1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sigurðsson, Jón

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

SIGURÐSSON, JÓN (1811-1879), Icelandic statesman and man of letters, was born in the west of Iceland in 1811. He came of an old family, and received an excellent education. In 1830 he was secretary to the bishop of Iceland, the learned Steingrimr Jónsson. In 1833 he went to the university of Copenhagen and devoted himself to the study of Icelandic history and literature. His name soon became prominent in the learned world, and it may safely be said that most of his historical works and his editions of Icelandic classics have never been surpassed for acute criticism and minute painstaking. Of these we may mention Lögsögumannatal og Lögmanna á Islandi (“Speakers of the Law and Law-men in Iceland”); his edition of Landnáma and other sagas in Islendinga Sögur, i.-ii. (Copenhagen, 1843-1847); the large collection of Icelandic laws edited by him and Oddgeir Stephensen; and last, not least, the Diplomatarium Islandicum, which after his death was continued by others. But although he was one of the greatest scholars Iceland has produced, he was still greater as a politician. The Danish rule had, during the centuries following the Reformation, gradually brought Iceland to the verge of economic ruin; the ancient Parliament of the island, which had degenerated to a mere shadow, had been abolished in 1800; all the revenue of Iceland went into the Danish treasury, and only very small sums were spent for the good of the island; but worst of all was the notorious monopoly which gave away the whole trade of Iceland to a single Danish trading company. This monopoly had been abolished in 1787, and the trade had been declared free to all Danish subjects, but practically the old arrangement was continued under disguised forms. Jón Sigurðsson began a hard struggle against the Danish government to obtain a reform. In 1854 the trade of Iceland was declared free to all nations. In 1840 the Althing was re-established as an advisory, not as a legislative body. But when Denmark got a free constitution in 1848, which had no legal validity in Iceland, the island felt justified in demanding full home rule. To this the Danish government was vehemently opposed; it convoked an Icelandic National Assembly in 1851, and brought before that body a bill granting Iceland small local liberties, but practically incorporating Iceland in Denmark. This bill was indignantly rejected, and, instigated by Jón Sigurðsson, another was demanded of far more liberal tendencies. The Danish governor-general then dissolved the assembly, but Jón Sigurðsson and all the members with him protested to the king against these unlawful proceedings. The struggle continued with great bitterness on both sides, but gradually the Danish government was forced to grant many important reforms. High schools were established at Reykjavik, and efforts made to better the trade and farming of the country. In 1871 the Danish parliament (Riksdag) passed a law defining the political position of Iceland in the Danish monarchy, which, though never recognized as valid by the Icelanders, became de facto the base of the political relations of Iceland and Denmark. At last, in 1874, when King Christian IX. visited Iceland at the festival commemorating the millenary of the colonization of Iceland from Norway, he gave to the country a Constitution, with full home rule in all internal matters. An immense victory was gained, entirely due to Jón Sigurðsson, whose high personal qualities had rallied all the nation round him. He was a man of fine appearance, with an eloquence and diplomatic gifts such as no others of his countrymen possessed, and his unselfish love of his country made itself felt in almost every branch of Icelandic life. Recognizing the value of an intellectual centre, he made Reykjavik not only the political, but the spiritual capital of Iceland by removing all the chief institutions of learning to that city; he was the soul of many literary and political societies, and the chief editor of the Ny Félagsrit, which has done more than any other Icelandic periodical to promote the cause of civilization and progress in Iceland. After Iceland had got home rule in 1874, the grateful people showered on Jón Sigurðsson all the honours it could bestow. He lived the greater part of his life in Copenhagen, and died there in 1879; but his body, together with that of his wife, Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir, whom he had married in 1845, and who survived him only a few days, was taken to Reykjavik and given a public funeral. On his monument was placed the inscription: “The beloved son of Iceland, her honour, sword, and shield.” (S. Bl.)