Was Iceland's First Settler Not a Viking?

Húsavík's beginnings pose a vital challenge to the way Icelandic history is told. In the 860s, a few years before the Norse settlement of Reykjavík, a Swede named Garðar Svavarsson spent a winter at Húsavík. According to later accounts, one of Garðar's men, Nattfari, escaped with two slaves -- a man and a woman -- and stayed behind, settling across the bay and then farther inland. Nattfari's identity, motives, and ultimate fate remain a mystery. He may have been a slave himself. His name isn't Norse, and probably means "Night Traveler," but his origins are unknown. Still, Nattfari may well have been Iceland's first permanent settler -- not Ingólfur Arnarson, who is traditionally assigned this role.

Why was Nattfari left out of the picture? The introduction to the Book of Settlements, a key Icelandic text from the 13th century, suggests a motive: " . . . we think we can better meet the criticism of foreigners when they accuse us of being descended from slaves or scoundrels if we know for certain the truth about our ancestors." Ingólfur was Norse, with superior class status, and his emigration to Iceland seemed more deliberate and heroic. In 1974, Iceland held its official 1,100-year celebration of Icelandic settlement. Four years before, the people of Húsavík held their own ceremony for Nattfari and his two companions.

The Saga of Icelandic Whaling

Icelanders can be touchy about whaling. Mere mention of the subject could provoke an impassioned speech about how Iceland is unjustly demonized by a sanctimonious and hypocritical outside world.

In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) -- an organization formed in 1946 to promote cooperation among whaling nations -- placed a moratorium on commercial whaling. The moratorium had no legal authority, but Iceland withdrew its IWC membership in protest. Iceland rejoined in 2002, but two years later resumed whaling under the pretense of scientific research. This meant that studies were conducted on the whales' stomach contents -- and the resulting implications for fish stocks -- before the meat was sold off. In 2006 Iceland dispensed with the scientific cover and set a commercial whaling quota in open defiance of the moratorium.

Whaling supporters point out that minke whales, which comprise the vast majority of victims, have a worldwide population of 900,000 and are not an endangered species. Evidence does suggest that minke whales reduce fish stocks, particularly cod, which alone account for as much as 20% of Iceland's export income.

Icelanders have hunted whales for over 300 years, and consider it part of their cultural heritage. From the time of settlement, beached whales were such a precious resource that the Icelandic word for beached whale, hvalreki, also means "windfall" or "godsend." Icelanders also feel they have fought too long and hard for control of their territorial waters to let foreigners once again meddle.

Opponents highlight the gruesome details of whale hunting; from the first harpoon strike, these noble and intelligent creatures can take a full hour to die. Whales may compete with fishermen for cod, but whaling provides only a few seasonal jobs, and demand for whalemeat is low. Tourists have shown some interest, but most Icelanders rarely eat whale. Whalemeat costs less than chicken in Icelandic supermarkets, and often ends up as animal food. The main foreign buyer, Japan, is increasingly wary of toxins found in the meat of North Atlantic whales

Since Iceland resumed whaling, Greenpeace has led a tourist boycott. Within Iceland, however, most anti-whaling activists would prefer tourists to come and spend money on whale-watching tours. Decades ago, tourist buses took a 1-hour trip from Reykjavík to Hvalfjörður to watch whales being sliced up and processed. Now nearly 100,000 tourists a year watch Icelandic whales that are very much alive.

In August, 2007, Iceland's fisheries minister announced a halt to commercial whaling unless market conditions improve. The future of Iceland's "scientific" whaling program remains unclear.

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