Tall Tales and Treacherous Waters Skip to content

Tall Tales and Treacherous Waters

Words by
Frank Walter Sands

Photography by
Golli

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. 


ENGLAND

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.”

COPENHAGEN

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.

INDIA

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.

Skip

BACK TO DENMARK

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.

Share article

Facebook
Twitter