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Margaret Willson Tells of Icelandic Seawomen

Updated: Mar 10

On March 4th, Icelandic Roots hosted a conversation with anthropologist and writer Margaret Willson. You may view her presentation here to learn more about her research and the writing of two books on Icelandic seawomen.


Margaret Willson, Anthropologist and Author
Margaret Willson, Anthropologist and Author

About the Author


Anthropologist and author, Margaret Willson has researched and worked in Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, Australia, Europe, and Iceland. Her eclectic non-academic jobs have included abalone diving and being a deckhand on fishing boats off the south coast of Tasmania.


She received her Ph.D. in Anthropology from the London School of Economics and is currently an Affiliate Associate Professor with the Departments of Anthropology and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, and a Senior Associate Scientist at the Stafánsson Arctic Institute in Iceland. Her previous narrative nonfiction books include Seawomen of Iceland: Survival on the Edge (University of Washington Press 2016, Finalist Washington State Nonfiction Book of the Year 2017) and Dance Lest We All Fall Down: Breaking Cycles of Poverty in Brazil and Beyond (University of Washington Press 2010, Silver Medal in Multicultural Nonfiction, Independent Book Awards).



Margaret Willson, has written "Seawomen of Iceland" and more recently, "Woman, Captain and Rebel", an historical narrative nonfiction account of Iceland's most famous female sea captain who constantly fought for women's rights and equality, and who also solved one of the country's most notorious robberies.


The Icelandic Roots Book Club hosted Margaret on February 1st with her book "Woman, Captain and Rebel". Our Book Club director, Heather, commented "If you just read one book this year, I hope it is this one". She also cautioned that it is a compelling story; you will need to block some time for reading as this is a hard book to set aside.


Woman, Captain, Rebel: The Extraordinary True Story of a Daring Icelandic Sea Captain  (Sourcebooks 2023) is a biography of the remarkable Thurídur Einarsdóttir (IR# I546244). It also reflects a vivid reality of 19th century Icelandic life.


History would have us believe that women did not become sea captains in historical times. This one did. In all ways unconventional, Thurídur Einarsdóttir became the most celebrated fishing captain of her time. She also started wearing trousers while still a teen, stood up for justice for herself and her fellow Icelanders, and, while being blackmailed into assisting the oppressive authorities because of her renowned observational skills, solved one of the country’s most notorious robberies.


Sourced in Iceland’s remarkably rich written record, Woman, Captain, Rebel, while completely nonfiction, reads likes an adventure novel. Both horrifying and magnificent, this story will captivate readers from the first page and keep them thinking long after they turn the last.

 


An excerpt from Woman, Captain, Rebel:


South Iceland, February 5, 1812


They’d stayed out too long.


Captain Jón Rich had only taken his six-oar wooden fishing boat out to begin with because he’d seen Captain “Farmer” Jón taking his out. Jón Rich prided himself on always getting more fish than anyone else. He certainly wasn’t going to let Farmer outfish him. Even if all the other boats elected to remain ashore.


Thurídur, admittedly his best deckhand and brilliant at reading weather, had told him to return early as she expected the weather to change. Captain Jón Rich had scoffed. He saw only calm seas, no breakers. Despite Thurídur’s warning, he certainly wasn’t going in before Farmer.


That was a mistake. As if answering Thurídur’s assessment, a sudden strong wind sprang up, pushing them toward the lava-littered shore. Quickly the crew set their oars to race toward home. But it was too late. High surf already smashed against the rocks. It would shatter their boats in seconds.


“We need to head to Thorlákshöfn!” Thurídur shouted to her captain, naming a community further west that had a semblance of a harbor.


Captain Jón Rich paused. Thorlákshöfn was a long row away; few from their community landed there. Then he considered the raging surf in front of them. Thurídur was right. Thorlákshöfn was their only chance. He gave the nod and his crew changed direction, now heading west, parallel to shore. After a moment’s hesitation, Farmer instructed his crew to follow them.


By the time the boats reached Thorlákshöfn, it was dark. Enormous waves slammed against the harbor cliffs in sheets of ghostly froth. Seawater drenched their already sweat-soaked bodies.


Behind them, Farmer’s boat careened, rising, then disappearing behind the swell. He’d approached the harbor on a different tack so waves now slapped his boat’s flank instead of from directly behind.  Suddenly a wall of water smashed over his boat and washed two men overboard.


Jón Gamlason, another excellent deckhand on Jón Rich’s boat, slammed his fist on the gunnel beside him. "You are taking your ship to Hell!" he shouted in Farmer's direction.


A second wave hit Farmer’s boat and washed another man overboard.


“This should not be happening,” Jón Gamlason said, his tone now cold. He twisted his face into a defiant grin that everyone recognized as courage.


Their youngest deckhand, a mere boy, stared at Farmer’s boat in terror. “Will any of us survive?” he asked, too loud, his voice ready to crack.


“Shut your trap!” Jón Gamlason snapped, his quick anger meant to crush the boy’s panic but also born of pain. Farmer’s crew included people he loved.


Rising chop and deepening swell increased the size and pitch of the churning waves. Then the full black body of a wave crashed flat onto their heads and into Jón Rich’s boat.


“For the Saints of our Father, bail!” Jón Rich shouted.


But it didn’t matter. Water steadily filled the boat no matter how hard they bailed. Sinking seemed inevitable.


Just then Farmer tried to catch a wave into the harbor, but his boat was too full of water or he didn’t catch it right. His boat smashed into the far cliff and threw more men into the sea.


“Jón Gamlason,” Thurídur shouted. “Take the helm!”


Captain Jón Rich looked at her startled, but Jón Gamlason and his entire crew sat waiting for him to follow Thurídur’s command.


Jón Rich shrugged and traded places with Gamlason. They were all going to drown anyway.



Thurídur Einarsdóttir's winter fishing hut in Þorlákshöfn still exists.
Thurídur Einarsdóttir's winter fishing hut in Þorlákshöfn still exists.

Margret provided a link to purchase the book from Bookshop. Purchasing from this site ensures a percentage of the sale will be given to the Seattle-Reykjavik sister city association.


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