Read CHAPTER XLIII of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on


My first view of the capital of Iceland was through a chilling rain. A more desolate-looking place I had rarely if ever seen, though, like Don Quixote’s market-woman on the ass, it was susceptible of improvement under the influence of an ardent imagination. As a subject for the pencil of an artist, it was at least peculiar, if not picturesque. A tourist whose glowing fancies had not been nipped in the bud by the vigors of an extended experience might have been able to invest it with certain weird charms, but to me it was only the fag-end of civilization, abounding in horrible odors of decayed polypi and dried fish. A cutting wind from the distant Jokuls and a searching rain did not tend to soften the natural asperities of its features. In no point of view did it impress me as a cheerful place of residence except for wild ducks and sea-gulls. The whole country for miles around is a black desert of bogs and lava. Scarcely an arable spot is to be seen save on the tops of the fishermen’s huts, where the sod produces an abundance of grass and weeds. A dark gravelly slope in front of the town, dotted with boats, oars, nets, and piles of fish; a long row of shambling old store-houses built of wood, and painted a dismal black, varied by patches of dirty yellow; a general hodge-podge of frame shanties behind, constructed of old boards and patched up with drift-wood; a few straggling streets, paved with broken lava and reeking with offal from the doors of the houses; some dozens of idle citizens and drunken boatmen lounging around the grog-shops; a gang of women, brawny and weather-beaten, carrying loads of codfish down to the landing; a drove of shaggy little ponies, each tied to the tail of the pony in front; a pack of mangy dogs prowling about in dirty places looking for something to eat, and fighting when they got it this was all I could see of Reykjavik, the famous Icelandic capital.

The town lies on a strip of land between the harbor and a lagoon in the rear. It is said to contain a population of two thousand, and if the dogs and fleas be taken into consideration, I have no doubt it does. Where two thousand human beings can stow themselves in a place containing but one hotel, and that a very poor one, is a matter of wonder to the stranger. The houses generally are but one story high, and seldom contain more than two or three rooms. Some half a dozen stores, it is true, of better appearance than the average, have been built by the Danish merchants within the past few years; and the residence of the governor and the public University are not without some pretensions to style.

The only stone building in Reykjavik of any importance is the “Cathedral;” so called, perhaps, more in honor of its great antiquity than any thing imposing about its style or dimensions. At present it shows no indications of age, having been patched, plastered, and painted into quite a neat little church of modern appearance.

At each end of the town is a small gathering of sod-covered huts, where the fishermen and their families live like rabbits in a burrow. That these poor people are not all devoured by snails or crippled with rheumatism is a marvel to any stranger who takes a peep into their filthy and cheerless little cabins. The oozy slime of fish and smoke mingles with the green mould of the rocks; barnacles cover the walls, and puddles make a soft carpeting for the floors. The earth is overhead, and their heads are under the earth, and the light of day has no light job of it to get in edgewise, through the windows. The beaver-huts and badger-holes of California, taking into consideration the difference of climate, are palatial residences compared with the dismal hovels of these Icelandic fishermen. At a short distance they look for all the world like mounds in a grave-yard. The inhabitants, worse off than the dead, are buried alive. No gardens, no cultivated patches, no attempt at any thing ornamental relieves the dreary monotony of the premises. Dark patches of lava, all littered with the heads and entrails of fish; a pile of turf from some neighboring bog; a rickety shed in which the fish are hung up to dry; a gang of wolfish-looking curs, horribly lean and voracious; a few prowling cats, and possibly a chicken deeply depressed in spirits these are the most prominent objects visible in the vicinity. Sloth and filth go hand in hand.

The women are really the only class of inhabitants, except the fleas, who possess any vitality. Rude, slatternly, and ignorant as they are, they still evince some sign of life and energy compared with the men. Overtaxed by domestic cares, they go down upon the wharves when a vessel comes in, and by hard labor earn enough to purchase a few rags of clothing for their children. The men are too lazy even to carry the fish out of their own boats. At home they lie about the doors, smoking and gossiping, and too often drunk. Some are too lazy to get drunk, and go to sleep over the effort. In truth, the prevailing indolence among all classes is so striking that one can almost imagine himself in a Southern clime. There is much about Reykjavik to remind a Californian traveler of San Diego. The drunken fellows about the stores, and the racing of horses up and down the streets, under the stimulus of liquor rather than natural energy, sometimes made me feel quite at home.

On the morning after my arrival I called to see my young friend Jonasen, the governor’s son, and was most hospitably entertained by the family. I had a letter of introduction to the governor from the Minister of the Judiciary at Copenhagen, but thought it unnecessary to present it. His excellency is a good specimen of the better class of Icelanders simple, kind-hearted, and polite. My casual acquaintance with his son was sufficient to enlist his warmest sympathies. I thought he would destroy his equilibrium as well as my own by repeatedly drinking my health and wishing me a hearty welcome to Iceland. He said he had never seen a Californian before, and seemed astonished to find that they had noses, mouths, ears, and skins like other people. In one respect he paid me a practical compliment that I have rarely enjoyed in the course of my travels he spoke nearly as bad French as I did. Now I take it that a man who speaks bad French, after years of travel on the Continent of Europe, is worthy of some consideration. He is at least entitled to the distinction of having well preserved his nationality; and when any foreigner tries to speak it worse, but doesn’t succeed, I can not but regard it as a tribute of respect.

Young Jonasen, I was glad to see, had gotten over his struggle with the sardines, and was now in a fair way to enjoy life. His sister, Miss Jonasen, is a very charming young lady, well educated and intelligent. She speaks English quite fluently, and does the honors of the executive mansion with an easy grace scarcely to be expected in this remote part of the world. Both are natives of Iceland.

I should be sorry to be understood as intimating, in my brief sketch of Reykjavik, that it is destitute of refined society. There are families of as cultivated manners here as in any other part of the world; and on the occasion of a ball or party, a stranger would be surprised at the display of beauty and style. The University and public library attract students from all parts of the island, and several of the professors and literary men have obtained a European reputation. Two semi-monthly newspapers are published at Reykjavik, in the Icelandic language. They are well printed, and said to be edited with ability. I looked over them very carefully from beginning to end, and could see nothing to object to in any portion of the contents.