Hard Times in Eyjafj÷rur|
From the diary of Sveinn Ůˇrarinsson, magistrate's clerk, 1869.
One cause of the mass migration West was the brutal climatic conditions during the 1860s. The following is an excerpt from the diary of Sveinn Ůˇrarinsson, magistrate's clerk, detailing the effects of the severe weather of that time. From Sveinn it is possible to trace a path to the New World.
May 24 Frigid northerly breeze. The Pollur inlet is becoming choked with
ice. Everywhere news of people near death; starving men slaughter
starving sheep to save their own lives. Domestics wander from farm to
farm begging for work in return for food and shelter. There is a
general exodus of farmers in Skagafjararsřsla and Ůingeyjarsřsla. A
general census meeting was held here today; I was present for part of
it. Pßll Magn˙sson and Ëlafur from Espihˇll came by. Before they left I gave
Ëlafur and P. Johnsen a chunk of snuff to chew. Men complain of sore
throats and other physical woes due to lack of tobacco.
Sveinn was the father of Jˇn Sveinsson, called Nonni, an internationally known children's book author from the early part of the twentieth century. Sveinn's other son, Fririk, moved West with his stepfather, Ëlafur Ëlafsson from Espihˇll. Ëlafur is mentioned in the excerpt below.
Fririk became a sign painter and was known among Western Icelanders as Fred Swanson. The brothers Nonni and Fririk lost contact when Nonni went to Denmark and then to France, but they met again sixty years later at the Festival of Parliament in 1930, and again in Winnipeg in December of 1936, when Nonni visited his brother during extensive travel around the world.
Sveinn Ůˇrarinsson was a gifted man, a carpenter and bookbinder, a lover of music, a talented writer, an aesthete and a connoisseur of many things. The following portion of his diary spans the period from May 24 to June 24, 1869. The diary ends on the tenth of July of that same year; Sveinn died only a few days later.
May 25 Hellish north wind, snowstorm. The ground was white with snow down to the sea. I got 17 pollack from Johnsen for two inches of
snuff. Chopped a tree for firewood, made a table for the dormer
window. I'm running out of hay for the cow. Polar ice filled the inlet and
grounded six shark boats that were lying there.
May 26 Calm but frigid weather at first, then chilly southeast winds
for a while. Polar ice floating at the bottom of the fjord. Walked
into town and up to Eyrarland in search of hay, but to no avail. Hung a
couple of bundles of small herring to dry. ElÝn Gunnarsen moved here into the
north room of my house. They began laying the footpath to the church.
People are hoeing every square inch of their gardens in a frenzy of hope
May 27 Northwest snowstorm, freezing gale force winds. I did some
repairs but then had to lie in bed for a long time due to the cold; no fires anywhere
for lack of firewood. I got 3_ barrels of hay for one Danish dollar and
56 shillings and got temporary relief from that problem.
Ever-increasing shortages, and general scarcity of food. Total lack
of coffee and tobacco everywhere; no victuals to be had at all except
the little we can get from the sea. Havsteen the merchant has nothing
but moss and old tobacco slime in place of snuff; men use any and all
kinds of surrogates for tobacco and coffee. I still have some tobacco
left, and a little bit of food - dolphin meat and blubber, fish, beans,
grains - but only enough for a few days. Others are no better off. I
drink a coffee made of beans and grain, sweeten it with molasses, which
is still available. My cow only milks about 2.5 litres now.
May 28 Southwest gusts, slightly less cold. Northwest wind out on the
fjord. Ice floating here at the bottom of the fjord again and gathering at HrÝsey Channel. Our fishing nets catch nothing. I fixed up my tools and work
bench, then walked down with a bite of snuff for P. Johnsen, half out of
his mind for lack of tobacco. Church path is finished. All the ships on
their way here, and others besides, get stuck in the ice on the East
coast (GunnˇlfsvÝk, Berufj÷rur). Norwegians have arrived at
Seyisfj÷rur full of pomp and self-importance.
May 29 Icy northwestern gale. Fog. Fjord chock full of ice all the
way to Leira. I made some wooden lids, a mousetrap, and a few other
things during the day. Provisions are virtually exhausted by now in homes; no
victuals left in stores. I sent Havsteen the merchant a little cut of snuff wrapped in a cornet.
June 3 Northern windstorm, intermittent gusts of fog. Ebb tide pushed
the ice further out the fjord a bit, though. I stayed home, puttered
around, cured some herring. Starvation and lack of hay are the news
from all directions: it's said today that two children are dead of
hunger in Ëlafsfj÷rur. The snow is so deep in Fj÷rur and out in the
surrounding countryside that only occasional bare patches can be seen in
June 4 Cold northeasterly breeze. The air is foggy and threatens
snow. Couldn't work much because of the cold. Walked into town to the
apothecary, bought a pound of chocolate and licorice and some dandelion
June 5 Devilish northeastern gale and snowstorm. Snow blanketed the ground down to the waterline. I couldn't work. Sawed my last log for firewood and had
to lie in bed to escape the cold. All my firewood is gone. A couple of
men rowed out yesterday and came back today with a pitiful catch.
June 6 Calm clear weather, but still very cold. ┴rni S÷lvason came
from Ůistilfj÷rur, having been on board the boats that are stuck in
Finnafj÷rur on their way here and can't move because of the ice around
Langanes. Several of us here in town sent a man to Vopnafj÷rur for
tobacco. I put in 60 shillings for Ż pound of snuff. Yesterday I cut
the last smidgen of tobacco that I owned. No fish to be caught; the
nets drag nothing. Hunger closes in on us all, rich and poor alike.
June 7 Warm southwesterly wind. Most of the ice streamed out of the
fjord, kindling hopes that a ship might come. Ëlafur from Espihˇll
came, wanting to buy barley, but it wasn't available any more than
anything else; finally he managed to get the last of some rye that had
gotten soaked in kerosene. Several people have bought it for a Danish
dollar a bushel out of sheer desperation. I figured out that the best
way to cure my herring was to smoke it a little after marinating it in
brine. Cows are being let out for the first time in the neighbourhood,
but I kept mine inside. Everyone has begun planting potatoes.
June 8 Northwestern gale force winds with cloudy streaks on the sky.
June 9 Still weather, warm and cloudy early in the day; southerly
winds by evening.
June 10 Southerly gale force winds, but northwesterly winds higher in
the sky. Seemingly calm at the mouth of the fjord. By now everyone is close to
perishing from hunger. Many have begun slaughtering their stock to
save their lives. No hope of a ship's arrival at this time.
June 11 Hellishly violent northern windstorm. The ice has pushed its
way into the fjord. A lot of fat herring in the nets this morning. I
lay mostly in bed all day from cold and hunger.
June 12 Hellish northerly gusts with intermittent snowstorms. Cows
inside again, mine starving hungry. Heavy snowfall. Conditions worsen
steadily. I begged my way to Ż pound of juniper berries to eat. Lay in
bed mostly due to the cold.
June 13 Northern frostbite gale. Ice ran all the way in to SigluvÝk.
The cold is unbearable. Hunger sharpens. The magistrate and a couple
of others from M÷ruvellir came here and went home again. It is said
that the magistrate got some grain from M÷ller, that both M÷ller and
Steincke have several casks of meat, bread, and grain which they are
hoarding while death from starvation threatens all around them. I got a
barrel of lousy hay from Frib.[j÷rn] Steinsson for the cow.
June 14 Northern blizzard. Mountains snow-white. I was forced to
kindle to stay alive. Ice thick all the way into Leira. A courier came
from Siglufj÷rur to fetch the sheriff. The ship Iris from Hofsˇs was
stuck there in the ice; Rachel lay in a hole in the ice out beyond
Siglufj÷rur and couldn't move. The barque that was to come here lay in
the ice out by H÷fastekkur; M÷ller the merchant rode out immediately
to get news of it, while Steincke sent out to Siglufj÷rur for news of
Rachel. Blizzard winds and heavy snow during the evening. I got a
half-barrel of foul hay from Apothecary O. Thorarensen for the cow.
Magn˙s came from Vopnafj÷rur with tobacco. I got Ż pound of snuff.
June 15 Bitter northern gale; skies heavy as midwinter. I heard that
the barque turned around and sailed back East, so M÷ller the merchant
came home last night. I sat, updating the election records, sick from
hunger. I haven't had any food other than a little plaice and saltfish
for a very long time. Eggert Gunnarsson was here in a fury trying to
ensure that the people from Skagafj÷rur could get to the shipwreck in
Siglufj÷rur. Dolphins in a hole in the ice at Oddeyrarbˇt. Men were
chasing them and managed to catch a few. Cows were let out for awhile
today, those with no hay to eat.
June 16 Clear and sunny; warm southwesterly breeze. The news is that
the barque got trapped in the ice near Hvanndalabjarg and is in danger.
M÷ller sent a request to Sigurur at B÷ggversstair to get news of it.
The ice floated out the fjord as far as H÷fi.
June 17 South breeze, warm weather. Calm out on the fjord. Traces of
westerly winds in the clouds. It rained in the evening for the first
time this spring. I lay feeble and starving in my bed for most of the
day. Had nothing for food except a bite of saltfish and some fried fish
skin, nothing to drink except some bitter wild thyme water. The ice is
mostly out at the mouth of the fjord now. Various reports of ships out
beyond. I gave Ůorleifur Bj÷rnsson a chunk of snuff.
June 18 Still, calm weather; warm thick air. This morning the
sheriff's horses were sent home from Svarfaardalur, accompanied by a
notice of the auction of goods on the shipwrecked Iris on Monday the
21st of this month. The sheriff had sent the magistrate grains, coffee,
and a keg of spirits, and so it seems that Herod and Pilate are becoming
friends again. Fribj÷rn Steinsson sent his wife a pound of coffee, and
I got a taste of it. The men from here decided to go to the auction in
two boats; I went with Steinn's boat, for Bj÷rn the editor gave me
bread and sausage (r˙llupylsa) to eat on the way. I prepared for the trip as well as I could. The barque was said to have been seen in the ice at Lßtrar.
June 19 Still, sunny and hot at first, then a sea breeze. I waited for
my travel companions out beyond Siglufj÷rur until 12:00, and we embarked in
Steinn's boat in light winds. Reached Hjalteyri at 3, SystibŠr on
HrÝsey at 8, the cape of Ëlafsfj÷rur at 11, lake Hvannadalsvatn at 12,
approached HÚinsfj÷rur at 2, and landed at Ytrikrˇkur on Siglunes at
3, after rowing along the coast for fifteen hours, through the ice which
virtually blankets the sea along the entire northern coast of the country.
We landed the boat, offloaded, pitched tents, and got a little bit of rest.
News today is that the barque Emma lay fast in a plate of ice out beyond
the Mßnß Islands. The stranded Iris lies here far from land, mostly sunken, with
sea-soaked food and other provisions all over the beach, spread out on a
June 20 Calm and very warm. We walked over to Siglunes to get some
coffee; what we got was thin and poor. Then Ëlafur from Espihˇll
walked in over Skriur [stony and gravel slopes] into town,
but I didn't feel up to accompanying him.
The sheriff and Snorri the merchant came out to the headland to
prepare the auction. At midday I got a ride to Eyri on a little boat.
Rachel lies there in the harbour along with several shark boats. I
stayed the night in town with Ëlafur and several others. Did some
drinking during the evening. Jˇn Mřrdal showed me around.
June 21 Warm, foggy and still. The fjord of Siglufj÷rur is entirely choked with
ice. I went with a few others out to Siglunes in a skiff; sometimes we
had to drag the boat over the ice. We decided among us that Fribj÷rn
Steinsson should bid at the auction as our proxy. The auction began,
but Fribj÷rn did not do very well by us. We got both fewer and more
expensive things than necessary. The throng here is immense, most of
them hungry people who constantly boil sea-soaked grains and shovel it,
half raw, up into their mouths with shells, sticks, or whatever else
they can find. We lay wet and exhausted in our wreck of a tent during
the night. I slept little.
June 22 Cold, rainy easterly breeze. Auction continued today and ended
at 4. We loaded the boat and embarked from Siglunes at 9:00, threaded
our way along the coast in a zigzag pattern due to the pack ice and
other obstacles, came to HrÝsey and were able to sail along
Arnarnesnafir, reached Akureyri at 6 p.m. on the 23rd, after a 21-hour
June 23 Sea breeze with light fog. We immediately divided up most of
what we had bought and went to sleep. Ëlafur from Espihˇll went home.
The last few days there have been good catches of whiting, pollack,
herring and plaice, which has greatly eased the severe hunger and
helplessness of all here.