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Book Review: The Travels Of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson

Book Review: The Travels Of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson

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Published August 20, 2009

On a summer day in 1627, pirates landed on Heimaey, the largest of the Westmann Islands. They swarmed over the island’s farms and houses, killed thirty-four of its residents and forced 242 men, women, and children onto their ships. They sailed with their prisoners to the city of Algiers, where most were sold as slaves.

This “Turkish Raid” (Tyrkjaránið in Icelandic) is an odd and interesting episode in Icelandic history, and now there is an inexpensive book on it in English. The pirates were actually not what we call Turks today, but rather Arabic-speaking North Africans, and there were also Englishmen and other northern Europeans among the ships’ crews. Though the largest number of captives came from Heimaey, the pirates also raided farms and villages in southeastern Iceland, around Djúpivogur and Berufjörður, as well as the village of Grindavík.

Ólafur Egilsson, a sixty-year-old pastor on Heimaey, was taken prisoner along with his pregnant wife and children. His wife gave birth on the voyage south. After arriving in Algeria, he watched helplessly as his eleven-year-old son was sold away from the family. Soon after, he was released and allowed to make his way to Denmark, leaving his wife and younger children behind.  He was told to ask the king of Denmark, then Christian IV, to pay ransom for the captives’ freedom. Unfortunately Christian IV, who had just lost a big battle to Catholic forces in the Thirty Years’ War, didn’t feel able to contribute to the cause. However, some of the captives were able to return to Iceland ten years later.

The English translation of the report Ólafur wrote when he came home take up eighty pages of this small book. Ólafur tells of the raid, his captivity in Algeria, and his trip home via Italy, France, Holland, and Denmark. Another forty pages translate shorter accounts of the raid by three other captives and a local Icelandic official. A brief foreword gives context.

Ólafur was an educated and curious man and though the first thing that comes through is his sorrow at losing his family, much of his tale shows a fascination with foreign customs. Ólafur tells you what kind of hats Muslims wear and notes how the pirates didn’t drink alcohol. He describes what camels look like, how monks dress, and how Catholic confession works (you still had to pay to be forgiven). He marvels at Dutch windmills. He reminds us how, four hundred years ago, distance was real. If you ran out of cash in a foreign country, you couldn’t go to the ATM machine, or even the consulate, for help.

The book is an inexpensive yet nicely produced paperback, including maps and illustrations. It’s short, so you can read the whole thing after dinner or on a plane trip. The translation is well done using contemporary language. Overall—thumbs up. I didn’t want my two hours back.

Unfortunately and typically, the book is not being sold by anyone outside of Iceland (except perhaps on the used market), so you can’t order a new copy from Amazon or other online booksellers and you basically have to buy it here in Iceland. I saw it at Eymundsson for 1.480 kr. Bóksala Stúdenta (www.boksala.is) lists it at 1.332 kr.

  • Translation: Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols

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