The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson: Captured by Pirates in 1627


While my library system is on strike I am limiting my books to those for which I already have scans of the covers. I can often find cover images of the books I read somewhere on-line, but the images are not always to my liking when I post my reviews. I use the scanner at work to illustrate my reviews at my blog as well as for reviews I post to my library system’s nonfiction book blog.

While we are on strike I am getting a lot of reading done after my four-hour picket shift, and the first book I read after my short vacation to Nova Scotia was The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson: Captured by Pirates in 1627. Mark and I returned from our trip to Iceland one year ago this month, and I chose this book (and the next) to mark the anniversary. In the summer of 1627 Moorish invaders landed in eastern Iceland and took prisoners, who were to be sold into slavery in Algeria. They continued to sail west along Iceland’s southern coast and spotted the Westman Islands, known in Icelandic as Vestmannaeyjar. Ólafur Egilsson was 63 years old when he and his young family were abducted from Heimaey and taken to Algiers. This book was his memoir of the invasion, abduction, and his eventual release and quest to return to Iceland. This memoir wasn’t translated into English until 2008, so I credit Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols for their work on an almost four hundred-year-old text. A reproduction of the original title page was included among the many illustrations.

Pirates and warfare at sea were nothing new to Icelanders, so the appearance of the approaching Moorish fleet caused immediate alarm among the small community of the island of Heimaey. The corsairs sailed to the south of the island and did not use the natural harbour to the north, creating an element of surprise in their invasion. Were they landing? Or did they just intend to bypass the island to the south? Since I took a boat tour around Heimaey I saw the spot where the Moors landed. As Mark and I have climbed many of its hills and volcanoes, we had an island-wide perspective of 360 degrees. It must have been terrifying to see the invading fleet approach and land, and have nowhere to run. Ólafur described people running for the hills and into caves. Some islanders, but very few, however, did manage to escape for the mainland by boat.

Seeing that they were severely outgunned by the Moors’ weaponry, the Icelanders sabotaged their cannons and some of their ships so that they wouldn’t fall into the hands of the invaders. The Moors were brutal in their invasion, killing those on the spot who were old and infirm and of no use as potential slaves. Ólafur described some horrifying massacres. He reported that 242 islanders were abducted and 34 killed. On July 19 the corsairs weighed anchor and left for Algeria. Ólafur’s second wife Ásta, whom he never named, gave birth to a son on July 30 while still at sea. Ólafur wrote:

“I myself baptized the child as if we were back on land, but my heart was filled with grief.”

In his descriptions Ólafur served as a historian of daily life in Iceland from the early seventeenth century. He also wrote extensively about the fashions and customs of the Moors and Algerian society. For example, women such as Ólafur’s own wife were given clothing that would be more appropriate and modest for Muslim women in Algiers. He also described the women’s and men’s clothing from all classes with remarkably elaborate detail.

While in northern Africa many Icelanders perished from the heat. Ólafur reported that in the first month since their arrival thirty-one of his countrymen had died.

Ólafur was separated from his family and not long after his arrival in north Africa he was sent on a mission. He was ordered to Denmark where he was to try to raise money from the monarchy as ransom for his wife and children. The rest of his memoir chronicled his quest to Copenhagen and then back to Iceland. I appreciated the maps that were included which marked not only Ólafur’s journey but also those of the invaders.

Upon his return to Iceland,

“…the poor people received me as if I had been their own best friend returned again from death.”

Yet the memoir ended there. Only in the afterword do we learn of the fate of his family:

“Reverend Ólafur never saw his children again. Ten years after his return, thirty-five Icelanders were ransomed from the ‘Turkish’ pirates, twenty-seven of whom returned to Iceland. Among those was Reverend Ólafur’s wife. The two of them were able to live together again for only a couple of years before Reverend Ólafur died.”

The memoir ends with three letters sent to friends and family in Iceland written by those who were kidnapped, and one letter pieced together from eyewitness accounts of people who managed to evade capture.

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