Herring and Class Struggle

Capitalism came late to Iceland. At the end of the 19th century this large, wind-swept, thinly populated island was made up of small towns, farms and seasonal fishing stations. Then European capitalists saw another Klondike in the herring-rich waters of the north Atlantic..

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Lives unfettered by possessions or a home

Apologies to Comrade Markin for the slow response to your question. Commenting on To Talk about Women's Oppression We have to Talk about Class, you asked,

‘about the position of women you've described in early 20th Century Iceland. I get the impression that although the same material oppression was experienced as elsewhere in early capitalism, there is a countervailing tendency in that women worked from very early on in the development of capitalism. (In Britain, for instance, it wasn't until the end of the Industrial Revolution that large numbers of women were pulled into the factories). Is this impression correct and, if so, is there any cultural cause behind it?’

It’s true that women in Iceland were at the forefront of Iceland’s transition to capitalism, though women in Britain were also down the mines before they went into the factories.

To understand the way women became industrial workers we need to understand the peculiarities of Iceland’s material conditions and the legal constraints placed upon its peasantry to suit the economic demands of its ruling class.

Iceland was one of the last parts of Europe to be settled from the end of the 9th late C and roughly all the habitable land had been divided up into homesteads by the early 13th C. But the pioneers of one age, the rebellious class that ran away from the Norwegian King Harold Fairhair, were not so keen on rebellion when they had established their farms and needed obedient servants and farmworkers.

Norwegian rule gave way to a more powerful Danish state and monopoly trade with little investment through 17th & 18th C.

By the late 18th C the Icelandic ruling class, made up of landowners, Danish or Icelandic officers of the Danish Crown and its church Lutheranism, had become a conservative force that was actively blocking development. Farm leases were often very short, even two or three years which did not allow people time to improve their land and buildings. Then if tenants did manage to make improvements the rents often went up.[1] There was soil erosion and loss of trees yet the old technologies of drainage and manuring though well known in mainland Europe were barely used, so land was much less productive than it could have been.  

The legal obligations imposed on the peasantry by the Vistarband system saw any peasant family as a source of new paupers so the authorities actively tried to ensure that most people could not marry. By 1850 35- 40% of the population over 15 yrs old were servants. That is unmarried indoor and outdoor workers contracted 1 year at a time, for bed, board + low wages. They were essential to the hay harvest and in the winter women could work on wool processing while the men were sent to fish, for which they received no extra pay with all profit going to their employer. Added to this was a culture of young people being sent out to work and grow up on a farm away from that of their parents as part of their education.[2]

This meant that Iceland had a large highly mobile workforce that owned far fewer material possessions than a person could carry. For instance in the parish records in 1816 Sigríður Einarsdóttir aged 27 was a servant at the farm Hruni in Southern Iceland. In 1818 she moved a few miles west to Þrándarholt in the parish of Hrepphólar until she moved to Miðfell from1824 til 1836. She then moved to another farm in Hrepphólar, Dalbær from 1837-39 and in 1840 moved back to the parish of Hruni and worked at Syði Sandlækur until 1844. The following year Sigríður went back to Miðfell and moved again in 1847 to the parish of Hruni where she was registered as a servant in Hrunakrókur from 1847-50 moving within the same parish in the early 1850’s to Bryðjuholt where she was still registered as a servant in the 1855 census.

In 1816 16 year old Gróa Bjarnadóttir was also in Southern Iceland in the parish of Hruni as a servant at the farm Efrasel. From 1819-22 she moved to Berghylur in the same parish. From 1822-28 Gróa moved to Skipholt in the neighbouring parish of Tungfell. From 1829-1840 she doesn’t show up in the records but in 1840 was registered as a housekeeper in Gröf in the parish of Hruni. She remained at Gröf but after 1855 as a servant. In 1860 she was a servant at Þverspyrna still in the parish of Hruni, Southern Iceland and her final years were at Haukholt in Tungufell where she died in 1864.[3]

There were many reasons why people chose to move; to be near friends or family, to follow a good employer as they changed farm, for better wages and conditions or aging servants may not have had their contracts renewed, others could be sacked though not always with impunity.

'In 1916 Guðrún Þorleifsdóttir was sacked her for refusing to act as an unpaid servant to the local merchant in her free time. Guðrún had been hired to work in the hay and had brought her very young baby with her as was usual, and so argued that at the end of her working day she could expect to be free look after her child and herself. The farmer argued that she had to serve the merchant because the farm women had always done so. The farmer threatened to take her to court but let her off with just being sacked and turned out of the house. In January 1917 the Court found in Guðrún’s favour and the farmer had to pay her severance compensation.' 

Women in Iceland have never been a 'reserve army of labour'. However little they have been paid in money or board and lodgings, and however bad their conditions, they have lived by their work and when new opportunities came with fish and urbanisation they seized them with both hands.


[1] Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Studia Historica Upsaliensia 154 Family and Household in Iceland 1801-1930 pg 79

  [2] Loftur Guttormsson cited Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Studia Historica Upsaliensia 154 Family and Household in Iceland 1801-1930pg 60

[3] Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Studia Historica Upsaliensia 154 Family and Household in Iceland1801-1930pg 82

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