Home rule 1904
Iceland gained home rule on 1 February 1904. Since the mid-19th century, Icelanders had been calling for autonomy from Danish rule; Iceland had been ruled by foreign kings since 1262.
Under home rule, Iceland acquired its own government, in Iceland, instead of being governed from afar by the Danish government. The Ministry for Iceland, which had been located in Copenhagen, was transferred to ReykjavÝk, as the new government ministry. ReykjavÝk was now the capital of Iceland, the hub of power, administration and commerce.
Al■ingi (the Icelandic parliament) now had real power. The principle of parliamentary government had been recognised, and a Minister of State for Iceland was appointed, who was answerable to parliament, and not to a foreign monarch; the Danes retained control of various matters, however, such as such as foreign affairs.
The first Minister of State was Hannes Hafstein, a public official and poet. Though inexperienced in politics, he had earned the confidence and respect of his contemporaries as an advocate of independence.
Serving as Minister 1904–1909 and 1912–1914, he strove to maintain good relations with Denmark, and gained the confidence of many powerful Danes, including King Frederik VIII himself. Both in and out of office, he was an expert conciliator between the two countries. In the highly adversarial domestic politics of the time, he sought to make allies of former opponents.
The 19th century: the independence movement
Iceland’;s first step on the road to independence was the foundation of the new Al■ingi (parliament) in 1845. The old Al■ingi, which had met each year at Ůingvellir from 930 AD, had gradually declined under foreign rule, and had finally been abolished in 1798.
The new parliament had no legislative powers; it was simply an advisory body. A leading member of Al■ingi was Jˇn Sigursson (1811–1879), a scholar working in Copenhagen, who gradually emerged as the leader of the Icelandic independence movement. Although he did not live to see home rule, let alone independence, he is honoured today as a national hero. When the modern Icelandic republic was founded in 1944, Jˇn’;s birthday, 17 June, was chosen for the inauguration ceremonies, and National Day is celebrated each year on 17 June.
Until 1848, the King of Denmark was an absolute monarch. When absolute rule was abolished in 1848, the government of Denmark and its dependencies had to be reorganised. The Icelanders, at the National Assembly of 1851, demanded control of all matters subject to decision by parliament and the electorate. They refused to submit to the authority of the Danish electorate and parliament, although they accepted what remained of royal authority. The Danes turned down all the Icelanders’; demands. A long campaign for independence was beginning.
In 1874 Iceland was granted its first constitution: Al■ingi gained legislative powers, while executive powers remained in Denmark. Icelandic affairs were handled by the Danish Minister of Justice; Al■ingi’;s legislation was subject to his assent and that of the King. The Danish authorities were represented in Iceland by a governor, answerable to the Minister for Iceland in Copenhagen. The Icelanders campaigned for an Icelandic government, in Iceland.
In 1897 the Danes came up with a tentative offer to appease the Icelanders: if Al■ingi accepted continued Danish authority over internal Icelandic affairs, an Icelandic Minister of State, with a seat in parliament, would be appointed. The leading candidate for the post of minister was Valtřr Gumundsson, an academic and member of Al■ingi, living in Copenhagen. The so-called "Valtřr lobby" supported this proposal, but the Home Rule lobby refused to consider any compromise.
The "Valtřr" proposal was passed by a narrow majority in parliament in 1901, but then a change of government in Denmark gave the Home Rulers an opportunity for action. The King had, after prolonged resistance, bowed to the principle of parliamentary government, and appointed as Prime Minister the leader of the left-wing majority in the Danish parliament.
Hannes Hafstein was sent to Copenhagen to argue the case for home rule, and before long the Danish government made its proposal: a minister of state for Iceland, in Iceland, and autonomy in domestic affairs. Home rule could only be implemented after it had been confirmed by two consecutive parliaments, and hence it did not become a reality until February 1904.
Iceland in the late 19th century
When it demanded autonomy at the National Assembly of 1851, Iceland was a nation of 60,000 people, who by Danish standards lived a primitive and poverty-stricken existence. The Icelanders subsisted by agriculture and the fisheries as they had done for centuries, and their contact with the outside world was minimal.
In the course of the 19th century, however, the population rose, and productivity with it. More ships sailed to and from Iceland, and Free Trade was introduced in 1854: the Icelanders began to profit from exporting various commodities, such as sheep and horses on the hoof, fish-liver oil and, above all, saltfish. The fishing effort was increased, and sailing vessels were added to the fishing fleet, which had hitherto comprised only small rowing-boats.
Over-population was a problem in rural regions, and in the last decades of the 19th century many Icelanders emigrated to the New World – most of them to Canada. Nearly one in five Icelanders sailed for the land of opportunity.
The Icelanders campaigned for political rights, but no less urgently for economic development and new opportunities. Icelandic leaders focussed on improving communications, both with the outside world and within Iceland: they placed priority on building roads, bridges and harbours, and ensuring regular shipping services to and from the country. They even envisaged Icelandic railways – which were never to become a reality!
Culture and national consciousness
Icelandic culture prized the Protestant values of religion and hard work, but also the age-old literary traditions of the country. While few Icelanders attended any school, all were required to learn to read in order to be confirmed into the church, and many also learned to write. Reading matter, both devotional and secular, was found in every home, and poets were especially respected.
Iceland was known abroad for its literary traditions, especially the saga literature that told of the "Golden Age" of the Old Commonwealth (930-1262), and the Icelanders took pride in their special status in European literary culture.
The Icelanders saw themselves as a nation, with its own unique culture, although their Danish rulers were not easily persuaded to agree. But the campaign for independence was never an armed struggle: the Icelanders wielded the pen, and not the sword, and argued their way, slowly but surely, to national sovereignty.
Home Rule 1904-1918
The Home Rule period, from 1904 to 1918, was an eventful time in political, cultural and economic terms. Iceland experienced nothing less than a technological revolution: the year 1904 saw Iceland’;s first trawler, its first motor car, and its first hydro-electric plant. ═slandsbanki (the Bank of Iceland) was founded that year, opening up new opportunities for investment and development. The fishing fleet was rapidly motorised, and many trawlers were added to the fleet. In 1906, telegraph communications were established with the outside world, and before long, the country had a network of telegraph and telephone services. Roads and bridges were built. ReykjavÝk was not only Iceland’;s capital, it was also a centre of commerce. The advent of the telegraph facilitated international trade; with the construction of a fine harbour, ReykjavÝk became Iceland’;s major port, and the centre of the trawler fishery. A splendid National Library (now the Culture House) was built in 1906 - 1908. While the town of ReykjavÝk flourished, it still accounted only for less than one-fifth of the population, and more than half the population still lived on the land. Urban development was in its infancy.
While the first motor car was brought to Iceland in 1904, there were scarcely any roads at that time. It was not until after 1918 that the motor car began to be a realistic form of transport in Iceland. Mechanisation had not yet reached the farm, where horses were still supreme. Previously used primarily as pack animals, now they pulled carts, ploughs and other farm machinery.
During the Home Rule period, various movements made their mark on Icelandic society: the trade-union movement was beginning to make its voice heard, and the temperance movement had a mass following, which led to Prohibition in 1915. Youth associations nurtured a combination of nationalism and health culture.
Education was a priority. The Education Act of 1907 ensured all children four years’; free education – those in sparsely populated rural areas were served by peripatetic schools and teachers. A teacher training college was founded in 1908. In 1904 the Learned School, which had trained prospective clergymen and lawyers, was reorganised to provide a broader modern education and renamed the ReykjavÝk High School. The University of Iceland was founded in 1911. Both the High School and the University of Iceland were open to female students, and in 1915 Icelandic women were among the first in the world to win the right to vote.
From Home Rule to Sovereignty
Home rule, and the many new developments that followed, boosted the confidence and hopes of the Icelanders. Before long, emigration to the New World ceased. The Icelanders saw their own country as the land of opportunity. Home rule, though welcomed by the Icelanders, was seen by them simply as a stage on the way to independence. The Danes were unwilling to consider any further devolution of power, but the Icelanders refused to back down.
Iceland was not directly involved in World War I, but by the time of the peace settlement in 1918, the climate of opinion in Europe had tilted in favour of the independence of small nations, and Iceland was one of the many new states that emerged in the new Europe. On 1 December 1918 Iceland became a sovereign state, the Kingdom of Iceland, sharing only a monarch with Denmark. Twenty-six years later, in 1944, as another war raged in Europe and Denmark was under German occupation, the modern Icelandic republic was founded, marking the end of seven centuries of foreign rule.