The Begining of Confrontation


From 1631 Iceland had a fishing limit starting at 32 miles and decreasing in size to firstly 24 miles and then 16 miles by the 1890`s it had reduced to a 3 mile limit. It is documented that British fishermen had visited and fished Icelandic waters well before the arrival of sailing smacks or steam vessels. These fishermen arrived in longboats and would fish with little consequence to fish stocks by line as was the practise of the Icelanders themselves. In the mid 1800`s an exception to this would be the cod smacks and the well smacks which visited Iceland from Britain well before conventional smacks but they again used line and not a beam trawl. But whilst Iceland was one of the poorest countries in the world and was not under her own sovereignty, Iceland had possibly the richest fishing ground in the world. The Icelandic fishery at this time had little or no impact on fish stocks, of which all the fish caught was for consumption and very little exported. Iceland did not get her first steam trawler till 1905.

Whilst there was no doubt that Hull sailing smacks had reached the coast of Iceland in the latter part of the 19th Centuary, due to the limitations of preserving a catch and the distances involved, the Icelandic fishing grounds where not a viable venture for the smack men. This soon changed with the comming of the Steam Trawler, whilst the large boxing fleets of the North Sea and Dogger Bank continued to fish profitably there was a greater pressure on single boat owners and skippers to find new fishing grounds. With the introduction of steam vessels and the means of ice to preserve fish, trawlers with a catching power of four sailing smacks now began to venture further afield and found rich new fishing grounds around the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

By 1894 the Board of Trade statistics would show a remarkable increase in the amount of fish landed into the UK, superceeding by far all landings of previous years. The total monitary value of the fish landed for 1894 was £6,807.000. This greatly increased figure was credited to the fish brought back from Iceland. However in this year 47 British Fishermen lost their lives


When foreign trawlers first arrived at Iceland in the 1890`s, both Iceland and the Faeroe`s was governed by Denmark and there was a 3 mile limit around their coasts which came under Danish Law. The British fishermen where under the apprehension that the 3 mile limit had been extended and a 13 mile limit had been imposed ( this was not recognised by the British Government), the 13 mile limit was also refuted by the Danish Authority who stated that no such extention had taken place and only the 3 mile line along the coastlines where classed as Danish territorial waters comming under Danish jurisdiction. All fish caught in the 3 mile boundary been the legal property of the national fishermen and eligable for protection by their governing laws of Denmark. Extending of the 3 mile line over the bay`s and fjords was a further 10 mile line as defined in the Hague Convention of 1882, and as notified to the British Board of Trade by circular in September 1896 this boundary was classed as a compromise between adversaries that allowed them to get along temporarily.

23 June 1896
House of Commons -Under Secretary of State for foreign affairs Mr Curzon : After receiving several reports of the seizure and detention of British fishing vessels off the coast of Iceland and Denmark amongst them being the Hibernia and Undine, Her Majesty`s Government are keenly alive to the importance of the question, and to the desirability of composing a state of affairs that appears fraught with so much friction and even danger; and Her Majesty`s representative at Copehagen has been instructed to bring the case`s at one to the attention of the Danish Government and to ask for a full investigation.
Telegram from Copenhagen : As to the alleged acts of trespass and intimidation by Danish Gunboats on British Trawlers off the Iceland Coast, the Danish Government declared that the British Minister has in two cases asked for information from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and an enquiry is consequently been made. Meanwhile the Danish Government has communicated instructions to the cruisers on the coast of Iceland to proceed with the greatest consideration with dealing with foreign fishing vessels."


Aug 1896
A provisional agreement was reached between the Governor of Iceland and Captain G L Atkinson commander of the visiting British Training Squadron in Icelandic waters in regard to the Icelandic Fishing question. In consequence of this agreement British trawlers may enjoy the hospitality of any Icelandic port and may use some of the waterways over the Icelandic sea territory provided their trawls are stored and not ready for fishing. the Governor promising that if this is observed then article 3 of the Icelandic trawling law will not be enforced by Icelandic Officials. In return British vessels were not to fish east of a line from Illunypa to Thornodesker Islet.

Prior to the above mentioned incidents there had been several confrontations prior to 1896 between British trawlers and the Danish Gunboats, of which skippers reported been ill treated by the gunboat captains, skippers reported receiving heavy unjust fines. The Danish Authority refuted all claims of ill treatment of British fishermen stating that only vessels that had been trawling or ready to trawl in the 3 mile line as defined above, had been found guilty and that all fines and proceedings had been carried out in a court of law ( Police-Court ) in the presence of a British Consular official and an interpreter . The Danish Authority later also laid claim that under the Iceland Fishery law of 1898 and the Faroe Fishery law of 1899 no vessel which could prove she was in territorial waters against her better knowledge or because of stress of weather, currents, or fog preventing an accurate judgement of distance from the shore would have proceedings taken against them, but in all cases this must be proved and not merely form a pretext.

In answer to questions of excessive fines which caused hardship amongst the British trawlermen the Danish Authority said for trawlers caught fishing in Danish Territorial waters a fine of £55 - £220 could be imposed and for those caught with their gear ready for use a fine of £11 - £110 could be imposed. Fines are set high to offer a protection to the nationals of which the preservation of their fish stocks is a question. Trawlers fishing in territorial waters are seen as the deadly enemy of the peoples means of existence. In most cases it is alleged that the fines imposed were merely nominal in nature of £1, £3 and £5 well below the stipulated minimum of £11, and in two extreme cases fines of £34 and £84 were imposed with the taking of both catch and fishing gear. The Danish Authority was also of the opinion that these fines were of no deterent and the possible profit made from vessels fishing in territorial waters was well worth the risk of been caught, and believed this the case as the number of British vessels visiting the fishing grounds and allegedly where caught in territorial waters increased.

The British fishermen whilst aware of the 3 mile line objected to the harsh application of the law within this area, and that many acts taken by police surveillance and the Danish Gunboats were carried out outside the 3 mile line. Often the sole witness or reportee of illegal fishing activety would be an Icelandic line fisherman, who had summoned a gunboat or happened upon one. There were many reported incidents from returning skippers that trials had been carried out onboard the arresting gunboat without their understanding of procedure or legal representation, and in most cases where a British Consular or interpreter was provided they too where Icelanders. It was also apparant that in almost every case the skipper was encouraged to plead guilty, whether he was or was not. The main objections of the Britsh fishermen was the heavy handed conduct of the Gunboat Captains and that they were tried without fair hearing, with neither their evidence or that of witnesses taken into account. There were many arrested vessels of which their circumstance or position was by the Dane`s own admission in doubt and the accused skipper may have been afforded the protection of the Iceland Fishery law of 1898 and the Faroe Fishery law of 1899 but where not. On many occasions the trawler skipper requested a cross bearing to be taken of which was denied with the exception of the Hull trawler PELICAN after a cross bearing had been taken she was released without charge, reports of vessels been arrested at distances of upto 10 miles from land were also common. The confiscation of catch and gear and fines far exceeding those laid down or claimed by the Danish Authority were often imposed. The British belief was that with the sheer attitude of the Dane`s describing them as an enemy, had a bearing on the punishments they imposed. In house objection was taken by the British to the effect that trawler skippers and owners planned deliberately to fish inside the 3 mile line and it was worth the risk of been caught, In most cases vessels found close to the territorial waters were arrested with the governing body taking the view and attitude that all vessels in the vicinity of their shores were deliberately illegally fishing. Whilst we must admit there was possibly without doubt skippers who entered the 3 mile line to fish and were deserving of the punishments inflicted upon them once caught, these instances where few and far between and certainly not to the scale of those arrested or deemed to be in contravention of the limit.

Whilst it was the right of the Danish Authority to protect her territorial waters and the livelihoods of the nationals, it was also the right of the trawlermen to fish International waters without the persecution and molestation received from the Danish Gunboats, who on occasion would deny a vessel safe haven and force her back to sea, contravening all agreements and laws of the sea. The mere request was that the British fishermen be afforded at Iceland the same rules of the sea, respect and compassion of that shown to the Danish fisherman around our own coast.

There was no doubt that the mass arrival of the steam trawler had a large impact on the fisheries of Iceland and the Faroe`s but whilst statments to the effect of basically taking the food from their mouths, like Hull itself Iceland would prosper and evolve in all quarters as a result of the visiting British fishermen. Stores, Bunkers, Repairs and the inevitable liquor bill would all add to a non existent economy, as did the many fines imposed on the Foreign fishermen.

Some of the many Hull vessels arrested for alleged illegal fishing.

Alleged Offence
28 MAY 1896 GRASSHOPPER   Fishing in Danish territorial waters Hyminde Gab Escorted to Esberg / Danish Gunboat Gronsund Catch and gear confiscated 200 Kroner
July 1896 St LAWRENCE Put into Reykjavik for stores Fine imposed by Magistrate  
15 MAY 1899 DESIDERATUM H154   Fishing in Danish territorial waters Ringebjarg Escorted to Esberg / Danish Gunboat Gronsund  
23 May 1899 ADMIRAL H378 Fishing in Danish territorial waters Hyminde Gab Escorted to Esberg / Danish Gunboat Gronsund
14 Jul 1899 DESIDERATUM H154   Fishing in Danish territorial waters Skaw Escorted to Frederikshavn / Danish Fisheries Protection Vessel Springeren  
May 1899 FULMAR H25  
02 JUNE 1899 SWIFT H186 George Richell Fishing in Danish territorial waters Skaw Escorted to Frederikshavn / Danish Fisheries Protection Vessel Springeren
02 JUNE 1899 OSPREY H255 James Home Fishing in Danish territorial waters Skaw Escorted to Frederikshavn / Danish Fisheries Protection Vessel Springeren  
02 June 1901 WILBERFORCE H344 Fishing in Danish territorial waters Escorted to Esberg / Gronsund  
May 1903 QUEBEC Fishing in Danish territorial waters Escorted to Esberg / Danish Gunboat Gronsund Catch and gear confiscated 2,000 Kroner
June 1904 BOADICEA Fishing in Danish territorial waters Escorted to Esberg / Danish Gunboat Catch and gear confiscated 1,500 Kroner

Aug 11 1898 - In a sworn statement made by the skipper and crew of the Hull trawler Umbria of which they stated they had been illegally seized by the Danish Gunboat Heimdal, whilst off the Westman`s Isles south of Iceland. After a magistrate was brought from the shore to the gunboat a sort of trial ensued, the magistrate readily accepting the word of the gunboat captain, and disgarding all other evidence. All trawling gear was destroyed and thrown overboard, the catch of fish taken and a fine amounting to £65 imposed. The total value of the trawl gear and fish approximately been £550 giving a total of £615.



Resisting The Authorities

Frederikshavn, January 20th The trial concluded here today of the captain and a portion of the crew of the Hull trawler Royalist. On October 9th last the Sheriff of Isafjord Iceland, and five men rowed out to the Royalist to arrest her for fishing in Icelandic Territorial waters, but the crew refused to allow him to board her. After several inaffectual attempts to do so the boat dropped astern, and the occupants seized hold of the steel hawser, by which the trawl was towed. The Steamer went slowly ahead , and finally the hawser caught the boat in such a manner as to capsize her. Three of the Icelanders were drowned. The court today pronounced the following sentences: The Captain C A Nielson, was condemed to one year`s imprisonment for offences against the laws of Denmark and Iceland; the mate Holmgren to 10 days hard labour; and the cook, Ruggard, a Dane, to 30 days hard labour. In addition the captain was fined 3,200 Kroner for illegal fishing in Icelandic and Danish waters.


The High Court at Viborg has increased the sentences passed on the captain of the British Trawler Royalist for fishing in prohibitive waters, resisitng the authority of the state, and causing, through carelessness the upsetting of a boat, whereby three Icelanders were drowned, to one of eighteen months penal servitude and a fine of 3,200 Kroner, at the same time sentencing the steersman of the trawler to fifteen days imprisonment on a diet of bread and water, and the cook to 20 days imprisonment.