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Kapp Thordsen: Svenskehuset

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

Pano­Tour Kapp Thord­sen: Svens­ke­hu­set

Hint

Once you have ent­e­red the vir­tu­al tour, you can eit­her use the map in the lower left cor­ner to navi­ga­te, or the bar at the bot­tom, or click on sym­bols wit­hin the panos to enter the next one (only while the next loca­ti­on is visi­ble, not always avail­ab­le). Or you can just let it play and it will auto­ma­ti­cal­ly switch to the next pano after one tur­naround. You can switch the sound off (upper right cor­ner) if you wish, same with the explana­to­ry text.

And if you like it, you can pass on the Pano link or link it yourself 🙂

Sta­ti­ons

  1. Svens­ke­hu­set at Kapp Thord­sen
  2. Main ent­ran­ce (south side)
  3. Main room (libra­ry) 1, west side
  4. Main room (libra­ry) 2, east side
  5. Side room east side (1)
  6. Side room east side (2)
  7. Kit­chen
  8. Back ent­ran­ce (north side)
  9. Side room west side (1)
  10. Side room west side (2)
  11. Attic
  12. The gra­ve of the win­te­rers

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 Tri­as­sic sedi­ment lay­ers at Kapp Thord­sen. Back then, phos­pho­ri­te was a raw mate­ri­al for fer­ti­li­zer, hence it could be that it 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 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 wall when I was the­re to take the pho­tos for the­se pan­ora­mas in 2020. The other ent­ran­ce, on the back side of the house, was acces­si­ble, though.

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. But they retur­ned on 05 August and stay­ed until the 17th for their inves­ti­ga­ti­ons.

The­se geo­lo­gists were Hja­l­mar Wilan­der and Alfred Nathorst. The lat­ter was later to beco­me famous 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 and lan­ding 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 per 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 in advan­ce 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 when 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, and 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. Actual­ly, the idea had been to use Nordenskiöld’s for­mer sta­ti­on Pol­hem, but the expe­di­ti­on could not reach Mos­sel­buk­ta becau­se of the ice.

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: 2020-11-06 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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