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It’s No Longer Open Season on the Basque in Iceland

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This is a guest post by Wendy Zeldin, a senior legal research analyst in the Law Library’s Global Legal Research Directorate

Having recently watched several episodes of The Eagle, whose protagonist is a troubled but brilliant Icelandic detective working in Denmark, and having followed the exploits of Arnaldur Indridason’s Detective Erlendur, I consider myself no stranger to Nordic criminal justice, at least from a fictional perspective.  However, I was unaware of some of the dark deeds in 17th century Iceland, until I recently learned about the symbolic righting of an old wrong.

On April 22, 2015, the District Commissioner of the country’s West Fjords, Jónas Guðmundsson, officially repealed a 400-year-old decree that had permitted Icelanders in the district to kill on sight anyone from Spain’s Basque region.  “It’s safe for Basques to come here now,” he joked, adding that the law had not been applied for years, that there are laws prohibiting the killing of Basques, and that doing away with the decree “was more symbolic than anything else.”

Guðmundsson made the declaration during the unveiling of a memorial in Hólmavík, the West Fjords, dedicated to the 32 Basque whalers who were killed in the area in 1615.

Islandia, by Abraham Ortelius (Antwerp, 1587).  Image used with permission courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.
Islandia by Abraham Ortelius (Antwerp, 1587). Map depicting Iceland and the sea creatures around it. Image used with permission–courtesy of Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps Inc.

The order to kill the whalers had been issued by the local sheriff at the time, Ari Magnússon, after a dispute occurred between the district residents and a group of shipwrecked Basque whalers; the killings occurred in the area of Ísafjarðardjúp, in the villages of Ísafjörður, Æðey and Sandeyrin.  About 80 crew members had survived a wreck of three Basque whaling vessels caught in a gale off Iceland while attempting to leave for home in September of that year.

The remaining stranded men from the 1615 wreck, Commissioner Guðmundsson explained, “had nothing to eat, and there were accounts of them robbing people and farmers.”  As a result, the decree permitted the residents to kill the Basques in the district with impunity and reportedly resulted in the deaths of over 30 Basques killed in raids led by the sheriff, with only one person managing to escape.  As Guðmundsson noted, “[i]t’s one of the darkest chapters of our history,” and the Slaying of the Spaniards or the Spanish Killings (Spánverjavíg), as the incident is referred to in Iceland, “ranks among the country’s bloodiest massacres.”

The description of the killings is based on an account written by Jón Guðmundsson the Learned (scroll down to Einar G. Pétursson) , called “A True Account of the Spaniards’ Shipwrecks and Deaths” (Sönn frásaga af spanskra mann skipbroti og slagi).  There is an 1875 text of the document in Icelandic.  According to historian Már Jónsson (scroll down to view), Magnússon actually issued two verdicts on the slaying of the Basque whalers, one in October 1615 and one in January 1616; “the Basques were considered as criminals for their wrongdoings … and in accordance with the Icelandic lawbook of 1281 it was decided that the only right thing to do was to kill as many of them as possible.”  At the time, Iceland, as part of Norway, was under Danish influence, even though local laws applied.

The lawbook referred to above is a set of laws adopted in Iceland under Norwegian rule in 1281, known as the JónsbókAround 1360, the Jónsbók was included in a compilation made by a scribe in the diocese of Skálholt of all the laws and statutes in force at that time, both secular and religious.

Early Icelandic Manuscripts in Facsimile, Vol. IX.  Jónsbók, MS AM 351 Fol., Skálholtsbók eldri. Photograph by Kevin Long, Library of Congress.
Early Icelandic Manuscripts in Facsimile, Vol. IX. Jónsbók, MS AM 351 Fol., Skálholtsbók eldri. Photograph by Kevin Long, Law Library of Congress.

The Jónsbók text based on the Skálholt edition has been translated into English (online excerpts).  Section  IV,3 of the Jónsbók, Concerning Robbers and Raiding, How They Shall Be Dealt with, states:

Now if men rob or go on raids, then everyone is legally required to pursue them–with the exception of those men related in the fourth degree of kinship or by marriage–who the sheriff calls on or who are the victims of robbery or raiding, whether they go to caves or to islands or to fortified places, or are on ships, wherever they go and take refuge when making raids; whoever does not pursue them when he was legally called to do so is fined six ounce-units to the king.

That is raiding when they take people or people’s property from them against their will or they beat or bind or wound people.  Now if men row a fully manned ship to a householder or a group of men go to his farm and do violence to him, and break into the householder’s house and take away his property, then that is the act of an outlaw.  If one of these men wishes to remain in the land, he shall restore the property–everything that they took–to the householder and pay ten marks to the king and damages to the one whom they robbed according to the judgment of twelve men, or be outlawed.  (JÓNSBÓK: THE LAWS OF LATER ICELAND.  Jana K. Schulman trans.  Saarbrücken, AQ-Verlag, c2010.)

Some sections of the Jónsbók are in force today, Jana K. Schulman notes in the introduction to her translation(Id. at xi, fn. 1, citing four entries under the heading Jónsbók on the Iceland Parliament website.)

In the beginning, the Icelanders and the Basques (who were simply known as Spaniards) had a mutual agreement on the whaling activities, “as they had both benefited from the enterprise.”  In the view of historian Trausti Einarsson, the Basques came to Iceland as early as 1604. But, according to the study Basque Whaling Around Iceland: Archeological Investigation in Strákatangi, Steingrímsfjörður, two Icelandic annals record that the foreigners began whaling in the Westfjords area in 1610 and a third entry, written in an annal from that area, states that three Basque ships came to Strandir in 1608 and began whaling from there.  The study further notes that Jón Guðmundsson, who grew up in Strandir, a county along the eastern side of the Westfjords, and moved back there sometime before 1615, stated that the Basques started whaling there in 1613.

Mister Johann Anderson...Reports on Iceland, Greenland, and the Davis Strait for the Proper Use of the Sciences and Commerce, World Digital Library
Mister Johann Anderson…Reports on Iceland, Greenland, and the Davis Strait for the Proper Use of the Sciences and Commerce, World Digital Library

Basque whalers had also been active in places other than Iceland before the tragedy.  Chronicles indicate that they came to North America in 1517 and had introduced the techniques of commercial whaling, making it North America’s first industry and prompting President Thomas Jefferson to state in 1788, “it started with the Basques.

De Aquatilibus.  Monster whale sinking ship, men stripping blubber from whale, and sailers on back of whale they mistook for an island.  [Published between 1551 and 1558].  From the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC).
De Aquatilibus. Monster whale sinking ship, men stripping blubber from whale, and sailors on back of whale they mistook for an island. [Published between 1551 and 1558]. From the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC).
Jefferson, in the capacity of Secretary of State, subsequently made a report on February 1, 1791, to the House of Representatives–“referring to him the representation of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts”–“on the Subject of the Cod and Whale Fisheries.”  The report stated:

The whale fishery was first brought into notice of the southern nations of Europe, in the fifteenth century, by the same Biscayans and Basques, who led the way to the fishery of Newfoundland.

They began it on their own coasts, but soon found that the principal residence of the whale, was in the northern seas, into which, therefore, they pursued him. In 1578, they employed twenty-five ships in that business … ,

…  The Basque fishery, supported by poverty alone, had maintained but a feeble existence, before competitors, aided by the bounties of their nation, and was, in fine, annihilated by the war of 1745, at the close of which, the English bounty was raised to forty shillings.

From this epoch, their whale fishery went on between the limits of twenty eight and sixty seven vessels, till the commencement of the last war.

In 1715, the Americans began their whale fishery. They were led to it by the whales which presented themselves on their coasts. They attacked them there in small vessels of forty tons. As the whale, being infested, retired from the coast, they followed him farther and farther into the ocean, still enlarging their vessels, with their adventures to sixty, one hundred and two hundred tons. Having extended their pursuit to the Western islands, they fell in, accidently, with the spermaceti whale, of a different species from that of Greenland, which alone had been known in commerce.

More fierce and active, and whose oil and head matter was found to be more valuable as it might be used in the interior of houses without offending the smell.

The distinction now arose between the northern and southern fisheries; the object of the former being the Greenland whale, which frequents the northern coasts and seas of Europe and America, that of the latter being the spermaceti whale, which was found in the southern seas, from the Western Isles and coast of Africa to that of Brazil, and still on to the Falkland Islands. …

In 1771, the Americans had one hundred and eighty three vessels, of thirteen thousand eight hundred and twenty tons, in the northern fishery, and one hundred and twenty one vessels, of fourteen thousand and twenty tons, in the southern, navigated by four thousand and fifty-nine men. …

Perilous Situation of Whalemen
Perilous situation of whalemen. Wood engraving, 1861. From the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC), LC-USZ62-65469.

Given that legal news these days is all too often filled with murder, massacres, and mayhem, the repeal of a law of authorizing killings of foreign nationals seemed very good news–even if it did take a few hundred years.  Aldi luzeak, guztia ahaztu. Agur! (With the passing of time, all is forgotten. Farewell!)


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