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The History of Spitsbergen

Spits­ber­gen or the archi­pe­la­go of Sval­bard has a long and inte­res­ting histo­ry of many chap­ters, which part­ly over­lap in time, part­ly fol­low upon each other with a rather quiet pha­se in bet­ween, but are often not rela­ted of each other. So it is, to some degree, pos­si­ble to look at each one sepa­r­ate­ly, rather bea­ring the Euro­pean histo­ry and eco­no­mic deve­lo­p­ment in mind, which is decisi­ve for any eco­no­mic and sci­en­ti­fic acti­vi­ty in the arc­tic. Legend has, that alrea­dy the vikings found »Sval­bard«, but for this the­re is no hard evi­dence. It is likely that Pomors, hun­ters and fisher from the White Sea coast of Rus­sia, knew Spits­ber­gen as a good hun­ting ground alrea­dy befo­re it was ‘offi­cial­ly’ dis­co­ve­erd by the Dut­ch­man Wil­lem Bar­entsz in 1596. Soon after Bar­entsz’ famous jour­ney, the first pha­se of wha­ling star­ted in Spitsbergen’s near­shore waters.

In the 19th cen­tu­ry, explo­rers and sci­en­tists dis­co­ve­r­ed Spits­ber­gen as an inte­res­ting play­ground. After the Pomors had disap­peared from Spits­ber­gen, Nor­we­gi­an trap­pers star­ted to hunt polar bears, foxes and other arc­tic wild­life in the late 19th cen­tu­ry. This time saw also the advent of adventurers/explorers who tried to reach the pole, star­ting from Spits­ber­gen, and incre­a­sed attempts to make some money with mining.

Until the First World War, Spits­ber­gen was still no man’s land, but in 1920, a trea­ty was signed in Paris which put Spits­ber­gen under Nor­we­gi­an admi­nis­tra­ti­on and sov­er­eig­n­ty, but gua­ran­te­ed free access for citi­zens of all signa­ta­ry nati­ons as well as demi­li­ta­ri­sa­ti­on. The Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty came into for­ce in 1925 and remains valid.

Name con­fu­si­on: Sval­bard is the name for the archi­pe­la­go, and Spits­ber­gen the main island. The name Sval­bard appeared for the first time in 1194, alt­hough it remains uncer­tain what exact­ly it refer­red to. Sin­ce Bar­entsz’ dis­co­very in 1596, the name Spits­ber­gen com­mon­ly was used (Ger­man spel­ling: Spitz­ber­gen). In Eng­land, Spits­ber­gen was often cal­led Green­land in the 17th and 18th cen­tu­ries, due to the sup­po­si­ti­on that Spits­ber­gen and the real Green­land were lin­ked some­whe­re in the north. The true rea­son may actual­ly also have been that the Dut­ch name Spits­ber­gen was not accep­ted. The term Sval­bard has been re-intro­du­ced by Nor­way when the Spits­ber­gen Trea­ty was in for­ce. The­re are good prac­ti­cal rea­sons for having two dif­fe­rent names for the lar­gest island (Spits­ber­gen) and the who­le archi­pe­la­go (Sval­bard), but it may be fair to say that the his­to­ri­cal base for the use of the name Sval­bard is rather weak.

The 1920s also brought new attempts to reach the pole. Roald Amund­sen and Umber­to Nobi­le made their now legen­da­ry attempts from Ny Åle­sund, with the well-known, dra­ma­tic results. Rus­si­ans and Nor­we­gi­ans have always been living near each other in Spits­ber­gen, both befo­re and after the war, with good coope­ra­ti­on and various con­ta­cts taking pla­ces nowa­days.

As any­whe­re else in the world, the Second World War was an important and dra­ma­tic mile­stone for all acti­vi­ties in Spits­ber­gen. In recent years, sci­ence has incre­a­sed and is done by a num­ber of nati­ons, and so have tou­rism and ser­vice indus­tries, whe­re­as mining is slow­ly losing impor­t­ance. But the­re is still space for adven­ture (alt­hough this is not always appre­cia­ted, espe­cial­ly if of a hazar­dous kind) and trap­pers

Find some more details regar­ding the various pha­ses on the fol­lowing pages:

»Watch out for polar bears – app­lies ever­y­whe­re on Sval­bard«. Polar bears are poten­ti­al­ly dan­ge­rous, but many peop­le look at them main­ly as a tou­rist attrac­tion.

polar bear warning sign

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last modification: 2020-12-17 · copyright: Rolf Stange
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