Of trawlers and poaching

Information courtesy of Birgir Þórisson



The trawler CARIAMA GY 4, gained some notoriety in Iceland in june 1904, although there were some misconceptions about her name. Most reports using the form CARRY ANNA GY 4. There was also some discrepancy regarding the name of the skipper. It was first reported to be Henry Bascomb (sic!), a brother of the owner, and part-owner in the ship, but later amended to Richard Bascomb (sic!), Henry Bascomb being the owner of the ship.

On June 14th 1904 the local sheriff arrested the ship in Keflavik harbour for illegal trawling, and sentenced the skipper to 100 pounds fine and confiscation of the catch and gear. The ship was fully loaded, having been fishing for days very close to the shore.

The Danish coastguard vessel HEKLA, (a 3rd class cruiser) was nearby, and escorted the trawler to Hafnarfjörður, the residence of the sheriff. What happened next caused a political uproar.
It was originally reported that the sheriff had requested a) armed guard for the trawler from the HEKLA and/or b) that the trawlers machine be disabled, but that the danish captain of the HEKLA had refused assistance.

After the row blew up, the sheriff backtracked, claiming to have just inquired about the possibility of these actions being taken, which the captain of HEKLA had declined, as his vessel was leaving Iceland for the Faroes.

The sheriff had removed the ships papers, and placed four unarmed guards aboard the CARIAMA. The commander of HMS BELLONA, the british “Fishery Protection” cruiser, who was in Reykjavík, was involved in the case, disputing the evidence against the skipper. British authorities had long held that Icelandic eye-witness accounts were worthless. However the examination of the officers of the HEKLA had placed the fishing ground sworn by Icelandic witnesses 2,5 miles inside the 3 mile limit.

On June 18th, a message was received from BELLONA´s commander, summoning the skipper to him in Reykjavík. Later that day, the mate went ashore under the pretext of buying tobacco. After night-fall he returned in a small boat he had stolen, had steam raised, and departed the harbour. The four unarmed guards were overpowered and, outside the harbour, forced into the boat the mate had stolen. It was reported to have been barely big enough for them, and as they had only one oar, they had some difficulty getting ashore, to raise the alarm.

The sheriff hastened to Reykjavík to get hold of the skipper, but it transpired that he had the previous evening gone from the BELLONA aboard another British trawler, which immediately left the harbour.

The impotence of the legal authorities caused an uproar. Both directed against the Danes, (the HEKLA), but also against the local police. Policemen were few, and completely unarmed. The guards placed by the sheriff were just local fishermen, deputised for the occasion.

The demand was raised for accused skippers to be jailed, and that the local police provided with arms, because the British trawlermen had no respect for the law.
However, the only result was that the CARIAMA and her skipper became wanted within Icelandic legal jurisdictions, which may explain Baskcomb´s decision to sell the ship. And the skipper obviously managed to throw up some confusion about his identity.

Notes The clarification; I used the term “sheriff” for the official known in Iceland as “Sýslumaður”, but it does not quite cover the scope of his powers.

The “Sýslumaður” was “the state” within his jurisdiction. The terms goes back to the establishment of royal authority in the 13th century. He held all executive and judicial powers within his jurisdiction. He was both police chief and judge.

This combination remained in force until the European Court of Justice forced the Icelandic state to amend the laws as late as the 1980s!

I used the term “Sheriff” because of lack af a better alternative, “County Commissioner” or “Magistrate” seeming no better. But by using the term “Sheriff” for these officials, who were always university educated lawyers, one is left without a term for the “Hreppstjóri”. These were his deputies, responsible for local law and order, with police authority and executive functions, (but no judicial powers). These local representatives of the state were appointed by the “Sýslumaður”, one in each commune, chosen from among citizens of good stature in the local community. It was a part-time job, usually held for life. It was bothersome, but prestigious, and very few turned down the appointment.

The “Hreppstjóri” would bring charges against trawlers engaged in illegal fishing close to the shore, but usually would not try to arrest them without the presence of the “Sýslumaður”.


04/10/2018: Page published.