Icelandic volcanoes,1783-4: contemporary reports

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Icelandic volcanoes,1783-4: contemporary reports  (1783) 
from London newspapers
This collection of reports from newspapers published in London, England, in 1783-4, illustrates the confused contemporary understanding of the volcanic eruptions which formed a new island, devastated a large area of Iceland, and sent a cloud of volcanic dust around the world. Included here are some references to the effects of the Icelandic upheavals elsewhere in Europe, plus selected reports of other volcanic and seismic events in 1783-4, which were referred to in discussion of the Icelandic catastrophe (not necessarily to be trusted- for example, see the analysis of the 12 Aug 1783 German story on pp 307-315 of the Geological Society of London Special Publications, vol. 171, 2000, by J.P. Grattan et al. ).

Spellings in the reports are mostly phonetic: "Skaptefield" is the area round the Skafta river in south-central Iceland, "Rykenees" / "Reikenos" is the promontory of Reykjanes which forms the south-west extremity of the island, the "Rocks des Oiseaux" (as named on the French maps of Iceland then available to the London newspaper editors; Fuglasker in Icelandic) remain a navigational hazard in the sea to the south-west of Reykjanes. Ny-Oee (variant phonetic spellings include Nyöe and Nyey) means simply "New Island". The name "Laki" (more fully "Lakagígar") now used for the main vent of the 1783 eruptions, does not appear in any of these contemporary reports.

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 18 Jul 1783[edit]

Extract of a letter from Copenhagen. A Dane bound to Iceland, at about seven leagues distance from the place of his destination, observed an unknown land which sent forth smoke in abundance; he was then in ten fathom water and found sticking to the lead a quantity of pumice-stone and charcoal; having sailed round the island in search of anchorage, he found it scarce a mile in circumference; he was informed on his arrival in port, that this smoking island had issued from the sea about the time of the late earthquakes, which had so cruelly ravaged Messina and Calabria[1]. His Danish Majesty has since taken possession of it as a fief of the Crown of Denmark.

General Evening Post, 29 Jul 1783[edit]

A letter from Paris says, "The curious here are much engaged in investigating a late extraordinary operation of nature. A new island, of about two leagues circumference, has recently made its appearance in the seas of Iceland. It contains several volcanoes, and is supposed to have been an effect of the dreadful earthquake, that caused such havock in Sicily."

General Evening Post, 31 Jul 1783[edit]

The following very curious account of the NEW ISLAND mentioned in our Parisian Intelligences of Thursday has been communicated by one of the members of the Royal Society.
"A very uncommon phaenomenon has lately appeared in the sea of Iceland. A new island has rose from the ocean, so near to Iceland, that now the inhabitants are aware of its situation, they can observe it on a clear day, provided the wind is in a northerly direction; but when it blows from any other point, the island becomes obscured in somke; no less than three volcanoes being upon this new region. The volumes of smoke arising from one of the chief craters are very considerable, but nothing of a flame has yet been remarked. This island was first observed by a Norway trader on a return from Iceland to Drontheim; the crew of which were so terrified, that they stood away from it with the utmost precipitation. Soon after, a Dane from the Sound fell in with it, and at first mistook it for the continent of Iceland. The master, however, did not approach nearer than a league's distance, but stood on for Skalholt, the capital of Iceland, where he made a report of his discovery to the Danish Governor. It was at first conceived that he had fell in with a monstrous body of ice: but on his persevering with his account, some officers of the garrison, with several of the most skilful seamen of Iceland, went in quest of it; and in about three hours after their departure from Skalholt, came so near it, that a boat was hoisted out, and the island taken possession of in his Danish majesty's name.- It is said there is not the least appearance of a soil, but that the surface is of a marly nature, with crannies running through it, filled with pumice stones, which are supposed to have been thrown out by the different volcanoes of the island, at the time it was first formed; as it, no doubt, was then in a very convulsed and agitated state. This singular production, which is supposed to have been formed in the spring of the present year, will no doubt induce such of the learned world as are curious in their investigation of Nature's works, to visit this extraordinary phaenomenon. Many conjecture that this island rose at the time Sicily suffered so much by the late eruptions of Etna; but those who consider its neighbourhood with Heckla, the second volcano in the world, which is much superior to Vesuvius, they will rather attribute it to some intestine commotions of that mountain."

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 4 Aug 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, July 1.
The Navigator, who has discovered the Island emerged from the sea, declares its position to be at eight miles distance from the rocks, the farthest from Iceland, called the Rocks des Oiseaux. At six miles distance he observed a thick smoke arise; he got within half a mile, and sailed round it. He perceived, everywhere, pumice-stones swimming on the surface; by sounding, he found 44 fathom at W.S.W. of the Reykenees; and sticking to the lead some sea-coal, on drawing near to the rocks des Oiseaux, he found no alteration. The inhabitants of Iceland informed him, they had felt no earthquake; they had only observed, about Easter, something flaming in the sea, to the south of Grindbourg: the King, as has been observed, has ordered possession to be taken of the Island, and has called it Ny-Oee.

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 12 Aug 1783[edit]

Hilburgshausen, July 4. Mount Gleichberg, in our neighbourhood, affords at present a singular and terrible phenomenon; the vapours which constantly surround it are increased much, and form a thick mist, which extends 8 leagues. This mist, which has destroyed the verdure of our woods, and has been substituted with a whitish tint, is, without doubt, by the scent, formed of sulphureous exhalations: for eight days past a noise has been heard from the internal part of the mountain, not unlike that of many cannons fired at once. An aperture is formed, from which arises a very thick sulphureous smoke, which, with the subterraneous noise, which becomes every day more frightful, gives room to apprehend a new volcano: the inhabitants of the neighbouring villages, justly alarmed, are already making their escape.

Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 21 Aug 1783[edit]

The Flanders mail of yesterday gives the following particulars concerning the dreadful accident, which is said to have happened in China:
"About the beginning of December last, new volcanos appeared, with dreadful craters upon the mountains, which divide the Isle of Farmosa, East and West, situated in the Chinese Ocean, in the middle of the province of Fokien, North of Japan, South of the Peninsula of Corea, and East of the Philipines. Along with the explosion of these volcanos, was a hurricane, attended with a subterranean motion of the Isle, which being moved from East to West, and having its banks overflowed by the waves of the sea, sunk and disappeared under a deluge of water, so that nothing but the tops of the mountains were seen. This convulsion of nature lasted more than eight hours with the same motions. The three principal towns, Tai-Ovan-Fou, Jong-Khan-Hien, and Tehu-Lo-Hien, with twenty boroughs, or little towns, were entirely buried, and the ruins of them removed by the force of the current. Upwards of forty thousand inhabitants have been drowned, and all the parts of the earth which projected into the sea, have been separated and thrown into it, where they form a sediment at the bottom. There is no doubt but that the islands of Ponzhou and many others, the forts of Zelande, of Hgan, and Pintgi-Chingi have disappeared as well as the little hills upon which they were built. It appears that history no where records a disaster more terrible."

St. James's Chronicle, 16-22 Aug 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, July 15. We have accounts from Iceland, that another island has appeared above the sea near to that which has lately emerged.
For some Time past we have had excessive hot Weather, and the Sky is constantly covered with a thick Fog, which, without totally intercepting the Sun, deprives us of its brightness. Far from moistening the Ground, this Fog dries up the Grass in the Fields, and the Leaves which drop off the Treees, most of which are now left bare. It is very extraordinary that this thick hazy Weather should continue so constantly, notwithstanding the continual Variations of the Wind.

Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, 1 Sep 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, August 16. Various accounts have been received here of an Island having lately arisen in the sea in the neighbourhood of Iceland. Although the fact itself is authentic, yet the time of the first appearance of this Island, its dimensions, and situation, are not well ascertained. The information brought by the last ship from thence is, that it was still increasing, and that great quantities of fire issued from two of its eminences.

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser, 11 Sep 1783[edit]

We may be very thankful to Divine Providence that this island has not been visited with the dreadful calamities that, with the most frightful convulsions of nature, have desolated the oriental islands of Formose, China, Sicily, and Calabria. It is beyond a doubt, that the globe has undergone some mighty changes, the effects of which are felt from the Indian Ocean to the frozen seas of Iceland ...

General Evening Post, 13 Sep 1783[edit]

By a letter from a gentleman at Copenhagen, dated August 18, we are favoured with the following account of an island newly thrown up in the sea by subterraneous fire, about thirty miles distant from the coast of the district called Guldbringe, in Iceland.
"Capt. Peterson, sailing for Havnefeord harbour, descried about the middle of May last, a great body of black smoke, through which, at intervals, bursting flames made their appearance. As he approached, it became more terrible; and when arrived within three English miles of the place, he discovered an island still burning in many places, and throwing into the air vast columns of fire and smoke. He sounded at the distance of eight miles form the island, and found W.S.W. from Rykenees, in Iceland, forty-four fathom of water, upon a burnt bottom, something like pit-coal. At the distance of about four miles, the sea was covered with pumice stone, which floated on its surface. The island appeared to be about six English miles in length, and, it is said, has since been taken possession of in name of the King of Denmark. A later account confirms the above circumstances, and adds that the new island is of a rocky appearance, and that fire was still issuing from two of its eminences; that the inhabitants of Iceland had seen a column of black smoke rising from the sea, about the time the eruption is supposed to have happened; but that no unusual swell of the ocean, nor any symptoms of an earthquake had been felt.
When we combine the time and circumstances of this phaenomenon with the late earthquakes in Calabria, in Germany, in Sweden, in Siberia, we readily have recourse to the same common cause, namely, that subterraneous fire which has lately spread terror over so great a part of the globe.

London Gazette, 23 Sep 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, September 9. Accounts are received from Iceland, of a violent Eruption having taken Place in that Island, upon the 8th of June. Several Villages have been destroyed, and a considerable Tract of Country is buried under immense Depths of Lava: The new Island also continues to emit great Quantities of Fire, and was still increasing when the last Ships came from thence.
Letters from Iceland, of the 24th of July, contain the most dismal Detail of the Devastations occasioned by the Course of the Lava, and affirm that the Eruptions continued even at that Date.

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 11 Nov 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, Oct. 8. Chevalier de Levezau is preparing to sail for Iceland, by order of our Sovereign, for the purpose of examining the nature and extent of the disasters occasioned by the eruptions of a volcano near Skaptia. He is also to visit the island of Ny-Oee lately sprung out of the sea in the vicinity of Reikenos.

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 9 Dec 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, Oct. 28. By a letter from Iceland, we are informed, that the new island near Reikenos, is now formed into the shape of a mountain. The sea, which in the vicinage, was 160 fathoms, does not now exceed forty in depth. The Lava of the New Volcanos, which have lately broke out in the district of Skaptefield, has swept away 12 farm houses, and three churches, namely those of Holmofel, Azor, and Skaol.

London Chronicle, 6-12 Dec 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, Oct. 28.
We have accounts from Iceland, that the new island which rose from the sea, near Reikenos, now bears the form of a very high mountain; the sea thereabouts, which was 100 fathom deep, is now in many places only 40. The lava, which runs from the new volcanoes in the district of Skaptefield, has destroyed 12 farms and three churches. The cinders thrown from these mountains is a mixture of pumice-stone, sand, and sulphur, which has much damaged the country on which it fell, and hurts the cattle put to graze on fields impregnated therewith.

London Chronicle, 25-31 Dec 1783[edit]

Copenhagen, Dec. 6. The Captain of a Dutch ship, a native of Iceland, named Jean Ingemundsen, hath made a deposition here, that on passing below Greenland, he saw another new island from whence a thick smoke issued in the day-time, which was converted into flame during the night, and gave light to the surface of the sea to a great extent; he adds, that part of his sails were burnt by the sparks shed from the flames.

General Evening Post, 30 Dec 1783-1 Jan 1784[edit]

Copenhagen, Dec. 6. The master of a Dutch ship, a native of Iceland, and named Johan Engemundson, hath deposed, that on passing under Greenland, he discovered a new island, from which a thick smoke issued out by day, which by night became a flame, and enlightened the surface of the sea a great way; he added, that part of his sails were burnt by the sparks which issued from that island, and which were driven to a great distance.

Whitehall Evening Post, 8-10 Jan 1784[edit]

Copenhagen, Dec. 16. The new island which is formed near Iceland, increases daily; there reigns a continual fermentation of the sea in those parts, which frequently throws up quantities both of land and rock, which makes it imagined that this island may in a few years become large enough to make some settlement upon, as soon as the fires which exhale from it cease.

General Evening Post, 7-10 Feb 1784[edit]

COPENHAGEN, JAN. 1.
The accounts from Iceland are not very favourable. The volcanos have thrown out such quantities of sulphurous matter that the country around to a vast distance is burnt up, which has reduced many families to misery, whose stocks have died for want of food.

London Chronicle, 1 Jul 1784[edit]

HOUSE OF COMMONS.
FAMINE IN SCOTLAND.
Sir Thomas Dundas rose to state to the House, that he had the best authority for saying, that the most dreadful famine at present raged in the Shetland Islands, therefore he should move, "That a Committee be appointed to enquire into the distressed state of the inhabitants of the Shetland Islands, and the famine that at present rages there, and to make report of there same to the House."
The Speaker remarked, that he would be glad to have the opinion of the old Members of Parliament, whether any precedent existed on the Journals, of a Committee being instituted on the mere motion of a Member, without any petition being previously before the House.
Mr. Dempster stated, that last year a similar circumstance happened, and a Committee was instituted by the name of the Corn Committee, which gave great relief to many parts of Scotland; and with respect to the present business, he could assure the House on his honour, that the most alarming accounts were received from that part of Scotland described by the Hon. baronet; and a petition from the principal landholders was sent up to be presented to his Majesty; but by the distance and situation of the place, even a letter was a month in coming; of course, if the famine was bad when the letter came away, it was much worse now. He desired the House to recollect, that the Shetland islands contained upwards of 20,000 persons, as useful subjects in the fishery branch as any his Majesty had in his dominions, and who were now reduced to extreme poverty and wretchedness by their cattle dying, and not being able to purchase relief.
Mr. Pitt wished the motion to be altered,as at present it assumed a fact, which he had not the least doubt existed, but at present there was no proof of it before the House.
Mr. W. Ellis stated, that the petition might be presented to his Majesty, and his Majesty order some of his servants, to lay the same before the House with a recommendation; then it would come properly, and the House be able to proceed.
After a little altercation, the motion was withdrawn.[2]

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 24 Aug 1784[edit]

Copenhagen, July 18.
By several vessels lately returned here from Iceland, we receive the most deplorable accounts of the melancholy situation to which the inhabitants are reduced. The disasters that country has undergone, are such that all hopes of a harvest are entirely at an end. the extremities of famine and distress are equally felt by the men and cattle, and a great number of both have fallen victims to their complicated miseries. The fire, which broke up in several places, rages as violently as ever, and the new island which had lately emerged from the sea, has totally disappeared.

Extract of a Letter from Edinburgh, August 18.
"Some time ago, mention was made in the papers of a famine raging in Shetland, for which parliamentary aid was given. The following letter affords a recent and melancholy testimony of their situation.
"I never saw such distress, and yet I fear more to come; but I am hasting away to avoid seeing it. We have had only two days of Summer, one only of sunshine. No fishing; and what crop is on the grround a month too late. In very many places no crop at all, as none was sown. There is meal to be sold, but nothing left to give for it; and the people are dying of hunger. About 1300 head of horned cattle died in the parishes of North Maving and Unst; in others nearly in the same proportion; and about half the sheep in the country."

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 25 Aug 1784[edit]

Extract of a Letter from Copenhagen, July 30.
"The conversation here, has for some time been entirely engrossed by the calamities of Iceland. The following is the substance of the several accounts received from that island:
"The subterraneous fire which broke out on June 7th last year in the western part of Skaptfield's Syssel (the district of Skaptfield) on the mountain Skaptan Gluver, spread so wide, that marks of its devastation are visible at the distance of 20 leagues to the south south-west. The conflagration extended to four leagues in breadth, and continued till the month of May this year. The fourth part of the burnt soil consisted of a very old lava and of marshes. The burnt earth resembles a heap of calcined stones of the colour of vitriol. The great river of Skaptage, which was from seven to eight fathoms deep, is entirely dried up. On the east side, the fire broke out much about the same time in the channel of the Huervissiodt nearly of the same depth with the Skaptage, but here its breadth was not above a league. The whole extent of ground from which the flames issued, is about ten leagues. At first the flames darted perpendicularly upwards, and seemed to issue from a great depth, but afterwards they rolled along the surface in waves resembling those of the sea; and when they approached the frozen mountains, whose bowels are impregnated with sulphor and nitre, they raged with such fury as to sweep away in a moment cattle, houses, and every thing in their way, even the soil.- Seventeen districts have been entirely ruined. The hay harvest failed, and the inhabitants were obliged to kill great part of their young store about the end of Autumn for want of provender. What little they got in was of so bad a quality, that it produced an epidemical distemper among the cattle, by which, and the severity of the winter, five-sixths of the cattle and three-fourths of the sheep have perished. The inhabitants were obliged to house them in the beginning of September, and from the 15th of October to the 27th of April, there was a continued frost, and the ground covered with snow. Many of the peasants having lost their whole stock, have been obliged to give up house and land. To add to their calamities, the fishery has been very unsuccessful. In short, nothing can equal the distress of the inhabitants, especially those of the interior parts, who, even if they have wherewithal to purchase the necessaries of life from the trading towns on the coast, cannot carry them home for want of horses."

Parker's General Advertiser and Morning Intelligencer, 24 Sep 1784[edit]

A letter from Iceland, dated June 4, says, that the mountains were still covered with snow, and the ground was only thawed yet about ten inches deep.

Public Advertiser, 12 Oct 1784[edit]

Copenhagen, Sept. 25. By letters from Iceland we learn, that on the 14th and 15th of August several shocks of an earthquake were felt there, whereby thirty parcels of land situated in the districts of Olagivoilum and Skeidum, with the buildings thereon, in the possession of different persons, were ruined, and that several houses at Seissel were demolished. The letters add, that the subterraneous fire which had raged for some months in the Eastern part of the island appeared to be extinguished, though a thick smoke continued to issue from the earth; that the isle of Reikenas, which the sea moved towards Iceland last year, had disappeared; and that the season has been very unfavourable in that unhospitable country, whereby the inhabitants were greatly distressed, particularly for want of corn. The winter, the letters say, was long and vigorous; the summer began late, but the heat was extraordinary for that climate.

Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser, 2 Dec 1784[edit]

Extract of a Letter from Copenhagen, Oct. 30.
"Letters from Iceland, of the 12th of last month, inform us, that the subterraneous fire, which had burst forth in the Eastern part of the island, where it continued burning during several months, is at length extinguished; nothing but a thick smoke now arises from the place. These letters confirm that the weather there has been very bad, and forage in particular has entirely failed."

Whitehall Evening Post, 11-14 Dec 1784[edit]

Extract of a Letter from Copenhagen, Nov. 20.
"The accounts from Iceland are of the most melancholy kind. That unhappy island is still afflicted with violent earthquakes, the explosion of subterraneous fires, and a dreadful famine. The benefactions of the Court, and the liberal donations of private persons in Denmark, have as far as possible relieved the distress of the miserable inhabitants."

Wikisource contributor notes[edit]

  1. An Italian report on the Messina disaster, which had occurred on 5 Feb 1783, appeared in the "Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser", 19 Mar 1783, and a translation in the "Whitehall Evening Post", 18-20 Mar 1783 (Wikisource contributor note)
  2. The petition was presented the following day, 2 July, according to the "Morning Herald and Daily Advertiser" of 3 Jul 1784 (Wikisource contributor note)
This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.