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Kapp Thordsen: Svenskehuset

The story of a tragic wintering in 1872-73 in Spitsbergen

1 – Svenskehuset at Kapp Thordsen

Svenskehuset is near Kapp Thordsen in southern Dickson Land, where the large, central part of Isfjord meets Billefjord and Sassenfjord-Tempelfjord. It is Spitsbergen’s oldest house (not Svalbard’s oldest house, though, that is Hammerfesthuset near the weather station on Bjørnøya).

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld had found phosphorite in the Triassic sediment layers at Kapp Thordsen. Back then, phosphorite was a raw material for fertilizer, hence could be was a precious geological resource. Nordenskiöld saw the economical basis for a Swedish colony in Spitsbergen, which was no man’s land back then. Sweden had a stronger connection to Spitsbergen than any other country in the mid and late 19th century.

2 – Main entrance (south side)

This is the main entrance, located on the southeast side of the house (facing the fjord). The entrance was firmly closed with a large wooden plate bolted on to the walls when I took the photos for these panoramas (2020). The entrance on the back side was accessible.

Nordenskiöld found business partners who financed a little expedition to investigate the phosphorite occurrence. Two young geologists went to Kapp Thordsen in July 1870. During their first attempt, all they achieved after establishing a camp was returning to the ship just in time before a storm broke out. They could return on 05 August and stayed until the 17th for their investigations.

These geologists were Hjalmar Wilander and Alfred Nathorst. The latter became famous later as the leading figure in Swedish polar research after the Nordenskiöld period.

3 – Main room (library) 1, west side

Here we are in the largest room of the house, centrally located on the first floor. It was used as work room and library for the scientists during the 1882-83 wintering (we’ll get to that story shortly).

After the geological investigations of 1870, preparations were made to establish a colony. Aktiebolaget (AB) Isfjorden was founded and a house was built at Kapp Thordsen in the summer of 1872. Per Öberg, who had been with Nordenskiöld in Greenland on an earlier expedition, and the Norwegian Johan Tiberg, an experienced miner, led the expedition of the „colonists“: 27 people, including several women and children, amongst them Tiberg’s wife Sofie, their son Johan (16) and daughter Jacobine (7), as well as two horses, twelve pigs and many chicken. First, a laboratory and a building for the livestock were built.

Tiberg and Öberg, however, understood quickly that the colony at Kapp Thordsen would never thrive. The harbour conditions were difficult (they still are). The shore is fully exposed to any wind and weather, shallow water makes access for anything bigger than a small boat difficult and once ashore, a steep slope has to be negotiated to get access to an area of soft and partly wet tundra, 800 m of which need to be crossed to reach the house. A little railway was built to make transport easier. Six men were able to move 48 loads with a total of 3.5 tons of goods a day up to the colony.

Still, the place would never allow for an economically and logistically sound operation of a colony. To make things worse, the phosphorite occurence did not meet the expectations. And on top of all, geological phosphorite had got strong competition on the markets for fertilizers from the evolving chemical industry.

In the end, it seems that the investors had to thank Öberg that losses did not become bigger than they already were. He made sure that the project was not developed any further. The colony was abandoned during the first summer, and everybody left again after a few months only. One large house had been built, at least. A second house of the same kind had been planned, but that one was never built. Inside, it should have been more comfortable, suited to house wealthy tourists during the summer months and providing a spare building in case of fire for those who spent the winter in the colony. A ship had already been chartered for two years to shuttle passengers, equipment and phosphorite between Spitsbergen, Scotland, England, Sweden and Denmark.

In the end, it was the Swedish industrial patron and investor Oscar Dickson who settled the bill for the failed business adventure at Kapp Thordsen.

4 – Main room (library) 2, east side

In September 1872 – still in the same year as the house at Kapp Thordsen had been built – six Norwegian sealing ships got caught in ice on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Two got stuck at Velkomstpynten and four near Gråhuken, not far from Mosselbukta, where Nordenskiöld had just built Polhem, the base where his expedition was to winter and try to make a dash to the north pole next spring. Neither the ships nor Nordenskiöld had enough food for such a number of men – the six ships together had 58 crew in total – but there was no other choice for the Norwegians than joining the Swedes at Polhem from 01 December, and an agreement between the parties was accordingly made. But this never happened: already on 07 October, 17 men had left in two open boats to reach the new, well-stocked and equipped house of the Swedish colony at Kapp Thordsen. They arrived there on 14 October and established themselves for the winter.

The other men who had remained on the ships managed to return to Norway with the two ships at Verlegenhuken in November, after a storm had broken up the ice. But they had to abandon the four ships at Gråhuken. Only Johan Mattilas Johannesen, 58 years old and skipper of the Elida, decided to stay behind, hoping to rescue his ship in case the ice would loosen up. His 17 year old cook Gabriel Anderssen stayed with him. It may also have been a reason that Mattilas was unable to walk over the ice as far as to the ships at Verlegenhuken. Anyway, he and Anderssen got ready for the winter and moved into a makeshift hut that they had improvised out of two boats that they had turned over. Nevertheless, the Elida got lost after some winter storms. Mattilas and Anderssen died later during the winter, most likely from scurvy. The last entry in their diary, written by Anderssen but probably dictated by Mattilas, ends on 18 February. Mattilas had spent the best part of 42 years in the ice.

5 – Side room east side (1)

Meanwhile, the 17 men had settled down in the house at Kapp Thordsen, which was well stocked with provisions and all sorts of equipment. We will get back to them in the end.

We do not exactly know what this room was designed and planned for in 1872. It was used by scientists during the 1882-83 wintering. Today, there are two bunk beds and a table.

6 – Side room east side (2)

Also this room was used by scientists in 1882-83. It was the Swedish section of the first International Polar Year, an internationally coordinated effort to obtain a full year of continuous measurements of various geophysical parameters in the Arctic (12 stations) and Antarctic (2 stations: Tierra del Fuego and South Georgia). The First International Polar Year was initiated by Carl Weyprecht.

7 – Kitchen

This room was the kitchen.

The locations for the stations had been agreed during a conference in St. Petersburg before the first International Polar Year started. For example, Germany established one station on Baffin Island and one on South Georgia, Austria went to Maria Muschbukta on Jan Mayen and Sweden took Spitsbergen, where the already existing Swedish house (Svenskehuset) of the colony at Kapp Thordsen was the obvious solution.

8 – back entrance (north side)

The back entry on the north side of the house, facing the mountain, was the only way to get into the house i 2020. Originally, there was a vestibule outside to keep the snow and cold outside and to store skies and equipment, but nothing is left of that.

9 – Side room west side (1)

The side room on the northwest corner was also used by scientists in 1882-83. Amongst them was a young Salomon August Andrée, who was later to achieve tragic fame during his balong expedition from Virgohamna on Danskøya.

There is now a door betwee this room and the next one (10, Side room west side 2) which was added later, it is not included in the original floor plan.

10 – Side room west side (2)

Little at Svenskehuset is actually as it was built in 1872 or left in 1883. Nothing of the interior is left. In the late 20th century, the house was in a ruinous condition and it was comprehensively refurbished.

The 1882-83 wintering went according to plan, the scientific programm was carried out successfully and nothing major happened. It is said that Andrée did not really like his first arctic adventure too much. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, he turned his back to the Arctic for many years and returned only for his ballong expeditions in 1896 and 1897.

11 – Attic

The attic was mostly one big room which was used as accommodation for the workers and as storage place.

12 – The grave of the winterers

But back to the 17 unlucky winterers of 1872-73. Several attempts to rescue them with expeditions from Norway failed. One ship had even been inside Isfjord in mid February, when 15 men were still alive at Kapp Thordsen, but was unable to get further because of very difficult ice and weather conditions. And generally it was assumed that they should be able to spend the winter without major problems as they had a solid, big house with lots of provisions and equipment.

But the 17 men at Kapp Thordsen were all found dead in June 1873.

Two men had already died in January (both on the 19th). They had been buried together by the others. The mortal remains of the others were buried in a common grave on 18 June 1873 close to the house. The last entry in the diary is from 19 April. The last man died probably just shortly before they were found by the Norwegian skipper Ole Barth Tellefsen on 16 June. Tellefsen skippered the seal catcher Elida (obviously another ship than the one that had been lost on the north coast just a few months before).

Since then, Svenskehuset is also known as Spøkelseshuset (haunted house)

In 1893-94, it was again used for a wintering when skipper Sivert Brækmo and 10 year old Johan Kristiansen had to stay there. They wanted to return to Norway at the end of the 1893 summer hunting season but close to the mainland coast they got caught in a large storm which blew them back north to Spitsbergen. In the end, they returned to Norway safely on 25 August 1894.

For a long time, it was commonly thought that the 17 men of the tragic 1872-73 wintering had been idle, thus attracting scurvy – it was widely believed that physical activity was a good measure against scurvy, hence being lazy would attract the disease. Consequently, they were being looked at with disdain for a long time in arctic circles in north Norway, a fact that caused their families great discomfort. They considered the matter a disgrace. The father of one of the victims of the wintering is even said to have committed suicide because of that.

In 2008, bone samples were retrieved from the grave of the two men who had died first. It could be shown that they had died from lead poisoning from lead that was used in the soldering of the tins. There were no signs of scurvy (or botulism, for that sake).

The authors of the work done in 2008 wrote in their book Tragedien i Svenskehuset that the good reputation of the deceased had finally been restored then, 135 years later. They had ventured on the long open boat journey from Spitsbergen’s north coast to Kapp Thordsen in October 1872 to make sure that the remaining men would have enough provisions for the winter, just to suffer a terrible fate that they could not understand – and, thus, prevent – at that time.

In 2010, a ceremony was held at the common grave at Svenskehuset with the priest from Longyearbyen, the Sysselmannen and an opera singer.

Sources

  • Gösta Liljequist (1993): High Latitudes. A history of Swedish polar travels and research
  • Kjell Kjær & Ulf Aasebø (2012): Tragedien i Svenskhuset

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last modification: 2020-09-09 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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