The northern Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard has enjoyed quite the tumultuous history over the course of only four centuries. Not only was this the main springboard for Arctic expeditions during the age of Polar explorations but the islands and their frigid waters became hubs for whaling, hunting, mining and overall resource-exploitation throughout its life as a discovered ‘whale haven’.
This seemingly inhospitable place, lying in the High Arctic between 74 and 81-degrees North, is actually abundantly fertile, both on land and at sea. Much of the archipelago is covered in ice and snow although, for a short period during the northern summer, the tundra explodes in blankets of wild-flowers. Head here between June and September and you’ll find an abundance of wildlife on Svalbard. its nutrient-rich waters attracting sea life and migratory birds in their droves.
Nowadays, Svalbard is regarded as one of the world’s best bases for Arctic expedition cruises and, more famously, for being home to more Polar Bears than humans.
Here’s an enlightening yet sobering overview of the discovery and evolution of Svalbard.
Europeans arrive in Svalbard – 16th century
Humans have been leaving their prints on Svalbard ever since Dutch explorer Willem Barents stumbled onto the icy wonderland in 1596 whilst on a voyage in search of a northern passage to the east. He’s credited with being the first European mainlander to have set foot on these seemingly uninhabitable islands, although an old Icelandic saga, dating back from the early 12th-century, makes mention of it.
The exploration and exploitation of Svalbard were not only extensive but also uninhibited for centuries. Sovereignty to Norway was only granted in 1920 yet it took decades for protective measures to be introduced.
A few human ventures this far north were exemplary. Others, not so much.
The whaling industry comes to Svalbard – 17th & 18th centuries
Europe’s oil rush and ever-increasing demand for whale and seal products (oil was used for soap and lighting and bones were used in corsets) coincided with Barents’ discovery of Svalbard and the large untapped reserved of the majestic marine beasts. The extensive whaling industry, which literally exploded in Svalbard in the 17th and 18th centuries, led to an exhaustion of bowhead whales in the region. The bowhead has returned to Svalbard (although in conservative numbers) and only in the northeast of Spitsbergen and well into the Russian Arctic region. This is the only baleen species that lives in the Arctic all year long and only between 8000 and 12,000 s are believed to be left in the world.
Many European countries had a huge demand for whaling products but only a few had actual whaling prowess and not very many could effectively do so in Polar regions. Yet the stakes were high and, soon enough, Svalbard became a free-for-all, with competition and rivalry running high. The main participants were the Netherlands, England, Spain, Germany, France, Denmark and Norway. Due to the rivalry of all the countries there was never any agreement over the sovereignty of Svalbard and its surrounding waters, so, whilst Svalbard belonged to no-one, it effectively belonged to everyone.
Eventually, only a few major whaling players remained, the others driven away by the harsh conditions and lack of worthwhile profits. In the end, only English and the Dutch whalers remained and when marine-life stocks dwindled off the coast of Svalbard in the mid to late-1700s, whaling moved to the open Arctic waters. By the end of the 18th century, large-scale whaling finally ceased altogether.
The legacy of the whaling industry in Svalbard remains to this day with many defunct whaling stations and processing plants, some 50-odd in total, strewn about the islands. Ironically, the remains of whale oil, blubber and food left behind fertilised the nearby land surrounding the stations. These are now the ‘greenest’ areas on the Svalbard islands.
Russian trappers fill the gap in Svalbard – 18th & 19th centuries
The whalers’ departure from Svalbard gave the green light for the Russians to move right in. Traditional Pomor whalers and trappers from Novgorod were used to living in harsh Arctic conditions so, whilst the Europeans came up only during the summer, the Russians were the first to continue their trading over the winter. The Pomors were exceptionally good at their job, trapping wildlife like Arctic fox and Polar Bear for their profitable furs. This was the first time that the exploitation of Svalbard occurred on land and not just at sea. Russian trapping on Svalbard didn’t last very long (perhaps only 50 years or so) although their legacy is now quite extensive. The islands are home to more than 70 ghost trapping stations (mostly just solitary rustic huts) many of which were lived-in for 12 months of the year.
Political turmoil at home brought an end to Russian trapping in Svalbard and by the time the Pomors retreated, the Norwegians were once again knocking at the door. The first Europeans to overwinter in Svalbard were Norwegian wanna-be trappers in 1794, who’d enlisted the expertise of a few chosen Russians to learn the trade. By the time all the Russians left, they were the only hunters left on Svalbard. Fur, eggs and down were the most sought-after commodities to be traded and the Norwegians did a fine job of keeping the trade somewhat alive on the archipelago, almost completely exhausting the population of walruses here.
Overwinter trapping – considered the best because animals have their thickest fur – was an excruciatingly difficult and arduous task and although the economic impact of the Norwegian efforts was actually very modest, a few well-known hunters (like Henry Rudi) gained god-like status back home.
Concurrent scientific research of Svalbard – early 19th century
The early 19th-century also brought about a flurry of expeditions for scientific purposes, with extensive research aiding our understanding of ocean currents, geology, the adaptation techniques of the wildlife, glaciers, the Northern Lights and even global climate change. The research continues to be carried on in Svalbard today and is considered a pivotal part of the fight to have global warming recognised on a worldwide scale.
Polar explorations from Svalbard – 19th century
Svalbard lies 1300km from the North Pole and has always been an excellent springboard for North Pole expeditions, ever since the first adventurous explorers set their sights on reaching it by airship balloon. All failed until Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Italian aviator Umberto Nobile finally succeeded in 1926 on the Norge Flight, completing the first crossing of the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. Amundsen eventually perished trying to reach the North Pole once more, although his objective was to search for Nobile who had himself ventures north yet again.
The North Pole Expedition Museum in Longyearbyen is a truly fascinating place where you can learn more about the exceptional efforts to get man to the northmost tip of our planet. It offers a great overview of the importance of Svalbard in this regard and the many failed North Pole expedition attempts. If you’re fascinated by this aspect of Svalbard’s history, you’ll no doubt be enthralled for a few hours.
Mining comes to Svalbard – Early 20th century
Europe’s industrial revolution spurred yet another wave of interest in Svalbard, an archipelago whose frozen soil hides an impressive array of mineral resources. By 1920, almost all of Svalbard was grabbed for future mining exploitation with coal being the primary enticement, swiftly followed by gold, copper, lead, zinc, phosphorite and iron. Everyone who was anyone had a go at mining Svalbard with the largest settlements belonging to the Russians. The ghost mining town of Pyramiden is one of the main attractions in Spitzbergen island and sightseeing tours, with snowmobile, can be organised from Longyearbyen.
World War II brought about the brakes needed to slow down the mining scene on Svalbard and as the Germans advanced on the archipelago to gain undisturbed access to dependable weather-data, the islands were abandoned by all inhabitants. The Germans built several weather stations on Svalbard during the war, only one of which (Haudegen) remained intact by the end of it.
Norwegians returned to Svalbard once the war ended and so did the mining industry. It is relatively small, nowadays, with Spitzbergen having only Mine 7 left in operation, primarily to keep Longyearbyen powered up. The remainder of its 70,000-tonne yearly metric tonnes mined yearly, ironically enough, is exported to Germany.
Wildlife protection finally becomes a priority in Svalbard – 20th century
It’s amazing to know that Polar Bears were only protected in Svalbard by law in 1973. The first species to gain protection here was the Svalbard Reindeer who, in 1925, was set for premature extinction. Nowadays, this is the most common species you can admire when you visit. The wildlife of Svalbard may have suffered greatly at the hands of human beings over the centuries but they have made a remarkable recovery. This is one of the best Arctic wildlife-watching destinations on earth today and, hopefully, it will continue to be.
For much of history, Svalbard was an unbridled hive of human exploitation and if the predictions are correct (that the islands hide a colossal stock of gold and gas) the scramble for its natural resources may not be over. Global warming, in particular, is what is making the further exploitation of Svalbard a real future possibility, as ice recedes and ground is exposed.
The main summertime exploit on Svalbard today is thankfully tourism. Arctic expeditions depart from Longyearbyen and circumnavigate the main island, Spitsbergen, and over the northeast, where the highest chances remain for spotting Polar Bear and whales. Given the extensive history of the place, it’s really worthwhile planning a few extra days in Longyearbyen, with the small but fascinating town boasting a few excellent museums and a host of outdoor activities.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 13 years. She’s tour guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and is now in the midst of a 5-year motorbike odyssey from Germany to Australia.”