A Brief History
Despite its size, the island of Iceland is so packed full of natural wonders and beauty, it is almost too much to take in. Planning a trip may require some time and may even feel overwhelming. What to see? What to do? Although only roughly the size of the state of Ohio (about 39,700 square miles), Iceland is home to Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier mass (about 3000 square miles), as well as around 130 volcanic mountains, over 10,000 waterfalls and dozens of hot springs and geysers. One of the many reasons why tourist flock to Iceland is the island’s convenient geographical location around the arctic circle, giving travelers a chance to observe the natural phenomenon of the aurora borealis, or the northern lights. Iceland’s population is only about 360,000 (in comparison, the population of Ohio is about 11.5 million), and about 129,000 thousand of them live in the capital of Reykjavik and its surrounding area. Iceland’s economy is small, and relies heavily on tourism, and the export of raw aluminum, and sea food. It is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a McDonald’s (the last one closed in 2009), or a Starbucks.
According to early Icelandic sagas, the very first people who inhabited Iceland were the Papar, a group of Irish monks, who are said to have inhabited the island before the arrival of the first permanent settler, Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife Hallveig Fróðadóttir in the year of 874. Though Iceland had been visited by other travelers before, Ingólfr and Hallveig are considered to be among the first permanent settlers. Within the next couple of decades, the number of settlers rose to several thousand. Iceland was an attractive destination for Scandinavian settlers due to the availability of land, the presence of valuable resources, and the immunity of centralization and taxation policies of King Herald Fairhair of Norway. It is suspected that at the time of the first settlements, about 40% of Iceland was covered with natural birch wood forests, but settlers were quick to use their wood for the construction of homes and ships, causing an almost complete deforestation of the island. Landnámabók, a medieval written manuscript, outlines the events of the settlement age and events well into the 13th century.
For a period of time, the inhabitants of Iceland held on to the beliefs of Norse mythology and were able to live independently from Norwegian rule and establish their own parliament. However, through repeated efforts of Norwegian settlers, sent by Olaf Tryggvason, the great-grandson of King Herald Fairhair, Roman Catholicism was introduced and slowly replaced pagan worship and tradition. The clash between the beliefs and customs of the early settlers, and those who wanted to impose Norwegian rule eventually lead to the Age of Sturlungs in the beginning of the year 1220. Clans who refused to accept that they were subject to Norwegian monarchy fought members of the Sturlung clan, a powerful family of vassals of the Norwegian king, culminating in the battle of Örlygsstaðir, the largest known battle in Icelandic history.
After several more years of periodic tumult, the Old Covenant, an agreement of union between Iceland and Norway, was signed in 1262, ending the Icelandic Commonwealth, and subsequently leading to Iceland’s Union about a century later. Under the rule of Danish King Christian III, Lutheranism was imposed on the population of Iceland, and to this day, over 70% of the population are Lutheran.
In June of 1783, the volcano Laki erupted, causing one of the most consequential events in Icelandic history, referred to as the “Mist Hardships”. The eruption lasted several months, killing about 9000 Icelandic citizens and about 80% of the nation’s livestock and crops. The ensuing starvation killed about a quarter of the entire population of Iceland. The effects of the dense ash cloud caused famines in many parts of Europe, Asia and North Africa. The eruption of Laki is said to have been a major trigger in the French revolution, due to its devastating effect on France’s population. In the decades to follow, the climate continued to worsen, causing many of the inhabitants to leave the island. At the same time, a new sense of independence and national consciousness developed. In 1874, Denmark granted Iceland its own constitution and home rule, but the two remained united. Iceland’s geographical location was considered to enormously important from a strategic perspective during World War II, especially by the British. During Operation Fork in May of 1940, the British invaded the capital of Reykjavik, but were met with no resistance. The British later asked for the United States to temporarily take control over Iceland. In 1944, while Denmark was still occupied by Germany, Iceland officially voted to become a Republic, which it has been ever since.