History of Iceland
A Viking Oasis
Modern day Icelanders often point to the first Norse settlers as their ancestors, often speaking fondly of their colorful Viking past. Much of it is written down in the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements), one of the early sagas. While there is some argument as to the motives of the first widespread Nordic settlement, convention holds that the Norsemen were fleeing the tyranny of the Norwegian King Harald Haarfagri, who drove them from their ancestral lands in southern Norway. Arriving in Iceland, they threw high seats over the edges of their longboats and built their new homesteads where the seats washed ashore, believing that the divine hand of Thor would choose the spot. Sometimes it would take years before the seats were found.
The exiled Norse quickly developed their own sense of national identity, creating in 930 what is regarded as the world’s first parliamentary system, The Althing. Local chieftains gathered at Thingvellir, a natural amphitheater, where they elected leaders yearly. To prevent leaders from abusing power, The Althing had no military to enforce its will, a stipulation that would later cause problems when regional chiefs decided to take matters into their own hands. But for the most part, these early years following the development of the Althing were peaceful.
It was an era of optimism, even for Erik the Red, who arrived after he was banished from Norway for murder. When he committed the same crime in Iceland and was exiled from there, too, he managed to convince 25 ships to follow him in a colonial expedition to Greenland. His son, Iceland born Leif Eiriksson, later sailed further west, becoming the first European to reach North America, which he called Vinland.
Europe's Hard Shadow
The early independence of Iceland was overshadowed by King Olaf Tryggvason, who brought Christianity by threats of the sword in the year 999. Afterwards, however, Iceland was mostly ignored by the Norwegian Kings, and a Golden Age lasted from1030-1163. Many sagas were written down in Norse at this time, beginning a literary flowering that would culminate with the sagas of Snorri Sturluson in the early 13th century. Much of Sturluson’s writing documents the end of the Golden Age, which declined into the “Sturlung Age” or the “Age of Stone Throwing”(1230-64), when the unenforceable authority of the Althing collapsed into warfare between rival clans. The infighting left Iceland vulnerable to Norwegian King Haakon, who managed to assert control over the island in 1262. Haakon instituted a debilitating tax in the form of wool, and the island began a long decline into abysmal poverty.
The bad times that followed over the next 600 years are legendary: Hekla erupted in 1389, devastating much of the surrounding land. Trade worsened. Norway passed a law forbidding Iceland to trade with other nations, and because Iceland had no merchant fleet of its own, it sometimes had to wait years for Norwegian ships to arrive. The law was upheld by rulers in Denmark when the Scandinavian countries formed the Union of Kalmar in 1397. To survive, Icelanders began a covert Cod trade with Britain, only to have the British decide it would be easier to fish Icelandic waters themselves - an act that led to war between England and Denmark in 1469. In 1627, three thousand Barbary pirates wreaked havoc on the island, kidnapping 242 people. In 1662, Denmark forbade trade not only between Iceland and other nations, but also between the regions of Iceland. In 1783, Mount Laki erupted, killing tens of thousand of cattle and horses and hundreds of thousands of sheep. In the smallpox that ensued, one third of the population perished. To top it off, in 1800 Denmark decided to abolish Iceland’s most cherished institution, The Althing.
After so many centuries of hard times, the independence movement that began in the early19th century probably seemed long overdue. The movement reached full force under the outspoken leadership of a nationalist named Jon Sigurdsson. His efforts helped end the trade monopoly in 1854, and domestic autonomy was established in 1874, followed by home rule in 1904 and sovereignty in 1918. Ties to the Danish crown were not fully broken until 1944, after large numbers of British and American troops stationed on the island bolstered the economy. Since then, the development of an American airbase on the island and a booming cod industry have transformed Iceland into one of the most prosperous nations on Earth. It has the both the longest life expectancy and the highest standard of living.
Calendar of Historical Events
874-930: Iceland is settled, mainly from Norway but also from the Viking areas of the British Isles.
930: The Althing is established - now the world's oldest existing national assembly - at Thingvellir. Iceland's republican system of government was unique in its day.
930-1030: "Saga Age".
982: Erik ("The Red") Thorvaldsson discovers Greenland.
1000: Christianity is adopted peacefully by a decision of the Althing at Thingvellir. The Icelander Leif ("The Lucky") Eiriksson becomes the first European to set foot in America.
1003: Birth of Snorri Thorfinnsson on the East coast of North America, the first European-American. He was the son of the Icelandic immigrants Thorfinnur Karlsefni Thordarson (Leif Eiriksson’s brother-in law) and his wife Gudridur Thorbjornsdottir.
1030-1120: "Age of Peace".
1120-1230: "Age of Writing".
1230-1264: "Sturlung Age".
1241: Snorri Sturluson is killed.
13th Century: "Golden Age" when the Icelandic Sagas are written. The Sagas include some of the classics of world medieval literature and are written in the ancient Viking language which is still spoken in Iceland today.
1262: Iceland becomes part of the Norwegian crown.
1380: Iceland, with Norway, becomes part of the Danish crown.
1402-1404: Black Death plague.
1537: Norway is dissolved as a state (until 1814) and becomes part of Denmark. Iceland comes directly under the King of Denmark.
1540-1550: The Reformation.
1602: Royal trade monopoly.
1783-1785: The disastrous Lakagigar eruption.
1787: Trade monopoly is extended to all Danish subjects.
1800: The Althing is dissolved.
1818: The National Library is founded.
1843: The Althing is re-established as a consultative body.
1854: Monopoly on foreign trade is entirely removed.
1863: The National Museum is founded.
1874: Millennium of the settlement of Iceland is celebrated at Thingvellir. A Constitution is granted by the King of Denmark.
1879: Jon Sigurdsson, the leader of the independence movement, dies.
1904: Home rule. Appointment of the first Icelandic government minister, Hannes Hafstein.
1911: The University of Iceland is founded.
1918: Act of Crown Union with Denmark, Iceland becomes an independent, sovereign state, with the Danish King as head of state.
1920: The Supreme Court is founded.
1930: Millennium of the establishment of the Althing Parliament is celebrated at Thingvellir.
1940: Iceland is occupied by British forces.
1941: US forces take over the defense of Iceland. Iceland becomes the first foreign country where US troops are deployed before Pearl Harbor during the Second World War.
1944: June 17. The Republic of Iceland is established at Thingvellir, following a referendum in which 97% of the population voted in favor of cutting ties with the Danish Crown.
1945: The first international flight by an Icelandic aircraft.
1946: Iceland joins the United Nations.
1947: Iceland becomes a founding member of the OEEC (forerunner of OECD).
1949: Iceland joins NATO.
1950: Iceland joins Council of Europe. National Theater and Symphony Orchestra founded.
1951: A defense agreement is concluded between Iceland and the US.
1952: Iceland joins the Nordic Council. Fishery limits are extended to 4 miles.
1958: Fishery limits are extended to 12 miles.
1970: Iceland joins EFTA.
1971: Arrival of the first Icelandic manuscripts from Copenhagen.
1972: Fishery limits are extended to 50 miles.
1973: A volcanic eruption in Heimaey, the only inhabited island in the Westmann Islands.
1974: 1100th anniversary of the settlement of Iceland is celebrated at Thingvellir.
1975: Fishery limits are extended to 200 miles.
1986: Reykjavik celebrates its bicentenary. Reagan-Gorbachev Summit held in Reykjavik.
1994: 50th anniversary of the modern Icelandic Republic. The agreement on a European Economic Area (EEA) takes effect, giving Iceland full access to the internal market of the European Union (EU).