From Iceland — History Repeating: The Pirates Came And The Vikings Conquered

History Repeating: The Pirates Came And The Vikings Conquered

Published November 29, 2015

History Repeating: The Pirates Came And The Vikings Conquered
York Underwood
Photo by
Johannes Janssonius

Icelanders ignored the warnings. Nobody took notice. Well, most people took no notice. Others were convinced that the threat had gone away. Internationally, people boasted that the people of Iceland, a Viking settlement, would flee at the first sight of trouble. Then it happened. There was a crash.

It happened on a Monday.

I’m not referring to the financial crash of 2008, which incidentally also happened on a Monday. September 15 to be exact.

The crash I’m talking about was just as figurative. The day pirates first crashed the shores of Heimaey (“Home Island”)—a small isle on the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, off the south coast of Iceland—July 16, 1627.

“In the past, English pilots led ‘Turkish’ pirates to the shores of Iceland under a Dutch captain to capture and sell Icelanders into slavery. From 2000 to 2008, ‘Vikings’ led Dutch and English investors into Icelandic banking (Icesave), while laying the groundwork for the financial slavery of Icelanders.”

Time is a flat circle

‘The Travels Of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson’ (‘Reisubók séra Ólafs Egilssonar’) is the only English translation of one of the most famous pieces of 17th century Icelandic literature. It’s a diary of reverend Ólafur Egilsson, an account of what transpired after he, his wife, his children and 400 fellow Icelanders were captured by Moorish corsairs to be sold into slavery in North Africa.

In Icelandic, this incident is known as “Tyrkjaránið,” or The Turkish Raid. At the time, “Turk” was a generic term for all Muslims, regardless of their place of origin. The “Turks” that raided Heimaey originated from Algeria and Morocco, selling slaves on the Barbary Coast. They were just following the whim of the market, grabbing commodities that just happened to have sentience. But why Iceland? How did they get here?

They were led by the English and the Dutch. It’s easy to miss, if you read quickly, but Ólafur says in Chapter IV of his diary, “In the boats were English pilots who had guided the pirates to Iceland, where none had ever managed to come ashore.” He then adds, three paragraphs down, when describing the raid on his town, “Most of those attacking us were English[.]” All the pirates were under the command of the Dutch pirate Murat Reis—originally Jan Janszoon van Haarlem.

Pirates are steeped in folklore and non-history as much as Iceland’s Vikings. Yet the old adage, “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it” proves relevant. The “Pirate Invasion” and the “Viking Outvasion” seem similar, a modern update on a past event. In the past English pilots led “Turkish” pirates to the shores of Iceland under a Dutch captain to capture and sell Icelanders into slavery. From 2000 to 2008, “Vikings” led Dutch and English investors into Icelandic banking (Icesave), while laying the groundwork for the financial slavery of Icelanders.

Making the myth fit the story

The style of ‘The Travels Of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson’ also has modern incarnations. In structure, the book is a cross between Carrie Bradshaw’s ‘Sex and the City’ monologues and the artistic license of Quentin Tarantino. Each chapter has a few remarks to set the tone of the entry, with a Bible quote at the end providing the take-away conclusion—actually, this is almost a cross between ‘Sex and the City’ and ‘Gossip Girl’. Ólafur’s Bible quotes are rarely correct or from the Bible. Ólafur seems to be quoting scripture from memory, or just making up things that sounds nice, similar to Samuel L. Jackson’s famous ‘Pulp Fiction’ monologue.

Despite Ólafur’s commitment to keeping a Lutheran lens on his abduction, his Icelandic interests and fancies come through. In Chapter XII, while being held captive in Algeria, he gives a detailed description of the local birds and farm animals—a fine display of that Icelandic interest in animal husbandry that’s evident throughout the nation’s literature:

“Because the sun is always high in the sky, the land grows two crops during the year, and all the fruits of the earth—corn, grapes, grain (groats)—grow like this. The grass is never cut, and sheep and cattle are never put into houses because there is no winter here, never any frost or snow at any time the whole year round. The sheep, which are both big and very fat, lamb two times a year. There are no barren or gelded sheep. In one day, [a fellow captive] and I saw 100 rams, with tails hanging nearly down to the ground.”

It’s easy to imagine Bjartur from Halldór Laxness’s ‘Independent People’ speaking in this manner, in some bizarre time-travelling sequel. Bjartur no doubt inherited his materialism from characters in Icelandic literature dating back far further than the 17th century. This remains an active trait of the Icelanders, one you can observe on television, in fashion, in the grocery stores and at the bars. Icelanders have a particular eye for material things, for the splendours and riches of other lands.

This is neither completely negative, nor entirely positive. This desire drives the small nation’s almost unbelievable creative and innovative output—but it’s also the desire that led the “Vikings” of the “Outvasion” to sell out their country.

The future and the dark irony of pirates in Iceland

If you managed to remember the Dutch and English connection to Ólafur’s capture, Chapter XXIV is prefaced with a darkly ironic sentiment, as Ólafur finally reaches Copenhagen after arranging his ransom to be released.

“About my arrival in Copenhagen, my good reception, and donations from honest men, learned and not.”

Ólafur is writing about the one of the Danish King’s Men, Jens Hesselberg, who helped organize his release, but also about the “Dutch Sailors” who “knew him” and gave him several small coins—to which he responded with an enthusiastic “Thanks and glory be to God, always!” This sort of irony is found in every society, but the idea that the same people who rob you will be there to cheer you on when you’re set free has modern incarnations in the current economic and political status of Iceland.

It’s the myth of Vikings and pirates that runs as the cover story of this very issue, wherein we speculate on whether The Pirate Party has the potential to save Icelanders from their political woes. The irony of pirates saving Icelanders from “Vikings” is almost paradoxical as The Pirate Party’s success in Iceland. As its name betrays, The Pirate Party was founded as a political outlet for those who believe they have an inherent right to freely share intellectual property without considering its creators. This is now the most popular political party in a nation that prides itself on its creative endeavours—a country whose identity and international reputation revolves around the idea that it is an an island of artists, writers and musicians. The very people who have been most affected by groups such as The Pirate Bay.

Unfortunately, ‘The Travels Of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson’ is no longer available for purchase. The website says, “Due to the effects of the continuing economic crisis in Iceland, the Reisubók is temporarily unavailable.”

It can however be read for free online, with no profits going to its translators or publishers.

See Also:

cover4 by hordur sveinsHacking Politics: An In-Depth Look At Iceland’s Pirate Party
Alþingishúsið, The Parliament House, is a hulking grey stone building that sits on the edge of the sleepy Austurvöllur square in downtown Reykjavík. It’s the seat of Iceland’s Alþingi, an institution that was famously inaugurated in the year 930 by a coalition of chieftains who, in essence, founded the world’s first parliament, and began governing over what many claim to be the world’s oldest functioning democracy.

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