Svalbard’s History

The History of Svalbard

Willem Barents discovered Svalbard in 1596. Since then, Svalbard has given rise to harsh stories about fangstliv, mining and incredible expeditions.

Svalbard has never been a place where people live all their lives, and where family traditions are passed down through generations. People have come and gone, and Svalbard therefore has a distinguished history. Humans have only marginally been able to rely on the accumulated experience of the harsh and extreme living conditions. The history of Svalbard is rich in tragic events, and graves are the common heritage site. When describing the history of Svalbard, it is common to divide into epochs associated with different types of resources. In many ways you could say that Svalbard has supplied various materials to Europe since 1596.

International whaling (16-1700 century)

The international whaling during the 16- and 1700s, and were motivated by good prices for blubber oil and whalebone. It was primarily Dutch, British and German expeditions who attended and harvesting companies had great national importance. At its peak, more than 300 ships were active around Svalbard. Smeerenburg on the northwest coast of Spitsbergen is the most famous country station. There were sixteen houses which could accomodate up to 200 whalers, and there were eight major blubber ovens to cook the bacon. In the late 1600s had the Dutch catch alone amounts to 150-250 ships annually hunted between 750 and 1250 whales. The bowhead whale was the most attractive prey, and the species was finally eradicated in Svalbard waters. There are many traces of whaling on the coast of Svalbard. There are about fifty whaling stations with dwellings, blubber ovens, bones whales and walruses and graveyards.

Russian trappers (1700-1850)

Russian overwintering trapping lasted from 1700 to 1850. The hunters were Pomors from the White Sjøområdet, and more than 70 whaling stations are known from this period. The most famous Russian trapper’s Ivan Starostin who spent 39 winters. Fifteen of these were in one stretch.

Pomors was primarily based on walrus products such as tusks, blubber oil and hides and furs and down. In addition they hunted caribou, seals, birds and eggs, not least for their own nourishment. A number of larger and smaller hunting stations were established, and many of them had year-round operation. The rich winter fur of polar bears and foxes was attractive and was an important motivation for overwintering. In many stations the handcrafted items suggesting that the Russians used time to turn the raw materials into valuable commodities.

Norwegian trapping (1850 – 1973)

The Norwegian catch was intensified when the Russians reduced their presence around 1850 and was largely related to the same products as Russian trapping. From the late 1800s was wintering common. The trappers had a cyclic schedule: fox and polar bear was trapped in the wintertime, when the fur is of best quality. In spring hunted seal, while furs, preparing for the summer sale. Bird hunting and egg collection and downs took place during the summer and the autumn, partridge and reindeer prey. Trappers covered large areas and used a network of hunting cabins.

Although much of the catch was for their own consumption, trappers had to sell furs, down and reindeer meat to raise money for supplies from the mainland. They neeeded flour, raisins, salt, kerosene, tools, weapons and ammunition, often a new furnace or a boat, and maybe some simple luxury. It is said that trapper Georg Bjørnnes bought and took vintage old newspapers to Svalbard. Every morning he would go out and get a “new” newspaper with today’s date, which was exactly one year old

At the most about 50 trappers overwintered and they made big inroads into wild populations. Development of guns for polar bears resulted in an efficiency that went far beyond the population’s tolerance limit. It meant that the bear stuck his head into a crate containing bait. When it touched the bait, it triggered a shot that hit the bear in the head. One of the biggest polar bear hunters on Svalbard was Henry Rudi. During his years in the archipelago he killed about 750 polar bears, 115 bears was the season best.

Another famous trapper Hilmar Nois. He was one of those with the most experience and spent 38 winters between 1909 and 1973. The main station was his Fredheim Sassendalen, and for several years he was with his wife, Helfrid Nøis, for the trapping.

Research and expeditions (1850 -)

From 1850 onwards, research and expeditions became an important part of the history of Svalbard. Ever since the discovery of Svalbard in 1596, visitors had been informally charting landscape and waters, sailing routes and resources. As of 1850, a series of organized expeditions collected systematic data from this outermost edge of the known world. “Products” was of limited use in ice fields, but were highly valued by the academic environments in Europe. The results were significant in the understanding of global issues such as ocean currents, geological history, earth’s exact shape, arctic animals and plants, the northern lights, climate, glaciers and landforms. During the first International Polar Year 1882-1883 wintered Swedish researchers from the International Meridian Expedition in Cape Thordsen in Isfjorden. In 1899-1901 was the earth’s exact shape determined on the basis of data that the expedition had collected.

Because of Svalbard’s northern location and favorable ice conditions, the archipelago was also a favorite starting point for expeditions which wanted to be first to the North Pole. In the period between 1896-1928 there were a total of nine expeditions which started from Svalbard in the race to the South Pole. One of the best known, Salomon Andree’s balloon flight in 1897. On July 11, relieved the balloon “Örnen” from Virgohamna, but the balloon remained only a few days in the air. First, the remains of the expedition was accidentally found by a whaling ship on Kvitøya in 1930. Also Roald Amundsen and Italian Umberto Nobile flew from Svalbard to the North Pole, and in 1926 they flew together over the North Pole in the airship “Norway”. They used Ny-Ålesund as a starting point, and there is still the mast which was used to moor the airship.

All the various expeditions had many different goals. Outwardly they were scientific objectives in focus. But expedition leaders, participants and sponsors were often motivated by considerations of national and personal prestige. The Arctic offered a good opportunity for attention. Here was scope for heroism and achievements – works that became national symbols and personal status when they return home – whether they were dead or alive.

Mining (1900 -)

Mining, from 1900, was based on new research results and favorable prices in the newly industrialized Europe. Coal reserves were most interesting, but on Svalbard there were also short-lived operation on phosphorus, gold, zinc, lead, copper, gypsum and marble.

In the early 1900s, Svalbard still was a no man’s land, and the start was chaotic. Many lost big money on flamboyant and unsound industrial adventures. It was costly procurement and delivery of equipment, crews and supplies, construction of houses and plants.

Coal-mining operations is the only agency that has been going for more than a century. It has laid the foundation for all communities in Longyearbyen, Svea, Barentsburg and Ny-Ålesund.