As I was writing Vikings on a Prairie Ocean, several pieces that I had written as fictionalized accounts based on historical facts did not find their way into the final manuscript and I now publish them on this web site as a mini-series sequel.
In 1855 a young Irishman, Fredrick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, the Earl of Clandeboye, made a fateful trip to Iceland and then the northern latitudes beyond. He was accompanied by Sigurdr, son of Jonas, an Icelandic law student. In sharing this story , I invite you to ask whether New Iceland established along the shores of Lake Winnipeg would have become the “home away from home “ of the Icelanders who came to Canada beginning in 1875 without the brief but deep friendship of these two young men?
Fredrick related the story of his journey in letters to his mother, which he published as Letters from High Latitudes first in 1856, to be republished again in 1877 during his tenure as Lord Dufferin, Canada’s second Governor General. The book is part travel guide (one of the earliest of this genre), part adventure tale, but at its heart is a story of the power of human connection.
While fictionalized, this account closely tracks what is described in Letters from High Latitudes.
Sigurdr, from the bow pointed into the gray expanse, “Fredrick, The West man’s are coming into sight now.”
Fredrick, with a slim smile spreading across his thin face as he peered through the thick fog that engulfed them: “You must be smelling them, my young friend. ”
Sigurdr: “Off the coast of Iceland we Vikings, like all great mariners, know the ways of the sea first through our nose!” the young man replied, strong, blond, with a twinkle in his eye. “You Irishmen have much to learn about the sea. Surely you now see the sun is breaking through to greet you, glistening on the white, flat lava field that is Cape Reykjanes coming… or perhaps you are not the mighty man of the sea that our mutual friend assured me I would escort to my homeland?”
Fredrick quietly recalled his first meeting with Sigurdr a few days earlier. He was pacing like a polar bear when he arrived. But within a few hours he had concluded that he would soon count Sigurdr amongst one of his very best friends. “My friend, you Icelanders, especially those studying law in Copenhagen, have much to learn about deference. Are all your countrymen so?” And he thought quietly to himself, “He looks twice the man he was before at the sight of his native land.”
Enjoying the repartee Sigurdr responded, “That you shall learn soon enough. In this land of the Vikings there is a history on the sea that had taken us to much of the known world, and ventured into the unknown, when all you lords and ladies of today were running wildly to escape the swing of a broad-axe, and feel the crush of a Viking sword. Humility does not come as easily to us as good humour. ”
Fredrick: “I concede. But that was then. Now is now. Let there be little doubt that I know well the seafaring ancestry of you Vikings. “Our little ship behaved well in heavy seas. Now she and the crew will have a well-deserved rest, and we will soon take to the land to see this land of ice and fire. Let us hope that Fritz, our cabin boy, will soon recover from the seasickness that has plagued him.”
Sigurdr: “And from you the gripe that has been with you since we left. The Foam has been steadfast in heavy seas. For that we have much to be thankful. She handles well in the big swells, like a much bigger ship than her 55 feet. Our Captain maneuvers her deftly.
As if making a proclamation, Fredrick turned to Sigurdr as the mooring lines of the Foam were being secured to the dock. He said, “Here I now stand where some 350 years ago a certain long visage, grey eye Genoese mariner stood. It was to this very place that Columbus, for it was indeed he, came in 1477 to confirm his speculations of lands to the west as related in your sagas, and fuel his courage to voyage in search of the Americas.”
Sigurdr: “We arrive late. Let your mind escape your dreams of destiny, they will come soon enough. Tomorrow, the day will be long, with much revelry awaiting us, as I introduce my homeland to the Earl of Clandeboye. There will be great anticipation of your visit. You must sleep well to steel yourself for what is to come. In the days ahead we will start looking for the horses that will take us across the land of the Vikings.
After spending the evening playing chess on the deck with Sigurdr, that night Dufferin would write the first of a series of letters to his mother: “Already I feel much stronger, and before I return I trust I will have laid in a stock of health sufficient to last the family for several generations. “
Sigurdr: “Fredrick, you have been amongst us but a few days, but have taken to my land and people with great exuberance”
Fredrick: “There is much to celebrate. The first evening at the governor’s House stands tall as a night of “dreamy mystery” I shall long remember, although much of the details will forever be imperfect recollections.
Sigurdr: “Indeed, you have done your Irish genes proud. And I would be remiss not to note that there were few young ladies that passed before you in which you have not taken a most kindly interest, and I must concede, they in you.”
Fredrick: “It must be all the intellectual energy that combines with the playful frivolity of these fulsome evenings that stirs me so. ”There is much to amaze one in this country. But you much like me seems to well understand that when a golden haired lady insists on pouring him a bumper, how can do otherwise but add to the charm of the occasion by draining it to the bottom?”
Sigurdr; “You handle adversity in all its forms with a lordly presence which the bacchanalian gods would well applaud.” The gripe that plagued you so on the voyage seems to have gone its separate way.”
Fredrick: “ My honor has compelled me to arise to every occasion as it presents. There is a mystery to this land. Even your modest capital, Reykjavik, is determined by auspices no less divine than those of Rome or Athens. But I count 26 horses, surely we do not need this entire herd to take us on our journey
Sigurdr: Our horses, small as they may be bear happily the weight of a man, but are unaccustomed to the heavy metal photographic apparatus upon their back which you wish to accompany us. Who knows what adventures we may encounter, so let us take no chances. There will be a ready market for them when we return. ”
Fredrick : “Your advice has been sound every step of our journey.. We mount. These days have been filled with many surprises, not the least of which is the remarkable history of scholarship amongst your people,. Now we must see whether it is this land of ice and fire that has inspired you so . “
Before retiring Fredrick pens to his mother “ It is remarkable to be amongst these people who possess an almost miraculous mental exuberance and joviality that I can only surmise has prospered in their seclusion. Be assured I will disabuse every well-educated Englishman whom I henceforth meet their deeply imbued belief that the Icelanders are “Squawmuck blubber eating seal skin race, and with the ladies I encourage you to do no less on my authority. I should not put my pen to rest without mentioning my visitation this afternoon with the mother of a gentleman of distinction I know in Copenhagen. Her niece, Ms Thora, a lily white beauty most pleasing to behold, served us endless coffee, a barrel of rusks, and sweet meats as is their custom over a delightful afternoon of conversation.
Fredrick: “This is a wondrous land, my friend, with amazing jewels of nature amidst the lonely ruggedness through which we have travelled. Volcanoes, hot springs, geysirs, indelible sights that has my photographic film surely dancing with pleasure at what the lens are capturing. ”
Sigurdr: “Its mysterious lure bound the haughty Viking Chieftains to it when they first came upon it 900 years ago as a place made for them by the God, a fitting home for their spirit and their heart. The land welcomed them, and they the land. “
Fredrick: That is evident in the many homes, however humble they may be, where we have spent the nights. Coffee seems to fuel every conversation. None is complete without a shelf of books and board for chess. There is joviality that reminds me of my own countrymen. History tells us the Viking warriors had a zeal for Irish maidens; perhaps it is their own warrior spirit brought to these lands that were the magic alchemy.
Sigurdr: It may well be so. Perhaps your glowing testimony has been ever so lightly inspired by the full kisses of the maidens as they bid you goodnight, or perhaps I do not recall well your ramblings as we bid last night adieu.
Fredrick: You remember well, perhaps too well .It is a most charming and hospitable trait.
Sigurdr: My purpose is solemn. I would not want your poetic sentimentally to have your chronicles to your Mother focused solely on the Icelanders keenness of the mind, or their love of books that has endured for centuries despite dire poverty, and oppressive rule of the Danes..
Fredrick: I assure you I will give her a full account I feel the spirit and energy of the bond between the people and the land move inside me with everyone I meet, in every home. There is even something special about my Fusi who moves so assuredly through the rugged terrain of nature’s wonders with me upon his back with a smoothness of gait I have never before experienced.
Sigurdr: Fusi is our finest horse. The stable master promised me no less. They are an ancient breed whose cantor stride makes them a wondrous horse to ride. To which I must add, being amongst us for these many centuries has given them a rare intelligence and strength befitting the Viking spirit.
Fredrick: You Icelanders are ever proud, all the more so of your horses for which I can now forgive you after these many days amongst your people. Tomorrow we leave for latitudes to the North. I know already that this time in your homeland will have been the highlight of our journey together, but the prospect of spending the days ahead with you make the prospects all the brighter, my dear friend.
Fredrick pens his final letter to his mother some weeks later:
To-morrow I leave…my good Sigurd…I take away with me a most affectionate memory of his frank and kindly nature, his ready sympathy, and his imperturbable good humour. My time with his countrymen has resulted in many friends who could not have been kinder to me had they known us all their lives. From the day on which I shipped with him—an entire stranger—until this eve of our separation—as friends, through scenes of occasional discomfort, and circumstances which might sometimes have tried both temper and spirits…there has never been the shadow of a cloud between us; henceforth, the words “an Icelander” can convey no cold or ungenial associations to my ears, and however much my imagination has hitherto delighted in the past history of that singular island, its People will always claim a deeper and warmer interest from me, for Sigurdr’s sake.”
The duo’s journey continued to points northward including the Jan Mayan Islands, Hammerfest and Alten in the land of the Laplanders, then to the archipelago of Spitzbergen, and then to Bergen in Norway. The journey these men took together was both expansive and breathtaking.
Postscript: The charismatic thirty-year-old Irish Lord became one of Britain’s most distinguished and gifted diplomats. Twenty years after his journey with Sigrdur, he visited the Icelanders again in a new land as his Excellency, the Governor-General of Canada, the second to have been appointed by Queen Victoria. Canada was struggling to define itself. Its new Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, ever worried about the resurgence of American expansionist ambitions, was intent upon asserting dominion over the vast western expanse settling treaties with the Indians and bringing in hardy settlers to these lands. Dufferin, whose interventionist exuberance was known to be irksome to the young PM asserting his determination for parliamentary independence from Westminster, became an energetic advocate for the cause of the desperate ash showered impoverished Icelanders who had already started to trickle into North America. In 1887 he would not be deterred from visiting New Iceland. Ever the adventurer, the journey had been long and arduous. In September 1877 on the Hudson Bay steamer the MS Colville he arrived on heavy seas at Gimli. After visiting the Icelanders in their crude and humble homes with their precious books on display in each, he would go on to deliver a remarkable speech amidst joyous celebrations echoing much of what he had said of the Icelanders in his letter to his Mother those years ago. He also proclaimed to great applause what they had already known “I have pledged my personal credit to my Canadian friends on the successful development of your settlement” – as surety for the loan by Macdonalds Government to the colony which was critical to its establishment.