Prologue to Emigration|
The population of Iceland increased dramatically during the nineteenth century, but without a concurrent blossoming of the nation's economy. Despite increases in fishing yields and progress in agriculture, young people desiring to begin farming had few choices. Some managed to eke out a living, building up a farm in the highlands, but many others were forced to accept farm labour or other erratic forms of employment on land or at sea. Population increase, however, was only one of several factors contributing to the westward migration from Iceland during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Brutal climatic conditions during the 1860s and1880s, disappointment with the tepid progress of the independence movement, the eruption of the volcano Askja in 1875, and successful propaganda campaigns by so-called American Agents all played their role in luring Icelanders to the West. The shortage of labour in the New World and the promise of cheap land for settlers increased the appeal of emigrating to North America.
Icelandic open-fire kitchen, 19th century.
Reykjavík Museum of Photography/Tempest Anderson
The first Icelanders to move West were Mormons who proceeded to Utah in
the United States. Sixteen Icelanders emigrated during the five years
from 1855 - 1860. They were joined by several dozen others during the
decades that followed, forming - for a time, at least - a distinct
Icelandic gabled farmhouse, 1893.
Reykjavík Museum of Photography /Tempest Anderson
To a certain degree, however, one can trace the origins of the Western migration to Ţingeyjarsýsla, the seat of a vigorous progressive movement among the farming population during the second half of the 19th century. Among their ranks men discussed the possibility of relocating abroad, considering even settlement in Greenland. Einar Ásmundsson of Nes, one of the most influential farmers in the region and a knowledgeable, well-read man, pointed out to his neighbours during a meeting in 1859 that it made little sense to abandon a cold climate only to relocate to one even colder; he considered Brazil a much more feasible destination. Despite the opposition of local officials and wealthy farmers, a group of four men embarked on a journey to Brazil in 1863, to explore the possibility of a mass migration. A group of Icelanders waited eagerly for news from them, and by the early part of 1865, some 150 had already enlisted to join them. Several had even gone so far as to sell their possessions before it became obvious that there would be no migration.
But the seeds had been sown. By 1873, more than 500 had declared their intention to leave Iceland; this time, the Brazilian government offered to pay the fares of all prospective immigrants. But once again the plans fell through. Only 34 Icelanders embarked, finding their way to Copenhagen on various ships, there together to sail on to Brazil.