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Nineteenth Century Education in/of Iceland: A Journey of Learning for Pliny Miles - 1852

By Brian Borgford

“In fourteen hundred and ninety-two,

Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.”

People of a certain age will remember the little jingle reinforcing that Christopher Columbus discovered North America in the year 1492 — the first European to set foot on North American soil. In recent years we have learned that Columbus was not the first, but rather it was the Vikings, the early settlers of Iceland, who not only arrived in North America centuries earlier than Columbus, but they established settlements on the North American continent. As Sunna Olafson Furstenau pointed out in her January 5th, 2021 article, Christopher Columbus learned the truth about the early Icelanders from his 1477 voyage to Iceland. 

Although we in North America have only learned these facts in recent years, Pliny Miles (American journalist and author) learned the truth when he spent July of 1852 visiting and travelling in Iceland. Pliny received a thorough education on Iceland—its people, its history, and its rugged land.

In his book, Norðurfari: Or Rambles in Iceland, published in 1854, Pliny Miles paints a vivid picture of life in Iceland in 1852. His book reads like a narrative encyclopedia of Iceland.  

In his extensive travels throughout the southwest part of the island nation, Pliny spent quality time with all parts of life in Iceland. He hobnobbed with leaders and academics, and he slept in the turf houses of the farmers and fishermen in the less populated locales. He formed a stronger bond and appreciation for Icelanders than Austrian traveller, Ida Pfeiffer, who made a similar trip seven years earlier. [*] Pliny had complete disdain for Ida’s negative description of the people of Iceland. He refers to her as a “trollop” who may not have been truthful about many of her escapades.

Pliny goes into detail about the settlement era of Iceland. He dives into the political system and religious background and beliefs. He provides an extensive discussion of the Icelandic Sagas and their origins. And he discusses the rugged beauty of the land, its flora and fauna. If you are interested in the daily routines of farming and fishing, Pliny has a thorough description. 

In one dramatic chapter, Pliny describes his treacherous ascent to the peak of Mount Hekla. Having trekked to the top and down again, he disputes whether Ida Pfieffer made the same trip in her 1845 visit to the country, as she described in her book.

Pliny Miles, Author and Traveller
Pliny Miles, Author and Traveller

Pliny made lifelong friends in Iceland, and he shared some of his correspondence with them in the years following his trip. Many of the people he encountered in 1852 can be found in the Icelandic Roots database. I tried to document as many as I could identify. For example, while sailing from Copenhagen to Reykjavik aboard the “little schooner Sölöven”, he travelled with Icelanders, one of which was Emma Gudrun Augusta Jónsson / Johnsson (IRI745512), a thirty-one-year-old lady who had just finished her studies in Denmark and was returning to Iceland to join her sister to establish the first school for ladies in the country. 

Pliny never travelled near where my ancestors farmed, but he walked the land at the same time my great-great-grandparents farmed only a two-day ride further north. It was exciting to read in detail what they experienced in their day-to-day life.

[*] See Brian's discussion of Ida Pfeiffer's book, Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North in the article, "Iceland: An Outsider's View (1845)."


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