On April 22, 2015, the district commissioner of the Westfjords Jónas Guðmundsson revoked a 400-year-old local decree. Although it hadn‘t been invoked since its creation in the early 17th century, the decree proclaimed that Basque fishermen could be killed with impunity in the Westfjords. Of course, if any Icelander would have killed a Basque fisherman in the last few centuries, they would have faced serious consequences. Still, disposing of this “law” was a gesture of reconciliation for one of the worst tragedies to occur on Icelandic soil.
In the early part of the 16th century, Spanish sailors and fishermen were cashing in on the spoils offered by the new world. Whaling became a huge industry, as the Spanish set up the world‘s first large-scale whaling operation in Newfoundland, Canada. By the middle of the century, the fleet grew to 30 ships and employed around 2,000 sailors. As they pursued the whales – killing around 400 per year at its peak – the sailors reached Iceland.
Whaling stations were set up around Iceland, and the Spanish and Icelanders generally collaborated without much issue. One such whaling station was manned by Basque sailors in the Westfjords in the early part of the century. But the winter of 1614 and into 1615 was a difficult one in the Westfjords. Frozen seas late into the spring made it difficult to navigate the waters, and the poor weather resulted in the death of many livestock in the area.
Three whaling vessels arrived in Reykjarfjörður during the summer. After finishing for the season, they tried to sail back to Spain in September, but a strong storm ran the ships aground. Most of the sailors survived, but they were stuck in Northwest Iceland for the winter. This caused a certain amount of anxiety among the locals. After such a disastrous year and the loss of livestock, food was scarce.
According to the sources that exist, a group of Basque sailors entered the house of a merchant in Þingeyri and stole some dried fish. On October 5, Icelanders retaliated by killing 14 of the sailors in their sleep. Three days later, the local sheriff Ari Magnússon called a meeting in Súðavík and had all the Spaniards declared outlaws. The best thing to do, according to Ari, was to kill as many as possible. On October 13, 17 more sailors were murdered by a group led by Ari Magnússon.
Jón Guðmundsson the learned, a famed poet and alleged sorcerer, wrote about the account. He claims that his countrymen did more than kill the Basque sailors. His account claims that the bodies were mutilated – noses and genitals were cut off – and sunk into the sea rather than given a Christian burial. The captain of one ship, Martín de Villafranca, had reportedly escaped the second attack after taking an axe to the chest but was stoned in the water, dragged to shore, and tortured to death. By the end of the year, a total of 32 sailors had been murdered, with one survivor managing to escape. It is the only mass murder in the history of Iceland.
As though to cover his tracks, Ari Magnússon passed another verdict in January of 1616, further condemning the dead sailors as criminals. These decrees he passed allowed Icelanders to kill Basque soldiers on sight. Perhaps because there were no further skirmishes or problems with the whalers, these decrees went unnoticed for centuries. In theory, a Basque fisherman could have been legally murdered in the Westfjords up until 2015!
People disagree on the reasoning behind these killings. Many have suggested that because of the scarcity of food brought on by the bad weather, locals worried the Basque sailors would have depleted their food supply. This line of thinking makes the killings look like a problem of self-preservation. However, the accusation of criminal activity and the leadership of the sheriff seems to indicate something else entirely – a fervour that spiralled out of control. Others point out that the sailors were fairly self-sufficient, having recently killed a whale that would have helped them survive for months, and they would not have put a strain on local resources.
The removal of the decree in 2015 was part of a ceremony in remembrance of the murdered soldiers. Descendants of both the Basque whalers and the Icelandic killers met in April at the unveiling of a monument in Hólmavík. There were speeches, music, and a moment of prayer. While the curious decree gave many a chuckle to think that it was legal to kill a Basque sailor in the Westfjords, the tragedy, although it took place hundreds of years ago, is a dark moment in Iceland‘s history.