Tag Archives: Salt Magnusson

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson

I had not heard of this novel, but a member of our reading group recommended it for our 2024 list. When we discussed it last week, we all agreed that the story was well-told, and we had a good discussion about Åsta’s decision when she was given the opportunity to return home. We discussed how little we knew of the Barbary pirates, and how entrenched slavery seems to be in human commerce. We agreed The Sealwoman’s Gift was an excellent choice for a book group. 

The Sealwoman’s Gift

The story of Åsta and her family’s capture is based on real and recorded events. The family are living in the Westman Islands south of Iceland in 1627. They live a meagre life in an inhospitable environment. Åsta has two daughters, one living away, and a son and she is in the final stages of another pregnancy. Her husband, Ólafur, is a Lutheran priest, fierce in his determination that he and his parishioners will get to heaven by leading a good life. Suddenly the raiders arrive and remove four hundred people, adults and children, and load them onto their ships. Others are killed. It was known as the ‘Turkish Raid’ although the raiders are Barbary pirates, and the family is taken to Algiers.

It is also documented that Ólafur returned to beg the King of Denmark, who ruled Iceland, for the ransom demanded by the raiders. The king refused to see Ólafur, and it was many years before he agreed to support raising funds to pay for the return of the Icelandic captives. Most of the novel is concerned with what happened to Åsta and the others in the nine years of their captivity.

In the Author’s Note, Sally Magnusson makes it clear that she intended to recreate in an imaginative manner the lives of the women, giving their ordeal some substance. Women’s stories are often neglected. She succeeds, beginning with the birth of Åsta’s baby on board the ship that carries them to Algiers. This scene makes for hard reading, for Åsta is in the hold with the other captives. When they arrive, they wait in the square.

There is a flutter of red silk as the Ottoman governor of Algiers, exercising his historical right to choose for himself an eight of every group of new slaves, pads from one man to another, considering his options. (89-90)

The pasha chooses Åsta’s older son, Egill. It is clear that Egill is to be treated as a rent boy and who knows what the pasha will do with him when he tires of him. Åsta is distraught. The rest of the family are bought by Cilleby, a distinguished member of one of the town’s elite families. He has been persuaded that they are valuable, and that Ólafur is the man to negotiate the payment for their release. His first wife has asked him to buy a slave who can sew. 

So Åsta joins the harem in Cilleby’s household and Ólafur leaves for Copenhagen to negotiate with the king of Denmark. Åsta finds sewing hard, but her two children, the baby and Marta, soon endear themselves to the women of the household and she begins to learn the language. There are other European slaves in the household, and Anna, one of the Icelandic women who was taken in the same raid, marries a Muslim trader and she brings news and gossip.j

The years pass, and little news is forthcoming from Denmark, or from Ólafur. Åsta is forced to make a life for herself in her new situation. She joins the story-tellers in the harem, retelling sagas which enchanted her in her days in Iceland. Soon Cilleby asks for her to tell him these stories, and their relationship develops. He is not familiar with women of spirit who will not automatically obey him. 

One sad episode concerns the letter that Åsta wrote to Ólafur. She took it to a ship to hope that it would finally find him. This is what she says about the mixture of peoples in Algiers.

I have also found out that the people we were wont to call Turks are by no means all Turks. It is true that the highest people are most often from Turkey – they are also called Ottomans – but others, like the family of our high and mighty Ali Pitterling Cilleby, are Moors from Spain. Then there are Berbers, native to this land, and Jews. And besides the slaves, there are European renegades with their new Arabic names who are here to make money and stride about as if they own the place, which many of them do. (I19)

The letter, with others, is given to a sailor, with some money, but as she watches the boat leave the harbour she sees ‘a flock of white birds flies upwards, rising from the deck and then fluttering one by one to the water’. (125) Ólafur will not get his letter.

A businessman from Amsterdam arrives, after many years, with instructions to buy back the hostages. Money has been raised among the Icelandic population. To be qualified to return the captives must still follow the Lutheran faith, which excludes many of the young people. Others have settled to their new life, such as Anna, or set up in business themselves, and they do not choose to return. Some have disappeared. Åsta faces a dilemma, for she will leave her all three children behind if she chooses to return.

The cultural and religious contrasts between Iceland and Algiers are well explored, including the Icelanders’ responses to captivity. Strict Lutheran beliefs are challenged by Islamic observances and customs. The north African climate is so much less trying than the harshness of Iceland and the Westman islands. Women are treated differently in the two cultures, but in neither society do they have rights, and in neither can they control which dilemmas and decisions they must face. This is a story full of details and twists in the tradition of the Icelandic sagas.

There is a love story, but The Sealwoman’s Gift is a first and foremost a woman’s story, a wife and mother, experiencing loss and separation and cast into extraordinary circumstances. 

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson, published in 2018 by Two Roads. 367pp

There are four posts on Bookword blog featuring Iceland and its books. Here are the posts with links.

Bookword in Iceland (February 2017)

Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, also based on historical evidence and rather grim. (March 2017)

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Andi Thorsson (November 2018)

Quake by Audor Jónsdóttir (March 2022)

The photographs are from my trip to Iceland in February 2017.

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