Our giant ship sidles into the little Norwegian town of Vardø, gently buffering up against the daisy-chain of old tyres pinned along the dockside. Then, throwing out its ropes as an invitation, it is accepted and entwined to the harbour cleats.
Five minutes later the boat opens its mouth, sticks out its gantry tongue and spews its bellyload of tourists into the empty streets.
Stamping our feet back onto immovable ground, with our recommended sturdy shoes, warm coats and rucksacks, we obediently follow our expedition leader in his fluorescent jacket. We process like schoolchildren, away from the harbour, dissecting the town, heading with determination towards our predetermined tourist destinations – the fort, the church and the witch memorial. We have 50 minutes to return to the ship, or risk being abandoned here, maybe forever. So we walk at a pace. Vardo sits reclusively on a small island. There would appear to be no other means of escape.
Vardø is like a ghost town. We see no signs of life save a half sawn sheet of wood abandoned on a workbench and a couple of painfully slow cars. Finally, we pass two small children in bright knitted jumpers playing out in the field, oblivious to the line of foreigners invading their silent existence. I guess it happens every day at this time, this procession of strangely dressed ghosts from another world. They are best ignored. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt. We shouldn’t expect a reception party.
The streets are shabby, the children’s play area is overgrown. Nothing appears to be open. There is a feeling of desolation. The daily invasion of tourists from the ship brings no money, only feet, eyes, cameras and phones, stealing easy pictures. A town, a life, a history casually encapsulated in a few clicks and engraved on a few GB. Then onto the next port.
And yet, this small silent town of Vardø hides a terrible history, recorded in great detail in court transcripts. One which it maybe prefers to keep quiet about and explains its reclusive silence even today. It is a history of trials, torture and awful executions.
We are a group of a certain age – some of more mobile than others, so we are soon strung out in a long line. We continue to follow our leader, just as the children unthinkingly followed the pied piper.
People are so easily led. A fire ignited by prejudice, and misogyny by a few, soon spreads into a wildfire of fear and hysteria amongst the many. Sane people are led into believing impossible lies and allowing and even encouraging unspeakable horrors. Before you know it, 91 innocent people accused of witchcraft – mainly women – are dead. Burned at the stake.
We pass the fort where the Finnmark witch trials took place in the 17th century. From here we cross the fields leading down to the sea at the far end of the island. Here is the witches’ memorial – a long, thin structure, like a giant elongated surfboard perched on its edge facing the waters. A small wooden bridge allows us inside.
It is dark. There are 91 small lights aside 91 windows and 91 court statements written in Norwegian. Each one names a person, the date of their court hearing, what they were accused of and all the things they confessed to. Each one “convicted of witchcraft” and “sentenced to death at the stake”, one or two “beheaded” or “tortured to death”.
What strikes me is the extent and fantastical nature of the elaborate confessions. The vast majority confessed to casting evil and harmful spells on people. Others said they had made served, made pacts with or had given themselves to the devil. Some had take to the skies, ridden on brooms, or transformed into ravens, wolves, falcons, dogs, goats or cats. Nearly every one had confessed to a dozen crimes, some only after torture, some without being tortured. What could possibly have possessed them?
At the end, a large, square, somber black building with a fire burning endlessly inside on a wooden chair.
There is no further explanation, no analysis. Only on Wikipedia do we find that the people of northern Norway – especially the Sami – were viewed with great suspicion by the so-called “civilised” Protestants from the south, who conducted he trials.
80% of those executed were women – nearly all Norwegian. Most of the men were Sami. A third of those executed had their feet and hands tied in a “trial by water” and somehow all of them survived – further “proof” of their witchcraft. The sheer numbers killed in such a tiny community is staggering. Most of the death sentences were passed in so-called panics – where one trial led to another in rapid succession.
We walk back to the boat in solemn procession. Back past the fort and through the desolate town to the giant boat. I reckon there were about ninety of us.
We return to our comfortable cabins, not to prison cells. There is no torture, no hysteria, no panic, no wild confessions, no convictions, no burning executions. Just dinner and another day of sailing ahead.
Later, suitably fed and with a cup of coffee, I read through the 91 statements in the small booklet I had picked up – bewildered and horrorified at the capacity of men to fabricate and believe such madness and to do such terrible evil.