From Iceland — What If... Iceland Had Been Wiped Out By A Volcano?

What If… Iceland Had Been Wiped Out By A Volcano?

Published May 19, 2023

What If… Iceland Had Been Wiped Out By A Volcano?

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 Iceland had been wiped out by a volcano?

Keep up with with the What If series right here.

In late May 1783, earthquakes of increasing force were detected in southeast Iceland, leading many local residents to abandon their turf houses and sleep in tents farther from the source. Passing sailors glimpsed fire in the mountains. On June 8, the eruption proper began. The series of craters known as Lakagígar was around 25 kilometres long and was unlike anything seen before in the country. The volume of lava was the greatest ever recorded and the ash blotted the sun from the sky. A dozen farms were overrun by flowing lava and the only thing that prevented the local church from being swallowed up was the famous “fire mass” of the reverend Jón Steingrímsson, although a river running between the lava and the church might have had something to do with it.

Finally, the king decrees that the remaining inhabitants be transported to Denmark. Some young women become housemaids in the bigger cities while the young men join the army and navy. Those with education, usually from the University of Copenhagen, find administrative jobs in the capital.

The church was saved but the rest of the country was not. The most destructive effects were due to the ash cloud that hung over most of southern Iceland, including some of the country’s best farmland. This led to the event being known as “móðuharðindin,” or “The Foggy Hardship.” The ash cloud, it turned out, was poisonous.

Ash on the Mainland

This did not immediately affect people so much as livestock. Up to 75 percent of all sheep died, along with 40 percent of cows and 48 percent of horses. The meat barely clung to the animals’ bones and even when the meat was cleaned and salted those who ate it rarely survived. Enfeebled by hunger, people become more susceptible to yet another outbreak of smallpox. Ice floes also started to appear again, blocking the harbours. The population, which numbered 49,000 in 1783, dropped to 39,000 by 1786. The eruption lasted until February 1784 but its effects lingered much longer. And they were even felt much farther afield.

Photo by Art Bicnick

The ash in the atmosphere resulted in an unusually cold winter on the mainland. In Britain, the changing weather led some to believe the end of the world was nigh. For roughly 23,000 Britons who keeled over in the fields, it was. Vienna ran out of firewood. In Japan, the rice harvest failed, leading to the worst famine in that nation’s history. There was ice in the Gulf of Mexico and trees hardly grew in Alaska. The oft repeated claim that Lakargígar caused the French Revolution is unfounded, as farming there had recovered before 1789, but it did contribute to the collapse of another ancient regime. Farming in Egypt was particularly badly affected, leading to its eventual breakaway from the Ottoman Empire.

Danish Intervention

News of the disaster arrived in Copenhagen in early September 1783, almost three months after the eruption began. A ship was outfitted with emergency provisions, but it was only possible to sail to Iceland during the summer months and that window was fast closing. The opportunity was missed and supplies did not arrive until April 1784. By this time the eruption was over but large tracts of land were depopulated. Grass did not grow, either because of frost or ash. Even where it did grow there were few animals to graze upon it. If the population of Iceland was to survive, the livestock would have to be replenished. To this end, a collection was organised in the churches of Denmark and collectors even went door to door to raise funds.

But perhaps the most novel suggestion to improve the lives of Iceland’s inhabitants was the idea of moving them all somewhere else. What if it had been implemented?

Empty Iceland

In an article from 2017, renowned historian Helgi Skúli Kjartansson asks himself that very question. In actuality, just as the famine was reaching its peak in the spring of 1785, a good summer followed and ensured the people’s survival. In Helgi’s scenario, a cold summer ensures a continued famine and as the remaining livestock dies off, there is little hope the population will recover. Large tracts of the north and east are laid waste. People abandon their farms and become drifters. Everything gets eaten until nothing is left. Things go slightly better in the west and south, but the situation is dire.

Finally, the king decrees that the remaining inhabitants be transported to Denmark. Some young women become housemaids in the bigger cities while the young men join the army and navy. Those with education, usually from the University of Copenhagen, find administrative jobs in the capital.

Icelandic Denmark

However, around 2000 of the survivors are brought to the Jutland heaths where previously, German farmers had settled in an attempt to make the area useful and became known as “potato Germans” after their main produce. That attempt was largely abandoned but the hardy Icelanders make more of a go at it, being used to windswept wastelands and enjoying higher living standards in Jutland than at home. The king generously donates sheep and cows and the Icelanders move into the empty German houses and even learn to grow potatoes. Soon they fan out to build separate farmsteads, as they are more accustomed to wide open spaces than towns.

As time passes, the next generation mostly moves to more central areas of the Danish Kingdom, while Danes and Germans from the duchies to the south move into the area now made liveable. This leads to the Jutland Icelanders losing their specific language and characteristics over time, although tracing one’s lineage becomes a major pastime. People of Icelandic descent continue to contribute to Danish culture, one even winning a Nobel Prize for his novel about the struggles of first-generation Icelandic farmers on the Danish heaths.

French Iceland

But what of Iceland itself? Fishing ships would continue to visit from other parts of the Danish Empire, including Norway, the Faroes and Denmark itself, sometimes even crewed by exiled Icelanders. Mostly they sail in the summer but some elect to stay for the winter to pursue early spring fishing. Meanwhile, survivors from the more remote parts of Iceland, including the Westfjords, who subsisted on bird’s eggs and fish during the famine, would by now have realised that Iceland would not be resettled any time soon. Some would cautiously make their way south to the better farmland once the smog began to clear. They would be joined by stragglers and thieves who had hid themselves in the highlands to avoid Danish ships. Some of the fisherfolk would eventually decide to stay behind, too, taking up residence on the mostly uninhabited island rather than returning to cramped Denmark.

Danish fishing would be brought to a sudden halt in 1807 when war would break out between Denmark and the British Empire, again bringing the tiny population of Iceland to the brink of starvation. When peace would be made at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark would ask that Iceland be handed back to them but Great Britain would opt to give it to the reconstituted French kingdom in return for exclusive fishing rights in Newfoundland. As a French naval base, the island would go on to play a major role in both World Wars.

Valur Gunnarsson — What If Vikings Had Conquered The World Book JacketAre 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 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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