Searching for Grettir

fagraskógarfjall william morris

On July 17, 1871, the English poet and artisan William Morris set out from Reykjavík on horseback with three companions, two guides, and fourteen ponies on the first leg of a six-week journey through the heart of western Iceland. In the age of steamships, locomotives, and the telegraph, this mode of travel was medieval by […]

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Artist on the Run

Sölvi helgason

October 1843. Staðarsveit farmstead in Snæfellsnes, West Iceland. It was early evening, and an odd yet highly entertaining young visitor had just finished regaling the appreciative farmhands with his witty remarks and amusing anecdotes. He clearly enjoyed telling them his tall tales as well as sharing his vivid descriptions of Iceland’s natural wonders and deadly […]

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Skeletons in the Closet

björn sveinsson

Saturday, May 18, 1946 was a pleasant spring morning in Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. The war, with all its horror, had ended a year previously and western Europe was gradually moving toward a civil society based on human rights, justice, and democracy while simultaneously rebuilding and ridding itself of the last vestiges of Nazi occupation. At […]

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Breaking the Peace

sögugrein frank

By the 15th century, in the chaotic and violent times of Joan of Arc, the Hundred Years’ War and the War of the Roses, Icelanders had become active participants in the rapidly expanding and highly profitable international trade between the English, German Hanse, Dutch, and Norwegian merchants. This trade would become fraught with tension that […]

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To the Manor Born

The story of the Baron

of Hvítárvellir

A bright, mild, late-summer Sunday greeted the festive locals in the Borgarfjörður region of western Iceland who flocked from far and wide to take part in the Þjóðminningardagur, National Heritage Day, in early August 1898. The popular festival featured a variety of events, including traditional sporting competitions, poetry readings, speeches by noted Icelanders and, perhaps most remarkably, waltzes danced to mechanical music. To the loud, clanging machine-driven tune of a curious large wind-up music box called a calliope, couples young and old swayed and danced joyfully to Johann Strauss’ Radetzky’s March, a catchy waltz tune popular to this day. Other favourites included Hip Hip Hurrah March and Die süßen kleinen Mägdelein.

Before the global dominance of Edison’s audio recordings that came to be known as records, this fascinating machine allowed popular music to be played to crowds in the same way we think of 19th-century street organ grinders. The mechanical wonder was generously loaned to the festival by a somewhat mysterious and clearly wealthy foreigner who had recently moved to Hvítárvellir, a nearby farm located on the banks of the mighty Hvítá river: the Baron Charles Francois Xavier de Gauldrée-Boilleau.

A fresh new breeze

Hvítárvellir was one of the finest and most productive Icelandic farms at the turn of the century, with many fertile acres of pastureland, dozens of dairy cows, hundreds of sheep, and access to the plentiful salmon in the Hvítá river. The estate was sold to the baron for the modern equivalent of nearly one million US dollars, an unheard-of price even for such a renowned estate. Apparently, he made no attempt to negotiate the price. At the baron’s behest, the farm immediately underwent extensive and costly modifications. In a matter of months, a new wooden building was constructed as living quarters for the farmhands, which was a huge improvement over the turf and stone huts in which most of them had grown up. 

Among the modifications the baron introduced were a wide range of new machines that were imported and employed, including a mechanical mower, a hay baler, and an odd device that was meant to flatten the bumpy land by tearing up frost tussocks – a familiar geographic feature of Icelandic pastureland. Farmhands’ wages were paid in cash, which was a rarity in those days. The baron demanded to be acknowledged with proper respect at all times; in his presence male farmhands were expected to doff their caps while women were meant to curtsy. The baron insisted on personally approving every hire because he believed he could determine the applicant’s trustworthiness simply by looking deeply in their eyes.

Baron Charles Gauldree Boilleau was a fascinating man and his brief stay in Iceland left a mark on Icelandic history, so much so that in 2004, he was the subject of a historical novel by Þórarinn Eldjárn. The locals were surprised and delighted when the esteemed Baron Bolló, as the locals dubbed him, showed up unannounced at the festival’s reception tent, dressed in exquisite riding gear and casually smoking a Russian cigarette. He was accompanied by a good-looking young man in a suit and tie who he introduced as his cousin, Richard Lechner, whom the locals soon began referring to as the count for no other reason than he was associated with the baron. The foreign pair spoke together in German but made praiseworthy efforts to speak to the festival officials in Icelandic. The dashing foreigner with the lofty noble title asked if he might be permitted to partake in their festivities, which would be completely unprecedented and was immediately approved. Curiosity piqued as the baron registered for the annual horse race. 

A noble visitor

Foreigners, often wealthy Englishmen, were not unknown in West Iceland at the time but were generally considered eccentric if not arrogant, mostly keeping to themselves and ignoring the locals. That such a notable figure as a baron would deign to join the Icelanders in their local gala and even compete in a horse race was welcomed with giddy anticipation. 

His background and reasons for moving to Iceland were largely unknown, but the charming baron, who had become their neighbour just weeks before, had already garnered a reputation for being a progressive and cultured man of vision and conviction. He expertly mounted his beautiful stallion and trotted in perfect tact to the starting line, deftly demonstrating his riding prowess. Hundreds of dismayed onlookers watched as the baron was first to cross the finish line and became the horse race’s undisputed winner. While most cheered the victorious foreigner, some chagrined locals were understandably humiliated, grumbling that the wealthy foreigner must have fed his horse some special foreign fodder to defeat them so handily.

As Baron Gaudrée-Boilleau accepted his award for placing first in the horse race, speculation about just who this man was and where he came from was on everyone’s lips. He was thought to be French based on his name and general appearance, but he had come to Iceland from the Bavarian city of Munich and spoke flawless German with his so-called cousin, Richard. Letters addressed to him, however, came regularly from the United States, which led some to assume he must be American. According to the farmers who sold him Hvítárvellir farm, he spoke English with a distinctive upper-class accent, sounding like the British lords who sometimes fished the Hvítá river. It was rumoured that one time a young woman who had been working as a farm hand at Hvítárvellir walked up to him and impudently asked; “Who are you actually? And why did you come here?” The baron stared at her momentarily, then replied in clear and correct Icelandic: “Don’t you know it is rude to ask personal questions?” 

Only a few months earlier, to wide acclaim, the baron had made his first public appearance. It was a sunny evening in late May 1898, and a concert was held to inaugurate Reykjavík’s recently completed Iðnaðarhús, Craftsmen’s Hall, a relatively large wooden building that serves as a theatre, meeting place and concert hall. Iðnó, built on the banks of the city’s lake, Tjörnin, still stands to this day. The youthful baron proved to be an exceptionally talented cellist. He was also a proficient pianist and an accomplished composer. After promising his local acquaintance, the writer Benedikt Gröndal, to perform at the auspicious Reykjavík Music Association event to a packed audience of some 200 Icelanders, the baron had turned up with a 250-year-old Cappa di Saluzzo cello, an instrument which was completely unfamiliar to the average Icelander at the time. His masterful playing of the “knee-fiddle” or hnéfiðla, as it was reported in the following day’s newspapers, reportedly left music-deprived Icelanders astounded, calling for encore after encore. To the delight of the audience, the baron then improvised expertly with an a cappella singing group, which he clearly enjoyed. When asked by a fan whether he would be willing to perform regularly, he answered that he was actually giving up his music career, but he would be willing to play occasionally for charity. His new passion, he said, with a grin but without any touch of irony, was to become an Icelandic farmer.

Það er strok í honum – He’s a flighty one

Just why the baron chose to become a farmer in Iceland of all places was not clear to anyone. With all his impressive heritage and fine skills, he was used to a wealthy cosmopolitan lifestyle in America and Europe. Apart from studying music for years in Munich, the baron had been cruising frequently to London or New York or spending time in places such as Algiers when not at his family homes in Paris or on the Italian Riviera. Already fluent in seven languages, the baron managed to learn Icelandic with remarkable speed. He came from a privileged background: he was the son of a wealthy French diplomat and had been educated at expensive English boarding schools. His more practically-minded brothers in America were as worried about him as they were mystified, writing: “He was flying high after arriving in Iceland, which made us happy, as we had been following him between hope and fear. On the other hand, we knew very well how quickly things could change for our brother. We knew of his plan [to move to Iceland], but we didn’t take it too seriously. We had hoped that our patience would be rewarded, and that Charles would realise what a pipedream this was but hope that he would somehow find happiness and peace in this absurd place.”

Farming in Iceland was not an especially profitable endeavour even at the best of times. It requires extensive knowledge and hard-won skills, as well as a certain disposition. It was not long before his farmhands and neighbours began to notice the baron’s odd behaviour, demonstrating inexplicable apathy and irrational carelessness on many occasions. When purchasing a horse, he would avoid wasting time with troublesome negotiating and simply ask the seller to name his price. In the middle of important farm projects, which would consume his attention for weeks on end, he would suddenly lose all interest, mount his horse, and ride away without a word of explanation. At other times, the baron would capriciously summon his expensive imported private steamship, which was docked nearby, and order it to sail him to Reykjavík where he owned a comfortable home on Laugavegur. Local farmers commented that the baron was like an untamed horse that would bolt, running off at the slightest distraction. And that the baron was “likely not wholly sane.”

When he decided it would be pleasant to stay in a luxurious tent with all the amenities on a nearby lake, the baron called together the various local Icelandic farmers who owned it and offered them triple the estimated value. After three days of hunkering in his tent while it rained continuously, he abruptly rode back to Hvítárvellir, abandoning his latest acquisition, never to return. In the summer months, the baron would practise his marksmanship with a pistol by shooting at golden plovers. He insisted on eating grilled salmon and mashed potatoes nearly every day. When one of his servants was heavily pregnant, the baron was so repulsed that he fired her immediately. Whether out of shyness or arrogance – and despite his language abilities – when the baron was approached in public he would invariably pretend not to understand and simply walk away.

After a few months of drab living at Hvítárvellir through the autumn and winter of 1898, the baron was bored. He saw business opportunities everywhere, claiming Reykjavík could double or triple in size with the right investment. It was then that he decided to take ever-bigger risks with his remaining money, taking short-term high interest loans when necessary. Looking to drive progress and change, he financed the construction of a hugely expensive modern concrete barn which was to house 50 milk cows and provide higher-quality dairy products to the citizens of Reykjavík. The unfortunate project was destined for failure. Locals did not know what to make of the baron’s bold innovation and baulked at buying milk from what they considered a foreign company. The barn’s construction alone cost three times its budget and the cows produced much less than anticipated. By the summer’s end the baron became depressed and fell seriously ill. Unable to even hold a pen, he was bedridden for months. Before the end of 1899, he was forced to sell the barn, his precious steamship, and various other properties at a tremendous loss in order to pay off his rising debts. 

Upon his recovery, he dismissed the bankruptcy of his dairy project as regrettable but insignificant; there were far greater rewards to be had which would dwarf the year’s losses. The baron’s new plan was to create a huge fishing company with nearly a dozen ships and a modern harbour. The required financing would flow in, he was sure, because it was obvious that Iceland needed to compete with the European fleets that had been exploiting Icelandic fishing grounds since the Middle Ages. All it would take was for the Icelandic Parliament to approve the new fishing company’s charter; nothing but a trifle, surely. Flush with fresh loans from local Icelanders, the optimistic baron set off by ship to London to raise the rest of the capital. Interest in the innovative plan was high and the baron saw no chance of failure. When the Parliament broached the issue in the summer of 1900, however, opponents pointed out that the baron was no Icelander. Discussion went on for months, but the charter’s approval never gained a parliamentary majority. The baron’s fishing company, like so many of his business ventures, was stillborn.

A tragic end

It was a cold winter evening in 1901, between Christmas and New Year’s, in London. On a regional passenger train from southeast London to Victoria Station, the normally uneventful journey was interrupted by the crack of a lone gunshot. The piercing report resonated in the confines of the narrow train carriage and briefly, a nervous silence ensued. The train’s two conductors, who had been checking tickets, quickly made their way toward the apparent origin of the shooting: the only first-class cabin with closed curtains. 

As the conductors cautiously opened the cabin door, their eyes were drawn to an irregular dark stain on the wall, just above an empty seat. Then, they caught sight of a well-dressed young man sprawled unnaturally on the floor, a dark, sleek pool of blood surrounding his head. He wore a gentleman’s high-collared white shirt with an ornate cravat and an elegant waistcoat. They stared wide-eyed at the gaping wound in the man’s head and the blood soaking his wavy brown hair. An antique revolver lay on the floor next to his lifeless hand, the last traces of gun smoke still drifting lazily from the single barrel. 

Speculation among the train’s passengers spread like leaves in a storm. Some suspected an armed robbery, perhaps gone terribly wrong, while others considered the possibility of a deliberate murder. Rumours abounded. Was it a crime of passion, a jealous lover’s revenge? 

Clad in tall dark-blue helmets and matching wool tunics adorned with brass buttons, a small contingent of London police arrived on the scene. Upon the detective’s first examination, there was little doubt that the young man in the blood-sodden, bespoke suit had taken his life, most likely in a moment of despair. A note of requests in the event of his death appeared to confirm that the fatal incident was no accident. The cartes de visite in his elegant but otherwise empty porte-monnaie identified him and his local address in Anerley, Southeast London as Baron Charles Francois Xavier De Gauldrée-Boilleau. The coroner’s brief forensic examination officially registered the death: “…killed himself whilst temporarily insane, shock and haemorrhage due to inflicting bullet wound to head from a revolver.” Due to the letter left in his coat, the police had no trouble in determining that the unfortunate man’s next of kin was a younger brother who apparently resided in the American city of Baltimore. The following day he was duly informed of his older brother’s tragic death via transatlantic telegram. 

In the end, Baron Charles Gauldrée-Boilleau died penniless on an English train by his own hand. His many business ventures were certainly progressive and innovative. Had he chosen to live in a more modern country such as America or France, he might well have been much more successful. Icelanders were quite simply unreceptive to the forward-thinking ideas that the baron was so eager to establish, in part due to the fact that he was assumed by some prejudiced Icelanders to be just another untrustworthy, money-grubbing foreigner. His stay in Iceland was brief, only a couple of years at the turn of the 20th century, but the concrete barn that he built still stands and today houses a convenience store. He left an indelible mark on the emerging city of Reykjavík and in belated recognition of his achievements, charming Barónstígur street in Reykjavík was named in his honour. 

A 19th Century Nobleman in the undeveloped and Isolated Far North

Iceland was a primitive, underdeveloped society at the turn of the 20th century. Although Iceland had been granted home rule in 1874, it was still very much under the control of the Danish Crown, and full independence was decades away. Reykjavik was little more than a foul-smelling fishing village lacking public sanitation, a proper harbour and paved roads. Fewer than 80,000 people lived in the entire country. Vistarbandið, or bonded labour in the manner of serfdom, was not completely abolished in Iceland until 1900. Due to this profoundly unfair tradition, landless farm hands were legally prevented from leaving the farms where they were employed without the permission of the owner, consigning some 25% of the population to abuse and drudgery and with little chance of a better life. As bad as conditions were for men, women typically earned 1/3 to 1/2 of their male counterparts’ wages. Poor infrastructure and impoverished living conditions were grudgingly accepted as facts of life, but increasing awareness of the world beyond Iceland beckoned; nearly a quarter of the beleaguered population had abandoned the meagre farms and migrated to North America starting in the mid-19th century, leaving much of the country depopulated. It is generally considered that the emigres’ departure probably prevented mass starvation.

Tall Tales and Treacherous Waters

Útivera Ganga Náttúra Gengið frá Aðalvík að Hesteyri og til baka

The 17th-century voyage 

of Jón the India Traveller

Christian IV was King of Denmark and Norway from the age of 11 until his death aged 71 in 1648. Contemporaries described him as above average height, most often dressed in French fashion, and a true warrior by nature. Christian was known as a plucky, hard-drinking man of grim wit and vision. His domestic reforms brought a level of stability and wealth to the Danish Kingdom virtually unmatched elsewhere in Europe. Nevertheless, towards the end of his reign, the Danish King was a broken man. Christian’s obsession with evil spirits and witchcraft led to numerous brutal public executions throughout his kingdom, including 21 Icelanders. He also brought true disaster upon his kingdom by leading Denmark into the Thirty Years’ War, one of the longest and most destructive conflicts in European history that drained the Crown’s coffers, undermined the economy, and cost the kingdom large swaths of territory. As a result, absolute monarchy was abolished and the king was forced to share power with parliament.

On a bright May morning in 1679, an 85-year-old widower passed away in his sleep after a long illness. He had lived a full life and was loved and highly respected, well satisfied with his long life and fortuitous relationship with his God. As the burden of age weighed on him ever more, Jón Ólafsson of Eyrardalur farm, situated in Álftafjörður in the Westfjords, had given up his daily chores as a farmer and dedicated his remaining time to educating young people in reading and writing full time.  Throughout his long life, Jón Ólafsson was known as more than a faithful Christian, farmer, and beloved teacher. In a time before television, radio or even printing presses – when even dancing was illegal – 17th-century Icelanders craved a well-told story. He was a storyteller without equal; he was Jón Ólafsson, the “India Traveller.” 

Although impoverished Icelandic society had benefitted from growing international trade, better ships, and improved fishing techniques, the early 1600s were aptly dubbed the “torture years.” It was an abnormally cold period fraught with tragedy. Various diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox, and the plague exacerbated by poor nutrition killed thousands annually, limiting Iceland’s population under some 50,000 souls. An average adult could expect to live between 40-45 years and the infant mortality rate was atrociously high. Jón’s parents lost 11 of their 14 children. When he was just seven years old, Jón’s father died of dysentery. 

Much of the economic woe that Iceland suffered at this time was exacerbated by a strict monopoly on all trade that kept prices high and supplies of often poor quality. The Danish-Norwegian Crown enacted the Danish-Icelandic Trade Monopoly in 1602 to support Danish merchants, increasing the wealth and power of the King of Denmark to the detriment of their Icelandic colony. Nevertheless, illicit trading flourished. 


In the early summer of 1615, a 50-tonne English freight ship that had been blown off course ended up in the vicinity of Jón’s homestead near Ísafjörður, where he lived with his mother and two siblings. At the age of 22, Jón Ólafsson decided he wanted to see the world beyond Iceland’s rocky shores. He had two distinct sides to his character; strong in his Christian faith but also unusually fearless and adventurous. In a small boat, Jón and a few of his companions rowed over to the English vessel. Despite the language differences, Jón managed to negotiate passage for himself to England, trading a substantial quantity of homespun wool for the journey, Iceland’s main currency at the time. After a tearful goodbye to his mother, they set sail on June 23. Jón had brought more than 200 kilos of dried cod and a few barrels of fish oil, with which he hoped to finance his adventure, most of which was lost overboard in one of the frequent storms the ship encountered. During the seven-week voyage, Jón befriended the crew, enabling him to acquire English very quickly and quite fluently. Disembarking on August 11 in Harwich, near the coastal city of Ipswich, Jón was surprised to see how many coal ships were constantly coming and going. At this time, England was rapidly expanding coal production, which would become the dynamo that powered the industrial revolution and would make Britain a global superpower. James I was king and England was thriving economically and blossoming culturally.

Once in England, Jón was quick to form friendly relations with the locals and was twice offered bountiful employment which he kindly refused, explaining that Iceland’s colonial capital of Copenhagen was his ultimate goal. Before he could find a way to Denmark, Jón visited Shakespearean London and was astounded by its beauty and sheer size; the dozens of bridges and hundreds of churches including the imposing bulk of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral, whose spires towered over the great city at nearly 150 metres high. Best of all was the music; pounding drums, pipe organs, and soaring trumpets utterly captivated Jón, who came from a country almost completely devoid of musical instruments. Jón soon ran into Danish sailors who were serving on a royal warship bringing horses as a gift from Danish King Christian IV to James I, his brother-in-law . He was offered passage aboard the Danish warship, finally arriving in Copenhagen a few days later, months after his departure from Iceland.

While wandering the outskirts of Tranquebar, India on a day of leave from their duties, Jón and his mates encountered a massive cobra that terrified a local village and allowed Jón to demonstrate his courage. “The beast was three-coloured; black, white, and grey. The sting or bite of this kind of serpent is so poisonous that few survive it.” A King Cobra such as this one can grow up to nearly 6 metres in length and is the world’s largest venomous snake. Seven crew members engaged and fought the giant snake. “His movements were both swift and fierce, and dire injury would be all but certain if he managed to strike us, either by his poison breath or by the point near the end of his tongue, with which he stings many a man to death.” After most of his friends gave up or ran away from the fight Jón found himself alone in pursuit of the mighty beast. “My blood was up. I was entirely set on overcoming the serpent if God would grant me victory.” The giant of a cobra first attempted to evade Jón: “He fled into a large bush, forcing his way into it so violently that the whole thicket trembled and shook, as did the earth under our feet. Suddenly he rose and came straight for me, fiercely at great speed; raising his head high above the ground while his tail rattled ominously. The huge snake was raging against me with much hissing and puffing so that it seemed as if there was blue smoke all around him. I was not terrified either of the massive snake nor of his cruel look, but my comrades cried aloud and were sorely frightened. I brandished my broadsword with the strength of my two arms so mightily that the others were surprised, just then the serpent prepared to strike me so I hewed at him with all the force God had given me. I was about two paces from his head, which I cut clean off with one fell swoop.” Although vanquished, Jón thought the beheaded King Cobra might still represent a threat. “I stepped at once between the two pieces of the serpent, so that it should not join together again, about which the Indians had warned me.”


Jón was fascinated by 17th-century Copenhagen’s castles, towers, fortresses, churches, and trading halls. Elegant stone buildings with genuine glass windows were everywhere, a novelty to Jón who had spent his life in dark, earthen-floored dwellings of turf and raw stone. Sailors and soldiers, merchants and craftsmen, musicians and beggars crowded the streets and marketplaces, and Danish horses were enormous in comparison to Iceland’s squatter breed. The flavours and aromas of the food surprised him the most, including pork sausages, baked bread, and sweet pastries – all of which were virtually unknown in his native land. Jón had lost much of his dried cod and fish oil cargo and badly needed money so he got a job combing horses at the king’s stable. A few weeks later, Jón joined King Christian IV’s army as an artilleryman. The job required discipline and technical knowledge and was relatively well-paid. Best of all, Jón’s true passion – travel – was a fundamental part of serving in the king’s army. 

According to Jón’s tales, he was incredibly successful in forging friendships with all manner of people, including many of his superior officers and even the King of Denmark. One day while serving as a gunner aboard a Danish Royal navy vessel, Jón was ordered to present himself to the king. Christian IV was curious about his faraway colonial subject and surprised to learn that Icelanders were serving on his ship. When he met the king, rather than bowing and scraping, Jón looked the Danish monarch straight in the eyes, addressing him with due respect but speaking as an equal, which charmed the king. The fact Jón could read and write was praised, as literacy was not common at the time. The king asked how he had gotten to Denmark. Jón decided to tell the king the flat truth: that he had illegally bartered with an English captain for passage to Europe. The king asked why Icelanders would have anything to do with the English, to which Jón replied that trading with foreigners was a matter of survival. Jón’s brave sincerity impressed the king, who rewarded his honesty with large quantities of ale. 

However good Jón’s relations were with most of his superior officers, he was treated no better than an ordinary gunner whenever he misbehaved. For the infraction of arriving late to his watch, Jón was arrested and locked in the infamous ‘blue tower’ jail, and summarily sentenced to death by hanging. Despite the direness of his situation, he did not panic or lose hope. When the king caught word of Jón’s death sentence, he pardoned him and personally saw to his release, saying with a smile, “Look after yourself better, dear Jón!”

As a well-trained naval gunner, Jón served on board a Royal Danish-Norwegian Navy vessel during a military conflict between the Kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden. King Christian IV of Denmark always longed for action and often followed his warships into war despite the risk to his safety. The skirmish with the Swedes was raging and both sides suffered enormous casualties. After a harrowing attack, the Danes were on the verge of defeat and attempted to surrender. The enraged Swedes refused to acknowledge the white flag and advanced hard; they wanted nothing less than to capture or kill the meddlesome Danish King. 

Many of the Danish soldiers were dead or wounded including the king’s guard; leaving the monarch alone and vulnerable. Few of the oil lamps aboard remained intact and the interior of the ship was dim and disorienting. With his gunpowder spent, Jón’s cannons were at last silent. Jón could hear a small number of Swedish marines attempting to board the Danish warship. Recognising the direness of the situation, he desperately rushed to find the king, pledging to protect him with his life. He found the ruler alone but in a defiant mood. Suddenly, a Swedish soldier surprised them and slashed at the king with his sword, hitting him on the side of the head and injuring his ear. His head was bleeding profusely and the shocked king fainted, falling on his side. The Swedish soldier cursed the darkness as he stabbed and swung his sword about the cabin in search of his royal quarry. Jón saw an opportunity to turn the tables on the Swede. He jumped to his feet from the shadows and with his remaining strength, thrust his sword through the soldier’s chest. When all was at last quiet, Jón hauled the unconscious Christian IV to a safer place, staying with the king until passing out himself, exhausted and wounded from the fray. Meanwhile, the damaged Danish ship managed to silently withdraw to safety. After this dramatic episode, it was said that the king held his Icelandic gunner in high esteem, for which Jón would later be very thankful.


Following the success of the Portuguese and Dutch colonies in India, Christian IV sent a delegation to the subcontinent in 1618 to found a military outpost and lucrative trading colony. Imported spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and pepper would fetch ten times their cost in India. In late 1620, after two years of negotiations with a local ruler, a trade agreement with the Danish East India Company was established and Denmark’s first colony in southern India was officially founded. When Jón was offered to serve as an artilleryman for a two-year stint in the Indian colony he jumped at the opportunity. In addition to the ships’ crews, there were administrators, diplomats, merchants, barbers, priests, carpenters, sail-makers, and soldiers like Jón aboard. The 16-week journey took the fleet of four Danish warships down the Atlantic coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean, making resupply stops in the Comoro Islands, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka before finally finishing their journey in the southern Indian town of Tranquebar, where the Danish fortress of Dansborg had recently been erected. While the trip had been relatively uneventful and Jón remained in good health, many had died on the voyage, including a fellow Icelander and close friend of Jón’s. Scurvy due to poor nutrition, diseases such as dysentery, and accidents killed up to 15% of the crew and passengers, but this loss was considered acceptable at the time.

During a stop in the Comoro Islands, Jón came across unfamiliar but delicious fruit. “No fruit was ripe at that time of year except pomerans [red oranges] and bonanzers [bananas] of which the natives took a few bunches. These grew in their fruit gardens, 30-40 together, they are about the size of a guillemot [a sea-bird eaten or used as fuel in Iceland in Jón’s time] hung up to dry and are especially good fruit, refreshing and of a good taste as if there was fat in it; they are also excellent to eat on bread,” he wrote of the tasty novelty.



After 14 months of military service in India, Jón’s tour of duty was completed and he boarded The Pearl, a Danish naval frigate, in the autumn of 1624 for what would be a terrible journey back to Denmark. When the cannon he was loading unexpectedly exploded, blasting him off the deck of the ship, he was badly injured. Artillerymen in this time were often killed in such accidents, but Jón miraculously survived despite being nearly drowned, losing several fingers on both hands, and getting scorched by gunpowder over much of his abdomen. In the sickbay, the barber who served as a surgeon wanted to bleed Jón, the standard treatment for most ailments, but he was already haemorrhaging so much blood that it was deemed unnecessary. Jón wisely refused to let six men sit on him, also a standard procedure, during the amputation of two more fingers. After nine weeks, despite poor hygiene and absurd theories about healing, Jón was able to stand. Five weeks later, he was more or less recovered, although his injuries would prevent him from ever serving as an artilleryman again. 

Unfortunately, this tragic episode was merely the beginning of the crew’s troubles. Once The Pearl passed the Cape and reached the Atlantic, she encountered fierce storms and unusually rough seas that lasted for 12 weeks. Treacherous storms flooded the ship and ruined much of their food supplies. Fresh water quickly became scarce. Any shipmate caught stealing water would suffer the death penalty. As their hunger worsened, the cook suggested they eat the ship’s cat, but too many baulked at the idea. Violent gales and powerful storms broke off two of the ship’s three masts and her rudder. As The Pearl mostly drifted northward, the slowly starving crew began to fall ill and die. After months of agony, the crew of the stricken warship, at last, spotted the south coast of Ireland and were towed into harbour. The captain and half the crew had perished, but Jón somehow pulled through. The Danish warship was repaired and resupplied over the coming weeks while the surviving crew of The Pearl recovered.

Back in Copenhagen, Jón was offered a teaching position at the Danish naval college but politely declined. At Jón’s request, he was duly given a farm in the Westfjords free of charge for his long and loyal service to the king. For the globetrotting Icelander, now 34, it was time to return to his homeland and start a family. During his 11 years of adventure abroad, word of Jón’s fantastic experiences had travelled from farm to farm in Iceland and he was welcomed everywhere. Some called Jón the ‘Icelandic Marco Polo.’ Eloquent and funny, dignitaries were eager to invite the renowned storyteller to their farms for lavish meals. Jón was always happy to regale his eager audiences, large and small, with his exotic tales, and he was never afraid to stretch the truth if it pleased his listeners. 

Jón is best-known today for the autobiography and travelogue he wrote with the help of his son in 1661 at the age of 67. His descriptions of city life in England and Denmark as well as the sights and people of Africa and India are remarkably vivid. He was an excellent observer and able to accurately describe the daily life of ordinary people in a reasonable tone and with little prejudice. Fond of terrifying his audiences, Jón paid close attention to what people wanted to hear and would adjust his stories to maximise their appeal. His book became so popular and widely read that it passed from person to person for centuries in numerous handwritten copies until it was finally published in print in 1908. Since then, it has been translated into Danish, German, and English and is considered a remarkable record of human life and events in Northern Europe and South India in the 17th century.s.

But I will tell anyone who will heed it that every single man who undertakes such journeys and has neither kinsmen on board, nor money, nor powerful friends must have three good qualities, namely; gentleness and an even temper toward officers and others who are worthy of it. Secondly, willingness; so that he does not wait to act till he is bidden. Thirdly, he must suffer hard times without complaint, yet must know his limits and must defend himself with honour, manliness and understanding. The sum of it all is to act and behave honourably in word and deed so that he need never fear answering boldly for himself.

There and Back Again

“I’m eager to tell you about him.”  Everyone loves a good story, especially tales of adventure featuring a dogged, tenacious and sometimes tragic hero. In our day, thanks to more objective research and unflinching writing, heroes have lost much of their shine. Where we once unquestioningly celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, there is no denying that […]

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anna moldnúpur

Already suffering from nausea in anticipation of a long voyage at sea, a middle-aged, red-headed Icelandic country woman with a modest suitcase nervously climbed a narrow gangplank in Reykjavik harbour to board the Brúarfoss, an Icelandic passenger and cargo ship. It was a bright, calm evening in mid-July 1946 and Anna – a weaver by […]

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On a cold winter’s night in 1952, John Greenway, Great Britain’s Minister to Iceland, heard a loud bang and woke in his bed with a start. He was alone in the embassy, commonly known as Höfði house, which also served as his official residence. Intent on discovering the source of the disruption, he descended the […]

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