In geological terms Iceland is a young island. It started to form about 25 million years ago from a series of volcanic eruptions on the Mid-Atlantic ridge. The oldest rock samples found in Iceland date back 16 million years.
Iceland remained one of the world’s last larger islands uninhabited by humans. It has been suggested that the land called Thule by the Greek merchant Pytheas was actually Iceland, although it seems highly unlikely considering Pytheas’ description of it as an agricultural country with plenty of milk, honey, and fruit. The exact date that men first reached the country is uncertain. Roman coins dating to the 3rd century AD have been found in Iceland, but it is unknown whether they were brought there at that time, or came later with Viking settlers, having circulated as currency already for centuries.
There is some literary evidence that Irish monks had settled in Iceland before the arrival of the Vikings. However, there is no archaeological evidence to support such settlement. The 12th century scholar Ari Þorgilsson wrote in his book, the Book of Icelanders, that small bells, corresponding to those used by Irish monks, were found by the settlers. No such artifacts have been discovered by archaeologists, however.
Age of Settlement 874-930
According to the Book of Settlement, Iceland was discovered by Scandinavian sailor Naddoddr, who was sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands, but got lost and drifted to the east coast of Iceland. Naddoddr named the country Snowland. Swedish sailor Garðar Svavarsson also accidentally drifted to the coast of Iceland. He discovered that the country was an island and named it Garðar´s Islet, and stayed for the winter at Húsavík. The first Scandinavian who deliberately sailed to Garðar´s Islet was Flóki Vilgerðarson, also known as Raven-Flóki. Flóki settled for one winter at Barðaströnd. It was a cold winter, and when he spotted some drift ice in the fjords he gave the island its current name, Iceland.
The first permanent settler in Iceland is was a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson. According to the story he threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found. There he built a farm with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjavík, Bay of Smokes, due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth. This very place would eventually become the capital and the largest city of modern Iceland. It is recognized, however, that Ingólfur Arnarson may not have been the first one to settle permanently in Iceland — that may have been Náttfari, a slave of Garðar Svavarsson, who stayed behind when his master returned to Scandinavia.
Haraldur the Fairhaired receives
Ingólfur was followed by many more Norse chieftains, their families and slaves who settled all the inhabitable areas of the island in the next decades. These people were primarily of Norwegian, Irish and Scottish origin, the Irish and Scots being mainly slaves of the Norse chiefs, according to the Icelandic sagas and the Book of Settlement. A common explanation for this exodus from Norway is that people were fleeing the harsh rule of the Norwegian king Harald Fairhaired, who is believed to have been uniting Norway during the period. It is also believed that the western fjords of Norway were simply overcrowded in this period. The settlement of Iceland is thoroughly recorded in the Book of Settlement.
In 930, the ruling chiefs established an assembly called the Alþingi. The parliament convened each summer at Þingvellir. Laws were not written down, but were instead memorized by an elected Law Speaker. Importantly, there was no central executive power, and therefore laws were enforced only by the people themselves.
Iceland enjoyed a period of growth in its commonwealth years. Settlements from that era have been found in south-west Greenland and eastern Canada, and viking sagas, such as Eiríks saga Rauða and Grænlendinga saga, speak of the settlers’ exploits.
To learn more about viking-age Iceland, check out The Vikings
A statue of Thor the Norse god
End of the Commonwealth
As the 11th and 12th centuries passed the independence of local farmers and chieftains gave way to the growing power of a handful of families and their leaders. They were one of the main families fighting for power over Iceland, causing havoc in a land comprised almost entirely of farmers, who could ill afford being away from their farms to travel across the land, fighting for their leader’s cause.
Iceland as a Norwegian and Danish colony 1262-1944
Norway’s consolidation of power in Iceland was slow, and the Althing intended to hold on to its legislative and judicial powers. Nonetheless, the Christian clergy had unique opportunities to accumulate wealth via the tithe, and power gradually shifted to ecclesiastical authorities, as Iceland’s two bishops in Skálholt and Hólar acquired land at the expense of the old chieftains.
Iceland remained under Norwegian kingship until 1380, when Iceland and Norway came under the control of the Danish Crown. Unlike Norway, Denmark did not need Iceland’s fish and homespun wool. This created a dramatic deficit in Iceland’s trade, and as a result, no new ships for continental trading were built. The small Greenland colony, established in the late 10th century, died out completely before 1500, perhaps due to a lack of resources that were normally provided by Iceland.
By the middle of the 16th century, Christian III of Denmark began to impose Lutheranism on his subjects. Jón Arason and Ögmundur Pálsson, the Catholic bishops of Skálholt and Hólar, opposed the King’s religious reformation. Ögmundur was deported by Danish officials in 1541, but Jón Arason put up a fight. Opposition to the reformation ended in 1550 when agents of the Danish king captured and beheaded Jón and his two sons in Skálholt. After that, Iceland became Lutheran and remains so to this day.
In 1602 Iceland was forbidden to trade with other countries than Denmark, by order of the Danish Government. The Danish trade monopoly would remain in effect until 1854.
An Independence Movement Arises
In the 18th century, climatic conditions in Iceland reached an all-time low since the original settlement. On top of this, the Skarfáreldar eruption came in 1783, spitting out three cubic miles of lava. Floods, ash, and fumes wiped out people and livestock. The ensuing starvation killed 20% of the population.This period is known as Móðuharðindin, or the Mist Hardship.
Statue of Jón Sigurðsson
When the two kingdoms of Denmark and Norway were separated by the Treaty of Kiel in 1814, following the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark kept Iceland as a dependency.
Throughout the 19th century the climate continued to grow worse, resulting in mass emigration to the New World, particularly Manitoba, Canada. However, a new national consciousness was revived in Iceland. An independence movement developed under Jón Sigurðsson.
Home Rule and Sovereignty
A page from a skin manuscript
In 1874, a thousand years after the first settlement, Denmark granted Iceland home rule. The Act of Union agreement with Denmark in1918 recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state, united with Denmark under a common king.
World War II and Independence
German occupation of Denmark in April 1940 severed communications between Iceland and Denmark. As a result Alþingi elected to take control of all foreign affairs, and elected a provisional governor, Sveinn Björnsson, who later became the first president of Iceland. During the first year of World War II, Iceland enforced a position of neutrality. In May 1940 british military forces sailed into Reykjavík harbour, beginning the invasion and occupation of Iceland by the allied forces, which would last throughout the war. The government issued a protest, but if the authorities ever had any thoughts of mounting a defence, they were made impossible by the fact that most of the police force was in a training camp, some distance from Reykjavík. On the day of the invasion, prime minister Hermann Jónasson read a radio announcement telling Icelanders to treat the foreigners as they would treat their guests. The government adopted a policy of co-operation with the occupying forces.
At the peak of their occupation of Iceland, the British had around 25,000 troops stationed in Iceland. In July 1941, responsibility for Iceland’s defence passed to the United States under a U.S.-Icelandic defence agreement. The British needed all the forces they could muster closer to home and, thus, coerced the Alþingi into agreeing to an American occupation force. Up to 40,000 soldiers were stationed on the island, outnumbering all grown icelandic men. At the time Iceland had a population of around 120,000.
Iceland formally became an independent republic on June 17 1944.
Iceland had prospered during the course of the war, amassing considerable currency reserves in foreign banks. The government decided to put the funds into a general renovation of the fishing fleet, the building of fish processing facilities, and a general modernization of agriculture.
Due to the country’s dependence both on unreliable fish catches and foreign demand for fish products, Iceland’s economy remained very unstable well into the 1990s, when the country’s economy was greatly diversified.
Icelandic Coast Guard ship
The Cod Wars
The Cod Wars were a series of conflicts between Iceland and the United Kingdom from the late 1950’s to the mid-1970’s. The first Cod War took place in 1958 when Britain was unable to prevent Iceland from extending its limits of control from 4 miles to 12 miles off the coast of Iceland. The second Cod War lasted from 1972 to 1973, when Iceland extended the limit to 50 miles. The third Cod War began in November 1975, when Iceland extended its area of control over fishing from 50 miles to 200 miles. Great Britain did not recognize Iceland’s authority in the matter and continued to fish inside the disputed area, marking the third time that Iceland and Great Britain had clashed over fishing rights. Iceland deployed a total of eight ships to enforce control over fishing rights, by cutting nets of british trawlers. In response, Great Britain deployed a total of 22 frigates and 7 supply ships to protect its 40 fishing trawlers. While few shots were fired during the seven month conflict, many british fishing nets were cut. The British government finally agreed to have its fishermen stay outside of Iceland’s 200 mile exclusion zone.