Bill Helgason of Winnipeg sent this account written by his amma, Oddný Sveinsdóttir of her travels from Iceland to Winnipeg in 1886. Oddný was respected as a strong and independent woman.
She often wrote poetry under the name of “Indo.” She was 20 when she took the big step, travelling alone from Iceland to Canada.
The story was first printed in the Winnipeg Free Press in 1927 and, later, in The Icelandic Canadian, in 1974. Part 1 of 2.
The snow-clad mountain tops of Iceland were fast disappearing in the distance, when I, a girl of 20 years, awoke to the fact that there was nothing left for the eye to rest upon but the grim aspect of the dark green rushing billows, which slammed themselves against the side of the ship as though desirous of swallowing it at one gulp.
It was a small steamer loaded with a miscellaneous cargo, fighting its way over the uneven surface of the ocean, battling, as it seemed, with a foam-flecked beast whose myriad eyes glowered and threatened through the dusk, ready to hypnotize the slow-moving black speck and make it do its bidding. The 200-ton little steamer carefully threaded its way through the fast-gathering darkness with a few coughs and snorts, paying no heed to the black clouds overhead nor the moaning of the angry waves around it.
It was neither the rocking of this Noah’s Ark, nor the weirdness of the scenery which had the desired effect on my peace of mind. I had wished to forget the memories that came crowding my thought, memories of good-byes to friends and the beauties of nature which I loved and missed so much. My feeling was similar to that of an ostrich who wants to bury his head in the sand. Only I must have lacked the courage, for I found it safer to stay on deck and cling to the wooden bench where I had found a seat.
Only occasionally dared I raise my eyes to the few stars which the moody sky allowed to twinkle once in a while. It may not sound nice, but it gave me the cold shivers when I thought of going down below amongst the other immigrants, for that bunkhouse happened to be right above the region where the sheep and horses were quartered; the odour arose like a spiral column through the thin boards between the animal freight and the human express. I had never before seen such a queer mixture. Nearly everything huddled together: men, beasts and baggage of all kinds and description, in the bowels of that brave little ship. And all those different goods were on their way to Canada, “the land of the free.”
My reverie was suddenly interrupted by a slim youth coming towards me, stumbling over the tangled mass of ropes and canvas littered all around the forecastle.
I was pretty certain that this youth addressed me in Danish, though in my hazy state of mind, it sounded like gibberish, which did not penetrate to the grey matter in my top story. At last I understood him to be offering me a drink of red wine out of a tumbler in his hand, which might have been a red dye for all I knew. I guess he took me for some lonely bird, and out of the kindness of his Danish heart wanted this red liquid to warm my chilled personality; but all I did was to shake my head until he had to turn away with a sigh either of content or weariness. I really felt like some peculiar kind of an insect, not only in ideas but in looks as well.
I was dressed in the travelling garb of an immigrant, black satin waist and a fine homespun skirt of dark colour, with black straw hat and two braided pigtails hanging down my back, and dainty-looking sheepskin slippers on my black stocking-clad feet. You, my good reader, need not curl your lips in a smile when you see that expression, for when those slippers are made by a person with a little taste, they are very pretty. They are made from black-dyed soft skin, with a binding all around of a cured cream-colored skin, and shaped to fit the foot of the wearer neatly, as the Icelanders have a knack of performing their hand industry. I have seen garish-looking footwear in Canada, but none neater looking than these properly made sheepskin slippers. Please let that sink in, as the slang goes, even if some of you have the distorted idea that Iceland is inhabited by imitations of the Eskimos.
My journey took a whole week from Iceland to the shores of Scotland and to the port of Leith, where change was made early in the day and we were piled into the train, which took us to the outskirts of the city of Glasgow.
It was a queer feeling which I experienced on that train journey, as if I was thrown into the two reverse conditions of heaven and hell; sometimes disappearing into the bowels of the earth, then again coming out into the bright sunshine, soaring above ground, seeing all kinds of lovely scenery. I did really have a half mind to throw myself out of the train window for the purpose of enjoying the sight of the green fields and dales of bonny Scotland, but soon ignored the notion as not healthy.
The train held a certain horror for me; I could not help comparing it with a black wriggling worm who had a smoke-stack on his head and a devil’s eye in the centre. If you have ever seen a herd of cattle driven into a stockyard through slush and rain, perhaps you can visualize the picture of my 900 travelling companions, myself included. There were also some Scotch and Irish emigrants. It was a long walk from one end of the city of Glasgow to the other. It took us from 9 o’clock in the evening till 2 in the morning. I don’t doubt that we all represented a rare-looking phenomena to the eye of the Glasgow citizens, for even at that hour they were busy staring at us. So many of us were clad in dark clothes that it must have looked like a funeral march.
I am not stretching the yarn when I tell you that I was ready to fall down with fatigue… Let me tell you I felt more joy in setting foot on that gangplank and leaving that shore behind than I ever felt in anything in my life.