, showed that the news reports had been incorrect. Only the Socialists had declared for the complete separation of Iceland from Denmark. The Government and the chief party in opposition, the Conservatives, had made no separatist statement but had merely declared against two important provisions in the Act of Union and had announced they would oppose their retention when time came for the plebiscite. To this the Socialists had agreed, adding that the aim should be complete separation.

The three parties, said Mr. Bjornsson, agreed on two things. First, Iceland would not retain after 1940 the arrangement by which Denmark acts for her in foreign affairs. The motives here seem national dignity and the failure of the Danes (alleged) to understand the needs of Iceland and their inability to act for Iceland advantageously. Second, the various potential interpretations of the clause with regard to "Equality of Citizenship" can cause so much dissension that the Icelanders would like to see it cancelled. Their chief motive for this is fear: Denmark with a population thirty-five times larger than that of Iceland could by vote take possession of its natural resources.

One direction in which the Icelanders already entertain fears regarding this sort of Danish action is the question of fisheries. They say it is only empty words to provide in a law that Icelanders shall have the same fishing privileges in Danish waters that the Danes have in Icelandic waters, for Denmark is negligible as a fishing country while Iceland is one of the richest in the world. Some Icelanders consider this clause dangerous because the Danes, being a wealthier people, might use their voting power to legalize Danish fishing stations in Iceland that would compete with the natives.

It is incorrect, then, to say, as the press of the world had it, that the three Icelandic political parties have declared for repudiating the personal union with Denmark in 1940. Only one party has so declared. But readers of Icelandic newspapers and travelers in that country are impressed with the steady growth of separatist feeling from year to year. This tendency, likely to crystallize into a movement, appears to have some economic motives for it, but more against. The main causes of the separatist tendency are clearly what a hostile critic would call vanity and what a friendly critic would call pride -- pride in the former independence of the country and in the notable contribution it made in old days to literature, geographic discovery and the development of the forms of popular government. It can easily seem to the Icelanders justifiable that a land of such tradition shall demand that not the suspicion of a shadow shall be cast on its full independence even by such a gossamer thing as a personal union with any country.

[i] Cf. "Thjodrettarsamband Islands og Danmerkur" ("The Union Act of Iceland and Denmark"). By Einar Arnorsson. Reykjavik, 1923.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • VILH J ALMUR STEFANSSON, Arctic explorer, author of "The Friendly Arctic," "The Northward Course of Empire" and other works
  • More By Vilhjalmur Stefansson