Turkish Invasion: Westman Islands – Vestmannaeyjar
Various catastrophes have befallen the island and its inhabitants throughout history. Death at sea was a common trauma for the families on the island especially with the weather being rougher and more ferocious on and near Vestmannaeyjar than other places in the country. With improved ships and additional prevention methods, accidents and deaths at sea have greatly decreased, becoming comparatively rare. The islanders have also been some of the main originators and promoters of safety and rescue standards. For example they initiated the placement of rubber rafts aboard the fishing vessels as life boats and it was also an islander who invented a special self-release technique for the rafts. The islanders also bought and maintained the first search and rescue and patrol ship in the Icelandic fleet.
Probably the most tragic incident to take place on the island was the Algerian pirate raid in July of 1627. The pirates landed on Heimaey and proceeded to pillage and plunder, burning farms, houses and the church, and killing or kidnapping 242 of the island’s 500 inhabitants. Those who were kidnapped were transported to the slave market in Algeria and most of them were never able to return to Iceland. Some died along the way; others could not adjust to the conditions of slavery, and a few eventually started new lives in the world of their captives. The inhabitants who escaped the pirates during the attack had hidden in caves and at cliffs along the ocean. Many place names on the island are reminiscent of this terrifying attack, such as Pirates’ Bay and Hundred Man Cave. It is said that 100 people hid here, though they were eventually discovered by the pirates because of a dog that had been waiting outside the cave. One woman, Guðríður Símonardóttir, sometimes called Turkish Gudda from Stakkagerði in Vestmannaeyjar is probably the most famous of the captives. She was one of the few who was released from captivity and returned to Iceland, though she never returned to Vestmannaeyjar. She married the poet and author of the Icelandic psalms, Hallgrímur Pétursson who served as a priest in Suðurnes and Hvalfjörður.
Text: Sigurgeir Jónsson
Translation to English: Margo Renner
The Pirate Raid 1627 or The “Turkish” Raid 1627
There are many historical sites on Heimaey in Westman Islands.
For centuries the fishermen-farmers made shelters of rock for fish in the cliffs, at Fiskhellar (Fish Caves); some of them still remain but most have been destroyed. It was a good place to dry fish because it was free of flies. Many people tried to hide from the pirates in those caves, particularly women and children and they were hoisted down there on a rope. The raiders were not deterred by the cliff. They climbed down to capture the people in shelters low on the cliff and shot those who they were unable to catch. It is not reported that they had used rope to climb down, perhaps not being particularly adept at that sport. On Thorlaugargerdishilla, a shelf high up in the cliff, people are said to have found a hiding place and the raiders were unable to get at them. Reportedly, some of the women’s skirts extended over the edge of the shelf and eighteen bullet holes were found on the skirt of one woman, but she was unhurt.
The Cave of the Hundred
At the time of the raid in 1627, about 500 people lived in the Westman Islands. The raiders captured and enslaved 242 but 36 were killed. Thus, around 220 people were able to escape the raiders. Many of them hid in caves, which are found all over the island. About 100 people are said to have hid in Hundraðmannahellir (The cave of the Hundred). One of them had his dog with him. The dog was sniffing around the entrance of the cave, and this aroused the suspicion of the pirates. They searched the cave, found the people and brought them to the slave market in Algiers City.
During the past centuries the cave has sagged considerably and it has also been partially filled with dirt so today it is much smaller than in 1627. Although it will certainly not hold one hundred people now, it is not unthinkable that a hundred people might have been able to hide there then.
On July 17th 1627, Algerian pirates, believed to be Turks, came on three ships and pirated the Westman Islands. There were defensive preparations at the cannon battery by the harbour, near to where The Skansinn (the Fort) was later built. The plan was to resist the pirates, but local fishermen that had been captured on a fishing boat advised them to try landing elsewhere on the island. They landed east of Brimurð (Surf Beach) which has been named Ræningjatangi (Pirate Cove). The merchant of the Westman Islands, Lauritz Bagge, was responsible for the defences. He had monitored the Raiders moves but realised that resistance was futile and fled. He prepared a boat, put his family on board and rowed across to Landeyjasandur on the mainland.
Thus they were saved, but no other people are reported to have escaped in that way. The pirates split into three groups and spread over the island, ransacked farms, captured people, tied their captives and herded them down to the Danish houses, where the captives were kept. Those who moved slowly were killed.