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Iceland History

Iceland was discovered by a sea-roving chieftain named Nadodd in the ninth century. Shortly after the discovery of Iceland by the Scandinavian, c. 850 (it had long been inhabited by a small colony of Irish Culdees), a stream of immigration set in towards it, which lasted for sixty years, and resulted in the establishment of some 4000 homesteads. The first of these settlers were Ingolf and Hjorleif, Norwegian chiefs who had quarrelled with their king, Harald; and so they left Norway and sailed in search of a new home in AD 874. The island was settled in the late 9th and early 10th centuries, principally by people of Norse origin.

The island, larger than Ireland, has practically no land fit for tillage, and very little fit even for pasture. Neither has it any internal trade. The interior is occupied by snow mountains and glaciers and lava-fields and wastes of black volcanic sand or pebbles. Iceland is really one huge desert with some habitable spots scattered along its coasts. It was the Desert that most of all destroyed the chances of political unity under a republic by dividing the people into numerous small groups, far removed from one another, and in many places severed by rugged and barren wastes, or by torrents difficult to cross.

From 870 to 930, hordes of land seekers and their families made the perilous journey to Iceland. The movement of those ten to twenty thousand people, mostly from Norway, was made possible because of improvements in shipbuilding and the wealth that had been brought back to Scandinavia by vikings. (The word vikingr means pirate. Most medieval Scandinavians would never have used the word to describe themselves.). The first landnámsmenn, or landtakers, found their new home green and verdant; the bird life was vast, and the land was covered in scrub birch. But the subarctic ecosystem was fragile. Land productivity dropped rapidly with deforestation and livestock raising. After the first 60 years, most of the good sites were taken.

In 930 AD, the ruling chiefs established a republican constitution and an assembly called the Althingi (Alţingi) the oldest parliament in the world. The settlers were all of Norse stock; and Norway had in its petty communities a rudimentary system of institutions not unlike that described by Tacitus in his account of Germany, or that which the conquering Angles and Saxons brought to Britain. Each community was an independent Fylki (folk). In each Fylki there was a number of nobles, one of whom stood foremost as hereditary chieftain, and a body of warlike freemen, as well as a certain number of slaves. In each there was a popular assembly, the ţing, corresponding to our Saxon Folk Mot. Now owing to the way in which the settlers had planted themselves along the coasts of Iceland.

The Icelandic Republic, which endured down to the middle of the thirteenth century, was a purely aristocratic commonwealth, and the Althing was an assembly constituted on the same principles as the original Comitia Curiata, in which the patricians were supreme, and into which the client was admitted only as the follower of his patron. The Icelandic chiefs had not expelled a king, but had removed themselves out of his reach, and they established in their western island the same institutions which Harald Haarfager had overthrown in Norway. Their ideas of liberty, like those of other ancient and mediaeval republicans, were thoroughly aristocratic, and their love of power was as strong as their hatred of subjection.

Iceland had not, and could not have, any foreign wars. There was therefore no external strife to consolidate her people, no opportunity for any leader to win glory against an enemy, or to create an army on which to base his power. All the wars were civil wars, and tended to disunion. In Iceland there was no single great family with any hereditary claim to stand above the others, while all the leading families were animated by a high sense of pride and a pervading sentiment of equality. This love of equality remains among the sons of the old Norsemen both in Iceland and in Norway, and is indeed stronger there than anywhere else in Europe.

The real strength of ancient Icelandic literature is shown in its most indigenous growth, the "Saga". This is, in its purest form, the life of a hero, composed in regular form, governed by fixed rules, and intended for oral recitation. It bears the strongest likeness to the epic in all save its unversified form; in both are found, as fixed essentials, simplicity of plot, chronological order of events, set phrases used even in describing the restless play of emotion or the changeful fortunes of a fight or a storm, while in both the absence of digression, comment or intrusion of the narrator's person is invariably maintained. The saga grew up in the quieter days which followed the introduction of Christianity in AD 1002, when the deeds of the great families' heroes were slill cherished by their descendants, and the exploits of the great kings of Norway and Denmark handed down with reverence. The sagas relating to Icelanders, of which some thirty-five or forty remain out of thrice that number, were first written down between 1140 and 1220, on separate scrolls, no doubt mainly for the reciter's convenience; they then went through the different phases which such popular compositions have to pass in all lands-editing and compounding (1220-1260),padding and amplifying (1260-1300), and finally collection in large MSS. (14th century).

For most of the three centuries that the Icelandic Free State existed, there were no significant differences between chieftains and prosperous farmers. Norway was able to gain control in 1262, partly because of the turmoil that ensued when a few families began to concentrate the power that had previously been dispersed in Icelandic society.

Iceland remained independent until 1262, when it entered into a treaty establishing a union with the Norwegian monarchy. The successors of King Harald the Fairhaired had always held that the Icelanders, since their ancestors had come from Norway, ought to own their supremacyl, and they argued that as monarchical government was divinely appointed, and prevailed everywhere in Continental Europe, no republic had a right to exist. King Hakon Hakonsson (Hakon IV), one of the greatest among the kings of Norway, now found in the distracted state of the island a better opportunity of carrying out the plans which his predecessors Olaf Tryggvason and Olaf the Saint had been obliged, by the watchfulness of the Aiding, to abandon. By bribes and by threats, by drawing the leading Icelanders to his Court, and sending his own emissaries through the island, he succeeded in gaining over the few chiefs who now practically controlled the Alfing, and at the meeting of midsummer, AD 1262 (one year before the battle of Largs, which saved Scotland from the invasion of this very Hakon), the Southern, Western and Northern Quarters accepted the King of Norway as their sovereign, while in 1264 (the year of the summoning of the first representative Parliament of England by Earl Simon de Montfort) the remaining districts which had not yet recognized the Norwegian Crown, now held by Magnus son of Hakon, made a like submission. Thenceforward Iceland followed the fortunes first of Norway and then of Denmark.

Six centuries of subjection succeeded four centuries of independence. Iceland was passed to Denmark in the late 14th century when Norway and Denmark were united under the Danish crown. The union of the Three Crowns transferred the practical rule of Iceland to Denmark in 1280, and the old Treaty of Union, by which the Island had reserved its essential rights, was disregarded by the absolute Danish monarchs; but, though new taxation was imposed, it was rather their careless neglect than their too active interference tliat damaged Iceland's interests.

But for an English trade, which sprang up out of the halfsmuggling, half-buccaneering enterprise of the Bristol merchants, the island would have fared badly, for during the whole of »he 15th century their trade with England, exporting sulphur, eiderdown (of which the English taught them the value), wool, and salt stock-fish, and importing as before wood, iron, honey, wine, grain and flax goods, was their only link with the outer world. This period of Iceland's existence is eventless: she had got peace but with few of its blessings; all spirit seemed lo bave died with the commonwealth; even shepherding and such agriculture as there had been sank to a lower stage; wagons, ploughs and carts went out of use and knowledge; Architecture in timber became a lost art, and the fine carved and painted halls of the heathen days were replaced by turfwalled barns half sunk in the earth; the large decked lu; of ihe old day* gave way lu small undecked fishing-boats.

A new plague, that of the English, Gascon and Algerine pirates, marked the close of the 16th century and opening of the 17th, causing widespread panic and some devastation in 1570, 1613-1616 and 1627. Nothing points more to the helplessness of the natives' condition than their powerlessncss against these foes. But the 18th century is the most gloomy in Iceland's annals. Smallpox, famine, sheep disease, and the eruptions of 1765 and 1783 follow each other in terrible succession. Against such visitations, which reduced the population by about a fourth, little could be done.

In the early 19th century, national consciousness was revived in Iceland. A Useful Knowledge Society was formed and did some honest work. The Althingi had been abolished in 1800 but was reestablished in 1843 as a consultative assembly. The history of Iceland - a poor, outlying province of a distant metropolis - was gloomy enough: misgovernment combined with famine, pestilence, and volcanic eruptions to depress the condition of the inhabitants, who had distinctly retrograded in material prosperity since the days of Snorri Sturluson. A few Danish merchants enjoyed a complete monopoly of the Icelandic trade, until the legal bonds which prevented the Icelanders from trading with the world at large, were relaxed. Governed entirely by Danes (whom they had always regarded as foreigners), compelled to deal with Danes only in all commercial affairs, it was not surprising that the natives of Iceland should gradually have lost much of the energy and selfreliance which characterized their free forefathers.

In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland limited home rule, which was expanded in scope in 1904. The constitution, written in 1874, was revised in 1903. The Act of Union, a 1918 agreement with Denmark, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state united with Denmark under a common king. Iceland established its own flag, but Denmark continued to represent Icelandic foreign affairs and defense interests.

German occupation of Denmark in 1940 severed communications between Iceland and Denmark. Consequently, Iceland moved immediately to assume control over its own territorial waters and foreign affairs. In May 1940, British military forces occupied Iceland. Responsibility for Iceland's defense passed to the United States in July 1941. Following a plebiscite, Iceland formally became an independent republic on June 17, 1944. The United States of America was the first government to recognize the establishment of the Republic of Iceland on June 17, 1944, thereby laying the foundation for the strong friendship between the two respective nations.

In October 1946, the Icelandic and U.S. Governments agreed to terminate U.S. responsibility for the defense of Iceland, but the United States retained certain rights at Keflavík. Iceland became a charter member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. After the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950, and pursuant to the request of NATO military authorities, the United States and Iceland agreed that the United States should again make arrangements for Iceland's defense. A bilateral defense agreement signed on May 5, 1951 remains in force, even though the U.S. military forces are no longer permanently stationed in Iceland. Iceland is the only NATO country with no standing military of its own.

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Page last modified: 30-09-2016 16:47:31 ZULU