First Icelanders

Simmi Valgeirsson, President of the Icelandic Australian Association. November 2019

As the president of the Icelandic Australian association of NSW, I have often wondered what kind of reasons are behind migrants decisions to leave Iceland behind and move to a different continent as far away as Australia.  Direct distance between Reykjavik and Sydney is 16,640km, which means you can’t get further away from Iceland.

After 30 years of talking to a number of Icelandic migrants, I can say that there are mainly four reasons that drive people to leave Iceland and venture out into the big world.  The first one are the economic conditions in Iceland.  When people end unemployed for a long time, as has happened in Iceland from time to time, they will eventually leave and look for new opportunities in other countries.  The second reason are family ties.  Especially if an Icelander marries an Australian.  Some of those families stay in Iceland, but most of them move to Australia.  The third reason is education.  Icelanders like to further their education in an international setting.  Australians speak English, so schools in Australia are very well suited to Icelanders, who learn English as their third language.  Most of the students from Iceland only stay for the duration of their studies, but some end up staying behind and end up settling here.  The last and fourth reason I would call adventure.  These are Icelanders that like to travel around the world and experience different things.  So when the come here, they end up settling here as well.

These musings of mine lead to me wondering who was the first person from Iceland, that migrated to Australia.  This resulted in me doing a bit of historical research, both in Australia and Iceland.  I can finally reveal that I have discovered a few Icelandic males which came to Australia and most of them settled here.  This hasn’t been easy as all of them have taken up English names, upon arrival to Australia.  That has made it very difficult, or impossible to find information on them in Iceland.  I have also, at times only found some limited amount of information on some of them. 

Following later is a list with the overview of the first eight that I have located.  For the ones that I have managed to find a lot of information about, I provide a link to a separate page with further information.  However, before jumping into the list, it’s perhaps best to explain a bit about how Australia was settled, especially for non-Australian reader.

Australia built up by Europeans

The first Europeans that came to Australia, came onshore in January 1788.  The fist settlement was a prison colony, consisting of about 1,400 people, located in what today is the city of Sydney.  Later on, more migrants, both convicts and free settlers came from the United Kingdom.  Then, after the first gold was discovered in the colony in 1851, there was a huge influx of people from all over the world.  Today, the population of Australia is over 25 million.  Of those about 30% are migrants, i.e. people born overseas.

Jorgen Jorgensen the Icelandic Dog Day King

It’s simply not possible to talk about migrants from Iceland, without out briefly mentioning Jorgen Jorgensen.  Although not born in Iceland but Denmark, Jorgen Jorgensen became very well know in Iceland back in 1809 when he became the king of Iceland for about six weeks.  He had come to Iceland as a consultant with a British merchant to Reykjavik to do some commerce with the Icelanders.  The Danish governor at the time forbade any Icelander to do any commerce with the merchant.  This caused the merchant to take all his crew members onshore, along with Jorgen Jorgensen, march up to the governor’s house and arrest him.  As they couldn’t leave Iceland without a ruler, Jorgen Jorgensen declared himself king of Iceland.   He was eventually deposed by a British frigate captain, arrested and sent to England for interrogation.  They let him go and for the next several years he had many adventures in different places.  In the end, due to his drinking and gambling habits, he ended up in a debtor’s jail in England.  In 1825 he is sent as a convict to Hobart in Tasmania, where he became a policeman and a well know person in the colony, often referred to as The King.  He dies in Hobart in 1841. 

This story is well known in Iceland, however fewer Icelanders know that his arrival in Hobart back in 1825 wasn’t his first time in Australia.  He came as a young sailor from Cape Town to Sydney in 1800, just 12 years after the convict colony is established in Sydney.  At the time there are about 6,000 people living in Sydney.  A year later he is employed on board the ship Lady Nelson, which is then sent from Sydney with convicts and supplies to Tasmania.  The purpose was to put in place the first settlement there, in order to prevent the Dutch from claiming Tasmania as an uninhabited island.  The Lady Nelson arrives at the south end of Tasmania and then sails up what is now the Derwent river.  This is where Jorgen and the crew of the Lady Nelson help establish the first settlement in Tasmania, which becomes the city of Hobart.  One can say that Jorgen was returning back home, when he came back to Hobart in 1825 for the second time.

The search for the first Icelanders

I have primarily used the Internet for sourcing the information about these Icelanders.  Today, most of the historical information has been digitized and made available online.  However as mentioned before I’ve had to connect the information I’ve found in Australia with the information in Iceland. All of the Icelanders took up English names upon arrival to Australia.  This has made it very difficult if not impossible to create a link to Iceland, so I have not been able to connect all of them as the information I have managed to find hasn’t been sufficient to do that. I have also enjoyed some help from others, who as me are interested in history and descendants of these Icelanders here in Australia.  I have also had some help from Elin de Ruyter, an Icelandic friend who lives in Brisbane.  She is also very keen on history and added a few people to my list.

1849 Holger Peter Clausen arrives in Melbourne

Holger Peter Clausen is born, 1st of August 1831 in the village of Olafsvik on the Snaefellsnes peninsula in Iceland.  His parents were Hans Arreboe Clausen, merchant and his wife Asa Oladottir Sandholt.  Holger lives in Iceland until the age of nine, when he sails to Copenhagen in 1840.  He leaves Denmark and arrives in Melbourne in 1849, eighteen years of age.  He meets a young woman there who’s name was Harriet Barbara Cook.  When gold was found in the town of Bendigo about 150km north of Melbourne, he goes to the gold fields as a miner.  He leaves Australia in 1853 and works in England and Copenhagen in Denmark.  In Copenhagen on the 1st of February, he marries Harriet Barbara Cook.  While living in Copenhagen they have four children, Hans Arrebo Clausen born 1859, Amy Clausen born 1860, Vigand Clausen born 1863 and Olga Clausen born 1866.  Holger returns to Melbourne in Australia with his wife in 1862 and works as a merchant.  They had left their children in Copenhagen with his grandparents.  In 1870, Holger abandons his wife and children in Australia and goes back to Iceland.  There he becomes a successful merchant, re-marries, has more children and lives to the end of his days.  He even became a member of the Icelandic parliament from 1880 to 1885.  All his children from the previous marriage went to Australia, one by one over time and lived in Melbourne.  His oldest daughter, Olga Clausen became the editor for the Norden in 1904, a well known magazine published by the Scandinavian-Australian community.  Her brother, Hans Arrebo and his wife were also involved in the magazine.  The Norden ceased publishing in 1840.

1855 Arni Olafsson Thorlacius arrives in Sydney

Arni Olafsson Thorlacius was born on the farm Innri-Fagradal in Skardstrond on Icelands west coast on the 28th of November 1836.  He arrives in Sydney from Hong Kong in 1855 and renames himself as Antonio Woolier.  Only two years later, he becomes involved in rescuing the only survivor of the shipwreck Dunbar.  This is the worst shipwreck in NSW history still today.  From that he became well known in Australia.  I’ve managed to pull together an overview of his history, which you can read here.

1861 Jon Sighvatur Jacobaeus arrives in Sydney

Jon Sighvatur Jacobaeus was born in the village of Keflavik on the 15th of March 1842.  He arrives in Sydney in 1861 as a second mate and renames himself John Jackson.  He works as a sailor and later captain on schooners that operated out of Sydney.  Later in life he comes ashore and takes up a role as the harbour master and manager of Sydney Harbour trust properties.  I’ve managed to pull together an overview of his history, which you can read here.

1872 Thorkell arrives

A Danish immigrant to Australia, has written an account of his adventures in Queensland.  His name was Thorvald Weitemeyer and his book is called “Missing Friends”.  In it, he writes a lot about the Icelandic friend, Thorkell he got to know on their voyage from Hamburg to the town of Bowen in Queensland in 1871.  He writes that Thorkell was about 28 years old and had come to Hamburg from Denmark.  Thorkell had gone from Iceland to study farming in an agricultural school in Copenhagen.  After that he had taken up a role on the Danish island of Als as a manager of a large farm.  Shortly after arrival in Bowen, Thorkell is offered a job on a sugarcane plantation in MacKay, south of Bowen.  They then separated, but three years later, Weitemeyer catches again up with Thorkell just out of the gold town of Ravenswood in Queensland.  They joined forces and went prospecting for gold around the area.  They continued their prospecting in isolated terrain, until Thorkell fell ill and eventually died.  According to the immigration records, from Queensland, Weitemeyer arrived on the ship Humboldt on the 10th of April, 1872 in Bowen. I was unable to find Thorkell’s name on the passenger list of 365 passengers. He must have used a different name, probably a Danish one. Due to that, I have been unable to link Thorkell to anyone in Denmark or Iceland. Weitemeyer does get some more details from Thorkell about his life in Iceland and Denmark.  You can read Weitemeyer’s Missing Friends online here

Prior to 1873 Johann Petur Oddsson Thorarensen arrives in Melbourne

Johann Petur Oddsson Thorarensen was born 6th of May 1830 in Nes, in the parish of Seltjarnaresssokn.  His parents were Oddur Stefansson Thorarensen (b. 2nd Sep. 1797, d. 27th Nov. 1880) pharmacist and his first wife, Solveig Bogadottir (b. 27th Oct. 1801, d. 7th Mar. 1835).  They resided in the town of Akureyri in north Iceland, where Petur Oddsson worked also as a pharmacist.  In 1864, Petur leaves Iceland and moves to Copenhagen in Denmark.  Sometime before 1873, he migrates to Melbourne and then renames himself to Johan Peter Thorarensen.  He settles in Melbourne and sets up a pharmacy.  He marries Agnes Thorne Rebecca (b. 1840, d. 1920) in 1873.  Later they relocate to Sydney and he runs a pharmacy in 62 Erskine Street, Sydney until he dies at the age of 81 on the 11th of May 1911.  He actually dies in Melbourne, but is buried in the Rockwood cemetery in Sydney along with his wife, which died later.  It’s not known if they had any children.

Head stone for Thorarensen in Rockwood cemetery Sydney
Headstone for Johan Peter Thorarensen in the Rockwood Cemetery, Sydney

1892 Gudmundur Johannesson arrives in Melbourne

Gudmundur Johannesson was born on the 11th of February 1852 in the parish of Saudarnessokn, North Thingeyjarsyslu.  His parents are Johannes Jonsson, farmer at Sydraloni (b. 1810, d. 1866) and his wife Margret Jonsdottir b. 1823, d. 1897).  Margret manages the household on a farm called Ytribrekka in the parish of  Saudarnessokn in 1880.  Records say that she left the farm Ytribrekka in 1883 and went to Canada, which many Icelanders did at the time.  Her son, Gudmundur is on his parents farm Sydraloni at the age of 9 in 1860.  He is a worker on the same farm as his mother i.e. Ytribrekka in 1870.  He also migrated to Canada after that, but it is said that the last news of him was the fact that he had gone to Australia and had been eaten by cannibals in 1892. It’s most likely that he was a sailor and his ship wrecked on one of the Pacific Island and met his fate there. There are similar stories told from that era about sailers being captured, killed and eaten by the natives.

1888 John Nelson arrives in Sydney

John Nelson was born in Iceland in 1857 or 1858.  He becomes naturalized on the 6th of September 1898 at the age of 40.  He is then said to live in 159 Cumberland Street in the Rocks, Sydney.  He titles himself as a laborer.  He writes that he arrived in the colony on the ship Maderia in 1878.  There is no record of that, but another record shows him arriving in the colony on the 16th of November 1888.  He arrives on the ship Jennie B, from Puget Sound.  He is said to have been Icelandic and 31 years of age when he arrives.  No more information has been found for him, neither in Australia or Iceland. It is quite possible that he left Iceland for Canada and then made his way to Australia via Puget Sound later on.

Are there more?

These are the first eight Icelanders that I have found records for.  I’m pretty sure there may be others, but one of the main problem in locating them, is the fact that in written records, Iceland is often mixed up with Ireland.  Unfortunately when computers convert text to digital version, they tend to confuse the first c in “Iceland” with an r and happily turn Iceland into Ireland. It also doesn’t help that most, if not all of them change their names to an English sounding name.  I have not traced others following these, but I’m sure someone else will take that on, or at least I hope so.