History of Iceland

History of Iceland

Explore the history of Iceland, the Land of Fire and Ice: discover who were its first settlers and delve into its Viking cultural heritage.

Iceland's first visitors

While tourism in Iceland has grown exponentially over the last decade, there may have been "tourists" visiting Iceland thousands of years ago. It is believed that one of the first to set foot on the Land of Fire and Ice was the Greek explorer Pytheas, who in around 330 BC wrote of an island that was six days north of the British Isles by boat. Could this have been Iceland?

Archaeological evidence suggests that a group of Gaelic monks, fleeing from Viking-occupied Ireland, settled on Iceland, but they didn't last there long. The first written records of settlement date from the 9th century and show the Vikings themselves reaching the island and making it their own.

The arrival of the Vikings

The political and social situation in Norway and the British Isles led to mass emigration, and the fleeing Vikings found Iceland purely by chance. A number of Scandinavian sailors arrived on the island accidentally, having got lost on their travels, and it was one of these, Flóki Vilgerdarson, who gave the country its current name: Ísland, or Iceland, Land of Ice

The first permanent settler is considered to be a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson who arrived in 871 and soon founded the town of Reykjavik, or "Smoking Bay" after the geothermal steam rising from the earth. Historic objects remaining from this important period of Iceland's past can be found in the National Museum of Iceland, including Viking horns, masks and sculptures.

The birth of Iceland

As Iceland's population grew, so did the need for organisation at a national level. Thus, in 930, the Alþingi (Althing), or Icelandic Parliament, was established, making it one of the world's oldest existing parliaments. The Althing convened each summer in Thingvellir National Park, where representative chieftains, or Goðar, amended laws, settled disputes and appointed juries.

The parliament ran Iceland successfully for a number of years until they were faced with a complicated dilemma: should Iceland be pagan, the religion of most of the Norse-god worshipping settlers... or Christian, under pressure from Europe? Around the year 1000, under threat of a civil war between the two religious groups, a chieftain was appointed to decide the future of the country. He decided that Iceland should convert to Christianity as a whole, but that pagans would be allowed to worship privately.

Crisis & colonisation

The 11th and 12th centuries saw the diminishing control of the centralised parliament and different clans fighting for power instead, leading to a period known as the Sturlung Era in the first half of the 13th century, named after the most powerful Icelandic family at the time. During those years, confrontations between private militias and looting of farms and villages were constant: Iceland was in complete chaos.

Faced with the island in crisis, King Haakon of Norway saw an opportunity to take over the country, and in 1281 Iceland was absorbed into his kingdom. This political crisis was compounded by the eruption of the Hekla Volcano in 1104, which destroyed cattle and crops, and thus the country's economy. What's more, at the end of the 13th century the Black Death spread throughout Iceland and killed half the population.

In 1397, Iceland became part of the Kingdom of Denmark after Denmark and Norway joined under the Union of Kalmar. Danish domination over Iceland would last until the early 20th century, and the ensuing period of history was dark, marked by witch hunts in the Westfjords, pirate attacks in places like Vestmannaeyjar and more volcanic eruptions.

Icelandic independence

It wasn't until the 19th century that a strong nationalist sentiment emerged among the Icelandic population, prompted by similar movements across Europe and lead by Jón Sigurðsson. In 1843 a new Althing was assembled and in 1874, a thousand years after the first settlement on the island, Denmark granted Iceland a constitution and home rule.

The road to full independence was not easy, as Iceland was once again experiencing an economic and demographic crisis due to the massive emigration of workers in search of opportunities. Another devastating volcanic eruption in 1875, this time of the Askja Volcano, poisoned many Icelandic livestock.

World War I isolated Iceland, with food shortages and declining living standards a worry, however, the country's competent control of internal affairs and international relations lead to Denmark recognising it as a sovereign state in 1918. The occupation of Denmark during Second World War severed communication between the countries, and although Iceland refused British offers of protection against Nazi Germany in order to remain neutral, when the British Army invaded in 1940, there was no resistance.

This occupation by the Brits, and later by the US Army, worked wonders for Iceland, reducing unemployment, boosting the economy and ultimately leading to Icelandic independence, which was declared on June 17 1944 with the proclamation of the Republic of Iceland. This date is still today the most important holiday in the country.

Iceland today

The 20th century, much like the rest of Icelandic history, was turbulent. After the end of World War II, Iceland became one of the most important Cold War enclaves between the United States and the Soviet Union due to its geographical position. Even today, the remains of American military planes can be seen in the Westfjords and near Vík.

Iceland also had its own conflict between the 1950s and 1970s: the Cod Wars with Great Britain. Iceland's economic development and need to expand its fishing radius was not welcomed, but after two decades of dispute, the British government eventually gave in and accepted Icelandic conditions on catch limits and reduced the number of British fishing vessels in waters near Iceland.

Since the end of the Cod Wars, Iceland has developed economically, despite a number of ups and downs. In 2008, it returned to the forefront of the international scene by suffering one of the greatest economic and political crises in recent history. Fortunately, Iceland managed to recover after countless citizen protests and to turn its back on the banking system that had collapsed. Today, the unemployment rate in Iceland is one of the lowest in the world and its economy is one of the most buoyant.