Along the rocky black coastline of Vatnsleysuströnd in the south of Iceland, one is reminded deeply of man´s insignificance to the forces of nature. It is here that we are able to witness the evidence first hand that it is truly nature that dictates our survival. It is here that you can stand in fields of moss covered lava that stretch out from the mountains to the sea and feel the cold hardened insides of the earth that thousands of years earlier spewed forth to create land mass. Iceland is a volcanic island and it´s natural powers were and still are a force to be reckoned with.
There is a haunting beauty in the rawness of the landscape and I often wonder if the Icelanders of old loved it or cursed it. We only have to travel back to 1783 to see Iceland’s population brought to its knees, with the power of nature and its catastrophic effects, after the Laki eruptions and its downpour of lava and toxic gases causing the deaths of up to ten thousand people in Iceland.
It was only thirty-four years after this catastrophic event, in the winter of 1817 that my own great great grandfather Björn Einarsson was born. It was a dark age in the history of Iceland. The common people lived in poverty and constant hardship brought on by the effects of natural disaster, disease and constant bad weather for agriculture. Not only that, they also had to contend with the hardships brought on by man. Icelanders were a people oppressed by their Danish sovereign, who made money from Iceland’s resources, but did little to help its subjects. This compounded with foreign wars such as the American War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, left Iceland in dire shortage of imported necessities such as salt, iron, timber, grain, fishing hooks and also hindered their ability to export their own goods.
The common people of Iceland did the best they could with what they had and it was into this hard world of fighting for survival that Björn was born.
Björn Einarsson was a farmer and a fisherman. A man noted for his good skills working with timber and metal. He was also the father of ten children, the son of a male midwife, a providing husband and a brother with thirteen siblings. He was noted as being a man respected by his peers. His children were good people as was his father so I know, through the deeds of this ancestors and descendants that he too was a good man.
Björn was born on the 14th of December 1817 at a farm called Eyrarkot on the south coastal peninsula of Iceland in a region known as Suðurnes. He was one of fourteen children and the second eldest son of the much respected male midwife Einar Jónsson and his wife Hallvör Björnsdóttir. His parents came from humble beginnings and spent most of their lives in poverty and in poor health but the people of Suðurnes loved them for their generosity and willingness to help others in need.
Björn’s father Einar delivered 300 babies in his time and was often called out late at night and in all kinds of weather. It was said there was no man like Einar around Suðurnes, in doing what he did to help and support the community. Einar was also a self taught healer and was called out to doctor the ill. It is not unreasonable to believe that Einar may have been the one to deliver his own son Björn and that of his other thirteen children and many grandchildren.
Björn’s siblings were: Jón (1814-1896), Guðrún (1816), Margrét (1821), Randalín (1823-1870), Helga (1825-1889), Guðríður (1828), Árni (1830), Einar (1831), Guðlaug (1833) and Júlíana (1835). Only ten siblings were listed in Íslendingabók. I suspect the three other children born, died as babies.
Björn was raised in his parents household. They lived in a turf house shared by two families. He would have been expected to help out from a young age and may have taken on tasks such as working wool, tending to animals, emptying chamber pots and taking on the role of shepard among other duties. Going to school was not an option in those days but Björn would have received a basic education with the ability to read and write through the teachings of the Church, whose responsibility was for him to read, so that he could adopt its religious teachings. Reading was a major part of the Icelanders life, especially over winter during the Kvöldvaka, when the whole household would sit under the candlelight and read stories from the bible and other literature available while the household would complete menial tasks such as weaving, wool carding and mending or making tools.
Björn stayed in his parents household well into his adult life. He may have worked as a fisherman or as a farm hand during that time. On the 16th of November 1849, at the age of thirty-two, Björn married twenty-eight year old Þorgerður Pálsdóttir. She was born on the 20th of February 1821 at Fróðholtshól in Landeyjum, the daughter of Páll Pálsson and Steinunn Guðmundsdóttir and one of sixteen children. Þorgerður was said to be a most generous woman, and reached out to those that were less fortunate than herself.
It is uncertain how Björn and Þorgerður met. The census of 1845 shows her as a worker in a household called Skúmstaðir in Rangavallasýsla and Björn was living with his parents at Réttarhús in Gullbringusýsla. These areas are not overly close in distance. Þorgerður’s father died in 1839 leaving her mother Steinnun a widow, but she moved into her sons home after his death. They were farmers at Fróðholtshól. We can perhaps imagine that Björn may have been seeking summer work in that area, as was common for men of the Suðurnesjum to do, for cash work, though stories are often told of them travelling north rather than east, but it is a possibility. Otherwise, it may have been Þorgerður that found work in a household, near Björn’s home and that was how they met.
Björn and Þorgerður had ten children. Nine of these children grew to adulthood. They were Sigurður (1850-1931), Þorbjörg (1852), Guðmundur (1853), Sveinbjörn (1854-1931), Valgerður (1857-1941), Páll (1859-1941), Júlíana (1861-1935), Steinnun (1863-1932) and Þorbergur (1867-1943).
In 1850, Björn and Þorgerður were living at Miðhús in Suðurnes, in a turf home. There were two families living in this house. In one part of the house lived his parents and three of his siblings, Árni (20), Helga (24), Júlíana (15) and a thiry-one year old fisherman by the name of Árni Jónsson. In the other part of the house was Björn, his new wife and his eighteen year old brother Einar.
Björn and his father were listed in the 1850 census as ‘tomthús’ men which meant they lived off the income that fishing provided and did not farm at the time.
Five years later in 1855, Björn, Þorgerður and their four children Sigurður (5), Þorbjörg (4), Guðmundur (3) and my great grandfather Sveinbjörn (1) were living at a new residence, a farm near the ocean called Narfakot, in Vatnsleysuströnd. This was on farming land, so Björn was able to house sheep on his property and also fish over the winter, if he needed, which provided an added income for the large family.
Björn and Þorgerður lived at Narfakot nearly their whole married lives. Their children were raised there by the windy sea where the fish was aplenty and they grew to become successful and well respected adults.
Björn died on the 14th of March in 1894 at the age of 76. He lost the love of his life Þorgerður, five years earlier on the 24th of March 1889 at Narfakot. She was sixty-eight years old. After the death of their parents, their sons, bachelor brothers Páll and Sigurður continued running the farm at Narfakot, sometimes with tenants, at other times alone. They died as old men aged well into their eighties.
Below is a poem written by Björn’s son Sveinbjörn and I like to think it is a reflection of the sort of persons Björn taught his children to be. To me, it is a reflection of the kind of man his son Sveinbjörn was as well as the people he came from. It is difficult to translate to English but I am told that this poem is the advice given to a young man that honesty and friendship is the way to win the hearts of others.
Heilræði við Ungan Mann.
Mannlífs braut er myrk og hál
millum krappra boða,
æskumannsins óspilt sál
er þar stödd í voða.
Því er bezt á lífsins leið
að leggja dygðum búinn,
hjálpar þá í hverri neyð
himnesk von og trúin.
Vinur hverjum vertu’ í þraut
virtu’ hið göfga’ og sanna,
svo þú hreppir heims á braut
hylli guðs og manna.
-Sveinbjörn Björnsson, Ljóðmæli
Bárðarson, Hjálmar R., Ísland Svipur lands og Þjóðar, Reykjavík, 1982
Björnsson, Sveinbjörn, Ljóðmæli, Fjelagsprentsmiðjan, Reykjavík, 1924
Finnbogason, Guðmundur A., Í Bak og Fyrir: Frásagnir af Suðurnesjum, 1985
Hjálmarsson, Jón R., History of Iceland: From the Settlement to the Present Day, Iceland Review, Reykjavik, 1993
Jóhannsdóttir, Arnbjörg Linda, Medicinal Plants of Iceland: Collection, Preparation and Uses, Mal og Menning, Reykjavík, 2012
Sigmundsdóttir, Alda, The Little Book of the Icelanders: In the Old Days, Enska textasmidjan, Reykjavík, 2014
Þjóðskjálasafn Íslands Manntöl, The National Archives Census Database, Manntalið for Björn Einarsson 1835, 1840, 1845, 1850, 1855, 1860, 1870, 1880, 1890, www.mannatal.is
(Accessed through the website http://www.timarit.is)
Kunnugur, 1932, ‘Ekkjan Steinnun Björnsdóttir’, Visir, 14 May 1932
Kristjánsson, K, 1931, ‘Sveinbjörn Björnsson, skáld’, Morgunblaðið, 1 November 1931, pg 8
Vinur, 1943, ‘Minningaorð um Þorberg Björnsson, steinsmið’, Morgunblaðið, 19 January 1943, pg 7