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..

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Solidarity at Sea

Iceland is an island surrounded by some of the richest fishing grounds anywhere in the world and its history and the development of its working class is inextricably linked to fishing. Crews from Britain have been fishing off the coasts of Iceland for at least 600 years [1]. By the 15th century Iceland was already famous for its stockfish, [Icelandic, harðfiskur]—the wind-dried haddock and cod [2] that stayed edible for months, was light, portable and could feed travelers crossing oceans and continents.

However dangerous winter fishing was—and every coastal town in Britain and Iceland has memories of disasters and heroic rescues—the fish was too valuable to leave alone. Brian W. Lavery’s book, The Headscarf Revolutionaries: Lillian Bilocca and the Hull Triple trawler disaster, published last year tells the story of the 58 men who died and one who survived when three Hull trawlers—the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland—were lost within a few days in the winter of 1968 off Iceland. 

Winter deep-sea trawling was notoriously dangerous at the time when British ships often didn’t have the latest safety equipment because owners wouldn’t pay for it. A ton of ice could form on a deck in minutes in foul weather and less than 20 tonnes could turn over a 657-tonne ship like the Kingston Peridot. It had to be chipped off by hand in storms when the men didn’t even have safety cables to clip themselves onto. Often crews were without a radio operator and particularly over holidays, crew shortages would be made up by teenagers or older men without much experience of fishing or these conditions.

Headscarf Revolutionaries
When news of the second trawler sinking reached Hull, Lililian Bilocca, a fish worker whose husband and son worked on trawlers, began a campaign that became international news and completely overhauled safety standards on British trawlers. I wrote a short review of the book in the British magazine Socialist Review and there is an excellent and much longer article about the book in Socialist Worker by Annette Makin.  

With better safety equipment, training and cold weather gear some of these men could have been saved but the storm that sank the Ross Cleveland in the great bay of Ísafjörður of North West Iceland was the worst anyone there—Icelanders or foreigners had ever seen.

Icelandic journalist Óttar Sveinsson wrote a book about the same disaster in Icelandic Útkall I Djúpinu, published in English as Doom in the Deep. It’s a pity that this is currently out of print because Óttar interviewed the Icelanders who rescued the men off the Grimsby trawler, Notts County that ran aground at the height of the storm in Ísafjörður. His book is a tribute to the ingenuity and courage of the volunteers from the Icelandic coastguard vessel, Oðinn who rescued the freezing terror-stricken men who had heard the final words of Phil Gay, the captain of the Ross Cleveland as it sank and expected to be next.

Ísafjörður bay was full of British trawlers that night because in most storms it was safe. Harry Eddom, the only man to survive the sinking of the Ross Cleveland, made the point,
“We were only two or three miles from the 3,000-foot walls of the fjord. We should have been safe as houses.”

Map of Ísafjörður from Útkall I Djúpinu
Dick Moore described the storm as the Notts County ran aground, the engine room flooded and he and the other men scrambled to get out on deck,

“A howling, screeching, shattering din. The ship was vibrating with the wind. I thought it was like being out on a runway with ten jet planes taking off at once. The air seemed to be tearing apart. And the sound didn’t die down. It went on and on without pause. I put my hands over my ears; I felt thousands of ice-needles pricking my face, held my head down and tried to keep my balance on the ice. It was hard to breathe. How could this be happening?..It was as if the mountains themselves were shrieking and roaring.”[3]

The Icelandic coastguard ship Oðinn was in Ísafjörður searching for a smaller Icelandic fishing vessel Heiðrun II, missing with its six man crew—Rögnvaldur  Sigurjónsson, his two sons Ragnar and Sigurjón, Páll Ísleifur Vilhjálmsson, Kjartan Halldór Halldórsson and Sigurður Sigurðsson. The boat and the crew were never found.

Icelandic coastguard vessel Oðinn[4]

Apart from search and rescue, the captain and crew of the Oðinn spent much of their time enforcing the exclusive 12 mile Icelandic fisheries zone won by the first “Cod War” from 1958-1961. This “war” had been a series of sometimes violent confrontations between Icelandic trawlers backed by their few coastguard vessels and British trawlers backed by the Royal Navy. Oðinn had used trawl cutting machinery to strip the offending British trawlers of their fishing gear which cost thousands of pounds at the time. Harry Eddom had been part of British crews fighting the Icelanders for fish.

While the storm raged and it was too dangerous to do anything about rescuing the men from the Notts County, the men on Oðinn fought the ice. Seventeen year old Torfi Geirmundsson later said, 
“Several of us lads had tried to go forward when the ship was keeling over sharply. But as soon as we got out on the foredeck the gale slung us up against the rail. We couldn’t stay on our feet. The ice built up so fast you couldn’t let up for a minute.”
The next morning when the wind had dropped to gale force 8 or 9, the Oðinn planned to rescue the Notts County crew by getting as close to shore as possible without running itself aground. It got within 200 metres of the trawler. The engine of the smaller covered boat that the Icelanders meant to use wouldn’t start, so 14 hours after the trawler had run aground Pálmi Hlöðversson and Sigurjón Hannesson set out in a small rubber Zodiac dingy from Oðinn with two uninflated rubber life rafts as ballast against the wind threatening to flip the dingy over at any minute. The Oðinn had radioed ahead so the Notts County crew were on deck waving and clutching bottles when Pálmi and Sigurjón reached them. The Icelanders assumed they were drunk and yelled that if they didn’t get rid of the booze and do exactly as they were told they would leave them where they were. The trawlermen weren’t drunk but in their cold traumatised state, the Notts County crew thought they could thank their rescuers with what they had to hand, rum.

The 18 survivors—one of the crew, Robert Bowie had died trying to launch a life raft—had to climb and jump down into the zodiac then crawl into the two life rafts, nine men in each. Pálmi and Sigurjón then towed the life rafts back through the gale force winds to the Oðinn. These men got home because a boat load of Icelanders usually hell bent on chasing British fisherman out of their territorial waters, volunteered to rescue them at the risk of their own lives. The next day when the wind had eased, they went back to rescue the body of Robert Bowie.

Thanks to the campaign led by Lillian Bilocca, safety on British trawlers got overhauled and that spring British fishermen finally got a mothership, the Orsino launched with a crew of 20 including a doctor, a meteorologist and medical equipment.

Lillian was shamefully treated, sacked and blacklisted by the Hull fish industry and not properly supported by the trade unions. But Lillian was with the dock workers and trade unionists at the launch of the Orsino[5] and said, “Never mind them calling us silly women. This is what we have fought for.”

Health and safety at work has never been achieved without a fight but the safety equipment and training on trawlers was wrenched from the employers and ship owners on the back of immense suffering and human cost. Climate change means that mega storms such as the one over Ísafjörður that night will become more common and the right not to die at work will have to be fought for again[6].

[1] “The first documentary evidence in Icelandic sources of Englishmen fishing off Iceland comes from the contemporary Nýi annáll (New Annals) for 1412; ‘A ship came from England to the east coast of Dyrhólaey; men rowed out to them, they were fishermen from England.’ Iceland’s ‘English Century’ and East Anglia’s North Sea World, Anna Agnarsdóttir in East Anglia and its North Sea World in the Middle Ages, edited by David Bates and Robert Liddiard
[2] In Iceland, harðfiskur remains a popular snack eaten with butter or on its own.
[3] Doom in the Deep, Óttar Sveinsson pg 50
[4] Image by Kjallakr at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, $3
[5] http://www.hulltrawler.net/Stern/ORSINO%20H410.htm
[6] I have a forthcoming piece on fishing, fish stocks, safety and the struggle to organise which I will link here when it is published.

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