‘There is hardly anything as beautiful as the sea on good days, or clear nights, when it dreams and the gleam of the moon is its dream. But the sea is not a bit beautiful, and we hate it more than anything else when the waves rise dozens of metres above the boat, when the sea breaks over it and, no matter how much we wave our hands, invoke God and Jesus, it drowns us like wretched whelps. Then all are equal. Rotten bastards and good men, giants and laggards, the happy and the sad. There are shouts, a few frantic gestures, and then it´s as if we were never here, the dead body sinks, the blood within it cools, memories turn to nothing, fish come and nibble lips that were kissed yesterday and spoke the words that meant everything, nibble the shoulders that carried the youngest child piggyback, and the eyes see no longer, they are at the bottom of the ocean.” -pg 8, Heaven and Hell, Jón Kalman Stefánsson
I begin this post with this excerpt from a book I am reading about a young Icelandic fisherman who loses his best friend to the sea on a fishing expedition at the turn of the twentieth century. This is a fiction novel, but it speaks a truth about how Icelanders must have felt about the ocean. It was an event that occurred all too often in Iceland´s history. The sea stole many lives. It was therefore not a surprise that this excerpt also sadly reflects the fate of one of my own ancestors, my three times great grandfather, Albert Jónsson.
Fishing played a major role in the lives of many Icelanders, whose island sits in the North Atlantic ocean within short distance of some of the world´s richest fishing grounds. Fishing was vital to the Icelander´s survival but the life of a fisherman was risky and uncertain as weather conditions could be unpredictable and the sea could change from calm to crazy in a matter of hours.
For centuries, it was a part of the Icelandic way of life for men to farm in the summers and fish over the winter period, if the farm had fishing permits. Only those farms near the ocean had the rights to fish and if a farmer owned a boat, he could hire a crew.
Albert was one of those men who left their homes over the winter for fishing huts scattered across the coastline where boat landings were possible. Rowing was taken up in wooden open boats called a sexæring or sixereen, meaning six oared boat. They also rowed eight oared boats called an áttæring. A crew of 6 to 8 strong men manned these boats, including the foreman, who was responsible for reading weather conditions and would make the decision whether they would row that day or not. As a fishermen Albert would have had to endure not only hours on end in rough or calm seas, but also the constant feeling of being cold and wet. His fishing clothes would have been made from the skin of sheep, cured and oiled and his shoes of sheepskin or fishskin, which did not do much to keep the water out. In later years, rubber shoes were introduced, which made a big difference in fishing footwear.
It was the winter of 1858 that my ancestor Albert Jónsson, a young man of 32 was claimed by the sea, along with all his crew. They had been rowing out from Ósvör, in Bolungarvík, not far from the mountains and fjords, where he was born and raised. It would be a few days before his wife received news of the accident, a few days before she would be forced to face the world anew as a widower with two young boys under the age of seven.
What a hard life for the wife of a fisherman!. How many times had she stood by the door of her turf house, and watched her husband walk away, a knot in her belly, praying under her breath to God, ‘please spare my husband, please let him return to us’.? Oh, the elation she must have felt in her heart as she remembered in times past, his strong figure in the distance, walking the track, alongside their mountain towards home, his pack heavily loaded with fresh fish and other necessities. The look on his face must have been one of weariness after a 3 hour walk in the wintry white landscape, but the spark in his eyes, would speak of a joy and love for the family that awaited him.
Albert Jónsson was one of many good men lost in the prime of his life to the sea, but his story begins in 1826 with his birth at Tannanes in Önundarfjörður, on the 11th of January. Tannanes was a farm run by his parents Elín Eiríksdóttir and Jón Ólafsson. Albert was the oldest of five children- Ragnheiður (1827-1874), Þuríður (1829-1830), Ólafur (1830-1895) and Guðfinnur (1833-1834). Both Þuríður and Guðfinnur died as babies as was all too common in those days. Elín and Jón came from respected people, including well known bishops, priests and councilmen in the Westfjords region of Iceland.
At the age of 15, after the death of his father in 1841 Albert left home . His mother Elín remarried a man named Einar Jónsson and went on to have two more children with her new husband. They were Guðmundur (1844-1901) and Kristín Hólmfríður Hallbjörg (1846).
Albert was working at Holt in Önundarfjörður for the next five years as a general labourer. He was 20 by the time he came to Suðureyri in Súgandafjörð in 1846 and it was in this household that he first met his future wife Guðfinna Þorleifdóttir. She was only 14 at the time and had recently arrived in Suðureyri with her father Þorleifur Þorkelsson from Fjallaskaga in Dýrafirði. He had been the previous head of the house for Suðureyri. At the time his daughter Kristín Þorleifsdóttir and her husband Guðmundur Guðmundsson ran the household at Suðureyri.
Albert was a wanderer over the next few years, moving from farm to farm for work as a labourer. He left Suðureyri and was at Laugum for one year and then went to Hjarðardal in Önundarfirði and finally he arrived back at Suðureyri in 1849.
Upon his return to Suðureyri, Guðfinna was a young 17 year old woman and 23 year old Albert couldn´t keep away any longer. It was generally frowned upon to be with a man unless you were married but less than two years later, on the 19th of January, their first child Kristján Albertsson was born at Suðureyri. Albert was 25 and Guðfinna 19.
That spring the young family moved to another farm in the district called Bær and it was while they lived there that they married on the 19th of September, nine months after Kristján was born.
Over the next years the family moved from Bær to Stað and Suðureyri but only stayed one or two years in at each place. It wasn´t until the spring of 1856 that Albert and Guðfinna finally became masters of their own farm when they took over the lease of Gilsbrekka in Súgandafjörður and moved there with their two sons Kristján and Jóhannes, who was in his first year. It is not known whether other people came with them, but the previous farmer at Gilsbrekka Egill Ólafsson stayed on, along with his wife and they owned some sheep.
Gilsbrekka is a small parcel of land, about 300sqm. The homefield was small and the outerfields difficult to work, but the grazing land was very good and sometimes grazeable over winter. Albert only kept a small amount of livestock on his land which meant that the household was not overly profitable. To makeup for this Albert took to rowing in Bolungarvík in the winters. In good conditions the mountain road is easy to walk and only takes about 3 hours from the farm at Gilsbrekka to Malir in Bolungarvík and even shorter to Ósi if rowing from there. It was therefore possible for Albert to drop home on weekends when the opportunity presented itself and he was able to provide the family with fresh fish and other necessities.
To be able to work away from home over the winters, Albert would have needed to have people at home who could care for the livestock and he would have likely used Egill Ólafsson to help with the livestock and assist his wife as needed.
It is unknown whether Albert rowed in Bolungarvík the winter 1856-1857, but it is likely so. The following winter he was rowing from Ósvör in Bolungarvík, but it was a hard winter and on the 2nd of February 1858, Albert´s ship disappeared with all crew on board.
To ensure her survival and that of her sons, Guðfinna kept the farm running, but to do that she needed help. In the spring of 1858 she hired a farm manager, a promising young man by the name of Sigurður Jónsson. He was 24 years old when he took over the running of the farm. Two years later Guðfinna and Sigurður were married.
Þorvaldsson, Kristján, 1962, ‘Kristján Albertsson Bóndi á Suðureyri’, Ársrit Sögufélags Ísfirðinga, pg 6-8.
Sigmundsdóttir, Alda, 2014, ‘The Little Book of The Icelanders: In the Old Days’, Prentmidlun, Reykjavik