What if? It’s a pretty open-ended question and one friend of the Grapevine Valur Gunnarsson is applying to eight relevant-to-Iceland historical happenings over as many issues. Expand your mind, suspend your disbelief and consider: what if Icelanders had colonised North America?
There is no arguing with the maxim attributed to Oscar Wilde that Icelanders are the smartest people in the world, in that they found America but had the good sense to lose it again. Smart or not, how exactly did Icelanders manage to misplace a whole continent? They and their cousins had already settled in distant lands with as inhospitable names as Iceland and on the even less hospitable but more attractively named Greenland. Why stop there? Did they find nothing worthwhile in North America?
Of course, there were disagreements with the Indigenous peoples that led to bloodshed, but the Vikings were used to that. Perhaps the simple answer is that the distances involved were too vast and there simply wasn’t enough motive to travel so far in search of land. But what if there had been something pushing people away from Iceland at the same time the new world was calling?
This was very nearly the case. At the same time Vikings were sailing west, Iceland was in the midst of changing religions. As it happened, Christianity was adopted peacefully in the year 1000, with the pagans simply converting on the understanding that they would still be allowed to worship their old gods in secret. This was very different from the Norwegian experience, where those who clung to the old ways tended to be massacred.
What if the pagans in Iceland would have stuck to their guns (or swords, rather), or the Christians had been less inclined to compromise? Could that have catalysed an influx of religiously persecuted refugees into North America in the 11th century? And then what would happen?
Two scenarios come to mind.
The Long Siege
If we imagine thousands of pagans fleeing Iceland with nowhere to run, they might not have abandoned the palisades and gone back as easily as they did in our timeline. With plenty of timber in North America and good knowledge of ship building, they might have constructed a small navy and gone on the offensive. It’s probable that all of Newfoundland would have been conquered and then easily defended from canoe-sailing Indigenous populations. Perhaps this would have led to a new Viking age beginning in North America at the same time it was winding down in Europe.
Longships could have sailed up and down what is now the east coast of the United States and along the great rivers of Canada in search of plunder. But they would have found no cities to sack and not much worth stealing in the manner that Vikings were accustomed to. Even slaves would have been of little use without a market for their trade.
Would the Vikings have maintained a unified society? There is little reason to believe feuding wouldn’t be common here, just as it was in sparsely populated Iceland and Greenland — it was the reason Eric the Red left Iceland to found the Greenland Colony. Some might have broken off to found smaller colonies on the mainland, which may or may not have survived.
Perhaps Indigenous nations would have unified instead. In the 18th century, Hiawatha managed to create an alliance of five Iroquois nations that held off the British and French. An 11th century Hiawatha might have emerged against the common Norse enemy with even better results since the Iron Age Vikings had less sophisticated weapons than later European arrivals.
Still, the Norse would have their work cut out for them. The first English and French colonies in North America in the 17th centuries floundered. In a winter famine of 1609-10, bodies were exhumed in Jamestown and eaten — in one case, a wife was murdered by her husband, who ate every part of her but the head. Only 60 out of 500 settlers survived the winter and what saved the colony was the introduction of a tobacco plantation in 1617.
Indigenous peoples sometimes came to the rescue, as is remembered every U.S. Thanksgiving, but this was unlikely to happen to the Vikings if they stuck to their violent ways.
Would the North American colonies have survived? They didn’t last in Greenland, despite hanging on for over 400 years. The Norse were geographically isolated in Greenland, but in North America they would have been politically isolated, too. There would have been little trade with the Christians who had driven them away from Iceland. Hard-pressed Greenlanders would have welcomed lumber and furs, but they had little to give in return. Greenlandic walrus ivory was prized at the courts of Europe, but it would have been of little use to America-based Vikings.
It is possible that the last Viking settlement in Greenland was destroyed by a group of Inuit colonising the island in the 15th century. Something similar could have happened in America, with Viking colonies, weakened by harsh conditions, falling to an Indigenous advance. But North America is not Greenland — once established, the Vinland Colony’s chances of survival would have been infinitely greater due to more bountiful resources of the new world.
A Vinland Colony of any size might not have been completely lost to Europe, despite religious differences. North American Viking ships might have traded with, or even raided, Greenland and Iceland, despite the distances. The route the Vikings took from Newfoundland to the Greenland settlement is about 300 nautical miles along the coast and took six weeks, but the direct route is half that distance — a passage that could have been discovered in time. The American Vikings could also have been discovered by later explorers driven by curiosity about whether the myth of pagans sailing to the end of the world was true.
The Danes sent an expedition to Greenland in the 18th century to find the remaining Norse Greenlanders and re-Christianize them. Something similar might have happened sooner with a Vinland Colony. Could a fleet from the Kalmar Union of the Nordic countries in the 15th century have set out to find the missing Icelanders? Or enterprising English sailors, already active around Iceland and even as far afield as Newfoundland at the same time, might have accidentally run into remains from a Norse settlement or even ships from a still existing one. Perhaps the colonisation of North America would have begun here by the united Scandinavians of the 1400s — the Swedes did colonise Delaware in the 17th century. Or perhaps the Viking descendants and the natives would have made common cause against the new interlopers? This brings us to another scenario.
The second scenario is more likely to have worked in the Vikings’ favour. If they could have learnt to get along with the far more numerous Indigenous peoples of North America, it could have been beneficial to both sides. It was, in fact, not uncommon for the Vikings to adapt to their surroundings. In Slav countries, they became Slavicized. In Normandy, they became French. Why wouldn’t they adopt the cultures and habits of North America’s First Nations?
In other parts of Europe, the Norse first became a ruling class before they adapted the customs of their subjects. This was unlikely to happen in North America as they were far too few in number for conquest. Any exchange would have to have been on a more equal basis. For Christians, sure of the superiority of their religion, that was unthinkable.
Relations with the Inuit in Greenland seem to have been uniformly hostile. In fact, one of the reasons the Norse died out was their clinging to European customs rather than adapting to the changing climate as the Inuit did.
But in the case of the hypothetical Vinland Colony, we have pagans with fewer qualms about adhering to different ways of life. They might have even found similarities between their own pantheon of nature gods and those revered by Indigenous tribes. Had the Norse managed friendly relations, they could have prospered in the New World, likely eventually becoming absorbed by the local cultures. This is in fact what some people believe did happen to the Norse in Greenland, that they joined up with local tribes and became one with them, even moving over to Canada — although research in both Greenland and Canada has turned up little that could substantiate this and Norse graves found in Greenland show no evidence of Inuit DNA.
In this scenario, perhaps palefaces would have been found among First Nations as the European powers started conquering the continent in the 17th century, telling stories of ancestors coming from across the sea. This would no doubt have been the source of much puzzlement, until someone would finally have connected them with the pagans who left Iceland over 600 years earlier.
Would it have led to less disregard for the lives of Indigenous peoples if it were clear that some were originally of European descent? Perhaps not, but intermingling with the Indigenous would certainly have allowed the Vikings to survive longer in North America than they in fact did.
Are you enjoying Valur Gunnarsson’s reimagining of historical events? Then you’ll love his new book, with each chapter offering an expanded in-depth exploration of how Iceland could be different today if only key historical happenings hadn’t played out the way they did.
What If Vikings Had Conquered the World? And Other Questions of Icelandic and Nordic History is out June 1 through Salka Publishing. Pre-order your copy at Shop.Grapevine.is starting May 19.
And check out the Grapevine’s Alternative History Of Iceland podcast for more hypothetical hijinks from Valur and the Grapevine’s Jón Trausti Sigurðarson.
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