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“The Fag-End Of Civilization”

“The Fag-End Of Civilization”

Best descriptions of Reykjavík by foreign visitors in the 19th Century

Published July 30, 2014

It is no secret that the village of Reykjavík was not only a tiny place in the eyes of 19th century tourists in Iceland but also a “filthy” and “desolate” shantytown. Iceland was a poor and isolated country back then. By 1900 the capital had only around 6,000 inhabitants (always described as “souls”) which all lived in the city centre of today. The foreign visitors in the 19th century were mostly rich Europeans who were shocked by the poverty and extreme hardships faced by Icelandic people. These tourists mostly wrote about the ugliness and are sometimes merciful in their descriptions.

Lord Dufferin: Letters From High Latitudes (1857)

Notwithstanding that its site, as I mentioned in my last letter, was determined by auspices not less divine than those of Rome or Athens, Reykjavik is not so fine a city as either, though its public buildings may be thought to be in better repair. In fact, the town consists of a collection of wooden sheds, one story high, rising here and there into a gable end of greater pretensions, built along the lava beach, and flanked at either end by a suburb of turf huts.

On every side of it extends a desolate plain of lava that once must have boiled up red-hot from some distant gateway of hell, and fallen hissing into the sea. No tree or bush relieves the dreariness of the landscape, and the mountains are too distant to serve as a background to the buildings; but before the door of each merchant’s house facing the sea there flies a gay little pennon; and as you walk along the silent streets, whose dust no carriage-wheel has ever desecrated, the rows of flower-pots that peep out of the windows, between curtains of white muslin, at once convince you that, notwithstanding their unpretending appearance, within each dwelling reign the elegance and comfort of a woman-tended home.

J. Ross Browne: The Land Of Thor (1867)

My first view of the capital of Iceland was through a chilling rain. A more desolate-looking place I had rarely if ever seen, though it was susceptible of improvement under the influence of an ardent imagination. As a subject for the pencil of an artist, it was at least peculiar, if not picturesque. A tourist whose glowing fancies had not been nipped in the bud by the rigors of an extended experience might have been able to invest it with certain weird charms, but to me it was only the fag-end of civilization, abounding in horrible odors of decayed polypi and dried fish. A cutting wind from the distant Jokuls and a searching rain did not tend to soften the natural asperities of its features. In no point of view did it impress me as a cheerful place of residence except for wild ducks and sea-gulls.

“The women are really the only class of inhabitants, except the fleas, who possess any vitality. Rude, slatternly, and ignorant as they are, they still evince some sign of life and energy compared with the men.”

The whole country for miles around is a black desert of bogs and lava. Scarcely an arable spot is to be seen save on the tops of the fishermen’s huts, where the sod produces an abundance of grass and weeds. A dark gravelly slope in front of the town, dotted with boats, oars, nets, and piles of fish; a long row of shambling old store-houses built of wood, and painted a dismal black, varied bypatches of dirty yellow; a general hodge-podge of frame shanties behind, constructed of old boards and patched up with drift-wood; a few straggling streets, paved with broken lava and reeking with offal from the doors of the houses; some dozens of idle citizens and drunken boatmen lounging about the grog-shops; a gang of women, brawny and weather-beaten, carrying loads of codfish down to the landing; a drove of shaggy little ponies, each tied to the tail of the pony in front; a pack of mangy dogs prowling about in dirty places looking for something to eat, and fighting when they got it—this was all I could see of Reykjavik, the famous Icelandic capital.

The town lies on a strip of land between the harbor and a lagoon in the rear. It is said to contain a population of two thousand, and if the dogs and fleas be taken into consideration, I have no doubt it does. Where two thousand human beings can stow themselves in a place containing but one hotel, and that a very poor one, is a matter of wonder to the stranger. The houses generally are but one story high, and seldom contain more than two or three rooms. Some half a dozen stores, it is true, of better appearance than the average, have been built by the Danish merchants within the past few years; and the residence of the governor and the public University are not without some pretensions to style.

The only stone building in Reykjavik of any importance is the “Cathedral;” so called, perhaps, more in honor of its great antiquity than anything imposing about its style or dimensions. At present it shows no indications of age, having been patched, plastered, and painted into quite a neat little church of modern appearance.

At each end of the town is a small gathering of sod-covered huts, where the fishermen and their families live like rabbits in a burrow. That these poor people are not all devoured by snails or crippled with rheumatism is a marvel to any stranger who takes a peep into their filthy and cheerless little cabins.

“At a short distance they look for all the world like mounds in a grave-yard. The inhabitants, worse off than the dead, are buried alive. No gardens, no cultivated patches, no attempt at anything ornamental relieves the dreary monotony of the premises.”

The oozy slime of fish and smoke mingles with the green mould of the rocks; barnacles cover the walls, and puddles make a soft carpeting for the floors. The earth is overhead, and their heads are under the earth, and the light of day has no light job of it to get in edgewise through the windows. The beaver-huts and badger-holes of California, taking into consideration the difference of climate, are palatial residences compared with the dismal hovels of these Icelandic fishermen. At a short distance they look for all the world like mounds in a grave-yard.

The inhabitants, worse off than the dead, are buried alive. No gardens, no cultivated patches, no attempt at anything ornamental relieves the dreary monotony of the premises. Dark patches of lava, all littered with the heads and entrails of fish; a pile of turf from some neighboring bog; a rickety shed in which the fish are hung up to dry; a gang of wolfish-looking curs, horribly lean and voracious; a few prowling cats, and possibly a chicken deeply depressed in spirits – these are the most prominent objects visible in the vicinity. Sloth and filth go hand in hand.

The women are really the only class of inhabitants, except the fleas, who possess any vitality. Rude, slatternly, and ignorant as they are, they still evince some sign of life and energy compared with the men.

Over-taxed by domestic cares, they go down upon the wharves when a vessel comes in, and by hard labor earn enough to purchase a few rags of clothing for their children. The men are too lazy even to carry the fish out of their own boats. At home they lie about the doors, smoking and gossiping, and too often drunk. Some are too lazy to get drunk and go to sleep over the effort. In truth, the prevailing indolence among all classes is so striking that one can almost imagine himself in a Southern clime. There is much about Reykjavik to remind a Californian traveler of San Diego. The drunken fellows about the stores, and the racing of horses up and down the streets, under the stimulus of liquor rather than natural energy, sometimes made me feel quite at home.

I should be sorry to be understood as intimating, in my brief sketch of Reykjavik, that it is destitute of refined society. There are families of as cultivated manners here as in any other part of the world; and on the occasion of a ball or party, a stranger would be surprised at the display of beauty and style. The University and public library attract students from all parts of the island, and several of the professors and literary men have obtained a European reputation. Two semi-monthly newspapers are published at Reykjavik, in the Icelandic language. They are well printed, and said to be edited with ability. I looked over them very carefully from beginning to end, and could see nothing to object to in any portion of the contents.

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E. J. Oswald: By Fell and Fjord, or, Summer Scenes in Iceland (1882)

There are three streets in Reykjavik parallel to the shore, and one leading up inland at each extremity of the town; these are nicely gravelled and neatly kept. There is also a square, with grass in the centre, in the middle of which stands a fine statue of Thorwaldsen, the only ornament of the town.

°The rest of it is all irregular, houses dotted about by twos and threes over a considerable space of country. The public buildings consist of an ugly salmon-coloured church they call the cathedral, a plain whitewashed house for the governor and a larger one, salmon-coloured again, for the college.

Most of the houses are of timber painted black, picked out with white; many stand in gardens among hardy flowers, or, with a complete disregard for appearances, turnips and potatoes.

How I longed often to do a little gardening, and square things up! for the Icelanders have no ideas about out-of-doors amenity. The houses    are, however, generally neat inside, and some of them are daintily pretty; and they are usually ornamented by roses, carnations, and geraniums, blooming in the windows, tender favourites which are rarely exposed to the open air.

There are a few old turf-houses, which are among the worst and smallest specimens of the genuine Icelandic bae or dwelling; and of late many new substantial houses of grey whinstone have been built. The red Danish flag flutters from many a roof, and the whole place has a thriving air, and an increasing trade and population. The two or three stores, which are like our Highland “general merchants” shops, places where you can buy everything rather dear, are crowded in summer.

Sabine Baring-Gould: Iceland: Its Scenes and Sagas (1862)

Reykjavík is a jumble of wooden shanties, pitched down wherever the builder listed. Some of the houses are painted white, the majority black, one has broke out in green shutters, another is daubed over with orange. The roofs are also of wood, and coloured black or grey. […]

There are but two streets, and these are hardly worthy of the name. One leads from the jetty to the inn, and is called Athalstræti, or High Street; in it live the agent for the steamer and the printer. The second starts from this street, and terminates at a bridge crossing a brook, which flows from the lake into the sea. […] The sea-front is occupied by a line of merchant stores. The moment that the main thoroughfares are quitted, the stench emitted from the smaller houses becomes insupportable. Decayed fish, offal, filth of every description, is tossed anywhere for the rain to wash away, or for the passer-by to trample into the ground. […]

An Icelander seems to have no sense of smell; perhaps it is well that he has none, for there is no possibility of gratifying that sense, whilst there is every opportunity of mortifying it. The enoromous amount of snuff consumed is one cause of this deadness in the perception of scent. Nature has made a mistake in forming Icelanders’ faces; she should have inverted their noses, so as to facilitate their plugging them with tobacco.

The town is full of idle men, who follow the strange whithersoever he goes – provided he does not walk too fast for them. They hang about the stores as thickly and stupidly as flies round a sugar-barrel; they stream into the shops after me, throng so closely round me that I can hardly move, listen to what I say, eye me from head to foot, as the price of every article of clothing I have on; bid for my knickerbockers which, of course, I cannot spare; feel my stockings, and laugh to scorn their loose texture; criticize my purchases,  want to examine my purse, but I object, and by so doing, hurt the feelings of half-a-dozen […]

They make advances towards familiarity, shaking hands, asking my name, then my father’s name, then they inquire who was my mother; they offer me a pinch of snuff, or rather a pull at their snuff horns, which are like powder-flasks, and are applied to the nostril, the head thrown back, and the snuff poured in, till the nose is pretty well choked.

One man, very dirty and very drunk, insists on having a kiss — the national salutation; and, when the merchant explains  that such is not the English custom, he kisses all the natives  in the shop, and embraces the merchant across the counter. […]

In character, the people are phlegmatic, conservative to a fault, and desperately indolent. They have a peculiar knack of doing what has to be done in the clumsiest manner imaginable.


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