How many Norwegians does it take… to start a revolution?

Norway had one of the smallest, sickest populations in Europe on the original Constitution Day

Hans Dahl

Image: Wikimedia Commons
“On the Banks of the Fjord” by Hans Dahl.

Terje Birkedal
Laguna Woods, Calif.

How many Norwegians did it take to support a democratic constitution and start a revolution in 1814? Norway had a population that numbered almost exactly 900,000 in 1814. Other than the tiny city-state of Bremen in Germany, it had the smallest population of any nation in Europe. On the other hand, neighboring Sweden, which had been gifted Norway by the Great Powers at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, had a relatively robust population of 2,465,000.

Norway’s population at the time of the writing of the constitution had been battered by one misfortune after another since the end of the 18th century. Smallpox, typhus, and dysentery took thousands of lives every year. Vaccination for smallpox began in the late 18th century, thanks to a broad-minded clergy who crisscrossed Norway’s fjords, streams, and mountains to inoculate their widely dispersed parishioners. In 1810, vaccination became compulsory, but in 1814 the vast majority of Norwegians had not yet received the life-giving protection of vaccination.

Unfortunately, disease was not the only enemy of the Norwegian people in the years immediately preceding 1814. Norway had experienced major failures in the production of grain in 1807, 1808, and 1812. The famines that resulted from these agricultural failures were made much worse by the recurrent blockades laid down along Norway’s coasts by the British. Norway typically imported 25% of its grain in good years; with the blockades in place, next to nothing came in to ease the hunger of the people. Many resorted to baking meager loaves of bread bulked up with ground fish bones and straw.

To make things even worse, the British blockades during the Napoleonic Wars prevented Norway from exporting one of its main cash crops, timber from its vast forests. In addition, the Norwegian overseas shipping industry and the sale of wooden boats and ships to other countries were brought to an unhappy end. While the British blockades were in force, thousands of timber workers, sailors, and shipwrights lost their livelihoods.

But that was not all. Fish was life in Norway, and yet, the two most important species, cod and herring, had mysteriously disappeared from Norway’s western coasts in the late 18th century and did not return until the second decade of the 19th century. With their primary source of protein gone, Norwegians truly struggled to survive in the first years of the new century—and many didn’t.

In the years leading up to 1814, Norway’s population had endured nearly every misery and misfortune known to humanity; they had become the “Job” of Europe. Due to extreme nutritional distress and the ravages of disease, the Norwegians of 1814 had shrunk to an average height of 5 feet 4 inches for men and 5 feet for women, the smallest Norwegians since the end of the Ice Age. However, like Terje Vigen, the hero of Ibsen’s epic poem about the period, they did not give up and eagerly sought out practical solutions for their problems. In the years following 1814, their fortunes began to change, largely because of their dogged determination to create a better future. Government-sponsored vaccinations for smallpox, especially for newborns, rose by leaps and bounds over the next few decades, reaching thousands of Norwegians each year. In the years 1821 to 1830, 167,834 Norwegians, half of them newborns, received smallpox inoculations. Between 1851 and 1860 over 400,000 Norwegians were vaccinated.

The dark era of the Napoleonic Wars had also “quick-started” the adoption of the potato as one of Norway’s most important and nutritious crops. It grew on soils that were anathema to grains and yielded twice as much food per acre compared to oats or other grains. By 1835, the potato harvest was large enough to supply the nutritional needs of up to 270,000 Norwegians. Because of the potato’s success, within a couple decades of 1814 Norway was no longer dependent on foreign grains.

Along with the potato, Norwegians in the first decades of the 19th century also adopted new farming techniques and equipment that increased the productivity of the soil. Armed with these more efficient agricultural practices, they began to expand the amount of land under cultivation. By 1865, the acreage under the plow in Norway was twice what it had been in 1814. And they avoided the pitfalls of infinitely subdividing farms among all the children. As had been the custom for centuries, the oldest son still generally inherited the family farm.

With smallpox coming under control and food becoming increasingly plentiful, the death rate in Norway fell precipitously in the decades following 1814. In addition, the long-lost cod and herring returned to Norway’s coasts.

With less food stress and less disease, Norway’s population in the years following the first Syttende Mai grew steadily and more than doubled from its numbers in 1814. By 1850 Norway had a population of 1,392,134 people, and the strains of supporting this fast-growing population had finally begun to be felt. Even the enthusiastic adoption of the potato and other improvements in agriculture could not keep up with the rising number of Norwegians. Fortunately for Norway, a safety valve opened through increased emigration to the United States and Canada. By 1925, approximately 900,000 Norwegians had made their way to North America; roughly the same number of Norwegians living in Norway in 1814 when they rose up, wrote their landmark constitution, and laid the groundwork for separating from Sweden’s grasp.

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway.  He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.

This article originally appeared in the May 3, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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