Conquering Iceland’s Mountains: The Alpine Club (Part 3)

“Turquoise Falls, Bruarfoss” © Jerome Berbigier

Continued from Part 2.

As it turned out, it was a British law student, William Lord Watts, who became the first man to truly answer Longman’s call and embark on some serious exploring. In the introduction to his book Across the Vatna Jökull; or, Scenes in Iceland; Being a Description of Hitherto Unknown Regions, Watts started by taking issue with the concerned British subject at home who saw the exploration of wilderness as a waste of “money, time, and labour,” or “utter folly,” explaining that everyone had a mania for something or other, and his own “may be to wander amongst unknown or unfrequented corners of the earth.” Calling for “a truce to critical stay-at-homes,” Watts advanced to the meat of his trip itself.

In his descriptions of his several expeditions, Watts usually employed a calm, scientific and lawyerly tone that make his bursts of romantic and athletic enthusiasm in certain scenes all the more exciting and believable. Nodding to his biggest audience, he also used some of the common tropes of mountaineering, such as when he described the meeting with his expedition team of Icelanders as a “council of war” to discuss their options in poor weather. The rhetoric he employed throughout his work is noteworthy because it is reminiscent of the discourse of manliness and enterprise in the Alps, where defenders of mountaineering linked Britain’s power and prosperity—and at times the empire itself, explicitly—with the type of adventurous behavior embodied by athleticism. It is, in fact, rhetoric adopted from the monarch-of-all-I-survey trope of exploration narratives.

Aerial view of Iceland © Sarah Martinet

Adventure and empire are themes that follow closely upon the heels of Richard Burton, the famous African explorer who happened to have been in Iceland at the same time as Watts, with some of the same goals. Burton, who wrote two extensive volumes on Iceland several years after his travels there, exhibited a healthy respect for “the enterprising Mr. Watts,” who was successful in having “penetrated” the Vatnajökull where Burton was not. In the preface to his first volume, Burton claimed that “by instinct” he felt that previous Icelandic travellers’ accounts were highly exaggerated, and also labeled the quick tour to Hekla and the Geysir as a “Cockney trip.” The cynical explorer viewed everything in Iceland through the lens of the Andes, the Sudan, and the Nile, and often it seems that he has very little positive to say about the island, but nevertheless he penned over seven hundred pages on the topic, not including his nearly eighty-paged appendix on the sulfur deposits of Iceland.

This overwhelming addendum was filled with quotations by geologists and surveyors declaring Iceland’s sulfur supplies literally or nearly “inexhaustible,” which should not be surprising given his position as leader of a sulfur surveying expedition. Early in the introduction to his first volume Burton wrote that “The main object of the book … has been to advocate the development of the island.” Commander of the Royal Navy Charles S. Forbes, like Burton a man of empire, had written a decade before of Iceland’s resources and their potential for development. He wrote that Iceland’s

Aerial photograph of Iceland © Sarah Martinet

mineral and piscatorial wealth are comparatively undeveloped, and only wait the magic influences of capital and enterprise to cause a great—I will not say moral—improvement amongst the inhabitants. Its sulphur must also of necessity become of considerable importance, as the exhaustion of the Sicilian supply is a mere matter of time; and were we cut off from that depôt by the chances of war, the position of Iceland would be especially favourable for our markets; and it is a subject of considerable congratulation that all the mines of the island are in the hands of an English capitalist.

This practically colonialist rhetoric is exemplary of the “imperial eyes” in Mary Louise Pratt’s work on travel writing, and reminds us of the particular set of notions British travellers carried with them when abroad.

4 thoughts on “Conquering Iceland’s Mountains: The Alpine Club (Part 3)

  1. Pingback: Revisiting a Year-old Thesis Experience | Raxa Collective

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