Book Review: The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson – The story of the Barbary corsair raid on Iceland in 1627 (Trans by Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols)

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In the summer of 1627 Algerian pirates descended on Iceland. Docking at Heimaey, a small island 7.4 km off the coast of Iceland, the pirates pillaged and plundered, destroyed the church, burnt farm houses and killed thirty-four people. 242 islanders were captured and transported to Africa where they were sold as slaves.

Reverend Ólafur Egilsson was one of the first to be enslaved. Born in the same year as William Shakespeare and Galileo Galilei, at the age of sixty his unshakeable religious convictions were tested when he suffered intense beatings during the voyage to Algiers. On land, the pirates executed those who made the sign of the cross or prayed, including a priest. Ólafur Egilsson was signaled out for extreme forms of punishment because he was a Lutheran minister. Routinely whipped by a rope, he was close to death when the ship reached Africa.

Ólafur Egilsson’s pregnant wife and children were also transported. After eleven days at sea, Ólafur’s wife gave birth to a boy. The child was immediately declared to be pirates’ property.

Brought ashore the captured Icelanders were taken to the slave market. Ólafur’s eleven-year-old son was taken by the Sultan’s representative. The rest of the family was taken to a house and Ólafur was put to work. He would never again see his son, Egill.

Conditions were harsh, many Icelanders perished due to overwork, heat exhaustion, and beatings.

Summoned by an official, Ólafur was ordered to visit Copenhagen and ask the King of Denmark to pay a ransom for the captives’ freedom. Iceland was at the time under Danish rule. The priest embarked on a long and tortuous journey to petition the King, unaware that the state’s finances were exhausted after the Thirty Years War.

A classic example of seventeenth-century Icelandic literature and a historically important captivity narrative, The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson remained untranslated into English until 2008. A new edition published by Catholic University America Press contains several letters written by Icelandic captives detailing their experiences as slaves in Africa.

Documenting a tragic event, the book also provides invaluable detail about Muslim and post-Reformation Christian societies in the seventeenth century.

The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson is filled with sorrow and torment. Ólafur Egilsson’s moving account of an intense personal tragedy is an enriching read.

The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson is published by Catholic University America Press.

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