In the summer of 1627, pirates from the north coast of Africa raided Iceland, taking close to four hundred captives away into slavery. Among those taken was the Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, a Lutheran Minister in his sixties. This book is Reverend Ólafur’s chronicle of the experience.
The Travels of Reverend Ólafur Egilsson, known in Iceland as Reisubók Séra Ólafs Egilssonar, is a well-known classic of seventeenth century Icelandic literature, but it has never before been translated into English. It is one of the earliest travel books by a northern, post-Reformation European writer describing both Islamic and Christian civilization in the seventeenth century and tells a powerful, altogether remarkable story.
It may come as a surprise to some that Muslim corsairs, operating out of ports along the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, should have been raiding as far afield as Iceland. But such pirates were at the height of their power in the seventeenth century. Using oared galleys rowed by slaves, they had been attacking ships and coastal settlements in and around the Mediterranean since the Middle Ages, taking captives to be either ransomed or sold into slavery. By the seventeenth century, they had learned from Europeans how to build and use sailing ships, thus making possible long-distance expeditions like the one to Iceland — the Tyrkjaránið, the Turkish Raid, as it is commonly known. Seventeenth century Icelanders used ‘Turkish’ as a generic term referring to Muslims in general rather than inhabitants of the country we now think of as Turkey, and the term has lived on in the traditional name for the raid.
During the Tyrkjaránið in that summer of 1627, corsairs from Algiers and Salé (in Morocco) raided the eastern and southern coasts of Iceland, as well as the Westman Islands, off the south coast. They killed dozens of people and captured perhaps as many as four hundred — to sell them into slavery in North Africa. Reverend Ólafur, his wife, and their children were among those taken captive on the Westman Islands.
The Reisubók tells the story of all this and more, for Reverend Ólafur negotiated a ransom agreement with his captors and then travelled alone from North Africa across Europe to Denmark in an attempt to raise the money required to free his family.
To give a clearer sense of these extraordinary events, we have included not only the full text of the Reisubók itself but also a series of letters, either written by Icelandic captives to their relatives back in Iceland or based on eyewitness accounts of the raid. These letters describe, in sometimes poignant and vivid detail, both the events of the Tyrkjaránið and the conditions in North Africa under which the enslaved Icelanders lived.
Reverend Ólafur’s Reisubók is a fascinating work in many ways. It is a moving story on the human level: we witness a devout man recounting a bitter personal tragedy, and, like others before and after him, struggling in his own way to reconcile such calamity with his understanding of God. The book is also filled with a wealth of detail — social, political, economic, religious, and quotidian — from both North Africa and Europe in the first quarter of the seventeenth century.
There is something here for just about everyone. We are sure you will find it a rewarding read.