From Iceland — What If... Iceland Had Joined The British Empire?

What If… Iceland Had Joined The British Empire?

Published May 20, 2023

What If… Iceland Had Joined The British Empire?

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 Joined The British Empire?

Keep up with with the What If series right here.

There is a grave in Australia dated 1841 belonging to a former convict, police constable, gambler, explorer and spy. If this wasn’t an impressive enough resume, the title under which he rests forevermore is “King of Iceland.” Bizarrely, that is accurate – at least in a manner of speaking – due to events in the summer of 1809, when this king led something of a revolution.

In 1807, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the Danish kingdom and the British Empire found themselves on opposing sides. After a brief engagement, the Royal Navy captured the Danish vessel Admiral Juul and its captain, Jörgen Jörgensen, was taken to London. Beginning a series of strange events, Jörgensen soon found himself released from captivity and in the employ of soap salesman Samuel Phelps.

Iceland had been isolated from the Danish motherland for two years and Phelps smelled a business opportunity. Jörgensen had convinced him that Icelanders in the midst of famine would be happy to buy what wares he had to offer and offered to come along as an interpreter. Phelps would sell them food and tobacco in exchange for tallow to sell back home. And so two English merchant vessels set off for Iceland, with which they were technically at war.

The Dane Frederich Christopher, Count of Trampe, governed the colony and turned the English away. Famine or not, Icelanders were still forbidden to trade with foreigners. But the English soon returned – this time they weren’t open to debate. The Count was seized and interned on their ship while the locals looked on in puzzlement. Englishman Phelps could not officially seize the country without permission from His Majesty’s Government. It was therefore up to his interpreter to take charge.

Revolutionary Iceland

Inspired by the French Revolution, Jörgensen decided to declare a republic, making himself its master and commander. Houses were searched for firearms to be requisitioned and a republican guard was formed consisting of a dozen or so previously disadvantaged Reykvíkians, including some released from prison. Uniforms were sewn, the prison house turned into a barracks and a small fortress was constructed on the coast, defended by six Danish cannon discovered in storage and probably intended to be used against Turkish raiders 200 years earlier.

Many found work for the revolutionary government, paid for out of the heretofore royal Danish coffers and foodstuffs were transported from better-off areas to where they were most needed. Most local dignitaries continued on in their posts, with little opposition to the new regime. The first Icelandic flag was raised, displaying three codfish on a blue field and it was proclaimed that elections would be held a year hence. Until a popularly elected government took office, Jörgensen would continue in his role as Lord Protector. Perhaps the greatest novelty in what amounted to the country’s first constitution was that everyone would have the right to vote, irrespective of standing, which was going farther than most revolutionaries at the time would consider.

In all likelihood, six old Danish cannon and a 12-man army would not have held off two Royal Navy vessels.

But as suddenly as the revolution began, it was over. Perhaps it was surprising that no resistance was offered when foreign ships arrived. The fortress did not fire a shot, nor did the revolutionary guard, and Jörgensen was busy holding a ball where he attempted to bring both royal and revolutionary dignitaries together.

Even more surprising was who deposed the Lord Protector. It turned out to be neither the Danish reconquering their lost territory nor Icelandic landowners worrying about their privileges. Rather it was Phelps’ countrymen, the British, coming to the aid of an enemy kingdom. Count Trampe and Jörgensen were brought to England as prisoners, as both were seen as detrimental to English interests. Meanwhile, judge Magnús Stephensen made himself governor of Iceland in the name of the Danish king, but without his appointment.

Jörgensen now found himself a prisoner of England for the second time in as many years, but his adventures were far from over. He supposedly witnessed the battle of Waterloo from the safety of a nearby tree while serving as a British spy before being imprisoned again for gambling debts. This time he was shipped to Australia, where he would become a constable upon his release before eventually dying in Tasmania.

But what if Jörgensen would have fought the British and tried to rally the residents? In all likelihood, six old Danish cannon and a 12-man army would not have held off two Royal Navy vessels, unless by some miracle the British would have decided this was not worth the effort in order to give the country back to the Danes.

Even if we imagine Jörgensen holding out, by the end of the war in 1814 the English would have made sure the country was returned to Danish hands. Britain would not have fought republicanism on the mainland for the best part of a quarter century only to see it pop up in Iceland. This might have created a dangerous precedent. So an independent Iceland in 1809 was unlikely. But another opportunity presented itself.

British Iceland

Sir Joseph Banks of the Royal Academy in London, who had previously visited Iceland and had an affinity for the place, managed to have Iceland, Greenland and the Faroes excluded from the British naval blockade in 1810, thereby likely averting famine. By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it was clear that Iceland, though still ruled from Copenhagen, had irrevocably moved into the British sphere of influence. Why wasn’t it incorporated fully as the British Empire was expanding again after the loss of its American colonies?

Or perhaps, more likely, the fish would have been gobbled up by British boats and processed in home ports, as was to be the case until the Cod Wars of the later 20th century put an end to it.

The idea had surfaced in 1785 when it was suggested that Iceland become a British penal colony. Perhaps sentencing convicts to Iceland was deemed too harsh a punishment, and in any case the idea was impracticable since Britain was not at war with Denmark at the time. When war did break out in 1807, annexing Iceland was put back on the table. This was egged on by Sir Joseph Banks who complained about Danish misrule and thought that Icelanders could develop as a people under English guidance, as well as provide resources such as sulphur and fish to the empire.

What if this had taken place? Instead of moaning about Danish historical injustices, Iceland patriots would have had to take a greater interest in current affairs. The 19th century would have been an era of progress as would turn out to be the case, but perhaps even more so as the industrial revolution was centred on Britain. Nevertheless, as the century wore on, many in Iceland would have begun to clamour for independence.

But the tone would have been different. Instead of emphasising how the Sagas had preserved Nordic history in order to garner respect from the larger Scandinavian countries, connections with Saxon and Viking England would be held up as examples of past glories. British scholars would have shown a mild interest in the Icelandic Sagas, but perhaps more as works of noble savages than common ancestors.

Whether the English would have done much to improve matters, as Sir Joseph Banks anticipated, is open to debate. In the optimistic scenario, English capital would have flooded in, fishing boats been acquired, fish factories established and fishing turned into a major industry, enabling the country to rise from desperate poverty much sooner. Young Icelanders would have aspired to go to Oxford and Cambridge to study and a railway might even have been built — which we still haven’t gotten around to.

Or perhaps, more likely, the fish would have been gobbled up by British boats and processed in home ports, as was to be the case until the Cod Wars of the later 20th century put an end to it. A British naval base would have been established to ward off attention from the Germans and the French. Perhaps this would have continued operating in the later half of the 20th century, leading to a different outcome in those fishing disputes.

The Danes agreed to home rule in 1904 and Iceland became sovereign in 1918 without much fuss. Ireland had to fight harder for their independence and perhaps London would not want an Icelandic example of self-rule to egg them on. Things would have taken longer in this scenario and perhaps Iceland could have become independent in the interwar era but remain under the British crown, like Australia, New Zealand or Canada. Maybe we would have celebrated a new king this year. Or perhaps the idea of a republic would surface again…

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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