The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Iceland

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1635561The American Cyclopædia — Iceland

ICELAND, a large island in the North Atlantic ocean, subject to the Danish crown, geographically belonging to the western hemisphere, about 160 m. E. of Greenland, 600 m. W. of Norway, 500 m. N. W. of the Shetlands, and 250 m. N. W. of the Faroe islands. It is situated between lat. 63° 24′ and 66° 33′ N., and lon. 13° 31′ and 24° 17′ W.; greatest length 325 m., greatest breadth 200 m.; area, including adjacent islands, 39,758 sq. m., of which 16,243 are habitable. The population of Iceland in its most flourishing period exceeded 100,000; recent censuses give it as follows: 1864, 68,084; 1869, 69,506; 1870, 69,763. Reykiavik, the capital, has a population of about 1,400. In shape Iceland somewhat resembles a heart with its apex to the south. The coast line on the south is but little broken, several of its openings having been filled up during eruptions of the neighboring volcanoes; but in all other directions it is deeply indented with bays, fiords, and jutting promontories. The fiords extend far inland between lofty mountains, whose sides are carved into gigantic terraces. The principal of these is Isafiord in the N. W. peninsula. The western fiords are studded with rocky islets, and open, like those of the north and northeast, to enormous ice drifts. The chief islands on the coast are the Vestmanna isles in the south, which form a county by themselves. The best harbors are those of Reykiavik, in a bight of Faxafiord, in the southwest, Hafnarfiord in the west, Akureyri on the Eyjafiord in the north, and Vopnafiord in the east.—Iceland is apparently of volcanic origin; its surface in the interior is composed of an elevated band of palagonite tufa pierced by trachyte, and having basalt on either side. This basalt, the oldest formation, underlies the other two, the palagonite, which is next in age, and the lava, comprising all the strata due to recent volcanic action. Although the N. W. peninsula is composed of lofty ridges with here and there an extinct volcano, the chief mountain system is in the south. It forms a triangular mass, with its apex at Thrandar Jökull in the east, and its base extending from Ok in the west to Eyjafjalla in the south. Toward the apex the great Vatna Jökull group covers an area of 3,500 sq. m. with its gigantic glaciers and snow fields. The mountains are distinguished into fells, which are generally free from snow in summer, and jökulls or ice mountains, which are shrouded in perpetual snow. The name of skal is given to perfectly symmetrical mountains. The principal jökulls are the Oræfa, 6,405 ft., the eastern Snæfell, 5,958 ft., and the western Snæfell, 4,699 ft. The volcanoes belong to all three classes. Beyond the mountain masses lies the great central table land, from 1,500 to 2,000 ft. above the sea, and forming a wilderness covered with vast lava beds, barren heights or rolling rocky uplands, tracts of black volcanic sand, hillsides and valleys dotted with hot springs and sulfataras, and bottom lands filled with bog and mud. Over this desert three main roads, or rather tracks, connect the settlements near the fiords and the rare low plains and valleys extending inland along the watercourses. The most remarkable and fertile valleys are those clustering around Eyjafiord in the north, that of Lagarfljot in the east, and those of the Hvita and Thjorsa in the south. Volcanic action has manifested itself over a broad belt of country, extending from Cape Reykjanes in the southwest to Krafla in the north. Within this belt are the principal volcanoes, including Hecla. (See Hecla.) From 27 different spots, counting volcanic craters in the sea off Cape Reykjanes, 86 eruptions have occurred since 874, the last being those of Skapta in 1861 and of Trölladyn-gjá in 1862. The lava has been thrown out from grassy plains in the north as well as from the enormous double chasm of Katla in the southern uplands. Of the lava beds, the Odatha Hraun covers 1,160 sq. m., a second extends 73 m. from Skjaldbreith and Klöthufell to Reykjanes, and a third, around Hecla, is 25 m. long and 10 m. broad. Another peculiarity is what is called the gjá or rifts in the deep lava beds, which are zigzag rents running from northeast to southwest. The most remarkable are the Almanna-gjá and Hrafna-gjá at Thingvellir, and the rift into which pours the Jökulsa at Dettifoss.—The principal lakes in Iceland are the Myvatn (Midge lake) in the north, much diminished in depth and extent by the lava streams from Krafla in 1724-'30, and Thingvallavatn in the southwest, 10 m. long by 4 wide. There are besides two principal groups of lakes, those of the Arnarvatn (Eagle tarns) dotting a large district N. and W. of Eyriks Jökull, and Fiskivatn (Fish tarns) at the foot of Skapta, which are the remains of a large lake that existed previous to the eruption of 1783. The larger rivers take their rise in the southern mountains. The Jökulsa, reputed the largest, rises at the foot of Vatna, and flows N. to the Axafiord. About 30 m. from the sea it falls over a perpendicular wall in its lava bed, forming a magnificent waterfall. The Skjalfandafljot has its source between Vatna and Arnasfell, and flows N. into Skjalfandi bay. The Jökuldalsa and the Lagarfljot flow N. E. from the snow fields of Vatna. The most important rivers in the west and south are the Hvita (or, as it is called near its mouth, the Olfusa), Thjorsa, and Kudafljot. The most celebrated feature of Iceland scenery is the great number of intermittent hot springs, chiefly in the S. W. division, which have given the name of geysers to similar springs elsewhere. (See Geysers.)—The climate of Iceland seems to have changed greatly since its first settlement. The ice drifts from Greenland, which formerly visited its shores only every other year, have of late come for 15 years in succession, surrounding two thirds of the island with a compact mass, and remaining from three to five months. When it comes in January or February, it goes away in March or April; then it affects the ensuing vegetation but little, while it brings a welcome supply of whales. If it comes in April or May, it remains until the end of July, stopping vegetation and destroying all the crops. The average winter temperature at Reykiavik, 29.3° F., is higher than at Aberdeen, 26° F.; the average summer temperature is 53.6°, and that of the whole year 39.4°, being about the same as that of Moscow the whole year round. At Akureyri, in the north, the average summer heat is 45.5°, that of winter 20.7°, and the mean for the year is 32°. The difference of climate between the north and south of the island is attributed to the Gulf stream, which sweeps round the S. and S. W. coasts. In the south great quantities of rain fall in winter and summer, and sharp winds are frequent; thunder, except in winter, is very seldom heard. The climate of the north is much more dry and regular.—The lowlands and protected valleys afford excellent pasturage, where the soil contains all the elements of fertility. “The mountains,” says Baring-Gould, “are generally destitute of herbage, and the valleys are filled with cold morasses. Grass springs on the slight elevations above the swamps, in the dells, and around the lakes. By drainage a large percentage of marsh might be reclaimed; but some must always remain hopeless bog. The extraordinary amount of swamp is due to the fact that the ground is frozen at the depth of 6 or 8 ft., so that when there is a thaw the valleys are flooded, and the water, unable to drain through, rots the soil.” Many bottoms are filled with an amazing depth of rich soil, yet the prevalent ignorance of agricultural methods prevents their being turned to any advantage. The luxuriant herbage on the sloping sides of the fields consists of several kinds of grasses mingled with the leaves of stunted willow, which is greedily devoured by the sheep, and with dwarf mountain birch. On the marshes grow several kinds of sedge, and the tún or home field is overstrewn with the yellow ranunculus. Iceland is almost a treeless country; in certain spots are low coppices of birch, the trees being mere shrubs 10 or 12 ft. high, and in one or two protected places only a few mountain ashes about 30 ft. high excite the admiration of the natives. Hay raised in the lowlands is the chief crop; a few patches of oats are occasionally seen in sheltered situations, but even these do not always ripen. No other kind of grain is raised; but a species of wild corn (elymus arenarius) growing on the sand flats by the sea affords a much prized harvest; the straw is used for thatching and fodder, and the meal, flavored with cinnamon, is made into very palatable thin cakes. Potatoes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce, spinach, parsley, cresses, and radishes are cultivated in small patches. The only other valuable vegetable production is the Iceland moss of commerce. Agriculture has greatly improved of late years.—Among the wild animals are several kinds of foxes which are hunted for their skins, the blue fox especially. Bears are frequent visitors, borne to the island on the ice drifts from Greenland. Reindeer were imported from Denmark about 1770, and now roam in large herds in the solitudes of the interior; though so valuable for locomotion, their utility is altogether overlooked. The seal breeds everywhere on the coast and its numerous islands; the whale is also seen, sometimes in flocks, in the fiords and bays, as well as a shark indigenous to these waters (scymnus microcephalus). The cod, herring, haddock, halibut, trout, salmon, and eels abound in the fiords and the fresh-water lakes and rivers. Shell fish, the mussel especially, are present in enormous quantities. There are in Iceland 7 families and 34 species of mammals, of which 24 live in the water, and 13 varieties of cetacea. Birds swarm everywhere; among the indigenous ones are the Iceland falcon, ptarmigan, goldeneye, harlequin duck, and northern wren. The eider duck is jealously protected by the inhabitants. There are 6 families and about 90 species of birds, of which 54 are water fowl. No reptiles have ever been discovered. Of fish, which are as yet but little known, Faber mentions 49 varieties, of which 7 are freshwater fish. Domestic animals constitute the great wealth of the Icelander; these are cows, horses, and sheep, and goats in the north. In 1870 there were in the island 352,443 sheep, 30,078 horses, and 18,189 cattle. The early colonists introduced geese and swine; but the geese are now all wild, and the hog has disappeared. The dog is of the Esquimaux type, and of great use to the farmer.—Mineral deposits, showing the presence of copper, iron, lead, and silver, are found in many places; but, from their poorness and the absence of fuel, no attempt has been made to work them. Plumbago was discovered near Krafla by Baring-Gould, and magnetic iron abounds among the volcanic rocks. The chief sulphur deposits are at the vapor springs of Hengill near Thingvalla lake, at Krisuvik, and in the neighborhood of Myvatn. In the latter region is “Obsidian mountain,” a ridge in many places composed of pure obsidian, which might be a source of public wealth. There are feldspar, chalcedonies, zeolites, amethysts, topaz, opal, porpyhry, and malachite. One of the most singular formations of Iceland is a kind of brown coal called surturbrandr, which lies in beds between clinkstone and trap; it consists partly of carbonized stems of trees, partly of a more coherent layer of coal mixed with schist, and is of no importance as a source of national wealth.—The modern Icelanders are the descendants of the Norwegians who settled in that country in 874 and the following years; a few colonists from Ireland and Scotland had also settled in the country previous to the Norwegian discovery, or came thither afterward. The language spoken by all is the purest Norse. The men are tall, fair-complexioned, and blue-eyed, with frames hardened by constant exposure to the weather. Recent travellers complain of their tendency to idleness and intemperance; but they are strictly upright, truthful, generous, and hospitable. The women are industrious and chaste. Religious faith and the domestic virtues are traditional in every household. Education is universal; it is almost impossible to find an adult unable to read and write. The settlements are chiefly scattered along the coast, and in certain sheltered valleys and lowlands, the most populous district being in the neighborhood of Skagafiord in the north. Social as well as commercial intercourse is extremely limited. There is nothing in the whole island that can be called a road; no vehicle of any kind is used on land; locomotion both for man and merchandise is only practicable on horseback and at certain seasons. A very few houses are of stone, a few of wood, but the greater number are partly of turf and partly of lava blocks pointed with moss and thatched with sod. Coal is only to be had in the towns; elsewhere the only fuel consists of sheep dung mixed with fish bones. No fire is made save in the small kitchen even in winter, and that only to prepare food, the other rooms in the farm house remaining damp and foul. In the Vestmanna islands and in many places on the mainland, portions of the sea parrot and petrel are dried, mixed with manure, and used for fuel. The main staple of food is stock fish, which is eaten with sour butter. The only meat is mutton, which is boiled, then pressed dry, cut into lumps, and laid by without salt; sometimes it is also stewed in milk. The first necessaries of life are imported. The least mortality (128) is in February, the coldest month, and the highest (205) in July, the warmest. Cutaneous diseases, occasioned by want of cleanliness and proper nourishment, are most prevalent; diarrhœa is frequent in spring; typhus and smallpox have often swept away multitudes; leprosy is not uncommon, especially on the islands, where it takes the form of elephantiasis. Consumption is unknown, owing probably to the purity of the air and its being charged with ozone.—There are no manufactures of any kind, only the simplest articles of consumption being woven in the homestead. Several of these, such as guernseys and mittens, are exported. The commerce of Iceland had been quite flourishing during the period of its independence; active commercial relations were kept up with Norway, England, and Germany till the union of Norway with Denmark in 1387, when the Danish crown began usurping a complete monopoly, and finally (in 1602) farmed out the trade with Iceland to a Copenhagen company. This monopoly was abolished in 1853, and at present the only restriction to free intercourse is the taking out a trade license amounting to about 50 cents per ton of the ship's burden. Foreigners enjoy the same rights of residence, holding property, and trading, which belong to the natives. The fisheries of Iceland, if carried on with a proper degree of intelligence, would prove an exhaustless source of wealth; but only 10 per cent. of the population are fishermen, and the methods used are inefficient. Along the coast are 34 authorized trading posts, of which only 27 are used; of these, 6 are in the south, 11 in the west, and 10 in the northeast; 62 merchants reside in these, 26 being Icelanders, the others Danes or representatives of Danish houses. There are no banks. The trade is by barter; the Icelander is entirely in the merchant's power and must accept his prices. Attempts to break up this monopoly have recently been made by a Norwegian company of Bergen, which has an establishment at Reykiavik, and branches in Hafnarfiord and other places. There is but one native ship in the foreign trade. In 1869 the number of foreign vessels which visited the trading stations was 99 from Denmark, with a tonnage of 9,358, and 50 from other countries, with a tonnage of 4,555. The principal imports are cereals, wheaten bread, coffee, sugar, spirits, snuff, and tobacco. A decrease is perceptible of late in the quantity of brandy imported, although even now it amounts to 24 quarts annually for every adult male, besides rum, punch extracts, and other spirituous drinks. The principal exports are fish, both salted and dried, salt roe, liver oil, salt meat, tallow, sheepskins, wool, guernseys, stockings, mittens, coarse woollen stuff called vadmel, eider down, feathers, and horses; the whole valued for 1869 at about $700,000. Formerly considerable quantities of sulphur were exported; but owing to the absence of fuel and the inaccessibility of the mines, as well as the want of remunerative demand, they have not been worked for many years. An Englishman has lately obtained a 50 years' lease of the sulphur mines near Myvatn, which may acquire commercial importance when those of Sicily are exhausted.—There are but few primary schools in the island, but parents, besides teaching their children all they know themselves, are careful to send them for further instruction to better informed neighbors. All the books and manuscripts in the house, as well as those to be found within a radius of 50 miles, are read aloud over and over again to the family and discussed by them. Moreover, there is a law enabling the pastor or overseer of the parish to remove the children of careless parents, and board them with others who will teach them. This is done at the expense of the parish when the parents are too poor to pay. At Reykiavik there is a college with six professors, embracing a complete classical, literary, and scientific course; there is also a school of theology with three professors, and a school of medicine with two. Students in law and philology go to Copenhagen. Recently a library has been formed in Reykiavik, which comprised 10,000 volumes in 1866. Two political journals were published in Reykiavik in 1866: the Thjotholfr or “National,” weekly, and the Islendingur, fortnightly. The Northanfari, a weekly, was published at Akureyri. The new royal charter granted on Jan. 5, 1874, which went into operation on Aug. 1 of that year, gives to Iceland a minister residing in Copenhagen and responsible to the althing for the acts of the administration in Iceland. The executive government of the island is vested in the stiftamtmand or governor general, residing at Reykiavik, and having under him three deputy governors, residing respectively in the northern, western, and eastern amts, while the stiftamtmand himself has immediate charge of the southern. The amts are divided into counties or sysla, each having its own chief officer or syselman. All these officials are appointed by the crown. In each county there is a court presided over by the syselman and two assessors; and from its decisions there is an appeal to the supreme court and the chief justice at Reykiavik. For the revenue there is a landfoged, who is both collector general for the whole country and town collector for the capital. Akureyri, recently created a commercial town, has also its local collector or foged. The legislative authority, in everything that does not relate to the general interests of the monarchy, is vested in the althing, composed of 36 members, 30 of whom are elected by popular suffrage and 6 nominated by the crown. The ecclesiastical establishment, which is exclusively of the Lutheran faith, consists of the bishop of Reykiavik, who with the governor general forms the spiritual court, and 20 archdeaconries, subdivided into 196 livings. Attached to this is the pastoral seminary at Reykiavik. The clergy are appointed by the crown, subject to the consent of the bishop. Their parishes for the most part embrace very large districts, and their revenues being utterly insufficient for their support, they have recourse to farming; they have the reputation of being the best blacksmiths in Iceland. There are six medical districts, with medical officers stationed at Reykiavik, Vatnsdalr, and Akureyri, a fourth in the west, a fifth in the south, and a sixth in the Vestmanna islands. Quite recently three missionary stations have been established by the Roman Catholic church. Christianity was voted the national religion in 1000 by the althing. The island was afterward divided into the two bishoprics of Holar and Skalholt. “The bishops,” says Baring-Gould, “were elected by the althing, and even the saints were canonized by popular acclamation.” With the introduction of the church came the knowledge of Latin letters. In the year 1057, Isleif, bishop of Skalholt, introduced the art of writing with the Latin alphabet. Monasteries, hospitals, and schools were established. Several monks, especially the Benedictines of Thingeyra monastery, contributed largely to the literature of Iceland's golden era. In 1551 the Lutheran form of worship was introduced by Christian III., and after much bloodshed became the only established religion; but much of the old ceremonial still remains. There is no evening service, and the morning service is still known as “the mass;” the minister retains the old chasuble and cope, and over the altar can be seen triptychs, crucifixes, and pictures of saints.—Iceland was discovered in 860 by Naddoddr, a Norwegian viking, who called it Snjaland (Snowland). In 864 it was visited by Garthar Svafarsson, a Swede, who sailed around it and wintered on the east shore of Skjalfandi bay, and called his discovery Garthaskolmr. Enticed by the description which he gave of it, Floki, another viking, sailed into Vatnsfiord in the west, and took possession of a portion of land. But the loss of his cattle during the winter compelled him to break up his settlement. After spending another winter at Hafnarfjörthr, he returned to Norway in the summer. The island received its present name from him; and the glowing account given of it by some of his companions induced two Norwegian chieftains, Hjorleifr and Ingolfr, to visit it. They formed the first permanent settlement, in 874 at Reykiavik, and other chiefs with their retainers and thralls soon followed them. The Islendínga bók, the earliest monument of Icelandic literature, says that the first colonists, who were all pagans, found that they had been preceded by Culdee anchorites and Irish settlers, who abandoned the island on the arrival of the pagan Norsemen. The report of an Irish monk had first led several of his brethren to sail for the north, touching at the Faroe islands, and reaching Iceland in 725, where they settled on the islet of Papoen on the E. coast, and at Papyle in the south. They were called Papar by the Norsemen, and left behind them bells, crosiers, and Irish books. The oppression of Harold Harfagr drove a large number of Norwegian chiefs and their families to Iceland, and this was further increased under the reign of St. Olaf. About 928 Iceland became a republic, and so remained for 300 years. In 930 a code of laws was adopted, and an annual meeting of the bonders was fixed for midsummer on the plains of Thingvalla; this gathering was called althing. In 1262 the majority of the people took an oath of allegiance to Haco, king of Norway, Iceland remaining independent, with her own laws and constitution, and the althing continuing to be the supreme legislative authority. After the union of the Danish and Norwegian monarchies in 1387 the king of Denmark was acknowledged sovereign of Iceland. A provision in the act of union of 1262 stipulated that the king should annually supply the inhabitants with six ship loads of goods. This gradually made the commerce of Iceland a royal monopoly, and in 1602 it was farmed out to a Copenhagen company, in whose hands it remained till 1787. As Iceland only raises cattle and chiefly exports dried fish and wool, its people were thus placed at the mercy of the traders for the bare necessaries of life. The price of goods rose four fold during the next three years, while the price of fish fell, the domestic industries dwindled away, poverty increased, and the population decreased in the same ratio. During these three years 800 persons died of starvation in one district, and 9,000 perished in the whole island. Notwithstanding these facts, the Danish government continued to enforce its own trade laws, and in 1684 a royal proclamation enacted that all traffic must pass through the Copenhagen company, and that on no conditions should the Icelanders trade with others, “neither on land, nor on sea, nor in the harbors or fiords, or in any other place whatsoever.” In the 18th century volcanic eruptions repeatedly desolated the land, converting some of the most fertile and populous districts into hideous wastes, and followed by famine and disease. In 1762 an epidemic broke out among the sheep, and 280,000 died or had to be slaughtered. In 1783, the year of the most fearful eruption, 11,000 cows, 27,000 horses, and 186,000 sheep died. The population, which had steadily decreased since 1602, had sunk in 1785 to 39,000, and was further diminished by 9,000 deaths from starvation. In 1786 the project was seriously entertained of removing the remnant of the population from the country, but the royal commissioners demanded instead a relaxation of the trade laws. Commercial freedom came by slow degrees, prosperity returned, and the population increased. In the 16th and 17th centuries, when absolute monarchy was introduced, it was expressly stipulated by the Icelanders that, while acknowledging the sovereignty of the Danish crown, they should retain their own national laws, rights, and freedom. By degrees, however, the legislative powers of the Icelandic althing were allowed to fall into desuetude. It was formally abolished in 1800, but restored in 1843. Subsequent attempts to supersede it by giving Iceland representatives in the Danish rigsdag, and to make Icelandic taxes flow directly into the Danish exchequer, met with unconquerable resistance. At present, under the royal charter of Jan. 5, 1874, the constitution of Iceland is closely modelled on that of Denmark, and its national independence under the Danish crown is acknowledged. It enjoys an independent judicial as well as legislative system, individual and religious freedom, municipal self-government, and equality of all citizens before the law. Interesting events in the history of Iceland were the discovery of Greenland by Eric the Red, and the establishment there of flourishing but short-lived colonies, and that of America by Leif and others, without any practical results. The one thousandth anniversary of the first permanent settlement of Iceland was celebrated in August, 1874.—The Landnámabók records the colonization of Iceland from 870 to 930; the Sturlunga saga contains its history from 1100 to 1264; its church history is found in the Kristin saga and in the Biskupa sögur, or lives of the bishops of Iceland. See “An Historical and Descriptive Account of Iceland” (Edinburgh “Cabinet Library”); S. Baring-Gould's “Iceland, its Scenes and Sagas” (London, 1863); and C. W. Pajkull's “A Summer in Iceland” (London, 1869).