From Iceland — The Struggle for New Iceland

The Struggle for New Iceland

Published November 5, 2004

The Struggle for New Iceland

by Valur Gunnarsson

TAKE 1: The Vikings

Relations between North Americans and Icelanders did not get off to an auspicious start. The Icelanders came upon nine Native North Americans hiding beneath skin boats. Eight were executed, one escaped.

According to Greenlander´s Saga, thought to be the most reliable account, the first Icelander to visit North America was a man named Bjarni Herjólfsson who was on his way to visit his father in Greenland. He missed the world´s largest island and came to a land farther west. Instead of disembarking, he turned the ship back and eventually found his way to Greenland.

Once there, he met a man called Leif Ericsson who bought Bjarni´s ship in the hope of finding the new land he spoke of, for perhaps the ship knew the way. He retraced Bjarni´s route and came upon a place full of ice and slabs of rock. This he called Helluland (Slab-land). They sailed on and found a land filled with trees, which they called Markland, (Forest-land). Finally, he came upon a land with bigger salmon than he had ever seen, and sweet grapes fermenting into wine. This he called Vinland, or Wine-land. Leif spent the winter in Vinland and built a house there before returning home to Greenland.

His ship, the one who knew the way, was then sold to his brother Thorvald Ericsson who sailed over to Vinland and found Leif´s house. He and his men spent the winter there, before sailing on along the coastline. Somewhere between what is now Newfoundland and New Jersey the eastern and western strains of humanity came into contact. For if it is true that life started around the equator in Africa and then spread north – some going west to Europe, others going east to Asia and from there to North America – they now met again. It was not to be a joyful reunion.

After the senseless massacre of the natives, Thorvald and his men were attacked by scores of North Americans and fled. Thorvald was shot down with arrows, his body left rotting in North American waters, the first white man to die on the new continent. The crew returned the ship that knew the way to Greenland, and it now came into the possession of Thorstein, a third son of Eric the Red, who also intended to sail with it to Vinland. Before being able to set off, however, plague hit the settlement in Greenland, killing Thorstein. His wife Gudrid did not grieve him for long, for while burying him in the eastern part of the country, she met an Icelander who happened to be rich and perhaps for that reason bore the name Thorfinn Karlsefni (“the eligible”).

Gudrid persuaded him not just to marry her but also to continue with her deceased husbands´ expedition. They set off with sixty men and five women, and the ship found its way yet again back to Leif´s site. They disembarked and their cows grazed in the fields and they harvested the plentiful fruit, crops and fish that Vinland offered. They also met the natives and took to trading with them, offering cows´ milk in exchange for fur. This second meeting between Icelanders and Americans got off to a better start, but whether it was the Icelanders´ Viking blood or the killing frenzy that seems to overtake white men in America, they soon murdered one of the natives and were consequently driven away.

The last expedition to America also ended in an orgy of violence, this time among the Vikings themselves. Freydis, a daughter of Eric, set out with a party to the oft visited Leif site. There a disagreement broke out, and Freydis had five men executed. When no one would kill the wives of the condemned, she took an ax to them herself. No further mention is made of Vinland in the Greenlander´s Saga.

A quote sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde says that Icelanders are the smartest people in the world; they found America and had the good sense to lose it again. But in actuality, the battle-hardened Vikings were driven away by the bloodshed they encountered there.
It was to be another five hundred years before an Italian stumbled onto the twin continent on his way to India, paving the way for the greatest slaughter in human history. When Icelanders did return some 900 years later, it was not as Viking conquerors but as some of the poorest of Europe´s tired, hungry and poor masses.

TAKE 2: The 19th Century Immigrants

The initial Icelandic emigration to what had now become America started with an importto Iceland: the Mormon faith. Mormon missionaries from America arrived here in 1851 and soon found converts in the Westman Islands, a region always peculiarly susceptible to religious fervour. The first Icelandic Mormons moved to Utah in the mid 1850s, but these were few in number.

After the harsh winter of 1859 an organization was formed in Þingey with the intention of transporting people to Brazil. The large group that had been assembled by 1865 could not find transportation. A group of some 550 people had again registered for emigration to Brazil eight years later, but again no vessel could be found. Only a few dozen ever made it, and interest in Brazil evaporated.

Around 1870 people started traveling in small groups to Denmark or Britain, from where they emigrated to the American Midwest. At the time the Canadian government was becoming increasingly interested in attracting immigration, since as many people were moving south from Canada to the US as were emigrating to Canada from Europe. Vast areas in the west were bought from the Hudson Bay Company and added to the country, which achieved dominion status in 1867. Free land and free transportation with ships and railways was offered. The Scottish-Canadian company Allen Line set up representatives in most European countries to encourage people to emigrate. Their emissary in Scandinavia was based in Gothenburg, but by then there were already Norwegian and Swedish societies in the United States that attracted most new settlers from those countries. At first Icelanders moved along with other Scandinavians to Milwaukee in Wisconsin, but conditions did not lend themselves to the forming of a New Iceland. Attempts to do so in Nebraska and Alaska also failed.

The Allen Lines representative in Iceland was one Guðmundur Lambertsen, a Reykjavík merchant, who got a commission in 1873. He was joined four years later by bookseller Sigfús Eymundsson, after whom the bookstore in downtown Reykjavík is named. At first people had to get fares to Glasgow on cattle and sheep transports and from there sail on to Quebec, but the following year there were enough emigrants – around 350 – for an Allen Line ship to stop at Sauðárkrókur on the way to Glasgow.

The Icelandic emigrants had been organized into groups, with the intention of starting settlements together. In Muskoka, Canada, the Icelanders fared so badly among other nationalities that the government of Ontario moved the group to Kinmount, where they did little better. An area which was named Markland, after Leif Ericsson’s name for Canada, was then set up. This also failed.

With the formation of the new province of Manitoba, which was in fierce competition with the US to attract immigrants, large new tracts of land where made available. A Russian religious sect similar to the Amish, the Mennonites, who were persecuted in their homeland for refusing military service, were granted a homeland with considerable autonomy in the new province. The Canadian government still did not know what do with the hundreds of Icelanders on its hands, so the same solution was offered them. New Iceland was finally formed on the western shores of Lake Winnipeg in 1875. The land was not conducive to agriculture, and the colony required heavy subsidies from authorities, but the knowledge of a purely Icelandic inhabitation in the New World nevertheless inspired many Icelanders to emigrate west, and Icelander’s exclusive rights to settle in New Iceland were maintained until 1895. Winnipeg remains the area in North America with the strongest ties to Iceland.

The roughly 20.000 Icelanders who emigrated were a small part (0.03%) of the 52 million people who moved to North America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But since the inhabitants of Iceland in 1870 only numbered around 70.000, this was a considerable part of the population that went west. Although New Iceland did not prosper as an individual colony, some West Icelanders later became prominent, such as poet Stephan G. Stephensen, and more recently astronaut Bjarni Tryggvason and director Sturla Gunnarsson.

TAKE 3: War Brides and Beyond

The next era in Icelandic-North American relations began with large numbers of Americans coming to Iceland. In mid-1941, when the United States was still a neutral power in what was still a European war, it took over protection of Iceland from the hard-pressed British Army. The Americans were better paid, better dressed and had better teeth than the British, and so went over even better with the ladies. After the US entered the war and Iceland became a stopover for North Atlantic troop transports, their number peaked in 1943 at around 50.000 in a country of just over 100.000. Several attempts were made to prevent intercourse between soldiers and local women. In late 1941 groups of young Icelanders armed with clubs prowled around the military encampments and threatened soldiers found with girls. Violence was averted, but two homes were opened for these “fallen women,” one in Reykjavík and the other in Borgarfjörður. The police commissioner of Reykjavík even went so far as to estimate that 20% of the women of the town were having intimate relations with soldiers.

In early 1942, the American commander, who bore the rather imposing name of General Bonesteel, forbade marriages between US soldiers and local women, and the ban was only revoked in the spring of 1944. Nevertheless, 332 women married American soldiers here before the end of the war. Many more left with their boyfriends and married them in America after the outbreak of peace. But there were also more than a few instances of women left here with the fruits of their forbidden love when their par-amours returned to their wives back home.

Some of these war brides returned to Iceland after finding it difficult to adjust to life in America. But most of them stayed on, returning only as guests, and have played a prominent part in popular culture as the rich aunts bringing gifts from the land of plenty in many a post-war book and play.

Even though the army has mostly been confined to its base in Keflavík since their return in 1951, their culture was not. The first Icelandic rock bands sprang up on the outskirts of the base in Keflavík. People listened to Armed Forces Radio and watched the broadcasts on TV. Even after the advent of Icelandic TV channels, American influences are more apparent than ever. They are reflected in the way we speak, the way we think and, with the advent of fast food culture, in the way we look.

But even as Iceland became more American, Icelanders have continued to go there in increasing numbers as students, visitors and bands on the make. Björk has a home there, and other Icelanders have done well in the promised land. Hilmar Skagfield, a native of Skagafjörður and founding member of the Jazz Club of Iceland, went to Tallahassee to study accounting in 1950. He later went on to become the curtain manufacturing king of America.

Sigurjón Sighvatsson, former bass player with Brimkló, studied film making in southern California in the late 70s. He has lived and worked there ever since, producing among other things the TV series Twin Peaks and Beverly Hills 90210 and the films Wild at Heart and Barton Fink. He also brought the TV series Dynasty to Iceland on videotape.

Americans outnumber Icelanders by about 1000 to 1, and America will probably continue to have a huge influence on Iceland in the foreseeable future, for good and for bad. But Icelanders also influence America in some small way, whether it is with pockets of Sigurós fans scattered throughout dormitories or the curtains in their living room windows. And perhaps the American Icelanders will have an even greater impact someday. As former ambassador to the US Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson said in the book Ameríski draumurinn (The American Dream) by Reynir Traustason: “We still await the American dream to come fully true, and for the world to get to know a new president of the United States with the name Eiríksson or Herjólfsson. That must happen sooner or later.”


I Had a Dream
By Sigtryggur Baldursson


You might think that the biggest difference between living in the USA and Iceland would be the weather. Well, at least a lot of people think that.

And that is true. But not the way they think it is. You see, Americans think that Iceland is really cold all the time, (as in: what´s in a name…) and Icelanders tend to think of the US in terms of Florida and California.

But I lived for a few years in Madison, Wisconsin, moonlighting as househusband by day and musician by night, a Dr Heckle and mr Jive if you like. And let me tell you, it is cold there in the winter. Jesus Christ, I though I was a sub zero dude, but I froze my little Icelandic ass off the first winter I was there.

In minus 25, inhale sharply and the snot freezes in your nose. This is something I had never, ever, experienced in Iceland. And as for the summers, the first apartment I had in Madison did not have air conditioning and we arrived mid-August in a heatwave. On one of my first mornings there I found myself waking in a pool of sweat , scrambling into the kitchen and emptying out half of the refrigerator (which was huge, by the way), and promptly positioning myself therein just to get the few braincells I had left to start up. Lying with my head in the fridge, I realised I wasn´t designed for this kind of weather. And the bugs, dear lord, the bugs!!!!

Mosquitos are directly descended from the devil himself and funny enough, they don´t exist in Iceland. In Iceland you have beaches where you can´t go in the water and as for swimming in the lakes, forget it. The hot water aplenty in the shower taps smells like bad eggs but makes the girls cute. As for the people in America, I got along with them just fine since living and especially drinking is a lot cheaper in the US of A than in Iceland and on the political side, no, let´s not talk about the political side, this day is going fine as it is.

Let me just say that our little govern-mental hospital is almost as neo fascistic as the American presi-dental hospital. Nuff said.
Don´t like the TV much, I overdosed on the OJ Simpson shit that also ruined whatever faith I had in the judicial system and the death penalty. But let´s not go into that.

Let me focus on some of the stuff I really like about the US. Well, jazz isn´t a naughty word in my vocabulary but the sad thing is that even though the US is the cradle of jazz as we know it, many of the masters make their living in Europe or anywhere except the US. I guess advertisers don´t think it sells product.

I remember fondly the forests in Wisconsin just as I remembered fondly the mountains of Iceland when I lived in the States. I even had a dream the other night that I was wandering in a Wisconsin forest, wanted to rent a horse but ended up somehow with a cat on a leash that led me to the side of a highway where I became obsessed with tightening the bolts on peoples front wheels. I kept muttering to the poor suckers I managed to stop: “you wouldn´t believe how many of these little babies come off at 70 miles per hour”…

And I´m not making this up, my subconsious is. Paging doctor Freud!!!

I miss my good friends over there who are some of the best people I have met, anywhere. Icelanders have something in common with the Americans as well, they think they rule.

Maybe not quite in the same way, but still…


Sigtryggur was a homemaker in the US by day and a drumbeast by night. He´s now back in Iceland and has resumed his rightful place as the Godfather of Icelandic drumming.



The Importance of Having the Freedom to Hold Idiotic Opinions

By Þór Tryggvason


When first asked to write about what was better about living in the United States than in Iceland, and what was better about living in Iceland than in the States, I was alarmed to find that I only seemed able to come up with good things about living in the States, and bad things about living in Iceland. Having been back in Iceland for a year after spending four years in the States, I thought this initial response was merely a case of ‘distance makes the mountains blue’, as we are wont to say here, rather than me having abandoned the culture that raised me in favor of greener pastures. Further rumination proved this to be true, as I formed a couple of wildly generalized observations about the two places.

One of my favorite things about the United States is that it is acceptable to state your preferences and opinions – however unusual, off the wall or idiotic they might be. There is tremendous freedom in this. You like James Taylor or John Cougar Mellencamp? Fine, tell people about it. Surprisingly, they won’t openly ridicule you. Statements of preference are never made in Iceland without carefully gauging the cultural hipness barometer: is it still OK to like Kraftwerk? It isn’t as of five minutes ago? Better not say anything then. In the States I had to gradually learn that I could like whatever I damn well pleased – and tell people about it.

The nice thing about Iceland, though, is that you can get things done so much easier than you can in the States, especially in an official or bureaucratic capacity. You can usually cajole somebody into helping you or making an exception even if you’ve just missed a deadline (not if I can help it. Ed). This probably ties in with the “þetta reddast” mentality that is so prevalent here in Iceland. Most people are fairly sympathetic towards someone who has no idea what they’re doing (The Grapevine is, in fact, founded on that very principle. Ed.), or is looking for help in carrying out some ill-conceived plan, because they’re like that themselves half the time. In the States, you may be in dire straits (serious trouble, not the band) and need to get something sorted out fast, and the person you talk to will tell you “I’m sorry, sir, but you need to fill out form W-X 243/12B in duplicate before I can process your request, which will take up to 48 hrs.” and that’ll be the end of that.

There is of course a flip side to both of these phenomena. The openness with which people express themselves and accept other people’s opinions in the States also means that you can get away with a lot of silliness unchallenged, such as liking James Taylor or John Cougar Mellencamp. In Iceland, by contrast, your most outlandish ideas are likely to be reined in by your peers. The inflexibility of bureaucracy in the States, however, forces you to make sure that you do what needs to get done on time. Compare this with Iceland, where nobody is ever ready with anything until just past the last possible deadline. Just like this piece. (Well, what can you do. Ed)


Þór studied media in Washington, DC, and upon receiving his masters went on, like so many media degree holders, to unemployment in New York City. He returned home and now works for the Icelandic Foreign Office.




In Search of the Socialist Paradise

By Paul F Nikolov


I first came to Iceland because of a fat tax refund check that I got for working illegally for most of 1997. I knew I wanted to spend the money on travel. At the time I was reading a book about the Old Norse faith and was already impressed that the pre-Christian myths, beliefs and practices had been written down at such an early stage, which seemed pretty unique. Also, Iceland seemed like the sort of travel destination where it would be very unlikely to run into other American tourists. I bought a travel book, flew over, hitchchiked around the country and made some friends. Normally, that would be the end of story.

But 1999 was a weird time for my country. Things looked like they were culminating into some giant, Revelations-style conflict. The two major political parties were more hostile than ever towards each other, the social system was slowly collapsing, and the US seemed to be making new enemies or agitating old ones. A hard, sour ball began to form in the pit of my stomach. Watching the news and seeing the overseas conflicts which my taxes were helping to pay for only added to this sense of dread as well as a sense of partial responsibility. When I tried to explain my worries to others that something awful would happen to the US soon – my feeling is that we would be attacked – I was told I was paranoid.

I could have gone to Québec to live with my uncle, or I could have picked any other country in the world. But in the brief time I had spent in Iceland, I got the impression that it was a quasi-socialist paradise. There were no handguns, the environment was much cleaner, the education was cheap and the social structure was generous. It was everything I had hoped the US could be but wasn’t. I took the easy way out and moved to Iceland in September 1999.

Since moving here I’ve become aware that Iceland does, in fact, have imperfections. But when the biggest conflict that comes up is ownership of the media or a teacher’s strike, it still makes me breathe a sigh of relief.

Of course I miss my family, malt liquor (not quite the same thing as the local Malt), Saturday Night Live and frozen microwaveable fried chicken, but I don’t regret my decision for a second. In place of the creature comforts I grew up with, I’m surrounded by a booming cultural scene, have taken advanage of the affordable health care and can finally afford to attend university thanks to the comparitively low tuition here.

I think I’d probably stay here even if things got a lot better in the US. Warts and all, Iceland comes pretty damn close to the socialist paradise I was looking for. I hope it stays that way.

Paul F Nikolov is a staff journalist for Grapevine and working in a home for the aged in Grafarvogur. Any readers who have managed to get their hands on a bottle of Olde English 800 should contact him immediately.


The Perfect Size for a Life
By Padraig Mara


Early one hungover morning after a hard nights Independence Day debauchery, I came rolling unsteadily home just as the sky was turning white, me and the rest of the headachy ghosts looking for their beds. I turned down my block and came upon a gentleman trying to climb through a first-floor kitchen window, a bottle of beer in each hand. He was uncoordinated as hell, he’d jump up, hold on the sill with his wrists, try and throw his leg up, slide down. He lacked technique I thought. He was way too drunk for this type of operation, obviously. Also, the beer in his hands wasn’t helping at all. I stood there and watched him for a while. I remember thinking, Jesus, I’d have been in there a half an hour ago.

After some time the guy looks at me. He says “ Hey, buddy, gimme a hand?”. I don’t say anything. I think to myself, maybe he’s not supposed to be in that house. Maybe he’s a burglar. He offers me a beer. Aww fuck it, I think. I boost him up and in. He crashes to the floor, I hear breaking glass. He pops his head out. “Thanks” he says, “Happy Independence Day.” “Yup”, I say, “likewise”. I walked home in the gathering light, drinking my beer, thinking to myself, Well, I’m an Icelander now, huh?

I’m from America. The State of New Jersey, to be exact. I’ve lived in Iceland a little over three years now, and in that time I’ve thought a lot about the differences between my birthplace and my adopted home. There are many of course. The air is quite clean here, water as well. Not so in Jersey, though in parts of the States the air and water are quite pure. We’re pretty far north in Iceland, we get the Northern Lights. You won’t find them in Newark, but they get them in Alaska as well.

The geography is different here than where I’m from, you’ve got a lot of beautiful rolling nothing in Iceland. Though, I’ve heard that in The West there’s quite a bit of beautiful nothing stored there as well. There´s only one difference between here and where I’m from, only one that really means anything. The difference is that, here, on this little island, we’re all in it together.

Hallgrímur Helgason once wrote that Iceland is the perfect size for a life. I’d go further and say we’re all sharing our lives together. Throughout the nation coffee is being poured at breaktime and the teachers strike is being discussed. As the winter turns darker, we’re all getting pale and weird, keeping the razors sharp, just in case. Christmas Eve will find us all tipsy and eating sugar potatoes made by quite possibly the same Amma. New Year´s we’ll watch the vaguely comedic year in review on TV, dance badly in each others houses, hold each others hair back while we toss our cookies and give each other bloody noses as the fireworks reach crescendo.

And in the morning we’ll all apologize. We’ll tread water till spring. And the first warm day will touch us like the hand of God. We’ll all pour into the street, sun ourselves in the town square and attempt to fuck each other into exhaustion. This will happen from Reykjavík to Akureyri, from Egilsstaðir to Keflavík to Vestmannaeyjar. An unspoken bond throughout the nation.

Back in the States this is not so. Growing up in Jersey, Arizona may as well have been in Red China. New Mexico could be given back to Old Mexico without anyone noticing. California can sink into the ocean for all I care. And Hawaii? Well, I never really believed Hawaii existed to begin with, to be honest.

I ‘ve lived here for three years and some months. My Icelandic is, if not fluent, at least charming. Or I like to think so. No matter how long I stay here, no matter how good I get at the language, how often I eat svið, even if I change my name to Ólafur Plokkfisk Bjarturson, I’ll never be Icelandic. I am however, by now an Icelander, stuck on this haunted rock in the middle of the North Atlantic, here, with all the rest of you.


Padraig Mara started life in Iceland as a ship cleaner, but has now moved on to being a cook and sometime Grapevine contributor.

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