Iceland Discovers the Finite Universe - Limits - Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky (1999)

Part II. Limits

Chapter 9. Iceland Discovers the Finite Universe


—W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, Letters from Iceland, 1967

Only a decade after reassuring the Canadians and the world that the waters around Great Britain “show no sign of exhaustion,” such a thing being scientifically impossible, the British discovered that the cod stocks in the North Sea had been depleted. Finally, in 1902, seven years after the death of Huxley, the British government began to concede that there was such a thing as overfishing. Their marvelous steel-hulled bottom draggers had already moved from the North Sea to Iceland. There they found local fishermen fishing the same way they had been when the Hanseatic League had driven the British away. Icelanders keep their traditions. They spoke, and still do, the same language as the Vikings. And they still do not have family names. Just as Eirik the Red’s son, Leifur, became known as Leif Eiriksson, if a modern Icelander named Harold has a son and names him Jóhann, he will be Jóhann Haroldsson. His son will have the last name Jóhannsson; his daughter will be Jóhanndóttir.

Iceland is a lava-encrusted island, rimmed by fine, sheltered, deep-water harbors in the protective nooks of long fjords. But the fishing ports are located not in the harbors but on often harborless seaward points. Until the early decades of the twentieth century, the principal Icelandic fishing vessel was an open-decked oar-powered boat, and a harbor location deep inside a sheltered fjord would have added hours of rowing time to and from the fishing grounds. Fishermen chose a seaward point close to the fishing grounds and dragged their boat over the lava with the help of rollers made of whale ribs. Each boat might have as many as twelve oars but more commonly had four to six, with a fisherman on each oar. Usually the boat was also rigged with a small single sail, but oars were often found to be more efficient because the winds around fjords are erratic. Each oarsman operated a handline.

Yet Iceland remained primarily a fishing nation. Asked why technology did not advance, Jón Thor, historian for Iceland’s Marine Research Institute, said, “After 1500, new ideas came very slowly.“ Until 1389, Iceland had been a vibrant society of literature, exploration, and creative concepts in government. But that year, Mt. Hekla erupted, shaking the entire island and covering it with long spells of darkness followed by a brutally cold winter that melted into spring floods. Then came epidemics. Then, in 1397, Iceland was transferred from Norwegian to Danish rule. The Danes ruled with indifference, declaring a trade monopoly with Iceland but pursuing almost no trade with it. In 1532, when the British were driven off, Iceland lost its last contact with the outside world.


Through the centuries, fishing vessels and gear changed little in Iceland. Above: A detail from a late-sixteenth-century illuminated manuscript, one of the Law Books, codifying regulations. This page was on fishing. (Árni Magnússon Institute, Reykjavik, Iceland) Below: A photograph, circa 1910, taken in Isafjördhur, a fishing community on the west coast of Iceland. (Akranes Museum, Akranes, Iceland)


While fish continued to be Iceland’s principal export, until the second half of the nineteenth century, the quantity remained small. At the end of the eighteenth century, when New England and Newfoundland each had annual cod exports of 22,000 tons, Iceland was exporting less than 1,000 tons. Most Icelanders were farmers, but many of them, especially in the south and west, earned more fishing from February to April than farming the rest of the year. Not a tree grows on the island, except a few ornamental ones planted by landscapers in Reykjavik. So there is no fruit, nor is there grain. The English traded grain for fish in the fifteenth century. But stockfish was always the bread substitute. Pieces are torn off and spread with butter. From 1500 to 1800, every schoolchild in Iceland was given half a stockfish a day. Icelanders never acquired a taste for either fresh or salted cod. But in 1855, when the Danish agreed to lift their ban on foreign trade, Icelanders began learning how to salt cod, earning a place in quality Spanish and Portuguese markets.

Grindavik is a seaward strip of land, chosen as a fishing station in 910 because it was close to the cod grounds. In 1934, when Tómas Thorvaldsson first went to sea, fishermen still spent twenty minutes every morning dragging their boats over the lava into the sea. In the evening, it took an hour to get them back up. The people of Grindavik would go to the black lava beach in the evening and wait for their men to get home. There are still women who remember watching one of the boats capsize and get swallowed up in a huge swell.

The Icelanders of Tómas’s generation grew up with little money for imports. They ate what the island produced, which was mainly every conceivable part of a codfish and a lamb. They roasted cod skin and kept cod bones until they had decomposed enough to be soft and edible. They also ate roasted sheeps’ heads, particularly praising the eyeballs. Another specialty was hákarl, the flesh of a huge Greenland shark, hunted for the commercial value of its liver oil. The flesh, which contains cyanic acid, a lethal poison, was rendered edible by leaving it buried in the ground for weeks until it rotted.

Foreigners had never completely left Icelandic waters. In 1768, at its height, the Dutch Icelandic fleet had 160 ships fishing off of Iceland. After the French lost their North American possessions in 1763, they began fishing heavily in Icelandic waters and continued until the First World War. For Icelanders, foreign fishing vessels provided a rare and welcome contact with the outside world. But when the British returned in the 1890s, an eighty-year controversy began.


The Hannes rádherra, a 1930s Icelandic trawler. Icelandic trawlers were depicted on trading cards inside packs of cigarettes sold in Iceland. The cigarettes, like the trawlers, were made in England.

There had not been a great deal of discussion over what should have been a troubling fact—that the new, large, steam-powered, steel-hulled trawlers had come to Iceland because they were so efficient as to have depleted the North Sea stocks in a decade. Overfishing had not yet become an issue. But the best cod grounds of southern Iceland are on a narrow shelf that extends only a few miles from shore. This short distance is what made an oar-driven fishery possible. Now these new British ships—huge, powerful, and made of steel—were crowding into the southern shelf, running over nets and lines of local fishermen.

The Icelanders had two opinions about this. Some wanted all foreigners to be banned. But others thought that Iceland should get some of these monster ships itself, so it could reap the profits of its own ocean. The second argument won. It generally does. Throughout the century, when modest inshore fishermen have been confronted with powerful, efficient foreign fleets, invariably local government has decided to subsidize a competitive local fleet.

The first British-built trawler to be purchased by Iceland arrived in 1905. By 1915, the country had a fleet of twenty steel trawlers—some new, some secondhand, most of them British built.

In Grindavik, fishing continued the same way it had for centuries. The town did not have a harbor, and since trawlers cannot be hauled on the beach over whale ribs, this new invention meant nothing in this town, and many towns like it. But Tómas Thorvaldsson and his friends got an idea that caused the first major change in town in 1,000 years. There was a tidal pond, closed off from the sea in low tide by a narrow strip of land. Tómas and his fellow fishermen started going out with shovels and digging out the strip of land. They dug a little every day at low tide, carrying the black lava gravel away by wheelbarrow, until they had created a harbor. Tómas bought his first “deck boat,” a little, low-to-the-water, steam-powered side trawler. Then he bought a bigger one. He was becoming a businessman.

Trawlers did more than increase Iceland’s fishing capacity. They caused a profound change in this preindustrial society with its population of 78,000, most of whom were peasants earning little more than subsistence. The people who purchased the trawlers became Iceland’s first capitalists. Cod was creating an entrepreneurial class in Iceland, the same way it had in New England in the 1640s. Reykjavik, the island’s largest town, which had a population of only slightly more than 2,000 when the British trawlers first arrived, was growing into a city with a new kind of population—a working class of former farmers.

Among the developments in Iceland’s improving economy was a reawakening of intellectual life. Icelandic literature, a proud tradition until the Danish takeover, was once again a creative force. The sciences also made great progress in the 1920s, and Icelandic biologists now understood that the codfish stocks had a limited capacity to reproduce.

Then the British-owned trawlers left. Just as in the age of sail, governments had seen fishermen as a low-cost way of maintaining a reserve of able-bodied seamen, they now saw their ships as a reserve of vessels easily convertible to war service. The trawlers were fast, built for rough weather and also for towing, which made them excellent minesweepers. Or, with batteries of guns mounted fore and aft, a trawler became a patrol boat. When war came in 1914, the British Admiralty commandeered most British-owned trawlers longer than 110 feet and no more than ten years old.

In an age when little attempt was made to measure fish stocks, the British Ministry of Agriculture then undertook a study of the British trawlers out of Hull and Grimsby that had been working the Icelandic shelf. The study showed that a single trawler off of Iceland landed as many fish as three trawling the North Sea Banks. Historians now believe that Icelandic stocks would have soon been reduced to the same state as North Sea stocks had not the war provided a four-year respite. Icelandic fishermen saw their catches go up in 1917 and 1918 and then start declining again once the British returned.

After the war, British fishermen did not get back all their trawlers as promised by the Admiralty. Many were destroyed or damaged. But they were soon replaced with larger, faster, better-equipped ships. Improved landing facilities and better rail links made Aberdeen, Fleetwood, Hull, and Grimsby major ports for the British Icelandic fleet, supplying the nation through seafood companies, which, like those in New England, were becoming large corporations. But as vessels got bigger and better equipped, fishing required a greater capital investment. By 1937, every British trawler had a wireless, electricity, and an echometer—the forerunner of sonar. If getting into fishing had required the kind of capital in past centuries that it cost in the twentieth century, cod would never have built a nation of middle-class, self-made entrepreneurs in New England.

Since the industrial revolution, Great Britain had been developing an ever-increasing market for groundfish—especially cod, haddock, and plaice—because fried fish, later fish-and-chips, became the favorite dish of the urban working class. Both Iceland and Britain were fishing Icelandic water to supply this market. In addition, in the 1920s, the German fleet became a major presence in Icelandic cod grounds.

The inshore fishermen, a major sector of the economy, began protesting that their gear and grounds were being destroyed by trawlers, and among Icelanders there was an increasingly widespread sentiment that the territorial limit should be extended. But the Anglo-Danish Convention of 1901 said that the waters off of Iceland, up to three miles from shore, were open to the world, and the colony of Iceland did not have the power to change this. Instead, Icelanders built a sizable and well-trained coast guard and worked closely with the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES), the accepted authority on commercial fish populations, in an attempt to monitor the size of the fish stocks. By the late 1920s, the Icelandic Coast Guard was making frequent arrests of German and British trawlers caught trespassing on inshore grounds.

The British responded by using the new wireless on their trawlers to alert each other to Coast Guard activities. Most famous were the so-called Grandmother messages of 1928. Three messages—“Grandmother is well,” then “Grandmother is still well,” and finally “Grandmother is beginning to feel bad”—were used to indicate when a Coast Guard vessel was leaving its harbor. Finally, in 1936, coded wireless messages were outlawed in Icelandic waters. But the Grandmother messages continued, with code systems often organized by British seafood companies.

The end of the Grandmother messages and a reprieve for the dwindling cod stocks came in the form of World War II. Again, British distant water trawlers were all requisitioned for the war. After the Germans occupied Denmark, the Allies occupied Iceland to ensure that it, too, did not fall. Since the British now had no fishing fleet, Iceland supplied the British market and the world market. For six years, it was the only major fishing nation of northern Europe.

The British desperately needed not only food but cod-liver oil. They had a history of being great cod-liver oil enthusiasts. For centuries before it was refined for ingestion, a blackish residue from livers left in barrels was used as a balm, as it still is in West Africa. In the 1780s, British medicine decided that cod-liver oil was a remedy for rheumatism, then a catchall diagnosis for aches and pains. During the nineteenth century, it was used to treat tuberculosis, malnutrition, and other poverty-related diseases. Between the wars, cod-liver oil became a major business in Hull and was used both for livestock and humans. During World War II, the British Ministry of Food, concerned about the effect of a tightened food supply on health, provided free cod-liver oil for pregnant and breast-feeding women, children under five, and adults over forty. School nurses forcefully administered spoonfuls of the vile-tasting liquid, while adults were often given it with orange juice. All this oil came from Iceland, where it contributed to a secondary Icelandic trade that remained and prospered after the war. The British government, believing that the oil had produced the healthiest children England had ever seen, despite bombings and rationing, continued the program until 1971. It was finally discontinued because people refused to take the oil. Icelanders, however, still take it, as do many Americans.

During the war, fish prices reached record highs and were paid to Iceland in dollars, which facilitated doing business with the American troops on the island. Icelanders built American housing and military bases and began importing large quantities of American goods.

By the time the war ended, Iceland was a changed country. Not least among the changes, in 1944 it had negotiated full independence from Denmark. Now it was free to negotiate its own relations with the rest of the world. Because of cod, it had moved in one generation from a fifteenth-century colonial society to a modern postwar nation. W. H. Auden, who had spent much time there in the 1930s, returned in 1964 and was astounded by the transformation. He ran into one of his former guides, now a schoolmaster, and asked him what life had been like for Icelanders during the war. “We made money,” replied the schoolmaster.


Danes will order a whole cod weeks in advance to ensure getting a fresh one for New Year’s Eve. In a Scandinavian winter funk, Ann Bierlich, a television film editor in Copenhagen, wrote that Fresh Cod with Mustard Sauce, a traditional New Year’s dish, “is the only good thing about this country.” She was very specific about the proper way to cook fresh cod. Fish mustard, a strong, grainy mustard, is made fresh and sold in Danish markets.


Allow ½ kilogram per person and cut the cod in approximately 3-centimeter-thick slices. Take the biggest pot you have. Put in enough cold water to cover the fish. Use a lot of salt, a good handful of coarse salt, so salty that you think it is the North Sea. Put the pieces of cod into the cold water, put the stove on low heat, and warm the water so it doesn’t boil, but quivers. Let the pieces of cod stay in the water a few minutes while it is still quivering. Don’t cook it to death! The cod must be firm and white.

Mustard sauce—2 tablespoons of butter are melted, and 2 tablespoons flour added, and then 1 liter of milk. The sauce must be thick. Finally add a generous amount of fish mustard! (A little splash of dill vinegar will give an extra zing.)

The dish is eaten with boiled finger potatoes, chopped hardboiled eggs, chopped boiled red beets, fresh horseradish. What to drink with it? Ice cold beer and schnapps, of course!

—Ann Bierlich, Copenhagen, 1996