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Seaman's Story

“Seaman´s Story”
from “Biography of a Seaman”

by Guðjón Símonarson

Guðjón (Gudjón) Simonarson, born in Iceland in 1877, was a seaman who was the “skipper” on a fishing boat at Höfðabrekka in Mjóifjöður the last year my grandmother Elisabet and great-grandmother Ragnhildur were living there. Below, is his story of working there and of their home. The Grani or “Grana”, was the boat, one of many owned by Gunnlagur, Ragnhildur Stefánsdóttir’s second husband, that the Gudjón worked on.

Start of text as translated by Dr. Jón Örn Bjarnason, with [explanations] added for the benefit of English-speaking readers:

In the year 1898, in the spring, I went east, came to Mjóifjörður soon after the close [of the winter fishing season, which traditionally ended on May 11, which is called “lokadagur”] and signed on as captain of the rowboat [“Áraskip means literally “oar-ship”] Grani [the name of the rowboat was Grani, which is also a common name for a horse] with Gunnlaugur Jónsson at Höfðabrekka. Höfðabrekka was the outermost farm inside Höfði. There was an excellent landing at the so-called Hillside beach [“Slope” or “hillside” beach]. The hayfield at Höfðabrekka was difficult, on the other hand, mostly in the very steep Cape (or Headland). At Höfðabrekka, catch from the sea [fishing] was primarily relied on, and accordingly fishing was pursued vigorously from there for a period of 30-40 years.

At the auction that spring, I bought a reed organ, [a musical instrument, essentially an organ, without pipes and much smaller than a church organ, of a size suitable for a private home]. I also bought two sets of overclothes and underwear, all for 150 kronas. I asked my new masters, Gunnlaugur and Ragnhildur Sveinsdóttir, to store the organ, either in the living room or in another decent [“dry and not dirty”] house, but they absolutely refused. The three hands [literally “work-men”], Jóhann Jóhannesson, Gunnar Árnason and Maríus Pálsson, and I were all singers. We carried the organ out into a haybarn, and practiced there [singing] quartet as we could.

At Höfðabrekka there was a household of eighteen, the married couple themselves with five children, three from her previous marriage [ Swan must already have gone of to sea], three maidservants [literally “work-women”], two boys and three hands. Hermann and Stefania (he must mean Jóhanna (gh)) were there also, young and just engaged, but they moved to Seyðisfjörður [another fjord on the east coast, just north of Mjóifjörður, at that time, Seyðisfjörður, was by far the most important town in the eastern quarter] every fall where he worked as a cobbler [shoemaker].

On May 15, Gunnlaugur hired crews for the three additional boats off a coastal steamer [there were quite a few migrant workers in those days…they would generally go to the southwest for the winter season and then up north or east over the summer]. Konráð Hjálmarsson kept ten boats [fishing], bailiff Vilhjálmur three, others one or two. Björn of Kross had no boat. Altogether there were seventy-two boats fishing from Mjóifjörður that summer. There was some competition between captains [forman is the captain of a rowing boat], principally those of course who had signed on for a share [of the catch]. I had signed on for a share, one-sixth of the boat´s catch, and a bonus of one krona for each “skippund” [skippund is an old unit of weight, equal to approx. 352 lbs], and board for the entire year. Some of our seamen [here, “Háseti” is used to mean an ordinary able seaman, or deckhand] were paid two hundred kronas per year, but others signed on for one-sixth of the catch. The pay of the other captains was similar to mine. Captain in Gunnlaugur´s employ besides me were Jón Sigurðsson “24-hours” [a nickname that probably has a story behind it, of which we do not know, possibly inferring ‘always ready’], from Álfanes [a city very near Reykjavik], Guðmundur “goldtooth” from Útskálar [a parsonage near Keflavik in the southwest], and Sigurður “the cute” [“sweet” or “cute”] from Hafnarfjörður [a town just south of Reykjavik]. They went fishing, with three men to a boat, with three fishing-tubs each. We were four aboard the Grani, with four tubs. All these people, nine at sea, nine on shore, eight who processed the fish, and the cook/housekeeper, lived and ate in a large, new house, which went by the name Chicago.

A considerable amount of fish came ashore and the people had plenty to do during the summer. Sigriður Gunnarsson took care of all supplies to the households from the (general) store of Konráð Hjálmarsson, where everything was entered into trading accounts [most business at that time was on accounts rather than in cash]. All fish were processed [the processing at this time was mainly by flattening and salting, but also by drying] and credited to the account of each boat and to the accounts of those who signed on for a share. The fishing was supposed to continue until October 24. Around the middle of October there was still a nibbling [enough catch to make fishing worthwhile, but not that great], plenty of bait, and nothing to prevent continued fishing until the close. On October 15 we came back from fishing along with other boats. The coastal steamer Egill was then on the anchorage. There was low tide so we tied the boats up on the anchorage and went aboard the Egill to meet people who were on their way to the south (Southern Iceland). At last the ship was ready to sail, appropriately, as it was getting dark. We turned our attention to getting our catch and fishing gear ashore. On the beach, there came to us four men from Seyðisfjörður who had been on the ship, and asked if there was an inn here. I said there was none, and asked in return their reason for coming to Mjóifjörður. One of them answered: The assets of Gunnlaugur will be listed [inventoried] here tomorrow for auction.

Then they walked away.

I ran immediately to Jón “24-hours” and said to him that we should bait the line and go fishing the following day, but take the catch to Benedikt Bjarnason of Selhella .

The following day everything was listed, inside and out. People were ordered out of the buildings and an auction was announced. Gunnlaugur had no solutions and there was a general uproar. The people were seething with anger, and when the listing [inventory] of the estate had been completed, all able-bodied people gathered, drove the visitors away and stood guard by the buildings. Soon, though, it became clear that resisting was of little avail. The couple Gunnlaugur and Ragnhildur had fled to friends in Norðfjörður [on the east coast of Iceland], and little by little people yielded the buildings and scattered to other farms. Some only got to stay someplace overnight, then they had to leave. I turned immediately to bailiff Vilhjálmur with my salary claim, and later to magistrate Axel V. Tulinius at Eskifjörður [also on the east coast of Iceland], but it was all for naught.

…end of story.