History of Iceland

From Academic Kids


Early history

Iceland is, in geological terms, a young island. It started to form about 20 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. The Iceland hotspot is likely partly responsible for the island's creation and continued existence.

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.

There is some literary evidence that Irish monks had settled in Iceland before the arrival of the Norse. However, there is no archaeological evidence to support such settlement. The 12th century scholar Ari Ůorgilsson wrote in his book, ═slendingabˇk, 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 Landnßmabˇk, 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 SnŠland (Snowland). Swedish sailor Gar­ar Svavarsson also accidentally drifted to the coast of Iceland. He discovered that the country was an island and named it Gar­arshˇlmi (literally Gar­ar's Island) and stayed for the winter at H˙savÝk. The first Scandinavian who deliberately sailed to Gar­arshˇlmi was Flˇki Vilger­arson, also known as Hrafna-Flˇki (Raven-Flˇki). Flˇki settled for one winter at Bar­astr÷nd. It was a cold winter and when he spotted some drift ice in the fjords he gave the island its current name, ═sland (Iceland).

The first permanent settler in Iceland is usually considered to be a Norwegian chieftain named Ingˇlfur Arnarson. According to the story he threw two carved poles overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed close to coast until they were found in the southwestern peninsula. He settled there with his family around 874, in a place he named ReykjavÝk (Smoke Bay). This very same place would eventually become the capital of the modern Icelandic state. It is recognized, however, that Ingˇlfur Arnarson wasn't the first one to settle permanently in Iceland — that was Nßttfari, a slave of Gar­ar Svavarsson who stayed behind when his master returned to the mainland. It should be noted that all of the above information comes from Landnßmabˇk(Book of Settlement), a book that Icelandic historians mostly eschew as a source, due to many inconsistencies. However, archeological findings in ReykjavÝk seem to confirm the date given there: There was a settlement in ReykjavÝk around 870 AD.

Ingˇlfur 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 and Irish origin, the Irish being mainly slaves and servants of the Norse chiefs. A common explanation of this exodus from Norway is that people were fleeing the harsh rule of the Norwegian king Haraldur Harfagri (Harald the Fair-haired), who is believed to have been uniting some parts of modern Norway during the period. It is also believed that the western fjords of Norway were simply overcrowded in this period, too many chiefs with too little land. The settlement of Iceland is thoroughly recorded in the aforementioned Landnßmabˇk although it has to considered that the book was compiled in the early 12th century when at least 200 years had passed from the age of settlement. Ari Thorgilssons ═slendingabˇk is generally considered more reliable as a source and is probably somewhat older, but far less thorough. It does say that Iceland was fully settled within 60 years, which likely means that all territory had been claimed by various settlers.

Commonwealth (930-1262)

Main article: Icelandic Commonwealth

In 930, the ruling chiefs established an assembly called the Al■ingi (English: Althing). The parliament convened each summer at Ůingvellir, where representative chieftains (Go­or­smenn or Go­ar) amended laws, settled disputes and appointed juries to judge law-suits. Laws were not written down, but were instead memorized by an elected "l÷gs÷guma­ur", or Speaker of the law. The Al■ingi is sometimes stated to be the world's oldest existing parliament. Importantly, there was no central executive power, and therefore laws were enfoced only by the people. Such an environment is very conducive to blood-feuds, which provided the writers of the sagas with plenty of material.

Iceland enjoyed a mostly uninterrupted 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 EirÝks saga Rau­a and GrŠnlendinga sagaspeaks of the settlers' exploits.

The settlers of Iceland were mostly pagans, and worshipped, among others, Ë­inn, ١rr and Freyja — but in the 10th century political pressure from Europe to convert to Christianity mounted. As the end of the millennium grew near many prominent Icelanders had accepted the new faith. In the year 1000, as a civil war between the religious groups seemed possible, the Al■ing appointed one of the chieftains, Ůorgeir Ljˇsvetningago­i, to decide the issue of religion by arbitration. He decided that the country should convert to Christianity as a whole — but pagans were allowed to worship secretly. The first Icelandic bishop, ═sleifr Gizurarson, was consecrated by bishop Adalbert of Bremen in 1056.

As the 11th and 12th centuries passed, the centralization of power had worn down the institutions of the Commonwealth, as the former, notable independence of local farmers and chieftains gave way to the growing power of a handful of families and their leaders. The period from ca. 1200 - 1262 is generally known as Sturlunga÷ld - The age of the Sturlungs. This refers to Sturla ١r­arson and his sons: ١r­r, Sighvatr and Snorri. They were one of two main clans 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. In 1220 Snorri Sturluson became a vassal of the Norwegian king, and subsequently his nephew Sturla Sighvatsson also became a vassal in 1235. Sturla used the power and influence of the Sturlungar family to wage war against the other clans in iceland.

Iceland as a Norwegian and Danish vassal

The Icelandic Commonwealth remained independent until 1262, when it entered into a treaty which established a union with the Norwegian monarchy. The treaty ended the bloodiest period in Icelandic history, which began in 1220 when Snorri Sturluson became a vassal of the Norwegian king, and subsequently his nephew Sturla Sighvatsson also became a vassal in 1235. Sturla used the power and influence of the Sturlungar family to wage war against the other clans in iceland.

Possession of Iceland passed to Denmark-Norway in the late 14th century when Norway and Denmark were united. When the united kingdoms were separated by the treaty of Kiel in 1814, Denmark kept Iceland as a dependency.

Though geographically removed from Europe, Iceland was never isolated. Mariners from many nations — Christopher Columbus perhaps among them — came to call and trade at Iceland's ports throughout the Middle Ages and early modern period.

19th and early 20th century

In the early 19th century, national consciousness revived in Iceland, and an independence movement developed under Jˇn Sigurdsson. The Al■ingi had remained for centuries as a judicial body but was finally abolished in 1800. In 1843 a new body by the same name was founded as a consultative assembly. Continuity with the Althing of the Icelandic Commonwealth is sometimes claimed.

In 1874, a thousand years after the first acknowledged settlement, Denmark granted Iceland home rule, which again was extended in 1904. The constitution, written in 1874, was revised in 1903, and a minister for Icelandic affairs, residing in ReykjavÝk, was made responsible to the Al■ingi. The Act of Union, a December 1, 1918 agreement with Denmark, recognized Iceland as a fully sovereign state united with Denmark under a common king. Iceland established its own flag and asked that Denmark represent its foreign affairs and defense interests. The Act would be up for revision in 1940, and could be revoked three years later, if an agreement wasn't reached.

World War II

German occupation of Denmark on April 9, 1940 severed communications between Iceland and Denmark. As a result, on April 10, the Parliament of Iceland, Al■ingi, elected to take control of foreign affairs into its own hands, electing a provisional governor, Sveinn Bj÷rnsson, who later became the republic's first president. During the first year of World War II Iceland strictly enforced a position of neutrality, taking action against both British and German forces violating the laws of neutrality. On May 10, 1940, British military forces sailed into ReykjavÝk harbour, beginning the invasion and occupation of Iceland by Allied forces in violation of international law, 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 country's police force was in a training camp some distance from the capital. Many Icelanders, however, were relieved when they discovered that the invading force was British, not German. On the day of invasion, prime minister Hermann Jˇnasson read a radio announcement telling Icelanders to treat the foreigners as they would treat their guests. The government quickly adopted a policy, similar to the Danish one, of collaboration with the occupying forces.

At the peak of their occupation of Iceland, the British had around 25,000 troops stationed in Iceland, all but eliminating unemployment in the ReykjavÝk area and other strategically important places. 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 Al■ingi into agreeing to an American occupation force. This time around, there were up to 40,000 soldiers in the island, thus outnumbering all grown Icelandic men (At the time, Iceland had a population of around 120,000).

Following a plebiscite, Iceland formally became an independent republic on June 17, 1944. Since Denmark was still occupied by Nazi Germany many Danes felt offended that the step should have been taken at this time. Despite this the Danish king, Christian X, sent a message of congratulations to the Icelandic people.

Post-WWII Iceland

Iceland had prospered during the course of the war, amassing considerable currency reserves in foreign banks. The government, led by an unlikely three-party majority cabinet made up of conservatives (SjßlfstŠ­isflokkur), social democrats (Al■ř­uflokkur) and socialists (SˇsÝalistaflokkur), 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. These actions were aimed at keeping Icelanders' standard of living as high as it had become during the prosperous war years.

The government's fiscal policies were strictly Keynesian, and their aim was to create the necessary industrial infrastructure for a prosperous industrialized country. It was considered essential to keep unemployment down to an absolute minimum and to protect the export industry, i.e. the fishing industry, by manipulation of the currency and other means. Due to the country's dependence both on unreliable fish catches, and on a foreign demand for fish products, Iceland's economy remained very unstable well into the 90s, when the country's economy was greatly diversified.

In October 1946, the Icelandic and U.S. Governments agreed to terminate U.S. responsibility for the defense of Iceland, but the United States retained certain rights at KeflavÝk, such as the right to re-establish a military presence there, should war threaten.

Amidst domestic controversy and riots in front of the house of parliament, Iceland became a charter member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on March 30, 1949 with the reservation that it would never take part in offensive action against another nation. After the outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950, and pursuant to the request of NATO military authorities, the United States and Al■ingi agreed that the United States should again take responsibility for Iceland's defense. This agreement, signed on May 5, 1951, is the authority for the controversial U.S. military presence in Iceland, which remains there in a somewhat diminished form today.

Iceland is the only NATO country with no proper military force of its own. It does maintain a police force including a special weapons unit, a coast guard with a small fleet of lightly armed ships and has deployed squadrons of armed peace-keepers wearing military uniforms to Bosnia and Afghanistan.

See also


de:Geschichte Islands es:Historia de Islandia fr:Histoire de l'Islande is:Saga ═slands ja:アイスランドの歴史 pl:Historia Islandii pt:Histˇria da IslÔndia ru:История Исландии sv:Islands historia


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