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That Time The United States Was Thinking Of Buying Iceland

That Time The United States Was Thinking Of Buying Iceland

Anna Andersen
Photos by
Sigfús Eymundsson (via Almenna bókafélagið)

Published April 20, 2015

“The population of Iceland is about 70,000, but in view of its pasture and arable lands, its valuable mines, its splendid fisheries, and its unsurpassed hydraulic power, it could, when fully developed, sustain a population exceeding 1,000,000. It has been greatly neglected by Denmark. The Icelanders complain of this, and look forward with hope to association with the United States.”

So reads “A Report on the Resources of Iceland and Greenland,” addressed to U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward in 1868. Having negotiated with Denmark for the acquisition of the Caribbean islands St. John and St. Thomas, he thought the idea of obtaining Iceland and Greenland was “worthy of serious consideration” and requested “views and facts on the subject,” according to the report’s opening remarks.

The resulting 72-page report, which was written and researched by mining engineer Benjamin M. Pierce, is revealing of expansionist policies of the time and presents a rather fascinating picture of 19th century life in Iceland.

Tourists, informing the State Department!

Whereas Pierce said of Greenland, “There is hardly a part of the world about which so much has been said or which has received so large a share of the public’s attention as this of the far north,” he bemoaned the lack of information about Iceland.

“We have to complain of the meagerness of the data available for the formation of an opinion upon the present resources and condition of Iceland,” he wrote. “Most of the facts given in this paper have been painfully picked out from the books of travellers, who fill the bulk of their account with narrative, personal adventure, and travelling experiences. Facts and statistics, important to us, come in as incidental observations generally, and need to be disentangled from a mass of useless matter.”

Specifically, he relied heavily on accounts from Sir George Steuart Mackenzie and Ebenezer Henderson, who had traveled to the country 50 years earlier, the former with an interest in science and the latter with an interest in the Holy Scriptures. But, he justified, Iceland had probably changed little in the previous half century.

Many of these 19th century tourists were not overly fond of their visits to the island as is apparent from their accounts. After relaying a series of their dreary descriptions of Iceland, including one in which an apparently poetic Icelandic priest told a tourist that he would find in the country “nothing but bogs, rocks, precipices; precipices, rocks, bogs; ice, snow, lava; lava, snow ice; rivers and torrents; torrents and rivers,” Pierce concluded, “few countries present a less inviting aspect than Iceland.”

But, he had prefaced, this was just Iceland at first sight. “A passing glance at the general aspect is deceptive, and one who merely examines the quotations which occur in the pages immediately following may well wonder what there is to recommend a further examination,” he wrote. “It is only after a thorough consideration of the details that he can find in the seeming desolation the sure promise, if not the existence, of a rich prosperity.”

What The U.S. Found Valuable

  • Sulphur springs
  • Sulphur mountains, beds and mines
  • A mountain of obsidian
  • Beds of lignite
  • Grasslands
  • Moss
  • Fisheries
  • Spar (AKA double refracting crystal, magnificent zeolites)
  • Calcedonies
  • The possibility of an independent American line of oceanic telegraph

Icelanders, interested in becoming Americans?

The report reads mostly like a primer on Iceland with painstakingly detailed descriptions of the island and its people, but it’s also clearly a case for annexing the nation which, Pierce noted, is closer to Greenland than it is to Norway and Scotland, and “thus seems to be rather American in its connection than European, especially as we may add that its most important and most populous coast is the western.”

Furthermore, despite the fact that Icelanders were “attached to their country by an intense patriotism,” it seems Pierce thought that they would welcome this connection to the States. “[T]he general tone of the more intelligent people everywhere shows that, though they firmly believe their island ‘the best the sun shines on,’ it is so, rather from its natural position and climate and from its undeveloped resources than from what the government and human exertion has made it,” he wrote. “They look forward to a glorious future, where a free and enterprising government shall aid them with capital and energy to explore their country’s wealth, and give them the honourable position among nations which they ought to hold.”

In this way, Pierce framed inadequacies of the island in terms of potential that the United States could capitalise on, and cherrypicked evidence from the aforementioned travelogues to suggest that the islanders would be sympathetic to the idea. This of course would have been part of its selling point.

News of the report travelled remarkably fast

Apparently getting wind of the report the following year, the New York Times ran an article titled “Iceland: Rumored Plan for the Annexation of the Island to the United States,” in which it noted that Icelanders “seem to know nothing of the intended transfer” and speculated that the idea was “not likely to be at all cordially received by ‘still-vexed’ islanders.”

But Iceland’s Independence hero Jón Sigurðsson had actually heard of the report, according to an article in socialist newspaper Þjóðviljinn from 1981, which quotes a letter that Jón penned to an Eiríkur Magnússon in 1868. “Perhaps we could exploit the plan itself, as the Danes are always eager to sate their lust for profit, and they were so happy to sell St. Thomas,” Jón reportedly wrote about the report. “Of course we would never go there, where they want to sell us, but it would be a kind of cause for termination and it would be a way to get the equivalent value of the Bjelke lands with leases and sub-leases, which would amount to something like 50 million dollars, in addition to other issues, that would be fun, to scare them with that.”

Ultimately though, it’s unlikely that the American government pursued the idea any further. When Pierce’s report-in-the-making was mentioned in a U.S. Senate hearing about the purchase of Alaska, it reportedly elicited laughter from the room, and upon its publication, a year later, it probably wouldn’t have been easy to win support from the public, which had taken to calling Alaska derisive names like “Seward’s Icebox” and “Andrew Johnson’s Polar Bear Garden.”

But one can only imagine.

reykjavik-1860 Þór Magnússon (1976). Ljósmyndir Sigfúsar Eymundssonar, Almenna bókafélagið, Reykjavík. (Unicode Encoding Conflict)

Highlights From The Report

  • “At first sight Iceland is a country devoid of interest from a material point of view. A passing glance at the general aspect is deceptive, and one who merely examines the quotations which occur in the pages immediately following may well wonder what there is to recommend a further examination; it is only after a thorough consideration of the details that he can find in the seeming desolation the sure promise, if not the existence, of a rich prosperity.”
  • “The Icelandic men are rather tall, have frank, open countenances, fair, often very florid, complexion, and flaxen hair. The women are inclined to corpulency, but otherwise resemble the men. They are not cleanly, and from this cause, as well as from their peculiar food, often suffer from cutaneous diseases. They are said to be cheerful, so honest that the doors are not locked at night in their largest town, strangely frank and unsophisticated, lovers of constitutional liberty and of literature, pious, contented, with remarkable strength of intellect and acuteness, brimful of hospitality, and not given to any crimes or vices except drunkenness.”
  • “Above all, they possess an enthusiastic affection for their island, which they call ‘hinn best land sem solinn skinner uppa’—the best land the sun shines on.”
  • “A sort of superstition exists about a tribe of robbers who live in the desert centre of the island and carry off sheep. The only ground for this belief is the immense loss of sheep, which, however, could be accounted for in other ways.”
  • “The vegetable wealth of Iceland is not large.”
  • “The articles of export from Iceland are thus stated: fish (cod, salmon, liver), salted mutton, oil, tallow, wool, stockings, mittens, skins, downs, feathers, salt, sulphur, Iceland moss.”
  • “The articles of import into Iceland are coffee, corn brandy, snuff, breadstuff, deal boards, soap, sugar, tobacco, potatoes, iron, lines, hooks &c.”
  • “Iceland is by no means a warm country, but we have learnt enough to know that its inhabited parts do not deserve the harsh name of Iceland, for the climate is clear and fine, and in summer even warm and pleasant.”
  • “At present all the energy of this fine people is devoted to the simplest pursuits of domestic life. Their existence is monotonous enough.”
  • “Salt works have been established in various places, and the numerous salt springs and hot springs were sought to be made available as sources of the material or as sources of heat. But this manufacture languished in the true Icelandic fashion.”
  • “Like everything else in Iceland, the light is under a bushel.”

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