It has been months since I’ve mentioned Iceland on the blog, partly because I was exhausted with the subject after completing my thesis in mid-April, but also because I’ve been occupied with less academic matters over the summer. Another reason for revisiting the topic is that over the summer I had the honor of learning that my thesis was added to the Kroch Library Rare and Manuscript Collections–hopefully somebody will find it useful eventually! Now that the volcanic dust has settled and the borrowed library books have been returned, I feel there are a couple facets of nineteenth-century British travel to Iceland left to explore here.
I’ve written about some of the qualities exhibited by British travelers to Iceland before, but not as much about their social context at home or some of the driving forces behind their decisions to travel to the country. During the 1850s and 1860s, around what historian of the British Empire Ronald Hyam has dubbed the “decade of crisis,” from 1855-65, the British faced a series of challenges around the world through the Crimean War, the Mutiny-Rebellion in India, the Jamaica Rebellion, and the Irish Home Rule protest. Partly as a response to the perceived loss of Britain’s manliness and global dominance, British mountaineers founded the Alpine Club in 1857 to group middle class men interested in exploration and adventure together. Within the next few decades, members were predominately men in respectable professions, such as bankers, barristers, university dons, country gentlemen, and clergymen; very few working-class and relatively few aristocratic men joined.
The Alpine Club is relevant to my discussion of the volcanic island because on April 4, 1861 the Club’s vice president, William Longman, delivered an address to members titled Suggestions for the Exploration of Iceland. He capitalized on the British spirit of adventure and desire to be the first to ascend a mountain, explaining that he had chosen the country as his subject:
partly, because I believe the members of the Alpine Club, to be especially fitted to explore those parts of Iceland, which, hitherto, have seemed too terrible to all who have visited that island; and partly, because I wish to urge the members of the Club, to take in hand adventurous explorations, beyond the regions of our well-loved Alps.
Longman emphasized several times that many regions in Iceland were previously unexplored and that they would present a novel challenge to Club members. It is clear that he genuinely desired his audience to expand their repertoire of climbable peaks, though he apologized for breaking with the tradition of discussing an excursion in which he had taken part by instead talking about a country he feared he never would visit. Perhaps he was wise to turn the Club members’ gaze to Iceland, given the comments of overcrowding in Switzerland read earlier and the exhaustion of unconquered summits by the summer of 1865. Longman concluded by giving a list of the principal mountains and volcanoes in Iceland, including when they had been attempted in the past, and also enumerated the recommended instruments for Alpine recordings to be taken to Iceland for scientific measurements. His address makes it clear that the typical Alpine Club member was concerned with a type of authenticity similar to that which drove travelers to Iceland. Indeed, they shared notions of ruggedness, self-improvement, and naturalist observation, and in Britain, to be a mountaineer effectively meant one was a type of traveler.