Sudden impact

The Vestmannaeyjar (which translates to the Westman Islands) is an archipelago off the south coast of Iceland. The islands remind me a little of the Iron Islands. The islands are named after tragic events involving “West Men”, slaves from Ireland, at the beginning of Iceland’s history. An alternative translation is the “Irish islands”,  since the Norse word Vestmenn was used for the inhabitants of the western most islands of the British Islands. In an earlier post I mentioned Ingólfur Arnarson, who together with his wife and step brother  Hjörleifr Hróðmarsson were the first permanent Norse settlers of Iceland. These settlers had arrived in Iceland after a raiding trip to Ireland to take “thralls” or slaves.  Hjörleifr treated his slaves particularly badly and they murdered him. The leader of the rebellion, Dufthakr (Anglicised as Duffy), took the women and goods of the party and rowed to the islands to escape. Ingólfur tracked down the escaped slaves and slew all he could find. Duffy, cornered at Heimaklettur, the island’s highest point, threw himself off the cliff rather than be killed by Ingólfur. The cliff still bears his name. Genetic studies show that about a quarter of the men and half of the women among the founding population of Iceland would have been of Celtic origin.

After hundreds of years of plundering, pillaging and raping the north and west of the British Isles, the tables turned in the middle of summer 1627. Three Muslim Barbary pirate ships arrived at Vestmannaeyjar. They noticed the well defended port of Heimay and chose to land at the southern end of the island. The pirates captured 242 of the island’s inhabitants as slaves and beat to death, shot and burned at least 34 men, women and children. About 200 escaped by climbing down the steep cliffs to hide, a skill learnt from collecting bird eggs. Most of the slaves spent the rest of their lives in Algiers. A couple of dozen returned when a ransom was paid by the king of Denmark. A minister, Ólafur Egilsson, was released a few months after arriving in Algiers and made an incredible journey back across Europe to Iceland. His story must be overdue for a film.

The pirates landed at the bay now named after them: “Pirates Bay”. The site is the remains of an extinct volcano, probably only 5-6000 years old, like much of the main island of Heimaey. The walls on the northern side of the Bay consist of layers of tuff, a light rock made up of volcanic ash. Within the layers are pieces of rock ejected by the erupting volcano that landed in the ash when it was soft. The model above is made from one of the exposed layers, revealing the 3D geometry of the bomb’s impact. Scattered amongst the layers, these impacts serve as a reminder of the violent history of Vestmannaeyjar.

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