1918: The Year of Sovereignty, Polar Bears, Katla & Influenza

By Natalie Guttormsson


The following article is not as cheerful as some of our recent blog posts, but it is an important story in Iceland's history to share, especially during this time.



December 1st marks the day Iceland gained sovereignty from Denmark in 1918, known as Fullveldisdagurinn. Iceland had been under foreign rule since 1262 and although complete independence wouldn’t come until 1944, the 1918 achievement was worthy of celebration after decades of campaigning and negotiating.

Arnarhóll, Dec. 1 1918 - Ljósmyndasafn

In addition to the hard work that went into achieving sovereignty, 1918 was a very harsh year for Icelanders. While much of the world was still fighting World War I, Iceland was at war with nature. The winter of 1918 is known as the Great Frost Winter or Frostaveturinn mikli, the coldest winter of the twentieth century. The lowest recorded temperature was -37.9C (-36F) at Grímsstaðir á Fjöllum in North-East Iceland. That is very cold considering the average winter temperatures for Iceland are between 0C (32F) in the South and -10C (14F) in the North.


Due to the war, there was a coal shortage across Europe and at this time roughly 45% of Icelanders still lived in traditional turf houses. The winter was so cold that the waterway between Iceland and Greenland was filled with icebergs and the fjords were blocked by pack ice, trapping fishing vessels in the harbours. The ice also enabled approximately 27 polar bears to make their way to Iceland that year.


If the first part of 1918 was bad, the fall was worse.

1918 Katla Eruption - RÚV

On Friday, October 12th, the volcano Katla erupted. Katla is one of the largest volcanoes in Iceland and is partially covered by the Myrdalsjökull glacier, north-east of Vík in Southern Iceland. The eruption lasted until November 5, spreading ash that poisoned crops and flooding the plains below. Sunday October 13th was called “Dark Sunday” due to the thick amounts of ash in the air.


On October 19th, just one week after the eruption, a referendum was held in Iceland to approve the treaty for Sovereignty from Denmark. It was approved and was a crucial lead up to the December 1st declaration.


However, something dark also came to Iceland on that very same day. Influenza.


The disease came on three different boats that all arrived in Iceland on October 19th. One freighter from the US and one passenger boat from Copenhagen arrived in Reykjavík with the virus, and one British trawler brought the virus to Hafnarfjörður (a small fishing village at the time).


Within one month one fifth of Reykjavík was bedridden with influenza. Icelanders who weren’t living in turf houses were living in cramped living conditions, often with whole families living in just 1 or 2 room homes. Those that sought an escape from their crowded homes went to the cinemas which were worse for spreading the disease. An estimated 10,000 Icelanders were infected with influenza.

Children's Hospital, 1918 Reykjavík

(Photo credit at left: Iceland Magazine)


A 2018 article from Iceland Magazine wrote:

On the 19th of October 1918 the Spanish Flu spread to Iceland. The pandemic claimed the lives of as many as 540 people in total, more than half in Reykjavík. Two thirds of the townsfolk caught the infection, most becoming bedridden for days. The pandemic turned Reykjavík into a ghost town as businesses shut down, ships were not loaded, newspapers were not published and the telegram office closed.


Although the influenza arrived and spread quickly, the Icelandic people rallied together for a strategic community effort. Volunteers cared for the sick and fed the hungry. Generous donations were collected to support the effort these efforts. Aggressive quarantine measures were implemented to stop the spread of the virus. Much of the North, East and South of Iceland were spared the devastation that the capital experienced, due to a ban on travel, including watch posts to prevent anyone who had been in contact with the disease from crossing. The outbreak was brought under control by November 3rd, 1918.


Although December 1st was supposed to be a day of celebration, it was a sombre one as most planned activities were cancelled. Under these grave circumstances the Icelandic flag was raised for the first time and Jón Magnússon (I#191070) became the first Prime Minister of the Sovereign Icelandic State.


A quote from the Morgunblaðið newspaper that day read:

“Today, we stand face to face with the world as Icelanders, not as Danes – on our own responsibility, not on others’.”




Although the Covid 19 pandemic is not as deadly as the influenza of 1918, it’s not hard to draw parallels between the circumstances then and the circumstances now. Iceland has had sovereignty for 102 years, and once again the world is battling a widespread pandemic. The strategy against Covid-19 has obvious echoes from the past. The decisive action taken by the government task force and the collective action of the people to abide by the restrictions reflect lessons learned a century ago.


Although there are no checkpoints to prevent Icelanders from travelling, the message from the government is clear: Stay home. And although there are still some tourists arriving daily, the downtown core feels like a ghost town in many ways compared to the usual numbers of travellers this country has seen in recent years.


So while there may not be any celebrations of Fullveldisdagurinn this year either, we can be grateful for all the things we do have. And acknowledge the hardships our ancestors endured that century ago.



Sources

Icelandic Roots Database: https://www.icelandancestry.com


RÚV 1918 Katla Eruption: https://www.ruv.is/frett/1918-endalok-ekki-upphaf


Polar Bear Sightings in Iceland: https://www.icelandreview.com/news/unusually-frequent-visits-polar-bears/#:~:text=The%20oldest%20source%20of%20a,a%20short%20period%20of%20time


100 Years Spanish Flu Spread Iceland Left A Lasting Mark:

https://icelandmag.is/article/100-years-spanish-flu-spread-iceland-left-a-lasting-mark-emerging-nation


A Century of Sovereignty; Looking Back: https://www.icelandreview.com/culture/a-century-of-sovereignty-looking-back/


Katla Volcano: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katla_(volcano)



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