Settlement and Commonwealth 874–1262
Celtic monks known as the Papar, presumably members of a Hiberno-Scottish mission, existed in Iceland before Scandinavian immigrants arrived, according to both Landnámabókand slendingabók. Recent archaeological investigations in Hafniron, on the Reykjanes peninsula, have uncovered the remains of a cabin. It was abandoned between 770 and 880, according to carbon dating. Archeologists discovered a longhouse at Stövarfjörur in 2016 that has been dated to the year 800.
In 870, Garar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking adventurer, was the first to circle Iceland and prove that it was an island. He remained in Hsavk for the winter and constructed a home. The next summer, Garar left, but one of his soldiers, Náttfari, chose to remain behind with two slaves. Náttfari and his slaves were the first permanent inhabitants of Iceland when they settled at what is now known as Náttfaravk.
At the year 874, the Norwegian-Norse chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson established his house in what is now Reykjavik. Many more emigrant immigrants followed Ingólfr, mostly Scandinavians and their thralls, many of whom were Irish or Scottish. By 930, the majority of the island’s arable land had been claimed, and the Icelandic Commonwealth was governed by the Althing, a legislative and judicial assembly. The lack of fertile land aided in the colonization of Greenland, which began in 986. These early settlements occurred during the Medieval Warm Period, when temperatures were comparable to those of the early twentieth century. Approximately 25% of Iceland was covered in forest at the time, compared to 1% now. Around 999–1000, Christianity was accepted by agreement, but Norse paganism survived for a few years among various parts of the population.
The Middle Ages
The Icelandic Commonwealth lasted until the 13th century, when the initial immigrants’ political structure failed to cope with the growing power of Icelandic chieftains. Internal turmoil and civil war during the Age of the Sturlungs resulted in the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262, which terminated the Commonwealth and placed Iceland under Norwegian rule. In 1415, when the kingdoms of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden were unified, possession of Iceland transferred from the Norwegian Empire to the Kalmar Union. It remained a Norwegian dependent after the union’s dissolution in 1523, as part of Denmark–Norway.
Iceland became one of the poorest nations in Europe throughout the centuries. In a civilization where agriculture was almost exclusively responsible for sustenance, infertile soil, volcanic eruptions, deforestation, and an unforgiving environment made life difficult. Iceland was ravaged by the Black Death twice, first in 1402–1404 and again in 1494–1495. The first epidemic killed 50 to 60 percent of the population, while the second killed 30 to 50 percent.
Reformation and the Early Modern period
King Christian III of Denmark started imposing Lutheranism on all of his people during the middle of the 16th century as part of the Protestant Reformation. The last Catholic bishop of Hólar, Jón Arason, and two of his sons were executed in 1550. Lutheranism became the official religion of the nation, and it has remained such ever since.
Denmark placed severe commercial restrictions on Iceland in the 17th and 18th centuries. Natural catastrophes such as volcanic eruptions and illness had a role in the population decline. Pirates from a variety of nations, notably the Barbary Coast, attacked its coastal towns and kidnapped individuals to sell as slaves. In the 18th century, a large smallpox outbreak killed a third of the population. The Laki volcano erupted in 1783, wreaking havoc on the surrounding area. Over half of Iceland’s cattle perished in the years after the eruption, dubbed the Mist Hardships (Icelandic: Móuharindin). The following hunger killed about a fifth of the population.
Independence movement 1814–1918
Following the Napoleonic Wars, the Treaty of Kiel split Denmark-Norway into two countries in 1814, although Iceland remained a Danish vassal. The country’s temperature became harsher during the 19th century, leading in huge emigration to the New World, especially to Gimli, Manitoba, Canada, which was dubbed “New Iceland” at the time. Out of a total population of 70,000, around 15,000 individuals departed.
Inspired by romantic and nationalist ideals from continental Europe, a national consciousness developed in the first part of the nineteenth century. Jón Sigursson led an Icelandic independence movement in the 1850s, based on the growing Icelandic nationalism influenced by the Fjölnismenn and other Danish-educated Icelandic intellectuals. Denmark gave Iceland a constitution and limited self-government in 1874. In 1904, the Danish government extended this, and Hannes Hafstein became the first Minister for Iceland.
Kingdom of Iceland 1918–1944
Iceland was recognized as a fully independent state in a personal union with Denmark by the Danish–Icelandic Act of Union, which was signed on December 1, 1918 and was valid for 25 years. Iceland’s government opened an embassy in Copenhagen and asked Denmark to manage Iceland’s foreign affairs. The coats of arms and flags of the Kingdom of Denmark and the Kingdom of Iceland were exhibited at Danish embassies throughout the globe.
Iceland joined Denmark in declaring neutrality during World War II. The Althing replaced the King with a regent after the German takeover of Denmark on April 9, 1940, and announced that the Icelandic government would assume responsibility of foreign affairs and other issues formerly handled by Denmark. British military troops invaded and seized Iceland a month later, breaking Iceland’s neutrality. The occupation was taken up by the United States in 1941 so that Britain’s soldiers could be used elsewhere.
Independent republic 1944–present
After 25 years, the Danish–Icelandic Act of Union ended on December 31, 1943. Icelanders voted in a four-day referendum beginning on May 20, 1944, on whether to end the personal union with Denmark, dissolve the monarchy, and create a republic. The vote to dissolve the union was 97 percent in favor, and 95 percent in favor of the new republican constitution. On June 17, 1944, Iceland became a republic, with Sveinn Björnsson as its first president.
The Allied occupation troops departed Iceland in 1946. On March 30, 1949, the country officially joined NATO, amidst internal unrest and rioting. A defense agreement was struck with the United States on May 5, 1951. The Iceland Defence Force was formed from American soldiers who returned to Iceland during the Cold War. On September 30, 2006, the United States evacuated the last of its troops.
During the war, Iceland had thrived. Following WWII, Iceland saw rapid economic development, fueled by the industrialization of the fishing sector and the US Marshall Plan, which saw Icelanders receive the greatest assistance per capita of any European nation (at USD 209, with the war-ravaged Netherlands a distant second at USD 109).
The Cod Wars, a series of conflicts with the United Kingdom over Iceland’s expansion of its fishing restrictions to 200 miles offshore, dominated the 1970s. In 1986, Iceland hosted a meeting between US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, during which they made considerable progress toward nuclear disarmament. After Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania broke away from the Soviet Union a few years later, Iceland was the first nation to acknowledge their independence. During the 1990s, the government increased its worldwide presence and established a foreign policy focused on humanitarian and peacekeeping issues. Iceland contributed assistance and expertise to several NATO-led operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Iraq.
Iceland entered the European Economic Area in 1994, which resulted in a significant diversification and liberalization of the economy. After 2001, when Iceland’s newly deregulated banks started to borrow large sums of foreign debt, international economic ties improved even more, contributing to a 32 percent rise in Iceland’s gross national revenue between 2002 and 2007.
Economic boom and crisis
Following the liberalization of the banking industry during Dav Oddsson’s administration, Iceland transitioned toward an economy centered on international investment banking and financial services from 2003 to 2007. It was rapidly becoming one of the world’s most wealthy nations, but a severe financial crisis struck it hard. With a net departure of 5,000 individuals in 2009, the crisis resulted in the largest exodus from Iceland since 1887. Under the leadership of Jóhanna Sigurardóttir, Iceland’s economy stabilized and expanded by 1.6 percent in 2012. Many Icelanders, on the other hand, remain dissatisfied with the country’s economic situation and government austerity measures. In the 2013 elections, the centre-right Independence Party was re-elected in a partnership with the Progressive Party.