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..

Thursday 8 September 2011

The Myth of Equality: the life of Icelandic agricultural workers

There’s a common myth about rural life in the history of Iceland, that claims the Marxist understanding of class cannot be applied to it until well into the 20th century, if at all, because before the industrialisation of the fishing everyone living on farms was roughly equal. This romantic notion was particularly promoted by nationalist writers before WW2 who described Farmers and farm workers living cheek by jowl in small damp houses, sharing the same food, hard work and living conditions. In the evenings, in egalitarian harmony they were supposed to have gathered in the living rooms to knit, whittle and tell stories from the Sagas and sing whilst the children played with small wooded toys and bones. It was claimed that poverty, hard weather, volcanic eruptions and periodic epidemics were great levellers.
If that were true 21st century Africa would be the most equal society ever known.
Class is not a matter of whether you doff your cap to a master or call the farmer by his first name; it is about your relationship to the means of production. You and the farmer both work the land but he owns and controls it. He and his immediate family benefit from the surplus produced. You can be turfed out if you argue or if there isn’t ‘enough to do’ (Nóg að gera - the Icelandic phrase for plenty of work).

Until 1863, every Icelander over the age of 15 who did not have access to enough land to support a family; was not living at home with their parents, nor apprenticed to a craftsman or merchant, had to offer themselves as a ‘servant’ for a year at a time. This usually meant being an agricultural worker. Once you were a servant you had no right to leave a job until you had another one lined up.

For the landowners this bondage law [Vistarband] meant a steady supply of cheap labour, essential for the hay harvest as the level of technology on Icelandic farms was so low. The law tried ensure that families did not become so poor that the district taxpayers had to provide for them, and the easiest way to do that was to prevent people forming families.  For the servants this meant the average age of marriage was about 30 and most never married at all. Parish priests acted as enforcers. When they visited every household in their parish twice a year they were to ‘pay close attention to the behaviour of the workers to their superiors’, to ‘report illegal cohabitation and to suggest measures which could effectively terminate such situations’[1] Priests would not marry a couple if either had received poor relief in the previous ten years .

However, people don’t have sex or love each other to suit their ‘betters’ and by 1870 over 20% of all babies were born out of marriage. In the district of Garðar and Bessastaðir in the south west the rate was 33%.[2] In this area was the largest number of ‘cottars’, people with a tiny rented cottage but not necessarily any land beyond a small garden. They lived by fishing and because its season was winter and spring they were free to work in the countryside for the hay harvest leaving their ‘wives’ behind with the children to look after their home and animals. In bad years the women would have to go looking for work as well and if a woman worked on a farm with her children it was usual for her to get little beyond food and somewhere to sleep.[3]

Children were often sent to the country during the summer from about 10 years old to work. They could take food to haymakers, help with haymaking or mind the sheep and even if treated harshly were usually well fed. In interviews recorded in the 1980’s, 80 year old men still recalled the remarkable feeling of a full stomach.

Farmers were acutely aware of the inequality between themselves and their workers. One landowner born in 1904 reported - ‘The hands did not even go out dancing without asking the farmer for permission…not even when they had time off. The farmer ran everything.’ [4]

Some would travel to market a day earlier or later than their workers. With farms near the coast agricultural workers could be sent to fish on the farmer’s behalf for the winter. This was popular as an exciting change from the same small group of people at the farm. But as late as 1925 when a young man were sent to Þorlákshöfn to fish by his farmer, he got 200 kroner as a cowman whilst the farmer got the 1000 kroner he had earnt from fishing. [5]

The sharpest inequality is always felt by the most vulnerable in society. Infant mortality rates in the 19th and early 20th centuries were much higher in Iceland than average in Northern Europe. This was probably due to poor housing, cold and damp, tetanus amongst the communities relying on seabirds for food, lack of health services and traditions of artificial feeding. But it was children born to unmarried servants living in a house without relatives, or the child’s father who were most likely to die. Their mothers were only 28% of unmarried mothers yet 45% of such children died before 1 year old.[6]

Just a month after the British riots when young people have been jailed for stealing water, trainers and ice cream, and politicians are spewing bile over the ‘feral underclass’ I will finish with a quote from a ‘respected’ historian and scientist Þorvaldur Thoroddsen. Writing in 1890 about the cottars of the south west coast,

‘People gathered at the coast… because they felt life was easier there. When the fishing went well, they flourished and lived in wastefulness and disorder…In the pauses in fishing they never took up new occupations, but got used to idleness and relied upon the councils, never thought of tomorrow but took each day as it came… Generation after generation had grown up in this irresponsible and wrong way of life, and as time passed, the descendents became worse and worse good-for-nothings, useless and mindless creatures.’

When serious class struggle happened in Iceland, the only wonder was that it took so long.

[1] Gísli Águst Gunnlaugsson, Family and Household in Iceland 1801-1930

[2] Ólöf Garðarsdóttir, The Implications of Illegitimacy in late 19th century Iceland, pg 450

[3] Finnur Magnússon The Hidden Class pg 89

[4] The Hidden Class pg 87

[5] The Hidden Class pg 89

[6] Ólöf Garðarsdóttir, The Implications of Illegitimacy in late 19th century Iceland, pg 452

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