Jón Sigurðsson was the leader of the Icelanders in their struggle for freedom:
The Danes listened to historical arguments, gun and sword being nowhere near.
For many centuries Iceland was the colony of Denmark and administered from Copenhagen. The Danish monarchs treated the country like their personal property. Their trade monopoly, which meant that no one was permitted to trade with Iceland except Danish subjects, resulted i.a. in the fact that the Icelanders could not exert their abilities. For some time they were only permitted to trade with certain Danish monopoly merchants in their own country. If someone broke this rule, if only to sell a few fish in another district than his own, he was liable to be sentenced to many years of hard labour. This goes to show that the Danes' government of Iceland was not guided by wisdom.
Jón Sigurdsson (1811-1879)
He was the son of a pastor in the Westfjords of Iceland, the most inhospitable part of this harsh country. From his ancestors he inherited interest in everything Icelandic and learned besides, from an early age, to manage on his own.
He went to Copenhagen in 1833 to take up studies there in history and other subjects at the University. He soon began to work at the Arnamagnæan Collection, which contained the spiritual national treasures of Iceland, the manuscripts of the Sagas. Some say that these ancient vellums contain the very soul of Iceland. He became the greatest authority of all who studied the manuscripts and where the history of Iceland was concerned nobody was his equal. He never took a degree as Icelandic politics soon took all his time. His aim and that of his allies was to win self-government for the Icelandic people.
He married his cousin, Ingibjörg Einarsdóttir, and they lived out their lives in Copenhagen where their home became a sort of an Embassy and centre for all Icelanders there. Jón visited his fatherland every other year to chair the meetings of the Althing which was an advisory body to the Danish government and King. He went 29 times across the Atlantic, back and forth. Most of the time his wife accompanied him and these trips have hardly been pleasure cruises as they travelled by cargo-vessels or mailboats in spring and fall when all kinds of weather could be expected. Jón Sigurdsson and his wife had no children but a contemporary said that all Icelanders had been their children.
The small home of turf, stone and wood
in Hrafnseyri, Arnarfjörður, where Jón Sigurðsson
was born is now undergoing a complete rebuilding.
The historical arguments
As stated previously, Jón Sigurdsson's aim was that the Icelanders should get self-determination in their own affairs. He pointed out to the Danes that in AD 1262 the Icelanders had made a treaty with the King of Norway where they consented as a free people to have him as their King with certain duties and rights. As Norway became united with Denmark, so did Iceland. When the King of Denmark assumed absolute power, the Icelanders agreed most reluctantly, their leaders weeping as they put their signatures to the documents in question with Danish soldiers, armed to the teeth, standing over them.
This happened in 1662. When the Danish King renounced his dictatorial power in 1848 the Icelanders' old rights should have been restored according to Jón Sigurdsson. This was the historical argument which he struggled to get the Danes to acknowledge. He hammered on this argument constantly whatever the circumstances, like the Apostles of yore.
But how did the Danes take to this advocacy?
The church at Hrafnseyri is a classical
Icelandic countryside church.
The Danes grant the Icelanders a Constitution
The interesting fact was that the Danes listened to Jón Sigurdsson and granted Iceland a limited Constitution in their internal affairs in 1874, on the thousandth anniversary of the beginning of settlement of their country. A few years later Iceland was granted complete home-rule but continued to be in a personal union with Denmark under the same King.
This was even more noteworthy when it is kept in mind that at that time other colonial powers were hard at work subjugating faraway countries with their bloodied swords and it is nearest at hand to mention their behaviour in Africa which was hardly to their credit.
But the independence struggle of the Icelanders under the leadership of Jón Sigurdsson was conducted without a shot being fired or a single man killed. This chapter of world history is even more noteworthy when it is scrutinised more closely and it is a beautiful rose for the Danes' buttonhole. The politicians who still believe that the gun and sword are the most persuasive means in the relationship between nations should be able to learn quite a lot from this.
The Danes respected Jón Sigurdsson
Industriousness, exactitude and prudence were characteristics which accompanied Jón Sigurdsson when he left his parental home and he cultivated them ever after. When he arrived in Copenhagen he did not decline to take part in the revelry and festivities of his friends and acquaintances. He was, in fact, the merriest of them all. But the fun never superseded his sense of duty. And he was always courteous whether he had to deal with the most powerful of the Danes, the Sovereign himself, or a young errand-boy in the Althing in Iceland.
These characteristics of the leader of the Icelanders in their struggle for freedom was evidently well liked by the Danes. Although a nation's fight for freedom is rarely won by a single individual it is evident from history that many influential Danes wanted to do most things for him although many of his fiercest adversaries were also among them. It must be practically unique in history that a colonial power should treat the leader of the liberation movement of their colony as the Danes did Jón Sigurdsson.
In this connection it can be mentioned that the archives of the government in Copenhagen were open and accessible to him. That is where he made the munitions for his fight. And even though it was clear to the Danes that Jón Sigurdsson was an adversary of their government it never prevented them from giving him preference when there was some work in his line that had to be performed although he never had a fixed position. They were usually able to pay him a salary even when the State Treasury was practically empty.
They returned the Icelanders' national heirlooms
The Danes and the Icelanders came finally to a parting of the ways on June 17 1944 - the birthday of Jón Sigurdsson. On that day the Icelanders proclaimed the founding of a Republic with the consent of the western powers and the Soviet Union. The United States under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt played an important part in this. Without the consent of these powers the Icelanders would not have been able to achieve this. Although the Danes were in a difficult situation, as Denmark was under German occupation at the time, this did not prevent the Danish King, Christian X, from sending the Icelanders a congratulatory telegram although he did want the two countries to continue their union.
It is food for thought for the nations of the world and establishes a precedent that soon after the severance of the union the Danes handed over to the Icelanders their spiritual national inheritance, the manuscripts of the sagas. This is comparable to the British opening the British Museum and handing, for instance, the Egyptians, their national treasures which are kept there.
People looked in wonder at such a leader
The contemporaries of Jón Sigurdsson said that his charisma, his looks and his bearing had been such that those who met him on the streets of Copenhagen stopped and looked back in wonder at this man who was so evidently a leader.
Did the Danish leaders perhaps realise, consciously or subconsciously, that a man of such noble appearance must be the defender of a just cause?