Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 2. Reykjavik

Ah, another beautiful day in Iceland! Actually, I had no idea what the weather outside was like, but after a good night’s sleep I felt rejuvenated and ready to go. But first a shower in the city with endless hot water (the whole city is served by geothermal water). If only it weren’t for the smell of rotten eggs, which wafts around me as I luxuriate under the stream of hot water (nothing in life is perfect). Speaking of water, here they only know two types of water: hot smelly water or freezing glacier water, and if you push the knob just a little one way or the other you are in for quite a surprise.

Today I devoted to an exploration of Reykjavik, which I found to be a very charming European city. Many parts of it remind me of Geneva. It is a small city, with maybe 200,000 inhabitants, but it manages to pack the punch of any other European capital, with very chic neighborhoods, lakes, parks, museums, and lots and lots of places to eat. To me the Icelanders seem to be pretty prosperous, although outside of fishing and services I cannot see any major industry around. This bears more study.

Iceland was one of the last major islands to be colonized (compared, for example to Ireland, Hawaii, or Madagascar). Curiously, Icelandic archaeologists know, almost to the day, the time at which the first settlement was established: A wall had been started, right here in Reykjavik, when Hekla volcano erupted in 870 AD and blanketed the whole island with a distinctive layer of tephra. The builders continued their labors after the eruption and established a small group of long houses (which I was lucky enough to see in person). All other known archaeologic sites are younger than this “Settlement Tephra”, which was followed by other layers, so the chronology of development of different sites is well known to volcanologists and archaeologists.

The first settlers were undoubtedly Vikings, who were well known for being pillagers, traders, and settlers. By the time they got here they had done all the pillage and plunder they could manage, so the ones who landed on Iceland were mostly interested on creating new settlements. From here they went to settle in Greenland and in New Foundland (which apparently they called Vinland because one of them discovered grapevines and got drunk like a skunk on the wine he made out of them). Yes, this happened between 900 and 1000 AD, when the Warm Period of the Middle Ages was just beginning to kick in.

The Icelandic Vikings may not had been into pillage and plunder, but they sure did a job with their local environment, and in less than 200 years denuded the land of its birch tree forests. Nowadays there are small ornamental trees in the urban areas, and small forests of dwarf pine trees can be seen tucked against some of the mountains, but overall this is a land without trees, which is a very strange sight for those of us who grew up in central Mexico or California. They undoubtedly used the lumber to build boats and long houses, but the biggest consumptive use seems to have been energy generation (i.e., burning directly or to form coal) and iron smelting. Iron is found in the red clays so common in bogs, so what they did was to create a coal-burning closed oven (reducing conditions), where the red clay would be allowed to “roast” until the iron separated in big gobs, which would later be “refined” by alternate heating and beating, until all the impurities had been beaten out of the mass.

The Icelanders/Vikings had an interesting system of government. There were about 60 chieftains in the whole island, and every now and then the chieftains would get together at Pingvellir (mentioned in the previous day and pronounced Thinkvellir), and sitting astride the Atlantic mid-ocean ridge, the Council of Chieftains would promulgate laws, and would judge any issues brought before them. This was before writing came to the land, so the Law Master would have to remember all the laws by heart, and would recite them to the whole assembly every time they met (I know professors who would do a marvelous job as Law Masters).

Alas, such felicity could not last. First, immigrants from Europe brought Christianity with them, so by 1000 AD the council had to deal with the spiny question of whether the religion of the land was to be that of the old Norse gods (Odin, Thor, and the rest of their buddies) or Christianity. Much argument went back and forth at Pingvellir, and ultimately the assembly chose to follow a don’t ask-don’t tell approach, where the official religion would be Christianity, but nobody would come ask you what you were doing in the privacy of your home. The second blow to the Old Council system was human nature, which demanded that one chieftain should be greedier than the others and would want to take over. From 1100 to 1250 AD the land was torn by feudal wars, until someone went and asked ol’ King Olaf, from Norway, to come intervene and establish peace.

And so it was that Iceland, a perfectly free and democratic land, came to be annexed by Norway in 1250 AD. Fortunately the Norwegians had a pretty light touch, so things calmed down under the benign dictatorship of the Norse governor. Enter the Reformation in Europe toward 1500 AD. The Danish King became a rabid Lutheran, and fought the Norwegian King in all fronts, including Iceland. Norway was unable to protect Iceland, which rapidly became a vassal state of Denmark (believe it or not, it was the fish that wicked king was after). These were dark times for the Icelanders, since the Danish government appointed a governor and sheriff, and all important posts were filled by Danes.

Enter the 1800’s, and the modernization of the fish industry with first the sailing schooner and then the steam trawler, and Iceland was doing real well (but most of the profits were being funneled out to Denmark). So the politics got ugly, and Iceland pushed for freedom from Denmark. The result was that in the early 1900’s they were granted some autonomy, by 1930 they were allowed to form their own government, and in 1944 they finally declared their independence.

I may have mentioned fish in the previous paragraph. If you look at a bathymetric chart of the North Atlantic Ocean, you will see that from the Faraoe Islands, through Iceland, and to the waters of eastern Canada the ocean floor forms a vast and comparatively shallow plateau, in which cod thrives. Iceland, with its cold and dry climate was ideal for the harvesting and drying of cod, which could then be exported throughout Europe, and through the European slave colonies in eastern North America, the Caribbean, Brazil, and Africa. It was slave food, but without it the whole colony system would have collapsed.

Well, I think this history lesson needs to come to a close. I cobbled it together from fabulous visits to the National Museum of Iceland, the Settlement Exhibition, the Maritime Museum, and the Saga Museum. I will tell you more about Icelandic sagas, or tales, another day.

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