The Long Way Home
About one-in-ten of the Icelanders abducted during the Turkish Raid in 1627 returned. Among them was Guðríður Símonardóttir, who later became a respected pastor’s wife.
In 1627, Moorish corsairs attacked several settlements Iceland in what became known as the Turkish Raid, capturing nearly 400 people—mostly from Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands)—and killing 40. The captives were sold into slavery in North Africa. Some died during the long journey to the Barbary Coasts and many more during the first weeks or months there. Others lived through years of hardship, resisting their masters’ attempt to convert them to Islam, while some of the Icelanders did convert.
“There is great difference here between masters. Some captive slaves get good, gentle, or in-between masters, but some unfortunates find themselves with savage, cruel, hardhearted tyrants, who never stop treating them badly, and who force them to labour and toil with scanty clothing and little food, bound in iron fetters, from morning till night.”
One of the Icelanders, Guttormur Hallsson, described the conditions of slaves in Algiers in a letter to his family, delivered in 1631 (translated by Karl Smári Hreinsson and Adam Nichols). Some of the other enslaved Icelanders wrote letters home, too, in the hope of reaching their loved ones and of being freed. These included Guðríður Símonardóttir, a common fisherman’s wife, who was 29 when captured in Vestmannaeyjar with her young son. She wrote a letter to her husband Eyjólfur Sölmundarson, declaring her love for him.
Eventually, the Danish King did provide ransom for his subjects on the Barbary Coast, sending his agent, the Dutch Wilhielm Kifft, to free those who were still Christian and who wished
to return to their home countries. A list of 70 Icelanders living in captivity was compiled in 1635. A group of 34, including Guðríður, sailed from Algiers in June 1636. Guðríður was one of the most valuable thralls, judging by the receipt Kifft provided: out of the 200-dollar (ríkisdalir
) ransom, she provided 20 herself—as one of three women who were able to contribute to their own freedom. No children could be freed.
The group traveled by sea from Algeria to Mallorca, continuing to Marseille and Narbonne, then by land through France to Bordeaux, again by sea to Amsterdam and Glückstadt in Germany, finally reaching Copenhagen in the autumn. There, they had to stay the winter, as no ship would leave for Iceland until the spring.
In Copenhagen, a young Icelandic student, Hallgrímur Pétursson, was assigned with helping the freed slaves brush up on their Bible knowledge. Before the group had left Algiers, in early 1636, a severe storm had hit Vestmannaeyjar, drowning many of the islands’ fishermen. Guðríður was one of those widowed. Whether she learned of her husband Eyjólfur’s fate while in Copenhagen, or that before his death, he had started a new family, is a matter of speculation. But that winter, Guðríður and Hallgrímur fell in love. He was 22, she 38. When they returned to Iceland together, Guðríður was expecting the first of their children. The couple married and Hallgrímur later became one of Iceland’s greatest preachers and poets, composing the celebrated Passion Hymns in 1659. The landmark church Hallgrímskirkja, in Reykjavík, is named after him. Hallgrímur died of leprosy in 1674 but Guðríður lived to be 84, passing in 1682.
After her death, Guðríður’s image developed into that of Tyrkja-Gudda (‘Turkish Gudda’), a heathen who had wiled the much younger Hallgrímur. Her reputation has since been restored, not least because of a historical novel by Steinunn Jóhannesdóttir, originally published in 2001. Today, Guðríður’s remarkable story—of a common woman who survived nine years of slavery and returned home, becoming a respected pastor’s wife—is considered to bear witness to a woman of stronger character than most. A memorial to Guðríður was unveiled in Vestmannaeyjar in 1985.
About one-in-ten of those abducted during the Turkish Raid in 1627 returned. The Turkish Raid is considered to be a unique event in Icelandic history, both because it’s the only military attack on the country resulting in human casualties, and because of the numerous firsthand accounts about it that exist.
By Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir. Photos of Vestmannaeyjar by Páll Stefánsson.