The eruption of the volcano Laki in south-east Iceland in 1783 was one of the most devastating events to occur in modern Icelandic history. Already poverty-stricken and greatly weakened by the harsh climate of the Little Ice Age and its consequences for eking out a meagre living, coupled with the rigours of exploitation under an uncaring and exploitative foreign trading monopoly, Iceland was little prepared to withstand this enormous catastrophe.

Largely because of massive losses to livestock (both directly during and after the eruption, and later by starvation because of the destruction of grasslands and home-fields by volcanic ash), the death-rate soared in the years immediately following the eruption, and the population (numbering only some 50,000 souls prior to the eruption) declined by more than twenty percent. However, the Icelandic population rebounded to its pre-eruption peak in the short space of forty years (see the graph to the right), and most of the farms that had been destroyed or abandoned in the immediate region of the eruption were either replaced or re-inhabited (see the map, below). There is no doubt that the long-term effects of Laki were a precursor to the large numbers of people who chose to leave Iceland over the next century, emigrating to Canada and the United States, as well as to several other countries.

James Nicol, An Historical and Descriptive Account of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands (1844), pp. 199-200.
As a particular example of the ravages produced by these terrible convulsions of nature may give the reader a clearer and more vivid idea of their action than any general description, we shall select the eruption of the Skaptar Jokul in 1783; it having been not only very violent, but the one of which we possess the fullest and most authentic accounts.

The preceding winter and the spring of that year had been unusually mild, and nothing seemed to foretell the approaching danger till towards the end of May, when a light bluish fog was seen floating along the ground, succeeded in the beginning of June by earthquakes, which daily increased in violence till the 8th of that month. At nine on the morning of that day numerous pillars of smoke were noticed rising in the hill country towards the north, which, gradually gathering into a dark bank, obscured the atmosphere, and proceeding in a southerly direction against the wind, involved the whole district of Sida in darkness, showering down sand and ashes to the thickness of an inch. This cloud continued to increase till the l0th, when fire-spouts were observed in the mountains, accompanied by earthquakes.

Next day the large river Skaptaa, which in the spring had discharged a vast quantity of fetid water mixed with gravel or dust, and had lately been much swollen, totally disappeared. This incident was fully accounted for on the 12th, when a huge current of lava burst from one side of the volcano and rushed with a loud crashing noise down the channel of the river, which it not only filled, but even overflowed, though in many places from four to six hundred feet deep and two hundred broad. The fiery stream, after leaving the hills, threatened to deluge the low country of Medalland, when a lake that lay in its way intercepted it during several days. But at length the incessant torrents filled the basin and proceeded in two streams, one to the east, where its progress was for a short time interrupted by the Skalarfiall, up which, however, the accumulating flood soon forced its way, rolling the mossy covering of the mountain before it like a large piece of cloth. The other current directed its progress towards the south through the district of Medalland, passing over some old tracts of lava, which again began to burn, whilst the air in its cavities escaped with a strange whistling noise, or, suddenly expanding, threw up immense masses into the air to the height of more than 120 feet. The waters of the rivers, swollen by the melting of the jokuls in the interior, and intercepted in their course by the glowing lava, were thrown into a state of violent ebullition, and destroyed many spots spared by the fire. In this district the liquid matter continued to flow until the 20th of July, following principally the course of the Skaptaa, where it poured over the lofty cataract of Stapafoss, filling up the enormous cavity the waters had been hollowing out for ages. During the whole of this eruption the atmosphere was filled with mephitic vapours or darkened with clouds of ashes, by which the syn was either concealed from the miserable inhabitants, or appeared like a blood-red globe, adding to their terror and consternation.

The molten elements had so long confined their fury to the Skaptaa that the inhabitants of the eastern district on the Hverfisfliot, though much incommoded by the showers of ashes, hoped to escape its more immediate visitations. But on the 28th of June a cloud of sand and smoke caused so thick a darkness that in the houses at noon a sheet of white paper held opposite the window could not be distinguished from the black walls, whilst redhot stones and dust burned up the pastures, poisoned the waters, and threatened to set fire to the dwellings. On the 3rd of August a thick vapour rising from the Hverfisfliot, the entire disappearance of its waters, and a foaming fire-stream which on the 9th rushed with indescribable fury down its bed, overflowing the country in one night to the extent of more than four miles, converted the fearful anticipations of the natives into dreadful realities. The eruptions of sand, ashes, pumice, and lava, continued till the end of August, when the volcano appeared completely exhausted; but flames were still seen in February 1784, and thick clouds of smoke even in July of that year. The whole catastrophe closed in August with an earthquake of such extreme violence that men were thrown to the ground.

The immediate source whence this enormous mass of matter issued is entirely unknown, being situated in that great central desert of sand and snow which none of the natives have ever penetrated; and no traditions of any former occurrence of this kind have been preserved. Some persons who went up into the mountains during the continuance of the eruption were, in consequence of the thick smoke, compelled to return, and some subsequent attempts met with no better success. It is not even known whether the current that flowed down the Skaptaa and that in the Hverfisfliot proceeded from the same crater. It is however, probable their sources were different though closely connected.

The extent of the lava can only be accurately known in the inhabited districts. The stream that flowed down the Skaptaa is calculated at about fifty miles in length by twelve or fifteen at its greatest breadth, that in the Hverfisfliot at forty miles in length by seven in breadth. In the narrow channel of the Skaptaa it rose to 500 or 600 feet, but in the plains its extreme height does not exceed 100, and in many places is only eight or ten feet. From its immense thickness, it was a long time in cooling, being so hot in July 1784, twelve months after the eruption, that Mr Stephensen could not cross it, and even then sending up a thick smoke or steam. In the year 1794 it still retained an elevated temperature, emitting vapours from various places, and many of its crevices being filled with warm water. This long retention of heat will appear more extraordinary when we consider the numerous globular cavities and fissures it contained permitting a free circulation of the water and atmosphere.

The destructive effects of this volcano were not confined to its immediate vicinity, vast quantities of sand and ashes being scattered over the remoter parts of the country, and some were conveyed to the Faroe Islands, a distance of nearly 300 miles. The noxious vapours that for many months infected the air were equally pernicious to man and beast, and covered the whole island with a dense fog which obscured the sun, and was perceptible even in England and Holland. The steam rising from the crater, or exhaled from the boiling waters, was condensed in the cooler regions of the atmosphere, and descended in floods, that deluged the fields and consolidated the ashes into a thick black crust. A fall of snow in the middle of June, and frequent showers of hailstones of unusual magnitude, accompanied with tremendous thunder-storms tearing up huge fragments of rock and rolling them down into the plains, completed the scene of desolation. The grass and other plants withered, and became so brittle that the weight of a man's foot reduced them to powder; and even where the pastures seemed to have recovered, the cattle refused to touch them, dying of actual starvation in the midst of the most luxuriant herbage. Small unknown insects covered many of the fields, whilst other portions of the soil formerly the most fertile were changed by the ashes into marshy wastes overgrown with moss and equiseta. A disease resembling scurvy in its most malignant type attacked both men and cattle, occasioned in the former no doubt by the want of food, and the miserable, often disgusting, nature of that which alone they could obtain. Many lived on the bodies of those animals which had perished from hunger or disease, whilst others had recourse to boiled skins, or substances still more nauseous and unwholesome. The numerous earthquakes, with the ashes and other matter thrown into the sea, caused the fish to desert many parts of the coast, whilst the fishermen seldom daring to leave the land, enveloped in thick clouds during most of the summer, were thus deprived of their usual stock of winter provisions.

We cannot better conclude this frightful catalogue of evils than by the following summary of the numbers of men and cattle more or less immediately destroyed by it in two years. The most moderate calculation makes these amount to 1300 human beings, 19,488 horses, 6801 horned cattle, and 129,937 sheep.

Ebenezer Henderson, Iceland: Or The Journal Of A Residence In That Island, During The Years 1814 And 1815 (1818), Volume 1, pp. 276-289.
The Skaptár volcano, so called from the river of the same name, down which the greater part of the lava was poured, is situated close to the eastern boundary of West Skaftafell's Syssel, about thirty-two British miles due north of Kyrkjubæ Abbey, and near the contiguous sources of the rivers Túná, Skaptá, and Hverfisfljot. It lies principally in the valley called Vardármal, and consists of about twenty red conical hills, stretching in nearly a direct line, from E.N.E. to W.S.W. which have served as so many furnaces, from which the melted matter has been discharged into the valley. From these craters the lava has flowed which inundated the low country, through the channel of the Skaptá. What flowed down the Hverfisfljot has had its source in some other craters situated farther to the north-east, but which are evidently connected with the former hills, and would, in all probability, have poured their contents down Vardármal, had it not been completely filled with the lava, which had already been emptied into it.

None of the Icelandic annals make mention of any preceding eruption from this volcano; yet, if we may judge from the situation of the ancient lavas, that are to be met with both in the inhabited and uninhabited parts of the vicinity, it is likely they have flowed from the same source at some remote period. Nor is it at all improbable, that the eruption of water which inundated the same tract, exactly thirty years before the recent catastrophe happened, had its origin in the subterraneous channels connecting with this very volcano, though it may not have been thrown up from the identical craters. But why stop at probabilities? The Northern Skeidará, Sida, and Skaptár Yökuls are only different designations of the same ice mountain, according to its different projections or aspects; and if it be allowable to speak of the eruptions of Öræfa in 1362 and 1727, as proceeding from the same mountain, though there be a distance of several miles between the craters, it seems still more proper to view the Yökuls, just mentioned, as one general volcano, whose foundations are cracked by the powerful action of subterraneous fire, which makes a passage for itself, now in this quarter, and now in that, according to the situation and quantity of the combustible matters by which it is fed, and the facility with which it reaches the surface of the earth.

From the 1st to the 8th of June, 1783, the inhabitants of West Skaftafell's Syssel were alarmed by repeated shocks of an earthquake, which, as they daily increased in violence, left no reason to doubt that some dreadful volcanic explosion was about to take place. Pitching tents in the open fields, they deserted their houses, and awaited, in awful suspense, the issue of these terrifying prognostics. On the morning of the 8th, a prodigious amount of dense smoke darkened the atmosphere, and was observed to be continually augmented by fresh columns arising from behind the low hills, along the southern base of which the farms constituting the parish of Sida, are situated.

A strong south wind prevented the cloud from advancing over the farms; but the heath, or common, lying between them and the volcano, was completely covered with ashes, pumice, and brimstone. The eruption had now actually commenced; and the raging fire, as if sublimated into greater fury by the vent it had obtained, occasioned more dreadful tremefactions, accompanied by loud subterraneous reports, while the sulphureous substances that filled the air, breaking forth into flames, produced, as it were, one continued flash of lightning, with the most tremendous peals of thunder that were ever heard. The extreme degree to which the earth in the vicinity of the volcano was heated, melted an immense quantity of ice, and caused a great overflow in all the rivers originating in that quarter.

Upon the 10th, the flames first became visible. Vast fire-spouts were seen rushing up amid the volumes of smoke, and the torrent of lava that was thrown up, flowing in a south-west direction, through the valley called Ulfarsdal, till it reached the river Skaptá, when a violent contention between the two opposite elements ensued, attended with the escape of an amazing quantity of steam but the fiery current ultimately prevailed, and, forcing itself across the channel of the river, completely dried it up in less than twenty-four hours; so that, on the 11th, the Skaptá could be crossed in the low country on foot, at those places where it was only possible before to pass it in boats. The cause of its desiccation soon became apparent: for the lava, having collected in the channel, which lies between high rocks, and is in many places from 400 to 600 feet in depth, and near 200 in breadth, not only filled it up to the brink, but overflowed the adjacent fields to a considerable extent; and, pursuing the course of the river with great velocity, the dreadful torrent of red-hot melted matter approached the farms on both sides, greatly damaged those of Hvammur and Svinadal to the west, and that of Skaftárdal to the east; laid waste the two tenantries of Svartinupar and Litlanes, belonging to the church of Búland, which it also damaged, and, by the evening of the 12th, it had advanced to Á, when it instantly overflowed the houses, pasture-grounds, and meadows, together with the greater part of the common. In the mean time, the thunder, lightning, and subterraneous concussions were continued, with little or no intermission; and besides the cracking of the rocks and earth, which the lava burnt in its progress, the ears of the inhabitants were stunned by the tremendous roar of the volcano, which resembled that of a large caldron in the most violent state of ebullition, or the noise of a number of massy bellows, blowing with full power into the same furnace.

On gaining the outlet, by which the hills that confine the channel of the Skaptá open into the plain, it might naturally have been supposed, that the burning flood would at once have deluged the low fields of Medalland, which lay directly before it; but contrary to all expectation, it was arrested for some time, by an immense unfathomed abyss in the bed of the river, into which it emptied itself with a great noise. When this chasm was filled, the lava, augmented by fresh effusions, rose to a prodigious height, and breaking over the masses that had cooled, it at length proceeded southward across the plain. In the night between the 14th and 15th, its western edge overran the farm of Nes in Skaptártunga, which it entirely consumed, with all its grounds and woodlands. The main current now struck off towards the east, and ran close past the farms of Skál and Hollt, before which it stopped a few days; but had, in the meantime burnt up the wood of Brandaland belonging to Kyrkjubæ Abbey. The torrents that continued to be poured down, proceeded slowly over the tract of ancient lava to the south and south-west of Skál, and setting fire to the melted substances, they underweht a fresh fusion, and were leaved up to a considerable elevation. It also rushed into the subterraneous caverns, and during its progress under-ground, it threw up the crust either to the side, or to a great height in the air. In such places, as it proceeded below a thick indurated crust, where there was no vent for the steam, the surface was burst in pieces, and thrown up with the utmost violence and noise to the height of near 180 feet.

On the 18th, another dreadful ejection of liquid and red hot lava proceeded from the volcano, which now entirely covered the rocks that had towered above the reach of the former floods, during their progress through the channel of the Skaptá, and flowed down with amazing velocity and force over the masses that were cooling, so that the one stream was literally heaped above the other. Masses of flaming rock were seen swimming in the lava. The water that had been dammed up on both sides of its course was thrown into a violent state of ebullition, and overflowing its boundaries, it did great damage to the grounds of Svinadal and Hvammur, which farms had already been attacked by the edge of the lava, as also to the underwood of Skaptárdal on the east.

Continuing its progress the following day, the lava divided into two streams, one of which flowed with the same velocity as the day before due south, along the river Melquisl into Medalland; while the other took an easterly direction over the parish of Sida, burning the tract about Skálarstapa, and running with inconceivable force from thence to Skálarfiall, by which it was prevented from spreading further north. But, rising on the hill, it rolled up the soil before it, and approached within 120 feet of the church and houses of Skál, and overran the whole tract between that place and Hollt. As Skál had now escaped the fury of two successive floods of lava, sanguine hopes were entertained of its safety; but a great quantity of rain having fallen on the 21st, and swelled the water already dammed up in the valley, the church, the parsonage, and outhouses were completely overflowed; and the whole tract was observed, the following morning, to be covered with water in a state of violent ebullition. The western branch having pursued its course along the channel of the Melquisl, and spread itself to great extent on both sides, crossed the river Steinsmyrarfliot, and burnt up the church of Holmasel, with all its houses and grounds, together with the farm of Holmar on the opposite side of the river. Following the fliot, it advanced close to the farm of Efri-Steinsmyri, and greatly spoiled its grass-lands: from thence it inclined towards the south, passing Sydri-Steinsmyri, a farm consisting of five separate dwelling-houses, and stopped about 1800 feet from the most northerly, without doing any material injury to the farm. The western edge of this branch spread itself, at the same time, across the river Fedgaqvisl, and overran the farms of Sydri and Efri-Fliota, with the houses and neighbouring grounds, burnt up Botnar, and laid the greatest part of the farm of Hnausar under water.

From the 22nd of June to the 13th of July fresh eruptions took place at intervals, and the lava being impelled forward over the floods and tracts that had attained to some degree of solidity, the mass was raised higher and higher and making its escape, at length, by three or four different channels, the fiery stream rushed on to finish the work of devastation. The farm of Nes, with its houses, meadows, and the most of its pasturage; all the meadows, commons, and wild-cornfields belonging to the glebe of Asar; and the greatest part of the meadows, with part of the adjacent grounds and commons of YtriAsar -- all became a prey to the flaming flood. Happily, the priest saved the most of his effects, with all the ornaments and documents belonging to the church, and betook himself to the western parts of the Syssel. From these farms, it proceeded across the lowlands towards the south, till it fell in with the Kudafliot; and, after running for some time along its eastern margin, it stopped to the north of the farm Leidvöllr, while the rest flowed a little to the east of this farm till it came close to Stadarhollt, whence it flowed eastward towards Hnausar, where it also stopped.

Meanwhile, one of the branches that had run in an easterly direction destroyed the wild corn sands in the Landbrot; and the other, skirting the Sida hills, on the 2d of July, broke into the valley, at the upper end of which Skál was situated, and, at last, completed its desolation by covering the church and all the houses with lava. The farm of Hollt was next attacked, and its houses, with the meadows and excellent pasture grounds belonging to them, were totally destroyed.

Pursuing an easterly course, it followed the channel of the Skaptá for several days, completely stopped up the river Fiadrá, and was poured down a prodigious cataract called Stapafoss, where it totally filled the profound abyss, which that cataract had been making for ages. It now overflowed Dalbær in the Landbrot, with all its houses, damaged at the same time the farms Heidi and Hunkurbacka; and after spoiling part of Holmur, the eastern arm of the lava was arrested on the 20th of July, near the high rock Systrastapi, about a mile to the west of Kyrkiubæ Abbey.

While these awful devastations were going forward in the divisions of Skaptártunga, Medalland, Landbrot, and Sida, the only inconveniences felt by the inhabitants of Fliotshverji, were the destruction of vegetation by the showers of red hot stones and ashes which fell upon it, and the impregnation of the atmosphere and water with mephitic substances. They had, indeed, twice been enveloped in almost total darkness, especially on the 28th of June, when it was so thick, that it was scarcely possible, at noon day, to distinguish a sheet of white paper, held up at the window, from the blackness of the wall on either side; but they flattered themselves in the hope that the lava would soon all be ejected, and, at all events, that it would continue to flow in the direction it had originally taken. However, on the 3d of August, they were alarmed by a quantity of smoke, which they observed arising out of the river Hverfisfliot; and, as the heat, which was also found to be in the water, daily increased, till at last the river was totally dried up, they concluded that the same destruction was about to be poured down upon them, which had overwhelmed the parishes to the west.

Nor were their apprehensions without foundation; for the floods of lava having entirely choked up the Skaptá, and all the low channel to the west and north of the volcano, it was forced to assume a new course, and running in a south-east direction between mount Blængur and Hverfisfliot, it was discharged at length into that river, which occasioned vast volumes of steam and smoke to rise from that quarter, attended with dreadful noises and lightnings. The burning flood now ran down the empty channel, and, filling it to the brink, overflowed the low grounds on both sides; and, by the evening of the 9th, it had not only reached the outlet into the open and level country, but, in the course of a few hours, had spread itself to the distance of nearly six miles across the plain, and stopped up the road between Fliotshverji and Sida. The volcano, still continuing to send forth fresh supplies of lava, the red hot flood spread itself wider and wider, and in its progress destroyed the farms of Eystradal and Thverárdal, the houses, meadows, and neighbouring grounds of which are so completely covered, that the spot where they lay is no longer visible. It also did considerable injury to the farms Selialand and Thverá, and obliged their inhabitants, as well as the whole parish of Kálfafell, to flee for their safety; yet the above-mentioned were the only houses it burnt. Though this branch ceased to extend over the low country after the end of August, quantities of fresh lava continued still to be thrown up out of the volcano, and a new eruption is said to have taken place so late as the month of February 1784, during the greater part of which year columns of smoke were observed to ascend from many parts in the lava, and it had not quite cooled for nearly two years after the eruptions were over. (When Mr. Paulson visited this tract in the year 1794, he found a column of smoke still arising from certain parts of the lava; and some of the rents were filled with hot water.)

With respect to the dimensions of the lava, its utmost length from the volcano, along the channel of the Skaptá, down to Hnausar in Medalland, is about fifty miles, and its greatest breadth in the low country between twelve and fifteen miles; the Hverfisfliot branch may be about forty miles in length, and seven at its utmost breadth. Its height in the level country does not exceed an hundred feet, but in some parts of the Skaptá channel it is not less than six hundred feet high.

Such were the phenomena of this dreadful volcanic eruption. Its consequences have already been detailed. The quantity of ashes, brimstone, &c. thrown up into the atmosphere was so great, that nearly the whole European horizon was enveloped in obscurity. Salso-sulphureous rains fell in several countries of the north. In the Faroe islands, the ground was at times almost entirely covered with sand, ashes, and pumice; and luminous meteors were observed in England, Holland, and other parts of the Continent. It is to these, and the tremendous earthquakes felt the same year in different parts, that Cowper alludes in the second book of his Task:

Fires from beneath, and meteors from above,
Portentous, unexampled, unexplained,
Have kindled beacons in the skies; and the old
And crazy earth has had her shaking fits
More frequent, and foregone her usual rest.
Is it a time to wrangle, when the props
And pillars of our planet seem to fail,
And nature, with a dim and sickly eye,
To wait the close of all?

The contemplation of so tremendous an event is certainly calculated to produce a train of serious thought in every reflecting mind. While the sceptical speculatist pronounces it to be absolutely incompatible with the infinite wisdom and benevolence of a Supreme Superintending Intelligence, the more experienced and modest naturalist, not only concludes a priori, from the skill and fitness discoverable in the general constitution and course of things, that such apparent disorders and irregularities must be conducive to the good of the universal system, but offers very probable proofs of the beneficial tendency of volcanic eruptions, as affording a partial vent to those inflammable substances, which, however necessary as component parts of the terrestrial globe, would, if allowed to accumulate in particular places, ultimately burst forth with such inconceivable violence, that its crust would be shattered to pieces, or at least all that inhabits, beautifies, and adorns its surface, involved in one scene of undistinguishable ruin.

The Christian, too, not satisfied with merely tracing the concatenation of natural causes and effects, but believing an established connection to exist between the physical and moral governments or God, is anxious to ascertain the spiritual ends these extraordinary phenomena are designed to answer, and make the improvement which they so loudly suggest. "Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?" Yet he is glorious in holiness, fearful in the manifestations of his attributes, and wonderful in all his operations. At his rebuke the foundations of the world are discovered. The earth shaketh and trembleth: the foundations of heaven move and shake because of his anger.

What then! – were they the wicked above all,
And we the righteous, whose fast-anchored isle
Moved not, while theirs was rocked, like a light skiff,
The sport of every wave? No: none are clear,
And none than we more guilty. But, where all
Stand chargeable with guilt, and to the shafts
Of wrath obnoxious, God may choose his mark:
May punish, if he please, the less, to warn
The more malignant. If he spared not them,
Tremble and be amazed at thine escape,
Far guiltier England, lest he spare not thee!
[Cowper]
Themes page || Travels in 19th-Century Iceland home page