INTRODUCTION

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The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson (known in Iceland as Reisubók Séra Ólafs Egilssonar) is a well‑known classic of seventeenth century Icelandic literature, but it has never before been translated into English. It tells an altogether remarkable story.

In the summer of 1627, Barbary corsairs from Algiers and Salé (on the Atlantic coast of what is now Morocco) descended upon Iceland. This dramatic event is known in Iceland as the Tyrkjaránið—the Turkish Raid. Accounts differ, but it is generally believed that one ship came from Salé and attacked the southwest corner of the island, while three ships came from Algiers and attacked the southeast coast and the Westman Islands, off the south coast. As many as forty or more people were killed in the raid and close to four hundred in total were taken away to North Africa to be sold into slavery. Reverend Ólafur and his family were among those captured on the Westman Islands.

The islanders ended up in Algiers. Reverend Ólafur did not stay there very long, though, for his captors chose to send him off to arrange ransoms for his family and the other Icelanders. They provided him with a letter of safe‑conduct (to prevent other corsairs from interfering with his task if a ship he was on should be attacked) and sent him on his way. He then traveled alone—without money or support—across the Mediterranean, through Italy and France, to Holland, and, finally, to Denmark (Iceland was a Danish possession in those days) to petition the Danish King for ransom funds. Denmark was fairing badly in the Thirty Years War at the time, however, and the royal coffers were empty. Reverend Ólafur had to return to Iceland alone, making landfall on the Westman Islands on July 6, 1628, slightly under a year after his original capture.
 

Map of Reverend Ólafur’s travels.

Map of Reverend Ólafur’s travels.

It is not easy to sort out the exact details of the raid. The Salé group, in a single ship, attacked Grindavík and Bessastaðir in the southwest corner of the island. The Algiers gtoup, in three ships, attacked the southeastern coast and the Westman Islands. It is generally accepted that Murat Reis, an infamous Dutch renegado (also known as Jan Janzoon van Haarlem) was in charge of the Grindavík raiders, but, if so, for a famously ruthless and successful corsair captain, he did not apparently achieve very much—or perhaps he was simply a very cautious and careful commander, willing to take what gains he could while running as little risk as possible. In any case, the Algiers expedition had more success. We have no clear idea of who was in charge of those Algiers ships, however, nor of what, exactly, the connection between the two sets of raiders might have been. Icelandic sources are not very reliable on this aspect of things, since Icelandic eyewitnesses and captives were hardly likely to be privy to the inner workings of the raid.

We do know one thing for certain: it was the Algerian contingent that took Reverend Ólafur, his family, and over two hundred other Westman Islanders captive and subsequently sold them into slavery in Algiers.