Tomorrow, a special event will take place in Edinborgarhús culture house in Ísafjörður, the West Fjords capital, where district commissioner Jónas Guðmundsson will open an exhibition including illustrations by Basque artist Guillermo Zubiaga.
The traveling exhibition—which will also be put up elsewhere in the West Fjords and Iceland, and in Donostia, the Basque Country, this month—is part of a series of events held this year to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Spánverjavígin, or the ‘Slaying of the Spaniards.’
In one of the darkest chapters in Icelandic history, almost four centuries ago, what has become known as ‘Iceland’s only massacre’ occurred.
In October 1615, a mob of angry farmers led by West Fjords sheriff Ari Magnússon from Ögur in Ísafjarðardjúp attacked and brutally murdered 31 shipwrecked Basque whalers.
In his ‘true account’ of the ‘shipwrecking and slaying of the Spaniards’ (Sönn frásögn af spanskra manna skipbrotum og slagi) Ari’s contemporary Jón Guðmundsson lærði (‘the learned’) described how the sheriff and his army of around 50 went against the unarmed foreigners with guns, axes and knives, and turned a deaf ear to their cries for mercy.
In the early 17th century, Basque whalers set up shop in the Strandir region in the eastern West Fjords. Sources mention both friendly and hostile relations between the locals and newcomers; Icelandic-Basque lexicons indicating that long-term trade existed between the two nations.
However, in September 1615, something went horribly wrong. The Basque whalers had set sail for their home country, their ships loaded with the summer’s harvest, when a gale force storm smashed three of their vessels against cliffs in Reykjafjörður fjord in Strandir.
Most of the approximately 80 crew members survived and 18 of them decided to row on small boats northwards around Horn on the tip of the West Fjords peninsula and into the long and deep Ísafjarðardjúp fjord. At Dynjandi in Jökulfirðir, they stole a ship.
As soon as Ari heard the news, he ordered in reference to a mandate by the Danish king that thieves should be “captured and harmed,” that the Basques were to be slain at will. Farmers who refused to follow him were fined and made take responsibility for the actions of the shipwrecked whalers.
Ari and the mob found the 18 shipwrecked whalers at Sandeyri on Snæfjallaströnd and on Æðey island off shore. Earlier, 13 others had been killed in Dýrafjörður after breaking into the Danish warehouses in Þingeyri. Only one person, a teenager, was able to flee.
The remaining 50 crew members managed to escape to Patreksfjörður on the western peninsula, where they survived the winter. In the spring they got away by stealing an English ship.
In explanation of Ari’s harsh reaction, Páll Ásgeir Ásgeirsson points out in his article about the ‘Slaying of the Spaniards,’ published in the fourth issue of magazine Ský in 2014, that Ari’s grandfather and his family had in 1579 been attacked, robbed and tortured by foreign bandits, so xenophobia was part of his growing up.
Even though there may be another side to the story than Jón’s ‘true account’—the main source about the gruesome events—and it may be difficult to pass judgment on something that happened 400 years ago, the ‘Slaying of the Spaniards’ remains a stain on Icelandic history.
In 2012, the Icelandic-Basque Association was established to promote cultural exchange between Iceland and the Basque Country, as well as academic research connected with the history of Basque whaling in Iceland, and the trade and relations between the two nations.
The association has also organized an extensive program to mark the 400th anniversary of the massacre, not only the aforementioned traveling exhibition, but a conference and other events.
On April 22, the official last day of winter in Iceland, a symbolic act of closure and reconciliation took place in Hólmavík, the West Fjords, at the unveiling of a memorial dedicated to the slain Basque whalers.
At the occasion, West Fjords district commissioner Jónas Guðmundsson revoked his predecessor Ari Magnússon’s order that Basques could be killed at will in the region.
President of Gipuzkoa Martin Garitano spoke at the ceremony, as did Icelandic Minister of Education and Culture Illugi Gunnarsson.
The speeches were followed by musical performances and a moment of prayer, and Xabier Irujo, descendant of one of the murdered Basque whale hunters, and Magnús Rafnsson, descendant of one of the murderers, took part in an act of symbolic reconciliation.
Icelanders may pride themselves of being a peaceful nation—and we mostly are—but there’s no use in denying that the 1615 massacre took place and sweep the ugly truth under the carpet.
Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the ‘Slaying of the Spaniards’ this way, by celebrating Basque history and culture and promoting friendly Icelandic-Basque relations, is a beautiful way of moving forward.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – eyglo(at)icelandreview.com