Writer Researching 1627 Ottoman Invasion Of Iceland Befriends Algerian Asylum Seeker

Writer Researching 1627 Ottoman Invasion Of Iceland Befriends Algerian Asylum Seeker

Published July 22, 2020

Nico Borbely
Photo by
Vera Einarsdóttir
Steinunn Jóhannesdottir

“The Turkish Invasion really brought us together,” says writer Steinunn Jóhannesdóttir on her acquaintance with an Algerian woman who sought refuge in Iceland years ago. The two became great friends, as they were able to connect through Steinunn’s knowledge of the woman’s homeland after doing extensive research on the life of Guðríður Símonardóttir, known as “Tyrkja-Gudda,” RÚV reports.

As reported, 393 years ago, pirates from North Africa, which at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire (hence the association with Turkey), landed in the Westman Islands off the coast of southern Iceland armed with swords, knives, and guns. They captured around 400 Icelanders and transported them southward against their will to be sold as slaves. Among the captured Icelanders was Guðríður Símonardóttir, who was often called “Tyrkja-Gudda.” She was to remain a slave in Algeria for a decade, during which time she wrote numerous letters to her husband, which are among the most comprehensive sources on the Turkish Invasion and the subsequent captivity of the captured Icelanders. Steinunn Jóhannesdóttir was fascinated by Guðríður’s story, and published the novel Guðríður’s Journey, which recounts the titular figure’s travels and is based on sources about her life. Steinunn was a guest of Gunnar Hansson and Halla Harðardóttir on RÚV’s Sumarmál series, in which she detailed the history of the frightful event and its importance in her own life.

Town Destroyed And Half Its Population Taken Prisoner

The Ottoman pirates arrived on Icelandic shores in the summer of 1627. “It was a mixed group of contracted pirates who had permission from their authorities to sail the seas and take both resources and people in their name,” says Steinunn. About 20 people were taken prisoner in Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula in the south, subsequently launching an attack on Bessastaðir outside of Reykjavík, home to the official residence of the president of Iceland today. “They tried to sail into Bessastaðir, but they got stuck, as it’s quite difficult to do so.”

Most of the pirates came from Algiers, the capital of Algeria, which at the time was the main political center of Ottoman authority in North Africa, as well as the main stronghold of the Barbary pirates such as those who carried out the Turkish Invasion in Iceland. The pirates attacked the southern part of the Eastfjords, where they captured an additional 110 people and killed nine. “Then the winds became unfavorable, so they turned around and an additional ship joined the raid on the Westman Islands.”

Though the islands were unprepared for the attack, the islanders had attempted to step up their defenses, as reports of the pirates’ attacks had already reached their shores. “Yet it must be said that it came as a surprise to them to have to deal with such a horrible invasion. The pirates made landfall at night and attacked like roaring lions, killing many people,” says Steinunn. “The village itself was ransacked, the main buildings were set on fire, leaving them practically in ruins, and half of the islanders were taken as prisoners.”

Christianity Versus Islam

This horrific event was significant in an international context, and is linked to a long series of bloody conflicts playing out between the Christian and Muslim powers in the world at the time. “It was the Ottoman Empire that sent this group of pirates across the seas, as Europeans were sending their armies to fight in the Crusades and so on. At the time there was constant fighting between Christian and Muslim powers. There was this, then there was the infamous expulsion of Muslims (as well as Jews) from Spain in 1492; this was going back and forth constantly.”

Many of the captured Icelanders were offered up on the slave market. They realized that they had a chance of being released, but only if enough money was payed for it. Many resorted to writing a petition to the Danish king asking for help. “There were between 300 and 400 of them to begin with, but many of them died, some being killed, and some dying from the conditions they suffered during the voyage. As a result, there was little left of the original group. Guðríður was among those who managed to get away. She left a tremendously important primary source on the incident behind: the letters she wrote to her husband,” Steinunn reaffirms.

The Love Of The Child That Was Taken Away From Her

Guðríður not only wrote about her life and circumstances in her letters to her husband, but also about their son, who was with her in captivity. “She was worried about him, and greatly feared that he would be taken away from her, so she decided to write to her husband in case he could help them escape,” says Steinunn. “I think this is such a great source on this woman’s initiative and her love for her child.”

When the King of Denmark finally heeded the enslaved Icelanders’ pleas nine years later, her son had been taken from her. “The newly freed Icelanders followed the king through Europe to Copenhagen.”

Guðríður And Hallgrímur Pétursson’s Intense Love Affair

Guðríður met a young Icelandic poet named Hallgrímur Pétursson, who she fell head over heels for. “At the time he was 22 and she was 38. They fell in love so quickly and intensely that she, who was on her way home to her husband, soon became pregnant. It was a great and serious crime in those days to expect a child out of wedlock. In so doing they violated both Icelandic and Danish law,” says Steinunn. As a result, Hallgrímur was forced to quit his studies and follow Guðríður back to Iceland. They were able to get married after numerous lawsuits, as upon their return they discovered that Guðríður’s husband had died. “They were so lucky – quote-unquote – that the Westman Islands had suffered another major setback, losing 45 sailors at sea six months before Guðríður and Hallgrímur’s release, at which time Guðríður’s husband drowned.” Guðríður lived to the age of 84, outlived Hallgrímur, who died of leprosy. “She was made of steel,” says Steinunn.

Steinunn’s interest in Guðríður’s life has taken her to remarkable places. “I traveled to all these places following in her footsteps, since her story is so unique. She was called Tyrkja-Gudda, and folklore has painted her in a very negative light retrospectively, but people don’t understand what she went through in that beautiful country, in Algeria, where she was a slave in a foreign environment.”

Choosing Iceland For Gender Equality Reasons

Steinunn has met wonderful people and fallen for Algeria during her travels. When she returned to Iceland, she unexpectedly received news of an Algerian woman and her children who had come to Iceland as refugees, and Steinunn immediately decided to get in touch with her. “She was pregnant and seeking asylum, and her story touched my heart. I figured that not many people here would be familiar with her country, and if I could help an asylum seeker, it would definitely be this woman from Algeria.”

Steinunn offered her friendship, which the woman accepted, and the two are now fast friends. “She calls me ‘mamma Steinunn’ and her children call me ‘grandmother.'” The woman chose Iceland as a potential destination for her asylum on account of the country’s positive reputation in terms of women’s rights and gender equality. “She searched potential destinations until she found this country, which had had a woman as president. The Turkish Invasion really brought us together in many ways, and I have that event to thank for our friendship.”

Steinunn’s Algerian friend and her daughter payed a visit to her at home on International Women’s Day (March 8), bringing her a rose to celebrate the occasion.

As reported, former mayor of Reykjavík Ólafur F. Magnússon published highly ignorant and Islamophobic statements on his social media in 2013 stating that the recently unveiled plans to build the first structure in Iceland specifically constructed to serve as a mosque were “insulting” to Iceland’s history and the people of the Westman Islands in particular, on account of this historical event. The Muslim Association of Iceland maintains a mosque in the Ármúli neighborhood and has 394 members as of October last year, while the Islamic Cultural Centre is headquartered on Bústaðavegur with 552 members. New plans to build a dedicated mosque for Iceland’s Muslim community along Suðurlandsbraut were announced last fall, provided that detailed blueprints are submitted to the City of Reykjavík, fees are paid, and a foreman is appointed to manage the project.

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