To Icelanders, Jón Sigurðsson (1811–69) is what Winston Churchill is to the British and George Washington to the Americans. This is the man who, through his tremendous skills of diplomacy, achieved independence from the Danes, who had almost bankrupted Iceland during the time of the Trade Monopoly. Born in Hrafnseyri in 1811, Sigurðsson spent the first 22 years of his life in his native West Fjords, and after completing the entry examination for university study, he left for Copenhagen where he chose history and political science among his subjects. Although a committed student, he never graduated from the university, opting instead to dedicate his life to the Árni Magnússon Institute, then a powerful symbol of the struggle for recognition against the Danes; this institute fought a long battle to have many of Iceland’s most treasured medieval manuscripts, kept in Copenhagen by the Danish authorities, returned home. However, it wasn’t until 1841 that Sigurðsson began his political activities, publishing a magazine in which he put forward historical arguments for Iceland’s right to independence. A prolific writer about Icelandic history, politics and economics, he was later elected to the Icelandic parliament, which regained its powers as a consultative body in 1843 thanks to his agitation. Further reforms followed as a direct consequence of his influence, including the right to free trade in 1854, and eventually, twenty years later, a constitution making Iceland self-governing in home affairs. Sadly, Sigurðsson didn’t live to see Iceland become a sovereign state under the Danish crown on December 1, 1918, nor Iceland gain full independence from Denmark on June 17, 1944, the anniversary of his birth – he died in Copenhagen in 1879, and his body was returned to Reykjavík for a state funeral.

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