In Glaumbær, just north of the truck-stop town Varmahlíð in Northern Iceland, a modest memorial commemorates a paradigm-shifting moment in the history of transatlantic exploration. A bronze statue beside the settlement’s old church portrays a woman standing on a comically small longboat; one hand rests on the ship’s prow, while the other clasps the arm of a small naked boy who, with a raised arm, salutes the world in front of him.
The statue, originally cast in 1937 by sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson, depicts Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir, medieval Iceland’s most widely traveled woman, and her son Snorri Þorfinsson, who is believed to be the first European born in the New World. As recounted in the ‘Saga of the Greenlanders’ and the ‘Saga of Erik the Red,’ Guðríður accompanied her husband Þórsteinn, the youngest son of Erik the Red, on a failed voyage to Vínland, the region of North America which Leif the Lucky, Þórsteinn’s brother, had recently “discovered” around the turn of the millennium. Marooned in Greenland, and having lost her husband to plague, Guðríður remarried and pressed on to Vínland with her new husband, Þorfinnur Karlsefni Þórðarson, attempting to establish a permanent settlement.
After sailing south along the coast of Vínland, encountering both hostile and friendly Native Americans along the way, Guðríður and Þorfinnur found food aplenty and settled along Straumsfjörður, a body of water which to this day has not been identified. Some more fanciful theories identify Straumsfjörður as the mouth of the Hudson River, where New York City stands today. Wherever Straumsfjörður might be, the sagas claim that Guðríður give birth to her Snorri there, and whether he was a smooth-talking New Yorker, a salty New Englander, or a winter-hardened Newfoundlander, the account of his birth marks the first mention of a European being born in the Western Hemisphere. When Snorri was three years old, however, his parents gave up on their American Dream and sailed back to Iceland, buying land and settling at Glaumbær—where the statue now memorializes this transatlantic landmark.
Seventy years after Ásmundur cast his statue of Guðríður and Snorri, its title, ‘The First White Mother in America,’ rightfully elicits a discomfiting cringe. Just seven years earlier, the United States government gifted Iceland the statue of Leif Eiríksson, which now stands in front of Hallgrímskirkja, and the plaque on this statue casts Leif as the “discoverer” of Vínland, neglecting to mention that Native American civilizations had been perfectly fine in their “undiscovered” land for millennia. The momentousness of Leif’s discovery or Snorri’s birth takes on a new, more sobering tenor when examined through a postcolonial lens; superseding Columbus’ colonial endeavor by 500 years is hardly a feat worth celebrating when we consider the genocidal atrocities associated with Columbus and subsequent expeditions. But unlike the Spanish imperial enterprise, the ragtag band of eleventh-century Icelanders failed to establish any lasting settlement in the New World and, indeed, gave up on the project altogether. Perhaps, with the help of a little revisionist thinking, the statue of Guðríður can be seen as celebrating a failed colonial attempt: thank fuck it’s not our fault, eh?
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