Issue: Jens Christian Svabo
Values: Four stamps of 6.00, 12.00, 14.00 and 22.00 DKK
Author: Anker Eli Petersen
Technique: Offset + Intaglio
Printer: J. Enschedé – Holland
Jens Christian Svabo was born in the village Miðvágur in 1746. His father, who was the village vicar, gave him lessons, until he at the age of 13 attended the so-called Latínskúli (Latin School) in Tórshavn. There young Svabo spent the next six years and gained the necessary knowledge for a higher education.
Together with one of his classmates from the Latin School, Nikolai Mohr (1742-90), Svabo went to Copenhagen in 1765. They started to study political economics and natural history at Copenhagen University. They became the first Faroese ever to study something else than theology. Svabo and Mohr got their philosophicum degree in 1769, but because of poverty, neither got the final exams from the university. Poverty became Svabo’s burden through life. In the seventies he had different temporary jobs, while he worked on memoranda and treatises regarding the improvement of Faroese agriculture and economy. Only a couple of these works were published. It was also in the beginning of this period that Svabo started his work on a Faroese dictionary, of which there exists one transcript, dated 1773.
Apparently Svabo applied for several permanent jobs in this period. But the only known application is regarding a position as bailiff in Smaalenenes County in Norway. He did not get the job. In stead he was offered the old job of the new bailiff, but had to turn it down, because he was not able to raise the necessary financial security. When Svabo’s friend, Nikolai Mohr, had to give up his work on a description of the Faroe Islands, Svabo got his chance to write a new book about the islands. On May 22nd 1781, he travelled back to his native islands to make research about the Faroese resources and economical conditions.
After his return to Copenhagen on September 1st 1782, Svabo wrote a series of articles, which in all make a magnificent work about the Faroes and Faroese conditions in the late eighteenth century. But due to difference of opinions in the Danish government, the work was never published. It was often used as source for other works about the Faroes, but was not published in full before 1959.
The Faroese expedition ruined Svabo. He was heavily indebted, became seriously ill and lived a miserable life in Copenhagen for many years. In year 1800 he went back to the Faroes as a broken man, and lived in poverty in Tórshavn until his death in 1824.
But the legacy of Jens Christian Svabo turned out to be much more significant than the impression one gets from studying his tragic life. He was a true child of the Age of Enlightenment, and continued his scientific work until he died. He was convinced that the old Faroese language was going to die and replaced by Danish. In order to document the language in future, he compiled an impressive Faroese-Danish-Latin dictionary. Things did not turn out as he feared, in stead his work accidentally created an academically interest for the Faroese language. His word collection became the foundation that lead to the creation of Faroese orthography and written language, and the work which has been made since then, in order to preserve the language.
Parallel to the linguistic work, Svabo also created a comprehensive collection of the ancient Faroese ballads. His manuscripts contained 52 ballads, for instance the first transcripts of the great Faroese Charlemagne ballads. Only one of the ballads was published while he was still alive – in a Swedish ballad collection from 1814. This was, by the way, the first printed Faroese text ever.
Though unnoticed in life, Jens Christian Svabo today stands out as one of the greatest Faroese cultural personalities. His ballad collection and the dictionary are invaluable sources regarding language and culture from the eighteenth century, and stand as an outpost for our view further back in time. The description of the Faroes also provides a broad view of the Faroese society in the eighteenth century. Reading his works leaves the impression of a rational and modern thinking Enlightenment man, in a society that barely had made its first steps out of the dark Middle Ages.
Anker Eli Petersen