First-Ever English Translation Recounts Barbary Corsair Raid on Iceland

How Adam Nichols came to co-author a book that for the first time translates a famous Icelandic tale into English is a story perhaps only another University of Maryland University College (UMUC) traveling faculty member can truly relate to.  With its twists and turns and chance encounters―the hallmark of Nichols’ worldwide travels teaching U.S. military personnel―this could be his own saga.

The book, “The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson,” is the memoir of an Icelandic Lutheran minister who, along with 400 other inhabitants on the Westman Islands off Iceland’s south coast, was captured in 1627 by Barbary corsairs and sold into slavery in Algiers.  The story recounts Reverend Olafur’s trials during the raid, his time in Algiers, and his journey across Europe to ransom his family.

Barbary corsairs in Iceland?  How did pirates known for launching attacks on European ships from the shores of Tripoli make it that far afield?  The question intrigued Nichols.

He was born in England, grew up in Canada and attended McGill University in Montreal. His own Icelandic saga began with the lure of an Irish woman he met in London in the 1980s that convinced him he wanted to live in England.

Through a friend of a friend, he heard about UMUC and the opportunities it presented to teach American military personnel in England.

“I asked the U.K. area director if he had any work,” said Nichols in a telephone interview from his home in Ithaca, New York where he now teaches online writing courses for UMUC.  “He said, ‘We need someone to go to Iceland.’  So by sheer random chance, I ended up in Iceland.”

But, Nichols said that after his plane landed at the airport in Keflavik he had this “utterly bizarre” feeling of coming home. “Like this was the place I belonged.  I’ve never had that experience anywhere else.”

That feeling led him to do three Iceland tours―in 1987, and again during the 1992-93 and 1995-96 academic years.  At the U.S. Naval Air Station there he taught basic freshman composition, American literature, world literature and, most significantly, a course in Icelandic saga.

“It was a popular course,” he said.  “All those young guys in the military.  The sagas are full of battles and Viking raids.  They loved it.”

As part of the course, he took students on field trips to visit sites from the sagas.  That’s how he met the man who would eventually become the co-author of his book. Karl Smari Hreinsson, an independent scholar and writer, has spent years researching Icelandic sources of the corsair raid on Iceland.

Hreinsson is an academic in one part of his life and, like many Icelanders, a tour guide in the summer for the waves of foreign tourists who descend on the island, Nichols said.  Hreinsson became a guest lecturer in Nichols’ Icelandic saga classes.

“One day Karl came to me and said, ‘We should translate a book. There’s this manuscript that has never been translated into English about this corsair raid on Iceland in 1627.’  I said, ‘Corsair raid? On Iceland? They were in the Mediterranean, not the North Atlantic.’  And so we started it.”

But as with most things, nothing is linear for traveling faculty, UMUC’s self-named academic foreign legion that spanned the globe from the 1960s to the 1990s to bring education to American service personnel.

From Iceland, Nichols’ career took him to teaching stints in Scotland and Germany, and downrange on military installations in conflict zones in Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait and Afghanistan, where he taught at a base near Tora Bora. There, the Friday evening meal at the DEFAC― the Dining Facility―came to be known as ‘steak and rockets’ from the Taliban’s habit of rocketing the base on Fridays, the Muslim holy day, when local Afghan workers would not be there.

All the while, Nichols’ fascination with Iceland and the corsair raiders who made it all the way there, was kept alive by the lure of Reverend Olafur Egilsson’s story.

iceland-book_jacket-cover-image_81vq1kvkizl-2The book collaboration―a 10-year task―mostly was done by email. Hreinsson translated parts of Reverend Olafur’s memoir into English and then sent his translation to Nichols, who would smooth it over into standard English. When finished, Nichols would send his work back to Hreinsson to make sure his interpretation did not drift too far from the actual account.

They first published “The Travels of Reverend Olafur Egilsson” in Iceland in 2008. Their new and more scholarly edition, published this August by the Catholic University of America Press, contains Reverend Olafur’s memoir, a contemporary report on the raid based on first-hand accounts, letters written by captive Icelanders, and extensive sections explaining the raid’s historical context.

The background to the 1627 raid is this: During much of the 1500s, the English and the Dutch fought wars against Spain.  Instead of building large navies, both countries encouraged privateers to attack Spanish shipping.  But when peace came in the early 1600s, these privateers found themselves out of work in a highly lucrative business.

Some privateers made their way to the west coast of Morocco, and to Algiers, Tunis or Tripoli on the Mediterranean where they taught the Barbary corsairs how to build and sail square-rigged ships that could ply the Atlantic. These “renegados,” who often converted to Islam, knew both the Atlantic waters―and where defenseless communities lay near the coast.

One such renegado was a Dutchman named Jan Janszoon van Harlem.  Guided by a Danish slave who sought his freedom, Janszoon and an Algerian corsair captain jointly led the Icelandic raid, capturing about 400 people, including Reverend Olafur and his young family, and taking them back to North Africa to be sold into slavery.

Reverend Olafur’s memoir recounts how his captors designated him as the go-between to negotiate ransoms and how he made his way across Europe to Denmark—Iceland was a Danish possession—to try to raise money to free his family.  It’s a harrowing tale that brings to life the raid and the conditions the Icelandic slaves endured.

Nichols cautions that there are no direct parallels between events in the seventeenth century and the conflicts between the Islamic world and the West today. But he adds, “As Mark Twain supposedly said, ‘History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.’”

After the last of the Muslims were forced out of Spain in 1492, some of them joined with the corsairs and attacked Spanish shipping in the Mediterranean Sea.  Spain retaliated, and the Spanish and the Barbary corsairs collided repeatedly in the Mediterranean for more than 100 years, each side pushing the other to greater extremes, Nichols said.  “Not totally unlike today.”

The Icelandic raid happened at a time when the Ottoman Empire, which had some control over North Africa, was locked with the Spanish Hapsburg Empire in a battle for supremacy even as the African slave trade was growing and European countries were in the often-violent process of forming what would eventually become nation states.

“It’s a giant mosaic and we are just looking at a few of the pieces,” Nichols said. “It is important to remember there is this mosaic.  Someone like Jan Janszoon ends up raiding Iceland because of this whole series of macro events and micro events all connected with each other.”

That, he said, is what makes the story so fascinating.