Page 1



Into the Ice is a revised edition of the three-volume Norwegian edition of ‘Norwegian Polar History’ (Norsk polarhistorie), published in 2004. Into the Ice is illustrated with a wealth of original photographs and other pictures.

The History of Norway and the Polar Regions

‘Norway keeps its position as a leading polar nation ... a reliable reference work for a long time to come ... Norwegian Polar History is an impressive work.’ Torgny Nordin, Svenska Dagbladet, Sweden

Editors: Einar-Arne Drivenes (born in 1946), Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Tromsø. Harald Dag Jølle (born in 1971), University Research Fellow, Department of History, University of Tromsø.

Peder Anker, Isis, USA

‘Norwegian Polar History is well-written and covers a wide range of topics.’

In the 1880s, few regarded Norway as a polar nation. Exploring the frozen territories at the ends of the world was expensive, and this activity was reserved for the more powerful nations of the world. This situation changed after Fridtjof Nansen’s journey on skis across Greenland in 1888. Soon Norwegians were among the main contenders in the race to break geographic records, to exploit resources, and to map and conquer unknown territories.

The book also shows how Norwegians seeked economic profit; how hunters pursued adventure in the wilderness and how Arctic sea captains sought out ever new hunting grounds. For the past century researchers have looked to and traveled to the ends of the earth in order to study the land and sea, to gain answers to their questions about ice ages, climate and biological conditions. It has been proven that a number of the earth’s natural phenomena can better be understood by studying the polar region.

ISBN-13: 978-82-05-36185-0 ISBN-10: 82-05-36185-1

Jan Christensen, Verdens Gang, Norway

‘In all, this multidisciplinary work presents a good overview of Norway’s interests and national feats, accomplishments, sins and omissions in the ‘polar regions’, viewed in light of and in cooperation with the international community … a magnum opus.’ Odmund Søilen, Bergens Tidende, Norway

The History of Norway and the Polar Regions

The polar explorer became the hero of his time, and at the same time a key player in Norwegian expansion into the Arctic and the Antarctic regions. Into the Ice takes its readers on the legendary polar journeys with Fridtjof Nansen, Roald Amundsen and Otto Sverdrup. In addition, the reader can follow the daring, pioneering expeditions by air, as well as modern polar expeditions.

Cover design: Kristin Berg Johnsen, kobolt

‘a significant contribution to the understanding of Norwegian polar history.’

Finally, this first collected presentation of Norwegian polar history is available to the public.

‘This beautiful work has once again shown Norway to be a leading polar nation!’ Erik Winther, Infonor, Denmark

AU TH ORS Thor Bjørn Arlov | Susan Barr Roald Berg | Einar-Arne Drivenes | Åsa Elstad | Anne Eriksen Bjørg Evjen | Bjørn-Petter Finstad | Robert Marc Friedman | Narve Fulsås Matti Goksøyr | Marit Anne Hauan | Dag O. Hessen | Geir Hestmark Alf Håkon Hoel | Harald Dag Jølle | Jens Petter Nielsen Atle Næss | Urban Wråkberg TRANSLATED BY Bruce Bawer, Deborah Dawkin, Joan S. Rongen and Erik Skuggevik

Einar-Arne Drivenes | Harald Dag Jølle (editors) Ketil Zachariassen (picture editor)

Into the Ice The history of Norway and the Polar Regions

© Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS 2006 Translated by Bruce Bawer, Deborah Dawkin, Joan S. Rongen and Erik Skuggevik The King’s Mirror (p. 6) is translated from Old Norse by Laurence Marcellus Larson, 1917 General graphic design and cover design: Kristin Berg Johnsen / ko b o lt Front cover photo: Fridtjof Nansen, 1894. Henrik Greve Blessing is on his way to taking algae tests. The polar exploration vessel, Fram, is in the background. The Norwegian National Library. Back cover photo: © Trym Ivar Bergsmo, 1999, Samfoto Repro: RenessanseMedia A/S, Oslo 2006 Printed in Denmark Printed by Nørhaven, 2006 Paper: Arctic Volume 115g (1,12) Typeface: Adobe Garamond 11/13,5 pt og MetaPlus 9,2/13,5 pt ISBN-10: 82-05-36185-1 ISBN-13: 978-82-05-36185-0

This book has been published with support from: The University of Tromsø The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs The Norwegian Ministry of Justice and the Police Statoil The Norwegian Polar Institute GC Rieber Fondene

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


The History of Norway in the Polar Regions



13 57

I The pioneers II The heroes



121 195 281

III The entrepreneurs IV The explorers V The conquerors



319 375 409 451

VI Playing with the big boys VII A greedy hunting nation? VIII New frontiers, new borders IX The memories

481 509 511 513 547 554 557 559

Expeditions and events List of terminology Contributions Bibliography Index Illustration credits The authors Aknowledgements

The answer to your query as to what people go to seek in that country and why they fare thither through such great perils is to be sought in man’s threefold nature. One motive is fame and rivalry, for it is in the nature of man to seek places where great dangers may be met, and thus to win fame. A second motive is curiosity, for it is also in man’s nature to wish to see and experience the things that he has heard about, and thus to learn whether the facts are as told or not. The third is desire for gain; for men seek wealth wherever they have heard that gain is to be gotten, though, on the other hand, there may be great dangers too.

About Greenland in The King’s Mirror, ca. 1250.


‘Nowhere else did we advance at a slower pace, nor toil so hard each step of the way, nor endure so much deprivation and suffering; and nowhere else did the discoveries made promise less material gain.’ This is how Fridtjof Nansen begins Northern Mists, his great opus about early Arctic exploration. He himself had paid the price for getting further north than any other human being. ‘We may have struggled, but we also experienced great satisfaction. What words can describe the exhilaration we felt when we cleared the last ice floe, and ahead of us lay the high seas, leading to new kingdoms?’ The polar heroes’ tales of perilous explorations held the world spellbound at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Traversing each new latitude was celebrated as a milestone in the struggle toward higher goals: the public waited in anxious expectation to see which nation would have the honour of planting its flag at the poles or sailing the northern passages. Who would add new territory to his nation? As it happened, many returned empty-handed, while others did not come home at all – like John Franklin’s men in the mid-19th century. Considering Norway’s geographical location, it is natural to assume that the country always played a part in the exploration of ‘polar regions’. Both geographically and climatically, Norway’s northern coasts border on northern ‘polar regions’. The dynamic conditions in the atmosphere and oceans, and the Gulf Stream – whose mild Atlantic air masses collide with Arctic currents and polar air fronts – have greatly influenced people’s ability to survive on land and at sea. The warm ocean current caresses the Norwegian coast and provides the easiest route to the Arctic. In fact, the name Norway means ‘the road to the north.’ It is natural to think that the inhabitants of this outpost were the first to

t h e h i s t o ry o f n o rway i n t h e p o l a r r e g i o n s


harvest the rich marine resources of the ‘polar regions’, like whale, seal, walrus, beluga, and shrimp. The islands and land masses are home to musk oxen, reindeer, foxes, and vast numbers of birds of every description, and – last but not least – the mighty king of the ice, the polar bear. The mountains, too, harbour riches: minerals and coal. However, there is no unbroken tradition of Norwegian business activity in the Arctic. Of course, people of Norwegian origin founded the Norse colonies on Greenland, but communications were severed, and the colony died out some time during the Late Middle Ages. When European countries started whaling on a large scale near Spitsbergen in the 17th century, the Norwegian role was modest and sporadic. The same can be said of seal hunting. Norwegian activity in the Arctic only began in earnest in the 19th century, and especially after 1850. But when the world began to turn its eyes towards the Antarctic during the first decades of the 20th century, Norway had become a superpower in terms of its polar economic and trade activity. This can also be said about polar exploration and research, in which Norway took part only sporadically before the end of the 19th century. Most scientific contributions were made by other nations – in Scandinavia, principally by Sweden, but also by Denmark. But then, in the late 19th and the early 20th century, Norway emerged as one of the world’s leading polar nations. This breakthrough was accompanied by spectacular expeditions, which caused a worldwide sensation. Taking the technology of the period into consideration, the Fram expedition of 1893 to 1896 could be compared to the moon voyages of our own era. Does the label polar nation fit Norway? That depends, of course, on what we mean by the term. Important criteria are polar exploration and economic and trade activity; but the term polar nation should also reflect a nation’s selfimage. Norway’s status as a polar nation depends on where one draws the boundaries of the Arctic, Antarctic and ‘polar regions’. In this book, ‘polar regions’ means the Arctic and the Antarctic. Several criteria might be used to define Arctic boundaries: the tree line, permafrost limits, average July temperature, or (quite simply) the Arctic and Antarctic Circles. In this book, Arctic boundaries are generally defined as areas with an average July temperature of +10° C or less. Strictly speaking, this means that a narrow strip of Finnmark, Norway’s northernmost county, falls within the Arctic; but for the purposes of this book, mainland Norway has been omitted. Hunting and fishing in coastal waters are therefore not included, whilst economic and trade activity in the Barents Sea, near and on Bjørnøya, Svalbard, and Greenland falls within the definition of Arctic. This demarcation is also in accordance with Norwegian public perception as to where the northern polar regions lie.

8 preface

Antarctic is the generic term for the land and sea areas around the South Pole. Here, the ratio of land to sea is virtually the opposite of what is found in the area around the North Pole. In the South, a vast land mass is surrounded by sea; and in the North, an ocean is surrounded by islands and other land areas. The Antarctic is often delimited by the ‘Antarctic Convergence’ – the line where cold polar water collides with warm water from lower latitudes. This line of demarcation lies somewhere between 53° S and 62° S. Norway’s polar history is also about culture and politics, which is unavoidable in a book that deals with Norway’s assimilation of ‘polar regions’. It would be strange to write about the birth of Norway’s Polar Institute without also discussing Norwegian polar imperialism; difficult to write about Amundsen and his conquest of the South Pole without examining its effect on Norway’s self-image; impossible to write about Norwegian seal hunting without bringing up environmental politics and international condemnation. What drew men into the icy regions? It was, among other things, the strongest of all human motivations: competitiveness, the lust for power, the craving for honour, the thirst for knowledge, and the desire for profit. Some of the major scientific questions of the time could only be resolved by exploring ‘polar regions’ and this is what attracted Nansen and other explorers. National and personal honour was also at stake. Lesser known polar explorers were concerned with more mundane questions. For them, the ice was a place of work, a place to earn a living. Many were perpetually captivated by the vast polar landscape, the light, and the silence. What riches lay hidden in and beneath the vast expanses of polar ice and frozen mountains that could tempt so many to risk life and limb to get their share of the wealth? What were the unsolved scientific riddles that could only be answered beneath polar skies? These scientific contributions and expeditions took their toll. Just a few years after he was married, Fridtjof Nansen left his wife and family for an indefinite period of time to lead the Fram expedition of 1893, risking his own life and that of his mates, in his attempt to discover the routes of ocean currents across the polar basin. A small wooden crucifix on the grave of hunter Arne M. Olsen in the Svalbard churchyard bears witness to one of the many who lost, in the battle against the destructive Arctic forces. In his case it was scurvy; others might succumb to storms or the drifting ice. After all, what was there to gain? Is the answer today the same as the one Fridtjof Nansen gave in his 1911 book Northern Mists? ‘People rarely found riches and never discovered paradise, but we always gained more knowledge’.

t h e h i s t o ry o f n o rway i n t h e p o l a r r e g i o n s



European polar commerce had become important in the 17th century. However, it was not until the early 19th century that Norwegians developed their own hunting tradition. They were inspired by the Russians. Many entrepreneurs generated income, and they brought knowledge and tales of heroism to a young nation. Exploring the frozen territories at the ends of the world was expensive. For a long time, this activity was reserved for the most powerful nations. After a journey on skis across Greenland in 1888, ‘a seed was sown’ and a thought grew. Norwegians could also join the competition for polar records.


Early in the summer of 1820, the lodya ship St. Olav departed from Hammerfest, Norway’s northernmost town. The ship commanded by skipper and tailor Erik Fahlgren, set course for Spitsbergen. It was to be an extraordinary voyage, one of the first to have been fitted out from Northern Norway, and it must have made Fahlgren wish he had stuck to his tailor’s trade. The ship was supposed to head straight for Spitsbergen. But when the crew sighted Bjørnøya, they decided to go ashore and check out the terrain. There was no suitable harbour so the agreement was for Fahlgren to tack to and fro outside the island whilst the crew rowed ashore in the tender. But out on the roadstead the skipper ran into difficulties and before he knew what was happening the ship drifted off. Fog crept in, and it became simply impossible for Fahlgren to find his way back to Bjørnøya. His only choice was to return to Hammerfest. In time, the terrifying reality of the situation dawned on the men who were stranded on the island. Following lengthy discussions, they decided to attempt the return journey in the 14-foot tender, in spite of their misgivings as to whether this would be possible. They stocked up on walrus meat and water, and set out on the dangerous voyage. Their journey ended successfully, eight days later, when they reached Nordkyn, on the coast of Finnmark. The crew of the St.Olav suffered from poor training and unfamiliarity with the Arctic Ocean, but that did not put them off. Later that same summer they set off on another fishing voyage to Bjørnøya with the same skipper. Soon after reaching the island, they killed 180 walrus, but they were pursued by bad luck. As they were about to return to Hammerfest, the wind turned into a full-blown storm, and the ship failed to clear the island. The storm reached hurricane force, and the St.Olav was caught by a large wave. The vessel was lifted up and carried inland – where it remained.

the pioneers


The men decided to try their luck yet again with the tender. After all, it had worked once before. But the summer was drawing to an end, and the boat was so small that some of the men had to lie down so that others could get to the oars. Day after day, the tiny boat was tossed about by foaming waves. Then, halfway between Bjørnøya and the North Cape, the men sighted a ship, an English brig, probably en route back from Archangel. The British crew spotted the small vessel and tried in vain to pull the Norwegians aboard; but the waves were enormous, and the British dared not come alongside the boat. In the end the men on the St. Olav decided to continue towards land. Against all odds, they landed in Finnmark, safe and sound, as they had done before. These rather inept hunting expeditions were the start of what was to grow into a major Northern Norwegian industry. However, in many European countries at this time, it was not an unknown phenomenon to travel north to harvest Arctic riches. It appears that European hunting activity in the polar seas evolved from virtually nothing early in the 17th century, and developed rapidly into a largescale industry within a few decades. The industry quickly grew in importance, but the unique prerequisites for this development originated at a much earlier date. First, it was necessary for Europeans to discover the Arctic and its riches. Second, a market had to exist – or be created – for Arctic resources. Last but not least, technology had to be developed to utilise and process these resources. All these conditions were in place in the 16th century. The British and Dutch led the way. They were first and foremost driven by a desire to find alternative sea routes to the East. They were unsuccessful. However, knowledge of Arctic geography increased. The English Muscovy Company was founded as early as 1555, opening up trade with Russia via Archangel. In the 1580s, the Dutch joined the White Sea trade. Through this contact with Northern Russia, western Europeans became acquainted with the seal and walrus hunting of the Pomors, who then hunted in the White Sea, the Sea of Pechora, and as far north as Novaya Zemlya. The Dutch continued searching for the Northeast Passage in the 1590s, with varying success. During Willem Barentsz’ third expedition from 1596 to 1597, Bjørnøya and Spitsbergen were discovered. The expedition was exhaustively documented, and a map was published in 1598. News of new territory and its rich animal life quickly spread throughout Europe. Soon, the British dispatched reconnaissance expeditions. As early as in 1603 and 1604, Stephen Bennet sailed in to the waters around Bjørnøya; and during the next two summers, he hunted walrus there. In 1607 Henry Hudson explored Spitsbergen, and sent home reports of abundant seal and whale resources. Whaling and sealing grounds were known, even before the first decade of the 17th century.

14 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Whale and seal meat might not have been traditional European fare, but their by-products could be utilised. Walrus hide was made into straps and rope, and walrus teeth were valued more than ivory. Sealskin was turned into leather, which could be used in countless items. Seal and walrus were both resources familiar to northern Europeans from time immemorial; thus the market was already in place. Whalebone from right whales was used for springs, in furniture and carriages, and later in luxury products such as parasols and corset stays. Prices rose and fell with demand, in step with changing styles; and from time to time, whalebone could demand good prices. However, the most important by-product was fish oil, or blubber oil. The oil extracted from whale and seal blubber had many uses – in the production of paints and pigments, in textile and leather processing, in soap-making, and as a lubricant – all uses to which oil products are still put today. Most of this oil, though, found its way into oil lamps. Blubber competed everywhere with vegetable oil, which was made from linseed, rape, olive oil, and ground nuts. Whale and seal blubber also competed with cod-liver oil, a major Norwegian export since the Middle Ages. The cod-liver oil was in the main used as the poor man’s lamp-oil. Norwegian ship-owners, principally from Bergen, took an active role in the competition for Arctic resources. Beginning in the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, Bergen’s shipping industry supplied and equipped sealing expeditions. In the larger scheme of things, this Norwegian activity was very minor, but it was not insignificant. Arctic Ocean expeditions exerted a positive influence on their home ports, above all Bergen, from whence continuous hunting took place in 1670 and onwards. When foreign trade was slack, Arctic Ocean expeditions represented an important alternative investment for shipowners and employment opportunities for local seamen. Products from the expeditions helped diversify local merchants’ stock. Foreign skippers and hunting specialists brought valuable expertise to the town. Yet, one cannot say that Bergen and the other Norwegian ports, like Farsund, Arendal, Kristiansand, and Trondheim, were stamped as ‘Arctic Ocean towns’, if by that we mean that Arctic expeditions were culturally and economically of primary importance to these towns. Nonetheless, for the pioneers of Norway’s northern fringe, the inspiration for Arctic Ocean hunting came to them not from the south, but from the east. Many Russian Pomor ships en route to Svalbard sailed via Finnmark to catch the southerly winds, or visited settlements in Finnmark on their way home; so that Russian fishing and hunting activity in Svalbard was well known in Finnmark by the mid 18th century. There were even times when Russian ships might even winter in Norwegian ports. More and more Russians came to Finnmark to fish or trade with the local population – the so-called Pomor Trade.

the pioneers


It was crucial to have an experienced man in the crow’s nest. It was his job to pilot the vessel through the ice, while also keeping an eye out for seals.

Merchants in Hammerfest were kept informed about Svalbard by their Russian connections. The Russian hunting industry on Svalbard flourished from 1770 to 1800. Experts disagree about how long the Pomors hunted on Spitsbergen and Bjørnøya. However, it is evident that the Pomors, who called Spitsbergen ‘Grumant’ (i.e. Grunlandt, ‘Greenland’), were there long before the Northern Norwegians, despite Norway’s proximity to the hunting grounds. From time immemorial, the Pomors hunted seal on the White Sea ice in the winter. In the 16th and 17th centuries, they had extended their hunting grounds eastward, along the coast as far as the Kanin Peninsula, Pechora, and even further to Novaya Zemlya. In the 17th century or earlier, the Pomors started wintering there. Having first established themselves on Novaya Zemlya, it was only natural that they sooner or later would continue out to sea to find new hunting grounds to the northwest (Svalbard).

A Northern Norwegian polar sea industry

For no other town in Norway was Arctic Ocean hunting more important than for Hammerfest. Other factors contributed to the town’s expansion, not least Pomor trading. The commander of a Norwegian naval schooner visiting Hammerfest in 1816 noted a multitude of Pomors. Boats loaded with fish filled the harbour, and the town’s streets ‘were so littered with discarded fish entrails that one could slip on them at any moment’. During this period, fishing and the Pomors were key elements of the town’s economy; but when the British geologist Robert Everest visited Hammerfest in 1827, it was his impression that Arctic hunting had become the town’s staple industry. Initially, prices of Arctic Ocean produce were high, and everyone made money from expeditions. In 1826, one ship sold its entire haul even before coming alongside the quay in Hammerfest. But prices fell towards the end of the 1820s, and walrus hide, which was used for shoe soles, sold badly. Walrus hide was also used in Finland and Russia to make thongs for horse-drawn vehicles, but it was difficult to prepare the hide and render it saleable. Hammerfest merchants tried, with varying success, to market walrus hide in England, France, and other countries, where industrialisation increased demand for durable transmission belts. At first, the price reduction did not cause activities to slow down. Statistics show that up until 1835, ten to 12 ships left Hammerfest for the hunting grounds every year, on average; and only four or five left from Tromsø. The change came in the 1830s. From then on, and until 1850, only five or six ships left Hammerfest each year for Svalbard, and and the over-wintering came to a

the pioneers


standstill. This was no doubt owing to the fact that the walrus became increasingly rare, combined with the rising death rate amongst hunters. In the winter of 1834–35, two hunting parties from Tromsø, totalling 14 men, perished on Spitsbergen and Bjørnøya. But there were still one or more overwinterings in the 1840s. In some instances, ship-owners demanded that if summer hunting had been a failure, then crews had to winter on the islands. Some winterings were involuntary, caused by the ship sinking, freezing in or drifting off and unable to find its way back to the crew.. It was rumoured that Norwegians could not tolerate the harsh climate on Svalbard as well as the ‘hardier Russians’ could. The European concept of the tough Russian was an old one (cf. Montesquieu’s assertion that one must flay a Russian before he feels pain). Some must also have heard the dubioussounding but true tale of the four Russian hunters from Mezen, who were forced to winter on Svalbard’s Edge Island, after the ship disappeared with the rest of the crew. The four survived in the icy wasteland, with no other equipment than a rifle with 12 rounds of ammunition, a tinder box, an axe, a knife, and a kettle. After five years one of them succumbed to scurvy, but the others were rescued one year later by another Russian hunting vessel that wind and weather had driven in their direction. The Mezeners’ long wintering on Edge Island is the first and most famous of Svalbard’s Robinson Crusoe tales. Nothing that came later could ever compare with it. But we know that in the 19th century even the Russians lost some of their ability to survive on Svalbard. In the 1830s, the Pomors died ‘like flies’, as did the Norwegians; and in the 1840s Russian ship-owners stopped sending hunting expeditions to Svalbard. Norwegian hunting expeditions also experienced difficult times in the 1830s, and the Governor of Finnmark County questioned whether walrus hunting had not been pursued ‘with too much zeal’. The many shipwrecks suffered by Norwegian and Russian hunters appear to be connected to the walruses’ retreat further north and east on Spitsbergen. Hunters were forced to hunt walrus in new and partly uncharted and dangerous waters. At the end of the 1830s, pessimism was tangible in both Hammerfest and Tromsø. In 1838, only one ship from Tromsø took part in the hunt, and the newspaper Tromsø Tidende insinuated that Northern Norwegian Arctic Ocean hunting would soon be a thing of the past. The 1840s started on a pessimistic note. In 1841 reports from Hammerfest declared that Svalbard, ‘this river of riches, which in days of old flowed through our town and created large oil and blubber depots, is now drying up’. Then, two years later the Spitsbergen hunting season was particularly successful. The ice broke up at a point, probably north of Spitsbergen, where the waters had been blocked for many years ‘and ships’ crews indulged in the magnificent sight

18 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

In 1838 the French scientific La Recherche expedition documented clear traces of Russian activity on Svalbard.

of a large number of walruses resting on the shore’. However, this proved an anomaly, and the 1840s were difficult years. The Russians stayed away, although that did not mean that they had given up Arctic Ocean hunting completely. They moved some of their activity to Novaya Zemlya, where the new boom was fishing for beluga (white whale). The Pomors tried to get things going again on Svalbard in 1851–52, but the results were depressing. This led to several tragic episodes, which put a stop to Russian hunting on Svalbard. Svalbard was thus at the disposal of the Norwegians. But in the long run they were obliged to look east. The 1870s saw a major shift in hunting grounds, towards Novaya Zemlya and the Kara Sea. Once again the Norwegians followed in the wake of the Russians, but even in those waters, hunting was in decline. From Norwegian and Russian sources we can conclude that Pomors and their ocean farming were now viewed differently. In the 18th century the Pomors were considered skilful and experienced fishermen and hunters who could teach the Norwegians a thing or two. However, during the 19th century the Pomors’ and the northern Russians’ Arctic fishing and hunting skills gradually began to lag behind, as rapid economic and demographic developments took place

the pioneers


on the Norwegian side of the border. Arctic Ocean activities of the Pomors were more frequently considered backward, their boats badly adapted to the industry, and their equipment unfit for use. Norwegians took the lead, as was evident from their new ships: yachts, sloops, and schooners overtook the discarded and re-rigged Russian lodya, which had dominated Northern Norwegian sea mammal hunting in the 1820s and 30s.

New ships from the south

The Russians had disappeared, but soon Northern Norwegian boats encountered competition from unexpected quarters – from Vestfold, a county in Southern Norway. This trend also started modestly. In the 1830s the Mikkelsen brothers from Vestfold County, Anders and Peder, settled in Hammerfest to pursue Arctic Ocean hunting. They were successful but their boats were no larger than the Hammerfest boats and owing to the recession profits were long in coming. In 1844, when Peder Mikkelsen fitted out his boat the Enigheden in Tønsberg, a young man named Svend Foyn signed on as a crew member, and also helped finance the expedition. The journey took them to Bjørnøya, Svalbard, and Hopen, and was replete with drama. Foyn realised that the small ships that were fitted out in Finnmark, would never yield much financially. His ideas of hunting were completely different and more efficient. He thought that voyages should be made north of Iceland, between Greenland and Jan Mayen, in the so-called Western Ice Fields, rather than in the Northern or Eastern Ice Fields. Svend Foyn (1809–94) was to become the key person in the development of Southern Norwegian Arctic Ocean hunting in the 19th century. He worked hard to carve out a seafaring profession; he studied foreign languages and navigation. He passed his skipper exams when he was 19, and five years later was commissioned as captain of a timber vessel. In many ways he represented the ‘puritanical capitalist’; he was convinced that ‘if he was a God-fearing man, and made himself worthy through unstinting toil, then the Lord would bless all his efforts, in the Old Testament tradition.’ Foyn did not follow Northern Norwegian hunting traditions. Instead, he learnt from the Scots and English, who for many years had been hunting seal with large vessels in the Western Ice Fields. This was large-scale seal hunting; but even this form of hunting was facing fundamental changes. The slaughter had been so extensive that seals were retreating ever further into the ice. To pursue the animals, more powerful and efficient boats were needed. Built of several layers of strong wood, the vessels were reinforced with iron rails and capable of breaking a lead through the ice. The shape of the bow was of vital

20 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

importance. The stem at the waterline was slanted so that the boat could slide up onto the ice and thereby break it down. Had the stem been built bolt upright, the ship might easily have succumbed to the ice’s embrace. The solid bow was held together by 16-foot iron bolts. Several of the sealers had two layers outside the timber frame, overlain with an ice-resistant layer made of greenheart, beech, or oak. In addition, closely packed iron rails ran along the entire side of the ship, from stem to stern. Foyn had a ship like this built in 1845, called Haabet (The Hope). The first season in the Western Ice Fields, however, was unsuccessful. The crew of the Haabet caught no more than 937 seals. That meant a huge deficit; and the men were dissatisfied. Some lost confidence in Foyn’s brainstorms. The 1847 season did not look promising either. The ship reached the sealing grounds, having made good time, but then got stuck in the ice. Together with two ships from Germany and one from Denmark, the Haabet came to a standstill. Foyn realised there were plenty of seal nearby, but how were they to get to them? The other three ships gave up and returned home, but Foyn pressed on into the ice and was rewarded beyond measure. The yield was 6,000 seals. The new ship construction had passed with flying colours. Foyn built a new ship in 1853, the Eliezer. It was much larger than the Haabet, being 480 tonnes, with a crew of 60 and nine tenders. Like all Foyn’s ships, the Eliezer was green with a yellow stripe along its bow. Year in and year out, the ship’s haul broke all records. In April 1858 the Eliezer returned from the Western Ice Fields with 16,400 baby seals; the hunt had lasted a mere five days and had brought in the largest catch ever by a Norwegian vessel. For a few seasons Foyn’s hunting continued undisturbed by his southern Norwegian rivals. Before long, however, others followed in his wake. First there was Cornelius Bull, in his brig the Fremad, in 1852. Bull’s first effort was a failure, but soon Lady Luck smiled on him as well. Other ship-owners followed, not just from Tønsberg, but from the nearby southern Norwegian towns of Sandefjord, Larvik, Horten, and Holmestrand. But like Northern Norway, where Hammerfest and Tromsø had dominated the trade, the Southern Norwegian seal industry also became a ‘tale of two cities’: Tønsberg and Sandefjord. These two cities predominantly controlled southern Norwegian seal hunting, which in the mid 19th century included over 30 vessels and employed more than 1,500 men. Most of the ships were built using the same principles as Foyn’s Haabet and Eliezer. The Southern Norwegian seal hunters operated between Spitsbergen, Iceland, and Greenland, in the area called the Western Ice Fields. Hunting vessels from Hammerfest and Tromsø had visited it as early as the 1830s; but when hunting started in earnest, Northern Norwegian vessels proved too small and fragile

the pioneers


to tackle the region’s challenges. They participated with difficulty in ‘cubhunting’ early in the season; the crossing was too perilous for these ships, not least owing to the dangers of icing. Nonetheless, prominent citizens of Tromsø insisted that their town was superior to any town in Southern Norway, where hunting in the west was concerned. Toward the end of the 1850s, a partnership arose in order to operate the brig Jan Mayen, for the purpose of challenging Southern Norwegian seal hunters and bringing the Tromsø hunt up to par. In addition to the skipper, the Jan Mayen carried four to six harpooners and a crew of 27, which was most unusual on a Northern Norwegian hunting vessel. The ship was under the command of the experienced Arctic Ocean skipper Elling Carlsen. On behalf of the partnership, Carlsen was sent to Tønsberg to familiarise himself with seal-hunting in the Western Ice Fields. Later, Johan Hauan took command of the Jan Mayen, but the ship was never the success it was made out to be. The vessel did not sail well, either; it was too small and light to force its way through such thick and extensive ice. When Foyn started to equip his ships with steam engines in the 1860s, he distanced himself even further from the Northern Norwegians. The question arose whether the North Norwegian hunters should not also fit their boats out with auxiliary steam engines. Engines would ensure a faster and safer passage, and in addition the actual hunt would be more efficient. Storms and fog were a hazard in the Arctic Ocean; but even in calm weather, hunting could be difficult. A ship might have drifted off for miles during storms and rough weather, and moved away from the ice and the hunting grounds. And there it remained, until the wind started to blow again. The main problem, however, was that Northern Norwegian sailing vessels were unable to force their way through solid ice. They had to operate on the outskirts of the ice and were only able to reach land once the ice broke up. For instance, it was difficult for the ships to perform well in the White Sea, where they were constantly being overtaken by Southern Norwegian vessels.

Fridtjof Nansen’s map of the hunting grounds in the Western Ice Fields and the 1882 route of the hunting vessel the Viking. Nansen took part in the trip, which lasted from March to July, and he collected data for his doctoral thesis.

the pioneers


The catch

As the passage from Tønsberg to the Western Ice took place as early as February or March, the weather was usually bad, and the skippers were constantly reporting that ‘this time the weather was the worst we have ever experienced’. But to take part in the so-called ‘cub-hunting’ in the Western Ice Fields, it was necessary to go early. The Greenland seal drops its pups at the end of March in the vicinity of Jan Mayen. In the White Sea, this takes place 20 to 30 days earlier. The exact location varied from year to year. Seals might be clustered into smaller or larger herds, tightly packed on ice floes that were spread over large areas. The idea of the hunt was to find the herds; so as soon as the ships arrived, they started to explore the edge of the ice, in search of a way in to the ice proper. This might result in the ship becoming icebound, but as the ice drifted southwards, it would then pull loose and start the search all over again. During this phase the atmosphere onboard could be tense. The skipper would take up his position in the crow’s nest, searching the horizon with his long field-glasses – back and forth, back and forth - while the ship moved slowly forward. If the field-glasses stopped moving, tension on deck rose. At last, the seal pups were spotted. ‘Now’, as Fridtjof Nansen wrote in On Skis across Greenland, ‘stoke the fires and get going after the seal, as quickly as possible. Otherwise, one might run the risk of being beaten to it. There is no loyalty in gambling, as the saying goes; and this certainly goes for the seal hunt in the Arctic Ocean. Here everyone is hell bent on swindling something out of someone.’ The ice in the Western Ice Fields might be thick enough to walk on, so crew could walk straight off the ship; but sometimes they used tenders. Each man who took part in the hunt was furnished with a seal pickaxe, a flaying knife, a sharpening iron, and a so-called dragstert or pulling hook. The pickaxe was the most important implement. It was about five foot long. On top of the implement, there was a pick with a long spike on one side, and a short hammer on the other. The pickaxe was useful when jumping from floe to floe, but its main purpose was to kill seal pups. The pickaxe was useful when jumping from floe to floe but its main purpose was to kill seal-pups. For that purpose the long spike was used. Seal pups were too young to take refuge in the ice-cold water; that would have killed them. Thus, they could not escape. An accomplished hunter could kill 200 to 300 pups per day, fleece them, and pile up the hides. Naturally, hunters could not allow themselves much emotion. While mature seals were hunted from a distance with high calibre rifles, seal pups were slaughtered at close range. The author Jonas Lie, who accompanied a Southern Norwegian sealer in 1870, describes the look that met the hunters’ eyes, the moment the pickaxe was raised to strike the seal pup’s head. ‘The seal pup has an expression

24 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Seal hunting near Jan Mayen in the late 19th century.

in its beautiful blue eyes that is so strangely soft, trustworthy, and pleading, that it is like a child’s; and that look, before they become immune to it, has bothered many men who otherwise are not bothered by much.’ From Tromsø and Hammerfest, passage to the hunting grounds usually took place at the end of March or first half of April. If the winds were favourable, the journey only took a few days. As soon as the ship arrived at the hunting grounds, preparations were made for the hunt. The two small boats on deck were launched, made ready, and manned. The equipment consisted of some rifles, lances, six to seven harpoons, and ten to 12 fathoms of rope. A typical crew on one of these light boats was made up of a captain, a harpooner, a socalled linesman and a ‘stern sheets’ man, i.e., the cook whose place was in the back of the boat. It was important for the light boat not to lose contact with the mother ship. If a harbour was not at hand, the ship would tack back and forth as close to the light boat as possible; and if visibility was bad, a gunshot would be fired from time to time, or a trumpet would be sounded. When necessary, the ship’s boat could sail away from the mother ship. Normally, a light boat carried provisions for up to eight days. When setting out in the ship’s small hunting boat, it was important to keep a lookout for walrus. Walrus normally stayed on the ice off the coast, but might also have been in the sounds between small islands and skerries. When the crew surprised a herd of walruses on land, the most efficient method of attack was to strike from the sea, using rifles and lances. If the animals that lay closest to the shore could be killed first, the remainder of the herd would be prevented from escaping into the water, and the haul would be huge. However, walrus no longer languished on the shores, like in ‘the good old days’, during the pioneering era of the 1820s and 30s. The hunt had become more difficult. It became standard practice to use field-glasses to take one’s bearings on a small herd on the ice floes; and then slowly and carefully close in, downwind. If the walrus smelt a rat, it would dive into the water and swim away. But if everything went well, the boat could get close enough for the harpooner, poised at the prow, to just thrust his harpoon into the walrus’s body. It was the linesman’s job to make sure the rope was available and unobstructed, so it could unreel and not miss its mark. When the walrus was struck it would dive as far as the rope would let it go. But sooner or later, the walrus had to surface, and then the harpooner would be ready to attack again, with a lance or a rifle. Sometimes a walrus would swim off, dragging a boat with it at high speed. A very large walrus might attack the boat with its enormous tusks to try and pierce it. However, the crew could repair the damage; most ship’s boats carried a large sheet of lead, which was used to repair holes made by attacking walruses. If several walruses were caught by surprise at the same time, the harpooner

26 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Walruses lying in the sun on the beach. This distinctively Arctic animal, with its valuable tusks and all its blubber, was hunted to such an extent that almost all were killed off, until they became a protected species in the beginning of the 1950s.

would try and strike all of them before they escaped. But if these were bulls, it was unwise to tackle more than two at a time; and even that might cause a dangerous situation. The walruses might pull in different directions, capsizing the boat. Sometimes, five or six walruses might be caught at once; but these were usually cows. Reportedly, the record was held by Ludvig Sebulonsen of Tromsø, who caught eight walruses without harming any of the crew. Under certain circumstances, though, cows might also attack. Johannes Person Kyrö of Hammerfest once harpooned a pup. The mother attacked, capsized the boat, and took the harpooner down with her. He floated up after a while, virtually scalped and with some of his teeth knocked out. But he was alive and was hauled onboard the boat. Other mammals in the waters around Svalbard were the bearded seal and seal. They were shot with rifles and then fastened with harpoons before they sank. Norwegians learnt to catch beluga white whale like the Russians. However, the first breakthrough for that trade was in the 1860s. That is when special white whale seines came into use. They were 150 fathoms long, four to five fathoms deep, and attached to a thick rope. Fishing began by stretching the seine across a shallow creek where the white whales were known to swim. A test of patience ensued. It was necessary to keep watch day and night in order to be on the spot when the white whales migrated – or rather rushed into the stream. That phenomenon occurred only once a summer. A passage was kept open between land and one side of the seine net, allowing white whale entry. When the entire school was snared inside the seine wall, the net was drawn towards land with the aid of a winch. As many as one hundred white whales might be hauled in, and each whale was worth about the same as a walrus. In addition the hunters gathered eggs and down, especially of eider duck, but that was a sideline they only resorted to if the walrus stayed away. Egg and down gathering could be plied by boats with no more than three or four crew. Reindeer hunting took place in the autumn, immediately before the return journey. In spring, Svalbard reindeer were so scrawny that its meat was virtually inedible; but in the autumn, the reindeer could get so fat that hunters cut tallow – inches thick – off the animals. During the reindeer hunt, polar bears would often harass the men who shot the bears, initially in self-defence. But eventually, hunters pursued any polar bear whenever they saw one from the crow’s nest. Later, towards the end of the 19th century, polar bear hunting developed into a lucrative business, particularly for those Norwegians who wintered on Svalbard. Whether the hunt had been good or not, the ships returned to Hammerfest or Tromsø in August or September. Prolonging a stay might have resulted in the boat being frozen in, and the crew being forced to spend the winter on Svalbard. Many were the tales of crews who met that fate.

28 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Fickle ice

The men’s safety on the hunting grounds depended upon wind and weather, and on the fickle ice. In those days, there was no meteorologist to tell hunters what to expect. Weather could change rapidly, and the ship was constantly in danger of being crushed by pack ice or suffering some similar fate. Nevertheless, there were significant differences between various hunting grounds. In the socalled Eastern Ice Fields, sealers only had to contend with winter ice, known as ‘bay ice’. That was difficult enough when northerly winds set the ice in motion, packing it tight. If a storm lasted, it could become hard to manoeuvre in the shallow waters near the approach to the White Sea. Despite many shipwrecks, few crews were lost, because it was usually possible to walk across the ice to nearby boats or to the mainland. In the Western Ice Fields, ice conditions were more complex. New ice was steadily arriving with the currents that flowed from north of Franz Josef Land and Spitsbergen, toward Eastern Greenland and Jan Mayen. Between Spitsbergen and Iceland, ice conditions were particularly variable, from year to year, depending on wind, weather, and currents; as is the case even today. Pack ice forms, grows, breaks up, and is packed together by wind and current; and the ice melts, and eventually disappears in the seas south of Jan Mayen. The particular characteristics of the currents meant that the sealers would often let themselves deliberately freeze in and drift south with the current. They hitched a ride on the ice, and accompanied it to about 75° N, where they disentangled themselves from it. If during the ride they had failed to fill their holds, they would sail north once again and repeat the manoeuvre. In spite of their daring bouts with the ice, solid Tønsberg vessels were rarely shipwrecked. However, when they were wrecked, damage and suffering were great, because crews on these ships were large. The worst catastrophe was in 1871, just as the people of Tønsberg were preparing for the town’s millennium celebrations. Foyn’s Haabet sailed into the ice in stormy weather, and ship and its crew disappeared. Forty-five men were lost. Many more, albeit smaller, ships were lost in the Northern Ice Fields. Not many Arctic Ocean skippers avoided ship-wreck if their whole lives were spent working in the polar seas. In any event, relatively small calamities could add up to major catastrophes; as in 1872, when six ships became icebound near Gråhuken and Velkomstpynten on the north coast of Spitsbergen. Seventeen men from the icebound ships left in October for Isfjorden, where they lodged in a house built for scientific purposes by polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. They all died of scurvy that same winter. Two men who stayed with the ships at Gråhuken also died. That same year, on Novaya Zemlya, veteran Sivert Tobiesen and his son, Jakop, died of scurvy during a forced wintering.

the pioneers


Toward the East

The Arctic Ocean was thus not a field which yielded the same amount every year. Ship-owners and skippers in Tromsø and Hammerfest were preoccupied with making the hunt a safer and more consistent business proposal. That could be accomplished by opening up new hunting grounds, which would allow for diversification. Until about 1860, Northern Norwegian vessels hunted almost exclusively on Bjørnøya and along the west coast of Spitsbergen. Then hunting activities expanded rapidly with the result that stocks of walrus, seal and polar bear dwindled equally rapidly. Hunters were forced further north and east, into unknown waters, where they made some important geographical discoveries. More frequently, they sailed to the Norwegian Islands and Verlegenhook, which were considered good hunting grounds, and on to the Seven Islands. Closer to the ice pack, these places north of Spitsbergen experienced less fog and calmer seas than along the west coast. When the west wind prevailed, ice drifted towards Spitsbergen’s west coast and prevented ships from making headway. It was difficult to get to Nordaustlandet and the entire east coast of Spitsbergen in general. Not many dared sail east of the Seven Islands, as it was thought that the passage onwards to the so-called North Gate, the approach to the Hinlopen Strait, between Spitsbergen and Nordaustlandet, was barred by ice most of the summer. The same was true of the South Gate, at the mouth of the strait. Thus, the north and east coasts of Nordaustlandet were basically unexplored by Norwegian sailors who frequented Spitsbergen. The east coast of Spitsbergen, due to the ice conditions, was considered more inaccessible than it actually was. It is interesting to note that the first time a skipper from Northern Norway set eyes on King Karl’s Land was in 1859. That skipper was Elling Carlsen. In 1863 Carlsen made a truly pioneering journey on the Jan Mayen, first through the Hinlopen Strait, and then back the same way. But instead of returning along the west coast, which was the usual route, Carlsen decided to try and sail around Nordaustlandet, and then travel further south, all the way to South Cape. He encountered no major ice problems, and he ascertained that the entire east coast of Nordaustlandet was covered by a continuous series of glaciers which reached right down to the sea. Having made the first successful Norwegian circumnavigation of Svalbard, Carlsen also returned from his journey with a full hold. He was not as lucky the following year, when his rig went overboard, and he had to rescue himself and his crew using the small rowboats. Quite a few other boats ventured beyond North Gate that summer, and the waters around Nordaustlandet remained ice-free. From here, ships could continue due south and hunt along the east coast of Spitsbergen. This opened up new hunting grounds, greater resources, and increased flexibility. When a strong

30 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

west wind forced pack ice in toward the west coast of Spitsbergen, rendering it inaccessible, vessels could head for the east coast, where the wind swept from land to sea and kept the waters free of ice. And vice versa: when the wind came from the east, and sent pack ice toward the east coast of Spitsbergen, hunters could opt for the west coast route. Encouraged by his partner Consul O.I. Finckenhagen of Hammerfest, Elling Carlsen journeyed eastward to the Murman coast in 1867, in order to find new hunting grounds in Russian waters. This journey marked the start of Norwegian hunting near Novaya Zemlya and in the Kara Sea. Elling Carlsen was again blessed by the weather gods, and he sailed eastwards unchecked until he reached the mouth of the Kara Sea. The Solid continued unimpeded into the Kara Sea before returning via Yugorskiy Shar, which is the strait between the island of Vaygach and the Russian mainland. Carlsen probably had no idea how great a feat he had accomplished, almost inadvertently. According to prevailing Russian beliefs – on which many Western geographers based their knowledge – the Kara Sea was ‘an ice cellar’ that formed an effective barrier to passage along the north coast of Eurasia. However, Carlsen and his men discovered open seas, and experienced no problems with the ice. When Elling Carlsen returned to the same area the following year, he journeyed much farther into the Kara Sea, and went as far as Belyy Ostrov on the northern tip of the Yamal Peninsula. This time he returned via the ‘Matka Straits’ (known as the Matthew Straits or Matochkin Shar), which divide Novaya Zemlya in two. Carlsen was accompanied by a second vessel, from Hammerfest. The newspaper Finmarksposten reported that both ships had returned safely, with large hauls; and the paper predicted that in the following year every sealer in Hammerfest and Tromsø would abandon Svalbard and opt to sail for Novaya Zemlya. In 1869, there were no fewer than 18 Norwegian ships at the new hunting grounds. That year, Finckenhagen tried to send a ship to the estuary of the White Sea, to explore further; but weather conditions were prohibitive. However, in 1871, a new attempt was successful, and as a consequence, even more areas were opened to Norwegian hunters. Sailing ships were not very manoeuvrable, as noted above, but in good weather the Norwegian vessels could approach the ice barrier at the entrance to the White Sea, and then catches could be extraordinary. That did not happen every year. The Gulf Stream does not reach as far east as the White Sea, so the ice tends to form a continuous, solid mass. The extreme edges of the ice were exposed to waves from the Arctic Ocean; so to enter the area, conditions required an offshore breeze and reasonably calm weather. If that proved impossible, ships could continue on to Novaya Zemlya. Alternatively, as the summer wore on, they could set sail for Spitsbergen or Bjørnøya. The season in the Eastern Ice Fields was usually over, by the time it began in the Northern Ice

the pioneers


The Austro-Hungarian Tegetthoff expedition that discovered Franz Josef Land in 1873. Elling Carlsen was the ice pilot on the expedition.

Fields. The opening up of hunting grounds in the east gave the polar hunters more opportunities, so the risks of returning empty-handed were considerably reduced. It seemed that the Arctic Ocean industry was assured for the foreseeable future. The opening up of new hunting grounds in the Eastern Ice Fields produced major growth opportunities for Hammerfest and Tromsø, at a time when industrial development elsewhere was increasing the demand for oil products. Developments in communications and better transportation along the entire Norwegian coast made it easier to move products from the Arctic Ocean to major markets abroad. Expansion in Tromsø not only equalled Hammerfest in the 1860s, but even overtook her. But the Eastern Ice Fields held a new and special danger that the Northern Ice Fields did not. Unlike Svalbard, these new hunting grounds could not be considered as ‘no man’s land’ – just like that. After all, they were on the frontiers of Russian territory. This created a great deal of political uncertainty; and starting in the late 19th century, Russia guarded its territorial rights with increasing vigilance.

The Empire strikes back

The Norwegian government warned hunters who sailed east against challenging Russian interests or violating Russian territory. They had good reasons. The Pomors had hunted around Novaya Zemlya since time immemorial, and were not too keen on the invasion of Norwegian hunters. During the 1870s, several confrontations between Norwegian and Russian hunters were reported; the most serious being in 1878, when the crew of the Prøven, out of Tromsø, got into a brawl with the crews of two boats from Kem, Obshchee Schastye (Our Mutual Delight) and Svyatoy Sergiy (the Holy Sergius). The Russians accused the Tromsø crew of having destroyed a number of old, Russian wooden crosses, which were plentiful along the coast of Novaya Zemlya. The Russians asked the ‘uninvited’ guests to leave, but allegedly the Norwegians threatened to kill them. The upshot of this episode was that the Pomors disarmed the foreigners and confiscated all weapons on board the Prøven. Russian newspapers reported the alleged ‘vandalism’ on Novaya Zemlya and claimed that Norwegians sought to undermine Russia’s historic right to the ‘twin islands’. However, Russian authorities chose to act cautiously, probably to avoid complicating their relationship to the United Kingdoms of Norway and Sweden. The authorities cautioned against excessively harsh reprisals against Norwegian skippers, because they feared that this could provoke Norwegian countermeasures affecting the Pomors’ right to fish and trade in Finnmark. Russia lacked naval bases on its northern coast, so that any supervision or surveil-

the pioneers


lance had to be conducted from the Baltic, a solution that was very expensive. Ever increasing Norwegian activity in Russian waters, combined with a rise in the number of scientific expeditions made by other countries, led Russia to restrict access to its territorial waters at the end of the 19th century. In 1893 the old cruiser Nayezdnik was despatched north from the Baltic Sea. Though not its primary brief, it was under order to keep an eye on Norwegian sealers. During the first season, the Nayezdnik seized seven Norwegian sealers. The justice of the peace in Kola confiscated the catches of four vessels and fined their skippers. These arrests shocked Northern Norwegian hunters, and there was tremendous dissatisfaction at the Swedish-Norwegian Foreign Office’s failure to protest the seizures. The Foreign Office had its legitimate reasons for its behaviour. During this period, Norway was fiercely protective of its own territorial waters, employing a policy that differed considerably from the system elsewhere on the continent. Whereas European countries generally observed the three-mile limit and baselines of no more than 10 nautical miles, Norway demanded a four-mile limit and a long baseline which, for instance, included all of Vestfjord and Varangerfjord. If Norway provoked any excessively close entanglement with its ‘big neighbour’, this might lead a presumptuous Russia to copy Norway’s example, and demand a baseline extending all the way from Svatoy Nos to Kanin Nos. Such a move would have barred Norwegian sealers from entering the White Sea. Instead of directly intervening in the Nayezdnik case, the Foreign Office offered the ship-owners diplomatic support by presenting the Tsar with a petition for mercy. Russian authorities chose to look kindly upon the petition; and, on the occasion of Nicholas II’s coronation in 1896 – an event accompanied by various ‘expressions of mercy’ – the sentences and fines were repealed. The hunters were even compensated for the loss of their catches. In seizing the Norwegian ships in 1893, the Russian government was taking a clear stance to protect its own territorial waters, while its pardon served to maintain the traditionally excellent relationship with the United Kingdoms of Norway and Sweden. The firm posture on territorial waters was possibly the reason why the Norwegian catch in the Eastern Ice Fields declined in the following years. In 1893, 44 Norwegian ships had made the journey to the area; but the next year, the number was less than half that, and stayed at that reduced level until the turn of the century. The first Russian initiative to protect the seal population from excessive hunting was in 1898, when the St. Petersburg division of the Society for the Promotion of the Russian Merchant Fleet suggested the prohibition of all seal hunting in the White Sea estuary. However, any real protection of the ‘Russian seal’ was still a long way off. The Russian government tried to strengthen its grip on the region by persuading more Nenets, a Samoyed people, to settle on the virtually deserted Novaya Zemlya, and hunt on behalf of a state-owned trading company run by the

34 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Governor of Archangel. This caused problems, because the Nenets did not see their role in life as empire builders. On the contrary, the Nenets welcomed the Norwegian presence; to them, Norwegians were potentially valuable trading partners. Norwegians could provide them with goods to which they might not otherwise have access via Archangel, and provide them with a more lucrative market for their own products. During the winter of 1902–03, a Norwegian scientific expedition led by the geophysicist Hans Riddervold, wintered on Novaya Zemlya. It was one of four expeditions that operated that winter under the auspices of Kristian Birkeland and the Aurora Borealis program. A spokesman for the Nenets contacted Riddervold, asking him to convey a greeting to King Oscar II, and to inform the king that conditions for the Nenets on Novaya Zemlya were now so difficult, that their only hope lay in Norwegian annexation of the island. The episode never came to the attention of the Russians, and thus there was no occasion to counter the information. In the years after 1905, another problem arose: Norwegian hunters started to winter on Novaya Zemlya. In 1910, this led to a serious diplomatic crisis between Norway and Russia. In the end, the hunters were evacuated, and Norway accepted the Russian standpoint, that Novaya Zemlya was entirely a Russian possession and Norwegian wintering on the archipelago was improper and a violation of Russian territory.

Swedish science and Norwegian seamanship

Despite the unrest involving Novaya Zemlya, Northern Norwegian voyages and skippers attracted positive attention in certain Russian circles. The general opinion was that Norwegian activity was to Russia’s advantage, as it produced data that was important for exploration of the Kara Sea, that would otherwise have been difficult to collect, owing to navigational problems in that region. The Norwegian voyages also coincided with an extensive economic and scientific project that was being attempted towards the end of the Czar’s reign – the endeavour to open up a northerly sea route from Western Europe to the mouth of the major Siberian rivers: the Ob and the Yenisey. This venture would significantly affect the economic development of Western Siberia. This idea was first presented by Northern Russian gold-mining tycoon Michail Sidorov in the 1860s. Very early on, Sidorov envisioned the possibilities of involving Norwegian entrepreneurs and seamen in the work, in order to better realise his grandiose scheme. He came to Norway in 1868 to publicise his proposal. Among those he spoke with were A.E. Nordenskiöld, Svend Foyn, as well as Elling Carlsen, whom he met in Hammerfest. Despite great interest in Sidorov’s plans, which would have had wide-reaching consequen-

the pioneers


ces for Northern Norway, the project was put on hold. Sidorov promised a prize of one thousand silver roubles to any skipper who sailed to the Bay of Ob, and on down the river to the city of Obdorsk – today’s Salekhard. A few years later, in 1871, Tromsø skipper Fritz Mack hoped to win the prize. He sailed further east in the Kara Sea than anyone before him, all the way to 81° 11’ E, which is just east of the Yenisey estuary. Mack spotted neither ice nor the phenomenon known as ‘iceblink’. Mack believed that it was possible to continue sailing, all the way to Bering Strait. But he also knew that Siberian estuaries froze in September; and so when it became dark in the evenings, he decided to turn around. That same year, Søren Johannesen of Tromsø sailed to the mouth of the Ob; but neither he nor Mack thought that as responsible skippers of hunting vessels, that they should risk ship and crew in order to carry out Sidorov’s plans. Of course, hunting was the all-important purpose of Norwegian Arctic Ocean voyages, although quite a few skippers were interested in geographical and scientific questions. This curiosity might have arisen as a result of their contact with Swedish polar explorers, who in the 1850s and 1860s hired vessels and crews out of Tromsø for expeditions to Svalbard. In later years, the big and solid ships from Vestfold were considered more suitable expedition vessels for foreign (and, later, also Norwegian) polar explorers. It is reasonable to assume that people like Jacob Melsom and, later, C.A. Larsen, became interested in research because they were stimulated by their dealings with scientists. In this respect, they differed from Svend Foyn, who more than once declared his lack of interest in science, and who was furthermore unwilling to support it financially. Swedish scientist Otto Torell (1828–1900) was barely twenty years old when he discovered the Arctic mollusc known as Yoldia Arctica, in Bohuslän. How was this possible? Had Southern Sweden recently been submerged beneath a cold ocean? His teacher, Sven Lovén (1809–95), thought so. In June 1837, at his own expense, Lovén hired the schooner Enigheten with a Norwegian skipper and crew in Hammerfest, and he set off for Spitsbergen. When he came back to Sweden, Lovén observed that several of the species whose shells were found in Southern Sweden, were species he had personally seen, alive, in the Arctic. Slowly it dawned on both Lovén and his pupil Torell – about the same time as the idea came to Micahel Sars in Norway and Japetus Steenstrup in Denmark – that Spitsbergen provided totally new evidence to support Swiss scientists’ bold new theories about an ice age. That is why Torell travelled to Switzerland in 1856 to see its glaciers and their effect on the Alps. The following year he visited Iceland for the same reason. He inherited a substantial sum of money from his father. Torell, mostly

36 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

‘squandered’ the money on science; he travelled to the Svartisen glacier in Nordland County in Norway in 1858. He then sailed with the Frithjof out of Hammerfest to the west coast of Spitsbergen. In his party were two eager young scientists, geologist A.E. Nordenskiöld and zoologist August Quennerstedt. They found an abundance of beautiful fossils from the Tertiary and Carboniferous Eras, which indicated that the climate there had previously been completely different. (However, it was only in the first half of the 20 th century that scientists discovered that these rocks had been deposited at a time when the seabed upon which Svalbard rests was located on a totally different part of the earth’s crust.) Nordenskiöld was immediately captivated by the Arctic; in the barren landscape he had discovered a geological history book that lay open for all to read. It was a paradise for a geologist. Luck was with these men, and the weather that summer of 1858 was good. The realisation that much of Spitsbergen was geologically younger than the rest of Scandinavia simply enhanced its attraction. In Scandinavia, most of the fossils discovered were of small sea creatures and dated from the earliest periods in the earth’s history. On the other hand, Svalbard contained rich fossil deposits of land organisms, such as plants and dinosaurs. Once again footing the bill himself, Torell travelled to Greenland in 1859 in order to study glaciers. In 1861 a large and partly state-sponsored expedition sailed north to Spitsbergen on two Norwegian sealing vessels, the Aeolus and the Magdalena (of Tromsø). The expedition was led by Otto Torell and included eight Swedish zoologists, botanists, geologists, and astronomers. The skippers were Swedish, but the officers, Fritz Mack and one E. Breii, were Norwegian; as were the 26 crew members, most of them being from Tromsø, like Breii and Mack. The Torell expedition was a giant step in polar research and the first of many Swedish polar journeys over the years. In 1863, zoologist August Quennerstedt sailed with Captain Castberg on the Norwegian sealer Jan Mayen of Christiania to the hunting grounds in the Western Ice Fields, near Jan Mayen. In 1864, Nordenskiöld and two other Swedish scientists sailed to Spitsbergen and Bjørnøya on the refitted Norwegian gunboat Axel Thordsen, which was hired in Tromsø along with Norwegian Captain Hellstad and a crew of eleven Norwegians. In 1868, the Swedish postal steamer Sofia sailed to Bjørnøya, Spitsbergen, and reached 81°42’ N with Nordenskiöld and eight scientists aboard. The crew consisted mostly of Swedish naval officers, but six Norwegian seal hunters were signed on as well. In 1870 and 1871 Nordenskiöld visited Greenland with two Swedish ships and numerous Swedish scientists, plus a Danish geologist. In 1870 Alfred G. Nathorst and Hjalmar M. Wilander hired the sloop Lydianna, and sailed to Spitsbergen, with a crew from Tromsø. For Tromsø skippers, their contact with Norwegian meteorologist Henrik Mohn was important. Mohn encouraged them to make systematic observations

the pioneers


Swedish research in the Arctic, 1837–80. Despite a lot of activity close to Sweden, the major accomplishment was A.E. Nordenskiöld’s circumnavigation of the Old World on the Vega.

and even found sponsors to pay for scientific instruments. Every day the skippers were to fill out an observation form, indicating barometric pressure, temperature, wind speed, and precipitation; and they would undertake depth soundings, observe the currents, and check the state of the ice. On their return, they would be obliged to place the ship’s logbooks at the disposal of science. The observations were made during routine hunting trips, and skippers very rarely altered their routes to explore land or sea. There were exceptions, such as Edvard H. Johannesen’s famous circumnavigation of Novaya Zemlya in 1870, which was personally encouraged by Nordenskiöld. While Norwegian hunters did not sail eastward to open up sea routes to Siberia or to further explore the Northeast Passage, their regular business activities contributed substantially to the project and even gained them international fame. Later some of them were more directly involved, when they signed on as crew on Nordenskiöld’s two expeditions to the Yenisey in 1875 and 1876. These voyages actually fulfilled Sidorov’s dream and opened up the sea routes to Siberia. Additionally, the Norwegians joined his Vega expedition in 1878–79, which traversed the Northeast Passage for the first time in history. Gradually, it dawned on the hunters that their role was important. However, hunters were ‘uneducated’ men who looked upon themselves as humble sailors, and they seldom expressed themselves in writing or speeches. The hunters’ view of their own importance was nevertheless clearly stated in oral traditions, and these were later put in writing by, among others, the student of Finnish folklore, Samuli Paulaharju. On his first expedition to the Yenisey in 1875, Nordenskiöld hired the Prøven with an eleven-man crew from Tromsø under skipper Isak Nils Isaksen, who had emigrated from Pajala in northern Sweden. According to Nordenskiöld, the Prøven was the first vessel from Western Europe to reach the mouth of the Yenisey River. But the crew obviously had different ideas about this. When the Prøven rounded Yamal Peninsula and approached the mouth of the Yenisey, Nordenskiöld went on at length about the feat they were about to accomplish. He claimed that no ship in history had sailed so far east, along the northerly sea route. At that point one of the crew cleared his throat and mumbled that maybe he should not be so certain about that. Sure enough, before the end of the evening, the Prøven met the Hammerfest vessel, Freja, which came sailing with a good catch from the east. Nordenskiöld was invited on board and received two walrus pups as a gift. Virtually all the Swedish expeditions were publicised by means of beautifully illustrated accounts of their journeys, aimed at the general reading public. New polar literature greatly contributed to Sweden’s Arctic exploration. Private sponsors and the royal family were eager to provide financial and political support. The public thought it all very exciting. The fact that this success was mostly achieved because primarily Norwegian ships were up to the challenge,

the pioneers


does not come through clearly in the Swedish literature. Norwegian sailors came from a different nation and a different social class than the scientists, and a sailor’s knowledge is different from that of a scientist. Before and during the period when Sweden was developing its scientific expertise, Norway was expanding its hunting of seals, walruses, polar bears, and whales; and the Swedes surfed upon this wave. Hiring Norwegian ships and experienced sailors to transport Swedish scientists into the field and back, was obviously the best and cheapest modus operandi, in spite of the discomfort and smell of fish and seal, which sometimes adversely affected Swedish nerves – and digestion. Over four decades, Swedish researchers had made progress on a broad front, and this included the study of most of the phenomena that could be studied in the Arctic. Why did the Swedes so dominate polar research during the second half of the 19th century? And why did Norway lag behind? The Swedish advance was the result of circumstance, theory, and individual initiative, rather than clear political, financial or geographical necessity. The union with Norway might possibly have opened Sweden’s eyes towards the west and the north. And having taken the first step, Sweden enjoyed excellent prerequisites and advantages. First of all, it had a thriving and competent scientific community, especially in the subjects related to natural history, such a geology, botany, and zoology. Swedes such as Linné and Bergman were major international figures in their fields; in the 18th and 19th centuries, the number of Swedes with doctorates and other advanced degrees in scientific subjects far exceeded the number of Norwegians with equivalent qualifications. Several of Sweden’s universities were founded as early as the 15th century; and during its days of glory in the 17th century, Sweden had as many as six universities in the Baltic region. The country was an intellectual superpower. The poverty of Norway’s academia and scientific output in the early 19th century formed a stark contrast with that of Sweden. Norway’s first university was not founded until 1811, and it was primarily established to educate pastors, lawyers, and doctors. Its small faculty of professors spent most of their time lecturing. During the union with Denmark, virtually all of Norway’s scientific activity was centered in Copenhagen, which boasted an old university and the Royal Danish Academy of Science. Based on its having colonized Greenland, Denmark was really the Scandinavian country most deeply rooted in the Arctic. In its continuing exploration of Greenland, political and economic considerations manifested themselves. The push to map the country was driven by a desire to exploit Greenland’s commercial and especially its geological resources. At the beginning of the 19th century, the challenge for Norway’s few scientists was to explore their own country. Baltazar Keilhau and Christopher Hansteen had undertaken journeys to Spitsbergen and Siberia, respectively, in the 1820s and

40 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

How are fjords and valleys made? This question was much disputed. Perhaps the ice-filled fjords of Greenland could provide the answer? Amund Helland’s map, made after his 1875 Greenland journey.

1830s. In the 1870s, geologist Amund Helland had conducted investigations on Greenland. But above all, because state-sponsored science was for the benefit of society, scientists felt obliged to first explore parts of their own country, as in the case of the ‘Northern Seas’ Expedition to Jan Mayen in the 1870s. There was a clear understanding that the costly exploration of the earth’s ice-covered surface was reserved for the great nations. The Arctic was not the Fatherland. This attitude, however, would soon change.

Six men on an ice floe

At 65° N, the nights are quite light towards the end of July. The man and his five companions are on the ice floe. He stands watch, and he both sees and hears the breaking waves toward which they are drifting. It is July 21st, 1888, and the six men are drifting away from the east coast of Greenland out into the open sea. The coastal strip behind them is barren and deserted. The currents are strong and erratic. At the transition between the drift ice and the ocean, a thunderous wave grinds ice floes into bits. Should they get caught in the surf, their only salvation would be in the form of two fragile boats. The men planned to land in order to cross the inland ice on skis. Instead, they are heading at breakneck speed in the opposite direction. They are exhausted, having tried to row against the current; and sleep comes uneasily. The watch will rouse the others, should it be necessary to get into the boats. The latter are packed and ready with all the equipment, except for the small tent where the men lay sleeping. They have decided on a two-hour watch. But Otto Sverdrup is loath to leave the responsibility to any of the others. He is a scientist, lieutenant, physical education teacher, farmer’s son, reindeer breeder, and a forestry worker. He understands the currents and surf; after all, he is a ship’s officer. Four years earlier, he had been shipwrecked off the Scottish coast, and his efforts helped save the crew. Sverdrup keeps watch throughout the summer’s night. The waves wash over the floe. Otto Sverdrup gauges the ice, wind, and current with his experienced sailor’s eye. It does not look good. Twice he rushes to the tent opening and is about to grab the hooks, and wake the others, so they can escape in the two small boats. In fact, he cannot imagine how the last three men will be able to launch the second boat on their own. Both times he decides to wait. Could it be his silent expertise, his instinctive sensitivity to wind and weather, that gives him confidence? All at once the current changes. The six men drift towards the shore. In fact, they drift south on the floe for another week, covering over 300 kilometres, before they can turn, row, and sail laboriously northwards again,

42 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

finally landing at a suitable place to start their journey on land. But the expedition has been saved. On that morning of July 21st, it was Otto Sverdrup’s practical seamanship, plus some good luck, that rescued the Norwegian polar endeavour from its first serious danger, and prevented it from floundering before it had even started. Common sense had proved itself so valuable only a few days earlier. Sverdrup and the peasant boy, Kristiansen, patched up one of the boats, which had hit a sharp edge of ice that had torn a large hole in the hull. Fridtjof Nansen was a zoologist, a skier, and above all a strong-willed man with grand visions; he was a restless, inquisitive soul who was never inhibited by second-hand wisdom or conventional ideas. Only an exceptional man could conceive of landing on Greenland’s deserted east coast, and walking clear across the icy wilderness to the inhabited west coast. But was it a wilderness? Who knew whether it was a wilderness; nobody had been there before? To carry out that idea required men of substance, like Sverdrup and Kristian Trana Kristiansen. Such a feat required men from traditional, self-supporting societies, who were sailors, hunters, carpenters, shoemakers, and cooks, if need be. And on the advice of Nordenskiöld, Nansen employed the Laplanders’ powers of survival and skiing expertise. He included two Samis (formerly known as Lapps) in his party: Ole N. Ravna and Samuel J. Balto. Norway’s pioneering achievements in the Arctic and Antarctic were founded on the careful planning of the expedition leader, to the extent that journeys into totally unknown terrain can be planned. When unforeseen difficulties arose, the expedition depended completely upon intelligent improvisation, which relied heavily on the practical capabilities of the team. Fridtjof Nansen knew that a strong current flowed southward along the east coast of Greenland, and that it packed the coast with drift ice, making it difficult to land. He did not know, other than from rather vague conjecture, how strong the current was or how difficult it would be to navigate through it. But now he was experiencing that firsthand on the ice floe. Every 24 hours, the six men drifted as much as 50 kilometres south, without reaching land. At about 65°30’ N, they disembarked the sealer Jason, which had brought them to Greenland, on July 17th. Having drifted helplessly for twelve days, they were in danger of reaching the southern tip of Greenland: Cape Farewell. Then, the weather changed, and they were able to launch the boats in a fairly icefree belt close to land. But they were nearly four degrees further south; and as the land narrows considerably towards the southern tip of Greenland, there was not much inland ice to cross. Sverdrup was formally ranked on par with the other men in the expedition hierarchy. However, in reality he was second-in-command. Sverdrup, the sailor, knew his place. Many years later Nansen admitted that ‘our preparations were

the pioneers


A camp on an ice floe. Otto Sverdrup stands night-watch. For safety’s sake, Ole Ravna and Samuel Balto have chosen to spend the night in the boat.

sorely lacking in many ways, as my friend Sverdrup would tell you if he were willing to reveal the truth’. Now, good seamanship was invaluable. The two small boats were rowed and sailed northwards along the coast until they reached a decent latitude. On August 3rd the wind was strong enough for them to rig the boats with a single sail, made from the tent canvas and two tarpaulins. But soon the wind grew to storm force and veered north. The men were now forced to row into the wind, and dodge the drifting ice. They inched northwards using an axe and boat-hook for up to 17 hours a day, which as Nansen observed dryly, was ‘virtually unbelievable toil’. From time to time, the tide would drag the boats off course. Suddenly, an iceberg would ‘calf ’, tip over, and produce a tidal wave. The mosquitoes nearly killed them, ‘for if one cannot even take a bite of food without it being covered in mosquitoes, that can be unbearable.’

The west coast or death

On August 10th they had reached far enough north, so they pitched their tent, and shot some birds, acquiring some badly needed fresh meat. Provisions had been generously calculated – for the trip across the ice. However, it had already taken three weeks just to get to their initial starting point, and most of it required exhausting effort. Nansen had already cut rations drastically. Sverdrup and Nansen set out on a 24-hour-long reconnaissance tour and discovered that the ascent from the coast to the plateau was steep and full of crevasses. The snow conditions were appalling. They journeyed on foot, and found out that their boots were unable to withstand the ice and had to be cobbled together with any available material. All in all, there were more than enough reasons to call off the expedition, and even more because Nansen and the others had no idea what really awaited them on the ice plateau. It was unexplored territory, only previously seen by Nordenskiöld and Robert E. Peary on their short daytrips inland, from the west coast. This area, according to the Inuits, was inhabited by mystical creatures. But turning back was not an option. Or, rather, there was no place to return to. No sealers would come looking for them. In an absolute emergency, some Inuit tribe or other might house them for the winter, but the remains of forsaken camps were proof than even Inuits starved and died in this inhospitable country. They just had to reach the west coast, where there were Danish settlements and maritime trade and communications with Copenhagen. For Nansen, the total lack of alternatives actually formed the basis of his plan. It was ‘the west coast or death’.

the pioneers


With that, the six men started their final preparations: They prepared their skis, polished the sled-runners, reorganized and packed their provisions, and (most importantly) patched up their boots. Luckily, they could shoot birds, and so not cut too heavily into the food supplies. It was mild, it rained a lot, and the men were hoping for frost, clear weather, and hard snow. They eventually got under way on August 15th, an entire month later than planned. Despite the mild weather, summer on Greenland was nearly over. Owing to the snow conditions, they decided to walk at night and sleep in the daytime. Each man had to pull his own sled, which weighed about 100 kilos when fully loaded. But the ascent from the shore was so steep that three men had to pull each sled. It was slow, heavy work. On the first day – or rather night – they only managed to push ahead a few kilometres. It rained the next night, and the ice was full of cracks; and besides, it was too dark to continue. The weather worsened; it was pouring rain; and the wind picked up. For three days they were confined to the tent. Nansen cut rations down to one meal per day: ‘After all, when we aren’t working, we don’t need much food’. On August 20th the rain cleared. They were still ascending, so that two men were required to handle each sled. The ice surface bulged underfoot; and there were cracks everywhere. They were plagued by thirst. Because they had insufficient fuel to melt ice and so get all the water they needed, they were forced to fill their tin cans with snow, put them under their clothes, and let their body heat thaw the ice. That yielded precious few drops of water. They advanced slowly, for a few days. Eventually the landscape levelled out. They had reached the inland ice. However, there were still some steep ascents, which meant they had to zig-zag up and down, to get all the sleds with them. Slush was no longer the problem. The nights were so cold that the sled runners stuck to the ice and snow; so they decided to travel in the daytime. But after just one week, a storm blew up again. On the morning of August 26th, they woke up in the middle of a snow-drift. The snow had penetrated every single tent crack, since the ground-sheet was loose, and the snow had begun to bury them, along with their sleeping bags and equipment. The wind was howling straight into the tent. The expedition kept on a northwesterly course. The plan was not to traverse Greenland along the shortest route, but to cross at an angle, in the direction of Christianshaab (Qasigiannguit), a distance of about 600 kilometres. In the course of ten days, they had covered 70 kilometres. This was doubtlessly the hardest part of the journey, by any man’s calculations. It was slow going, and they were tormented by the wind, that impeded their progress. Nansen then decided to change course. The journey straight across to Godthaab (Nuuk) was 150 kilometres shorter. Besides, the last leg of the journey was on dry land and along a long fjord that they might be able to sail down. Sail? In what? The boats had been left behind on the east coast.

46 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The participants in Nansen’s Greenland expedition. Standing: Ole Nielsen Ravna, Otto Neumann Knoph Sverdrup, Kristian Trana Kristiansen, and Samuel Balto. Seated (in front): Fridtjof Nansen and Oluf Christian Dietrichson

Nansen conferred with skipper Sverdrup. Why not turn the tarpaulins and the ground sheet into primitive boats? Sverdrup thought that just might work. So they changed course and headed due west. Changing course had another major advantage: Where the ice was reasonably flat, they could lash the sleds together, rig up a sail and be pushed along by the wind. The wind and drifting snow lasted for several days, so any help was welcome. The sleds had to be dug out in the morning, the runners had to be scraped, the sleds then lashed together, and the sail rigged. The men were now two thousand metres above sea level. The wind died down and ceased skimming the snow, so they could not sail on the ice. They had to ski or use snow-shoes for the ascents, and the snow was bad. The art of ski-waxing was in its infancy; and the dry, loose snow was ‘sticky like sand’. The skis were made of birch and oak, and were 2.3 meters long and 8 to 9 cm wide. Nansen had expected wet conditions, so he had mounted narrow steel plates onto their running surfaces. A piece of elk hide had been wedged under the bindings, in the middle of each ski. September arrived, and with it the cold; a more extreme cold than any of them could have imagined. While the midday sun could be almost uncomfortably warm in the thin air, night temperatures sank mercilessly low. It was impossible to tell by how much the temperature sank because the thermometer did not register that far down. This surprising cold was a sign that Nansen and his men were behind schedule. But the temperature was also a meteorological sensation. They could gauge that it was somewhere close to –45° C during the worst nights, lower than any September temperature ever recorded anywhere on earth. Nansen, the scientist, reasoned that this was due to tremendous heat radiation in the thin, dry air. But, Nansen, the leader of the expedition, had his hands full avoiding frostbite. The diet on the expedition consisted mostly of pea soup, crispbread, English ‘meat biscuits’, French chocolate mixed with 20 % meat powder, and pemmican. Having studied the results of experiments conducted with Prussian soldiers, Nansen had carefully worked out minimum sustenance requirements. But he had not reckoned on their several-week-long sailing trip or on the cold, and he had not checked the pemmican. It was not made from the standard recipe – and had no fat. As a result, the men’s calorie intake was consistently too low, and they were always hungry. They had brought a bit of butter along, and 250 grams was meted out to each man once a week. Kristiansen ate his share immediately, just the way it was. The others tried to ration their share of the wonderfully greasy delicacy so it would last a whole week. As the days passed, the men worked their way westwards with unrelenting perseverance, broken only by a day’s snowstorm. That storm was so violent

48 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

that Balto could not see the tent when he returned from the sled, where he had gone to get food. He had to follow the calls of his comrades to find his way back. The sleds gradually lightened, as the men ate their provisions. Nonetheless, it was a tough job to pull the sleds in the thin air. The harnesses dug into their shoulders. At the highest point on the expedition, the men had climbed to 2,500 meters o.s.l. The view was completely unchanging: white, undulating, deserted plateau, clear across the entire horizon. By mid-September, they had been on the ice for a month. Based roughly on their estimate of how many one-day stretches they had made, and according to their optimistic reckoning, the journey should have been over soon. Nansen suspected otherwise, based on astronomical observations, which were difficult to make accurately in the snowy weather. There was still quite a distance to go. To put it mildly, morale was not as high amongst all his hungry men, so he just stopped making his observations. On the other hand, they could all feel the terrain starting to slope. Night temperatures began to rise. Then, on September 17th, one month after the men had left the camp on the east coast, they heard a snow sparrow. That same night a gale blew in from the southeast. The next day they lashed the sleds together. This was freezing work in the biting wind because they had to lash with their bare hands to be sure they had tied tight enough. At this point, they planned to sail down the gentle incline. One skier steered the craft with a pole. The others could hitch a ride or follow on their own. But the slope got steeper and they gained speed. ‘We whizzed along over the rough snow and snowdrifts of all shapes and sizes; it was breathtaking. The sleds twisted and turned, like snakes sliding over an uneven surface. We were dancing over the snowdrifts …’ The men and provisions fell off during that wild ride. It was not too difficult to gather things back together again. After loading everything, the wild descent continued. The greatest danger was to the oarsman, because if he fell, the sleds would just ride straight over him. ‘We could not let this happen; we had to pay attention to our every movement, each and every muscle was flexed. The skis held together [...]. We headed away from the worst slabs of ice and snowdrifts, and took off, while we jumped the snowdrifts with our skis’. This reckless ride resulted in the longest one-day advance so far. That afternoon the men received their reward. On the western horizon they saw a long, dark shadow; and it was ice-free land. Nansen paused and solemnly doled out two rations of meat-chocolate to each man. The ancient ice cap covering the high mountain plateau had been stable and free of crevasses. But at this point, they started to encounter cracks again, just as they had during the ascent on the east coast. It grew dark, but they continued sailing across the ice under a full moon, until they had to halt before a series of seracs.

the pioneers


The wind stung, and it was difficult to anchor the tent on the blue ice. Frozen and exhausted, the six crawled into their sleeping bags. The feast they had imagined they would enjoy on the evening after sighting land, consisted of their last bit of Swiss cheese. The next morning Nansen discovered his watch had stopped. The long and exhausting spell the previous evening had upset his routine, and he had forgotten to wind it. Strangely enough, Sverdrup had made the same blunder. Of course, it was not all that important to know what the time was. The point was that to fix their position, their longitude, they had to compare ‘sun time’ with a known reference point in time. This oversight about the time was not that decisive. They saw the mountains in the west and could aim for them. But in the clear morning light, they realised that this last phase of the journey would not be that simple. Before them stretched the wild, rugged, and challenging mountain terrain. There was not a glimpse of a fjord or the ocean. The terrain had become an incline, so they were able to slide the sleds down the slope, and steer them while skiing alongside. This was risky, because new snow had settled in drifts that partially concealed crevasses beneath. Things worsened in the afternoon, as a hailstorm blew in from the southeast. They had not gone as far as they thought. When the weather cleared, the shadows in the west seemed as far away as ever. The next day it snowed heavily. In the evening they reached some precipitous seracs and had to pitch camp. Nansen, Sverdrup and Kristiansen equipped themselves with some ‘alpine rope’ and crampons and made a foray down a crevasse to investigate. The three others stayed in the camp to prepare supper. There found no way out of the labyrinth of impenetrable ice ridges and ravines, criss-crossing one another. But they found something else: water. For the first time in over a month, they could quench their thirst. The melt water sent ice-cold shudders through their chests and heads, but the three men drank their fill. Three more days of exhausting manoeuvring of sleds and equipment were required to get the sleds and equipment down the treacherous ice. Nansen himself had a serious bout with the ice just before leaving the glacier. During a reconnaissance tour, he fell down a crevasse; but it was narrow enough for him to wedge his arms against the icy walls. Fighting his way out of the crack wearing heavy oak skis, took tremendous effort on his part.

Nansen’s map from the Greenland expedition, showing boat and skiing routes and overnight stops.

the pioneers


A boat made of sailcloth

On the afternoon of September 24th, the six men reached exposed terrain. They put the sleds to one side and rearranged all the necessary equipment into canvas sacks. It was painful to walk down the steep slopes, but the two Samis in particular cheered up considerably. No longer on the barren ice cap, they now found themselves in the middle of reindeer moss extending over a large area. That evening they lit a proper fire in front of the tent, before falling asleep on a soft bed of heather and moss. They kept spotting signs of wild reindeer, but never caught sight of a single animal. The next morning Nansen managed to shoot a hare from quite a distance, and dinner was saved. It was less encouraging to realise that the map of the west coast they were using to orientate themselves was completely wrong. The fjord was a lot further away than they thought; and the hare was lean, just a tiny taste of fresh meat per man. The next morning they struggled down the valley, which was clayey and overgrown with willow brush farther down the hill. To Nansen, this was bliss. He came across old mussel deposits. Water, he surmised, must at one time have covered this area, which was proof that the land was rising, and which supported a new theory among geologists at the time. The scientific reason for the expedition was to study Greenland ice. After all, the country was there, in the middle of an Ice Age. Geologists were focused more and more on the thesis that this kind of phenomenon must have taken place elsewhere, in previous eras; but the theory was then still disputed. The other five were more interested in exactly where the fjord was. In the evening they caught sight of it. They also saw traces (albeit old ones) left by the Inuit. The explorers had done it; the interior of Greenland had been crossed, from coast to coast. Yet, they had not reached their goal. The Ameralik Fjord was 60 to 70 km long. There was an Inuit camp on the south side of the entrance to the fjord. Though the mountains on this side of the fjord appeared reasonably passable, they decided not to try and walk. The reason was simple. The Inuit might not understand who or what they were. Godthaab lay one mile north of the entrance to the fjord. On that side of the fjord, the mountains appeared impenetrable. The only alternative was the sea route. Otto Sverdrup took upon himself the task of sewing a primitive sailcloth boat out of the tent groundsheet, with ribs made from crooked willow branches. The boat was shaped like a tortoise, Nansen said. The oars were hard to make, and the thwarts even more difficult; they were sharp and narrow. The other members of the expedition had to make the long journey back to retrieve the equipment that had been left at the edge of the ice. Sverdrup

52 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The halfboat was 2.56 meters long, 1.42 meters wide, and 62 cm deep. It was neither particularly safe nor comfortable, but it was the best that they could manage to construct out of the base of a tent and willow branches from underbrush.

and Nansen were to row the boat to Godthaab. The first day was long and hard; they manoeuvred over sandbanks and clayey soil, being forced to carry the boat and equipment over land. On the trek, they sank deep into the soil with every step they took. In the evening they slept under willow scrub. Only late the next morning, were they able to place the boat on the beach. Having previously been forced to leave the equipment behind, they now had to go back and get it. After carrying their gear for 24 hours, they finally had everything in place, and were ready to start the sea journey. The first couple of days were heavy going. They rowed against the wind, but that was of little importance, because there were plenty of gulls around, and

the pioneers


Nansen was impressed by the Inuit mastery of nature. ‘This kayak hunting is a magnificent sport; it is like a playful dance with death and the sea.’

they could gorge themselves on fresh meat. The third day was October 1st. The wind was still up, and it was difficult to row. But on the other hand, they found an abundance of crowberries; they ate ‘first standing up, then sitting down, but then that was too tiring, and we lay down; now we were able to keep going for a long time’. The wind died down at night, and they rowed until the middle of the next day, when they reached the mouth of the fjord. After a meal, they set off northbound, and by the time they stopped for the evening, they had managed a 20-hour stint. Knowing they were close to other people, they gorged themselves on the remaining supplies. The meat-chocolate with butter on both sides, was a real treat. The next day, they spotted the first Inuit settlements outside Godthaab; it was October 3rd. They ran into a Dane who asked who they were; and upon receiving his answer, the Dane offered his congratulations – not on having crossed the ice, but on the Ph.D. Nansen had received just before leaving Norway. The first thing the two explorers wanted to know was about the boat to Denmark. It had left – two months ago! The ski trip across Greenland would have to be extended to include wintering in Godthaab. Sverdrup and Nansen went indoors, washed, and changed clothes (as they had walked and slept in the same clothes for over two months); and they organised the trip to pick up their colleagues who were still at Ameralik Fjord. Two Inuits travelled south, and after fourteen days of hard paddling just managed to send off a letter with the last boat leaving from Ivigtut, not far from Cape Farewell. That was how the news reached Norway that the expedition had arrived on the west coast of Greenland. This unanticipated wintering was to have a great impact on Norwegian polar history. Nansen absorbed all he could of the Inuits’ practical knowledge. He got hold of Inuit clothing, learned to paddle a kayak and to eat their sort of food. He ’learnt to appreciate their delicacies, like raw lard, raw halibut skin, and frozen crowberries’. He even tried his hand at classic Inuit hunting techniques, using a harpoon from a kayak. Almost eight months later, on May 30th, 1889, the six men entered Christiania in triumph. Out on the Oslo Fjord, they were met by a flotilla of small boats, and escorted to a reception with fanfare, orchestras, and marches composed specially for the occasion. They were led through town at the head of a procession, along with floats decorated with models of Viking ships and stuffed polar bears.

the pioneers



At the beginning of the 19th century, a complete revaluation of Arctic nature was taking place. The old religious view of the ‘wilderness’ was unambiguously negative. Land that was not inhabited, cultivated, and controlled by humankind was God-forsaken, infertile, and literally the realm of the devil. A more complex and enthusiastic view of pristine nature was developed during the Romantic Era. Scientific knowledge also became critical in field studies and expeditions, not just in laboratory work and theoretical research. The role of untouched nature and the wilderness became more important in the overall investigation of nature’s unharnessed forces. This tendency went hand in hand with the new theological re-evaluation of nature, which postulated that, like everything else in the universe, the wilderness was created by God and therefore good. This unleashed an avalanche of scientific expeditions to Central Europe’s wilderness, in the Alps, where new studies were conducted, regarding snow and ice and their impacts on the landscape. Scientific attention was drawn to the ‘polar regions’, when geologists realised that the Scandinavian and Northern European landscape had been formed by inland ice during previous eras when the ice cover had been considerably thicker. In the ‘polar regions’, it was possible to study huge glaciers and inland ice in action. Here many clues could be found to help answer questions about the formation of the landscape farther south in Europe. With this newfound scientific curiosity first centered on the Alpine regions, came a new approach to polar exploration, and also to the Alps themselves. Alpinism was born out of a combination of religious feelings, romantic views of the wilderness, and scientific curiosity about the field and its grand landscape-forming processes. This experience was only available to fit scientists supported by local guides. Alpinism thus contained physical, intellectual, and spiritual components. A large literature of travelogues and guide books developed,

the heroes


and (in its wake) came ‘wilderness tourism’. Mountaineers’ strenuous exertions, and their fascination with grand vistas, their grappling with the enigmas of nature, and competitions to ascend peaks for the first time, were described in an ever more widely read literary genre. Spiritual, intellectual and moral virtues of the sporting alpinist became a model for polar explorers, in their more spectacular search for new records and new discoveries of unknown lands and oceans. Thus, in the early 19th century, Alpine scientists were joined by nature enthusiasts of the Romantic Age, and by such great poets as Goethe, Byron, and Heine. They were first accompanied by upper-class youth taking the Grand Tour. In the latter half of the 19th century, a growing number of tourists followed, and they were from a growing cross-section of society, as the industrialisation of Europe and America spread prosperity, and made leisure and travel more accessible. New railways carried tourists over passes and through tunnels, higher and higher into the Alps. All these travellers were fascinated by the wild grandeur of the Alps. Philosophers of aesthetics described the impact of boundless and untouched wilderness on the Western mind. It generated a mind-expanding sense of space and personal freedom. It also presented them with hardships and dangers, alone, in a place devoid of civilisation’s infrastructure. It brought out a feeling of smallness and individual insignificance in the face of Nature. The aesthetes of the day introduced the word sublime to describe this terrifying, but elevating, mixture of attraction and vertigo when experiencing Nature’s pristine beauty. In history, the importance of abstract ideas is often underrated. There is clear evidence that fascination with sublime, Arctic nature is still significant, and a factor in today’s expanding polar tourism, in the public interest in polar records, and in nature films about ‘polar regions’. Subsequently, at the end of the 19th century, a trend in polar travelogues emerged, not least the Norwegian ones. They emphasized individuality and denial of civilisation’s conventional social values. The Alps could bewitch the tourist, and fill him or her with an inexplicable desire to return, just to experience the space and freedom of the mountains. Arctic grandeur could overwhelm the polar explorer, the hunter who winters on the ice, and (later) the polar tourist, so that they felt an inexplicable urge to return to the unfettered life, in a fight against – or a covenant with – nature. Many people’s dissatisfaction with over-regulated city life and the cultural hold that industrialisation took on them, enhanced their fascination with the wilderness. In the north one had to trust oneself and one’s own resources. Personal competency and inventiveness took precedence over hierarchies and regulation. A small, united group of people could make the difference between victory and defeat, survival and ruin. In the wilderness, nothing limited the individual; nothing held him or her back.

58 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Here there was only Nature, which was unaffected by good or evil, or by triumph or defeat. Nature was like a mirror held up in front of the traveller. It was a force against which groups and individuals could pit their strength. Nature could be a just and neutral judge of human fighting spirit in a fair game, where no corrupt official could influence the outcome. In addition to the sublime Arctic, the ‘polar regions’ became attractive to the social critics, around 1900. These were the last places on earth that were still beyond Western law and order. They fascinated armchair travellers, who read polar travelogues, and dreamt of polar explorers’ exploits and lives as public heroes, or of the self-sufficient existence of the unsung hunter and his wife, alone in their cabin in the Arctic wilderness, undisturbed by neighbours, church, or government. Early in the 20th century, men began to realize that the polar landscape, despite its vastness, was not infinite and inexhaustive. It was to be exploited in moderation and even protected from human activity. Among early polar explorers, the botanists and zoologists were the first to promote the concept of protection of nature. Initially, they championed the safeguarding of animal species which they feared would be wiped out by sporting or commercial hunters. These concerns gradually led to the environment protection policies that are so important today. This focus on the vulnerability of animals and the landscape added a new dimension to people’s fascination with the ‘polar regions’.

The polar hero

Around the mid-19th century, a public stage was set for polar explorers in an international world. The underlying concepts put forth, have survived virtually unchanged to the present day. It was on that stage that great polar epics unfolded, and where the polar hero was created. The metaphoric ‘scene’ began with the extraordinary attention afforded to polar explorers in newspapers and books, initially in England. In the 18th and early 19th century, as a rule, voyages of discovery were only reported in scientific journals and expensive multivolume tomes that few could afford. This changed when tales of the North gained popularity through a revaluation of the wilderness concept. In England, a resurgence in polar exploration occurred after Napoleon’s army was finally vanquished for good. After the peace conference of 1815, many sailors and officers were made redundant from the British Navy and the Reserves. Naturally, most returned to civilian life, but others were recruited to join peaceful but extraordinary naval expeditions to the Arctic. These men, chosen from hundreds of volunteers of all ranks and skills, could improve their prospects and reputations by showing themselves to be resolute, efficient, and tough seamen. This

the heroes


The midnight sun and Arctic icebergs had become beautiful. ‘Let the reader fancy himself’ is the clear message from the author of ‘The Arctic World Illustrated’, dated 1875–76.

activity, which flourished from 1820 to 1855, focused in particular on finding the Northwest Passage, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Amongst the celebrated expedition leaders were John Ross, his nephew James Clark Ross, Sir William Edward Parry, Sir John Franklin, and Leopold McClintock. It became apparent that it would be necessary to influence public opinion, in order for the British Parliament to support expeditions financially. Once this was understood, supporters began working with publishers. One of these in particular was John Barrow, Secretary to the Admiralty. He ensured that immediately after every new voyage, an inexpensive, easy-to-read, illustrated book was published, usually ‘written’ by the expedition leader. While expedition leaders were usually credited as authors, later research has shown that most of the leaders got plenty of help from ghost-writers and publishers who made sure the accounts were written in a reader-friendly manner that glorified the discoveries and that omitted no details of hardships. The accounts would incorporate descriptions of the wild and exotic polar landscape and its natives. These accounts of polar adventures soon became very popular in England, and were quickly translated into several other languages. Many of the increa-

60 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

sing multitudes of literate Europeans began to take an interest in the developments surrounding polar exploration. This marked the start of popular polar reports and chronicles, a genre that is still common today. England was the military and industrial superpower of the age. It was therefore viewed as extraordinary that the most outstanding British Naval officers and their crew, aboard ice-reinforced vessels that were equipped with the most powerful steam engines available, could not force their way through the Northwest Passage or even reach the North Pole, despite several attempts. One of the most ambitious expeditions led by John Franklin, on the old but wellequipped naval ships Erebus and Terror, disappeared without a trace. They left Woolwich in the late spring of 1845. Two years went by without any news of how they were faring, and eventually the first search party set off. The news was hot copy all over Europe and America. U.S. expeditions set out on search missions, and Hudson Bay Company trappers and traders were asked to check with their contacts in the frozen north. Finally the story emerged, through interviews with the Inuit and after making finds on King William Land. Franklin and his entire crew of over one hundred men had perished, after being forced to abandon their icebound vessels. The tragedy was enormous, but it also increased the temptation to muscle in on the action, and beat the British. In Germany, geographer August Petermann argued that German polar expeditions, having gleaned knowledge from the British experience, should make new and better planned thrusts into the north. Moreover, science and culture could be advanced by subsequently improving Arctic maps and charts. In America, too, there was an urge to reduce the remaining blanks on the map. Pioneers like Elisha Kent Kane and Charles Francis Hall went north, financed by private supporters. In Sweden, British polar enthusiasm had infected scientists; and marine biologist Sven Lovén and physicist Erik Edlund made strong commitments to polar expeditions under the auspices of the Swedish Academy of Science. They managed to raise funds from private and public sources, and were supported by younger, well-qualified researchers, like the expedition leader from the 1860s, Otto Torell, and mineralogist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. Austria-Hungary had a sponsor in Count Wilczek, much as Sweden got support from Oscar Dickson. Julius Payer and Karl Weyprecht were the big names in Austrian polar exploration. Their most important geographical achievement was the official discovery of the archipelago Franz Josef Land. In 1888, Nansen entered the arena, as the first, truly recognized Norwegian polar explorer. During the next few years, Nansen and Amundsen defeated all their opponents. Peary’s insistence that he had reached the North Pole in 1909 remains disputed, even today; while Roald Amundsen’s victory over Robert Scott in the battle to reach the South Pole in 1911, is among the most dramatic and frequently publicised races of all times.

the heroes


The geographic record

Even in ancient times, scientific evidence had been presented for the thesis that the earth was round. It was possible to gauge the size of the earth with reasonable accuracy, by measuring the difference between the height of the sun at noon, at two different places on a north-south axis, and where the distance between which the two points was ascertained. This meant that it was easy to calculate the extent of the uncharted areas of the world, even before Europeans began their ocean exploration voyages in the 15th century; big white blank spots on the charts, where nothing was known, were distributed across the world map, especially in the southern hemisphere. In ancient times, mapmakers often filled these empty spaces with pictures of fabulous sea creatures or daring ships in full sail. In actuality, information about uncharted territory was gleaned from rumours, myths, and sea captains’ tales. Then as now, differentiation between credible and unreliable information was an important part of the scientific process. Preposterous geographical and scientific information can only be discovered in hindsight. When geographical explorers explored unknown territories, they drew on logic as well as tradition. It was not always obvious what a particular area might yield, or in which sequence one should seek different kinds of information. Another issue was that the colonial geography of the 19 th century, to which polar exploration first belonged, had developed its own implicit routines. The first duty of seagoing explorers was to search for unknown shores and establish the location of coastlines. In actuality, however, few discoveries fit the prescribed, heroic pattern; which was that a specific person suddenly, and without hesitation spied an unfamiliar coast. The example of the icy and fog-bound Arctic Ocean is a case in point. Moreover, details of discoveries of new territories, if not interspersed with sea yarns, were often likely to be unclear; because explorers were often not scientifically competent enough to make proper observations, or at least were not considered to be sufficiently competent. Sometimes their education was insufficient. Sometimes their social status or ability to express themselves scientifically might be lacking. Often, the problem was a lack of interest in cooperation among scientists and explorers who made observations. At other times the only mistake was that faulty or old-fashioned navigational instruments had been used, or observations of new land had been made under difficult weather conditions. As a result, the mapping process was slow and marred by serious inaccuracies. Maps had to be revised over and over again, because new information was received, sometimes after long intervals. Adjustments were not only made because better and more accurate instruments and binoculars were being used. Sometimes whole islands and even small continents had to be moved or removed from maps, because of complex negotiations within the international geographical community.

62 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The struggle for the North Pole was also a theme at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, from which postcards could be sent via Tromsø, The North Cape and Spitsbergen.

The problem of finding the coast in icy and glaciated regions led to certain operational practices that are described in British Navy instruction books and other explorers’ field manuals. These manuals were carefully studied by anyone who participated in polar exploration. During the journey, explorers were to note muddy water and changes in fauna and drift timber, and view these as signs of proximity to land. The next step was to take soundings. If the water grew shallower in one direction, one was to look for land bearing that way. If an unknown coast was spotted, one was to gauge the distance, and take bearings in the direction of any headlands, promontories, and mountain tops. Then, everything was drawn by hand in the logbook, which would form the basis of future mapmaking. An opening in the coast could indicate a bay or a beach, a fjord, or perhaps the entrance to a system of fjords or sounds with open seas on the other side. If a bay were discovered, one was to carefully sail into it, take soundings, and inspect the beach. If a sound was sited, one was to sail through it. If there was a question as to whether a land mass was an island or a peninsula, one was to try to sail round it. When going ashore, one was to climb a high mountain and make observations in all directions. And all this was to be used as the basis for new maps.

the heroes


For the explorers and their supporters, being accepted as the first discoverer of new territory was important, scientifically and personally, as well as financially and politically. From a colonialist viewpoint, the explorer was tempted by the riches of the ‘new’ territory. The discoverer had the right to exploit these riches; and during the age of imperialism, it was an international convention that his nation could claim sovereignty over the territory in question. From a scientific viewpoint, a geographic discovery was always a major and honourable feat; and the discoverer had the right to name the territory. In the 19 th century, no cartographers bothered to learn about native nomenclature. Setting geographic records is a phenomenon that must be seen in the light of these interlocking historic, practical and geographic conditions; and as such is a valuable study in its own right. Geographical and scientific achievements give the polar records an appeal which has survived the imperialistic context out of which they arose. During his circumnavigation of the world in the 1770s, and in the uncharted waters around 60° S, James Cook demonstrated that if there was land further south, it was not connected to already known territory, like Australia or New Zealand. Cook’s circumnavigation of the earth was later hailed in books and journals as a national achievement and a great seafaring feat, the same way Nansen’s journey across Greenland was the only record of that island’s interior based on direct field observations. Direct field observations were important, because certain scientists, like Nordenskiöld, argued based on indirect observations and theories, that the interior of Greenland was not covered by an ice cap and that it might even be forested. Nansen’s journey across Greenland was also hailed as an outstanding sporting achievement. At the time, the Scandinavian method of moving about on snow – skiing – aroused international enthusiasm. Hence, it was that the first documented circumnavigation or passage, the first ascent or crossing, or the first climb not only developed from mapmaking ambitions, but out of colonial and popular interests. The rule was that the first to come took everything. This was nowhere more true, than for the most abstract places of all, where the earth’s meridian system converged: the North and the South Poles. The poles themselves, at first entirely theoretical, invisible, and very difficult to locate, became the greatest polar trophies of all. The battle for the poles eventually overshadowed all other polar exploration. To an extent, the magnetic poles played a role in the scenario, and were conquered before the geographical poles. Other expressions, such as ‘inaccessible poles’, or ‘frigid poles’, gained great influence at certain times, but have not been that significant in the long run, as scientists never managed to agree on their precise location. The magnetic poles even move, but slowly and predominantly in one direction. That is why the magnetic North Pole today is situated further north than when it was first located by James Clark Ross in 1831.

64 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

So, the hunt for polar records began primarily with science. However, attempts to conquer the poles caught the attention of the public to such a degree, and demanded such huge resources, that as early as the 19 th century, criticism was raised that the obsession was hampering financing of other polar research, like extensive nature and climate studies. Of course, one might ask, given the huge costs, risks and relatively small gains involved, whether polar research could have been so heavily funded, were it not for the key role played by the spectacular hunt for making and breaking records.

The polar question

Talk of the ‘polar question’ was common during the second half of the 19 th century. The ever-recurring question was: what did the interior of the Arctic and Antarctic look like? Throughout the century, many expeditions tried to reach the poles, but none succeeded. Some claimed the record for going furthest north and held it for a period of time, like Edward Parry’s record of reaching 82° 45’ N in 1827, which he achieved on sleds pulled by men, over the ice north of Svalbard. That record remained unchallenged for several decades. The Englishman Albert Markham held the record in 1876, having reached 83° 20’ N, but he was beaten by American Adolphus Greely in 1882, when his expedition reached 83° 24’ N. Fridtjof Nansen took over the record in 1895, having reached 86° 14’ N, which was a considerable improvement, over his predecessors. However, that lasted only two years, and was then surpassed by a few miles, by Lieutenant Cagni during the Duke of Abruzzi’s expedition to Franz Josef Land. Toward the late 19 th century and in the early 20th century, making world records was an intense pursuit, and it always began with an urge to chart what were then the largest continuous blank spaces on the world map. The polar question was also characterised by various theories regarding the unknown ‘polar regions’, and by different strategies as to how to test these theories in the field. To understand, today, how polar expeditions were planned and carried out, it is necessary to understand the geographic questions that were being asked at the time, even though some of the theories may seem strange, now. It might be useful to remember that in the 19 th century, more was known about the visible side of the moon than about the ‘polar regions’. The moon could at least be seen with a good telescope; whereas when the Fram set out from Christiania in 1893, no one had set eyes on land north of 85°N in the Arctic or south of 80°S in the Antarctic. Information we take for granted today, that the centres of both the Arctic and Antarctic consist of ice caps and glaciers covering ocean and land alike, is the result of having collected vast amounts of data and having made numerous

the heroes


observations over the last 100 years. In the 18th century, there was a theory that the earth was hollow, that the North and South Poles were openings at each end that were connected by a long channel. According to the old myth about the Northern Lights, sunlight passed through the channel and lit up the night sky. This theory was discarded by the scientific community in the 19th century. The questions then were whether there were undiscovered continents in the polar interiors, whether land or sea predominated, whether these were wholly or partially covered by ice, and how large the melt water seas were in the summer months. The biology of the 19 th century did not make do with the previous century’s precise descriptions of species. Scientists began to chart habitats. Combining these data with information from animal and plant fossils, scientists were able to record how the environment of various species had changed over time. In the polar regions, several expeditions observed that the rock on the mostly ice-covered parts of the Antarctic peninsula, contained fossils of extinct animals and traces of verdant tropical vegetation. This was long before the acceptance of the theory of continental drift. Scientific discussions were the source of extraordinary visions of these unknown ‘polar regions’. Today’s geological studies of the Quaternary Period, combined with climate research, indicate that there have been several ice ages; and that the Arctic and Antarctic have experienced various types of ice cover. When the Ice Age theory was first accepted by geologists and climatologists, it generated wide interest, especially amongst Scandinavian polar scientists. They wanted to explain the effect that ice had had on the formation of Scandinavia’s land masses, and to study the existing and active glaciers and inland ice in the ‘polar regions’. Everything from sand ridges and terminal moraines, to fjords and glacial boulders, could be explained by studying inland ice in the ‘polar regions’, and by investigating the effect ice had on the surrounding terrain, as it slowly grew, melted, and slid down mountains and through valleys. Yet, the truly big question in polar exploration was: what did the central polar regions really look like? It was possible to predict many natural phenomena, but impossible to gauge their scale, given the absence of direct measurements and data on temperatures or the strength of ocean currents. One crucial problem was the question of the effect of the Gulf Stream on the unknown Arctic interior. Nobody knew whether the stream’s impact was limited by as yet undiscovered land, though scientists tried to answer the question by making tidal observations at more southerly latitudes. The problem remained unanswered, as long as there was very limited oceanographic data from the North Atlantic. An abundance of information was required, such as measurements taken at a variety of depths, places, times of year, and temperatures; and in ocean currents with varying directions, velocities, and degrees of salinity. Without such data, it was not possible to survey the strength or dimensions of the Gulf Stream. Many were surprised by the results of marine research

66 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

in the 19 th century. That indicated that the Gulf Stream is the very reason why the European climate is not harsher than it is. It was more difficult to accept, after much further research, that the Gulf Stream had a rather limited effect on the central Arctic region. In the mid-19th century, some scientists, such as the influential German geographer August Petermann, thought that large portions of the central Arctic were kept open by the Gulf Stream during the summer months, and that the North Pole could be reached by a steamship negotiating the pack and drift ice after the ice melted in spring. He based his theory on what was, at the time, the most up-to-date Gulf Stream research, as well as his knowledge of James Clark Ross’ successful journey to the Antarctic in the 1840s. Ross was able to negotiate a large area of drift ice, and continued to sail across virtually open water, farther south than any other explorer had managed. That was only until autumn set in, and the threat of new ice forced him to turn back. What no one knew in those days was that the Antarctic consists primarily of ice-covered land, which means that the ice works loose in the summer. In contradistinction to this, Arctic ice drifts move uninterruptedly across the polar basin, in somewhat complicated circular paths, but head more or less from the Bering Sea to the North Atlantic.

The Antarctic – the last continent

Knowledge about the distant Antarctic was more limited than the information about the Arctic. After the 1840s Antarctic expeditions by Ross, Wilkes, and d’Urville, over 50 years passed before any explorer from any country was able to raise enough money to finance a southern polar journey with any scientific ambitions. Their expeditions had been the greatest research efforts to date, yet they had never managed to land on the Antarctic mainland; they had only made tentative observations from a distance, and visited islands on the edge of that unknown territory. Only in the 1890s, when the whale stock in the north was reduced, and whalers began to ply Antarctic waters, did an occasional scientifically trained ship’s doctor or captain on one of these ships begin to make scientific observations. One of the more famous, fortunate and successful of these observers was Norwegian whaling skipper and ship-owner Carl Anton Larsen. From 1901 to 1903, he was captain of the first Swedish polar expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula, west of the Weddell Sea. When the whalers began organised hunting expeditions to the south, it became possible for polar geographers in several countries to raise enough money to hire these ice-reinforced vessels and their crew for scientific polar expeditions. Soon, there was major competition to break records and win national prestige. Britain soon came to consider it a national goal to conquer the South Pole. But geographi-

the heroes


cally, the Antarctic was a new and unknown world, where there were several types of sea ice, land ice, and ice formations that had never been encountered before. New climatic zones had to be incorporated into maps of the continent, where weather conditions proved to be more severe than anywhere else in the world. Antarctica proved a challenge for the well-established research procedures of the 1880s. Towards the end of the 19th century, plans were in place for virtually anything that needed to be researched elsewhere in the world. Field manuals, which combined colonialist and scientific perspectives, offered guidelines on how and in what order everything was to be studied. But Antarctica posed many new problems, apart from extreme weather and long distances to the nearest port. At first it was thought that difficulties could be handled if only one could get close enough to land to conduct reliable observations. But in the 19th century, no one was able to discover exactly where land and ocean met in the central South Polar regions. It was very disappointing that the charting of Antarctica’s boundaries, its islands, and its coastal regions, was hindered for decades owing to confusing, conflicting and unclear information from various explorers. The answer dawned but slowly on field researchers and cartographers. There was no coast to be discovered, in the regular sense of the word. There were many signs of land sited as one travelled south, but nobody reported really seeing land. There was really only snow and ice that met the eye. Today we know that Antarctica’s inland ice is several thousand metres thick and covers the entire interior of the continent. True enough, there is little precipitation, but ice from this vast territory flows constantly towards the ocean. These huge masses of ice rarely break up as soon as they reach the coast; instead, they tend to float far away from land, in large, continuous floes. Thus, the coast is basically completely covered by ice. Ice barriers are formed several miles out to sea, of varying extent, depending on weather or time of year. Completing geographic surveys of Antarctica in the tradition of the 19 th century became more than a practical, scientific problem. The coast was icebound, and changed its position and appearance from day to day; or at least from season to season, or year to year. The location of the edge of the ice could only be reported as an average point based on the season. For a long time, there were no scientific methods for sounding the coastline through the ice. Mountain tops and bedrock knobs that rose above the surrounding glaciated area, known as nunataks, could be seen; and they marked the surest indications of Antarctic land. However, the mountains could be far inland, away from the coast and the areas where the glaciers could start to move out to sea. Field geography in the tradition of the 19 th century also came to a standstill in Antarctica because much of the colonialist incentive dwindled. The urge to be the first explorer to arrive, name places and coasts and make territorial claims,

68 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The Swedes issue an invitation to celebrate after Otto Nordenskjöld’s Antarctic expedition of 1901–04. The captain of the Antarctic which was lost at sea in 1903, was whaler C.A. Larsen of Sandefjord.

largely evaporated, when it became apparent that conducting thorough coastal reconnaissance was impossible, and that the resulting rights of ownership were so controversial. To be sure, the quest to set new records remained important, and whaling continued to generate competition; but it was impossible to explore for mineral deposits elsewhere on the Antarctic Peninsula, than in the ice-free mountain ranges. At the beginning of the 20th century, politicians looked to Antarctica and used their influence to intensify research, but only when modern whaling in the Southern Ocean, spearheaded by Norway, proved profitable.

The poles – how to get there, when, and by which route?

To a large extent, the contradictory, and now forgotten, geographical theories about the Arctic and Antarctic interior, explain why polar expeditions in the 19th century were organised in such different ways by explorers from different countries. In the absence of directly observable data, supporters of various theories chose their routes, methods of transport, and timetables according to what they expected to find. In hindsight, it is easy to consider polar theories of the day to be too speculative, and the respective expeditions rather peculiar. But no one conducts research without a theory, an idea of what he or she plans to look for or expects to find. It is not possible to conduct research without premises; that is not how science and human reasoning function. Moreover, in those days, it was impossible for a polar explorer to get a sponsor to provide sufficient financial support for a project, without setting an imaginative, useful, prestigious, or lucrative goal. August Petermann’s theory that a large stretch of open water was formed in the Arctic during the summer, obliged the polar explorer to hold a steady course northwards during the summer or autumn seasons, and to steer right into the drift-ice belt until he reached this supposed ocean. This theory was the underlying theory behind many unsuccessful German and Austrian polar expeditions in the 1870s. Still, Petermann’s theory brought in considerable funding from financiers, because they assumed that an open polar basin would be a refuge for whales and make northern whaling profitable again. Though wrong, the theory actually contributed to increasing understanding of the polar regions. Scandinavian polar explorers believed for many years that there were large land masses in the north. Swedish scientists, who had explored Svalbard, reported the northward migration of birds, and interpreted it as an indication of land there. In the 19 th century, many geographers thought that Greenland was connected to a larger land mass, while others believed in a permanently icebound Arctic. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Swede, Nordenskiöld, and several German geographers argued that Antarctica consisted of two large

70 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

islands or continents, East and West Antarctica; and that the Weddell Sea and Ross Sea were joined by a navigable channel. This was the theory behind Wilhelm Filchner’s 1911–12 expedition on the Deutschland, which reached farther south into the Weddell Sea’s solid pack ice than anyone else. The theory of a divided Antarctica proved to be wrong, although the continent’s east and west were geologically different. Polar theories played a part in all attempts to beat the greatest records, reaching the actual poles, and being the first to sail the Northwest and Northeast Passages. The critical issues were to determine how to travel, what routes to take, and what time of year to choose. The Northwest Passage was the prize par excellence during the first decade of British polar exploration. Operations were principally conducted from the sea, and initially without a notion about the extent of the vast system of twisted, wind-blown sounds, bays, and fjords that make up the archipelago of northern Canada. Discussions about the best route through this labyrinth went on for years. A.E. Nordenskiöld had previously investigated all available geographical material, in archives, through interviews and correspondence, in his quest to obtain information about the possible existence of a Northeast Passage, from the North Atlantic to the Pacific via the Bering Strait. The area had been charted in stages, during extensive Russian exploration in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, ice conditions and unsuitable vessels had rendered complete navigation impossible, and left the Northeast Passage unconquered. An initial and disputed question was where the real ‘gateway to the east’ lay. Perhaps it was north of Novaya Zemlya? Julius von Payer and Karl Weyprecht had tried that route on their Austrian Expedition of 1872, but their ships got stuck in the ice and drifted back and west; until the crew were forced to abandon ship, and were eventually rescued by a Russian fishing smack in 1874. The correct route for Nordenskiöld proved to be a course close to land. It had been used by many before him, in spite of persistent rumours that the Kara Sea east of Novaya Zemlya was always icebound. The literature on geography had characterised the Kara Sea as the big ‘freezer’, but it was a known fact that Norwegian whaler Edvard J. Johannesen of Tromsø had navigated it in 1869. The next year he circumnavigated Novaya Zemlya, and was awarded the Swedish Academy of Science gold medal for his achievement. Nordenskiöld navigated the entire Northeast Passage in 1878–79, keeping close to land, where warm water from Siberian rivers usually kept the sea open into the autumn. Various theories were developed regarding the best route to the North Pole. At first the British eagerly advocated a route north from Svalbard. Despite Svalbard’s location so far north, the Gulf Stream rendered it accessible by ship in summer and autumn. Several British expeditions used Svalbard as their point of departure in the late 18 th century and early 19 th century. Parry’s long-standing,

the heroes


How does one survive in the polar regions? Food, equipment and transportation have always been a challenge. Participants in Carsten Borchgrevink’s 1899–1900 Antarctic over-wintering eat in a snow cave while on a skiing and dog-sledding trip.

record-breaking expedition started out from Svalbard. Nevertheless, his encounters with broken and difficult ice led the British to conclude that expeditions to the North Pole, although they should start by boat, ought to be conducted as much as possible over land. The west coast of Greenland was identified as a new route. The passage hugged the shore along Baffin Bay as long as possible, until sleds and harnesses were used to cross the unfamiliar North Greenland territory near Smith Sound. Many American expeditions chose this route; and it was also the same route Peary took, after many attempts, when he insisted that he had reached the North Pole in 1909. Doubt has been cast on this expedition, and there are clear indications that Peary never reached the Pole. Yet another theory, supported by scientists in France and America, advocated sailing through the Bering Straits to the New Siberian Islands, and continue north from there to the North Pole. This was attempted in 1879 by an American expedition led by Lieutenant George W. De Long, who lost his life on that trip. Wreckage from the expedition ship, the steamer Jeanette, was later found near Greenland, which became one of the important proofs that the ice drifts across the Arctic. It was on this assumption that Fridtjof Nansen based his 1893–96 expedition. Nansen’s planned expedition was strongly criticised in England, partly because he sailed north on a route that did not hug a known coast.

A vessel of hitherto unknown description

Even before his Greenland expedition, Nansen’s mind was made up as to how to reach the ultimate goal of Arctic exploration, the North Pole itself. The ice was simply impenetrable; and no technology existed to move around on the surface of the ice, other than by walking on foot or snowshoes, and by piling up sleds with provisions. The British had tried using sled dogs, but without much success. When Nansen and his men returned from Greenland, the record was held by the U.S. Army Lieutenant Lockwood, who participated in the Adolphus Greely expedition. Greely and Lockwood sailed through Smith Sound, between Greenland and Ellesmere Island, and established a base at 81° 45’ N. Lockwood reached 83° 24’ N during a courageous sledding journey, and with an Inuit from Greenland as his dog handler. Greely was an experienced organiser, and a communications expert in the U.S. Army. His expedition was run like a military operation, and manned by a crew whose Arctic experience was non-existent. Two years in camp ran reasonably smoothly. However, the expedition relied on a reinforcement party that never arrived; one ship had to turn around because of ice, and the next year a second vessel was pressed down by the ice and sank. Greely then ordered a march southwards. The expedition ended in an improvised camp, where the men died

the heroes


‘limb by limb’ of frostbite, the cold, scurvy and starvation. Of the 24 original expedition members, Greely and five others survived; probably because some of them, in total desperation, seized upon their very last option: cannibalism. Another American journey was the one that most caught Nansen’s imagination: the Jeanette expedition, led by George De Jong, who approached the Arctic Ocean through the Bering Straits. That expedition built on the experience of whalers. Whale hunters in the past, that should have become icebound, drifted north. It was thought that currents moving north were warm enough to provide an open route to the far north; and some optimists hoped that would lead them all the way to the North Pole. That hope was literally crushed. The Jeanette became icebound as far south as 71° 35’ N, and over the course of two years drifted to 77° 15’ N. There it was pressed down by the ice, and sank. Of the 33-man crew, only 13 reached inhabited areas of Siberia after having walked across the ice. De Long himself was not among them. He had reached land near the Lena Delta; but without a proper map, got hopelessly lost in a maze of marshes and gullies. Three years after the shipwreck of the Jeanette, Nansen read newspaper reports of remains, undoubtedly stemming from that wreck, and which had been discovered (of all places) on the southwest coast of Greenland. Found at more or less the same spot was an Inuit hunting tool from Alaska, which he compared to the driftwood that regularly washed ashore on Greenland. Nansen was not the first to draw the conclusion that there had to be a strong sea current from Alaska, flowing north toward the North Pole and thereafter south towards Greenland, where it joined the very East Greenland Current that had caused him major problems, when he tried to land on the east coast. Nansen got his idea from meteorologist Henrik Mohn (1835–1916). The Jeanette expedition had been on to something. However, Nansen realised that sailing with the current was only part of the solution. It was also necessary to drift with the ice. Thus an entirely new ship, of new dimensions had to be a specially constructed. It would be shaped like a tub, and so would avoid the ice’s grip; it would be a vessel which would be lifted up rather than pressed down by the pressure of the ice. Additionally, the ship’s hull had to be extremely strong, and if possible capable of preserving heat. The ideas began as theoretical speculations; but when Nansen presented his plans after returning from the Greenland expedition, he had substantial practical experience under his belt. From an organisational point of view, American and English expeditions were not up to standard because they were too large. If there were an accident, and the crew were forced to abandon ship, and to live ‘off the land’, being an experienced hunter was just not enough. It was important that as few people as possible had to share the prey. Nor did the traditional division of crew function: with non-commissio-

74 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Polar hero Fridtjof Nansen, as presented in the biography by W.C Brøgger and Nordahl Rolfsen. A picture published before Nansen’s return from the Arctic.

ned participants on the one hand, and officers and scientists on the other. During the Jeanette expedition, adherence to military procedures resulted bizarre and tragic consequences. For disciplinary reasons, De Jong had de-commissioned some crew members, whilst the remainder of his men had worn themselves out dragging boats and provisions over the pack ice. What was needed was not a certain number of men, but a collective level of competency. The ability to survive under extreme circumstances was most pronounced amongst ordinary, practical men: like a Sverdrup (who, to be sure, was a ships’ officer) or a Kristiansen (the crofter’s son who mastered gun, hammer, and a shoemaker’s awl). Because success and survival depended on each expedition member, crew needed to be treated as equals on a daily basis – like by allowing everyone to eat at the same table or to live together. This was far from obvious; in fact, the Fram expedition was probably the first in which officers and crewmen shared the same mess. In addition, Nansen gradually realised that it would not be necessary to go through the Bering Straits, which in the 1890s, before the Panama Canal, would have meant travelling halfway round the world, through the Suez Canal and across the Indian Ocean. On virtually the same day in 1879, as the Jeanette went in through the Bering Straits, the Swede Nordenskiöld and his Vega came out of it. Nordenskiöld had sailed from Vardø, on the northern coast of Norway; and had thus demonstrated that, despite severe ice problems, there was a Northeast Passage. Nansen could take the same route, to a suitable point of departure for the drift ice. The plan to drift with the ice was received with international scepticism bordering on derision. ‘The history of Arctic expeditions contains enough stupidity not to also have to bear the burden of Dr Nansen’s illogical plan for selfdestruction’, wrote Greely; who himself was in no position to criticise others – on the topic of self-destruction. Firstly, Greely believed the North Pole lay in the middle of a large land mass, so it was hopeless to try to drift there. Secondly, he thought that it was impossible to survive long in the icy wilderness. Thirdly, he thought that any ship, regardless of its construction, would ultimately fall victim to the ice. Similar views were voiced by many experts. Nansen did not consider it an obstacle that there might be undiscovered land in the north; on the contrary, he felt the expedition would make new and important discoveries. However, he concluded that the current theory precluded large land masses. As for survival, he declared tersely that it depended on two things: proper clothing and plenty of food. But the reservations regarding the force of the ice could not be brushed aside; too many trailblazers had lost ships and equipment. Nansen’s answer was that no other ship had been constructed solely with this purpose in mind. He joined forces with Norwegian shipwright Colin Archer, who sunk all his

76 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

expertise into the project. Of no less importance was the fact that Otto Sverdrup was drawn into the venture. The result was the Fram, which means Forward, a broad-beamed, round-bottomed schooner with a steam engine. Nansen had every reason to be proud of the Fram. Originally, he had envisioned an expedition of twelve men, but on impulse en route north, he signed on a thirteenth man in Tromsø. The number thirteen was of no importance, Nansen declared; in reality there were fourteen on the expedition, as the Fram herself had as much personality as a human being. Sverdrup was an obvious choice for skipper. Of course, ideally a crew consisted of versatile members, but there had to be a leader with specific credentials as a seaman. In addition to Sverdrup, Nansen hired a mate, two machinists, a cook, two men with considerable polar maritime experience, and two jacksof-all-trades. In addition, he took on a newly qualified doctor and botanist, a lieutenant who was given instruction in scientific observation, and a brilliant gymnast. The latter was so keen to take part that he volunteered as stoker, never having worked as one. The man had just graduated from the first year of the military academy, and become a reservist. His name was Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen. This three-to-five-year journey in a comparatively small ship, measuring 39 metres long and eleven metres across, was a grand wrestling match with the world’s worst climate, and a logistical challenge with no ‘cooling-off ’ period.

The Fram was constructed so that the ice could not get a grip on the hull and so that the ship could withstand extreme pressure. The result was a vessel ‘built less for speed and navigability than to provide a safe, warm haven.’

the era of heroes


Everything that was needed had to be packed before departure. It was also a foolhardy psychological experiment; with thirteen men from different backgrounds and with different temperaments, living together 24 hours a day and for several years; not only fully occupied during a demanding voyage, but helplessly icebound month after month. We do not know what Nansen thought about this situation. However, we do know what De Jong thought about it, the whole time that he was still safely ensconced on the Jeanette. Providence could not have devised a tougher challenge to man’s psychological and physical endurance. And the next summer, Greely’s second-in-command sighed that when the crew was still lodged in a warm cabin with enough food and clothing: ‘We are a happy quartet’, he wrote ironically about life in the officers’ mess. ‘We often do not speak all day. A delightful prospect ahead, for four dark, winter months.’

Going north

The emphasis placed on the Fram’s ability to handle the ice made sailing the ship an ordeal. It pitched and rolled; and during the maiden voyage along the southern coast of Norway, bad weather taught Nansen that the deck cargo had to be better secured. In addition, Nansen and others suffered severe seasickness. But, the weather was mostly good on the voyage north. The journey proceeded like a celebration before the fact, with convoys of small boats and salutes fired from ashore. Here and there along the coast, a party was thrown, the biggest one being in Vardø, the last port of call in Norway. There was very little alcohol onboard, so it was no wonder that some crew members took the opportunity of getting drunk. Neither Nansen nor Sverdrup approved, and both of them were not quick to forget these episodes. The Fram was heavily loaded when she sailed northeast from Vardø, with provisions for five years. Naturally, the key item was food. Previous polar expeditions had suffered badly in this department, not just from starvation, but also probably just as much from the dreaded scurvy. For several centuries, the British Navy had controlled scurvy on long journeys by forcing crews to eat lemons and limes; but no one, not even Nansen or his nutrition expert Professor Sophus Torup, knew that it was a lack of vitamin C that caused the illness. They concentrated on a varied diet, not just salted and dried meat, but also tinned food stuffs, dried fruit and vegetables, jam, and marmalade. The vitamin C content of all types of stored food diminishes rapidly. That the expedition was not struck by scurvy is probably due to another factor. They ate plenty of fresh meat, from animals they had killed themselves. Humans lack the ability to synthesise vitamin C, but most animals have this capacity;

78 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

and raw meat is full of vitamin C. Although food preparation destroys most of the vitamin, there was enough of it to keep the men scurvy-free. Of course, the expedition was equipped with scientific instruments. A few large ship’s boats would be used to evacuate if, in spite of everything, the Fram encountered difficulties. There were also six smaller boats on board, for various purposes. A library of six hundred volumes was there to ensure that the crew had enough reading material to occupy them. There was adequate reading light. In addition to paraffin lamps, the ship was equipped with ‘modern’ electric light. Electricity was powered by a dynamo that could either be driven by a windmill, or by muscle power, using a treadmill. This ingenious combination of an exercise and lighting contraption, however, was never used. In Khabarovo, a small settlement near the Yugor Strait between the south tip of Novaya Zemlya and the Siberian mainland, the last cargo was taken onboard: sled dogs from Siberia. One might ask what sled dogs were doing on an icebound boat; in fact, they could be of great importance ‘under various circumstances,’ as Nansen wrote rather vaguely. One such a circumstance might be evacuation, of course. But Nansen knew full well that it would take a great deal for the ice drift to carry them over the North Pole. From large American expeditions, Nansen had generally learned what not to do. Still, in the autumn of 1892, a young man from Christiania, who had participated in one of those expeditions, gave a very informative lecture to the Norwegian Geographical Society. Eivind Astrup had wintered twice on North Greenland with American Robert E. Peary. With his small crew of men, Peary had hit on a new and logical method of polar exploration; he had more or less gone native, and learnt whatever he could from the local Inuit. He dressed in Inuit clothes, and drove dog sleds. That is how, in the summer of 1891, Peary and Astrup had covered about two thousand kilometres in 97 days, and roughly travelled at twice the speed Nansen had managed on his Greenland expedition. Fridtjof Nansen wrote immediately to both Astrup and Peary, and asked for detailed technical information. He intended to leave the Fram and set out on a ski and sled journey to the actual pole, with just one companion, à la Peary and Astrup. But it was not something he was willing to discuss. On August 3rd, 1893, the last letters home were dispatched, and the Fram left Khabarovo with 34 yelping dogs on deck. They now aimed for the strait and the Kara Sea; and fear of the ice set in. From the crow’s nest 34 metres above deck, the lookout reported ice-free coastal waters, as far as he could see. Further out, the ice lay solid and thick. Then, after a few days, the ice thickened, and fog made it difficult to manoeuvre. They hove to, went ashore, and made observations. The land was low-lying, grey, and water-logged, and there was little flora or fauna, except for tame reindeer belonging to the Nenets. The coastline did not coincide with the charts.

the heroes


On August 13th, they reached open water. But now they had to contend with a strong, steady easterly wind; and the heavy, broad-beamed boat bore awkwardly into the wind. For several days, they hardly moved. On the 18th, Otto Sverdrup was in the crow’s nest trying to spot walrus or polar bears on the ice floes. Instead, to everyone’s surprise (as this stretch had been sailed many times before them), he sited some low-lying, uncharted islands. With that, the Sverdrup Islands were christened. This would not be the last time they named unknown territory. The channel to the east was peppered with unknown islands, and worse – unpredictable shoals and shallows. Nordenskiöld’s maps were relatively inaccurate. According to the chart, one observation indicated that the Fram, was 14 kilometres inland! Worse still, winter was approaching. It was already the end of August. Nansen had to face the fact that they might become icebound here, just off the coast of Siberia, barely halfway to his intended goal. He tried to comfort himself with thoughts of seal and reindeer, and the fact that there were still large geographical problems to solve. But it did not seem to help. They sailed on at a snail’s pace. A storm broke up the ice at just the right moment; they hoisted sail, and moved full steam ahead. On September 9th, the Fram passed Cape Chelyuskin, mainland Russia’s northernmost point; at 77° 41’ N; it was 6° 30’ farther north than the North Cape. They now turned south into the Laptev Sea and hoped for less ice. Having replenished their supplies of meat from good-sized walruses, they hit on open water, and headed confidently northwards into an area they supposed would be reasonably icefree for a long ways north. Their optimism was tangible. On September 19th, they were back at 77° N. Nansen indicated with caution that he would be satisfied if they reached 78° N before the ice closed in altogether; Sverdrup had other expectations. He reckoned they would easily reach 80° N; he even spoke light-heartedly about 85° N or more. There were fewer and fewer birds about, a sign that they were far away from any land mass, and that they were sailing straight for open – or icebound – seas. But as early as the 20th, Nansen wrote in his diary: ‘The entire dream has collapsed.’ Suddenly, and without warning, they encountered a massive barrier of ice. The only thing to do was to sail alongside it and try and find an entrance into (and through) the ice. This was how they managed to reach 78° 30’ N. They moored the ship to a mountain of ice, and started to prepare for the long winter night. Wintering was not supposed to be a life of ease. Several ‘workshops’ were set up, onboard or out on the ice. The windmill was erected to provide electric light; but the ‘treadmill’, as noted, was never used because there was more than enough to do, to pass the time of day. The ship needed to be pumped out

80 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

from time to time, but less and less frequently as it started to freeze in. Between December 1893 and the summer of 1895, the pumps were never used, which proved that the Fram’s construction was definitely superior. The Jeanette had suffered badly from leakages, and a good deal of her coal supplies were used to operate the steam-driven pumps. Only a superhuman effort on behalf of the crew had prevented the boat from quite literally filling up. At worst, she took in 15 thousand litres per hour. Besides, the Fram was on a scientific mission. The word ‘Unknown’ figures in bold and in two different places on the map Nansen published in the magazine Nature, which appeared together with his ‘Plan for a New Polar Expedition’. These notations were inside a circle marking the 80th parallel. On the same map, there is a large shaded area north of the Bering Strait, reaching towards the Pole, marked tentatively: ‘Land?’ Today this is the hardest and most important concept to grasp; that the areas around the North Pole were completely unknown. Furthermore, Nansen asserted, ‘it is of the utmost importance to explore them. We do not have to go far in our scientific research of the world, before we encounter difficult questions, whose answers lie in the as yet unknown ‘polar regions’.’ The most important discovery of the Fram expedition was made totally unexpectedly. It had always been thought that the Arctic Ocean was a shallow sea, its bed made up of the colliding continental shelves of Alaska and Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. Nansen, himself, had dismissed as ludicrous the idea that no land would be found further north. Somewhat prematurely, the French newspaper Le Figaro announced in 1895, that Nansen had planted the Norwegian flag on ‘the mountains’ of the North Pole. The Fram expedition was simply not equipped with instruments capable of measuring great depths at sea; and the sounding line had to be improvised with hemp hawsers and steel wire. They managed to collect some seabed samples from depths of 3,850 metres; but when the lines snapped, the expedition had to accept that it could only determine with certainty that the water depth was over three thousand metres. Their line never reached the seabed. The Arctic Ocean was indeed a deep ocean. Right from the start, the current acted as a pretty reliable force of forward propulsion. On September 29th, they crossed 79° N, icebound and moored. But then a northerly wind started to blow, and they drifted backwards, first to 78° 47’ N, and then to 78° 35’ N. They began to lose heart. At the same time, the ice started to press them down; the whole ship groaned, and the Fram was lifted a few feet into the air, before sinking down into the ice again. ‘Slowly, the hull started to creak and moan. We are treated to the entire register of sounds, from high wailing sounds to growling and snarling; and then suddenly there was a bang, and the ship jumped into the air,’ Nansen wrote poetically. He proudly continued: ‘There is something comforting about sitting here and listening

the heroes


to all this uproar, knowing that the ship is strong; other ships would have been crushed ages ago.’ Not everyone aboard felt as comfortable as Nansen did, listening to the enormously powerful ice. Pressure ridges and ice slabs rose into the air to a height of six to seven metres, while moving slowly and with an overpowering presence. Huge leads opened up and then closed. There was no doubt that the ice moved, by fits and starts, backwards and forwards; but on the whole it moved in the wrong direction. The crew took comfort in looking after the dogs, which were now let loose on the ice, after having been tied up on deck throughout the journey. They also indulged in one or two exciting polar-bear hunts. Otherwise, they had to make themselves as comfortable as they could; not least by partaking in three good meals a day, plus extra refreshments on all special holidays, like the anniversary of the launch of the Fram. The doctor, Dr. Blessing, started monthly health check-ups, and was soon able to confirm that the crew were not exactly suffering any physical hardship; in fact, most of them were steadily putting on weight. By November 8th the ship had drifted south to 77° 43’ N, or to approximately the same latitude as Cape Chelyuskin. Nansen was in a bad mood. He tried to view this all in the grand scheme of things; but the drift to the south eroded his self-confidence. ‘My plans lie in tatters. At the first gust of wind, my theories, my castle, where I self-assuredly rose above all foolish objections, have come crashing down like a pack of cards.’ He was also suffering from a guilty conscience for having left his wife Eva, whom he had only been married to for four years, and their newborn daughter, Liv. Then their luck changed, or rather the current, turned; and slowly the Fram started to drift, tentatively, and with many setbacks, in more or less a northerly direction. The sun disappeared. The pressure of the ice was relentless. The temperature sank drastically. The ship proved not to be as well-insulated as Nansen had anticipated. The crew were bothered by frost in their cabins, although they were no doubt far more comfortable than other men who wintered in the north. But they were, in spite of everything, undoubtedly drifting north. On December 9th they once again crossed the 79th parallel. In their spare time they read, played cards, smoked, and talked. Nansen kept a certain distance. The fact that he addressed the crew formally did not mean much, according to the social norms of the day. He rarely sat down at the card table, or with a group of smokers in the galley (smoking in the mess was normally forbidden). He would rather sit in his own cabin, and write melancholic observations in his diary: ‘I read about summer pastures and tall mountains, and it makes me moody and weak. Why think about it? After all, it will be years before I set eyes on them again. The ship is moving at deadly slow pace, like a snail, but not as reliably.’

82 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Fridtjof Nansen’s map from 1890. The dotted line shows the probable route of remnants from the wreck of the Jeanette. According to Nansen, the Fram would be able to take the same route as the wreckage. Note that large parts of the central Arctic are marked ‘ukjendt’, which means ‘unknown’.

This monotonous daily life was broken up by sudden drama. When the rough Arctic sailor Peder Hendriksen went to investigate the dogs’ barking, he ran into a polar bear. He tried to retreat between twisted pressure ridges and hummocks; but his slippery wooden shoes made him fall. The bear attacked and bit his hip. Lacking any weapon, he used his lantern to hit the bear as hard as he could, which gave him enough time to scramble back on board. The others rushed out and shot the bear close to the side of the ship; the bear was obviously hoping to get Hendriksen. In addition to having killed two dogs, the bear caused consternation and confusion. No one had expected polar bears so far from land. Second engineer Lars Petterson was probably the most prolific Jack-of-all-trades onboard. A former blacksmith, he forged a formidable bear trap, which they rigged up and stuffed with bait some distance from the ship. On Christmas Eve there was moonlight, and the thermometer registered –37°C. Festive food, Christmas fare, and presents they had brought with them, could not distract them from the fact that they were moving very slowly. Their position was 79° 11’ N. Speeches were made, a poem recited, and a special edition of the ship’s paper Framsjå published, in which Hendriksen, an experienced Arctic Ocean harpooner, was lampooned for being poorly prepared for his encounter with the bear. All the men were homesick. Most of them had wives and children, and none of them knew how many Christmas Eves would pass before they would be back home with them. In an attack of pessimism, Nansen calculated that, at their present rate of speed in the ice drift, it would take eight years to get home. Sverdrup was also irritable, although he tried to hold it back. He wrote in his diary: ‘… but one thing is certain: that there is absolutely no indication of any northbound current, which we have put our trust in and which was so tangible, and obvious for all to see, according to the scientists.’ New Year 1894 arrived and brought with it cold and frost. Temperatures fell to –52° C. On February 2nd, the Fram crossed the 80th parallel. But then it moved south again; and two weeks later, they were back at the same latitude, and remained there the rest of the month. A sounding, using a line measuring nearly 3,500 metres, gave no indication of a seabed; and some witty soul suggested they were sounding the hole out of which the earth’s axes poked. The sun returned towards the end of February, and the crew started to test their skis in the rough terrain between the ice hummocks. By the doctor’s estimates, they had stopped putting on weight, either because of exercise or because they had run out of beer. The Fram started to move a bit; first in a southerly direction, and then slowly, slowly northwards. On April 7th they were able to enter a new milestone in the log: they had reached 80° 15’ N. Nansen tried to convince himself that

84 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

it was the scientific results that mattered, not reaching the pole, the latter having always been a matter of vanity. The more politically conscious amongst the crew interpreted the drifting as a battle between progress and reaction – following a favourable ‘lefthanded’ wind and speed towards the north, the conservatives dominated with a subsequent calm and backwards drift. Spring arrived, then summer and perpetual daylight. Nansen occupied himself with dog-sledding, but not with the idea of evacuation. The Fram sat there, safe and sound. During the summer, however, open leads and melting snow made skiing and dog-sledding difficult. Still, they were now headed north again, and would reach 81° 52’ N before encountering yet another setback. The summer of 1894 was very long. Midsummer Night’s Eve arrived in a flurry of sleet, northerly winds, and a southerly drift. Naturally, the atmosphere onboard was affected by the lack of forward motion, and the prospect of yet another winter onboard at more or less the same latitude. When the observations recorded bad results everyone was bad-tempered and withdrawn: ‘Thirteen such silent men do not exactly contribute to an uplifting atmosphere’, wrote Jackof-all-trades Bernhard Nordahl in his diary.

The decision

When September arrived they had been icebound for a year. With obstinate optimism and faith in the drift, Nansen figured that they were moving. For they were moving in the right direction; even though the progress was maddeningly slow, thanks to their drifting back and forth. He then proceeded onto the ice and started to experiment with dogs pulling heavily laden sleds. Then they had to prepare for another winter. A large tent was erected over the ship, which provided considerable warmth and shelter. Nansen let the men light fires in the saloons, as there was sufficient coal. This lessened the problem of condensation and frost in the cabins. What he did not mention was that this winter, 1894–95, was his last onboard. At the first sign of spring, he intended to set out northwards with one of the crew. If the American Peary and young Astrup could manage a journey like that, surely an experienced Greenland explorer in the prime of life (Nansen was 33 that autumn), with a fit companion who was also an expert dog-handler, could do the same. Peary had not even used skis, but had stuck to snowshoes. Nansen’s many calculations regarding weight, provisions, speed, and direction were initially probably quite sensible. However, in reality, the many unpredictable factors in the entirely unknown territory into which he was now heading, proved these calculations to be qualified guesswork. The drift of the ice was one example; after all, they had first-hand experience that it could be

the heroes


The solar eclipse was one of many phenomena that the Fram crew got to study. Johansen, Nansen and ScottHansen make observations on April 6th, 1894.

unreliable. At best it was with them, at worst, the ice might drift in an opposite direction causing them to remain more or less on the spot. Returning to the Fram was not an option. She would, in the meantime, have drifted on and would be impossible to find. The two-man expedition would have to return over the polar ice to some inhospitable coast: ‘after having reached land, any decent person should be able to survive by hunting either small or large game, be they bears or seaweed fleas’. The crux of the matter was that Nansen did not want to return to the Fram. He wanted to go home, preferably as the polar hero with the North Pole ‘scalp dangling from his belt’; but even without that, if need be. The plan was to reach land north of Svalbard, and then head south down the archipelago early enough in the season to find sealers who were still hunting in those waters before returning to Norway for the winter. The atmosphere on board, the idea of being cooped up in the ice, perhaps for several years, without actually achieving anything, and maybe his guilty conscience regarding his wife and daughter – all contributed to Nansen’s willingness to leave the safety of the ship and set out into the icy wilderness. The question was: With whom? The natural first choice was Sverdrup, the only one onboard whom Nansen addressed informally (using the Norwegian word for ‘you’, du). Sverdrup was a man whom Nansen knew and who had demonstrated his supreme ability to survive. But the two of them, the leader and the skipper, could not both leave the Fram, whose mission after all was to return safely to Norway. Nansen realised that, in case of an evacuation, he would be depriving the ship of two men and important resources, above all, the dogs. Hjalmar Johansen’s duties as stoker had, for good reasons, come to an end, with the Fram settled comfortably into the ice. Instead, he had been working as an assistant on meteorological observations, a cold and boring job he executed without complaint. He was the most physically fit of all the men. He also spent a lot of time with the dogs, and was an adequate dog-sledder. Otto Sverdrup liked this quiet boy from Skien, thirteen years his junior. Johansen had turned 27 in May of 1894. Sverdrup would have liked to attempt the polar trip, himself, with Johansen as his companion. Now, he encouraged Nansen to take Johansen with him. The latter said ‘yes’ without hesitation. Of course, it was an honourable commission; and besides, someone was waiting for him. The prospect of returning to his childhood sweetheart, whom he hoped to marry, made Johansen even more eager to make the trip. Frantic activity began onboard the Fram. Everyone set to work equipping the two polar explorers. Four sleds needed to be made. Otto Sverdrup sewed sleeping bags of reindeer fur, and then sails for the sleds. Petterson was promoted to cook, to everyone’s delight, while Jacobsen, the mate, took over as blacksmith. Jacobsen forged axes and other tools. The real cook, Adolf Juell from

the heroes


Kragerø, was now entrusted with the important job of sewing and fitting the dogs with harnesses. The dogs known to gnaw their harness were given special harnesses with sewn-in steel wires. Nansen and Johansen wore two watches each, and checked them daily against the ship’s chronometer to choose the more accurate one. One thing was to err regarding the exact latitude of Greenland; they needed to head west to find the coast, in any event. The polar wilderness was an entirely different matter. Whether they returned by way of the tiny Seven Islands (Sjuøyane) north of Svalbard, or via Cape Fligely, the northernmost point in the islands of Franz Josef Land, their navigation depended on minute accuracy, in a ‘landscape’ with no obvious landmarks or fixed points. The last, and southernmost, stage of their journey would necessarily take place in the late summer, and they would have to expect open waters. Therefore, in addition to provisions for themselves and the dogs, they would need to pull two slender, ready-made canvas kayaks. Nansen recalled his monster of a boat from the Greenland expedition. By now, he had learnt from the Inuit how to really move around on the water. The work of outfitting the expedition did not improve the atmosphere on board. Nansen was irresolute, got stuck in details, and thus ‘never got going’, according to Sverdrup’s irate diary entry. But they all recognised one advantage. If the two arrived home before them, they could carry letters to those who waited at home in Norway, with mail delivered by way of the North Pole! Christmas 1894 was dedicated to letter-writing. And the month of December brought a sudden southerly wind, and they picked up speed. On December 13th they were able to celebrate. On December 13th they were able to celebrate; the day before they had reached 82° 30’ north and with that ‘Fram’ had been further north than any other ship before her. In the days that followed, the wind blew from the south, sometimes with gusts reaching storm strength. Christmas was celebrated in the knowledge that they were on their way north, but the weather was too bad to permit observations. On Christmas Day, observer Scott-Hansen caught a glimpse of the starry sky, and reckoned they were north of 83° 20’ N, which was very close to Lieutenant Lockwood’s record. The movement in the ship, however, got the ice going too. The ship boomed, leads opened up and the dogs fell into them. Crates and other material and supplies, which had been piled on the ice, had to be moved. On January 3rd, Nansen ordered provisions, tents, and cooking utensils to be carried out of the Fram, and made ready for evacuation. A huge pressure ridge towered above them, and was closing in on the ship, which was listing more and more to port. The ridge had reached the ship’s side on January 5th and was level with deck or even higher. The tent roof started to collapse under the weight of the ice, which was closing in on the vessel.

88 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Clothes and lifeboats were brought out on to the ice, and Nansen commanded all hands on deck. Otto Sverdrup took it calmly; he was having a steam bath when the orders came, and he got busy. The ice crashed and banged over the Fram; the dogs were about to be crushed and had to be rescued at the last moment. Other sacks and personal belongings were offloaded. Then the ice stopped its downward action. The low-lying port side was buried in ice, but the tarpaulin over the deck was intact. The crew went on board to try and catch some sleep, with all their clothes on and all doors open; so that if the ice started acting up again, they would not be crushed by it. But before going to bed, the men helped themselves to all the ‘luxuries’ they would have to leave behind in the event of an evacuation: cakes, chocolates, and the like. By the next day, the ship had righted itself, slightly, and the crew tried to hack away at the ice, reaching as far as the port rail. The weather cleared, and the navigator triumphantly reported that they were at 83° 34’ N. With that, the thirteen men on board could boast of having gone farther north than any other human beings. Of course, in practice that meant they were farther away from home than any one before them. The Fram stood her ground, and the ice pressure subsided. Work to prepare Nansen and Johansen for the sled journey started anew. The two men tested the double sleeping bag Sverdrup had sown, but discovered that a night out on the ice in –39° C temperatures was uncomfortable. Sverdrup, who by this time was quite irked by what he called Nansen’s indecisiveness, thought they were wimps. ‘When you think of how we were dressed on Greenland, it is extraordinary that they should be cold, what with their wolf-skin clothes inside the sleeping bag.’ Worse yet, the sleds had not worked out successfully, and Nansen overestimated how many provisions the two could manage to take. Twice he and Johansen left accompanied by salutes and festivities; and twice they turned back. The third and last departure took place on March 14th, 1895. Nansen and Johansen headed north with three sleds. Nansen led on skis, followed by his sled, thereafter the reserve sled, and Johansen with the last dog team bringing up the rear. On the first day they were accompanied by some of the crew. Sverdrup turned round first; he was keen to get back to supper. Three others remained with them until the next morning. Then, in the words of Sverdrup, they ‘stood watching the procession until it turned into tiny black dots, far out on the endless ice flats’. The two men were on their own, 650 kilometres from the North Pole, with 28 dogs, two kayaks, guns, enough dog food for one month, and food for themselves for 100 days. According to Nansen’s written instructions, Sverdrup was appointed commander of the Fram for the rest of her journey. The document was worded in such a way as to give Sverdrup broad powers of attorney. The atmosphere

the heroes


The first attempt to reach the North Pole. The equipment was too heavy and Nansen had to re-prioritize. The dogs were blithely unaware that they were on the menu.

on board improved significantly. Not only were spring and light around the corner, but no one really missed Nansen. ‘I think we were all glad to get rid of him, or at least that is how it appears, and I wish him all the best,’ wrote Jacobsen. Sverdrup tidied up, after all the hustle and bustle of the provisioning, and he moved into Nansen’s cabin. Then he began methodical preparations for a possible evacuation. The ice press in January had given the crew a fright, and the two polar explorers had helped themselves to a lot of valuable equipment. He had new skis made, by splitting a large oak beam. Starting on May 1st he ordered training for the crew: two hours of skiing a day. Norway’s Constitution Day, on May 17 th, was a far merrier affair than it had been when Nansen was present; and the next day Sverdrup realised he had gone a bit too far: ‘The punch gave us all huge headaches.’ Otherwise, life proceeded much as it had before, with some ice press, labour-intensive soundings, and increased frustration amongst the crew, as they realised summer was waning and a third winter stay was imminent. More attention was given to what latitude rather than longitude they were on. Observations indicated a westward drift. Summer offered some diversion in the form of animal life and hunting: mostly of birds, a welcome addition to their diet. The drift continued in a northwest direction. In November, long after the third icebound winter had started, the Fram reached the northernmost point during its entire expedition; it was close to 86° N. What no one knew at the time, was that Nansen and Johansen had only got a few minutes further north before being forced to turn around. They could have achieved the same thing

90 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

by sitting in a comparatively comfortable ship, rather than by risking their lives in the icy wilderness.

86° 14’ N

In November 1895 things were looking bad for Nansen and Johansen, in every way. While the crew onboard the Fram found some consolation in the thought that the two men were now at home in Norway, had told friends and relations that all was well on board the ship, and had delivered their letters, the pair were actually hibernating in one of the world’s most inhospitable places, at the northern tip of the Franz Josef Land archipelago. Nansen and Johansen’s trip to the north was a disaster from the start. It was cold, about –40° C, and everything froze: ‘The sleeping bag was our best friend,’ wrote Johansen, ‘but it became stiffer and heavier as each day went by. Sometimes we had to turn it inside out and knock the ice off with our skipoles. When we crept into it at night, it gradually softened along with our clothes. Our poor bodies had to thaw the bag out before beginning to get warm,’ wrote Johansen. The dogs suffered from the cold and did not pull well. Nevertheless, they managed to make mischief by tangling up the harness and biting it to pieces. After a few days, the first dog was slaughtered. What was worse was the ice, which was not very navigable. The sleds had to be pushed and pulled over pressure ridges and hummocks. The leaderless middle sled was always overturning. They had to depart from their course owing to large open leads. It was unthinkable to use the canvas kayaks in the cold, because that would mean pulling heavy, ice-covered boats the moment they hauled them up on the ice. Besides, the kayaks had suffered tears during strenuous transportation. Eight days into their drudgery, they found themselves at 85° 9’ N. At that speed, it would take them at least 48 days to reach the pole; and the route back to land could be twice as long, without food for the dogs, and in conditions that certainly would not improve with the coming of summer. The puzzle was unsolvable. Pitching and breaking up their camp was too time-consuming, made cumbersome by the cold. They were also continuously being reminded of the dangerous condition they were in. If one of them were to meet with an accident, or fall ill or die, the other would not be able to cope alone. On March 31st, a lead opened up, with Nansen, Johansen and one of the sleds on one side, and with the dogs and all the equipment on the other. While they pondered what to do, the ice under Johansen’s feet gave way. He managed to scramble up onto the other side, but the channel got wider and wider. Then, he ran back and forth on the ice to try and keep warm, and his clothes froze to ice immediately. Meanwhile, Nansen looked for a way around the

the heroes


channel. It took hours before they had retrieved all the equipment and managed to get Johansen ‘inside’. Nansen’s comment: ‘After all, we’re not womenfolk’, when Johansen insinuated that he was cold, did not add to the general atmosphere. They had lost the odometer, so were entirely dependent on observations to calculate their position. These were disappointing, as well. Not only were there strong indications that they had made little progress under these horrible conditions; but the unpredictable ice they were moving on at the time, was drifting in a southerly direction. They struggled on for a few more days; or, more correctly, they struggled on night and day. During the first days of April, the temperature rose to –30° C, but the ice was still rough and difficult. They slaughtered another dog to feed the others. On April 5th they crossed the 86th parallel N. They were moving, then, more slowly than ever; in spite of struggling day and night, and sleeping only when necessary. It was obvious that there was no solution but to turn back, although, good and faithful subordinate that he was, Johansen waited for Nansen to make the decision, which came on April 7th. And so, they pitched their tent. Nansen made a small reconnaissance trip northwards to see if conditions were as bad there as where they stopped. Maybe he also wanted to make sure that he was the person who had been furthest north. However, they made their official observation by the camp, and calculated their position to be 86° 13’ 6’ N. Lieutenant Lockwood had been beaten by nearly three degrees. (Later calculations have shown that the correct position was actually 86° 4’ N.) As can be expected under these circumstances, the celebrations were moderate. The festive meal consisted of stew, dried chocolate, and cranberry porridge. The two flags they were carrying were left behind at the camp. One was the official Norwegian flag, with the mark signifying the union with Sweden in the corner. The other was the ‘uncontaminated’ Norwegian flag. Then they turned south. The mild weather continued, and the ice was easier to negotiate. They rarely had to stop and help each other pull the sleds over obstacles. Their mood improved, as they made progress, during a couple of good days’ marches. Johansen started to get used to the unpleasant job of dog butchering, while the dogs themselves began to enjoy the taste of their own kind. On April 12th, Good Friday, something happened that cast a dark shadow over their home journey. Their irregular daily routine had made them both forget to wind their watches. Consequently Nansen had to spend much of Easter Sunday in the sleeping bag, calculating and fumbling with logarithm tables in –30° C. As quickly as possible, he needed to calculate their position by estimating how far they had moved and how long the watches had been standing still. The computation

92 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

produced a new, disturbing surprise. They were further north than they thought, 86° 5’. The conclusion was as obvious as it was sad: Now, when they wanted to get south as quickly as possible, the ice was finally drifting north. In reality their situation and their new position were even worse than they realised. Nansen consoled himself with the thought that they would at least reach Petermann Land; which, according to the map by Payer of Austria, was situated north of Franz Josef Land, and conveniently stretched from east to west. Though nothing was known about the land, he assumed that it would be possible to survive by hunting polar bear and birds. The drawback was that Petermann Land only existed on Payer’s map. In its supposed location, there was nothing but more of the same: steep hummocks and rugged pressure ridges. The next day, Nansen managed to leave his compass behind and had to make a long detour to retrieve it. But then ill luck abandoned them for a time. In the good weather, they made reasonable progress. The high point of the day’s journey was a rest and sharing some chocolate. As it had been crushed to bits, it was not easy to make two equal portions. They solved the problem in a fair and honest way: One divided it up, and the other had first choice. Dog food was running out quickly, and Johansen had to keep using the butcher’s knife. It would have been easier to shoot the poor beasts; but ammunition was at a premium, and they chose to economise as much as they could. On April 25th they spotted the tracks of an Arctic fox. The natural conclusion would be that they were getting close to land. Because no one knew how far east and north ‘Petermann Land’ lay, they started to keep a lookout. On April 29th they decided that today something would surely have to show up on the horizon. One can only wonder what they might have felt, had they known the truth. A three-month journey lay before them, and it would take them to the limits of their physical and mental endurance, before they reached a bare Arctic coast. May arrived with a headwind from the southeast; which not only slowed them down, but also opened up big channels between the ice. Then, such bad weather followed, that they had to lie low. There was no land in sight, anywhere. The blunder with the watches gnawed at Nansen. Nor did it improve matters, that he had never really mastered dog-sledding. On Constitution Day, when their homesickness was probably at its height, a vehement argument erupted between these two very different men. They had no choice, but to continue to pull together. Then their tent blew to bits, and they had to stop to mend it. But where were they? According to the map, they should have been south of ‘Petermann Land’. Could their calculations have been so wrong? It was now late May, and a whole month had passed since they had been sure of spotting land. There was more animal life around, birds flew overhead and in the leads, from time to time, huge narwhales snorted. But land was nowhere to be seen.

the heroes


On June 1st they were forced to ferry themselves, the last of the dogs, and their equipment over a lead and onto an ice floe. As soon as everything was safely ‘landed’, the floe broke up. Despite the drudgery and the mortal danger in which they found themselves, Hjalmar Johansen managed to see the grandeur of the majestic ice-world: ‘It was beautiful to behold the coal-black leads shining in the sun. The ice could be unusually white, and pressure ridges and hummocks shimmered, azure-blue amongst the huge blocks of ice. The eye sought in vain to see down into the water, to the depths of the ice-walls.’ But their life could not continue this way. They were forced to pitch tent and repair the kayaks, which had suffered badly after all the journeys up and down the ice.

The camp of hope and longing

June was a month of crisis. The journey had started to look dangerously like the Jeanette crew’s struggle across the ice. Summer was arriving, and conditions deteriorated. Food was scarce. The dogs had been slaughtered, one by one; and the two men became their own draught animals. Nansen walked ahead and reconnoitred. Having found a reasonable route, he returned to Johansen. They each pulled a sled and helped each other over the obstacles that the ice posed. They sank deep into the rotten snow. They crossed the leads on ice floes, which they first had to manoeuvre in place with bamboo poles, in order to get on to them. The weather was bad, and it was difficult to make observations; but there were many indications that they were travelling due west. Johansen had already butchered ‘Kaifas’, Nansen’s own dog, which he had brought with him from Norway. At the beginning of June there were four dogs left, one of which then had to be butchered. Nansen prepared supper from the blood, but did not enjoy it. Down it went, however, because they had to stave off starvation. They were forced to halt. They pitched tent near a suitable lead, to try and get some food. In the course of two-and-a-half days, they had only shot two gulls. The scientist Nansen had a landing net to catch small animal as scientific samples. Now, he tried in vain to scrape out anything edible. They spotted a seal, but it was too timid for them to get close enough to it. The remaining bread and pemmican were each doled out in daily portions of 50 grams. They had to keep going. They reached a stretch of open water that they would have to negotiate with the kayaks. They bound the kayaks together using the skis as supports and the sleds at right angles. They carried pumps with them the whole way, and they found good use for the sail. When they arrived on the opposite bank, Nansen jumped ashore, grabbed his camera, and took pictures of the ‘raft’. Suddenly, they heard a huge splash

94 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The dogs were not particularly prone to cannibalism – to begin with. Here, Johansen pulls the sled with his remaining dog, Suggen.

out in the channel. It was a large seal. Johansen aimed and shot it. Nansen grabbed the harpoon and ran along the edge of the ice to secure the valuable catch. But in the meantime, the kayak drifted into the lead, with Johansen still on board. He dared not move, for fear the vessel might sink. The kayak he was in was full of water, and it was only being kept afloat by the other one. For an awful moment, it looked as though they might have to choose between the seal and the equipment. According to Johansen, the ‘scene was lively’; while according to Nansen, it was ‘a picture of complete dissolution’. But they managed somehow to rescue both, though much of the equipment was soaked. They pitched a tent and ate their first meal in 24 hours: boiled seal meat and raw blubber. That seal probably saved their lives. This was the advantage of being two. One seal meant food for ages. The day before, they had considered getting rid

the heroes


of all their equipment, and making a last desperate attempt to reach unknown lands in their leaky kayaks. Now they pitched camp to finish off the seal, gain some strength, and wait for conditions to improve. They ate two large meals of seal per day, and splurged a few times by adding a piece of bread for dessert. Nansen nearly set the tent on fire one evening, when he tried to make ‘blood pancakes’. It was Midsummer Night’s Eve, when Norwegians traditionally light bonfires to celebrate, ‘so in that case, it was alright to have set the tent on fire’. For a whole month, they remained in camp, which they called ‘the camp of hope and longing’. On June 25th it was warm enough for Johansen to take a brief snooze with his naked toes sticking out of the tent. Nansen woke him with the news that he had shot another seal; not a bearded seal this time, but a small ring seal. This diet, half-raw but fresh seal meat, saved them from scurvy which would otherwise have been a real threat. But snow and ice conditions were bad. Sleet and rain eroded the loose snow, and soaked everything in the tent. Slowly their mood deteriorated, and there was not much conversation between the two men. The two remaining dogs offered some companionship and a distraction from the eternal question: Where were they? And where was land? They could no longer suppress the troubling thought of camping another winter, possibly under absolutely primitive circumstances, on Svalbard or Franz Josef Land. On July 6th something happened that at least broke the monotony. The dogs were barking madly, and the two men grabbed their guns and ran out. A shebear was sniffing the dogs inquisitively. Nansen wounded it, and the two men pursued it, through the deep snow, over the hummocks, and between the channels. The she-bear had two cubs, and the men managed to kill all three. Now, they had food in abundance, for the dogs, as well. Furthermore, they now had three polar-bear pelts on which to sleep. The first ‘night’ after the hunt, they each slept 22 hours without a break, a sign not only of their uneven diurnal rhythm in the eternal summer daylight, but also of their having been very uncomfortable before. Previously, they had been lying on top of their skis to save the sleeping bag from being soaked by the melt water. When the weather cleared, they climbed up onto a large hummock to scout and check out the land, or ice. To the south was a cloudbank that was not moving; so they agreed it must be land. (In reality, the ‘cloud’ was a glacier on Franz Josef Land.) At least the successful bear hunt provided a variation from the seal meat, ‘cub breast is a delicacy’, Nansen wrote. They broke camp on July 22nd. Some equipment was left behind, including the sleeping bag. The kayaks, filled with provisions, had been made as tight and impregnable as possible, by using a mixture of soot, blubber, and Nansen’s pastel crayons. They were then fastened to the sleds, so that they could just drive the kayaks straight into the channels, without time-consuming reloading. Snow

96 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

conditions were bad, and the ice was difficult; but the next day they spotted land, which they reckoned was two days away. It would take fourteen days to reach land. The weather was impossible, the ice virtually impenetrable, and the wind forced them away from land as fast as they struggled towards it. Then, something worse happened. Nansen was struck by a bad attack of sciatica. Johansen had to help him on with his boots and stockings, and more or less carry him over the hummocks. Luckily, Nansen had regained his health by August 4th, when Johansen was attacked, without warning, by a huge polar bear. It knocked him over. All he could do was try and hold it at bay by grabbing its throat as it lowered its head, with its jaws open. Nansen’s rifle was in the kayak. When he grabbed it, he pushed the kayak so it glided out over the water. The seconds ticked by, as Johansen desperately grabbed the bear’s throat. Then, he uttered the famous line, in a cool, heroic voice: ‘Now you must hurry up, or it will be too late’. Nansen hurried as best he could; but if the dogs had not distracted the bear for a moment, it would have been too late. The bear lifted its head, and lunged at the nearest dog. Johansen let go, and rolled away. Then, Nansen aimed, and the bear fell. Even though they basically threw away all unnecessary items, they nevertheless cut the paws off the bear and kept them. Johansen had another memento, too, a few scars down his cheek, where he had been scratched. The men did not partake much of the meat, but the dogs ate their fill. A few days later, the men reached the edge of the ice. The last two dogs had to be killed, and Nansen and Johansen got into their kayaks. For several days they paddled and sailed southwards without going ashore, pitching their tent on ice floes in the evening. The sea was full of life, and almost too much for comfort. Aggressive walruses tried to pierce the canvas on the kayaks. ‘Land’ proved to be some small islands. Nansen named the two first ones after his wife and daughter: Eva’s Island and Liv’s Island. Later it was discovered that ‘these’ were actually only one island, which is now called Eva-Liv Island. On August 9th they went ashore, up a glacier. It was not until the evening of August 15th that they found exposed land, with moss and swaying golden white Siberian poppies. The big question still remained: Where were they? Was this the coast of Franz Josef Land, with Svalbard as its closest neighbour across the sea; or was this just a deep, complex bay on the east side of the island? If so, would they have to travel north to get onto the ‘right’ side of the island? And to add to the confusion, yet another non-existent land was shown on Payer’s map. This was King Oscar Land, west of Franz Josef Land. Nansen was unable to observe it, for good reasons. On August 17th they were pretty sure of their conclusion. They were most

the heroes


probably on the west coast of Franz Josef Land, although the fictitious areas on the map still had them somewhat confused. The land was barren, but there were gulls, guillemots and auk, Arctic foxes and bears. There were seals and walruses in the sea. Nansen had been right. A ‘decent’ person could survive here. Nevertheless, they hoped to reach Svalbard before summer’s end, find a sealer, and hitch a ride home. That hope was crushed in the weeks to come. They were halted by the ice. The wind threatened to capsize the kayaks. It started to sleet and snow. Winter was rapidly approaching. Food was scarce once again; but an old he-bear who was sniffing around the tent, solved that problem temporarily. During the last days of August, Nansen and Johansen started to prepare for the inevitable: a long winter stay on the harsh coast. Mentally and physically, it was a formidable challenge. The entire, mad slog southwards from 86° 14’ N had been motivated by the desire to get home. And though they managed to reconcile themselves to the fact that the trip would take another year, it meant surviving with the little equipment they had. After all, they had left most of it on the ice when they switched to the kayaks. There was nothing to do but start building a ‘cabin’. To manage that, they had a sled runner, a spear, a ‘minute’ little axe, and ski poles with spikes. Using a spade made out of a walrus’s shoulder blade, they dug a hole, a metre deep and about two by three metres in size. Luckily they found enough stones in a scree, to make walls. The roof posed a problem, but they got hold of some driftwood, and used it as a roof girder. With skis and sticks to prop it up, they made a roof from the heavy, unwieldy walrus skins. While carrying out the building project, they hunted polar bears and walruses for winter supplies. The game was skinned and cut up, and so there was no lack of work during that autumn. In the hut they built stone bunks, one for each of them; but after an ice-cold night, they realised that they would have to use the common sleeping-bag procedure, here, too. Lighting came from homemade fish-oil lamps using blubber from the animals they hunted; and heat came from a ‘fireplace’ in one corner of the hut, that had a chimney constructed of snow, bear knuckles, and walrus meat. The sun disappeared on October 15th. There were no more animals to be seen, other than Arctic foxes, which sniffed around the hut throughout the winter. The polar cold set in. The two men’s clothing, which they had worn the entire journey, were by now rather tatty; which meant they only took short excursions from the warmth of the sleeping bag. Life in the hut consisted of sleep and two daily meals of meat.

98 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Where were Nansen and Johansen?

On board the Fram, Captain Sverdrup tried to keep the crew in shape and in a state of preparedness. The third winter had clearly worn them down, and quarrels and bickering were a daily occurrence. It was especially bad during periods of sustained headwind, and its consequences: drifting in the wrong direction. ‘When people are so ill-tempered that they have to be treated like rotten eggs, it is not easy to get along with them’, the seemingly ever eventempered captain griped in his diary. His new second-in-command, Scott Hansen, formulated it thus: ‘By Jove, this would be some place for a psychologist, if he could handle the ‘polar mood.’ However, this was normal for a winter camp. Had Sverdrup obtained access to diaries from previous expeditions, and not just the official reports, he would have realised that polar discontent was no unique phenomenon for the Fram. It was worse that the doctor and botanist was ailing. Born in 1866, Dr. Blessing was quite young, and had received his degree just before signing on. He was suffering from ‘stomach’ trouble, was listless, not very active, and experienced mood swings throughout the polar night. It took time for Sverdrup to work out what was wrong. To endure the hardships, Dr. Blessing had started to help himself to morphine, cocaine, and opium from the medicine cabinet. Sverdrup reacted by confiscating the key to the cabinet. Dr. Blessing got through the winter after a fashion; possibly more so because Sverdrup ordered more nourishing food for the weak doctor: bear meat every day! Still, their geographical position was what determined the mood onboard that winter. Now, only the longitudes counted. They had to move west. The ship was still far to the north, throughout large parts of the winter as far as 84° 50’ N. On February 1st they passed 31° 02’ E, the same longitude as the Northern Norwegian town of Vardø was on. Sverdrup wrote that they ‘celebrated the occasion with a festive evening’. On February 28th the first polar bears appeared. It was still reasonably dark and they halted out of range. Sverdrup asked the cook, Petterson, if he had something in the galley with a strong smell. The Swede came running up on deck with a pan full of fried onions. It was –35° C on deck, and Sverdrup started to feel the cold, so he went to fetch his fur coat; but before he had put it on, the bears were back. Sverdrup wounded them both, and ran out on the ice, while the cook rushed ahead, eager and without a weapon. Fresh meat at last! The two bears provided the men with their first proper fresh meal in 14 months onboard the Fram, apart from some birds and a miserable seal. All agreed that the ribs were the tastiest, and that ‘bear ribs are a meal fit for a king’. The ice started to break up in April, and the depot and supplies were moved

the heroes


aboard again. The snow on the tent roof started to melt, and the first snow sparrows were observed. Sverdrup ordered a general clean up. The time had come to try and break loose. Norway’s Constitution Day on May 17th, was celebrated ‘properly’, with a procession on the ice. However, with the experiences of the previous year’s excesses in mind, Sverdrup restricted the refreshments to ‘Château la Fram’. He watered down dried blueberries and cranberries and added a reasonable amount of spirits; and he wrote: ‘My brew got a lot of praise’. More important was the task of cleaning the engine and starting it up, clearing the rudder and propeller of ice; in other words, preparing the Fram to steam out of her icy prison as soon as was possible. But they were still a frighteningly long way north, at about 84° N, which is 300 km from the northern tip of Svalbard. The crew was very eager to depart, and started to blast the Fram loose from the ice with dynamite, a method not without its dangers to ship and crew. By June 1st they had managed to clear a channel in the ice, so the ship could float freely. However, on both sides of the lead, ice extended as far as the eye could see, interspersed by small channels that opened and closed. The weeks passed without much change. The hunting opportunities kept spirits high. There were plenty of seals, bears, and birds; and exotic dishes appeared on the menu: auk breast, black guillemot steak, kittiwake stew and Arctic skua soup. On July 17th a larger channel opened, and the Fram started to move slowly southwards. But the ice was thick and difficult. Old, meter-thick ice floated in the water, and below the surface, which made it difficult to detect. The ship endured some slams and banging, which an ordinary Arctic vessel would not have withstood. Sometimes they had to hove to and clear the channels, by hand or with dynamite. But they were on the right track; and at 3:15 a.m. on August 13th, 1896, the Fram steamed out into open seas. Otto Sverdrup and his men were northwest of Danish Island. On the whole they had confirmed Nansen’s theory: The current had taken them across the Arctic Ocean, and it had taken three years, just as Nansen had calculated. The one discrepancy was that the current did not flow as far north as anticipated. But where were Nansen and Johansen? When they had set out on their journey 18 months ago, in March of 1895, they had expected to be back in Norway that same autumn. On the morning of August 13th, the Fram came across a small sealer, the small ketch Søstrene which had sailed out of Tromsø. Not unexpectedly, the sealers were surprised to be saluted by this strange ship that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The Fram crew called across to them: ‘Have Nansen and Johansen returned to Norway?’ The answer was no. They were told, however, that there was another polar explorer on Danish Island, Swedish balloonist Salomon August Andrée. He had

100 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The Fram met expectations. Here, she is being dug out after having withstood the trip’s worst screw ice.

no news of Nansen either. To put it mildly, the atmosphere on board had been ecstatic when they had spotted land for the first time in 1041 days! Now, the news about the two missing men cast a dark shadow over the crew. Immediately, Sverdrup started to plan how he could get home as quickly as possible, restock the ship, and return to search for the missing men.

‘Dr. Nansen, I presume?’

The Fram crew need not have worried. That very same afternoon Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen stepped ashore in Vardø. They had spent about nine months inside the sleeping bag in their winter hut on Franz Josef Land. The days, or rather the nights, of eternal winter darkness were unfathomably monotonous. Their clothes were saturated with grease and stuck to their bodies. Outside, the winter storms raged; but ‘the temperature was not too bad inside’, Johansen writes. He had measured a cozy -7° C by the headboard. ‘But next to the wall, it was rather cold, especially when the wind was blowing.’ They celebrated Christmas Eve by turning their clothes inside out and switching the layers of clothing around. Johansen ‘cut off some tufts of hair’, too. On New Year’s Eve, Dr. Nansen pronounced his now famous words to the man with whom he had shared a sleeping bag since March. Nansen suggested that maybe it was time that they address each other with the informal pronoun for ‘you’, du, rather than ‘you’ (‘Thou’), De. Reserve Lieutenant Johansen readily accepted. At the end of January, the outdoor temperature on Franz Josef Land rose to –20° C, and they began to plan how to continue on their journey. Nansen’s back troubled him, and he had to lie still for 14 days. He improved, but during the spring, their stock of blubber had diminished to dangerously low levels. They were obliged to use less for heating, and could not cook their bear meat for breakfast. Instead, they had to gnaw on frozen bear meat. Luckily a polar bear came for a visit on March 8th. They soon realized that their general physical fitness had deteriorated over the winter, as they had hardly moved. Nonetheless, they managed to pursue the bear and shoot it, ‘in such a storm, that we were nearly bowled over in the gusts’. The bear was good and fat. Now they started to equip themselves to move on. They were probably not the handiest members of the Fram’s crew; but they managed to sew the blankets into clothes and made mittens, shoes, and socks from the bear skin. They ‘washed’ their underwear: ‘It was cooked over the fire. The underpants were so soft, that we could scrape the worst layer off with a knife. What we scraped off, we used for kindling when cooking, and for lighting the oil lamps’.

102 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The kayaks were in a bad condition after the winter, but were patched them up as well as could be expected. The oars, skis, and sticks were still in good condition, having been used as stays under the roof. On May 19th they set off southwards. Bad weather forced them to pitch tent almost at once; and they did not get going until June. They ran out of meat; but shot a walrus, and made a sort of ‘pudding’ out of the blood. It was a dish that neither of them enjoyed. They got into the kayaks; but soon had to get onto the ice again, hoist the sail over the sleds, and steer for some islands in the distant south, still uncertain as to exactly where they were. On June 12th they reached a promising stretch of open water, and prepared the kayaks. They sailed along the edge of the ice all day, but in the evening they brought the kayaks back to the ice, so they could stretch their legs, after having been cooped up so long in the narrow boats. They secured the kayaks, but not well enough. Suddenly, Johansen saw them drifting away. Everything they possessed was onboard those kayaks: food, weapons, and equipment. If they lost those, they would not survive more than a day or two on the bare ice. Sverdrup had noted in his diary that Nansen was indecisive and dithering. But at this decisive moment, the doctor did not hesitate. He gave Johansen his watch, tore off his clothes, and dived off the edge of the ice. The wind was blowing offshore, and the kayaks were drifting away fast. The cold water quickly made Nansen numb, but carried him onward. He had no reason to turn round, as he wrote: ’whether I stiffened and sank here, or turned back without the kayaks, would make no difference in the end’. When he got tired, he lay on his back and ‘rested’ for a few moments. He eventually reached the kayaks, caught one of the lashed-on sleds, hanging on. But Nansen was too weak to scramble onboard. Johansen was standing at the edge of the ice, and could do nothing but hope for the best. Nansen tried again, got a leg over the sled, and rolled onboard. Half unconscious from the cold, with the wind blowing through his thin, soaked underclothes, he managed somehow not only to paddle back, but to shoot two auks en route. ‘He looked awful when he got back’, said Johansen. He had a ‘pale face, long hair and beard dripping wet, and (was) foaming at the mouth.’ Johansen got him into something dry, gave him his own pants, and stuffed him into the sleeping bag. Then he built an igloo, cooked some food, and noticed that Nansen had fallen asleep. The ice-bather slept until he woke on his own; and after eating some fresh auk and warm stock, he revived surprisingly quickly. Yet another life-threatening situation occurred two days later, when Nansen’s kayak was attacked by a walrus. He defended himself as best he could with the paddle, but the animal made a large gash in the canvas. Luckily they

the heroes


Nansen climbs aboard, after his desperate swim to rescue their kayaks – and their lives.

were not far from the edge of the ice, and could pull the boat onto the ice. Had they been further out, things might not have turned out as well as they did. But then, suddenly, their troubles, toil, and mortal danger came to an end. A final coincidence saved them. On June 17th they were moored by the ice to repair the kayak, when they heard dogs barking inland. Nansen set off towards the source of the barking noise, and happened upon the English polar explorer, Frederick Jackson, who had wintered in a comfortable hut in the area, south in Franz Josef Land. The two men greeted each other with a handshake, and a polite ‘how do you do’. It took a few minutes for Jackson to grasp that this thoroughly filthy savage with sooty, black hair and beard, was the famous blonde explorer, Dr. Nansen. Of course, Jackson and his men had no news of the Fram, which at that moment lay in the ice north of Svalbard. They had a pair of scales, though; and Nansen was able to ascertain that after spending 15 months on the ice, for the most part living off the land, he weighed 92 kilos. He had gained 10 kilos since he left the Fram. Johansen, the ‘nibbler’, had put on 6 kilos during the trip. ‘This does not coincide with previous experience’, Nansen commented in a self-satisfied tone that was pardonable, under the circumstances. Someone who was not pleased with Nansen and Johansen’s achievements was the American, Greely. Not only did the Fram’s drift show that Nansen was right, regarding the polar current. The Norwegians had greatly surpassed (by three degrees), Lockwood’s prior record of having reached farther north than anyone else. The Norwegians had furthermore demonstrated their superiority with respect to Arctic survival. Greely had by now been promoted to general, and was able to apply his undisputed administrative talent as chief of the Army Signals Corps. He attacked Nansen viciously in the American press for having abandoned his men on the Fram. Nansen never bothered to respond, which irritated Greely even more. Besides, the criticism was probably undeserved. According to the Norwegian ‘system’, an expedition was not dependent on a single, almighty leader. Every man was responsible. Besides, everyone knew that the Fram was in good hands under the command of Captain Otto Sverdrup. Nansen and Johansen traveled south with Jackson’s ship, and they boarded the Fram when she arrived in Tromsø on August 21st.

A matter of honour for our nation

‘Nothing more important seems to have ever happened in Norway than the return home of Nansen and his comrades,’ wrote a surprised Knut Hamsun,

the heroes


tongue in cheek, in Dagbladet in 1889, when the Greenland explorers returned to Christiania. ‘Sixty thousand people welcomed them on the quay, fifty thousand accompanied them to the hotel, ten thousand shouted ‘hurrah’ ninety thousand times, and an old retired colonel from Kampen quite simply yelled himself to death.’ And yet this was only a dress rehearsal for the Fram’s triumphal journey down and along the coast in 1896. It surged forward like a huge wave, reaching the capital four weeks later. The first impromptu celebrations were held in Vardø. The streets filled with people, as soon as news spread that Nansen and Johansen had returned. There was a reception in Hammerfest, too; but the uncertainty regarding the Fram put a damper on the festivities. When reports arrived that the Fram had reached Skjervøy, all inhibitions were cast to the winds, and the city of Tromsø was given the honour of hosting the grand reunion. Every self-respecting port appointed a reception committee and sent out invitations. Only Trondheim, Bergen, Kristiansand, and Larvik were given the formal go-ahead. All along the coast and in the skerries, boats galore sailed out to greet the men from the Fram. The cities that had been chosen to host visits, organized big festivities. In Trondheim, an estimated 20 thousand persons stood on the quay; which was more than half the city population. The homecoming heroes arrived in the capital on September 9th. Escorted by several battleships and a flotilla of small boats crammed with people, the Fram glided slowly in through the Oslo Fjord. A ‘living’ welcome pavilion and a human portal had been erected on the quay. Other than the 1889 homecoming from Greenland, the city’s only previous event on such a grand scale had been the 1890 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Christiania’s first state visit. But the extent and intensity of this event was on an entirely different scale. These were the biggest celebrations in the city’s history. Many visitors had come to town. Hotels and guest houses were filled to capacity. The crowds were enormous and everywhere. Nansen’s men faced a five-day endurance test. On September 9th, having already visited the university, they were granted an audience with the King at the Royal Palace. The next day there was a children’s procession in the morning; the King visited the Fram in the afternoon; and a civic banquet was held in the evening. On the third day, the 11th, the Norwegian Geographical Society hosted a dinner. On September 12th a gala performance in their honour was held at Christiania Theatre. After the performance, students held a torchlight procession led by the expedition members. Even after four days, no one could complain about attendance. Along the route to the Student Union, the crowds were ten or twelve or even 30 deep, on both sides of the road. The final day, the 13th, was devoted to a national celebration in the Akershus Fortress Square. The celebrated author (and later a Nobel Prize-winner), Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, made a speech. One journalist estimated that about 30 thousand people were

106 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

present. ‘What he said was impossible to hear’, wrote another, ‘although the man had a voice like a bassoon.’ In any event, all across Norway, the addresses were variations on two themes. One theme was that this was a magnificent achievement. The whole world would admire it, and that would subsequently make Norway’s name known. Yes, it would ensure that some people actually knew there was a place called Norway. The second theme was that, finally, and after many years of uncompromising political strife, first over the introduction of parliamentary government and then over the union with Sweden, the country could now unite around this great achievement. According to the newspaper report, when Nansen had concluded his speech at the final celebration, there was ‘an enthusiasm that appeared to be born anew, every time it was about to die down. At last there was silence; and then, with their hats off, the enormous crowd sang the National Anthem. Thereafter, one by one, the North Pole explorers stepped forward to receive their tributes. In the end Bjørnson, too, had stepped forward to receive enthusiastic ovations.’ Enthusiasm for polar exploration cannot readily be placed in one or the other camp, on either side of the familiar lines of demarcation in political conflict. The Liberal-Left Government refused to support the Greenland expedition, whereas the Prime Minister from the Conservative Government invited Nansen to apply for a grant to build the Fram. Both in 1890 and in 1893, conflicts raged regarding grants to Fram, with the heaviest opposition coming from the Liberal-Left in 1890, and from the Conservatives in 1893. In both the major political parties there were strong disagreement on how the state was to deal with polar expeditions. The majority decided expeditions were something in which the state should invest though. Expeditions constituted such a popular source of enthusiasm that they could and should be utilized to strengthen national unity and to enhance Norway’s international prestige. Ultimately, the Fram sailed off with the support of two-fifths of Conservatives and four-fifths of Liberal-Left party members.

A race between nations

It all started when the politicians turned down sponsorship of Nansen’s first expedition, crossing glacier-covered Greenland. Nansen had applied for support from the university, and had stressed international competition as a factor. Denmark and Sweden were both staking a good deal on resolving Arctic questions, he wrote; whereas Norway, with better qualifications, had not equipped even a single expedition. The university senate supported his application, but was dependent on government grants. The government refused. Nansen referred later to a newspaper whose opinion was that there was no reason for

the heroes


the people to pay five thousand crowns in order ‘that a private citizen could make a pleasure cruise to Greenland’. Nansen encountered opposition amongst research colleagues, too, who did not think it was appropriate for a serious scientist to set out on such a stupid and suicidal venture. Most newspapers, whether liberal or conservative, were nevertheless initially willing to view this as more than a private adventure. It was a national event. The Liberal-Left newspaper Dagbladet was the most nationalistic, in the sense that from the very beginning it advocated excluding all foreign participation. The Dane August Gamél had pledged his support, but Danish money, Dagbladet argued, should be turned down. Greenland was an old, Norwegian colony, and Norway should reap all the glory from the expedition; it should not be necessary to share any glory with Denmark. Once success was a fact, all the Norwegian newspapers rushed to reject any Danish ‘claim to fame’. When expenses turned out to exceed income, initiatives were taken to make sure any deficit was covered by Norwegian money; so that Gamél, who was willing to provide more funding, could be turned down. The Conservative newspaper Aftenposten used the opportunity to attack the Liberal government. The paper wrote that on the one hand, Denmark should foot the bill because the expedition was on Danish territory. But the best solution would have been for the Norwegian state to pay, because the expedition had shed so much prestige on Norway. Nansen’s first expedition established a framework wherein polar expeditions became, above all, a matter of national honour in a larger international competition. National rivalry was a key theme. Norway had won a great victory on the ‘battlefield of science’; it was a ‘race between nations as to who would be able to make such conquests’. Polar exploration was considered an honourable science, because it was so obviously a heroic science. Scientific results were accompanied by dramatic travelogues about battles to survive in the world’s most inhospitable terrain. There was great symbolic profit to be gained by these travelogues. When the first reports of the Greenland crossing reached the newspapers, they were able to confirm the suffering of ‘severe hardships’; and the more hardships there were on the journey, the more honour was gleaned: ‘Exactly the hardships that we have encountered here, will add more interest to the expedition’;‘This involuntary sojourn on Greenland, which reminds one in many ways of the Vega’s wintering, will make this expedition more illustrious.’ In the midst of his preparations for Greenland, Nansen was preparing to defend his Ph.D. on nerve cells. In his thesis, he set forth a new neurological theory. No one viewed this as a national victory on the ‘battlefield of science’. It is hardly conceivable that a doctoral thesis on neurology could have aroused patriotic rhetoric similar to what followed in the wake of Nansen’s Greenland journey. A microscope and desk

108 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The Norwegian capital is about to receive its new hero. A grand, living portal stands waiting for Nansen and his men.

would never have made Nansen the figure he became, using a pair of skis, a kayak, and the Fram. Nansen himself was keen to put his achievements at the disposal of his country. To advance his nation’s interests was in accordance with his deepest convictions. Support by the state, moreover, provided greater legitimacy than support by private sponsors. With the state backing him, he was no longer a private citizen on a journey. In his book about the Greenland expedition, he spent a lot of time underscoring the Norwegian angle. His message was that the crossing of Greenland had above all been a ski trip. In a long chapter on the history of skiing, he wrote that ‘skiing is the most national of all Norwegian sports’. Therefore, no other nation could have accomplished anything comparable. When it came to national honour, advocates had the advantage of being able to appeal to utility and duty at the same time. In one respect the polar expeditions maximized national self-interest. The state invested economic capital – money – to harvest symbolic profit – honour. At the same time, it was said that this had nothing to do with self-interest. It was a matter of national honour, and a matter of honour is a matter of duty; one is obliged to make the sacrifices that are called for. From this perspective, Nansen did not really ask for money as such; but rather he offered a gift. Nansen ‘is a gift that is not presented to us every day’. Gifts are something we are obliged both to receive and return. This ambiguity is characteristic of all the discussions about financing the polar expeditions. One argued both in the language of investment and the prose of sacrifice; it was a question of competition and pursuit of selfinterest, and at the same time of denial of all self-interest and benefit. There is a similar ambiguity with respect to the expeditions. A recurring theme in the literature is whether the purpose of polar exploration was essentially a competition in the pursuit of ‘setting records’, or in advancing science. The point is that they were both. Parliament would never have granted such large sums to ‘normal’ scientific expeditions. On the other hand, science legitimized the enterprise. The government would never have granted funds to a purely record-chasing undertaking, either. The wonderful thing about Fram was that it fulfilled both criteria. The prospect of being first to the pole was the more important, though. This is in evidence when one sees how the crew was recruited. Significant as it was for project funding to be Norwegian, it was of the utmost importance for the crew to be Norwegian. However, this did not necessarily include the scientific personnel. Nansen put geology professor Waldemar Christoffer Brøgger to work recruiting a geologist, and Brøgger asked several promising candidates, who included Swedes. As late as May, he was trying to recruit a Scotsman. After all, Nansen had never said that Norway’s scientific qualifications for polar explor-

110 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

ation were superior. What Norway possessed was geographic proximity to ‘polar regions’, traditions in skiing, and the prerequisite ‘personal qualities’. After the Greenland tour, he said that Norwegians were particularly promising candidates to operate in this field by virtue of three traits: ‘courage, wisdom, and toughness’. The Fram expedition showed what ‘Norwegian seamanship and courage could accomplish’. F.G.Jackson, who later saved Nansen and Johansen’s lives on Franz Josef Land, had applied to join the Fram expedition. However, Nansen had said his inclusion would be out of the question, because he was not Norwegian. Nansen was not prepared to take on a British adventurer, but he was prepared to take on a British geologist. Thus, he could employ a Swedish geologist, but not a Swedish sailor. The Swedish second machinist was only included because he snuck in using the name Petersen, and lied about his Swedish parents. Nansen himself never admitted this publicly. A Swedish scientist? Yes, if necessary. But Swedish money and sailors? No way.

National intoxication

One of the most striking things about the Fram grant debate was that no one said: ‘Let’s make this a joint Swedish-Norwegian effort’. At that time (and until 1905) Sweden and Norway were united under one king. The Norwegian conservative parties were loyal to the king and to the union, and said that ‘the most loyal Norwegians are the ones who support the union with Sweden and whose efforts are devoted to strengthening the union on both sides of the border’. Even so, nobody advocated that a North Pole expedition with a Norwegian crew and Swedish money might be an ideal vehicle to strengthen the love between the two nations. On the contrary, even conservative Norwegian politicians and newspapers spoke of ‘foreign’ money, when in fact they meant Swedish money. They would have been just as upset as their opponents, and wanted to avoid Nansen, once again, first going abroad to greet his financial backers before returning home to be celebrated in Norway. On the other hand, we cannot conclude that the success of Nansen and the Fram worked against the union. In this connection, reference is often made to correspondence between Nansen and the author Bjørnson. When Nansen returned from Greenland, Bjørnson wrote that ‘it is about freeing ourselves from being psychologically and politically ruled by Sweden. Each of your deeds is a step in the right direction’. And then there was Nansen’s last message to Bjørnson from Kabharova: ‘If only I were to find Norway a free country on my return.’ Focusing on Nansen’s intentions is problematic, when investigating the significance of the Fram expedition; because that significance was no longer

the heroes


Nansen’s to define, if it ever had been. Nor was Bjørnson his only interpreter. In any event, the Parliament had not launched a Realpolitik manifesto, and certainly not a manifesto on the union with Sweden. Instead, it had launched a ‘national’ manifesto, with a promise of deeds that would unite the entire nation across political lines. A Liberal-Left Party man said in 1890: ‘…there comes a moment in the life of a people when, as it were, all barriers fall, when everything divisive is removed, when there appear to be no differences of rank; as though there is everywhere one thought, one feeling.’ The Liberal-Leftist stated that the Greenland triumph had been just such a moment. The conquest of the North Pole would also be such a moment, but to a much greater degree. In other words: To boost national self-esteem vis-à-vis Sweden was one thing, and the issue of the union was another. Where the politics of union divided, the Fram would unite. The day the Fram left Christiania, Parliament cancelled its session. A last greeting from the Northern Norwegian harbour of Berlevåg arrived, the day the Parliament dissolved. ‘As we leave Norway, we send the government, and through it the entire Norwegian nation, our deepest gratitude for the most wonderful support and goodwill that has been shown the expedition at all times.’ When the president of the Parliament had finished reading this aloud, everyone in the assembly rose to his feet. During his journey along the coast, Nansen reflected in his diary on a nation that toiled for its bread ‘between the stones and the sea’, and that had dispatched them on a journey to the unknown. ‘They might have thought this an honourable undertaking; but why and for what purpose? Are they being deceived? But nonetheless their eyes are drawn to the ship: and in their thoughts, perhaps a new, incomprehensible world dawns, yearning for something they do not know. In spite of our toil for survival, in spite of our crude politics, perhaps the nation’s thoughts are not so earthbound after all.’ None of the investors could ever have dreamt of such fantastic dividends as they reaped when the Fram returned to Norway in 1896. The dream of uniting the nation across all divides, of putting all prophecies by sinister and critical experts to shame, and of basking in the light of unqualified international admiration, was about to become a reality. The expedition had failed to bring home the big prize, conquering the actual Pole. But that was a minor disappointment, soon overshadowed by everything else. They had been further north than anyone else. They had proven their current theory to be correct; the Fram had passed the test; and the entire crew returned home safe and sound. To top it all, were the almost simultaneous two return voyages and homecomings, and the fantastic tales recounted by the newspapers of the odyssey of Nansen and Johansen. Sir George Baden-Powell, on whose yacht Nansen had travelled from

112 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

Fridtjof Nansen performing water tests during the Fram expedition. This was not the kind of work that won him his countrymen’s awe, but scientific work helped persuade politicians to provide funding.

Hammerfest to Tromsø, said that ‘it was a journey which, when the world gets to know its details, will be considered the greatest proof of physical and mental endurance ever suffered by human beings’. Would it have been more honourable to drift silently over the North Pole on board the Fram? It would have been wonderful if the Fram had reached the North Pole, wrote the newspaper Den 17de Mai, ‘but we would not have exchanged this two-man journey across the icy wilds for that’. President of the Royal Geographical Society Sir Clemens Markham described Nansen’s and Johansen’s hardships as ‘absolutely without parallel in the long and honourable chronicles of polar exploration’. Nansen had said that their task had been to achieve glory on behalf of the Norwegian people. Upon his return, he shared the ‘glory dividend’ generously: with Vardø, the town where they had last set foot on Norwegian soil before their journey; with Tromsø, whose sealers and whalers were the country’s true Vikings; with Trondheim, with its great Nidaros cathedral; with Bergen, where the plan had been born; with Kristiansand, where he praised the Norwegian women; with Larvik, where Colin Archer had built the Fram; and with Christiania, where Nansen reached out to scientists, the university, Norwegian youth, and the Norwegian people in general. There were several factors underlying general national enthusiasm. First of all, there is support for reports that ‘the whole world’ admired the explorers’ feat. The Greenland expedition had made Nansen a European celebrity; the Fram made him an international star. The English and American press usually ignored foreign polar explorers, but they bowed to Nansen. The Pall Mall Gazette called him the greatest explorer of all times, and The Washington Post recounted his entire life story. German newspapers were full of ‘the return of Nansen’; and congratulations from Norway’s Nordic neighbours were overwhelming. The second reason for the country’s intoxication was the combined effect of telegraph and mass media. The first thing Nansen did, upon setting foot in Vardø was to rush to the telegraph station and spread the word (of his return) ‘everywhere’. In the course of a mere two decades, the telegraph had established ‘a common present’ which reached all the way to Vardø. Distance in terms of space was no longer proportional to distance in time. A world sensation had suddenly appeared in Vardø, but proximity to the protagonist no longer meant enjoying privileged information. On the contrary, Nansen sat in the telegraph station, sending one telegram after another; and when the bureaus telegraphed back for more details, ‘the people of Vardø became rather irritated to think that people in London and America must know more now than we do here in Vardø, with Dr. Nansen right in our midst’. The telegraph and mass media made it possible to indirectly participate in distant events as they were unfolding. Newspapers sent correspondents to

114 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

The name Nansen could sell anything, even sardines.

cover the festivities along the coast, and transformed triumphal processions into events in which the ‘entire nation’ could participate, simultaneously. This could rank as Norway’s very first national media spectacle; and, as such, it ‘united the nation’. The newspapers also played an important role in mobilizing events, constantly publicising them and encouraging people to participate. This might explain the reason for the large turnouts. In any event, the papers and their journalists were interested in the Fram. It was good copy. Besides, they had argued in favour of government grants to the expedition. Were the polar expeditions important historic events in a larger perspective? In answer to that question, one must say that the expeditions were not as important as some would have them be. Nansen’s deeds have been directly linked to the politics surrounding the union of Norway and Sweden in the 1890s; and furthermore viewed as the decisive explanation for independence in 1905. Drawing such a direct link is problematic, since the ability of the polar explorations to unite the nation presupposed that they were non-political in nature and content. They became controversial as soon as they were linked to social, political or cultural conflicts, like monarchy vs republic, union or independence, liberal vs. conservative. If the people were to be united, national politics would have to play second fiddle. What united the people was the recognition of courage, strength and the ability to survive, and the deep pride in the fact that Norwegians had been shining examples of such virtues. An author like Knut Hamsun could trivialise as much as he wanted. However, whoever denied that Nansen and Johansen had made a journey that outshone all others, would have a hard time arguing the case. Celebrations of the polar journeys can be compared to a royal wedding. There is much ado while it lasts, but is it politically important? If celebrations of the Fram triumph may be viewed as the first ‘national’ media happening, students of political science or social history will nevertheless view the celebrations more as a symptom than a cause. An indication that this as a legitimate point of view, is the fact that the Fram expedition was used and exploited by politicians to promote national unity. It was in no way an isolated happening which established a completely new agenda. At the same time, polar expeditions were a problem in a democratic culture. They were what the sociologist Thorstein Veblen called ‘conspicuous consumption’: the wasteful use of resources with a view to increasing social prestige. The American sociologist and son of Norwegian farmers, did not like it, and nor did the ‘farmers’ at home. For Nansen, rising above the mere ‘utility’ was a goal of culture. However, for rationalistic politicians committed to an efficient use of resources and to egalitarian values, utilization of public funds for status-oriented purposes was not a simple question. They might be highly

116 t h e e m e r g e n c e o f a p o l a r n a t i o n

There was a dispute over which flag the North Pole expedition should use: the ‘pure’ Norwegian flag or the one featuring the emblem of Norway’s union with Sweden. This postcard was probably printed after the Greenland expedition, and shows Nansen and Sverdrup with the ‘purely Norwegian’ flag.

devoted to the national interest; but they maintained that there were more useful and important national projects requiring spending, than sending people to the North Pole. In this regard, Amundsen would be easier to handle. If he were given money, one could be pretty certain that he would break some record or other. On his return, he would also make less of it. And besides, God was always on his side.


After the union with Sweden was dissolved in 1905, Norway pursued its own foreign policy. The ownerless Arctic islands appealed to scientists and entrepreneurs, to seek financial profit and to make political claims. Coal-mining formed the foundation of settlements on Spitsbergen; hunters pursued adventure in the wilderness; and Arctic sea captains sought out ever new hunting grounds. The South, too, held the promise of new riches. The competition continued: to be first to reach these farflung outposts at the ends of the earth. With respect to polar exploration, Norway had become a country to be reckoned with and to be acknowledged.


The Arctic Ocean experienced a change of protagonists around the turn of the century. Southeastern Norwegian ship-owners stopped sealing in the north, and turned their attention to Antarctic whaling. Starting at the turn of the century, there was also an increase in the number of hunters who wintered on the Arctic islands. However, the largest and most extensive expansion within the Norwegian ‘polar regions’, had nothing to do with fishing or hunting. It involved coal-mining on Spitsbergen. Entrepreneurs shared the possibility of extraordinary profits, but also the potential for fiasco, bankruptcy, and (for many) certain death. The road was wide open for anyone who had money, initiative, or a spirit of adventure.

Seal hunting

The decimation of seal stocks meant that it now was necessary for seal hunters to go further away from open water and further into the ice than large boats could maneuver. Furthermore, prices of seal oil and seal skin had declined, so that the income no longer justified the expense of operating large vessels. To continue sealing, Eastern Norwegians would have to invest in smaller, motorized ships. Instead, they chose to invest in whaling on the other side of the globe. The very last sealer bound for the Western Ice Fields left Eastern Norway in 1913. Later, Eastern Norwegian sealers participated for short periods of time, only when the market seemed to offer promising returns. At approximately the same time, fishermen from Sunnmøre on the west coast of Norway began hunting in the Arctic Ocean. They had been pioneers in the development of deep-sea fishing, but that activity was now insufficient to sustain them, throughout the year. After a while, there was not enough fish

the entrepreneurs


in the sea to support year-round fishing on Storegga or on other banks near the coast; and they were forced to find new fishing grounds. The relatively large boats needed for fishing on the banks were expensive to operate, so bank fishing and Arctic Ocean fishing made for a good combination, as far as type of vessel and time of year were concerned. But how come fishermen from Sunnmøre could make Arctic Ocean hunting pay, when the fishermen from Vestfold, further south, had been forced to give up? One reason was that the boats from Western and Northern Norway were much smaller than the ones from Eastern Norway; there were smaller crews to pay and to divide the spoils. Smaller ships were easier to sail into the ice where the seals dropped their pups. Furthermore, running costs were lower. In addition, hunters from Western and Northern Norway were closer to the hunting grounds. Within a few years, the fleet from Northwestern Norway grew; and in addition to Tromsø and Hammerfest, Ålesund quickly established itself as an Arctic Ocean town. After about 1905, the fleet increased considerably along the northern and western coast, in part because motorized engines were beginning to be more widely used. With an engine, a ship could manage two trips per year, and be more profitable. The size of the ship also determined the choice of hunting ground. Most of the ships from Northern Norway sailed to the Northern and Eastern Ice Fields, where smaller, readily maneuverable ships were used; whilst the larger vessels from Sunnmøre in Western Norway, dominated the fishing and hunting grounds in the Western Ice Fields and the Greenland Strait. The passage was shorter, and the seal stock more concentrated in the east. After the end of World War I, the Western Ice Fields became overcrowded with hunters; and in 1919 two ships from Ålesund began hunting for seal pups near the mouth of the White Sea. Maneuvering with modern ships was much easier than it had been when the old North Norwegian sailing ships had tried hunting here in the 19th century. Modern White Sea hunting was successful, and in 1925, 80 % of sealing took place in this area. These were good times for the hunting industry, owing to rising prices and large catches. Recruitment was good; never had there been so many Norwegian ships in the Arctic ice as there were in 1918–19. After a good trip, there were hunters who could build themselves a home from the profits. The World War I increased demand for all types of oil, and consequently the price of blubber rose. Hence, hunters tended to kill animals that produced more blubber, such as ringed seal and walrus. There was also a demand for walrus skin, which was used industrially to make conveyor belts and transmission belts. In about 1919, new technology made it possible to separate the seal’s thick inner layer of hide from the pelt. Furs became softer and lighter, and sales and profits increased.

122 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The alliance between France and Russia just prior to World War I had inspired a new women’s fashion in Paris. Inspired by Russian winter apparel, furs became a necessary part of a lady’s wardrobe. For the first time in fashion history, long fur coats were made for women; hitherto only men had worn them. Previously, fur collars and cuffs had sufficed for women. This boom period resulted in an increased use of luxury items by the well-heeled upper classes, including the use of furs. As a result, the market for seal-skins was very good. Norway took no part in World War I, but Arctic Ocean hunters suffered war tragedies. A total of nine Arctic ships, all from Northern Norway, were sunk, torpedoed, or mined; and eight of them were sunk in 1918. Five crewmen from the Sjøløven, out of Tromsø, died; the rest were rescued. When the Tennes was sunk by a German submarine on May 12th, the crew managed to scramble onboard the Stairs; but two days later, grenades rained down on this ship, too. One man was sleeping, and suffered permanent shellshock. Two crewmen reached shore at Vaidaguba in Russia, where they were well taken care of. Norwegian hunting ships were also subject to British seizure. A few of them managed to deceive British boarding parties, and so sailed to Ålesund rather than to the British port to which they had been ordered. The Jopeter was impounded, and remained in a British port for 18 months. The owner, Peter S. Brandal, was obliged to take the British Government to court to have the ship released and sent home. Acts of war, such as blockades and mining, obstructed fishing on many of the traditional fishing grounds; and as a result, some vessels opted to hunt seal instead. In the last phase of the war, oil and coal shortages and rationing, caused the fishing industry additional problems. Peter S. Brandal attempted to use coal from open mines in Kongsfjord on Svalbard, in his engines. That coal worked just fine; and when he was offered the rights to mine the coal, he formed a mining company, commencing operations in 1917. The place was initially called Brandal City, but later changed its name to Ny-Ålesund. In the interwar years, sealing was also affected by supply and demand and the general economic situation. During the record year of 1925, the total value was three times that of the total for 1939. There were several reasons for the drop in profits. The general state of the market led to lower fur and blubber prices, while operating costs, such as the price of oil, increased. Fur was no longer in great demand. Seal fur was no longer fashionable, and fewer could afford to buy it. In the Brandal warehouses, sealskins were stacked up to the rafters. Hunting grounds and quotas shrunk as a result of Soviet Arctic policies. Furthermore, a rise in temperature caused the ice in the Eastern Ice Fields to be forced eastward towards the Russian mainland; consequently the hunting grounds were now within Russian territorial waters, and beyond the licensed

the entrepreneurs


Seal hunting in the Western Ice Fields.

Norwegian hunting fields. Seals followed the ice, and Norwegian yields grew meager. The interwar years saw many shipwrecks, especially in the White Sea. This, of course, was hardly good for business. Also, Northern Norwegian hunting in the Northern Ice Fields suffered during this period. Protection of wild reindeer on Svalbard, together with decimation of walrus stocks, made that hunting less profitable. Walrus hunting was now left to hunters who stayed the winter. Changes to the hunting grounds in the north and east forced ships from Northern Norway to sail westwards, as the Sunnmøre hunters of Western Norway had done before them. Low margins left little money to reinvest in ships and equipment. Fewer ships participated in the hunt; dividends amongst the crew were smaller; recruitment fell; and there was a great decline in overall profits. Between 1924 and 1939, numbers of crew members dropped from 1742 to 1016, while the number of ships was more than halved, from 154 to 64. But, hunters continued to sail into the ice. Probably due to the general economy, there were simply no other alternatives. Unemployment was high amongst the salaried classes; times were bad within agriculture and fishing, work traditionally combined with hunting. It was necessary to find employment where one could; and to a larger extent than fishing, hunting always had the allure of larger profits. Out on the hunt there was at least enough food and something to do. One skipper, whose sons were on board with him, wrote to his brother in April 1934: ‘I sailed out on account of my sons, so that they would not hang around with nothing to do so early on in the season.’ But from the mid 1930s prices began rising again. For those who had remained in the industry, things were looking up. With fewer profits from the White Sea and the Greenland Strait, it became time to search for new hunting grounds. From 1910 to 1915, Norwegian attempts at hunting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence had been unsuccessful. In 1938 the government underwrote a trial trip to the grounds around Newfoundland. This time yields were so good that the two ships, the Polaris and the Polarbjørn, did not have to make use of the guarantee. Thus Newfoundland was established as a Norwegian hunting ground, something which would be of significance after the war.


Sealing was an industry that suffered a high rate of shipwrecks. Few seal-hunting vessels ended their days rotting on the beaches. There were many reasons for shipwrecks: pack ice, collision with ice floes, becoming icebound, or, quite simply, disappearing in a storm. The first major, tragic shipwreck of the new century took place in 1917.

the entrepreneurs


On Easter Eve of that year, seven sealers were lost in the Western Ice Fields, and 84 crewmen lost their lives. The few ships that made it back home, brought with them tales of hurricanes followed by extreme cold. These were the days without means of communicating with folks at home; so it was late summer, before relatives at home were told they would never see their loved ones again. Thoughts were the only form of communication between ship and home. Letters could be conveyed only by other ships that had finished for the season or were forced to seek harbour owing to disease or accident. In 1910, the Tromsø Skippers’ Association entered into a cooperative agreement with the postal service, whereby the mail boat to Spitsbergen would deliver letters to ships it encountered en route. This service was inevitably limited, but it was better than nothing. Sometimes women prevented their men from sailing. One man said he gave up after one trip where the weather was particularly bad because his wife asked him to. Tales were told of mothers who refused to send all their sons hunting, on to the Arctic seas. Some men were not entirely forthcoming regarding the dangerous and dramatic events they had experienced during shipwrecks and bad weather. Between 1924 and 1939, 116 Norwegian Arctic Ocean ships were totally wrecked. This amounted to approximately 7.5 % of all the vessels, each year. The 1920s were especially bad, owing to increased activity in the White Sea. There, the dangers of pack ice were ever present on account of the great differences between high and low tides, and strong currents at the entrance to the sea. Storms and currents caused ships to run aground on shallows. One sailor said that after the pack ice had pushed the ship down, tides drove her up again, and onto shallows, where she lay so high and dry that it was possible to walk around her on clogs without getting wet . Nevertheless, it was easier to survive during a White Sea shipwreck, than during a shipwreck in the Western Ice Fields. This was because the hunting grounds were reasonably small; and the ships were packed closer together. It was also a shorter distance to land. Some crewmen came ashore in Russia and experienced Russian tea and hospitality; but also saw Russian poverty and drunkenness. In most cases, shipwrecked crews managed to be rescued by nearby Norwegian ships. When an Arctic ship hoisted its stern flag, it was a sign that the vessel needed assistance. In the log of the Havørn I out of Trondheim, the entry for May 2nd, 1925, reads as follows: a floe blocks the stern and we move forward but only a few metres; we turn the engine off; the pack ice presses incredibly, and at 10:30 this morning the deck bursts. Port side starts to cave in, midships, and the watch below is roused and comes immediately on deck, about 10 minutes later a hole

126 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

develops on the port side and water rushes in. The deck boats are lowered onto the ice and pushed off a bit. Skipper and harpooner go below to see what is happening; and they see that a large block of ice has come through the side of the ship and breaks several timbers. Warned the crew to make ready to leave the ship; and everything goes quickly and smoothly. When the boat had sunk, they pulled the deck boats over the ice and rowed around the channels for nine days and eight hours, until they reached the Hortensia, from Hammerfest, which took them aboard. Another reason for the shipwrecks was that the vessels were not all maintained that well. In 1928 new guidelines regarding the reinforcement and control of Arctic Ocean ships were introduced, and thereafter, the number of shipwrecks was reduced. The establishment of supervisory and emergency ships also helped secure the fleet. Severe March storms might occur in the Western Ice Fields, but as the ships that hunted there tended to be larger, shipwrecks were less frequent than in the White Sea. However, once there was an accident, the risk of loss of life increased. In the west, one of the most tragic years was in 1939. Three boats were lost in a storm en route to Newfoundland. One of them, the Nyken, disappeared with all hands, and the crews of the two others were saved under especially dramatic circumstances, in which crews from other ships risked their lives to help. By then, radio communications were in use. The wife and children of one Nyken crewman, Mikal Nilsen, sat at home helplessly following his plight, hour by hour on the radio. They even heard his last greetings. After hearing the word ‘breaker,’ his children received a clear, distinct message from their father: ‘Hello Aslaug, Gunvor, Ruth, and Jermund! You must promise to look after mummy.’ Radio communications made it possible to locate the two other ships, the Isfjell and Saltdalingen; and so their crews were able to be saved. In the Western Ice Fields, too, the huge storm raged and two ships from Tromsø, the Vikfjeld and the Polar, were lost with all hands. In many cases the shipwrecks remained mysteries. When large-scale rescue missions where initiated to save polar researchers and explorers, the authorities were severely criticised for not making equally vigorous attempts at saving hunters. It was not uncommon for hunters to risk their lives and catches, to save comrades on other boats; yet they received no compensation for losses. Relatives had to deal not only with bereavement, but with financial difficulties, too. Therefore, the industry established several initiatives. The Tromsø Skipper Association’s Women’s Society was founded in 1882 to help families who had lost their breadwinner on hunting expeditions. The women’s society held raffles and bazaars to raise money, helped many bereaved families, and were

the entrepreneurs


quick to provide much-needed sympathy and emotional support. The following year, the Tromsø Skipper Association’s Sailors’ Support Fund was founded ‘to help needy, shipwrecked sailors and their needy widows, according to the ability of the fund and the contributions of the person concerned’. The Skippers’ Association in Ålesund established a widows’ fund in 1907; the same year, a Women’s Association was formed to raise funds. After the big shipwreck in 1917, the Ålesund Skippers’ Association, Ålesund Fishermen’s Association, and Ålesund Shipowners’ Association set up a fund for the surviving relatives of fishermen and hunters from the county of Møre and Romsdal. Collection drives initiated by newspapers were not uncommon, and could contribute some immediate assistance. Although loss of life was of course the worst tragedy of all, losing vessels and catches caused serious financial difficulties. It was not easy to collect insurance claims, either. Tromsø’s first insurance company was founded in 1904. It offered hull and equipment insurance, but no insurance to compensate for loss of a catch. The firm only made payments in the event of total shipwreck. The company went bankrupt in 1927 owing to limited support. Following the fatal year of 1917, the Tromsø ship-owners cooperated to found the Tromsø Polar Sea Insurance Company, but it was too small and never really got going. In those days it was rare to take out full hull insurance; it was usual to insure partial value of the vessel, usually an amount equivalent to its remaining debt. That company did not survive the payouts following the many shipwrecks during the 1920s, and it was dissolved in 1928. There were other insurance companies around; a 1923 advertisement for the Viking Insurance Company in the newspaper Tromsø read: ‘Arctic Ocean ship-owners – use only the best (insurance) companies’. Sunnmøre was more successful with its insurance companies, at least in the beginning. In 1915, the Sunnmøre Mutual Assurance Association for Polar Sea Ships was established, and insured virtually the entire district’s fleet. The members paid 25 % for hull insurance. In 1926, the association expanded insurance to cover equipment, catch, and crew paraphernalia and effects. But it was bad business. Because of the numerous shipwrecks of 1920–28, more money had to be paid out than had come in. Hence, in 1928, insurance coverage for the risky Arctic Ocean hunt was precarious in both Northern and Southern Norway. Parliament granted funds, and the Ministry of Trade and Industry established a committee to try and resolve the problem by establishing state-subsidised companies in the Troms and Sunnmøre regions. But the company in the north never got off the ground; and in 1934, an insurance company for the entire country was established. It was called ‘Ishavet’, or the Polar Sea.

128 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Many ships were lost in the ice and shipwrecks were part of life for many people in the Arctic. Here, the Drivis is pressed down by the ice in the White Sea in 1928. Arnt Jensen and Aasmund Pedersen try to save what clothing and equipment they can.

Life on board

Saturday, February 22nd. We are lying by the quay in Vardø. We arrived at noon, two days and two hours from Tromsø. We are provisioning, seeing to all our affairs, and getting organised for the trip. It is very cold here, –15 degrees C, with a gale blowing from the SW. The whole crew is writing home, some are onboard, others at the seamen’s hostel. This is our last greeting for what could be a long time. These diary entries were made by Alf Andreassen of Senja, on his last day in port at the start of the 1936 season. After the ships had been fitted with engines, they managed two and sometimes three trips per year; and every trip would last about three months. The old sailing ships had had to take on provisions for twice that amount of time. The time of departure depended on where the ship was sailing from, where it was going to hunt, and on the prevailing conservation regulations governing the catches. Early in the century, it was normal to leave for both the Western and Eastern Ice Fields in April, as it was illegal to catch seal before April 1st. Conservation regulations lapsed during World War I. In about 1920, it was common for the ships to leave for the White Sea somewhat earlier, sometimes as early as the end of February. This was the way to catch the finest and most valuable pelts. The pelts were called ‘whitecoat’, and came from one-week-old seal pups; pelts from yearlings, and older seals were often mottled. In the Western Ice Fields, the Greenland seal gave birth to its pup about a month later, so if things went quickly, hunters had a chance to reach both grounds. Later in the year, the ships might hunt ‘old seal’ in the Western Ice Fields and/or hooded seal in the Greenland Strait, sometimes combined with catching Greenland shark. The skin of the young hooded seal, the so-called ‘blueback’, fetched a good price abroad. Here, it was also important to get to the hunting grounds early, because the hooded seal lost fat when they shed their hair. In bad years, the hunters would supplement their catch with musk ox, eider duck, walrus, and polar bear from Greenland. The Northern Norwegian ships that hunted in the White Sea, would often route their second journey in the waters around Svalbard. There they caught bearded seal, walrus, and ringed seal, and also polar bear, supplemented with down and seabird eggs. Before the ship could leave land, it refuelled and stocked up on provisions. Dried cod, salted herring, hardtack, bread, and margarine were the main staples, at least during the first decades of the trade. Seal meat and polar bear meat were consumed, when the crew could get that. A talented cook could concoct delicious dishes, such as seal blood black pudding with raisins, seal-meat meatballs, and seal beef, as well as seal flippers. Menus differed from ship to

130 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

ship, and in good years the diet was varied and balanced. There was rationing on some ships when stocks were low, and if the vessel was trapped unexpectedly in the ice for any length of time, rationing would be necessary. The cook’s inventiveness was a key factor, too. One ship’s diary reads: ‘all is well apart from the fact that our cook is lousy both with the food and its preparation, and he keeps us ‘in the heads’ far more than is necessary. He can not keep things in order, and everything is a mess.’ On other ships, skilled cooks made pancakes and (a starchy) sago soup with raisins, which made Sunday really festive. Long and hard working hours meant that good food was important to morale. Seventy-two years later, hunter Ruben Brandal still recalls how good meatballs with creamed peas and an apricot dessert tasted, when a long and tiring day of hunting was over. Guttom Jacobsen of Tromsø remembers how, in the years between the two World Wars, water was kept in a tank which had been full of blubber the previous year. That water did not taste good. Sweet dry baked biscuits called ‘rusks’ could be so full of mites, that it was a good idea to thump them on the table before taking a bite. Someone else said they used to dip the rusks into cold water and re-warm them on the stove, which made them taste freshly made. With syrup or cheese, they were considered quite tasty. When times were good, food stocks could be supplemented with fresh fish and meat, tinned food, jam, and canned milk. The sheep carcasses that had been brought along, could be hung up to freeze, as soon as they reached the ice. Every crew member had to have his own sack of clothes. It was important to be well equipped; and well shod in wooden-soled boots or preferably reindeerskin boots. The men needed denim trousers, sweaters, oilskins, heavy jackets, and a cap. Oilskins were used during the passage, but they were not much use on the ice; and were furthermore slippery and dangerous to use on snow and ice. Back home, the women carded and spun wool, then knit thick sea mittens and thick woollen socks, which reached up to the knee. Underwear was made of wool, too; in some cases, it was knit by the local knitting-machine owner, and assembled by mothers, wives, and sisters. Some women in Tromsø and its environs knit mittens which they sold to Arctic hunters who came to town. Crewmen had to supply their own bed linen, coffee mug, and cutlery; as well as something to spread on their bread, like cheese, meat, or cold cuts. The hunt had its own folklore and shared many tales, myths, and superstitions with the fishing smacks. A ship should not leave port sailing in a counter clockwise direction, on a Friday, or on the thirteenth day of the month. It was a good omen if anyone had dreamt good dreams before departure, such as dreams of an abundant catch. Just like on fishing smacks, any conversation about pigs or horses was banned. It was important to concentrate on the task at hand, and not think too much about what was happening on land. Stories

the entrepreneurs


circulated about doors aboard that opened by themselves, and about trolls and goblins. If a man who drank the blood of the first animal he shot, he would make a good haul. Unfortunate neighbouring vessels that had not had a good journey could ‘contaminate’ a ship with its failure; so it was best to keep away. The crew was often young; one man recounts said that during his first Arctic trip, the average age of the crew was between 16 and 21. Work was so physically demanding that many emphasized how only young, strong men could handle the job. Boys on their first Arctic trip might be no more than 14 or 15 years old; and sometimes boys as young as 12 were allowed to accompany their fathers on the summer hunt around Svalbard. The crew usually consisted of ten to 25 men. There could be more or fewer, depending on the size of the ship. There were a skipper, two harpooners, a machinist, a stoker, a steward, and the hunters. Salaries were calculated based on one’s function on board, the size of the ship, whether it was a sailing ship, whether it was steam driven or had an engine, who was the ship-owner, where the ship originated; but, above all, it depended on the size of the catch. The skipper, engineer, and harpooner usually had a fixed salary, and a specific percentage of the catch. Ordinary hunters shared a proportion of the income from the catch, after fixed salary expenses, provisions, insurance, letters of safe conduct, and other costs were deducted.

In the ice

Having drunk ‘one for the road’, they set off. The crew were divided into two, port and starboard watch. The watch lasted six hours. Passage could be a tough crossing, especially when they sailed west. A layer of ice might cover the entire ship; and the sea could be so rough that the crew had to fasten themselves with ropes, to the vessel, when carrying out their duties, in order not to be washed overboard. Then, writes a sailor, ‘we wished ourselves elsewhere, and the romantic aspects of Arctic Ocean life were pretty reduced’. The ship’s round bows, designed to make her more resistant to pack ice, made the ship pitch and roll. Many began their Arctic Ocean careers with a severe bout of seasickness. It was a relief to catch sight of the shimmering light from the old pack ice, far in the distance. After reaching the hunting grounds, the next task was to find the seals, which was not always that easy. The ship might criss-cross huge areas during a season. Steamships tried to prevent too much steam from drifting in over the ice, because that would chase the seals into the water. Up in the crow’s nest, the lookout, often the skipper, did not have an enviable job. Standing

132 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

quietly, for hours on end, in the open crow’s nest, could freeze any man, despite being wrapped in a fur coat. Furthermore, a lot depended on him doing his job well. His actions affected the catch, the crew, and the safety of the ship. He had to spot the seals between the ice hummocks, and give orders to the engineer, the helmsman, and the hunters. Manoeuvring a ship amongst those ice floes was no easy task. The vessel would be butting to and fro; and all the while, the skipper would be trying to second-guess the ice. It was no wonder that the skipper, hanging in the masthead, frozen until he was blue in the face, often resorted to cursing and swearing at the crew, if they did not follow his orders. One skipper, in a fit of temper, is said to have stomped a hole, right through the floor of the crow’s nest. The skipper had to prevent the ship from becoming icebound. If that did happen, he had to manoeuvre her out again. In a worst-case scenario, dynamite was used. Otherwise, the men resorted to sheer muscle power, using their hands or pushing the floes away from the ship with stakes, or even spending days sawing through ice floes that hindered their passage. The pressure of the ice exposed the ship to huge amounts of stress, and one had to be prepared to improvise and make emergency repairs. A ship would normally carry a forge, timber, a spare propeller, and a shaft. Initially the ships conducted spot-hunting. That is, they shot an animal or two which could be seen from the crow’s nest. The ship approached the drift ice slowly; the men jumped down onto the ice; and killed the seal pup with one blow to the head using a pike or pulling hook. They then fastened the pulling hook to the seal’s jaw, and ran back to the ship, before the ship moved further along through the opening in the ice. If close enough, large seals, and sometimes pups, were shot from the ship and retrieved in the same way. It was also possible to haul them in with hooked bamboo poles, a technique used mostly when smaller ships hunted along the edge of the ice. If the seal was further off, a winch or ‘seal-hoist’ was used, or even the tender hoist was used to get the pups on board. Curses and sarcastic comments might be heard from the crow’s nest, if the skipper thought the operation was not proceeding at full speed. ‘The men had not come to the ice to experience nature, but to make money.’ If the ice was rotten and not strong enough to carry one’s weight, then the men used the green or white tenders or hunting boats, with oars and sail. The hunt would proceed differently and more efficiently if the men happen upon a large herd of seals with pups, and if the ice was good. Then, nearly the entire crew would walk out onto the ice. The hunters had to be accurate; the bullet had to hit the head so as not to otherwise spoil the pelt. In the wake of the hunters came the flayers, with pike, drag hooks, and sharp knives. First, they made an incision in the seal, from head to tail. Then, they separated the fur from the meat with the broad flaying knife, cut round the flippers. In the course

the entrepreneurs


The seal is in sight, and the gunner is ready. It was very important to shoot the seal in the head in order not to damage the skin.

of five minutes, either a soft but bloodstained, grey-speckled or a golden white pelt lay on the ice. It was important not to spoil the fur. The men’s hands had to be bare when flaying; work like that could not be done wearing mittens, despite the cold. Hunters could warm their hands by cutting a hole in the animal’s chest, and by thrusting their hands into the warm blood until their fingertips started to thaw, painfully. This was the way that hunters covered large areas. Piles of pelts lay on the ice, marked by a pole and a flag, until the ship managed to winch them onboard. If there were several ships in the area, the top fur might be branded with a mark carved into the blubber. The hunters ran nimbly over the ice, which was full of leads and channels which moved continuously. Sometimes they fell in; but in the annals of seal-hunting, there are few examples of death by drowning, in the ice. Hunters learnt how to avoid falling into the channels, and how to save themselves once an accident had occurred. For example, one could lay a ‘footbridge’ over ice cracks using the pile of pelts, because blubber kept the pelt afloat; and then leap, quick as lightning, across the pelts. It was possible to negotiate larger channels by floating across on a small ice floe, paddling carefully with a pelt in tow. The method used for arranging the bundle of pelts when dragging the large piles over the ice could make it easier to move around on the ice. The pile of pelts was drawn together in such a way, that the blunt ‘snout’ slid easily over the rough ice, and the ‘stern’ part of the load slid effortlessly behind. If one were still unlucky enough to fall into a channel, it was possible to use small ice floes like life preservers, and scramble up onto the ice on one’s own, or with the help of others. The days were long, often beginning at four or five in the morning and lasting for twelve hours straight. However, sleep was not always easy to come by at the end of a day like that. Muscles were stiff and tender, and hands were full of chilblains. Sounds of whimpering and whining seal pups echoed in the men’s ears. The poop where the hunters slept was nicknamed the ‘cow barn’; the air was thick with the smell of dried blood, old blubber, engine oil, and body odour. Young boys on their virgin tour might dream about a seal pup’s big, dark eyes, looking up at them just before it was clubbed to death. Sometimes, owing to the ice, drifting snow, or the dark, the crew might get separated from the ship; but unbelievable as it may seem, this seldom led to tragedy. To keep warm, the men would jump up and down, and dance around, and wrap the pelts around their bodies for insulation. Catching a cold was rare in the ice. Bacteria did not flourish there. But the crew suffered from minor frostbite injuries; and small cuts and bruises were par for the course. The real enemy was called erysipeloid, or ‘blubberfinger’; which was an infection from the bacteria Erysipelothrix rhusopathiae, which was found in raw meat, among other things. The infection would start when a hunter got a small nick in his finger. That grew very painful, followed

the entrepreneurs


by a swelling of the hand and forearm. If the swelling did not subside, it might spread to the next joint which could stiffen. Before the advent of antibiotics, after the World War I, the condition could result in amputation. Sometimes long periods of time would elapse without a catch. In spring and mild weather, the time could be used to prepare the seal pups. Some crew members would separate the meat from the pelts, while others prepared the pelts at the tilted blubber benches. Some of the meat was consumed on board, some was taken home to families in Norway, and some was sold from the quay in Tromsø. However, the majority was thrown overboard. The blubber was stored in tanks. After being washed, the skins were stored flat in the hold, pelts down and covered with a litre of salt, spread in a thin layer. If there was no time to prepare the pelts on board, that task had to be performed when the ship docked at the quay. Only after that job had been completed, could the crew be paid. The work might take a week; before the war, all pelt preparation was done by hand. Next, the pelts had to be appraised by an inspector from the wholesalers, overseen by one of the hunters, representing the ship-owning company. If any of the pelts had suffered ‘ice-burn’ (that is, if the seal had been exposed to the sun for too long before being cut open), a finger could be poked right through the pelt, which meant the pelt was worthless. The hunters themselves were responsible for their work, and for producing a high-quality product. When there was no work to be done on board, for instance during the passage, the men could spend time playing cards, reading, or whittling small items such as knife sheaths. Sometimes somebody had a gramophone, an accordion or a fiddle, and the men would sing sea shanties. It has been said that a favourite was the ‘Arctic Shanty’, including the stanza: ‘We sail for prosperity and success, and the flag which waves on board’; but ‘in the end, one tires of both prosperity and good fortune’ one of the hunters said. The prophesies in these songs were not always fulfilled.

Financial implications

Reading about the hunters’ daily hardships and dangers, we might ask ourselves what drove them to such work. Financially, life on the Arctic Ocean was not very lucrative. An Arctic Ocean trip might be a complete financial catastrophe. It could be break even, a so-called stop-gap tour; or it might be a profitable hunt. At the end of a non-profit-making tour, the hunters would owe the shipowners for their supplies, provisions, advances, and other expenses. A harpooner from Sunnmøre wrote: ‘When I left for the Arctic Ocean in 1921, I bought a new pair of boots; but even after I had completed a three-month tour, the

136 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The seals have been shot, and are hauled on board.

settlement following the trip was so wretched that I could not afford to pay for the boots.’ The hunter’s life, then, was something of a gamble. But during a good year, life was glorious. One hunter earned 1800 kroner from two trips in 1928, while his friend, an apprentice, made 15 kroner per week or less. After a hard tour in the ice, some of the men no doubt spent too much money in the Tromsø beer halls. Many of the young Artic Ocean sailors must have relished being the centre of attention, able to buy a round, and boast about life in the ice fields. Others would look forward to a new roof on their house, and not least of all, just being at home and working with their nearest and dearest for a few weeks or months. A barrel or two containing salted seal meat was also a valuable addition to the domestic food supplies. It was not possible to live off sealing, alone. Often a sealer’s home was a small farm where women, children, and old people worked while the men were away. Herring fishing was one of many Arctic Ocean industries that could be combined with hunting. The ships used in the ice were too large for traditional coastal fishing, but were ideal for herring fishing and fishing in Icelandic

the entrepreneurs


waters. Many hunters, especially in Northern Norway, alternated between sealhunting and signing on with smaller boats for the annual cod fishing in the Lofoten Islands or off Finnmark. Seal hunting had major financial implications for the economy of coastal districts and for the Arctic Ocean towns of Hammerfest, Tromsø and Ålesund; although it never had a very large impact on employment. Processing and export were also important sources of income for local communities, and many firms were active participants in the sealing industry. The largest such company was G.C. Rieber & Co. in Bergen, which established a branch in Ålesund in 1915, and in Tromsø in 1919. The founding of these enterprises created a ripple effect that spread profits to existing firms. However, statistics from districts with the greatest number of seal hunters indicate that the industry never could exert a great impact on the gross national product, despite its importance to many and its contribution to the country’s export and foreign currency income. Most of the exports went to the U.S.A. and England; but other European countries also bought leather, furs, and seal oil. In periods when demand was low, seal-hunting was not an important source of national income. In 1928, former Minister of Trade Charles Robertson, himself a ship-owner from Hammerfest, claimed that viewed in an overall, national economic context, seal hunting ran at a loss, because of concession payments to Russia and numerous shipwrecks.

Hunting and wintering

In recent times, the first Norwegians to stay the winter were Sivert Brækmo and Johan Christiansen of Tromsø. Their winter stay in 1893–94 was involuntary, and their equipment particularly inadequate for their camp, in Isfjord on Spitsbergen. The men had set off in an open boat from Vardø to Svalbard to repair and fetch a seine boat. On their return, they had nearly reached the Norwegian coast when they were turned back by storms. They lost their rudder, and the boat sprang a large leak. They returned to Grønfjorden. After resting and repairing the boat, they once again set out on the journey to the mainland; but drift ice forced them back to Grønfjorden, again. It was a strenuous experience, but they returned with six bears, 14 foxes, 27 reindeer, and five tons of blubber, with a combined value of eight thousand crowns, which was a fortune for poor people in Northern Norway. Brækmo and Christiansen were lucky. Not everyone was so lucky. Hunting and staying through the winter was a risky business. Another hunting expedition that camped the winter was stranded on Bear Island that same year. One of the four crewmen died of scurvy,

138 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

A small shed on Van Mijenfjord on Spitsbergen, ca. 1910. The hunters had a network of sheds like these, located near the main station. The sheds were usually a day’s journey apart.

two others were bed-ridden and unable to work, and only the fourth remained in good health. The catch was negligible. Two years later, in 1895–96, four hunters tarried so long before their return to the mainland that they were frozen in. They were only equipped for summer hunting. Later it was discovered that the skipper, Andreas Holm, had planned to stay the winter, but had only informed one of the crew. The hunting party stayed part of the time at Hotellneset in the Advent Fjord and the rest at Svenskehuset on Cape Thordsen. Holm was the first to die, from scurvy. One of the crew, Anton Nilsen, suffered from frostbite, and was left behind by the others on Cape Thordsen early in the winter. No human remains or any other sign of him was ever found. Only two men returned: Klaus N. Thue and Nils E. Olsen. These three wintering expeditions introduced a new epoch of land-based hunts on Spitsbergen. They tell a tale of sickness and death, and hunters returning home empty-handed, but also of major hauls. The winter hunts flourished from the 1890s to the mid 20th century. Nearly 400 men were employed in these hunts on Svalbard up until 1941, with a total of over 1000 Artic winterings. On Greenland there were 180 between 1908 and World War II. On Jan Mayen the winter hunting started in 1906 and saw about 60 wintering hunts, until the fox was declared a protected species, and activity ceased in 1930. Profits depended on knowledge and effort, but prices were the most critical factor. A blue-fox pelt sold for 40 kroner in 1890 and for 800 kroner in 1924, and only a tiny part of this increase was due to inflation. In the period from 1893 to 1918, the entire value of blue-fox hunting came to 597,600 kroner. That value divided by 324 all-winter hunts, amounts to 1844 kroner per man. But profits varied dramatically. In 1917–18, two hunters were left with a catch of 60 foxes, four polar bear skins, and 100 kilos of down; totalling a relatively high profit of 18,000 kroner. In Jan Mayen that same year, the value of the catch per hunter was 27,500 kroner. These were the exceptions. But tales like these painted a fairy-tale image of the hunt, especially in regard to profits. From 1924 and until the war, the value of those winterlong hunts reached 1.6 million kroner, while the value of sealing during the same period was at least 41 million kroner. Although some individuals were able to fill their bank accounts after only one winter-long hunt, the activity in itself has never contributed that much for the economy of Northern Norway, either regarding value or employment. In a national context, this hunting activity was a mere trifle. Why did so many hunters travel to the icy wastelands, year in and year out? Were there attractions other than the hope of economic gain? Some hunters, like Odd Ivar Ruud, explained why:

140 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

I know why I am here and not in a town full of people, at parties, and surrounded by neon lights. I do not always like myself when I am in the company of other people. There is something unnatural in the way in which I have to control my actions, weigh and observe my reactions. Certain things are expected of me. I must be a son, a friend, a lover, an enemy, a brother, a citizen, a soldier. That means nothing here. Out here, I am not God. I cannot make the wind blow or the snow fall. Sometimes I cannot even make my sled dogs obey. But I am second in line, after God. I am a human being, and alive; thanks only to myself. Hunting life was inextricably linked to nature. The Arctic changes attire four times a year. Summer is short, hectic, and has an abundant animal life. In autumn everything freezes, and the landscape is transformed into white fjords and plateaus; and eventually into utter darkness of winter. Then spring gradually emerges, and that soon heralds the short hectic summer. The hunters that chose to stay the winter, usually travelled to their hunting grounds in late summer. It took time just to get organised. Hunter Georg Bjørnnes, who arrived on the Austfjordneset on Svalbard on July 29th, 1934, says it took him ‘eight days just to carry in and arrange provisions and other equipment, tidy up the hut, and fill up the boat’. The list of provisions was huge. Equipping the trip needed to be planned down to the last detail. If anything was missing, it would be missing throughout the season. The next task would be to shoot seals, which would be used both as bait and as food for the men and dogs. This was especially important on Greenland, where everyone used draught dogs. On Svalbard, few hunters used dogs. Hilmar Nøis was one of the few who swore by sled dogs. It was also important to shoot seals in order to ‘feed the terrain’, as the hunters said. Sealskin and blubber were put out to attract fox to the area, not just as bait for a catch, but for the fox to stay. During the 1934–35 season, Anders Sæterdal, Wanny Woldstad, and her two sons stayed the whole season in a hut in Hornsund, in the south of Spitsbergen. That hunting season lasted 327 days; and already on the second day, they began with eider duck, and continued with whatever other species turned up. For 112 of the 327 days, the party remained either quietly in the hut or in one of the nearby subsidiary hunting stations. Owing to bad weather and the need to make preparations for winter, September was the month when they stayed home the most. Before the frost arrived, with the build up of ice ‘ramparts’ along the beach, it was important to gather enough driftwood for fuel, for the entire winter. The huts were repaired, and the small satellite huts checked, repaired, and filled with fuel and provisions. During the second half of September, they hunted goose and

the entrepreneurs


The dream of a life of freedom in the wilderness. Ragnhild Amundsen hunts while staying the winter on Svalbard in 2002–03.

grouse until the geese migrated south. Up until 1925, when Svalbard reindeer became a protected species, the autumn hunt for reindeer was an important one. The hunters were left to their own devices, and the isolation was often total. Wanny Woldstad speaks from experience: ‘No one other than the man himself knows what stirs in the heart of the hunter; when the ship weighs anchor, and the last real link to the outside world glides into the mist, and disappears. Silent as the night, he stands and peers into the haze. We are alone, and no longer hear the humming of the engine.’ George Bjørnnes writes in his diary that he felt it was ‘numbingly boring to be all alone’. The trick was to find ways of living with loneliness. Henry Rudi organised his diary according to a fixed plan, as he did everything else in life: Up at eight in the morning and make breakfast. Out to inspect traps and spring guns as quickly as possible, assuming the weather is not too bad. Quickly, it is cold in the morning; a quick ski sprint warms my body. Lunch at one, wash up at once; after all, there might be visits. One hour on my back, that’s needed, and then back to work again. If the weather is good, more trap inspections. Dinner at eight. It was important to keep to a healthy rhythm, to control the day, and consequently the year. Hunter Georg Bjørnnes did it his own way: I always had with me one whole year’s worth of editions of a major newspaper. I then made myself a mailbox which I hung outside the hut. Every morning when I went out to tend the traps, I stuffed a newspaper into the box. I made sure the date was correct. Hunting tracks were constructed between all the huts. In Hornsund, the main hut in Hyttevika (which means ‘hut bay’) was about 12 kilometres from the subsidiary station, Isbjørnhamn, and the distance from there on to Fuglefjell was 8.5 kilometres. The terrain was rough, and the glaciers cut down to the sea; the mountainside was steep and stony, with rock-strewn slopes. There was a glacier between Isbjørnhamn and Fuglefjell, which one had to cross, and then negotiate a steep slope down to the Fuglefjell hut. In 1933–34, the boys, Alf and Bjørvik, made 25 trips together to Isbjørnhamn. They made other trips separately or in the company of grown-ups. They made only four overnight trips to Fuglefjell; otherwise they checked the terrain on day trips from Isbjørnhamn. The area had a radius of about 25 to 30 kilometres; but during autumn, spring, and summer, it expanded dramatically when the sea became navigable so that both islands and sea became part of the hunting grounds. It was a very plentiful area in which to hunt.

the entrepreneurs


Yet another bear is felled by the spring gun trap. Hunter Odd Lønø is busy skinning the valuable catch.

Between the main station and the subsidiary stations, Fuglefjell and Isbjørnhamn, spring guns were mounted and traps were set to catch fox. The spring guns were mounted on headlands and mounds about 50 metres from the sea. A spring gun usually consisted of a sawed-off Remington rifle in a box, its trigger fastened with a cord to a piece of bait. Of all the equipment and hunting tools in use in the ‘polar regions’, only the spring gun was invented on and for Svalbard. Gustav Lindqvist was the man who devised it. Previously, hunters had tried unsuccessfully to catch polar bears in pens built of wood or stone. The spring gun proved highly efficient, and was soon put to use all over polar-bear country. Fox traps were primarily placed in the lowlands, along with one or two along the mountainside. Readying traps took time; and each man had 30 to 40 to deal with. New traps had to be built and old ones repaired; and traps were placed out in late October. Often hunters had to gather 30 to 40 kilos of stones for each trap. If they were lucky, the stones from the previous season were still in the vicinity of the trap, but often polar bears had played with the equipment, thus necessitating repairs. The traps were one metre square, and they were mounted on the ground. On one side, they lay resting on top of a wooden lock made of two vertical sticks and one horizontal stick. Blubber or a grouse head was attached as bait, innermost on the horizontal stick. A stone was placed on top of the trap; so when the fox grabbed the bait, the trap closed, collapsing on the animal. With any luck, the outcome was fatal. The traps could not fill up with snow, so it was important to consider wind direction and the lay of the land when positioning them. From October to April, fox pelts were at their best, and prices were at their annual peak. Traps were used from October 26th until the end of April. The polarbear hunt went on year round, but was at its height in the winter. Hornsund was visited by bears regularly in wintertime, but in the winter of 1933–34 Anders Sæterdal complained about the catch. ‘I have never experienced such unstable weather in all the years I have been here,’ he wrote on December 15th. It is ‘impossible to maintain the equipment, and thus the bad results.’ Polar bears were fleeced, the blubber was scraped away, and the pelts salted in barrels. This work had to be done carefully, in order to get a good price. The fox was skin-fleeced. That is, it was cut open at the rectum, so that the skin could be twisted off the entire carcass. The skin was stretched and dried, afterwards. During quiet periods when there was no active hunting, the hunters swore by their routine work. They chopped wood and read books. Their diaries were kept up to date, with short reports on the weather, the day’s chores, and things in general. Then there was kauring, which was a way stay busy. To kaure was to whittle a piece of wood into a fan shape by chipping off bits on one side. A pile of these chips, kauers, was always ready by the wood box; because they would get a fire going in a jiffy.

the entrepreneurs


Hunters celebrated weekends, for example, by playing their gramophones; because it gave them a sense of time, marching forward. They also celebrated holidays: Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun. On Christmas Eve in 1926, Alfred Svendsen wrote in his diary from ‘Werlegenhook’: Christmas Eve has arrived here, even at 80 degrees north, and probably no one in the whole world is celebrating Christmas further north than we are. The Christmas weather is not good; the northerly wind is howling outside, making the hut shiver. It is so cold that we do not dare to poke our noses out the door. However, it is nevertheless quite cosy inside our four walls. We have enough fresh food and fuel, so nothing is missing except maybe the company of a lady. But then we have a wee dram to console ourselves with, instead. All is well. The hunters were waiting for the birds. They were a sign of approaching spring, and they were a form of income. The Down Islands (Dunøyane) and the Ice Islands (Isøyane) off the main station in Northern Hornsund, were the largest nesting places for eider duck on Svalbard. The hunting party of Sæterdal and Woldstad collected eggs and down regularly during the period between June 4th and July 1st. They ate the eggs themselves, and sold the down for good money. They spent the late spring maintaining and repairing huts and equipment. More and more frequently, they made the trip up the mountain behind the hut to keep a lookout for the boat that was coming to fetch them. They would study the ice, and wonder whether the sea was navigable. Then there was nothing to do but wait. They longed to meet people, and get news from home. In Hornsund, they began to scout for the boat, starting July 2nd and onwards. They spent 15 days packing up and waiting. ‘We look far out to sea, wondering whether the Lyngen will turn up soon.’ At last, on July 22nd, the S/S Lyngen slowly slid into the fjord.


Around 1900 there were no permanent settlements on Spitsbergen, which was then the archipelago’s name. During the winter of 1896, when the Fram lay icebound north of Spitsbergen, there were only a handful of Norwegian hunters wintering on the islands. During the years leading up to World War II, Norwegian polar regions were expanded more than ever before; not because of research or hunting, but as a result of mining major coal deposits. Early on, areas along the west coast proved themselves to be the most promising for coal mining. These areas were ice-free in the summer, and the

146 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

coal deposits were easily visible. First and foremost, these deposits were the ones that would lead to the development of a mining industry on Spitsbergen. As early as 1869, the British, aided by Norwegians, were quarrying for coal, an activity described in James Lamont’s book Yachting in the Arctic Seas. Hunters had been aware of these coal deposits, in the past; and some of the coal deposits had been mined. Among Norwegians, polar sea skipper Søren Zachariassen is considered the first to have realised the financial value of coal mining. The purpose of his expedition to Spitsbergen in 1899 was to mine coal from the quarries and sell it on the mainland. In all, ten men excavated about 600 hectolitres of coal that summer. Half of it was sold to Prince Albert of Monaco, who was sailing his yacht in the Adventfjord; the other half was shipped to Tromsø and sold privately or to the town’s electricity works. The initiative was profitable, but more capital was needed to expand the operation. Zachariassen sent off coal samples for analysis. With the test results on the table, the partnership Isfjord Coal Company Spitsbergen was established in 1900, with investors from Tønsberg and Christiania. That year, the same promising coal samples also led to the establishment of the Trondheim-Spitsbergen Coal Company. These events marked the prelude to today’s Longyearbyen. In April 1901, polar sea skipper Bernhard Pedersen from Tromsø asked Bergen ship-owner I.M.Hamre to support an expedition, to occupy and lay claim to the known coal-bearing areas of Svalbard. Hamre was interested right away, and the Bergen-Spitsbergen Coal Company Ltd was founded. The territory around Adventfjord and Kongsfjord was occupied. These were the coalfields that formed the basis of the Ny-Ålesund mining operations. The coal deposits that were gradually uncovered were numerous; and, in some cases, very rich. Other types of deposits saw the light of day. On Bear Island, two operations were established: one to mine coal and other to extract the lead ore called galena. Spitsbergen also had deposits of gypsum and a rich sink ore. There is no complete survey of the territorial claims made on this northern archipelago; but over one hundred claims were definitely made in the period between 1898 and 1920. The combined land area of these claims totalled more than the entire land area of Svalbard. It was like a veritable colonisation: Svalbard was divided up by, and shared among private interests. The companies were partly public, and partly private. Some of the speculators were adventurers; and some totally lacked any knowledge of mining or mineralogy. Sometimes the claiming party would maintain that an area or deposit was coal-bearing, when in fact there was no coal there at all. One man annexed a large gypsum deposit, thinking it was marble. It came as a great surprise to him when the gypsum started to thaw. Most of the annexations were made by Norwegian interests, both public and private. There was, however, major international participation in the claims

the entrepreneurs


rush; perhaps not in number of claims, but in regard to the size of the territory in question. Two British companies, the Northern Exploration Company and the Scottish Spitsbergen Syndicates, took possession of huge areas, including most of the ice-free west coast. Moreover, several of these foreign holdings proved to include the land with the richest coal deposits and longest lifespans. For example, Americans took over in Longyearbyen, Swedes in Svea and Pyraminden, Dutchmen in Barentsburg, and Russians in Grumant. Because the archipelago had the status under international law, of so-called terra nullius (that is, no-man’s-land or empty land), there were no definitive rules for how to proceed with this ‘subjugation’. Thus, it came as no surprise that conflicts arose. Already in 1900, the Isfjord Coal Company and TrondhjemSpitsbergen were quarrelling about rights on Bohemanneset. In his diary from the expedition, the head of the Trondheim delegation wrote that, after they had fenced in their area, a group from one of the Tromsø ships fenced in a section inside theirs. The Tromsø group paid no attention whatsoever to the Trondheim protests. Such matters were usually resolved quickly and amicably among the companies, but this case ended up in a Tromsø court. Sometimes, it was practically a miracle that violence was averted. On one occasion, seven or eight men faced each other across a coal mound, with their Krag-Jørgensen rifles pointed at each other. One ship was fired on. The so-called occupations were not binding in perpetuity. Some of the initial owners gave up after having done nothing. They sold their claims on to companies that were prepared to begin operations. The Trondhjem-Spitsbergen Company occupied several areas, including in Grønfjord, Coles Bay, and Adventfjord. After several efforts, the fields were sold in 1906 to a newly established American firm, the Arctic Coal Company, or ACC. The principal shareholder and strongman in ACC was John Munro Longyear. He gave his name to the most stable of the mining towns on the archipelago, Longyearbyen (Longyear City). The Kongsfjord-based Bergen-Spitsbergen Coal Company did not maintain its possessions. In the years after 1908, the Green Harbour Coal Company conducted exploration in the area. Green Harbour gave the Ålesund board of directors the option of taking over its Kongsfjord concessions. This led to the 1916 formation of the Kings Bay Coal Company Ltd. Large-scale operations were initiated, and the place was named Ny-Ålesund (New Ålesund). The Northern Exploration Company, which owned sizable concessions, was continually engaged in conflicts with other companies about claim borders; as in the case of the Swedes in Svea near Braganzavågen, and the Norwegian Company in Kongsfjord. Kings Bay and Northern Exploration did not come to an agreement until 1925. However, the other disagreements regarding various

148 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

concessions lasted until the Norwegian government assumed the administration of the Northern Exploration Company’s concessions in 1928.

Hands-on Svalbard politics

In 1907 the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was asked by the Arctic Coal Company (ACC) in Longyearbyen, whether it could hire a missionary for the workers. The ministry turned down the request, as it did again in 1909, when the Bishop of Tromsø made the same proposal. The ministry emphasized that the mining companies were free to employ a clergyman for their employees, but that the ministry could not get involved. ‘It might be interpreted as an attempt to introduce Norwegian sovereignty there, and thus cause international misunderstanding.’ At that time, the authorities were keen to be seen to be keeping a low profile in ‘no man’s land’. One of the reasons for the above statement regarding rejection of support for a Norwegian clergyman was the forthcoming conference in 1910 in Christiania among Norway, Sweden, and Russia regarding Spitsbergen. It was important that controversial issues not arise just before the conference began. The year after the summit, the Norwegian authorities chose to take a stronger stand. The Arctic Coal Company had applied to be granted the right to establish wireless communications between Spitsbergen and Norway. The response from the Norwegian Telegraph Director was that he would not even consider the idea; the company would not be allowed to establish its own radio station in Norway. Instead, a government-sponsored station would be built on Spitsbergen, the argument being that Norway had considerable financial interests on the archipelago. Consequently, in 1911 radio stations were built in Hammerfest in Northern Norway, and in Grønfjord on Spitsbergen. The latter was erected on the site of an old whaling station. It was an area that the government could claim without a doubt was Norwegian territory, and it might have been the only one at that time. Such Norwegian government initiatives, like establishing post offices, postal services, and (not least) the work done to safeguard travel in dangerous waters, were of enormous significance; not just for Norwegians, but for all the residents who set up operations on Svalbard. Then things started to happen. In 1914 the Americans in Longyearbyen signalled that they were about to sell out and withdraw. Several Norwegian parties indicated their interest. However, when no concrete offers materialised, Longyear made contact with Swedish speculators. Norwegian national interests were now considered threatened, and the government pushed for a Norwegian solution. In January 1916, the Norwegian Spitsbergen Syndicate (DNS) was established. Major Norwegian

the entrepreneurs


business interests were represented, and Prime Minister Gunnar Knudsen was a personal shareholder. DNS bought not only the American possessions, but coal fields in Grønfjord, as well. In fact, DNS acquired a total of 1,200 square kilometres. The role of the government as an active partner in the coal companies grew, as did its financial involvement. The Norwegian company Kings Bay started construction work in Ny-Ålesund in 1917, and started coal production in 1918; but by 1919 the company was having financial difficulties. The authorities came to their rescue. With Norwegian government blessing, Kings Bay received several large advances on their coal deliveries, in the years 1920–23. A type of operating credit emerged, which in reality was a form of subsidy. Government support of Norwegian coal companies was politically motivated. From 1919 onward, the company Bjørnøen was also assisted in the form of loans, so that its operations could be extended. In the midst of all this, an event occurred in which the government played an active part in mining operations, making it clear that mining on Spitsbergen was viewed as on a par with mainland industry. Miners’ working and living conditions were not ideal. Mainland newspapers regularly wrote about the poor conditions in Longyearbyen In the spring of 1917, supported by the mainland trade unions, the workers struck for higher pay and improved living conditions. The authorities viewed this as a having been motivated by the ‘enemy’ (which was the syndicated unions), and as a potentially revolutionary movement. In July 1917, the government sent naval forces to Spitsbergen to keep the peace. The naval cannon boat, Farm, reached Longyearbyen on July 14th. That year the ice had not melted during the summer season, so that the ship had to set anchor farther out in the fjord. The Tromsø justice of the peace came to serve as mediator. He was the first to set out for the town. The next day, Captain Beutlich and 20 hand-picked soldiers made for Longyearbyen. The soldiers had been informed that orders might issued to shoot ‘at people who used violence against Norwegian life or property’. The force was welcomed by and lodged with Director Bay and functionaries of Store Norske. The striking workers, however, behaved with ‘aggression and defiance’. A rope was pulled across town to separate the workers from management, and the soldiers stood guard. During mediation, the force remained passive; but after negotiations broke down on July 26th, the strikers were taken to two waiting ship, and thence to Norway. The Farm accompanied the boats. Norwegian police took the Swedish and Finnish workers to the border at Narvik, in Northern Norway. There the workers were deported. This was not the first time a request had been made to send soldiers north. Advent City had been the scene of a major strike in 1906–07. The British

150 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Longyearbyen in 1911. Workers go off duty after a long day in the mines.

managers appealed to their government to stop the rebellion. But the British government would not help; replying that Spitsbergen lay outside its sphere of authority. The British managers then requested assistance from Norwegian authorities. The Norwegian government issued the same response: it could do nothing. However, in 1917 Norwegian authorities were willing to intervene. True, the Christiania conferences of 1910, 1912, and 1914 had not clarified the sovereignty issue; but Norway was nevertheless in a stronger political position now than it had been a decade before. Norwegian activity on Spitsbergen had increased, especially after the outbreak of war in 1914. What about economic motives? World War I had altered some of the financial framework for Norwegian Spitsbergen policy. Coal was at a premium as imports from abroad, especially England, partly dried up, owing to the December 1917 English blockade of the North Sea. While coal from Spitsbergen had represented only 1 % of Norway’s total coal consumption in 1913, by 1918 the figure had risen to 4 %. Yet, that was not a large percentage of the country’s consumption. Economic motives were weak. During the 1920s, it also became clear, that even if more companies began operations, the Svalbard coal supply could barely cover a quarter of Norwegian demand. On average, 11 % of all Norwegian coal imports came from Svalbard in the 1920s. Claims were made that coal mining meant no more to Norwegian fuel supplies, than optimistic dreams about future supplies and potential self-sufficiency. Thus, government economic motives on Spitsbergen were not decisive. Political interests were decidedly more important, although this did not surface in public discussions. The government paid large sums of money, during a political era characterised by sparse public spending. The main motive of the Norwegian government was to secure its sovereignty over Svalbard. In comparison, we see how British interests occupied large parts of the archipelago, at that time. While the mining companies involved may have wanted British sovereignty, their own authorities did not want to get involved.

Svalbard becomes Norwegian

When the negotiations about Svalbard’s political status were endorsed in Paris in 1920, about 120 claims to land areas had been lodged, by both private persons and companies. When the Treaty of Svalbard went into effect, a commission was appointed to clarify various ownership problems on the archipelago. Northern Exploration possessed large areas, which were not viewed as advantageous to hold, when Norway was to claim sovereignty. Even before the Svalbard Commission had started its work, the Norwegian

152 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

government initiated talks with the company with a view to reducing its claims. The agreement provided for the company to receive a payment of ÂŁ37,000 in return for relinquishing two thirds of its claim, so that the company did retain its claim. When the deadline for referring claims to the Svalbard Commission ran out in 1925; many withdrew, some for financial reasons, because there was a fee levied on all registered land areas. A total of 98 claims were received from 28 occupants. Of these, 19 of the claims overlapped, so that arbitration was required. There were Norwegian interests involved in fourteen of these 19 claims. Through its lawyer, the Norwegian government objected to several claims. In 1928, when the Svalbard Commission had straightened up its claims initiative, eleven Norwegian firms remained, along with six companies from Great Britain, Sweden, the Soviet Union, and the Netherlands, which each held ownership interests on Svalbard. These companies ranged from large to small, based on their overall assets.

Table 1

The eight largest companies, based on total assets in 1925 (in 1925 Norwegian kroner)

Store Norske Spitsbergen Kullkompani Nederlandske Spitsbergen Kul Compani Svensk Stenkul Kings Bay Kulkompani Bjørnøen Northern Exploration Norske Kulfelter Scottish Spitsbergen

4.5 million 2.5 million 1.6 million 1.3 million 0.6 million 0.5 million 0.25 million 0.105 million

Source: Svalbard Tax Commission

In 1925, the asset value of the Store Norske claim was worth nearly twice that of the property claimed by the second company on the list, the Dutch Spitsbergen Coal Company; and slightly greater than the combined value of all the remaining Svalbard companies listed above. Norwegian companies occupied the largest land areas. Claims had been registered for deposits of coal, marble, gypsum, asbestos, zinc sulphide, copper pyrite, and more.

the entrepreneurs


Spitsbergen had become Svalbard, and Norwegian interests dominated. However, this interest diminished somewhat. But, can we say with certainty that Norwegian authorities receded into the backround after 1925, retaining only a passive role in the area? Coal mining on Svalbard had been a financial disappointment. By the late 1920s, government loans to Norwegian mining companies had reached a total of 17 million kroner. Falling coal prices, the non-availability of liquid assets, and the overestimation of coal reserves in the 1920s led to a period of crisis for Norwegian coal companies. The financial role of the state had been casual and without a plan. The government incurred losses, and ‘to a certain degree even wasted money’, according to the delegation Parliament sent to Svalbard in 1928. The state had generously appropriated money to several companies, so that, in reality, private companies mined coal with the support of public funding. Something had to be done. The situation initially resulted in the establishment of ‘The Svalbard Commission of 1929 Concerning State Involvement on Svalbard’. Commission pronouncements formed the basis of a government proposition, and, in 1932, a debate regarding state interests on Svalbard. The result was a dramatic reorganisation and consolidation of Norwegian mining operations on Svalbard. The activities in Ny-Ålesund were shut down between 1929 and1941, and in 1933 the government assumed ownership of all the shares. Bjørnøen became a stateowned company in 1932. That same year, the Norwegian government declined an offer to take over the Dutch operation in Barentsburg, which was sold to a Russian firm. The Russians also bought the former Swedish facilities at Pyramiden. The government was not keen on getting involved in too many unprofitable mining ventures. At the same time, the authorities helped Store Norske secure the large coal fields in Svea in Van Mijenfjord. Although Store Norske continued operating as a private company throughout the entire interwar period, it was completely dependent financially on public funds right up until 1933, when public refinancing ensured the potential for public influence and control. Reorganisation and consolidation of state support coincided with increased production and demand. In 1934, for the first time more than 300,000 tonnes of coal were excavated from Svalbard’s frozen mountains. Coal extraction maintained this level of production until the war, marking a huge increase over 1920s production levels. (See the diagram, below.) Every little bit helps, and Store Norske was able to get by with very little state support from the mid 1930s until the start of the war. Norwegian government interference in Svalbard, from its formal assumption of state power in 1925 and until the 1950s, can be characterised as minimal. However, it was not a period without plan or direction, as some researchers have asserted. The administrative apparatus consisted of a District Governor and

154 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

a Mining Superintendent. The cost of this administration was a mere 100,000 kroner in 1934 and about 250,000 kroner in 1940. Private business on the archipelago declined significantly during this period. However, as long as only some of the treaty signatories showed any interest in Svalbard, there was reason enough not to use limited public funds for administration or to emphasize the Norwegian presence. Furthermore, the government had in practice acquired full control of the Norwegian mining companies, through its subsidy and loan policies. For financial and political reasons, the authorities recognised that some public funding was necessary to ensure that the coal fields were in Norwegian hands. State support was to be minimal, but was certainly not without plan or direction. Svalbard must remain Norwegian.

Figure 1: Store Norske Coal Company: coal production from 1916 to 1941, in five-year periods and in number of tonnes.


Number of tonnes

1200 900 600 300 0






Source: Bjørg Evjen: Longyearbyen 1916–1975 Dissertation for the degree, Tromsø, 1995, page 310.

the entrepreneurs


SVALBARD TREATY The 1920 Svalbard Treaty is a short document containing a mere ten articles. It takes as its point of departure that the parties ‘acknowledge according to the conditions laid down in this Treaty, Norway’s complete and absolute sovereignty over the Svalbard Archipelago’ (Article 1). The Svalbard Archipelago is defined as including Bjørnøya, known as Bear Island, together with all islands that lie within the area between 10 and 35° E. and 74 and 81° N. The treaty further establishes that the inhabitants and vessels of all treaty signatories shall have ‘equal rights to fish and hunt’ within these areas, and in ‘their territorial waters’. (Article 2) Norway shall administer this activity: ‘It is the duty of Norway to enforce, determine or establish suitable measures to secure the preservation […] of fauna and flora.’ This authority must be exercised in order that ‘these standards shall be enforced in equal measure and without exception, regarding the rights and privileges, directly or indirectly, of all of the subjects of all of the signatories’. The treaty requirement that there be equal treatment of all citizens and companies of all the signatories is further elaborated in Article 3. That article stipulates that all signatory subjects must have ‘equal right to entry and residence, without consideration of reason or purpose, […] provided they comply with local laws and regulations’. Norway undertook to establish a ‘Mining Regime’ (Article 8). Here, too, the principle of equal rights was confirmed, for the citizens and companies of all parties signing the treaty. Taxation of activities and persons must ‘exclusively benefit the named areas, and can only be levied to the extent this purpose dictates’. In addition to equal rights, taxation is limited in order that tax from Svalbard should specifically benefit the archipelago and for specified purposes.

Norway further bound itself not to ‘establish or allow a naval fleet to be established’ in the area or ‘construct any fortification’. Svalbard was ‘never [to be] used for the purposes of war’ (Article 9). The main principles of the Svalbard Treaty thereby placed Svalbard under Norwegian sovereign rule. In exercising this sovereignty, in which Norway is directed to protect nature and the environment, Norwegian authorities are required to treat all the citizens and operations of the signatories equally. The ability to levy taxes and to utilize income from taxes is limited. The archipelago must not maintain permanent military installations or be used in wartime.

Seams of coal in frozen mountains

Many aspects of the working conditions in the mines were unusual. Coal and stone lay in layers in the mountains. The idea was to excavate just the coal in the seams, or the so-called fløts. The presence of stone in the seams of coal deposits increased the workload and decreased profits. The width of the seams of coal, its richness, determined the height of the chamber within which the miners worked. This meant that the space in which the men had to work to mine the coal, was low; work on the seam in this space was a challenge. Ideally, you had to be thin as a worm, as one worker said. Miners learned their trade through experience. New, inexperienced workers were taught by older, more experienced ones. Rumour spread quickly as to whether a newcomer was capable or not. If a newcomer was slow and difficult to train, the unit income for that gang fell. If there were many sluggards, then production levels dropped, so that those workers were transferred to other work. Mining for coal on Svalbard was not done the same way as mining for minerals on the mainland, although there were certain similarities in mine construction and initial phases of exploitation. One characteristic of Norwegian industrialisation and mining, which expanded towards the end of the 19th century, was the importation of new technology and know-how from abroad, mainly England. This was also true of Spitsbergen and Bear Island, where the government employed ten English miners and an English mining engineer as instructors. This arrangement was not without its problems, however, as noted by miner Ole Eriksen: A majority of Norwegians did not want to work with the English, as they were experienced miners from Norway. They do not like the way the mining foreman puts a mark where the piston should be. The mining foreman also marks off where to place the borehole and decides the amount of explosives to put in each hole; the Norwegians do not agree with all this. […] What the English mining foremen disapprove of most is the Norwegians’ carelessness. The Norwegian workers go at it, full steam and with their hammer and tongs, as there is money to be earned. […] There was a lot to be learned in spite of my having worked in mines in Norway. Coal is not a kind of rock […] with which one must start all over again, when learning to work in a coal mine. In 1922 in Barentsburg, only the boss was Dutch. The workforce included about 100 Germans, the rest being Norwegians, mostly from Northern Norway. The Germans taught the Norwegians. ‘If anyone does not want to learn, he has to return to Norway’, Eriksen wrote. ‘The Norwegians excavate more coal than the Germans and earn more […]; they are the world’s best workers.’

158 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Since the coal deposits on Svalbard lay in the permafrost belt, there was always frost in the mines, with mine temperatures between two and four degrees below zero. That solved some of the problems that existed in traditional mines further south, such as running water and heat. In Svalbard the water remained frozen so that mining and rock conditions were more stable. The permafrost extended 300 metres below ground, where the frost zone ended, and where operations required that water be pumped out. In the period between the two World Wars, however, mining had not yet reached those depths. The permafrost belt provided a comfortable temperature for the kind of hard physical labour that mining was. On the other hand, workers with less strenuous jobs, such as engine drivers, needed to dress warmly. ‘It was a pleasant temperature in which to work; but if you had to stand around, it could get cold, and you needed to find something to do. I tried wearing cotton underwear, but had to switch to wool. Wool against the body was the best.’ The Arctic climate made itself most keenly felt by the workers who had jobs outdoors, and who had to brave cold and wind. Most of the men employed by the mining companies had to work underground. Inside the mine, there was a main tunnel which was horizontal, the main gallery, which housed the ventilation system, the electrical installations, and the coal and crew transport vehicles. Crosswise from the gallery at regular intervals were smaller tunnels, or crosscuts. Stone was excavated in these, to ensure sufficient height for transportation. Between two crosscuts areas, chambers or tunnels, were opened up to allow units of men to work the face of the actual coal deposit. Despite the working conditions, the working in a unit on these faces was popular among the men. That is where everyone wanted to be: deep inside the frozen mountain. That is where earnings were high and the work was prestigious among the crew. On the other hand, the risks to life and health, run by those actually mining the ‘black gold’, were also greater than on the other jobs. Working the face of the coal in small ‘rooms’ with pillars, was divided into three stages. First came cutting, in which the bottom layer of coal was removed to make a space. Previously, that kind of work was performed by hand, but soon cutting machines were employed. The cutting machine can be compared to a large power saw that sliced away the bottom layer of the coal seam. A cutter operated the machine and an assistant cutter shovelled away the stone and ore that had fallen. This was done in order to make room for coal that would be dynamited out. Then a hole was made in the coal seam: ‘… most of the boring was done by hand (in a supine position). A borer needed to bore about 75 holes, each measuring 1.5 metres, in the course of an eight-hour shift, but he was not required to prop up, reinforce, or charge. About 85 wagon-loads were taken out during a shift.’

the entrepreneurs


It was important to obtain Arctic riches in order to build up Norwegian capital.

The electric boring machines had arrived and were in use on the mainland around the turn of the century. They were large, heavy, and difficult to handle, which is probably why they were not introduced to Svalbard when the Americans opened their mines. The boring machines were first used in the 1920s. A special non-sparking material was used to do the blasting. An explosion in a mine could have catastrophic consequences. The next part of the process was to transport the coal from the confined space or ledge worked at the face to the crosscut, where the wagons, or cars, were waiting. This operation was one of the heaviest jobs. During the first years of operation, conveyor belts were used. Workers had to manually load the coal onto the belts. The low tunnel-like working areas at the faces required the men to shovel the coal onto the belt while they were lying down. Special scraping tools were tried, but were unsuccessful; too much coal was left behind. In 1938, Store Norske engineers Strømme and Rydning designed a scraper that could adjust to use over the uneven ground. The tool was a success, and hand loading came to an end. The coal remnants which had not been taken out during the initial stages of mining were now hacked out by the hackers. Where the coal had been excavated, the mountain needed to be shored up to prevent a collapse. That was the timberer’s job. The next step in the process was entrusted to the timber packers. Where the timber was removed, it was the timberman’s job to erect a wall of oak logs, constructed to prevent the mountain wall from sinking together under pressure. This was very dangerous work; and once again, it was an advantage for a worker to have the attributes of a worm. The work took place between and partly behind the timbers, where it was strongly suspected that the wall might subside. If that happened, the solid oak logs would be shattered to bits by the enormous weight of the mountain above. Anyone who had not escaped the area before the rock fell through, did not stand a chance. Nothing could stop the mountain, once that sinking process started. A miner needed courage, strength, and agility. Another trait that a miner was required to have was the ability to maintain a rigorous work tempo. Ole Eriksen says that if the floor of the work space was smooth and the seam high, a man could remove between 10 and 20 tonnes or more in an eight-hour shift. Overalls did not last long. After an eight-hour shift, a miner’s clothes were coal-black and just as wet as when they emerged from the wash tub. When clothes like that dried, they stood up on their own. The back of the overalls suffered most, and caps never lasted long. Shoes got worn down on the sides and the toes; but not underneath, because miners mostly crawled on their knees. Knee pads were made and used to protect the knees. Horses were used for transportation out of the mine; but these were replaced by electric locomotives in the 1920s. As mining operations expanded

the entrepreneurs


and the depths and distances to the coal being worked increased, wagons were also used to transport workers. In 1928, the mining inspector in Mine No. 2 in Longyearbyen ascertained that the 1,600-meter-long journey from the gallery to the crosscuts where excavation took place, was made in cars with a 14man capacity. The train was operated by an engine driver and a conductor. Initially, there was only train transportation in the main gallery; safety precautions did not allow a car run on electricity to enter the crosscuts. It took about one minute to load a one-tonne car using shovels, and it took a bit longer to push the car out into the gallery. Anyone working in the transportation section needed to work fast. Driver and conductor had to work in close cooperation and quickly, otherwise they could cause a bottleneck in the system. Inside the mine, the labourers working the faces awaited the empty cars; and their earnings depended on how much coal was extracted. Usually young boys acted as conductors. ‘These young boys were put under a lot of psychological strain […] As though chased by baying hounds, they ran pursued by a furious engine driver. If they were within earshot, they were at best exposed to verbal abuse. At one time or another, all the engine drivers themselves had been conductors.’ There was no place to sit on the cars, and the conductors and engine drivers were obliged to hang on for dear life. Members of the engine gang were often the victims of accidents. The coal was transported to the top of the pit, weighed, and then stored on the tipple, the stones were placed in the stone tip, immediately outside the mine. This was done manually. The tipple workers operated in a very dusty work environment, not least when they were filling the empty coal containers. A miner who had worked there in the 1930s said that as late as the 1990s, he would cough up black coal dust when he had a cold. The aerial cableway on Longyearbyen transported the coal to storage depots by the harbour or directly to the ships. In 1917, a railway was built between the collieries and the port at Ny-Ålesund. Owing to climate and bad weather, the mines needed to operate independently, without relying on help from the settlements. Located near the exit of the main gallery was a well equipped day shelter, housing repair workshops and a smithy. Major repairs, however, were made at the main workshop. Total production levels and profits were dependent on smooth excavation and transportation operations. Arctic collieries were far removed from the markets. For them to be profitable, production levels needed to be above the European average. In 1920, Great Britain and Ireland produced 193 tonnes of coal per worker per year. In the U.S.A., where most mining was open-pit mining, production levels were much higher: 816 tonnes per worker per annum. In the summer of 1921, after the completion of the key installations, Store

162 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Norske was able to start up full operations in Longyearbyen. The annual production target was 200,000 tonnes. Store Norske reached an annual production level of 750 tonnes per worker. Coal mining took place mainly during winter. In the summer, the coal was shipped out. The men were put to work transporting the coal from the tipples to the quays, and loading it onto ships. In the collieries the summer months were devoted to maintenance and repairs.

‘Tremendous psychological pressure’

It is easy to see how work inside the mines could be stressful: Working in a mine was special. […] My first day in the Spitsbergen coal mines was an experience filled with excitement and nervousness. From the very first day, working in the low tunnels and having to kneel or lie on my side was exhausting. Even though one got used to the continuous stooping, the work was still hard, physically and mentally. It certainly was not work for someone suffering from claustrophobia. To the fishermen from Northern Norway, who had worked on the open seas, the switch to the confines of coal mines in Longyearbyen must have been a hard one. There are stories of some miners who refused to return to the mines. They were offered jobs outside or they returned to the mainland. But most of them remained; coalminers had to be really tough men. The health and safety concerns and equipment of today were unknown then. ‘The mine was exciting. Initially, I was frightened on my first shift; there was not a helmet or any protective footwear in sight. Got hold of some galoshes and a Holmenkollen ski cap with an attachment for the lamp. We could hear the mountain; it sounded like paper creaking. It was not good not to be nervous!’ As in other mines, most accidents were caused by falling blocks of stone, coming from the roofs of the mine shafts or crosscuts. The fellow with the ski cap was lucky and managed all right. But every year there were one or two fatalities, on average. On April 30th, 1938, a miner named Peder Wiesener was killed by a slide on a face in area N5 in Longyearbyen. The N5 area had been inspected and cleared by the foreman that morning. Even so, an additional row of timber was put up. Wiesener arrived to chisel at that part of the seam, and was killed instantaneously when several blocks of rock fell on him. Two other dangers lurked in the mines, in addition to the roofs that could cave in; they were coal dust and methane gas. Sparks can ignite coal dust and cause an explosion and fire. So it was important to keep the dust from whirling

the entrepreneurs


around in the air, and to try and get it to adhere to the surface of the crosscut floors. Snow was used to bind the dust, and later chalk dust was also utilised. Despite such precautions, the mining community at Svalbard was struck by several disasters. On January 3rd, 1920, Mine No. 1 in Longyearbyen was turned into an inferno, probably as a result of a coal-dust explosion. The tragedy cost the lives of 26 miners. The rescue team was met by an appalling sight: The dead were lying all over, in a terrible state. In one place six or seven men were lying close to one of the pit ponies. The pony’s coat was completely scorched. […] As we had no gas masks, it was not possible to penetrate far enough in to get them out. There are still seven bodies lying in the mine. That was an unusual winter, with their dead colleagues left in the mine and the hut deep in the valley. The Swedish mining town of Svea held a memorial service for the deceased, and 6,000 kroner was collected and distributed to the four families who were worst-off. Mine No. 1 was still burning at the start of the World War II, 20 years later. In Barentsburg most of the foremen were Germans. They had experience with health and safety issues. Miner and migrant worker Ole Eriksen reported in 1922: ‘All is well in the mines. Three men are employed just to guarantee sufficient air supplies, and to make sure debris is quickly cleared away […] There are no possibilities of explosions here, as the ventilation is good, and the German foremen are very vigilant.’ Ole Eriksen worked in the mines in Ny-Ålesund in 1929. The tunnels were imposing, with huge amounts of coal and equally huge amounts of coal-dust; which was the flip side of the coin. Eriksen also describes poor ventilation; and the surface was 200 to 300 metres above. The tunnels sloped ten to 15 degrees. ‘Inside the mine, coal dust lies 20 to 30 cm deep; and it is like walking on shifting sand. It whirls up into the air when we walk, making it difficult to see, even with the mining lamps. Someone here measures the amount of methane gas, and always finds some; and we have to stop working until the gas moves on.’ Methane gas is odourless and colourless, and does not produce nausea or other unpleasant effects. But it is highly explosive, and can ignite coal dust, which always accumulates, in large or small quantities. It is therefore important that a mine be cleared and declared gas-free before a shift starts. The coal deposits in Ny-Ålesund contained more gas pockets than the other mines in the archipelago. Accidents could happen, as they did, on a day in 1929 when Ole Eriksen was on the job:

164 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The churchyard below Sverdruphamaren in Longyearbyen was in use until 1932. The last person to be buried there was the hunter Erling Nordby, in September 1948.

On September 28th at about 9:30 in the evening, the mine explodes about half an hour before I am due to start my shift. We knew it was bound to happen, and it did. Two men were left behind in the mine, and they were both dead. Two men donned gas masks to go in and fetch out the dead, and on the way, one of them collapsed and died. The other one retreated (leaving), and a few meters from the opening of the pit, he fell over, too. We pulled him out, but he had been seriously poisoned by the gas. All the rescue equipment is defective, and obviously has been so for some time. The workers are really bitter; no one from the management is in sight; and maybe that was a good thing for their own sakes. Because of the explosion, the mine has to be shut down, and everyone has to return home. Three coffins were loaded onboard the boat before departure. It is difficult to determine the total number of fatalities in the Svalbard mines. It was not common to bury the dead on the spot; and before 1925, there were no authorities to whom deaths were reported. Many nations were involved, and company officials reported to their superiors. Church records were only available from 1920 and onwards, and they were primarily for Longyearbyen. At the Store Norske mines during the years 1917 to 1941, there were 47 deaths in all, as a result of mining accidents.

How did the Svalbard experience affect the workers?

A stay on Svalbard was different and special. For most of the men, it was a life lived together with other men in barracks. Their families were ‘down south’ on the mainland. However, functionaries were allowed to have their families with them. Summer and winter communities were two completely different social phenomena. Ny-Ålesund has been called the ‘place of the twofold year’. The first boat from the mainland arrived some time in May, depending on ice conditions. On board was mail, and a postal service representative, who would staff the post office until the autumn; channels of communications were now open. Coal boats came and went, and they were loaded and unloaded. Some left and others arrived. The summer season was hectic. Svalbard mining communities wore two masks. One of them was bustling, open, and hospitable in summer, while the other quiet, introverted, and secretive in winter. When the time approached for the departure of the last boat in the autumn, unease settled over the community. Should they leave? Some made up their minds at the last moment and left. But the majority stayed. Isolation throughout the winter made stringent physical and mental

166 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

demands on everyone. Mining management checked the workers’ police and health records, before they signed any winter work contracts. Theft and gambling might be grounds for a journey home, just as much as a bad back or weak knees. When the last boat had gone, tranquillity descended over the mining communities. Now, they were able to concentrate on the task at hand: work. Not everyone handled the polar nights equally well, noted someone in the Hiorthamn settlement in 1918. ‘We did not escape acquaintance with “the Arctic mood”. The oldest amongst us was melancholy, cried a great deal, and worried about his wife and children at home.’ This type of mood was also called the ‘Munro disease’. It is named after the first boat to arrive in the spring. The ‘first boat’ was important, and was constantly the subject of discussions in the late winter. No one could tame the wind and weather, or predict when the ice would release its iron grip, and slip the first ship from the mainland through. On Bear Island, the Munro disease could develop and then be cured thus: Up until February 1922 a worker had made a total of 8,786 kroner. He stopped working, and said he had earned enough. He did not want to become a capitalist. The doctor here is a Russian called Kosmer; and he cures the man simply with a bit of whiskey, soda water and with just plain water; playes a Boccherini minuet on a balalaika, dances around a bit, and sings some jolly ballads. The man regains his interest in working, and makes another four thousand kroner before he returns home. Other conditions could be more serious. According to the works doctor at the mine, mental illness was more common there than on the mainland. Anyone who suffered from a serious mental disease during the winter could not receive outside help. These men usually had to stop working, but they continued to live in the barracks. In this closed society where everybody worked, the unemployed stuck out like a sore thumb. And their colleagues in the barracks had to put up with them, as best they could. As one of the miners reported: Two of our group were no longer able to keep up. They lived in the barracks with us, but of course we had to look after them. Then we said to one of them that the other fellow was not quite ‘all there’, so you must look after him. We said the same thing to the other chap. That way, they spent their time looking after each other. Anyone not able to keep up was obliged to stay until the boat arrived in the spring. This became an added strain on the others. Peace and quiet were essen-

the entrepreneurs


Taking a break in the mess hall at one of Longyearbyen’s many mines.

tial in that isolated winter community. Peacefulness was dependent on a certain amount of contact with family and friends on the mainland. Throughout the winter, this contact was maintained by telegraph. In any case, at Christmas, families would send a message to say that all was well. Some miners had arranged with their wives to send one telegram per month. Even if all was not well; the wife might send an ‘all’s well’ message, anyway. What could a miner do, after all, if one or two of his children were ill? When a telegram failed to appear, that was even worse. A miner could become afraid that his wife had found another man. He would take to his bed, play truant, and give in to depression. His colleagues would then take the matter into their own hands. They would compose a telegram in his wife’s name, in which she clearly apologised and asked for forgiveness. The miner would then rally, and resume work. The first boat brought post and parcels from Norway, plus fresh provisions. But the boat also brought unwanted guests, with its new arrivals: the ‘flu’ and colds. Viruses and bacteria were killed off in the dry, cold winter climate, but they were in evidence just a few days after the first boat landed. In the two months of June and July in 1929, there were 355 sick days amongst the Kings Bay employees, a quarter of them owing to ‘flu’ and colds. Forty-six of them were so ill, that they had to be seen by the doctor.’

Striking camp and departure

When Germany attacked Norway on April 9th, 1940, all mining stopped immediately and it ceased for a full four days. Everyone listened to the radio, day and night. Store Norske’s managing director, Einar Sverdrup, wrote in his diary: Attendance was appalling, and production less than half the usual rate. The reasons were plentiful. Partly, the miners wanted to go south and fight; partly they wanted to go home, or were disheartened because they did not know what had happened to family and relatives in war-torn Norway […] On June 10th, 1940, when the capitulation of Northern Norway was announced, virtual panic broke out. All work just halted, in both mines, and the majority of the miners wanted to go home. The company did not want to halt all production, and send the workers home. The trade union on the mainland appealed to them, emphasizing that the most important contribution they could make for the good of the country, was to keep working and produce coal. A few days later, about 100 miners threatened the captain of the S/S

the entrepreneurs


Salonica, which was taking in coal. They demanded that he take them to America, but that did not work. But during the summer, those who wanted to leave travelled south to the mainland. The company complained that too many experienced workers never returned; they would not take any chances, and leave their families for a whole winter season. But new workers arrived, and mining continued. During the spring of 1941, four men perished when a ventilation fan caught fire in Mine 2 in Longyearbyen. The cause of their death was smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation; safety precautions did not function properly. Both Mine 1 and Mine 2 were closed for a month while the damage was repaired. The atmosphere was not good: The workers were very depressed owing to the fire and the accident. Work had barely started when the first British naval fleet visited Svalbard on July 31st, and the islands were occupied. Following that incident, the atmosphere was so highly charged that all work in Mine 2 stopped. However, Mine 1 was kept going until evacuation took place. Then the evacuation started. An Allied naval force arrived at Isfjord on August 25th, 1941: two cruisers, three destroyers, a tanker, four trawlers, and the troop transport ship Empress of Canada. Everyone on Svalbard was to be evacuated. The cruiser Aurora and a plane were sent to Ny-Ålesund to pick up the people living there. Hunters in the area were included, as well as the two couples guarding Svea. On the morning of August 29th, the evacuation of Ny-Ålesund began; and by the next morning, everyone was in Longyearbyen. All public officials were ordered to be relocated, too, along with all archives. At that time the church was celebrating its 20th anniversary, and the imminent departure was commemorated with a service on August 31st. The church was full to the rafters; many had to stand outside. The service was a very special one, conducted in both Norwegian and English. Both Norwegian and English hymns were sung, and the two flags were flown. The vicar, Just P.C. Kruse, married six couples. The time had come to celebrate common bonds, not only between man and woman, but also between the two nations that were united in war against Germany. Managing Director Sverdrup describes the mood from day to day: On September 1st we slaughtered all the animals, except the horses. [‌] Departure was supposed to have commenced at 8 a.m. on September 3rd, but was postponed until 10 a.m. We finally got underway at 9 p.m. It was a dismal day, and a dismal experience, to watch all those people waiting on the quay, hour after hour, with their meager luggage.

170 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

A group of women and children also sat on the Longyearbyen quay in September of 1941. There were 38 wives of office staff, with a total of 63 children, plus three unmarried women, all living in the settlements at Longyearbyen and Svea. The workers sat apart. There were women amongst them too; three married women with four children. The largest group of females was the group of workers, numbering 77 in all. None of them had children. When they sailed past Nesset in the evening, they saw the entire coal tip on fire; it had been sprayed with petrol and set alight that same afternoon. The Russians had left too, having evacuated the week before. The Russian mines had also been laid waste and burnt. The same was the case in Ny-Ålesund. Little did they know that two years hence, German warships and troops would sail into Longyearbyen and raze the town to the ground. Svalbard had been abandoned. The coal depots were burnt down. Most of the production equipment was destroyed. But many, men and women, returned after the war, to the massive clearance work which awaited them.

Whaling – Norway’s first oil age

South Georgia is located at 54° S in the South Atlantic Ocean. The island would quickly become an important base for Norwegian whale hunters. Approximately half the island is icebound, but in the summer high, rough tussock grass grows on its east coast. Otherwise, there is very little vegetation on the island. The waters around abound in fish. There are seals and penguins on land. The first Norwegian whaling station in the South Atlantic Ocean was established at Grytvika on the island of South Georgia by the firm, Pesca, which was managed by C. A. Larsen. Secretary Arild Mack, who first saw that station at Grytvika in 1922, described the experience as follows: The entire coast, from the shore to the highest mountains tops, is covered with ice and snow, and making the island magnificent in the sunlight. […] Birdlife is also no disappointment. Flocks of millions of birds are just teeming everywhere: gulls, albatross, avocet and ducks. I do not know the names of them all. The sea is still, and like a mirror, its surface broken only when a huge whale rolls on its back, in the water. […] The mountains rise straight up from the sea. They are tall, dark, moss-covered mountains, looking extraordinary, deserted and sad. They must have been standing like that for thousands of years. The tiny settlement at Grytvika expanded rapidly, as did the activity there. By 1908 there were already 17 buildings and 160 workers there. The workdays

the entrepreneurs


were long, from six in the morning to six in the evening. In wintertime, daylight determined the working hours. When there was no whaling, the men worked on the buildings, did maintenance and repair work, and neatened up. Most of the workers were Scandinavians; but during the first years at the station, there were people from all over the world. Turnover was high. From 1907 onwards, there was a doctor at Grytvika; and he reported that all the men were healthy. Their spiritual health, meanwhile, was to be attended to by a clergyman. The founder of the whaling station, C.A. Larsen, built a church there. The days were busy. Harpooners would shoot a whale with grenade harpoons, and air would be pumped through a hollow spear, and into the whale to keep the animal afloat. It was then marked with a flag, and later towed to the whale factory ship. There it was flensed; and the blubber was peeled off, and boiled until it became oil. The remainder of the carcass was simply disposed of in the water. During the 1907–08 whaling season, whalers discarded carcasses that could have produced 70,000 barrels of oil. Most of the oil was inferior, and used in soap production in Argentina. Some was used for lamp oil or in industry. When the men caught a rare right whale, they could sell the whalebone, which was used in the corset industry. During the first few years, four out of five whales killed were humpback whales, but those stocks diminished quickly. In 1916 the value of the stock had sunk to almost nothing. The abundance of fin whales, however, made it worthwhile to continue whale hunting. When the whaling station was established, Larsen and the Pesca Company thought they had arrived at a no-man’s-land. The British Colonial Minister was also unsure whether the island was British and, if so, whether it was worth keeping. However, when whaling was established, all doubt was removed. The British found good reasons for maintaining sovereignty: South Georgia had been discovered by the British, and James Cook had formally annexed it in 1775 in the name of George III.

The breakthrough

As early as 1905, Chr. Christensen dispatched the first all-Norwegian whaling expedition to the south. He was the first to make use of floating whale factory ships in the Antarctic. The Admiral had been used for the hunt near Spitsbergen for a year before it set sail for South Shetland. Several other vessels, from both Norway and Great Britain, followed in its wake. Whaling was based around the coast. Whalers went out, shot the whales, and dragged the carcasses back to the factory vessel for processing. The factory ships had to remain in calm waters, because the whales were flensed along

172 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

A view of Grytvika in South Georgia in 1925–26.

the ship’s side. The evaporator, which transformed salt water to fresh water, could not produce enough of fresh water to extract all the whale oil; so the factory ship depended on water supplies from land. Moored in port, the ship did not need to use coal for fuel; so the coal could be stored on shore. A floating factory ship had the advantage of being able to move from hunting ground to hunting ground, as the whales were exploited in each area. In order to regulate whaling, Great Britain required that any factory ship operating in British territorial waters be licensed. In the years before World War I, 24 such licences were granted. They were renewed annually; but once a company had been granted a licence, renewal was just a formality. As the total number of licences was limited, they were worth a good deal; and once obtained, they could be and were sold to other ships for large sums of money. Norwegian licence and concession applications were instrumental in clarifying the borders of the British Empire in the South Atlantic. On the advice of Norwegian authorities, Norwegian companies applied to the British for hunting concessions and licences, even in areas where British sovereignty was in question. As a consequence, the British began claiming sovereignty in those areas. Financial interests were paramount for Norway. When Britain put forth a claim in 1908 for what they called the ‘Falklands Sector’, being the entire area between 20° and 80° longitude, south of 50° S, Norway issued no protest. The Tønsberg and Sandefjord Whaling Companies were the first to make use of factory ships. They built shore stations in 1909–10 and in 1912, after having earned enough to finance these undertakings. It all happened very quickly. The Tønsberg station was established in Husvik Harbour, while the Sandefjord Company began operations in Stromnes Harbour, about ten or twenty kilometers away. The firm of Ocean Ltd. was established in New Fortuna Bay in 1909. Licences were granted on the condition that the entire whale was utilised, and so the firms were obliged to build factories that could handle meat, bone, and guano processing. Space was required for skinning and carving up the whale, and for sawing the bones. The New Fortuna Bay station was in operation until 1920. Also, Bryde and Dahl had a factory ship in Godthul. By 1912, seven companies were operating on South Georgia. Apart from Pesca and the four Norwegian companies, there were two British firms: one in Leith Harbour and the other in Prince Olav Harbour. Norwegians were working at all of them. In addition, Hektor Ltd. of Tønsberg, established a land station on Deception Island, one of the South Shetland Islands, where six Norwegian factory ships were also stationed. Attempts at hunting near the South Orkney Islands proved unprofitable. Income from Framnæs Engineering Workshops, owned by Chr. Christensen, was one of the preconditions for operations in the Antarctic Ocean. Whaling was largely financed by local shareholders, primarily by the financial elite in the

174 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

county of Vestfold. They were joined financially and through family ties, and they supported each other’s projects. Nonetheless, it was always necessary to take out bank loans or borrow against share purchases. The major breakthrough for Norwegian whaling in the Antarctic Ocean came around 1910. In 1914 Norwegian stations and factory ships produced ten times more whale oil than in 1906. Pioneer C.A. Larsen returned to Norway, a wealthy man, after ten years in Grytvika. Norwegian companies also hunted along the west coast of Africa. Within a short period of time, they fully exploited the whale stocks there. There were periods when Norwegian companies hunted off the South American coast, around New Zealand and Tasmania, and even off the coast of North America. The reason for the leap in production, and the subsequent increase in demand, was the newly developed processing method for hardening whale blubber. It was a leap forward; as a result, most of blubber’s distinctively horrible taste and smell disappeared. However, not until 1929 did the technology develop sufficiently to allow virtually 100 % utilization of whale oil in margarine. Whale oil was mostly used for soap and cooking fat, for which there was an increasing demand. Europe’s growing urban population did not churn butter or boil soap, and whale oil was cheap. At first, the use of whale oil in margarine was a wellkept secret, owing to strong antipathy to the substance. William Lever, the managing director of Lever Brothers, refused to use whale oil in his highly successful Sunlight Soap. However, he and others would soon change their minds, when they realised that there was money to be made out of whale oil. When the war broke out in 1914, two-thirds of whale hunting was taking place on Allied territory; while the Central Powers were amongst the largest purchasers of whale oil. During World War I, the Norwegian whaling industry was more or less controlled by the British. Lack of animal fat was a major problem for Germany. Therefore, it was extremely important for Great Britain to control the supply and demand as much as possible. Britain cancelled the whaling licences and concessions for the duration of the war, and did not permit factory ships to stock up on coal. They prohibited the export of oil to all countries other than Great Britain, despite Norway’s neutrality. As a result, some Norwegian owners of whaling ships preferred to use their vessels to transport oil between the U.S. and Britain, a highly lucrative business. Britain’s ‘compulsory sale’ rule meant that the whaling industry did not share in the prosperity of wartime commerce in the same way that the fishing and sealing industries did. Nevertheless, the companies profited. Oil prices increased, especially during the last phases of the war, and did not peak until 1919. Excellent profits were also a result of the rate of exchange and profits from haulage. On average, however, whalers caught fewer than half as many whales as before, and thus extracted less than half as much oil. This decline was not sudden; even before

the entrepreneurs


the war production levels had begun to drop. Many companies which had enjoyed the pre-war boom, withdrew from the market. The value of ships rose during the war, and as a result, many whaling ships were sold at a handsome profit. A considerable part of the fleet was shipwrecked. Between 1914 and 1918, the number of factory ships declined from 36 to five, and the number of whaling vessels fell from 149 to 44, a reduction of over two-thirds. The remaining whalers were large and more seaworthy, since much of the old equipment had been discarded. After the war, most of the whaling was concentrated around Antarctica.

Without a licence but with a slip at the stern

The British cancellation of licences and concessions during World War I had seriously shaken the Norwegians. It was therefore not surprising that many of them entertained the thought of hunting without a licence, in the open, and on the high seas, beyond British control. This would enable hunters to test out new hunting grounds in the Antarctic Ocean. The first firm to try pelagic hunting in the south was Rosshavet Ltd, The hunting manager, C. A. Larsen, tried to hunt and extract oil in the Ross Sea. Because the Norwegian minister in London considered this British territory, the expedition applied for a licence, and was granted one for the season 1923–24. Captain Gjertsen from the factory ship S/S Sir James Clark Ross described the journey to the ice in these words: At 10 in the morning on Christmas Eve we sighted the mighty ice barrier, that place to which our thoughts had wandered so many times in the last year, filled with so much excitement and expectation. The barrier made a massive impression. In both directions, and as far as the eye can see, there is an unsurpassable, blindingly white wall. Explorers of the past have left chronicles, describing for us this natural ‘Chinese wall’ that stretches for thousands of kilometres to both sides of the huge Antarctic continent. It is so immense that it is larger than Europe and Australia combined. Only in very few places is this wall broken, in such a manner as to permit landing. Anyone who has ever seen this greatest of Nature’s masterpieces, will always long to return, to see it again. That first season was not unequivocally successful. Manoeuvring through the pack ice and into the Ross Sea was difficult; the crew had to use ice saws, and flensing along the ship’s side in the bitter cold was tough. Many times an axe would make no impact on the frozen whale carcasses; much of the meat was thrown away, and they had to discard the majority of the blubber and bones.

176 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Nevertheless, Larsen wrote to his friend Oluf Hansen, that he was convinced there was a future down there: You can imagine that this trip has been no Sunday outing, but I have lost neither my courage nor my good humour. On the contrary, my spirits are higher here on the Ross Sea, now that I see the enormous wealth that is to be made from the colossal blue whale. Blue whales like these can not be found, either near South Shetland or South Georgia. They are thumping huge, and difficult to roll onto deck; but really do help to fill the coffers! Larsen never experienced the next season’s much larger haul; he died on the field, before the season had got under way. Larsen’s enthusiasm and hunting success must have inspired others, especially if it were possible to hunt without a licence. The first boat to try its luck was the Lancing in 1925. This was also the first factory ship equipped with a stern that had a slip on which to haul up the whale. It was designed in accordance with Petter Sørlie’s patent, and the system revolutionised whale hunting in open waters. The whale was hauled up through a hatch in the stern of the ship, and could be flensed and cut up onboard. The work was quicker and safer. The newly developed winch was strong enough to haul the whale onboard. Until now, land stations or land-based factory ships had been preferred over floating factory ships, as procedures had demanded a good deal of space. Fresh water had been required to operate the steam engines, and the settling tanks had worked better when there was no lurching or rolling on deck. However, in the 1920s, several inventions, in addition to the stern slip, made it lucrative to produce whale oil out at sea. New rotary cookers replaced the old pressure cookers. Steam reached the blubber or the meat much better when the pot rotated. It was also possible to top up with more raw materials, and empty out the oil and offal, without interrupting the cooking process. Cooking, under high pressure and high temperature, took much less time. The result was higher quality oil and a less labour-intensive operation. The new process also reduced water, coal, and coal storage space requirements. Because this also freed up space on the vessel, it was now possible to process more oil, meat, and bones in situ, and better utilize the raw materials. The new oil separators separated waste materials, such as gluey water, from the oil in such a way that it obviated the need for settling tanks. The use of centrifugal force in specially designed separator vats meant that the whalers were no longer dependent on a calm sea to clean the oil. Also, the separators were smaller than the tanks used before. Beginning in 1921, the manually operated saw was replaced by a steam-driven bone saw which made it much easier to dismember a whale skeleton, and to utilise more of it. Direction finders

the entrepreneurs


and wireless telephones made it easier for the whaling ships to stay in contact with the mother vessel. The first factory ships were especially refitted passenger or cargo ships. But at this stage, larger, specially designed factory ships were constructed. The fact that the vessels were very large was an important condition for the development of pelagic hunting. The size of the vessels allowed for flensing of an entire whale carcass on the flensing deck, and then hauling the whale to the cutting deck. This made the process far more efficient than it had been. The first of these specially constructed factory ships was the Kosmos, which was built in 1929. It was considered very impressive, with a flensing deck measuring over half an acre, making it possible to flense five whales simultaneously. It had an echo sounder and even had a small seaplane onboard, for reconnaissance purposes. Hunting on the high seas placed more stringent requirements on the whaling boats, too. The hunting technique switched from sneaking up on the whale, to hunting it until it was so exhausted that it allowed itself to be shot; the so-called Prussian hunt. The first boat run on oil rather than coal went into service in 1923. The boats built at the end of the 1920s were also much more powerful than their predecessors. They had cruiser sterns and independent rudders. Another improvement was the gunner’s bridge. In cold weather and during storms, it was impossible for the gunner to stand in the bow by the harpoon cannon and wait until he saw the spout. The gunner could now follow the hunt from the bridge, and quickly run over the gunner’s bridge and to the cannons when a whale was spotted. Breech loading rather than muzzle loading was quicker and more accurate. The development of new hunting methods led the whaling industry to constantly seeking new areas where it could hunt freely. In the wake of the AS Rosshavet’s licence application, Britain claimed the so-called Ross Sector, the area between 160° E and 150° W and south of 60° S. It was to be administered from New Zealand. This claim spurred Norway to join the competition for sovereignty over Antarctic territory. Lars Christensen’s whaling company used the sealer Norvegia for four expeditions to the Antarctic in the years 1927–31. The main purpose of the expeditions was to seek out new whalehunting grounds; but they also sought to discover and rediscover land areas, and occupy them on behalf of Norway. On the first expedition in 1927, the Norwegian flag was planted on Bouvet Island, and Peter I Island was annexed in 1929. The pilot Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen led the two last expeditions, in 1929–30 and 1930–31; and two light aircraft accompanied these expeditions. On the first trip, the Norwegian flag was planted on a landing strip on the Antarctic continent which Riiser-Larsen called Dronning Mauds Land (Queen Maud Land). In 1939 Norway claimed Queen Maud Land, then defined as quite an extensive area, as Norwegian territory. These annexations were meant

178 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The catch, gathered on the side of a whaling ship in the Antarctic Ocean, is ready to be hauled on board the factory ship.

to support Norwegian activities in the Antarctic Ocean. Plenty of whales had been observed in the area around Bouvet Island.

Market fluctuations

Following a short post-war dip, the markets began to climb again, and continued to do so until 1931. The new pelagic hunting methods proved highly efficient, and output rose annually. Between the 1926–27 season and the peak year of 1930–31, international whale-oil production tripled. The Larvik companies, Globus and Polaris, had been operating successfully without concessions since 1925. Between 1928 and 1930 these two firms were even joined on the hunting grounds by no fewer than ten new companies, all from Vestfold. Despite the industry’s deep local roots, it was increasingly operating with the help of foreign capital. The most important reason for the enormous expansion was the state of the market, which was excellent – until, of course, the Great Crash of 1929. More whale oil was used in the production of margarine, a product which was used in an increasing number of households. In 1934, about 84 % of all whale oil was used in margarine. Whale oil was very popular, as it was cheaper than other cooking oils and fats, was less expensive to use in the hardening process, and could be stored for longer periods of time. This success, however, caused the industry to dig its own grave in more ways than one. During the 1930–31 season, 238 whaling ships caught 40,201 whales and produced 3.6 million barrels of oil. The market was saturated, and the Whalers Association encouraged companies to lay their ships up for a year. Thus, 29 Norwegian factory ships and more than 160 whaling boats did not participate in the hunt, during the 1931–32 season. In the municipalities of Sandefjord and Sandar, where most of the whalers lived, approximately one out of every five men was unemployed in March 1932. In 1930–31, 10,549 Norwegians were employed in whaling; but by the next season the number had dropped to only 1,884. These whalers were employed by two British companies. Many of the whalers were also farmers. They held things together when not on the hunt, by working their farms and, in some cases, fishing as well. Unemployment would have been higher, but for the fact that many companies spent the year they were not hunting, maintaining and refitting their boats. Thus, in what would have been a time of crisis, there was some construction work. Still, the communities suffered when there was unemployment, because the companies were not bound to employ the whalers or support them financially. The ‘black year’, when the whaling ships were laid up, was an eye-opener for people in Vestfold; clearly, they could not rely solely on whaling. As a result,

180 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

there was an increasing emphasis on the merchant fleet and the establishment of new industry. Furthermore, the number of whalers declined during the years that followed. Yet, in the 1937–38 season, the figures rose to the same levels as they had been before ships had been laid up. After the pause in whale hunting, the strongest market participants emerged even stronger. Much of the old equipment was discarded, and replaced with the newest and most modern equipment. The firms now concentrated on the hunting grounds with the highest yields. In 1938–39, only 2 % of the Norwegian whale hunt took place outside Antarctica. After that ‘black year’ of laying up whaling vessels, every factory ship had a slip at the stern. The floating factories were more efficient, with greater capacity. There were also more whaling boats per factory vessel, and the boats hunted whales at such a pace that the factories had difficulty coping with the pace of the hauls. Earnings were good up until the 1937–38 season, primarily as a result of rationalization and increased efficiency. The Norwegian share of whale hunting in Antarctica declined from 70 % in 1928–29 to 30 % ten years later. The reason for the decline was that Britain increased her share, and Japan and Germany entered the market. No longer did Norwegian whalers dominate the industry, either. In 1932–33, 94 % of all whalers were Norwegian; but represented only 59 % in 1938–39. Several of the ship-owners predicted difficult times ahead, and chose to invest in other forms of shipping, especially in tankers.

Regulating resources

The history of whaling is the history of the demise of one species of whale after the other. Although whaling in the north had clearly shown that resources were far from inexhaustible, none of the whaling companies seemed to have learned from this. When Arild Mack first went to Grytvika in January 1922, to serve as secretary at the shore station, one of the first things he remarked on was the abundance of whales to be seen. ‘Sometimes there are whole herds of them, and their spouts are so close that they are like trees in a forest along the water’s surface.’ Perhaps it appeared as if there were enough whales for everyone; but already in 1910, Great Britain limited the number of concessions. More British rules followed, regarding the use of raw materials and the protection of calves and of cows with young. Not everyone was equally pleased when there was hunting without licensing. The British lost important income. Norwegian companies that were still paying licence fees did not think much of those that were not doing so. Moreover, an increasing number of whales were being shot, without

the entrepreneurs


regard to any rules. Companies with valid licences dominated the Norwegian Whaling Association which, together with local whaling associations, requested that the Norwegian government establish guidelines. Because land-based and pelagic hunting interests were on opposite sides of the fence, the government was reluctant to implement such an initiative. Britain was also pushing hard, and was prepared to accept the Norwegian annexation of Bouvet Island, only if Norway began to regulate and reduce whale hunting. In addition, Norway was feeling increasing pressure as a result of growing international opposition to whaling. In 1929 Norway passed a new whale-hunting law. It protected the threatened species, the right whale, as well as cows with young. It called for maximization of raw material utilization. It obliged whalers to report the results of hunts, and established a controlling body. Inspectors would accompany the factory ships, and rule-breakers would be fined. The Whaling Commission, with representatives drawn from government and industry, was established to ensure compliance. The disagreements between those who hunted with and without licences contributed to the dissolution of the Norwegian Whaling Association. It was replaced by a new international association, the Association of Whaling Companies. Meanwhile the League of Nations had commissioned a report on whale resources and whale hunting. The findings of this report, along with the principles of Norwegian whaling law, helped shape an agreement on whaling, signed in Geneva in 1931. In order for the agreement to take effect, it had to be signed by both Norway and Britain; but the British dallied for so long that it did not come into force until 1935. Since Japan, Russia, and Germany did not sign, the agreement was of limited value. There was no organised opposition to whale hunting in the years between the two World Wars; but the slaughter disturbed many, even within the industry. Morten Ingebrigtsen, born in 1848, had worked as a whale gunner on the Finnmark coast, in the Arctic, and off the coast of Africa. He believed that whale stocks had been reduced by as much as two-thirds by World War I; and that it would take ‘50 to 100 years for whale stocks to recover to the levels they were at during the best years’. This unease was also voiced in newspaper columns when the new law was introduced in 1934. Gunnar Isachsen, who had been on several sorties to Antarctica to map whale resources, was not in doubt. With regard to the future of whaling, I did not think that anyone, from what we now know, was in doubt that the hunt had devastated stocks to the extent that the whales were in danger of extinction. Nor can I understand that anyone can be optimistic, now, from a financial point of view.

182 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

After the ‘black year’ of whaling ship lay-ups in 1931–32, the Whaling Association realised that regulations were necessary in order to prevent further overproduction. During the two next seasons, they entered into voluntary agreements. The notion of ‘a blue whale unit’ came into use, meaning one blue whale, two fin whales, two and a half humpbacked whales, or six sei whales. A quota system was established, dictating how many whale units one could shoot, and how much oil one could extract. The system rewarded those who extracted the most oil from each carcass. The start of the season was postponed. In 1933, the Sandefjord ship-owner Lars Christensen chose to opt out of the agreement. Norwegian authorities intervened, and a new Norwegian whaling law went into effect in 1934. Greater government control was in line with Norwegian industrial policies of the 1930s; as well as in the years to come, when the authorities established the quotas. The hunting season was shortened even further. The law was augmented with a paragraph which forbade the sale of maritime vessels abroad. Rules were also created for the use of the whale carcass; and for the first time, a limit was placed on the amount of time that could elapse between the shooting of the whale and the flensing and cutting. A whale that has been sitting around for so long that it ferments and rots from within, and that swells is called a ‘burnt’ whale. A whale like that naturally produces bad oil that might well be unusable. During the 1935–36 season, most of the companies again cooperated and entered into production agreements. Altogether, they controlled about threequarters of the Antarctic hunt. When Japan joined the race in 1934 and Germany in 1936, a new battle for resources began. The Germans were preparing for a war economy, and wanted to prevent a recurrence of the fat shortage they had experienced during World War I. They wanted to build up stocks of fat, without having to use foreign currency. Japan was hunting primarily to obtain foreign currency for rearmament. These two countries were not signatories of the bilateral agreement between Norway and Britain for the 1936–37 season, and they shortened the season and reduced the number of whaling boats. The Germans were mostly interested in obtaining whale oil, which they wanted to produce themselves. They therefore wanted to buy whale-hunting equipment from Norwegian companies that were restructuring their fleet. This violated Norwegian law, but Norwegian companies circumvented the law by hiring out factory ships and whaling boats to Germany; and Germany managed to pressure the Norwegian government into granting certain dispensations from the law. Germany was one of the signatories of the next agreement, which was signed in London in 1937. Japan was not. Nine countries agreed to complete conservation measures for the right whale and gray whale, and placed quotas on the number of whales of several species that could be killed. It prohibited the hunting of cows with young, and limited the season to three months. In addi-

the entrepreneurs


tion, large areas of the Northern Hemisphere were closed to hunting. These agreements were also incorporated into Norwegian whaling laws. But the regulations were of little use. In 1938, 26 % more oil was produced than during the previous season. That year, a discussion of quotas was therefore initiated, but no agreement was reached. The only conclusion that was reached was to extend the 1937 agreement to 1940 and to stop pelagic hunting of the humpback whale in Antarctica. The freedom this allowed regarding pelagic hunting led to a lack of responsibility and an attitude of ‘every man for himself ’. The signs of excessive hunting were visible. It appeared that many thought: ‘après moi, la deluge’.

Working onboard

A whaler’s work was not unlike a fisherman’s. Work on the factory ships, however, was more like work on a factory assembly line. The whale was moved from one work gang to the next, where everyone had his appointed job; and it was important that every link in the chain functioned. The winch hand was an important link in the chain, and usually he was no immature stripling. Hour after hour the winch hand stays in his position, as though nailed to the deck, without any chance to warm up. The infernal wind in the dark of the night never ceases; and it freezes a person to the bone. Blue fingertips grab the handle and the steam crane. Tears trickle down his cheeks and turn into tiny beads of ice, as he stands and peers through steam and mist, to make sure he hoists and lowers at the correct time. […] He stands like an icy statue, making sure he does not damage anything on deck as he tosses around the heaps of bone and meat. The transition to pelagic hunting led to many changes onboard. The most important was the switchover from one to two shifts, in order to best utilize capacity. At night, the men worked under floodlights, when necessary. Often, the crew would work on the night shift for half the season, and on the day shift the other half. In a sense, the two halves of the crew lived separate lives, but they met in a competition to see which shift could catch and handle the most whales. On the whole, technological advances improved working conditions. It was less risky for a flenser to cut up the whale on board, rather than outboard, when outside the ship on the tiny ‘flensing ferry’; or even on top of on the slippery carcass itself, where one was exposed to wind and waves. The men had to cut the blubber into strips, and then fasten the strips to wires in order to pull

184 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Production is well under way on the deck of the Thorshøvdi in 1949. The ship was launched in April 1948. Crew and factory workers numbered about 260.

them off the carcass with the aid of a winch. The huge whale carcass needed to be capsized, turned over, in order to remove the blubber from the entire animal. Under the circumstances, it was easy for a man to fall into the sea, or for large pieces of blubber to fall on someone and injure him. One flenser fell onto a row of teeth from a sperm whale, and his back was scarred for life. The work was exhausting and freezing cold. Sometimes, the men had to warm their hands by thrusting them into the whale’s intestines. When flensing took place outside the ship, raw materials were underutilised, because the men often only got at the blubber, and half the whale oil sank with the carcass when they were done. In that respect, the stern slip was a godsend. At first, to be sure, the task of fastening the strap round the whale’s tail, before pulling it on board, was dangerous work. But in 1932–33 the whale claw came into use, which made the work easier and less risky. The transition to ships fuelled with oil meant there was no longer a need for laborious coal-firing, a miserable combination of fire, heat and dust. But cleaning the oil fuel tanks before filling them with whale oil was no easy job. The tanks were steamed off, boiled in caustic soda, and scrubbed by hand. Even then, they were not always clean enough; the work was tiring, tough, and not without an element of danger. After rotary boilers had been introduced, the blubber hoe and the elevator that transported the blubber to the boiler became redundant. The new boiler could be ‘fed’ by hand. Emptying and filling up the new boiler was so much easier than the old pressure boilers. When the oil separators were brought in, the work of the ‘skimming lad’ became redundant. Skimming lads used to have to skim the oil in the clearing tanks, and long hours spent over the oily steam could cause damage to the eyes. On the modern factory ships, much of the production was moved below deck, so that the boiling gang no longer had to work outside, exposed to wind and weather. Despite all the improvements, however, it was still hard work. The working week on the factory ship was 70 hours. The men worked on Sundays, and often had to work overtime. They waded in blubber and blood, and worked outside in the snow, wind, and cold. In the worst cases, they were so tired that they staggered around and fell on top of the piles of blubber. The noise level made it necessary to shout. This is how Krarup Nielsen, an expedition doctor, described the noise onboard the factory ship Solstreif in 1920: The rattling and whining of chains and cranes were mixed in with the deafening hammering and whirring of the steam cylinders, and with the hiss and roar from the pressure boilers when the steam is released. And shouts and whistled signals sliced through the din, together with curses and

186 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

screams of ‘look out!’ And all of this was necessary, in order to keep up the furious pace of this sort of work. That would have been a good time to straighten up and look out over the seascape. One whaler, recalling a 1938 voyage, remembers the deep blue sea, the blindingly white icebergs, with their violet shadows in the sunset, all under a green sky. When the nights were clear, the heavens were filled with stars, while the southern lights shimmered, with green and blue flashes dancing over pale white ice formations; reminiscent of cathedrals, minarets or castles reaching up into the deep blue air. On the whaling boats, the days were even longer than on the factory ships. A work week lasted 84 hours, and the sailors also had to turn out if the gunner hit a bull’s eye. The method of counting was adjusted; it changed from hours and days into whales and barrels. The passage to and from the hunting grounds was quiet. On the way south, the factory workers were divided into gangs, to prepare the equipment. Wire and ropes were spliced, knives ground, and so forth. Each gang usually worked with the equipment it would be using itself, which was a kind of quality control. On the passage down, they also built an extra deck to go on top of the normal deck, and this was made to enable the crewmen to get a foothold with their spiked boots when the deck surface got slippery from blubber, blood, and intestines. Similarly, the passage home was occupied with removing the soiled and splintered extra deck; and with washing, hosing, scraping, and painting the dirty ship. A whaling boat crew was not large enough to allow a complete overhaul; all they could do was to clean up. Factory ship crews got their returning ships really clean: white and shining; and it was definitely necessary. Artist and painter Henrik Finne had seen what the ‘cook house’ looked like out at sea: It is not a pretty sight, such a factory ship, as it lies and drifts in the absinthe-green water, which is stained yellow and red from the offal and blood. Blood runs down the side of the ship, and dirt covers and grows on the bridge, the boom, and even up the smokestacks. The passage to and from the hunting grounds could provide time for thought and a bit of reading, plus the ritual equator-crossing ceremony. On some factory ships, King Neptune and Mrs. Orcana Neptune ‘christened’ the sailors who were crossing the line for the first time. Sometimes a mess boy might be ordered to take a knife and ‘cut the line’, until he suddenly realised that he was being taken for a ride. Otherwise, seasickness might rear its ugly head on the trip south. Some latitudes, such as the ‘roaring forties’ and the ‘screaming fifties’, were not to be taken lightly.

the entrepreneurs


Living conditions onboard

The condition that most affected whale hunters was their isolation from the outside world. They were away from home half the year; and at the shore stations, some of the crewmen who stayed the winter could be away from home for a couple of years at a time. Life revolved around work and whales, whales and work; only interrupted by food and sleep; and although a factory ship might look large in port at home, it was a very limited world within which to live. Snowstorms, wind, and cold did not help, either. There were limited possibilities of contacting relatives at home: letters might arrive 2 or 3 times per season. Loneliness and uneasiness reigned. Working on the Leith Harbour in the Antarctic Ocean, Bernhard Eilertsen was among the men who felt he was missing a great deal: ‘I am not able to take part in my children’s celebrations. Edit and Martha were confirmed while I was away. Elsie will probably get married this year, and in the meantime I have volunteered to go into exile for two years.’ Eilertsen’s daughter Åse was born while he was away, but died before he got home. Most whale hunters returned home after the end of the season, and so family celebrations were usually postponed if possible. The vicar of Sandar performed 28 christenings in Sandar church on Easter Sunday in 1937. During the first years, it was difficult to lead any sort of social life on board. There were few places to congregate and no social events for the crew. The shore stations were better off. The stations had libraries, sporting competitions, and cinemas that showed slapstick comedies. It was also possible to get away from work by taking a walk or going skiing. The only day when there was any sort of lull in the work routine was Christmas Eve, when the table was set for a feast, perhaps including some aquavit or brandy and roast pork. Alas, some men, seeking to allay their homesickness and heavy thoughts, drank too much. Onshore and at sea, Christmas Eve celebrations could well wind up in a brawl. Living conditions on board varied according to one’s position. In the first years of whale hunting, 20 or 30 men might share a dormitory, which was known as a ‘penguin camp’. Linen and mattresses were brought from home. They ate in the forecastle and either fetched their food from the galley or had it brought to them by a galley boy. In the late 1920s, five or six men might share a small cabin, but the ventilation was never very good. The cabins were said to be so tiny, that if one man was pulling on his boots, the other would have to lie down on his bunk. Of course, there were no showers. The men could wash up either by going out on deck or into the boiler room area, and pouring water over themselves with a bucket or a dipper. Little by little, however, sanitary conditions improved. On the Sir James Clark Ross every crew cabin had a lavatory, by the 1930s. Crewmen

188 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

were also responsible for cleaning their own cabins. One can imagine that after the long, hard days at work, the men could cut corners. In addition, the men could be bothered by cockroaches, bedbugs, and rats on board. The officers’ accommodations were of a notably higher standard. A photo from the 1920s shows the cosy ‘doctor’s cabin’ with a leather sofa, an easy chair, a fringed lampshade, and family portraits on the panelled walls. Each of the various working groups had their own mess. For example, on the Kosmos II there was a lounge for the manager, the doctor, and all those whose titles started with ‘first’. Then there was an officers’ mess, a flensers’ mess, a boilers’ mess, the craftsmen’s mess, the sailors’ mess, the stokers’ mess, and the workers’ mess, all with their own mess boys. There were distinct boundaries among the various groups, especially on the shore stations and factory ships. In Grytvika, the highest ranking officials ate and lived in the administration building, while the others were in barracks. Nonetheless, they had common concerns, which consumed them the most. How many whales had been killed? How many barrels of oil had been produced? When could they expect the next mail delivery? On board the whaling boats, there were also separate messes: one for the officers and one for the others; but the social differences were less important onboard. Crew members were few in number, and usually the men already knew each other; if they were not from the same family or neighbourhood, they had probably worked together on the same boat in the past. At first many of the warm woollen clothes the whale hunters needed were handmade by their mothers, wives, and sisters at home. Some of these women might add a bit of their own hair when knitting mittens; this strengthened the wool and helped the mittens last longer. Otherwise, the men bought clothes, boots, cigarettes, tobacco, soap, shaving articles, and the like; either from the ‘slopchest’ (the ‘general store’) on the factory ship or at the shore station. The men usually wore canvas overalls, but later, these were made of denim. Underneath, they wore sweaters and woollen underwear. On top of it all, they often wore oilskins. The smiths on board made sure their shoes were spiked. The boots had an extension attached to them; a kind of legging that was basically a canvas thigh protector. It was homemade and fastened at the belt. On their arms they wore similar garments which were arm protectors. Anyone who used knives in his work had a whetstone pouch attached to his belt, plus a sawdust pouch. The sawdust was used to dry the knife handle, when it became slippery with blood and fat. Food was important, not only because the men worked hard, but because mealtimes provided the only opportunity for a break and some leisure. Most of the men were young; they were manual labourers working in the fresh sea air. A study from the 1930s estimated that a whaling factory ship worker required a 5,070-calorie-per-day intake. In comparison, an iron or steel worker needed about 3,500 calories per day. The calorie requirements cannot have been

the entrepreneurs


The quality of life varied on board, depending on one’s position, and also at Christmas celebrations. The officers enjoyed a holiday meal on the Antarctic in 1929.

lower on the old factory ships; which were furthermore often accused of not feeding the men properly and of providing monotonous fare. During the 1912–13 labour disputes, the crew representative from the Phytia said: ‘The flour was burnt into hard, plaster-like lumps that the baker had to break up with a club, and it smelt awful.’ Also, the salted meat in the barrels was overpickled, and the smell was so bad that the men had to eat their meat out of doors. As for the fish, it was yellow and green ‘and long maggots jumped out of it’ when the men cut into it.’ In the early years of whaling, the food on board the factory ships was monotonous. The crewmen sometimes brought their own meat and cheese; and they were given a ration of butter, sugar, syrup, and tinned milk. Sometimes, there was a warm breakfast of oatmeal gruel, fried fish balls, corned beef, or cod roe. Four meals were served daily. The cooks used local foodstuffs, such as cod (which they fished from the ship’s rail), penguin eggs, and naturally whale meat. The factory ships often carried live pigs and chicken in their storerooms. However, towards the close of the season, when there was no access to fresh food, meals could get rather boring. One crew member said of a 1938 expedition that in March, which was the end of the season, castor sugar, known as ‘drifting snow’, was all they had to spread on bread. Only rarely did they get

190 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The others had to be content with celebrating in their cabins.

syrup, jam, anchovies, sausage, or cheese made from cow’s whey, better known as ‘polishing stone’. In the 1920s some of the whale hunters suffered from beriberi as a result of Vitamin B deficiency. This vitamin can be found in whole wheat and brown bread. The trip to and from the hunting grounds passed through the tropics, where white bread kept longer. The companies took this problem seriously, and in 1930, their trade organisation, the Whale Hunters’ Association, appointed a committee to address the issue. During the years 1904–23, over 200 whale hunters died in the Antarctic. As the men were basically strong and healthy, one must assume that many of these deaths were accidental. The work exposed the men to many dangers. Hunting in the ice did not just improve the men’s working conditions; it also led to more shipwrecks and deaths, certainly in the years between 1926 and 1931. Insufficient experience with ice was one reason; and the other was the use of old vessels that were ill equipped to sail in these waters. Collisions with icebergs and ice floes were a main cause of the shipwrecks; there was not too much pack ice in the Antarctic so fewer ships sank because they were pushed down in pack ice. The extreme competition and frantic work pace were also partly to blame.

the entrepreneurs


Between 1924 and 1950, 58 Norwegian whale hunters died in accidents other than shipwrecks, snowslides, or suicide. One of these hunters was Erling Larsen, who was 27 years old and a newlywed in 1930. He fell between two cargo ships that lay side by side in Leith Harbour; and ‘he was squashed to pieces between the sides of the ships’, according to a co-worker. Another whaling chronicler notes the following serious accidents during the 1937–38 season: A sailor suffered frostbite in both hands; a boy’s thigh was torn open by a flensing knife; a boiler worker had three fingers squeezed flat; a man was struck in the head by a taut wire, was thrown onto deck, and lost consciousness; a boy was hit hard, in the head, by a bone saw; someone was thrown onto deck by a blue whale crank handle; two grenades exploded, killing three and seriously wounding one; a cutter fell under half a breast carcass of a whale and was badly injured; and a flenser fell on his flensing knife and died of a serious thigh wound.

For county and country

Whale hunting was important to Vestfold County. In 1920, five percent of the county’s male working population was employed in the industry; and in 1929, as much as 18 %. The economic importance of the industry to the county reached a particularly high level in the late 1920s. While many other business sectors struggled, whale hunting was expanding and employment was on the rise. Profits were high; and investments, while substantial, paid off quickly. Not only was the Kosmos debt-free after only two seasons of operation; large reserve funds were set aside, and the shareholders received a 40 % dividend. Income tax from whale hunters accounted for a major percentage of direct income tax payments; and the companies also paid taxes to the county. Whale hunting was the foundation of financial empires, like those of the Jahre and Christensen families. Jahre established two factories in Sandefjord, which refined whale and sperm whale oil. The Sandar factory was built in 1935, and Jahre Chemical Factory Ltd. in 1940. Despite the Great Depression in the 1930s, which affected Vestfold along with the rest of the world, incomes were 25 % higher in Sandefjord than in other Norwegian towns. Although the Norwegian whaling industry declined in the 1930s, the town’s income was still 37 % above the national average in 1939. Only the counties of Akershus, Oslo, and Bergen had higher estimated, average personal incomes than Vestfold. Some groups, like the gunners, pulled this average up. Prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Income from whale hunting resulted in a broader division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and capital was concentrated in the hands of relatively few. Whaling also created significant secondary, economic effects. Even before

192 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

the establishment of Jahre’s factories, there were whale-oil refineries in the county of Østfold: Vera Fat Refinery and De-No-Fa. Whale oil was used in the paint production processing, by firms like Jotun Factories in Sandefjord. The Framnæs Mechanical Workshops made good money from maintenance and reconstruction of vessels, as well as from building new ships, like the eleven whalers they constructed in 1932–37. The whaling industry represented an important market for the manufacturers and distributors of harpoons, paint, fuel, provisions, and other commodities. Purchases of these supplies represented millions of kroner for the Vestfold economy. Most of the supplies required for whaling voyages were purchased in ship-owners’ home counties. In fact, some enterprises were entirely dependent on the income they received from the whaling companies. Business in Vestfold County was also generally vulnerable to market fluctuations. A new Norwegian industry had been created, producing considerable employment and profits. At its height, the industry employed about 10,000 men. The nation earned important revenue, and also benefited from the development of valuable expertise, as a result of the accumulated experience of the whale hunters, and from major technological innovations that grew from natural industrial developments. Whale hunting gave Norway status; Norway had led the way. Whale hunting transpired in tough, inhospitable, and ‘heroic’ territory, where the polar explorers had left their marks, too. Not only were many whale hunters buried in Grytvika; but the British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton also lays in rest there. It was thanks to whale hunting that Norway was granted sovereignty over several regions of Antarctica. Few refer to the negative consequences. Several whale species were overtaxed, huge amounts of food resources were thrown overboard, and hardly a strategy existed for how best to slow these developments.


Fridtjof Nansen was a scientist. He was not an amateur who turned to science as recreation, nor did he use science as a pretext or a polite excuse to engage in sport. He was a committed scientist all his life; but of course he had other interests. The return of Nansen and of the Fram in 1896 caused a wave of commercial festivities in Norway. Nansen Beer was brewed; people could buy Nansen Aquavit and Nansen Sardines; there were Fram songs and Fram cabarets. All in all, Nansen’s Norwegian reception recalled the Swedish response to the 1880 return of the geologist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, after his journey on the Vega through the Northeast Passage. Commercial exploitation of this type of spectacular public event was perhaps dictated by the invisible hand of the market; but the public reaction was naturally influenced by newspapers, magazines, and other publications. If the unmistakable message was to be made, that scientific research by polar explorers played a crucial role in the attainment of national honour, that message had to be conveyed clearly to the Norwegian people. After the Fram’s festive departure in 1893, and in the face of a long and indeterminate period before its return, geology professor W.C. Brøgger and author Nordahl Rolfsen began work on a definitive popular portrait of Nansen aimed at the Norwegian public.Their book, which included contributions by other authors, formed the basis of the Nansen legend. The authors were vocal proponents of national unity through the celebration of Nansen’s exploits. The beginning of the book includes a portrait of Nansen, in which his body virtually disappears into a huge fur coat that makes him look like a Viking chieftain. His moustache is the kind that was most fashionable in Europe; his hair and clean-shaven face make him look young; while his sharp nose, frowning forehead, and intense expression lend him a certain Nordic-Germanic intensity, determination, and purposefulness. Is this the new Norwegian identity personified?

the explorers


But was this a man of science? Absolutely. Brøgger and his co-authors wanted readers to understand that science was a key factor in Nansen’s heroism, and that scientific activity itself was heroic. One of them wrote of Nansen’s zoological research: ‘The journeys of discovery in the quiet office, in the laboratory, in the world of the microscope, in nature’s hidden workshop, are of great value in the edification of mankind and the progress of culture.’ The hope was expressed that when Nansen returned, he would be able to ‘continue his journey of discovery within biology’s broad but still uncharted territory; beyond which lie still greater, unknown regions that can barely be perceived, now’. Writing about the Greenland expedition, Brøgger observed that the public now recognised Nansen as more than just a great athlete. The chapters that followed, outlined the connection between science and Nansen’s activities. Repeatedly, Brøgger hammered the message home: Nansen was fully aware of the scientific significance of his expedition. Time and again, this importance was linked to Nansen’s genius for hatching ambitious plans, plans he felt he had sufficient strength and wherewithal to bring to fruition. Having combined ‘Nansen the daring athlete’ with ‘Nansen the brilliant scientist’ into a single heroic polar scientist, Brøgger then described the extraordinary welcome accorded Nansen on his return. It was an explosion of sentiment and excitement that must still have been very fresh in the minds of his readers. First, Brøgger equated Nansen with the Norwegian people at a time when they were despondent, and then when they united upon his return: ‘He has been like a messenger of our people, serving the world. That courage which has gone unrecognised or faltered on dark nights at sea; that courage has been his happy destiny to carry forth, for the whole world to see, basked in the sunshine of victory.’ Then, Brøgger’s language really swells: Of all the thousands who cheered him from the ramparts at Akershus Castle, who broke the police cordons and dashed up to his carriage, how many at that very moment remembered Science? For them, it was the deed; for them, he stood forth as a chieftain who joined the most recent story of a capsized boat. […] He was the personification of a Norwegian. […] But we, who are trying to paint the whole picture, cannot put science aside; as it is science, for the whole world to see, that is the defining moment, and that gives the welcoming festivities their proper historic perspective.

Sweden’s great polar hero Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld assumes a heroic stance, here in Georg von Rosen’s 1886 portrait. Nordenskiöld’s ship, the Vega, is depicted in the background.

196 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Brøgger’s campaign also contributed to strengthening the notion of science as a daring deed. As in Sweden, polar researchers were presented as peaceful Vikings, who conquered unknown realms of knowledge in the name of science and civilisation. Nordenskiöld’s deeds were a clear indication that science could win a nation prestige and persuade its people that a scientist can be a national hero. Events in Sweden showed that polar research could lend direction, pride, and vitality to the local scientific community, which in turn prompted international interest and respect. In the 1880s and 1890s, a number of young Swedish scientists travelled to the far north, to obtain honour and fame for themselves and their nation. The 1896 return of Nansen and the Fram set in motion a similar phenomenon. When the University of Oslo immediately afterwards secured Nansen’s services by appointing him to a professorship, it was a foregone conclusion that the nation’s new hero and his polar feats would play a key role in Norway’s scientific community. One of the first side effects of Nansen’s academic appointment was the rapidity with which the Fram II’s scientific expedition secured financing. Another consequence was the establishment of the Fridtjof Nansen Fund for the Promotion of Science. This Fund, which was in reality the first research council in Norway, marked a turning point in the history of Norwegian science. In 1896, Brøgger saw an opportunity to combat the deep crisis of legitimacy that hung over Norwegian scientific institutions. Polar research had a unique ability to mobilize the enthusiasm of the masses. Polar research provided a refreshing opportunity to make a difference, at a turning point in Norwegian science. The fact that polar research was above all a natural science, thereby placed it on the side of progress, too. In the second half of the 19th century, natural science had been promoted as a primary source of renewal and social change, whether it was in the fields of public health, resource management, or industrialisation. Linking Nansen’s name to Norway’s largest research council ensured polar research a solid and integral role in Norwegian science. What made it possible to create the fund important, of course, were Fridtjof Nansen’s achievements and the huge popularity he had gained with the people of Norway. In this connection, the energy and entrepreneurial skills that Brøgger brought to the promotion of the fund, can not be underestimated. In many ways, the Nansen Fund was really the Waldemar Christopher Brøgger Fund for the Promotion of Norwegian Science. It was established with private capital, including many small contributions from around the country, and with very large donations made by brewery owner Axel Heiberg, and by two Swedes: Alfred Nobel and Oscar Dickson. Using money from the Fund, Brøgger initiated an ambitious publication program for Norwegian science, including publication of the results of the Fram expedition.

198 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Polar oceanography

Nansen lived a very active life during the decade following the Fram expedition. He became a statesman and a diplomat, and delivered what seemed to be countless speeches abroad. He became a geophysicist, or more precisely an oceanographer. He analysed observations made during the Fram expedition, and collected these analyses in several volumes, becoming increasingly absorbed in the unresolved questions of the polar areas, the ‘polar mysteries’. Although he was still fascinated by his previous biological studies, and though he continued to discuss problems of Arctic geology; Nansen was more interested in developing a precise scientific approach to the study of the physical and dynamic properties of the ocean. The surprisingly deep Arctic Ocean provided not only new knowledge about the continental shelf, Nansen and other scientists realised that the study of this information would yield new and important insights into the ocean currents; not only in the Arctic, but throughout the Northern Hemisphere. He also recognized that exploration of the unusually broad northern continental shelf, which at its northernmost point falls off abruptly into the deep polar basin, might uncover important information about the history of the continents. Nansen breathed new life into oceanography, when he proved the existence of a current flowed across the Arctic Ocean. The Fram’s route, and other indications, showed that polar drift ice is in constant motion. It moves from one side of the polar basin north of the East Siberian Coast and the Bering Strait, directly across the central Arctic Ocean around the North Pole, and then flows out into the Norwegian Sea between Greenland and Spitsbergen. In other words, the Arctic Ocean was not a shallow, frozen barrier, possibly containing large land masses. Rather, it was part of a broader system of ocean currents in the northern hemisphere that contributed decisively to physical conditions in the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic. Although Nansen had not expected that the shallow water so far north of the Norwegian coast, Russia, and Siberia, would suddenly plummet to a depth of over 3,000 meters; he nonetheless managed to take samples from the very deepest layers of the ocean. While the techniques for the study of seawater needed improvement, they were sufficient to open up new horizons for Nansen. Water samples had been taken along the entire Fram journey, and the samples demonstrated the existence of a vertical profile containing several different types of water. Analysis hinted at how the Arctic Ocean and Atlantic are connected. Nansen discovered that a branch of the warm Gulf Stream, which begins off the Florida coast and transports warm water north, and across to the North Atlantic, moves past Spitsbergen in the form of a deep underwater current, that

the explorers


Fridtjof Nansen was a gifted draftsman and illustrator. This is one of his many works of art, featuring the Northern Lights.

continues all the way to Siberia. The rapidly flowing East Greenland Current draws cold water out of the polar basin and southward, into the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic. This network of currents, consisting of huge volumes of moving water, was a new discovery. The cold water from the Arctic that flows into the Atlantic Ocean provided a clue toward understanding the power of this immense system of currents. The atmosphere and the oceans on both sides of the world can be likened to a huge heat engine, that warms air and water around the equator, and cools air and water around the polar regions. How this continuous circulation of water and air, between north and south, was interconnected; and how the equator and poles acted as pumps driving this circulation; required further study, if one were to understand weather patterns, ocean currents, and the climate.

200 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Nansen used both imagination and logic to gain as much insight as possible from the relatively meagre observations made on the Fram. He discovered that the upper layers of the Arctic Ocean were cold and the saline content low, owing to the huge volumes of fresh water that flowed from the large Siberian rivers into the Arctic. Below this layer was a warm layer originating from the Gulf Stream. Lastly, at the very bottom near the seabed, he discovered a massive, homogenous layer of cold and markedly saline water, with a salinity level above 3.5 %. When he compared this to the lower layer of water in the Norwegian Sea, he soon realised that the water in the Arctic Ocean was slightly warmer and denser. That finding indicated that the two water layers did not originate from the same source. He postulated that somewhere between Spitsbergen and Greenland, there had to be an underwater ridge approximately 1000 metres below the sea surface, separating the two ocean basins. Many decades later this ridge was discovered, and today it bears Nansen’s name. Although he was sure the ridge existed, he did not clearly understand the processes that produced the water on the Arctic seabed. Was this originally warm water from the Atlantic Ocean, and had the water been cooled by contact with colder water above it? In that case, the polar basin had to be enormous, and no larger land masses could exist in the unexplored areas further north. Having thought more carefully about it, and having reexamined the observations from the Fram and from Amundsen’s Gjøa expedition, Nansen rejected his own original theory. There might not be any land in the Arctic Ocean, but Atlantic Ocean water could not have been cooled sufficiently by mere contact with the cold water layers above it. Nansen considered a number of other options, all of which highlighted the same fundamental problem: One cannot obtain new knowledge without more precise instruments and more rigorous methodology. Seawater is most readily classified by temperature and saline content. Water from certain areas has specific properties. It can be identified by its physical attributes, and thus be distinguished from water arising from a different source, even if it has been carried by currents far from its place of origin. However, the differences are small. Only slight variations in salinity and temperature differentiate water from different sources. Fresh water has a specific weight of one gram pr cm3, that is, one cubic centimetre weighs one gram. Sea water is a little bit heavier, usually between 1.027 and 1.03 grams per cm3. Yet, these tiny differences are important, as they decide how water becomes stratified and is set in motion by currents. Lighter water rises above denser water; and the saltier it is, the heavier the water. The warmer the water, the lighter it becomes, at least when its temperature exceeds 4° C. Nansen realised that an understanding of the physical and dynamic conditions in the oceans still lay beyond the possibilities of science so long as it was

the explorers


impossible to obtain sufficiently precise measurements. Since the 1870s, British, German, and Swedish scientists had developed instruments and techniques for studying the ocean as a three-dimensional chemical, biological, and physical system. Prior to the Fram expedition, many advanced methods had been developed to protect thermometers and other instruments from extreme pressure at great depths, and to take water samples from specific depths. But what was an acceptable degree of precision? He foresaw the need to measure temperatures that were correct to the nearest one hundredth of a degree, and salinity that was correct to the nearest one hundredth of a gram of salt per kilo of water. Nansen’s attempts to achieve greater precision in his measurements, resulted in the development of instruments that proved crucial for modern oceanography. He was behind a number of successful instruments. The so-called Nansen bottle would soon become a standard instrument for physical oceanography all over the world, and would continue to do so for the next 75 years. Similarly, Nansen’s submerged aerometer was used for over 50 years to take accurate measurements of salinity. In the early 20th century, when he was busy analysing the scientific results from the Fram expedition, Nansen constructed instruments alone or in collaboration with other Nordic oceanographers, in order to measure the velocity of ocean currents. Nansen’s work based on scientific results from the Fram expedition, resulted in new theories about the attributes of ocean currents. Of equal importance is the fact that his work inspired talented young scientists to go into oceanography, so that eventually an entire network of Scandinavian scientists was working on related problems.

Dead water

From time to time, sailors had experienced that they had been travelling with a good wind; when suddenly their ship would grind to a halt, and the rudder would stop working. Even slow-moving motor-powered ships could find it impossible to start moving forward again, when stuck in so-called ‘dead water’. The Fram experienced this mysterious phenomenon off the Siberian coast in August 1893, in the Bay of Taymyr. The ship got stuck, as though a large, invisible hand were holding it in place. Taking samples, Nansen found that a layer of relatively light fresh water from a river that flowed into the bay rested atop a layer of much denser water. He postulated that the ‘dead water’ effect occurs when a sort of underwater wave, which is undetectable at the surface, forms along the boundary separating the two layers of water. Nansen returned to this puzzle, when he wrote his report on the Fram expedition.

202 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

At that point he had just read an article by Vilhelm Bjerknes (1862–1951), who was working in Stockholm as a mathematical physicist and who would later become the founder of modern meteorology. Bjerknes examined analogies between electromagnetic and hydrodynamic phenomena. Hydrodynamics, the science of the dynamics of fluids, had for years accepted that circulation or vortex motions in fluid cannot occur except as a result of an external force. Using theoretical models, Bjerknes identified a fluid consisting of layers of different density which is set in motion without any external influence. But did fluids like this exist in nature? Nansen thought so. On a calling card he sent Bjerknes on October 21st, 1898, Nansen suggesting that they meet to discuss the ‘dead water’ problem. The suggestion caused its own ripples. Nansen was of the opinion that Bjerknes’s fluid circulation theory held a answer to the solution. Bjerknes reacted immediately. He agreed with Nansen’s analysis. A few quick mathematical calculations confirmed the apparent possibility of Nansen’s underwater wave. Bjerknes asked one of his students, Vagn Walfrid Ekman, to research the problem, both theoretically and experimentally. Nansen dropped by from time to time, to oversee the work and to cooperate with Ekman and Bjerknes. In time, Ekman’s thorough investigations supported all of Nansen’s intuitive suppositions; but even before the results were published, Nansen, Bjerknes, and Ekman had begun working on yet another phenomenon that had been studied on board the Fram. While the Fram lay icebound in the drift ice, Nansen had started making astronomical observations in an attempt to determine the ship’s exact position. An analysis of the data showed that the ship and the ice had been moving not entirely with the wind as would be expected based on the then prevailing theory. Instead it moved to the right of the wind’s direction, in some cases deflecting by as much as 20 to 40 degrees. Nansen believed that if the rotation of the earth could make the ice flow to the right of the wind, then the ice would draw the water below with it. This next subsurface layer of water thus drew with it the layer below, causing it to deflect even farther to the right. Might it even be possible that this movement, caused by the wind, could lead – far below the surface – to a deflection in the opposite direction? Nansen was back in Stockholm in November 1900 to discuss this odd discovery with Bjerknes. Once again, Bjerknes called upon Ekman, who was still working on the ‘dead water’ phenomenon. Bjerknes asked Ekman to consider this theory. That same evening Ekman hit upon the first solution, which incorporated Bjerknes’s circulation theory. Nansen stayed in Stockholm for a couple of days to discuss the problem further with Ekman. Bjerknes soon adjusted his theorem regarding water and air circulation to include forces caused by friction and the earth’s rotation. Ekman then used this result to reformulate

the explorers


his own analysis, and arrived at a mathematical model of a three-dimensional structure of wind-driven currents. This was the so-called ‘Ekman Spiral’, which helped open up a new understanding of ocean currents. Although Ekman’s theorem was not complete, it pointed the way towards development of an exact science ocean currents. Nansen was as elated as Bjerknes and Ekman. He asked Ekman to collaborate with him in Norway. This became possible when Nansen persuaded the newly established International Commission for Ocean Research, a Scandinavian initiative, to set up an international laboratory in Christiania under his direction. In 1902, Nansen invited Ekman to become his assistant. Nansen now began to recruit new blood in his endeavours to secure a theoretical and instrumental basis for the development of physical oceanography. The success of Ekman and other Swedish assistants in applying the circulation theorem to oceanographic and atmospheric movements prompted Bjerknes to switch disciplines from mathematical physics to geophysics. This change proved unusually productive. Soon, Ekman became one of the pioneers of modern oceanography. He continued to collaborate with Nansen, but he also worked increasingly with one of the young recruits to the Nansen-inspired network: Bjørn Helland-Hansen. In 1901, Nansen sent Helland-Hansen to Stockholm to study under Bjerknes. He was taught the details of Bjerknes’s new circulation theorem and how to make practical use of it in the study of oceanography. Scandinavian oceanographers had great expectations that Bjerknes’s theorem and new oceanographic instruments would realise the dream of establishing a rational fishing industry. By identifying certain layers of water where herring and other fish thrive, scientists might manage to track ocean currents, and even predict their movement. This and other visions about how to combine physical and biological oceanography led to the establishment in 1900 of the Bergen Marine Biological Institute, under the leadership of zoologist Johan Hjort. Helland-Hansen joined this internationally significant initiative where he was responsible for the development of the physical oceanography program. Helland-Hansen and Nansen developed ever more sophisticated theoretical and instrumental tools. The two struck up a close personal and professional friendship. They embarked on a study of the Norwegian Sea using the Institute’s new seagoing vessel, Michael Sars, which had been fitted out with brand new precision instruments. The year 1909 saw the publication of The Norwegian Sea, the first in a series of monumental classics of oceanography on which the two collaborated during the next decade. Together, they began to change science and politics in the North Atlantic and Arctic. Through scientific exploration of the sea, they helped secure Norway’s territorial claims in the north.

204 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Mapping the Arctic Ocean’s physical characteristics, and in this case illustrating the route taken by the Fram in 1893, which is indicated by the line extending farthest east. The water temerature and salt content data, which are marked on the map, would be of major importance to Nansen’s later oceanographic program. But the question was, how to obtain more data?

Nansen’s plans for the Arctic Ocean

On April 29th, 1907, when Nansen’s term as Norway’s ambassador to Great Britain was coming to an end, he lectured to the Royal Geographic Society. Ten years earlier he had received the Society’s gold medal for his Fram expedition. Six years before that, the Society had awarded him its Patron’s Gold Medal for his Greenland expedition. In London, at the centre of the Empire’s wide-ranging network of geographical and scientific activities, Nansen summarised the body of knowledge that had been accumulated over more than a decade of polar research; he also outlined his vision for future studies. The president of the Society introduced Nansen with these words: ‘and when we, this evening, hear his talk on polar questions, we will have the pleasure of listening to a man whose experience and thoughts regarding the subject are unparalleled’. In his speech, On North Polar Problems, Nansen presented results from studies of Arctic natural phenomena. By combining the scientist’s eye for observation with systematic and logical thought processes, he dissected several small assertions, hypotheses, and theories about the Arctic that were circulating in Europe and America at the time. Repeatedly, he showed his audience that people who spread rumours and speculations about polar issues, would have to accept that he was an authority and was a solid scientific observer with extensive experience from field research. Nansen focused on a question of special interest to his public: Might there still be undiscovered land in the Arctic? Having analysed various types of ice he had encountered, in terms of thickness, age, and appearance, Nansen rejected assertions that there existed sizable and as yet undiscovered tracts of land in the Arctic. The assertions had been based on impressionistic descriptions of the ice, which contained more than just a sprinkling of poetic licence. Nansen knew how useless it was to base scientific argumentation on observations like ‘enormously thick ice’, or ‘century old snow’. Researchers often had only limited access to a single area of the Arctic; without systematic comparative study sensible evaluations of ice or other natural phenomenon was at best problematic. Nansen demonstrated broad and detailed knowledge of the Arctic when he assessed the arguments for and against the existence of undiscovered land north of the route that the Fram took when drifting across the Arctic Ocean. He concluded his talk raising scientific questions he considered most important, rather than planting a flag to claim new land. These questions dealt with the distinctive geological and oceanographic features of the North Pole Basin, the edges of the basin where the continental shelf abruptly plunges, the unknown ocean northeast of Greenland, the geology of the North American Arctic Archipelago, and the nature of the ice in the interior of Greenland. He

206 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

called for expeditions to new areas to study these problems, and to previously explored areas, but equipped with better instruments and techniques. Then Nansen turned to logicistics. How was it possible to combine geographical research with geophysical and geological studies? He discarded sled trips as an alternative. One might travel across unfamiliar polar ice that way, but ‘we are no wiser as regards the depth of the sea, the currents that cross it, and the physical condition of the layers of water below; not even the very ice one travels across can properly be measured’. He did not exclude future use of sled journeys for the purpose of transporting new mobile sounding equipment and light scientific instruments; otherwise the venture would be too difficult. At that stage, ‘airships’ and submarines were admittedly still too primitive to guarantee safe passage; while ice breakers could not transport enough coal to enable explorers to travel sufficiently far or stay away for so long. There was one method of travel that facilitated the scientific study of the Arctic: drifting with the ice on board a properly constructed ship. He called for a new Fram journey, but this time he wanted to enter the pack ice north or northeast of the Bering Strait, so that the ship could drift through the as yet unexplored areas to the north of the route taken in 1893–96. After five years, the ship will have drifted to the northeast coast of Greenland, which, scientifically speaking, was virgin territory. Not only would the proposed drifting venture cause the ship to traverse unknown areas of the Arctic; but the vessel could also be equipped with many new instruments that might allow perform extensive studies of the ocean and the air. This, in turn, would perhaps illuminate the secrets of the ‘polar regions’. Just a year later, in November 1908, Nansen’s vision of a drifting expedition across the Arctic Ocean and a new, exhaustive scientific program were presented to the Norwegian Geographic Society. Although the plans for the expedition and the detailed descriptions of the research to be conducted were quite clearly Nansen’s, the lecture, Plans for a Polar Journey, 1910–1917, was given by Roald Amundsen.

The world’s longest detour

Amundsen’s plan was as clear as it was simple. He wanted to borrow the Fram and complete Nansen’s work. The plan to drift across the Arctic Ocean was still viable. A good deal of new polar competency had been accumulated since the Fram’s return in 1896. Even when unloading the Fram in 1896, Nansen had discussed further plans with Sverdrup. However, for various reasons Nansen had never again set out on another journey. It was Sverdrup who became the natural leader of the second Fram expedition (1898–1902), which was Sverdrup’s third expedition.

the explorers


The plan was to sail the Fram up Greenland’s west coast as far north as possible. From there the expedition would proceed with dog sleds around the north shore of Greenland, and then move south along the east coast; and chart North Greenland this way. Operating expenses for this second Fram expedition were covered by Axel Heiberg and the Ringnes brothers, who owned the brewery with the same name. Parliament only granted public funds for repairs and refitting. There were 16 people on board: five men with scientific backgrounds (including the medical doctor, Dr. Johan Svendsen), ten crew members, and Sverdrup. One of the crewmen, harpooner Hendriksen, had participated in the first Fram expedition, and had obviously not been frightened either by his encounter with the polar bear or by the teasing that ensued. The cook, Adolf Henrik Lindstrøm, was another man who would leave his mark on several polar expeditions. Sverre Hassel, the 32-year-old jack-of-all-trades, would also make his mark in polar history. Thirteen years and six months after this departure from Christiania, Hassel would be one of the five men who first set foot on the South Pole. By the autumn of 1898, at approximately 79° N, the Fram was halted by the ice and had to veer further south than planned. When the Fram failed to move any farther north during the summer of 1899, Sverdrup chose to head in a southwesterly direction, towards Jones Sound at 76° N. The ship was laid up there, in various small fjords, for the next three winters. From there, different teams set off on long sled trips to the north and west, where they mapped and discovered several new islands that were named in honour of the expedition sponsors: Axel Heiberg Land and Ellef and Amund Ringnes Land. Approximately 150,000 square kilometres of land were mapped. Naturally, the scientific results of an expedition like this were significant. But the second Fram expedition lacked that special, heroic individual performance; it did not set any records. For this reason, it has slipped into the background, as far as the annals of Norwegian polar history are concerned. In 1903, the year after Sverdrup’s return with the Fram, a far more modest vessel left Christiania. Roald Amundsen’s first goal was as sought-after as the North Pole itself, if not more so. He wanted to do what Sverdrup had wished to do, but had not done; that is, sail through the Northwest Passage, the westerly maritime connection between Europe and Asia. Over a period of 400 years, numerous expeditions had made this attempt. In 1745, the British Parliament had offered the dizzying reward of £20,000 to anyone who discovered what was assumed to be a short, safe passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. Such a discovery would be of inestimable importance to Britain’s naval power. After Amundsen paid a visit to ‘the man who had accomplished feats which made every fibre in me tremble’, Nansen approved the latter’s plan. All Amundsen could afford for the journey was a small refitted fishing

208 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

smack called the Gjøa; and even that cost too much. The crew needed to be kept to a minimum because the Gjøa was so small. Amundsen took six men, probably the smallest number of men who ever set out on a journey like that. He was also given a few dogs that had survived Sverdrup’s expedition. The Gjøa, on which a tiny paraffin-driven engine had been installed, was a slow ship, which was too heavily laden. On the other hand, Amundsen and his crew were fully equipped to stay for several winters. Polar expertise was not lacking onboard. Despite an alleged drinking problem, Amundsen signed on Lindstrøm from the Fram, as cook. The first officer was Anton Lund of Tromsø; and Helmer Hanssen of Vesterålen was second officer. Both were experienced Arctic sailors. On August 30th, 1906, the Gjøa sailed southward through the Bering Strait. The first trip through the Northwest Passage had been accomplished. To be sure, it could be pointed out that this happened at a time when the traversing the Northwest Passage was no longer considered very important, and when the 1745 prize was no longer on offer. However, the Gjøa’s achievement did not go unnoticed. The modest expedition might not have brought home a huge amount of geographic and climaterelated results, but at least it established the location of the magnetic North Pole, at that time. The most important result of the Gjøa expedition was that it established Amundsen as an international polar explorer of stature, worthy to stand along side Nansen and Sverdrup. Amundsen could now make more plans, and build on the knowledge and experience acquired on these expeditions, regarding equipment and dog-sledding. Throughout the long winters in Arctic waters, both Sverdrup and Amundsen’s men had learnt how to live with the polar environment. They had seen how the Inuit dressed, what they ate, how they constructed their igloos, and how they handled their dogs. A new drift expedition across the Arctic Ocean was a fittingly prestigious project for a newborn nation. King Haakon made the first contribution to the fundraising effort. Parliament granted 75,000 kroner to outfit the Fram for its new task. Amundsen had attended a course in oceanographic observation, just as he had studied terrestrial magnetism before the Gjøa journey. The departure was set for January 1910. Many applications arrived from people wanting to take part in the so-called third Fram journey, so that Amundsen was able to hand-pick his men. Lindstrøm was included yet again, not just for his culinary expertise, but more for his personal qualities. Throughout two long expeditions, he had kept up his own spirits, as well as those of his fellow travellers. Helmer Hanssen was also included, having demonstrated his competency in the Gjøa crow’s nest. In order to include Sverre Hassel, Amundsen had had to supplement his wages with a ‘personal wage increase’. The two long and impeccably executed

the explorers


Who was really the first to reach the North Pole? While Cook and Peary fought it out, this German postcard producer envisioned Zeppelin being the first to get to the pole.

dog-sled tours with Gunnar Isachsen, west from Ellesmere Land during the Fram II expedition, made Hassel perhaps Norway’s most experienced man, with respect to the practicalities of dog-sledding. Yet another man with unique Arctic survival experience was given a berth; that was Hjalmar Johansen. Johansen had had a rough ride since his triumphant return from Franz Josef Land 13 years earlier. He had married the girl of his Arctic dreams, and had also advanced rapidly in his Army career, and been promoted out of turn. But things had not progressed well. He was now separated, had left the Army, and was constantly short of money. He had spent the previous winter on Svalbard, where he had recovered somewhat, and discovered that he still knew how to master Arctic conditions. Nevertheless, if Nansen had not pleaded his cause, Amundsen would never have taken him on. One more member of the team was a man with very special talents. Olav Bjaaland hailed from Morgedal in Telemark, called by some ‘the cradle of skiing’. He had won the prestigious King’s Cup at the Holmenkollen skiing competitions; and he was also a skilled ski-maker. In September 1909, however, something decisive happened. In the space of a few days, the world was informed that two men had claimed to have reached the North Pole: Dr. Frederick Cook in 1908 and the indefatigable Peary in 1909. A bitter dispute between the two Americans ensued about whom – if

210 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

anyone – had actually reached the pole first. Amundsen did not sit around awaiting the outcome. Instead, he decided that the third Fram expedition would head instead for the South Pole; or, as he put it, the expedition would be ‘extended’. He would travel to the South Pole before turning north and becoming icebound in the Arctic! Amundsen said nothing officially. He kept his plans secret and postponed the departure by a few months ‘owing to delays’. These delays were caused by yet another announcement during September. A British expedition led by Robert Scott would try to reach the South Pole during the summer of 1910. Since the turn of the century, there had been hectic activity in Antarctica. Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912) visited the Antarctic for the first time in 1902. He took dogs with him, though he knew very little about them; and he reached 82° 17’ S. Numerous expeditions from other countries visited the area, but it was not until 1909 that the Englishman Shackleton made a real push towards the Pole. He got tantalisingly close, at 88° 23’ S, even though he used Siberian ponies that had a rough time in the cold and the hard terrain. Amundsen realised he needed to make haste. Robert Scott was now able to build on his own and Shackleton’s experience, and would probably conquer the remaining 180 kilometres. In order to gain an advantage over Scott, and not upset his own Norwegian supporters, including the Parliament (which after all had granted funds for a trip north), Amundsen chose to pretend that his plans were unaltered: a westward journey drifting across the Arctic Ocean over a period of several years. This was not an easy task. It appeared extraordinary that he had dogs sent from Greenland to Norway instead of picking them up on the way north. Nor did the reasonably large prefabricated hut, which was to be used for staying the winter on the Antarctic ice barrier, seem to fit in with his plan to allow the Fram to be icebound in the Arctic. He also needed to enlarge the crew. The plan was to allow half of the men to stay the winter in Antarctica, while the rest sailed the ship out of the ice and returned the next summer. In this way, the ship would evade the pack ice. In choosing a location for camping for the winter, Amundsen drew on the experience of his Norwegian predecessors. He would pitch his camp on the actual ice barrier, in Hvalbukta, (The Bay of Whales), at the same place where Borchgrevink had landed, and from which he had made a day trip south. Amundsen was certain that this part of the ice cap rested on solid land, and therefore that there was no danger of it breaking up. He was partly wrong. The location is in fact only an island that protrudes up through the ice. But on the whole it appeared to be quite stable. Amundsen succeeded in keeping his plans concealed from all but a few key players. On August 9th, 1910, the Fram left Kristiansand heavily laden with equipment, coal, and provisions, as well as nearly 100 dogs. The dogs

the explorers


spilt over onto the deck and bridge, and ‘there was just enough room left for the helmsman.’ In all, there were twenty men. The Fram was no less uncomfortable than before, but the weather was reasonable, and as most of the men had already experienced life at sea, the worst manifestations of seasickness were avoided. Amundsen’s ‘official’ plan was to travel around Cape Horn and up the American west coast to the Bering Strait. Thus, it was not so odd to chart a course for Madeira and the port of Funchal. Amundsen’s actual intention, however, was not only to take on last-minute provisions, but to inform the crew and the rest of the world about the real plan. This would give the men the chance to withdraw. On September 9th, Amundsen called all hands on deck and told them the truth. Their goal was Antarctica and the South Pole. The news took the crew by surprise. Hjalmar Johansen was just writing a letter to his wife, from whom he was separated, and managed to add the news. ‘By Jove, what a surprise! And that, in only 15 minutes. We are not going to the North Pole; we are going to the South Pole.’ Nobody chose to return home from Funchal. Quite honestly, one simple winter in Antarctica sounded more tempting than an uncertain, but no doubt long, drift through the northern ice. Formally, Amundsen stressed that this was just an ‘extension’ of the original plan, but they all realised that a completely new situation would arise once the ship returned from Antarctica. That same evening, the Fram set out on the long journey to the south, but with only 19 men. One man had been sent home. Amundsen’s authoritarian management style did not suit everyone. With a limited spread of canvas and a small engine, and dog feces in every nook and cranny, the voyage to the south was a long affair. The dogs suffered in the heat, though sun-canvases were spread over the deck to provide shade. However, the suffering did not prevent them from multiplying along the journey. They crossed the Equator on October 4th. The wind started to blow, and they reached the ‘roaring forties’ by the end of the month. Then they headed eastwards. On the whole, the Fram performed well in the wind and rough seas; but no one could do anything about the pitching and rolling caused by the tub-like hull. ‘Cooking is not easy, when you cannot even put a coffee cup down anywhere without it immediately performing a summersault.’ A few dogs also fell overboard. In early November, the Fram was at the same latitude as the Cape of Good Hope. The remainder of the year was taken up with sailing east. They needed to get to 170° E, as far east as New Zealand, before heading south again. On the morning of January 1st, 1911, the lookout spotted the first iceberg; and the next day the Fram crossed the Antarctic Circle.

212 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Antarctica is surrounded by a belt of pack ice, but inside this belt, the sea is mostly open during the summer. Amundsen made for the ice, which proved to be surprisingly easy to push through. To the delight of the crew, the floes were full of seals. After three months at sea, fresh meat tasted good to man and beast. The dogs ‘ate until their legs would no longer carry them’. On January 14th, the Fram sailed into Hvalbukta and hove to by the ice barrier. In a spirit of great excitement, a group of four set out across the frozen land on skis. The passage from sea ice and up onto the actual barrier was straightforward. They were able to ascertain, with unequivocal joy, that the ice was even and fairly free of crevasses. It would not be necessary to haul the equipment for miles inland, over the ice to find a suitable place to stay for the winter. After only four kilometres they found an excellent and sheltered site. Interpersonal skills might not have been Amundsen’s strong suit, but he was a master at detailed planning and logistics. Framheim, which means Fram Home, was ready to move into after only 14 days. All the equipment and provisions had been brought ashore. After the long sea journey, of course, the more than 100 sled dogs were totally unfit, as were their masters, but the labour of transporting everything from the ship to Framheim served as good exercise for everyone. From time to time they shot seal to add to the winter provisions. To protect the dogs during the winter, and for various storage purposes, they erected 14 large tents round the hut, ‘following a plan which had been worked out beforehand’, Amundsen emphasised. On their way down to the Fram on February 4th, when the hut dwellers crossed a ridge and looked down at the sea, they saw two ships at anchor in Hvalbukta. As the alternatives were reasonably limited, they immediately realised that the newcomer was Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova. Scott himself was not on board. The Terra Nova was out surveying, while Scott was establishing his base 600 kilometres away. Nevertheless, the meeting was relatively tense. Both parties knew that they were battling to arrive first at the Pole. No doubt Scott’s men considered the Norwegians intruders on their territory. After all, their expedition had been planned for a long time. The English guests were shown around the Fram and invited to Framheim. There was no denying that they were impressed with the entire set up and how well organized it was. They were especially surprised to discover Amundsen’s means of transportation. Among British polar explorers, a basic theory had developed that dogs were considered inefficient and difficult to handle. Scott was using ponies and something revolutionary: specially constructed and motorised sleds. Time would prove that the ponies were useless, and that the motorised sleds were impractical, pie-in-the-sky devices unable to survive their encounter with Antarctic reality. Scott’s men were treated to a demonstration of dog teams and experienced drivers, who were also expert skiers, in action.

the explorers


Two nations. Two different expedition cultures. Two rivals. The Fram and Scott’s ship, the Terra Nova, in Hvalbukta in February 1911.

One of the delicate points following Amundsen’s surprise announcement on Madeira had been the division of crews between the land and sea parties. It was likely that only a few would be chosen for the push to the South Pole, but there was always a chance that one might be included if one were part of the land party. To make up for the disappointment, Amundsen increased pay by a generous 50 % for crew members who would have to put up with rattling around in the Fram performing oceanographic observations. There was absolutely no way that this grand gesture could be reconciled with the expedition budget. The truth was that at this point the third Fram expedition was bankrupt. Luckily for Amundsen, his creditors were on the other side of the world. This was soon made obvious to the sea party, whose ten men set out for Buenos Aires on February 15th. There was no cash in the kitty and few provisions onboard. Captain Thorvald Nilsen had been led to believe that there would be money waiting for him, but that was not the case. He could not even afford to pay the berthing charges, let alone the salaries that would enable the crew to go ashore. Rescue arrived in the form of a rich and generous Norwegian-Argentinean land owner, Don Pedro Christophersen. He had previously offered to support the expedition, but now the route had been, to put it mildly, drastically changed. Don Pedro made a quick calculation, and he offered to cover all the Fram’s expenses during the journey. Thanks to him, Captain Nilsen could now devote himself and his crew to oceanography. Large areas of the South Atlantic and South Pacific had never before been explored, and the journey yielded significant scientific results.

Amundsen at 50° below zero

The crew that stayed for the winter in Hvalbukta set to work immediately, aware that the polar winter would soon force them indoors. The South Pole journey was to take place the following spring, and they began to establish depots. On these depot journeys, they tested the limitations of their dogs, their equipment, and themselves. The first journey started out on February 9th with four men and three sleds. A skier without a sled led the party; it had been demonstrated that this made the dogs pull better. The ‘lead sled’ followed, driven by an experienced dog handler. This was Helmer Hanssen’s job. Amundsen generally brought up the rear. The reason for this, he said, was to maintain control and to pick up anything that might have fallen off the sleds. But no doubt his nearsightedness played a part in this decision; he was not the right man to lead the way.

the explorers


The four men were in completely unknown territory. For the time being, they observed, the ascent was reasonable and the snow conditions good. The dogs pulled willingly, and the small expedition, with its heavy loads, made day marches of up to 40 kilometres. After five days they reached their goal, 80° S. They built a depot and marked it well. The return journey was purely a triumphal procession. The sleds were empty and the men could hitch a ride. In two stages of 70 and 100 kilometres, and with just a few hours’ sleep, they swept back to Framheim. No wonder optimism flourished. True enough, they had more to do. The sleds were too heavy. Cooking and breaking camp took too long. The worst problem was that their boots were not up to standard. But they now had all winter to work these things out. Those who had remained at Framheim had not been idle, either. They had started to dig tunnels in the snow around the hut, which over the winter developed into an ‘under-snow’ system of passages, with veritable workshops in snow caves. On February 21st and in high spirits, the entire crew aside from Lindstrøm the cook, set out on the next depot journey. Encouraged by the success of the previous journey, they loaded up the sleds and planned to reach 83° S. But now there were snow drifts, and skiing conditions had changed. They walked straight into a gale; it got colder and fog set in. The dogs’ paws grew sore. It took them a day longer to reach the depot at 80° S, and they were obviously much more tired. They had previously marked the route to the first depot. But the white open spaces totally lacked any points of reference, and the weather did not allow for observations. Amundsen realised that marking the depots well would be a matter of life and death. Since they would hold as firmly as possible to a northsouth course, he made sure that markers were erected in an east-west direction every nine kilometres in both directions. Markers were numbered to indicate which marker had been found. That way, even those en route to the Pole who had got badly lost, could still manage to find a depot, even in the worst weather. ‘The method was new and untried,’ commented Amundsen, ‘but proved later to provide complete security.’ They continued southward, and the temperature dropped. On March 2nd it was –45° C. The next day the depot expedition was confronted with a new problem; the ice started to crack. The crevices, though not very wide, were seemingly bottomless, and the men had to be extra careful. The weather was bad and several of the dogs were in poor shape. The men built a depot and rested for one day. They were back on March 21st, having spent an entire month away. Some of the expedition members had turned back along the way in order to hunt. They realised that the dogs needed more food, and organised a third journey

216 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

with fresh seal meat to the first depot at 80° S. On March 30th, seven men set out with six sleds and 1,100 kilos of meat. The nine Framheim inhabitants were now all ready to stay for the winter. It was no picnic. Every activity was geared towards what would take place next spring. On April 20th, they saw the sun for the last time. In the snow cave workshops, the men worked with the sleds, boots, and provisions. The tents and the windproof clothing were also altered as a result of experience gained on the depot trips. Though they were able to draw on observations made by previous expeditions, the weather was extreme. In addition, the terrain was mostly unknown, and they knew there were mountain ranges in their path. Shackleton’s expedition had established that the Pole itself was situated on a high plateau, possibly over 3,000 metres above sea level. The last depot trip had also warned them about the dangers of crevasses. In other ways, too, the last, long stage would be unlike the other sled journeys. In some ways, it was reminiscent of Nansen’s Greenland journey. That trip had passed through a lifeless icescape. Here, too, there was no possibility of living ‘off the land’ if anything went wrong. Therefore, the depots were of vital importance. The provisions needed to be accurately calculated. Then again, it was necessary to consider what the dogs could manage to transport. Care of the dogs during the winter was not only essential to the expedition’s success, but provided a much needed break for the men who otherwise got a bit fed up with one another. Not everyone was equally satisfied with Amundsen’s management style. Hjalmar Johansen and Sverre Hassel, both of whom had been on other expeditions under other leaders, wrote particularly scathing notes in their diaries. ‘Our normal stroll is from Framheim to the depot, around the depot (maybe a couple of times) and back again. This was supposed to be a compulsory walk for everyone. Now only those who feel they are in control of their own destinies (in other words Amundsen) go for this stroll. Meanwhile, everyone else is burdened by work, and no longer indulges in such things.’ Thus wrote Hassel. For his part, he was probably hurt by having been ‘demoted’ to dog handler. Helmer Hanssen, Amundsen’s favourite, got the important job of driving the first dog team. Bjaaland was also critical. Yet, Lindstrøm and the other ‘rookies’ (Oscar Wisting, Kristian Prestrud and Jørgen Stubberud) were apparently pleased with the ‘Boss’. Work continued throughout the winter. Bjaaland rebuilt the sleds to make them lighter. Wisting and Hanssen lashed them together, knowing their lives could depend on work well done. Wisting was also the tailor who reworked the clothes and tent. Stubberrud prepared the provision boxes, while Johansen worked on the actual provisions. Everything had to be weighed, counted, and packed in as compact a manner as possible. The crates were carefully fastened

the explorers


to the sleds and provided with ‘milk-churn’ lids. Should the sleds overturn, they would not fall off, and at the same time the men could access their provisions without having to unlash the crates. Norway’s Constitution Day, on May 17th, was celebrated, but mainly because it was Lindstrøm’s birthday. Amundsen was fonder of June 7th, the date of the dissolution of the union between Norway and Sweden. The winter solstice, Norway’s midsummer night’s eve, was celebrated as if it were Christmas. After all, they were ‘upside down’ as far as the calendar was concerned. Work continued. Hassel wrote on June 17th: ‘This week I have been cutting whip-lashes in the oil depot. The smell of oil is quite offensive, but it is a good place to work. With the aid of a primus, the temperature rises to –15° C. In the other rooms beneath the snow, where the ceiling is thicker, the temperature can rise to 0° C.’ On August 15th, they started packing the sleds inside the snow caves. The process took six days, and when they were done, the South Pole expedition was ready to take off. The gravity of the moment was clear to everyone, even the ironical Hassel: ‘The boss said that anyone who wanted could write a letter home before we started. “We are in danger everywhere” and so it might be a good idea to take the opportunity of sending a few words to those who are waiting at home. The letters will be deposited in an iron box, which will be locked and the key placed in a sealed envelope. Everything will be put in the middle of the table. That way, if Lindstrøm should somehow disappear during our absence, Lieutenant Nilsen would find the box on his arrival, find the envelope addressed to him, and take the box and its contents.’ The letters were written, but it was too early to leave. All they could do was tow out the sleds; and this was done on August 22nd. Fully loaded, they weighed 400 kilos and had to be pulled out with block and tackle. The sun returned the next day, but it was murderously cold, sometimes well below –50° C. The dogs clearly suffered in the cold, though most of them had managed well during the winter. Now the men tried to harness them to the sleds, using a new system, twelve dogs to a team. It worked fairly well, and the dogs pulled the sleds up the first sharp rise onto the barrier. The entire atmosphere was coloured by speculations about Scott. Was the weather milder near his base? Had he already set off to the south? It was not only the element of competition that mattered, not for Amundsen, anyway. The expedition’s questionable financial position could be salvaged by selling the literary rights to the battle for the South Pole. The loser would not be able to count on fat fees. ‘The boss is very worried that the Englishmen will get to the Pole before us and wants to leave as soon as possible,’ wrote Johansen sceptically in his diary. He remembered the early start with Nansen in 1895, more or less at the same time of the year.

218 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The plan was for eight men to travel south. Only Lindstrøm would stay behind and look after Framheim. It was a large party, and some of the men might have to turn back after establishing depots. On September 7th, Amundsen thought they should make an attempt. The temperature had been in the twenties for many days. They set off. The conditions were good, but the dogs were unfit, and a bitch in heat caused a good deal of noise and confusion. She had to be shot the next morning. The heavy sleds moved smoothly, and they covered 23–30 kilometres a day, which was not a bad start. On September 10th, they woke up to a temperature of –55° C. The frozen mist around the dogs and men was so thick that one team could not see the other. It was heavy going, but the day’s march was acceptable. The next day there was also wind. The dogs were suffering, and the haze made it impossible to see the sun. The oil in the compass froze. Amundsen halted and built igloos, like he had been taught by the Inuit in Canada. He then decided to continue to the 80° S depot, unload the sleds, and turn. The false start would not have been in vain. They would be able to complete the first stages a lot more quickly after they had got going in earnest. On September 13th, they reached the depot, unloaded, and turned back. However, it was too cold, well below –50° C. Several of the dogs died. Hanssen and Stubberud were suffering from the first stages of frostbite. Amundsen tried to lighten the mood by opening a bottle of gin. It was frozen solid and the bottle burst. He had better luck with the aquavit, which thawed slowly. It was slightly milder on September 15th, just under –40° C. This improved the skiing conditions, and the sleds were nearly empty. They were 75 kilometres from Framheim. Amundsen, who had no dog team, hitched a ride with Wisting, and together with Helmer Hanssen they got a head start. They did not stop to wait for the others, as planned, but drove all the way and got back to Framheim without delay. The other dog teams were in worse shape. The men were now insufficiently equipped, and the weather deteriorated towards the evening. Stubberud’s feet hurt, and he tried to ride on the sled. The dogs refused to pull, but luckily he was overtaken by Bjaaland, and the two got to Framheim towards evening. Kristian Prestrud, the expedition’s youngest member, was much worse off. His team had broken ranks, and the few surviving dogs were distributed amongst the others. He was badly frostbitten, and he was supposed to be towed behind Johansen’s sled. But Johansen’s dogs were so tired that they refused to pull anything other than an empty sled. Johansen went ahead. He wanted to catch up with the others and fetch help for Prestrud. He only found Hassel, whose dogs were equally exhausted and who had no other equipment than a tent, which he gave to Johansen. Then Hassel set off in pursuit of the others.

the explorers


Hjalmar Johansen sat down to wait. Towards evening the temperature fell to nearly –50° C. After two hours, Prestrud came, moving stiffly along on his skis. By now Amundsen was with Lindstrøm, drinking coffee and eating hot pancakes. Johansen and Prestrud had a few biscuits and 30 kilometres to go. Once, on their expedition to find Franz Josef Land, Johansen had carried Nansen, who was then suffering from sciatica. Johansen was now 15 years older, and for various reasons not as fit as he had been. Nevertheless, he managed to get Prestrud through the Antarctic cold. It was foggy, but he located the complicated downhill route from the barrier. The nature of the terrain necessitated that they go out onto the ice-covered Hvalbukta, and then turn back to Framheim. Here they lost their bearings. Normally, the dogs would have found their way back so close to the base, but they were too tired. Only when they heard the dogs barking at Framheim were the men able to complete the last leg of the journey. They returned home at half past midnight, having not eaten properly or drunk anything for 17 hours. That night Hjalmar Johansen kept quiet about Amundsen’s behaviour, and his splitting up the group, and making sure that he got back to safety himself. The next morning, however, he spoke up. ‘This is not an expedition; this is panic stations.’ Amundsen did not regard this outburst as mere criticism, justified or not. To him, an attack like that was tantamount to mutiny. Over the course of the day, he isolated Johansen, who had initially been supported by several of the others. Even Prestrud, whose life Johansen had probably saved, caved in. Amundsen, in plain words, informed them that the program had changed. Five of the eight would set off for the Pole. Johansen, Prestrud, and Stubberud would make an excursion eastwards to King Edward Vll Land. As can be imagined, the mood in the little hut at Framheim was not very pleasant during the month that followed, while they were waiting to set off anew. Amundsen was in a black mood, and he never even spoke to Johansen. But he had lost a good deal of time owing to the hasty attempt. Dogs and men alike needed time to recuperate. Scott was constantly on his mind. Had Scott started out? How quickly could he advance with his ponies and motorised sleds?

Towards the South Pole

By October 19th, all the frost injuries had been healed and the weather was reasonably mild. Hanssen, Wisting, Hassel, Bjaaland, and Amundsen set off. They had four sleds, each with 13 dogs. The sleds were so lightly loaded that the men could ride on them. Most of the equipment and provisions were already at the 80° S depot. The only problem was the condition of some of the dogs.

220 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

A few of them were quite simply let go to find their own way back to Framheim. A couple were driven on the sleds, in the hope that they would recover. On the 21st, it clouded over, and they were caught in drifting snow and wind. The course should have been straightforward, but the terrain slanted in a way they could not recognise. Suddenly it looked as though Bjaaland’s sled was about to overturn and disappear. Bjaaland jumped off, stopped and grabbed hold of it, but the sled slid deeper and deeper into a large crevasse. Hassel manoeuvred his sled across the crevasse. The rapidly disappearing sled was tied to it and the dogs unharnessed before they too vanished into the abyss. But the sled was too heavy to haul out. Wisting was fastened to a rope and lowered down, and climbed further into the crevasse, where he untied the crates, which were hauled out one by one. The others stood on the edge of the crevasse and pulled, and in the end they saved the sled, too. It was out of the question to continue in the fog. It was difficult enough to find a suitable camping site in this area riddled with crevasses. In the afternoon, however, the fog cleared; and they wriggled out of the dangerous area, and found the igloos they had built during the unsuccessful ‘false start’ one month earlier. Visibility was particularly bad the next day. But with the aid of markers, the odometer and compass, they hit straight on the depot after a 42-kilometre day’s march. This confirmed that the system worked. They stayed at the depot for two days, partly to allow the dogs to eat their fill of the seal meat that had been left there the previous autumn, and partly to reload the sleds. They set off due south with heavily laden sleds. They had decided to take it easy initially, as the dogs would inevitably grow tired pulling such heavy loads: 400 kilos per sled. During the first stages they managed 28 kilometres per day, four days per degree of latitude. They also started constructing large snow cairns, at first building one every 14 kilometres, and later every nine kilometres. In each cairn, they left behind a piece of paper on which the cairn number and position were written, as well as the direction and distance to the next cairn. No one could be sure what the weather, snow conditions, and visibility would be like on the way back, not to mention what condition they would be in themselves. So far, the only real problem they had encountered was the occasional deep crevasse. On time and according to plan, they reached the 81° S depot on October 29th. Their course was a bit too easterly, but the system with the transverse markers was working admirably. They rested one more day, got their provisions, and set off again. There were more crevasses. Helmer Hanssen fell while crossing a seemingly harmless crevasse, and lay helplessly stretched across it while the dogs began to fight, quite satisfied that their master was incapable of exercising the necessary discipline! The weather was bad during the next

the explorers


Amundsen’s leadership qualities have been questioned, but no one questioned that this pedantic planner was a master of logistics. A view of the depot at 83° S.

few days, and they missed the last depot by 5.5 kilometres. Still, the markers saved them, despite their mistake. Once again, they rested for a day and loaded the sleds. Some of the dogs began suffering serious problems, but that eventuality had been taken into account. They were shot and left at the depot to serve as dog food on the return journey. Considering the experiences gleaned so far, Amundsen decided on the following course of action: They would increase each day’s march to 37 kilometres, and thus cover one degree of latitude every three days. In return, they got to rest every fourth day, and leave a small depot at every degree. That way the sleds would soon be lightened. The terrain was undulating; there were no crevasses, but neither were there any points of reference. Therefore, they decided to build even more cairns, only five kilometres apart. On November 6th, they left depot number five at 82° S. Exactly according to plan, it took them three days to reach 83° S, where they built a depot on the fourth day. But the dogs started causing problems. Two bitches in heat had been shot, and then three of the best dogs had suddenly disappeared. The men were sure they had gone off, following their old tracks in search of the bitches. This affected Bjaaland’s team, and necessitated the reassignment of the dogs; they needed time to adjust to the new system. Skiing conditions were good and the visibility was excellent. Bjaaland joked that ‘his nibs’ would be the first to spot the mountains, as he was the tallest. One day away from the depot, they were able to glimpse the mountains to the south, the chain they knew they would have to tackle to reach the polar plateau itself. As this was virgin territory, the sight triggered an orgy of naming. When Amundsen, in his book about the expedition, refers to Don Pedro Christophersen Mountains, and calls them the most magnificent peaks aside from the ones named after Nansen, he is discreetly renaming them after the fact. After all, at that moment he was unaware that the Norwegian-Argentinean capitalist had saved him and the Fram from an extremely embarassing situation. When they reached 84° S, the snow conditions were so good and the remaining dogs so vigorous that the men decided not to take their day of rest. No doubt the constantly gnawing thought of Scott played a role in this decision. The weather deteriorated, and thick fog set in. They skied by the compass. When the weather cleared the next day, they could see that they were heading straight for the point in the mountain range that they had pinpointed as a place for a possible ascent. Under the mountain ridge, the ice meandered in great ridges and valleys, and there were crevasses and holes, too. Once again, they agreed not to rest at 85° S, but built a depot and set off the next day, November 16th. The ice had broken up and there were great fissures, but they were easily visible and partly filled by the drifting snow. Early in the morning they reached the mountain range.

the explorers


This was a decisive moment. Up until now, they had driven across a fairly even surface, a sort of gigantic Norwegian Hardanger Plateau. From now on, they no longer knew what to expect, other than that it would be tough going and tiring, owing to the steep ascent and also because of the altitude. They had 550 kilometres to go to reach the pole. They had 42 dogs left for the four sleds. Having calculated carefully and allowing for a large margin of error, they now re-packed the sleds and made a depot. In calculating how much food they needed, they took into account the dogs, too; the dogs were not just consumers, but would become food, as well. The plan was to slaughter the dogs, one by one, and feed the remaining dogs with the fresh meat. If necessary, dog meat could also be used to vary the men’s diet. Amundsen and his men had taken just four types of food with them: pemmican, milk powder, chocolate, and biscuits. This combination was nutritious and high in calories, but the lack of fresh food increased the risk of getting scurvy. Amundsen had seen this sickness first hand during the Belgica Expedition, but he took the chance that the sledding expedition would be sufficiently short so that the sickness would not have time to develop. On November 17th, they started the ascent. The mountain was covered by large glaciers with plenty of crevasses. They marked a safe passage through the crevasses with snow cairns, in order to make the return journey safer. It was steep. Soon two dog teams had to be harnessed to each sled. This contributed to their relatively slow progress, but the worst moment arrived when they realised that the route they had chosen was inaccessible. They had to descend, with fully laden sleds, and start over. In order to brake their steep descent, they lashed rope around the sled runners and managed eventually to get the dogs and equipment down. The days that followed were exceedingly exhausting. The terrain was steep, and the glaciers were full of crevasses. Two teams laboriously pulled one sled up, then descended to pull another sled up. The men gradually felt the effect of the thin air, and became unsure whether it would be possible to climb the mountain ridge at all. They lost heart, and there was a strong exchange of words between Amundsen and Bjaaland, who was normally very calm. Amundsen ordered Bjaaland back to Framheim, but as the farmer’s son was no good at navigation, Hassel would have had to accompany him. But before it came to that, the conflict resolved itself. The ascent took four days. The last day was a veritable marathon: 31 kilometres in an ascent of 1,600 metres. They were now at an altitude of 3,000 metres and were breathing with difficulty. They had decided in advance to rest for two days, not just to acclimatise themselves, but to slaughter more than half the

224 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

dogs and fatten up the others. The camp site was christened ‘The Butcher’. They were at 85° 36’ S. Along the journey, the men had discussed dog meat. They were interested in the gastronomic aspects of dog meat, but were also concerned about the prospect of eating their trusty ‘helpers’. According to Amundsen, though, the men ate their ‘dog cutlets’ with relish. ‘I must admit that they could have been slightly more tender, but after all, you cannot ask everything from a dog, either.’ According to all their estimates, the men had arrived up on the actual plateau where the Pole was located. The next day they reorganised the sleds, again. One sled was left behind. Amundsen demanded that the chocolate and biscuits be counted so that they were absolutely sure they had the correct number, and to be sure that the division among the sleds was fair. Doubtlessly, it was uncomfortable to stand ‘with this niggling work in –20° C, in a gale and without gloves most of the time’. However, the success of the entire expedition rested on such ‘niggling work’ as the counting of provisions, building of cairns, and marking of depots. Amundsen’s pedantic planning no doubt minimised the danger the men faced on a desolate icescape, 1000 kilometres from their base. The weather at ‘Butcher Depot’ was not good. Gales, storms, and a temperature of –27° C made it impossible to continue. This involuntary intermission had one positive outcome: the remaining dogs were able to recover after the awful strain of the ascent. On the fifth morning the men could wait no longer; they set off to the south in the snowstorm. The conditions were terrible. ‘A sled trip through the Sahara could not have presented a worse gliding surface. The thin air gave Hassel a headache. The only positive note was that the terrain actually sloped slightly downwards. But progress was slow: 19 kilometres the first day, and 30 the next. On November 26th they had reached 86° S. The weather was changeable, but visibility remained poor. Fog and light snow did not make the skiing conditions any better, and the dogs struggled. The clouds lifted allowing the men to be able to survey the terrain; the sight was a depressing one. The gentle descent from ‘The Butcher’ was now taking its revenge. The terrain rose steeply again, in the form of a mountain covered by a large and seemingly impassable glacier. It stretched up and away, crevasseridden and full of holes, ice blocks, and pressure ridges. Without further ado, it was named Devil’s Glacier. Amundsen was unprepared for this. To ease progress, the men had left all unnecessary equipment at ‘Butcher Depot’, including the crampons, because they had envisaged a rather even plateau all the way to the Pole. When the men saw the glacier, with its large expanses of blue ice, they no doubt regretted their haste. They started to calculate the amount of time and provisions it would take for someone to go back for the crampons. The vertical drop from ‘The Butcher’ to where they were standing was about

the explorers


600 to 700 metres. They realised that this would mean a corresponding, daunting ascent on the return trip. They set off up the glacier without crampons. It was not a matter of haste but of careful advances. Fifteen kilometres was a good day’s march. In the evening, a couple of men went out to scout for a useable passage for the next day’s march. The first day they found a route with some sort of grip for the skis; but the second morning a gale had swept away the top layer of snow, and for extensive stretches there was nothing but smooth ice. Amundsen and Hassel led the party, tied by rope. The sleds had to be manoeuvred sideways on slippery, uneven slopes. The men tried to support the sleds to avoid time-consuming overturns. In several places they had to use ice axes and hack away at obstacles; in other places they constructed narrow snow bridges to traverse the crevasses. It was impossible to keep to a straight southerly course; all they could do was to follow the terrain and the ice formations. On November 30th, they camped in an icy area surrounded by several extraordinary haystack-like formations. The tent pegs had to be hammered straight into the ice. Hassel became curious about these formations, and hit one of the ‘haystacks’ with an axe. It was hollow, and inside a shaft led straight down into the ice. Their tent was surrounded by these creepy holes! The only consolation was that the ice in the ‘haystacks’ was suitable for melting into water. The next day brought drifting snow, and the wind was so cold that they suffered minor frostbite. They were skiing on slippery blue ice interspersed with patches of snow. The snow here was so sticky that Amundsen, in a moment of inspiration, compared it to fish glue! Intermittent deep crevasses made things even more difficult. ‘A beastly day with a gale from the southeast and drifting snow’, Hassel wrote in his diary. ‘The snow was hard as stone; the patches of ice were bare and shiny; and it was so slippery that the dogs could hardly stay on their feet. The sled could be caught on a slab and not be able to be moved, one way or the other. In this way we moved forwards at a snail’s pace for eight hours.’ The next day they were unable to even move until the afternoon. A brief glimpse of the sun made it possible to establish their position: 86° 47’ S. The day’s march had amounted to a pitiful four kilometres. However, on December 3rd, it appeared that their worst problems were over, and that they had really reached the plateau described by Shackleton. Skiing conditions gradually improved as the blue ice became covered with snow. But one obstacle remained: a long valley full of crevasses and a treacherous surface that constantly gave way beneath dogs and men alike. Several times the lead dogs had to be hauled up by their harnesses. Bjaaland, too, was on his way into a great crevasse, when he managed to grab a rope from a sled and haul himself out. The area was christened ‘The Devil’s Ballroom’.

226 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Nevertheless, they reached 87° S by that evening. The dogs were tired after the rough ascent in the thin air. And they were hungry. With such short rations, the dogs were always on the lookout for boots, leather bindings, and harnesses – anything that they could gnaw. At this point, the plateau actually lay ahead. They were at 3,000 metres above sea level. Over the next few days they climbed, almost imperceptibly, another 300 metres. They made about 40 kilometres per day. The worst obstacle was the weather; the wind-blown snow obstructed visibility and made it nearly impossible to make observations. They used the compass and dead reckoning, but the thought of their reception back home worried Amundsen. How would they be received if it became known that they had conquered the South Pole, as calculated by dead reckoning? In this respect, the bitter battle between Cook and Peary, as to who had actually conquered the North Pole, functioned as a warning. On December 6th they passed 88° S, by their dead reckoning, and approached the point where Shackleton had arrived, ‘furthest south’. The next morning the sun broke through the clouds, and they hastened to make two observations. They determined that they were at 88° 16’ S, which was consistent with their dead reckoning calculations. In the afternoon they stopped and unfurled the Norwegian flag, because they had reached 88° 23’ S, and thereby broken the record for having gone farthest south. Or so they hoped. For during the entire trip they had been preoccupied with the thought of Scott. When had he left? How fast was he progressing? What was his ascent like? With just under 160 kilometres left to the Pole, they decided to stop for a day and make a last depot. Lighter loads would make the final stages of the journey go faster. Two of the three dog teams were in bad shape. As there was absolutely no point of reference on the entire plateau, the depot had to be well marked. Continuing on, they constructed cairns even more often, building a small one every 3.7 kilometres. It was now sunny and windy, but the days of drifting snow had taught them that it would be hard to keep a straight course. They continued southward on December 9th. They made reasonable progress, 28 kilometres per day (equivalent to1/4 of a degree of latitude), adjusting the pace to the dogs and the thin air. They reckoned that they would reach the Pole on the 14th. The men kept looking around. Bjaaland thought the dogs were behaving strangely. Were they sniffing something due south? The uncertainty affected their mood. The atmosphere was tense. Amundsen quarrelled furiously with Hassel about something having to do with navigation (and Amundsen was right). Hassel was true to form: ‘Amundsen took out his azimuth compass when we stopped to take our bearings. He made his own calculations for the first time. This shows how cross he is with me – for my carelessness in making our observations this morning.’

the explorers


The terrain started to tilt slightly and downwards. The weather was reasonable; there was a slight wind, and the temperature was between –25 and –30° C. Some of the men were suffering from frostbite. They progressed mechanically, day by day: 89° 15’ S, 89° 30’ S, and 89° 45’ S.

The loneliest place in the world

On the morning of December 14th the sun was shining. The five men hurried out of their tent and got going. But it clouded over in the afternoon, and they were forced to travel very carefully, measuring out the distance regularly. The compass was on the front sled – Helmer Hanssen’s sled – which had been specially constructed without iron. Usually, a skier led the front sled; if he diverged from the correct direction, Hanssen would keep him in line. That day they started off without a skier ahead; but then Hanssen asked Amundsen to lead. Amundsen and the others looked around constantly. The even, white plateau appeared untouched by any human presence. At three in the afternoon the odometer indicated that they had reached the Pole. The flag was planted, and the compulsory photographs were taken. They celebrated by eating a piece of seal meat. After a brief rest in the tent, they were up and went outside. As they had been unable to make any observations at midday, they would try again at midnight. The first reading was 89° 56’ S, which was not bad, given that they had used dead reckoning. They were about seven kilometres from the actual (mathematical) Pole. Amundsen’s instruments were relatively primitive, and for very good reasons. There was no room on such an expedition for advanced observational apparatus. Therefore, he decided that three skiers would ski 20 kilometres in each direction and plant a large flag. By doing this, they would leave no doubt that they had covered the Pole. As the weather was excellent, three of them – Wisting, Hassel, and Bjaaland – set off immediately, as soon as they had a midnight snack. At 2:30 a.m. they set out on their 40-kilometre trip, without a compass, but with a flag and a flagpole, which they would carry until they turned around. In the meantime, Amundsen and Hanssen made a series of observations. Luckily, the good weather continued; the observations were successful, and the three skiers returned in the afternoon. Calculations showed that they would do well to move the camp about ten kilometres. The next day they reloaded their gear onto two sleds, and Bjaaland was excused from driving a dog team, which was a task he had never really mastered. Then again, he had the honour of walking ahead to the next campsite, at the spot which they finally determined to be the location of the South Pole. At this point Amundsen organised

228 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

the men into shifts to perform hourly observations around the clock for the next 24 hours. They were 1,300 kilometres from Framheim. No one else was near; 550 kilometres away, Scott and his men were struggling southwards towards the Pole, which they would reach a little more than one month too late. On their return journey and as long as they were still at a high altitude, Amundsen and his men started to travel in stages of 28 kilometres a day. Conditions were good, and the dogs had recovered somewhat, having eaten two of their colleagues; and so the men skied for five to six hours, and then took longer rests. Bjaaland thought the nights were ‘hellishly long’, but Amundsen was in no hurry. They had only 16 dogs left. The two teams should, if possible, last until they got back to Framheim, although the depots were well enough equipped, and the men might manage the last few latitudes without the dogs. They found the first depot without any difficulty. Then Christmas arrived. The only holiday meal they had, consisted of gruel made of biscuit crumbs and dry milk, which was supposed to replace the traditional Norwegian Christmas rice porridge. They crossed the highest point of the plateau and started to look out for the seracs and the demanding descent ahead. Then they veered off course, lost sight of the row of cairns, and did not recognise their surroundings at all. To top it off, Wisting developed a toothache. As luck would have it, pretty much the only medical equipment they had with them was a tooth extractor. Inside the tent, Amundsen made his debut as a dentist. On January 2nd they reached a spot they recognised: Devil’s Glacier. This time they happened upon an easy passage, and managed to avoid the Devil’s Ballroom on their descent. However, they still had no idea where the depot was in relation to their present location. The terrain undulated and was wholly unrecognisable. A glimpse of a mountain range in the distance gave them a clue: They were too far to the west. They pitched camp after a full day’s march, while Bjaaland (on skis) and Hanssen (with a dog team) made a 50-kilometre detour to fetch provisions. There was enough food for the men to reach the barrier, but they were running out of dog food. Bjaaland was pleased: ‘The return journey was easy; after a ten-hour trip, we were back in camp, and we now have lots of provisions.’ His light-hearted attitude was probably also, to some extent, due to the abundance of chocolate in the depot; they had run out of it. Now they began to move faster. The weather was good; and in the eternal sunshine they stopped thinking about ‘day’ and ‘night’. They drove for a while, then took a rest, and they set off again. After only three days they reached ‘Butcher Depot’, where the dog meat was stored. Amundsen had realised that the dogs needed more to eat than just pemmican. From there, the men set off downhill, with Bjaaland in the lead, followed

the explorers


by the sleds with braking ropes, and drivers fighting to keep the sleds upright. Fortunately, the snow was soft, and skis and runners got a good grip. Amundsen and Bjaaland, not burdened with sleds, had fun racing downhill. The man from Telemark was glad to have descended; at last he could ‘breathe like a normal person’. On January 6th they reached the 85° S depot. Ahead of them lay 700 kilometres of well-marked ski trails, stretching across the barrier’s flat terrain, with plenty of depots en route. At the end of it all was the ‘courtyard’ at Framheim. They just had to push on! To be sure, the weather was bad nearly all the time, but the well-marked route made it easy to find the cairns. They covered as much as 55 kilometres in 24 hours, and never needed to use all the provisions in the depots. The dogs were fed double rations, and even given biscuits and chocolate. They gained weight and pulled more eagerly than ever. It took ten days to cover the next three degrees. The 82° S depot had been constructed the previous autumn and thus represented ‘civilisation’s furthest outpost to the south’, as Amundsen wrote in his diary. The gala banquet that heralded their arrival there included chocolate porridge. A few days later, on January 18th, Scott and his men found the tent that Amundsen had left standing at the South Pole. Above it, the small Norwegian flag still flew in the polar wind. On the way home, the Norwegians were pleased to be experiencing better weather. But their joy turned to consternation when they saw the innumerable seracs and ice falls in the terrain around 81° 20’ S. They had travelled over it three times, but visibility had always been poor. ‘Huge areas of the surface had fallen to their depths, and opened up the most abominable, awesome chasms, large enough to swallow up many caravans as big as ours. Crisscrossing these holes in all directions were broad, ugly cracks. We saw hummocks and “haystacks” everywhere. It was an absolute miracle that we had passed over unscathed before.’ But this was also to be their last major obstacle en route home. At four in the morning on January 25th they arrived at Framheim and awoke their four companions. Lindstrøm was not slow in putting on the kettle; 99 days and 2,600 kilometres had elapsed since they enjoyed their last cup of coffee. On March 7th, 1912, the Fram docked in the port of Hobart on Tasmania. Amundsen immediately sent encoded telegrams to the newspapers that had paid for first rights. Then he sent Hjalmar Johansen home, and wrote Nansen a letter absolving himself of any wrongdoing by saying that Johansen had been dismissed for ‘mutiny’. Johansen was already struggling, with no job, no money, and no wife. This defeat broke him down, completely; and that winter, in Christiania, he took his own life. At the end of March, Scott and his colleagues, already ill, starving, and frost-

230 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

bitten, perished only 18 kilometres from one of their depots. Nevertheless, Scott’s motorised sleds were a portent of what was to come: telegraph, radio, aeroplanes, caterpillar tractors. Amundsen’s ‘detour’ round the South Pole was the highlight of his career and of Norwegian polar exploration. He made sure that all five of the men ‘who had risked life and limb and stuck together through thick and thin’ had planted the flag on the Pole. If there was anything specifically Norwegian about the solemn ceremony at which the South Pole Plateau was named Haakon Vll Plateau, then it was the dry, low-key manner in which the event was recorded, as if it were merely the climax of a particularly long ski trip. ‘This brief moment will be remembered by all of us who stood there. One learns to do without long drawn-out ceremonies in these inhospitable surroundings: the shorter, the better.’ Norway, a small and poor nation, came late to polar exploration. But Norwegian polar explorers made an impact with five classic expeditions: Greenland, the drift across the Arctic Ocean, Sverdrup’s Canada expedition, the Northwest Passage, and the South Pole expedition. Most impressive of all, perhaps, is the fact that the small, goal-oriented expeditions did not lose a single man to starvation, scurvy, frostbite, or accidents. Viewed in light of the records of other countries, this is praiseworthy. Of course, this was, to quite an extent, due to luck. There could easily have been catastrophes on all the expeditions. The Greenland journey was a pioneer project and difficult to prepare; Nansen and Johansen’s long odyssey in the ice was foolhardy, to say the least; and the South Pole men might easily have fallen into bottomless crevasses or driven right off icy precipices. But luck usually follows those who make correct decisions with the aid of intuitive knowledge. Expedition members were experienced and knowledgeable; many of them had been brought up in an environment where skiing, hunting, and physical work were part of everyday life. But much of the knowledge and understanding about how to survive in the Arctic and the Antarctic came from elsewhere. It came from people whose homes were on the icy frontiers, from people who possessed knowledge and survival techniques that polar explorers could only dream of.

The Arctic masters

When Nansen applied for financial support for the Greenland expedition, he realised that ‘Norway is that nation most suited to polar exploration. We are better conditioned to endure the climate than anyone else, and we have superi-

the explorers


Robert Scott, seated at his desk at Cape Evans, Antarctica. Not everyone thought he was sufficiently focused on the task ahead. Trygve Gran wrote, ‘It was as if there were notices hung up everywhere saying: No Shop Talk.’

or skiers which is very significant.’ He would choose his crew from ‘amongst the best Norwegian farmers I can find’. But he also suggested that he would include the Sami or Sami people (formerly known as Lapps). The inspiration for this decision no doubt came from Swedish polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld. Nordenskiöld had twice included Samis on his expeditions, and when he tried his luck on Greenland’s inland ice in 1883 and had to turn back, he despatched two Sami skiers to continue inland, across the ice. They returned 57 hours later, having covered 230 kilometres, a distance that caused a sensation. Nevertheless, it appears that Nansen was not entirely convinced that he should gamble on Samis. He wrote to his Swedish mentor: ‘Were the Lapps (Lars and Anders Baronen) you took with you stronger, and did they have more staying power, to pull sleds, etc., or was it only their skiing skills which surpassed that of the other members?’ The experienced Swedish polar traveller replied that ‘a couple of Lapps are invaluable during expeditions, in the snowy deserts, if for no other reason than that we never get lost’. Nansen hired two Samis to accompany him over the Greenland ice. They were named Samuel J. Balto and Ole N. Ravna. Nansen might not have been as convinced as Nordenskiöld of the Samis’ usefulness in ‘snowy deserts’, but the experience gained as a result of their participation in his Greenland journey, would influence his choice of equipment, clothing, and food when planning his North Pole expedition. Another cultural encounter that would be of even greater importance to Nansen was his experience of Inuit life on Greenland, while he waited through the winter for passage back to Europe. Nansen went on long hunting trips with the natives, and was often the only European in their company. He learnt some of their language and, according to his Inuit friends, was able to make himself understood in their mother tongue. But why did the young skier take such an active part in their lives? It is probable that his main objective was to learn. Not primarily to bring knowledge about their culture back to museums or ethnographic institutions, but rather to learn how to survive in the Arctic. His debut in Greenland had whetted his appetite. His next journey would be to the North Pole, and he needed to be prepared. Before he travelled to Greenland, Nansen had shown little empathy or respect for traditional life on that island of ice. In a lecture he gave before his departure, he drew a rather negative picture. As in many other places in the world, ‘on Greenland, despite complaints about hard times and famine, people die not of starvation but of too much food, and they eat as much as they can stuff into their mouths’. In Nansen’s description of the Inuit, we can recognise an arrogant cultural superiority which was consistent with the patronising attitude that was typical in the late 19th century. He presented the Greenlanders as small, odd, dirty little creatures who ‘never wash, not in water

the explorers


The men on the Gjøa expedition recognized the value of dressing like the Inuits. No details were superfluous, even though the men initially thought that it was ‘foolish for grown men like us to wear fringes on our outfits’.

anyhow’. They were not beautiful, certainly not the women, who spent their ‘sluggish, loafing lives indoors in tiny winter houses’. And when they married, they ‘decay[ed] into coffee-drinking, dirty sluggards; women over 50 are nearly always ugly’. According to Nansen, it was a horrible sight to see women ‘emerge from their mud huts through the narrow doors, like some troglodyte or troll, bow-legged and bent, virtually bald, the few remaining strands of hair sticking out to the sides, from top to bottom covered in soot and dirt’. When Nansen returned from Greenland, he gave another lecture about the inhabitants of Greenland. His views had altered dramatically. He opened his lecture by saying that ‘we Europeans are used to viewing ourselves and our civilisation with great satisfaction’. Nansen believed that this kind of arrogance resulted in ‘our being very willing to look down on all primitive people as low and uncivilised’. In contradistinction to his attitude before traversing Greenland, Nansen was now keen to put an end to such attitudes, as he made clear in his book Eskimo Life, published two years after his return. This book claimed to present the Inuit truthfully, and drew both on Nansen’s observations and on contemporary reports. Nansen discussed several key ethnological and ethnographical questions regarding the Inuits’ origins and level of development. However, the book should primarily be viewed as a warning against what he considered the unfortunate developments on Greenland. He argued that familiar prejudices against the Inuit were not consistent with reality, and he sought to open people’s eyes to the ‘misery we have caused them’. In other words, he wished to ‘scream the truth to the world; surely if they only knew, then people would awaken from their own indifference and immediately make good the offences they have committed’. How can we explain Nansen’s admiration for Inuit life? He even asked himself the following question in his Fram diary: ‘Why do I consider the Eskimos superior to the Europeans?’ The mere fact that he was on Greenland cannot explain his changed attitude toward this foreign culture. Enough people have travelled and observed ‘the others’ without emerging as their friend and defender. The ‘evidence’ did show that the Inuit were dirty, inferior, and uncivilised. After Nansen’s return he became an advocate for the positive elements of Inuit culture; he admired their tough life in the ice. That does not mean that he considered them to be as developed or as intelligent as white men. His descriptions romanticise their life and are in many ways paternalistic. When he looked at the Inuit, he saw a well-functioning aboriginal society in which high morals and cooperation flourished. Europeans, however, were in the process of shattering this society’s foundations. In Nansen’s view, modern equipment and Western ideas did not belong in the Arctic. This was the development which both saddened and concerned Nansen. To Nansen, authentic Inuit society represented life that was uncontami-

the explorers


nated by modern civilisation. Therefore, the colonial power should ‘pack up its wares and return them and its merchants to Denmark’. This was a view Nansen championed all his life. When some Norwegians claimed sovereignty over East Greenland in the 1920s, his message could not be misunderstood: ‘The country belongs to the Eskimos and their interests are what count. The best and the most proper thing that Danes, Norwegians, and others can do, if possible, is to stay away; and let the Eskimos live in peace without European interference.’ Nansen was not the only polar explorer who served an apprenticeship with the Arctic masters. In 1891 a restless Norwegian was in Philadelphia, reading a newspaper full of stories about misery around the world. But it was not robberies, murders, and strikes that caught the attention of the 21-year-old from Christiania. He had just finished reading In Darkest Africa by Henry Stanley; and he nurtured, in his own words, revolutionary plans. He wanted to escape modern civilisation and see the world’s farthest outposts; he was drawn to the darkest Africa. But as he was putting the paper away, he happened to see a small notice about Robert E. Peary, who was just then planning an expedition to North Greenland. Eivind Astrup made up his mind immediately. With a Norwegian-English dictionary in one coat pocket and an English-Norwegian dictionary in the other, he turned up to promote his candidature. A few days later he was told that he had been picked as one of seven participants. Frederick Cook was another one. The expedition stayed for the whole winter near Whale Sound on Greenland’s west coast. Its purpose was to conduct scientific investigations, and it included a push north over the inland ice. The young Norwegian became Peary’s companion, and they covered 2,000 kilometres in 97 days using skis and snowshoes. This sensationally efficient journey demonstrated the advantage of using Inuit clothes and equipment, and, especially, using dogs as draught animals. The expedition members had made a conscious effort to learn. They persuaded an Inuit family to settle close to the expedition hut, partly to help them prepare skins and sew clothes. The North Greenland expedition of 1891–92 was successful. It had undertaken extensive surveying and collected minerals, plants, and birds. In addition, it brought back to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia knowledge about and cultural artefacts from the world’s northernmost tribe, ‘about which one previously only had little and unreliable information’. In 1894, Astrup was on his way back to Greenland as a member of Peary’s second Arctic expedition. This one was not nearly as successful as its predecessor, however, and this new, major journey north fell apart. Astrup grew ill and had to turn back, several of the dogs froze to death; and three of the expedi-

236 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Nansen in an Inuit home. His hunting companion, Arkaluk, said Nansen learned the language easily and was not squeamish. He ate everything the Inuit offered him, except for fermented food and drink.

tion members developed frostbite. ‘Accompanied by a loyal native friend’, Astrup set out on a long sled trip down the coast. He collected his experiences from this trip and his other impressions from two winters on Greenland in the book With Peary near the Pole. Astrup’s book is similar to Nansen’s book in many ways. He describes the Inuit way of life, customs, character, morals, social conditions, intelligence, artistic ability, and religious ideas. In addition, he takes the reader hunting and demonstrates the toughness needed to survive on the harsh coast. According to Astrup, one would assume that the Inuit fight for survival would result in a dark and fatalistic view of life; ‘but how far from the truth was this assumption’. To Astrup, the Inuit were a people full of good humour and unusually happy with their lot. They led healthy lives, without any type of ‘addictive substances or stimulants’. According to Astrup, ‘the small Eskimo community we are talking about here is based on the principles of equality’. It was a community in which freedom, equality, and brotherly love were not hopeless or distant ideas, but were part of their ‘genuine and true reality’. There reigned a freedom ‘as complete as one could ever hope to achieve anywhere in the world’. In addition, their morals were in accordance with Christian principles. The reason for all this was the conditions under which they lived. ‘Eskimos are good people, as they have no interest in being anything else.’ Astrup depicted Inuit life as a virtual ‘dream come true’. They were helpful, they shared the yields from their hunts, and one could almost always trust their ‘unqualified honesty’, in the nearly Communist social fabric in which theft was unknown. But in spite of all the admiration he could muster; Astrup was not of the opinion that the Inuit were intellectually as well-endowed as white men, although he did not explicitly state this. To him, they were a people about to step out of the Stone Age; they were ‘children of the moment, who will later have to pay dearly for the surprises of civilisation’. Astrup did not, as did Nansen, place his observations in a context of theories of cultural development and Inuit origin. He did believe, to an extent, that the study of Inuit beliefs might be an important contribution to the study of mankind’s development. It was only in a footnote that he pointed out that Greenlanders had originated in Asia, in his opinion. Astrup’s book was more important than Nansen’s regarding one point. Nansen had tried to reconstruct the real life of the Inuit, as it might have appeared before the Europeans arrived and caused disruptions. He was severely criticised for this in the German journal Globus: Illustrierte Zeitschrift für Länder und Völkerkunde (Illustrated Magazine of Countries and Ethnology). The reviewer did not think that he had studied ‘real’ Inuits, but rather a ‘hybrid race’, which was comprised not only good Lutherans, but of people who could read and write. Astrup did not receive

238 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

this kind of criticism. The so-called Polar Eskimos were considered ‘the northernmost people in the world’; and owing to their geographical isolation, they had not become Europeanised – a process which had taken place in the rest of West Greenland. Therefore Astrup was able to produce new material about New People, to use Knud Rasmussen’s book title about the Inuit; and this fact made the book an important contribution to ethnography. Nansen’s most important contribution to cultural research was no doubt his ability to convey information, not only as an author but also, especially, as an illustrator. His drawings of weapons and tools were still being frequently used many decades after his book first appeared. His description of kayaking, according to Rasmussen, was ‘the most exact and technically the best description of the art of kayaking to date’. Both Nansen and Astrup share a romanticised admiration for Greenland’s distinctive social fabric. Both sought to describe the Inuit way of life from a functional and cultural standpoint, without measuring it in terms of Western moral and cultural standards. This is partly because of their own experience with the conditions about which they wrote. This becomes particularly clear if one compares the texts written by Nansen before and after his visit to Greenland. Yet what an author writes about a foreign culture must be considered in light of what his contemporaries expect to hear. The story Nansen told before he left for Greenland was well suited to the times. His story in Eskimo Life and Astrup’s book did not fit the bill as well. Astrup and Nansen were not the only voices in the wilderness. On both sides of the Atlantic there were scientific communities which reacted to how the Inuit were treated and portrayed. One who did react was the Danish Hinrich Rink. Beginning in the early 1860s, Rink had conducted a general, comprehensive scientific survey of conditions on Greenland. He is considered the founder of a critical documentary tradition that raises questions about the activities of the colonial power and the work of missionaries. He maintained that these foreigners ruined the customs and institutions that served important functions in primitive hunting communities. Nansen was more explicit than most in his criticism of European colonial policy, and Rink praised him for that. Rink thought that Nansen’s ‘original method by which he studied the Greenlanders’, combined with his positive attitude toward the Inuit, produced a description with ‘a high degree of originality, freshness and truth’. Of all the Norwegian polar explorers’ meetings with natives, the one with the greatest impact is Amundsen’s encounters with the Netsiliks during his voyage through the Northwest Passage. Amundsen was the only Norwegian polar explorer to collect a significant amount of ethnographical material. He did so on a people that had not until then been adequately studied in the West. After

the explorers


his return, the collection was presented to the Ethnographical Museum in Christiania and exhibited in what was called the Gjøa Hall.The collection contains 900 items, and remains to this day the world’s largest collection of Inuit artifacts. It is also the museum’s largest collection of artefacts from one single people. Amundsen had no background in cultural research when he began his voyage in 1903, to sail through the Northwest Passage. However, he had studied his Norwegian and American predecessors, and he had spent an Antarctic winter with Cook. He was thus well aware of the fact that Inuit techniques were an important prerequisite for a successful polar expedition. There is reason to believe that Amundsen’s reason for making contact with Arctic peoples was to glean firsthand knowledge of how they travelled in the ice. His travelogue is full of examples of Inuit techniques he learnt about: how to warm frozen fingers; how best to get the sled runners to slide; how to pack a sled well; how to dress, and especially how to build the perfect igloo. He spent a good deal of time on the last-mentioned with Teraiu, his ‘excellent teacher’. The stay in Gjøahavn turned into an Arctic college and ethnographic collection station. During the second winter, he gathered an entire Netsilik civilisation onboard. As he wrote in his diary of January 8th 1905: ‘The ethnographic collection now contains examples of all Netchilli Eskimo tools.’ What was Amundsen’s motivation for making this ethnographic collection? Of course, like the magnetic and geographical observations, the collection would contribute to making the expedition more scientific. At the same time, a collection like this would give the entire nation, as well as Amundsen himself, prestige. In addition, Amundsen might have envisioned some commercial value in the kayaks, harpoons, fur clothing, and arrowheads. When he sent a letter from Alaska to the Ethnographic Museum in the hope that ‘this complete collection from, I dare say, the least known, living Eskimos ought to be of interest’, it is probable that he thought it might improve his finances, which had been drained because of his travels. The collection no doubt formed an important part of the scientific material for which the government paid 40,000 kroner. Amundsen’s writings about the Inuit in the Northwest Passage are systematized differently than Nansen’s and Astrup’s. None of Amundsen’s chapters provides generalizations regarding their customs, morals, and so forth. Nor does he attempt to place their way of life within a broader ethnographic context. On the contrary, he almost seems glad not to have studied specialised literature on the subject. He maintains that he has consciously not read the authorities for fear of ‘reporting what others, and not I, myself, have seen and experienced about them’. He also emphasises that he is telling his own story. ‘Our understanding of these Eskimos was so varied, that I can state that every one of the seven Gjøa expedition members had his own, distinct opinion about them.’ Cook Lindstrøm could ‘not stand the Eskimos’.

240 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

It is probably not a good idea to put blind faith in declarations like this. There is no doubt that Amundsen read something about the Inuit. Neither could he divorce himself completely from the traditions from which he came. Nonetheless, his personal style makes his descriptions differ from those of Nansen and Astrup. In this context, there are both villains and heroes. Amundsen found some of the Inuit to be so aggressive, that he placed fire crackers around the Gjøa to keep them away. He depicted others as hardworking and helpful. Some were backwards, and others were intelligent. He described some as ‘quite simply beautiful’; while others were described as ‘ugly, flat-nosed Eskimos’. Amundsen does not seem to make any effort to understand the Inuit on their own terms. He says that some Inuit families were lazy and dirty, and therefore they had not managed to build proper winter dwellings. Although Amundsen made many distinctive observations about the Inuit, he nonetheless falls within a tradition of observers who view cultures as determined by their environment. This means that he believed that the natural environment in which the Inuit lived, led them to adopt a certain social order. He implies that the Inuit were almost governed by instinct, which helped them solve practical problems. Amundsen writes a good deal about the ten different Inuit tribes he encountered along the Northwest Passage, but it was the Netsiliks that particularly captured his imagination. This is also the tribe that he presents in the most positive light. The reason is no doubt that Amundsen, like Nansen and Astrup, had more admiration for societies that had not been ‘perverted’ by the influence of the modern world. According to the polar explorers, these people lived a healthy life with healthy values, isolated from the expectations of modern society. These people mastered to perfection the very elements against which explorers came to test their skills. It is against this backdrop that we should gauge Amundsen’s conviction that ‘those Eskimos who live completely isolated from every civilisation are absolutely the happiest, the healthiest, the most honourable, and the most satisfied’. Nansen, Astrup, and Amundsen were not trained cultural researchers. They did not set out with the intention of studying the aboriginal Arctic population. They developed, nonetheless, relationships with local populations that can remind one of later social anthropologists and their ideal of participatory or sympathetic observation. Yet, they also differ from this tradition. They were all collectors of cultural traditions; either they brought cultural artefacts back with them, or they returned with accounts of cultural phenomena and institutions. In their view, the ‘primitive’ culture they observed, was static and formed by the physical environment in which ‘polar people’ lived. The particular characteristics of these communities were not shaped by cultural and historical proces-

the explorers


A group of Netsilik visit the Gjøa in 1904. Roald Amundsen was extremely interested in learning how the Inuit mastered life in the Arctic; how they dressed, handled dogs and built igloos.

ses. Thus they helped maintain a picture of ‘the others’ as beings who were qualitatively different from ‘us’. The cultural descriptions, however, give an impression of an ideal and positive existence in the ice of the Arctic as a clean and unfettered alternative world. It presents a romantic picture that differs from contemporary ethnographic literature. The fact that Nansen, Astrup, and Amundsen produced such presentations could be due to their basic knowledge, the way in which they were introduced to the Inuit cultural heritage, and their sadness in realising that this life might disappear as a result of its collision with modern society. It is reasonable to believe that the circumstances under which one comes into contact with a foreign culture will affect one’s attitude toward it. Claims have been made that the British left the Arctic frontier in favour of a preoccupation with the deserted Antarctic, because they realised the Inuit had superior transportation and survival skills which eclipsed British military traditions. The British kept their distance from the native peoples of the Arctic. Even in times of imminent tragedy, as with the Franklin expedition, they did not degrade themselves by mixing with ‘savages’. In this regard, British tradition differs dramatically from American and Scandinavian tradition. Like Peary and Cook, Norwegian polar explorers conducted themselves in a way that was antithetical to that of their British counterparts. They consciously sought to learn from the natives. They realised that only by employing Inuit techniques, like the dogsled, clothing, and hunting en route, could they reach the North Pole. This realisation led to cultural exchanges that doubtlessly affected their attitudes.

Records without heroes

No one discovered as much new land as Otto Sverdrup, and no one set as many records as Roald Amundsen. Nevertheless, these two men never attained the kind of international status that Nansen did. Many have said that what Amundsen gained with his ship, skis, and dogs, he squandered with his pen. He lacked the ability to dramatise himself; he lacked the ability to make things appear more difficult than they were. That is what one of his biographers, Roland Huntford, maintains. When Amundsen returned to Framheim after having been to the South Pole, he noted: ‘we cannot really report serious dangers, great need, or major exertion’. The newspaper Morgenbladet wrote that in comparing the accounts of Scott’s and Amundsen’s South Pole expeditions, one got the impression that both the terrain and the weather was much more difficult for Scott than for Amundsen. Amundsen was no great author. However, his ‘problem’ was not only his storytelling ability, it was also his capacity for planning and organisation. Nansen

the explorers


had made the Scandinavian approach to expeditions known, and had thereby profited magnificently. This approach was further developed by Sverdrup and perfected by Amundsen. However, despite impressive results, honour and glory were not as forthcoming. Amundsen’s organisational perfection just hastened an inherent and unavoidable tendency to trivialise. The public wanted more than records; it wanted heroism. Well-planned, problem-free expeditions simply did not pay. Amundsen became painfully aware of this fact when he sailed the Gjøa through the Northwest Passage in 1903–06. He had attained a goal that had been sought after for three hundred years, and had also located the magnetic North Pole. It had all taken place too ‘humbly’, though, in the words of the British press agent who tried to explain to him why the local media were not too excited. The ‘scientific public’ appreciated what he had done, but the ‘general public’ was not particularly interested. Thus, he could not count on large lecture fees. Besides, he had been unfortunate regarding the way the news had been handled, and had already lost large sums as a result. Amundsen’s first telegram had been stopped, but the contents had been leaked, and they had spread from newspaper to newspaper. By the time he arrived in San Francisco in 1906, the excitement had long since died down. This situation basically repeated itself when Amundsen won the race for the South Pole against Captain Scott. His supporters hoped that the expedition would provide Amundsen with financial rewards in line with the financial support harvested by Nansen after the first Fram expedition. Amundsen did receive an advance on his book of 111,000 kroner, and this beat all previous records. Still, 86° 14’ N, which was the endpoint of Nansen and Johansen’s foolhardy and gruelling expedition, yielded greater financial and symbolic rewards, than Amundsen’s supposedly problem-free 90° S. Once again, Great Britain was the culprit. The lecture incomes were not as anticipated, and the publishers realised that Amundsen’s ‘lack of imagination’ would not yield astronomical book sales. All in all, Amundsen’s income from the conquest of the South Pole amounted to only about half what Nansen had made from Fram. The great human drama of the South Pole was the one presented posthumously by Scott and his men, when the mortal remains of the expedition members were found and their written accounts made public. Scott’s suffering, self-sacrifice, and martyrdom set in motion in Great Britain a passionate involvement equal to what was generated in Norway with the Fram’s triumphal procession. ‘Nothing in our time’, wrote The Manchester Guardian, ‘not even the shipwreck of the Titanic, has touched the nation so directly and deeply as the loss of these men.’ Their heroism, wrote another newspaper, ‘made the feats of the classic gods pale in comparison’. And a third newspaper wrote: Scott’s last ‘message to the public’ was ‘the most gripping document ever read.’ For

244 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

the first time in British history, the king attended a memorial service for someone who was not a member of the royal family. In the course of a decade, about 30 to 40 monuments were erected around the country. Amundsen’s expedition had also involved heroic deeds and drama, and would have made good copy for a media establishment that preferred conflict and catastrophe to plain triumph. The problem was that Hjalmar Johansen risking his own life to save Lieutenant Prestrud, and his subsequent verbal attack on Amundsen for only thinking of himself, had to be kept an absolute secret. Scott’s destiny was doubly unlucky for Amundsen. Not only had the latter supposedly ‘stolen’ the record from Scott, but he was also made the scapegoat for Scott’s terrible homeward journey. It was claimed that the discovery of a flag already flying over the South Pole had shattered the courageous Scott’s morale. Bitterly, Amundsen had to admit that his own brilliantly executed success had been overshadowed by Scott’s tragic defeat and gripping account. Amundsen might be received like a king in Paris and Rome, but that did not make up for the lack of recognition in what he resentfully called ‘that plum-pudding nation’. To a certain extent, Amundsen lost to Nansen at home, too. The first edition of The Northwest Passage was only half as large as the first edition of the two-volume work Farthest North (Fram over Polhavet). On the other hand, there were so many extraordinary circumstances surrounding the Fram’s triumphant journey, that a rerun was unthinkable. In fact, it was actually astonishing that Amundsen’s triumphs were celebrated as much as they were, given that the country had already been through three large celebrations for Nansen and Sverdrup. When the men of the Gjøa returned to Norway in November 1906, a year after its traversal of the Northwest Passage became known, the capital was once again overcrowded and the festivities extensive. In March 1912, when it became known that the South Pole had been conquered, the whole country was awash in flags and celebrations. Nansen gave a lecture to the Geographical Society in the presence of the king and queen, and the press enthusiastically hailed a new Norwegian triumph. In July, 8,500 tickets were sold when a national festival was held at St. Hanshaugen in Oslo, celebrating the South Pole men, in this case without Amundsen. Above all, it was Nansen who stepped forward and interpreted Amundsen’s achievements for the nation. The fact that Amundsen himself did not become a national role model on this occasion has been seen as yet another of his shortcomings in relation to his predecessor. This can also be viewed from another angle. Amundsen’s problem abroad was not necessarily the same as his problem in Norway; indeed, one might assume that his lack of a strong national rhetoric was a strength rather than a weakness. Nansen was a nationalist, but he was also an aristocrat, and he was highly controversial, at first for his national radicalism, and later as a critic of parliamentary democracy. There is a notice-

the explorers


able asymmetry between Nansen’s national and international recognition. Nansen’s ability to have an influence by virtue of his name alone was far greater abroad than it was at home. Abroad, the name ‘Nansen’ was sufficiently renowned to create a diplomatic impact. In Norway he was domesticated, trapped and tamed within the scope of recognized political and social boundaries. Unlike Nansen, Amundsen was more like the politicians representing pesant, rural and labour interests: utilitarian, level-headed, unassuming, and not given to using lofty language to describe the national significance of his deeds. During his stay in Antarctica, Amundsen wrote: ‘Norwegian peasants! My God, think that one is dependent on such rabble … ’. By ‘peasants’ he meant members of Parliament devoted to cost-cutting and sparseness in public spending. However, the fact is that politicians of this kind really liked Amundsen and preferred him to Nansen. After Amundsen’s South Pole triumph had helped him move out of Nansen’s shadow, he was able to establish a less problematic relationship with Parliament than had any polar explorer before him. Amundsen’s first transaction with Parliament in 1907 looks like a kind of barter. He was still in debt after the Northwest Passage, and so the Parliament covered his debts by buying artefacts and observational records. There were claims that Amundsen could have received more for his collection if he had sold it abroad. Only four MPs, including the Socialist Egede-Nissen, voted against the purchase agreement. The so-called third Fram expedition was more controversial. When Parliament debated the issue in 1909, it was much like the debate on Fram in 1890. Supporters pursued the usual double strategy, appealing to universal duty and national competitive prestige at the same time. It was a duty ‘to sacrifice something for those things which were mankind’s obligation to fulfil’. Yet, it was held to be just as important to march ahead of the rest of mankind: ‘Shall we sit by and see another country steal the honour … ?’ The expedition would be an honourable exploration trip, and at the same time: ‘This is no recordbreaking undertaking.’ It was a question of giving: ‘… this is one of the few areas where we can give something’; but also of making an investment: ‘The profit that the nation gained from the Nansen expedition is so excellent that I do not think any Norwegian will want that grant undone.’ Some of those who opposed funding the expedition accepted that patriotic considerations weighed heavily. But they held that it would not look good if the budget committee, which was encouraging moderation in all areas, and threatening to increase taxation, at the same time started the new year by granting 75,000 kroner to a project that was ‘neither necessary nor essential, strictly speaking’. To emphasize that the allocation was not a question of luxury, the supporters referred to the honour Nansen had brought to the country. They added that Nansen’s name and deeds had been an important asset to the country

246 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

in 1905, when it had been vital to promote Norway’s case for independence abroad. At the same time, the debate indicated that Nansen had become an ambiguous resource for would-be polar adventurers. After 1905, Nansen was a high profile critic of parliamentary democracy, with its prosaic compromises and conflicts. The government should emulate the Fram, he maintained: build upon expert knowledge and remain above petty partisan struggles. Politicians who were critical of Nansen, nonetheless spoke flatteringly of Amundsen. The farmer and Liberal politician Ivar Tveiten said that there was no one he would rather see at the head of such an expedition, because ‘this steady and modest man made such an impression on me’. On account of the sympathy for Amundsen, the person, even the socialist Alfred Eriksen felt he could not oppose the grant. ‘… I must admit that the sympathy which his person inspires in people, creates more understanding for this polar journey than I honestly had for Nansen’s.’ For these MPs, Amundsen was best, alone, not because he was small compared to Nansen, but because Nansen’s nationalistic ideology had become a burden.

An uncontroversial polar explorer

On March 8th, 1912, Parliament began its workday with a short statement made by its president, Wollert Konow: ‘Fellow representatives, we cannot begin our work today without gathering together in grateful happiness, admiration, and pride. We must express these emotions, which have filled our hearts upon receiving the news that Roald Amundsen and his men have reached the South Pole and planted the Norwegian flag there. We are imbued with heartfelt joy and deep gratitude that the Fram and her noble crew have once again returned unscathed from a dangerous journey. We admire that courage, that vigour and perseverance which once again have made science triumph, and which yet again conquered large areas for scientific exploration and research. We are proud to know that these men are our compatriots, and that they have once again brought glory to the name of Norway. …’ The assembly stood up when the President made his speech. From that point on, the Parliament supported everything Amundsen did. A motion was made immediately to establish a professorship for him. Nansen and Birkeland were willing to lend it legitimacy, but it was difficult to argue that Amundsen was in possession of anything remotely resembling adequate scientific qualifications. Of course, when he was travelling around talking about the Antarctic, he was one of the few who knew what he was talking about. Some members of the press, to be sure, were not so gracious. ‘Are the attempts to honour Amundsen now going to degenerate to such a degree that they will mock

the explorers


the man and the entire nation? He does not deserve that.’ The Parliamentary committee turned the professorship proposal down, and the chairman maintained that he acted with the approval of Amundsen himself. In fact, Amundsen had made it clear that, ‘humble man that he was’, he did not wish to be rewarded individually; rather he wished that Parliament would do something to honour the entire crew. Thereafter, the Parliament unanimously granted 136,365 kroner to what was generally called ‘Roald Amundsen’s expedition to the North Pole’, an expedition which, for pecuniary reasons, had been obliged to make a detour via the South Pole, before once again turning towards its main goal. Amundsen was personally granted an annual stipend of 6,000 kroner, as a so-called ‘national reward’. Each of the crew were awarded a one-time payment of 4,000 kroner, for a total of 44,000 kroner. Now it was necessary to sail the Fram from the southern to the northern hemisphere. Time elapsed and new expenses were accumulated. In 1914, Amundsen was obliged to ask for more money. The previous year, Liberal Gunnar Knudsen had been reinstated as Prime Minister, and Nansen had immediately planned action against the parliamentary ‘nonsense’ and the new government. In 1913 Knudsen had allegedly told Leon Amundsen, Roald’s brother, that there was no possibility of any more funding. Roald Amundsen had threatened, via his brother and Nansen, that he would cancel the trip north because of the politicians’ ‘breach of promise’. This was where things stood when Nansen nailed Amundsen down and made him continue the polar project; he reminded Amundsen that ‘I have done more for you than I have done for anyone else in the world; I sacrificed everything, as I abandoned my South Pole expedition, the keystone of my lifework as a polar explorer; and I relinquished the Fram in order that you might complete your expedition across the Arctic Ocean.’ Amundsen realised that he could not get away with cutting short the trip; and despite Knudsen’s pessimistic indications the previous year, the politicians proved not to be a problem in the end. Amundsen asked for 200,000 kroner; 50,000 to begin with and 30,000 a year for five years. That covered half his budget. The Ministry of Finance recommended the application, and it was passed in Parliament with only two dissenting votes. But the war changed everything, and in August Amundsen relinquished the money. In 1917, Amundsen decided to organise an ‘expedition to the Arctic Ocean’ with a newly built ship, Maud, named after Norway’s Queen Maud; and he asked the government for a new grant equal to the one he had relinquished in 1914. He got the funding. The striking thing about these grants is that they were passed without opposition, and the conditions for granting them became less and less ideological. There was not longer rhetoric about heroic deeds or honour and recognition for Norway. ‘The national reward’ signalled an end to the discussion of ‘gifts’. From then on, Parliament consistently supported the

248 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Roald Amundsen, dressed for the weather in an Inuit parka.

grants without further discussion. Thus, the grand, nationalistic rhetoric that had accompanied the initial polar triumphs was gradually set aside. The war did not predispose people toward grandiose language. At the same time, this increasing modesty of language involved an adjustment to Amundsen’s own, low-keyed ideological style. For him, this style proved to be more and more of a strength as the struggle over the union with Sweden receded into the past.


Amundsen signed on Helmer Hanssen and Wisting, along with the engineer Sundbeck and sailmaker Rønne, who had been part of the ‘sea party’ on the Fram. He also added four ‘new’ men; thus the crew that left Tromsø on July 16th, 1918, consisted of nine men. World War I was still raging, and there was a real danger of attack by German submarines. Maud was not attacked by submarines, but her first encounter with rough seas was dramatic enough. The ship was built along the same principles as the Fram and possessed the same eccentric characteristics. She rocked so much that the waves washed over the deck and threatened to fill the saloon. The rig was also damaged. However, there was plenty of time to make the necessary repairs. On July 25th they reached the Yugor Strait, where they encountered ice. Khabarovo, Nansen’s last port of call on the Fram journey 25 years earlier, was temporarily inaccessible. Instead the Maud hove to by Vajgatj Island. Amundsen bartered with the natives, repaired damage, and strengthened the bow. When the ship set off again, it hit a mud bank and then more ice. For a couple of days it sat off Khabarovo, where the men became acquainted with a young Russian-Norwegian telegrapher, Gennadij Olonkin. When the Maud set sail on August 17th, Olonkin had joined the expedition as second engineer and the tenth crew member. Nansen had previously arranged for Amundsen to take a course in oceanographic techniques under the guidance of Helland-Hansen. Bjerknes had sent his student, Harald Ulrik Sverdrup, to Helland-Hansen for a similar course. Helland-Hansen came to appreciate young Sverdrup’s many talents, and it was probably Helland-Hansen who first recommended Sverdrup to Amundsen. During the summer of 1916, Helland-Hansen did all he could to persuade Sverdrup to join Amundsen’s new expedition. When the expedition started to take shape and plans were made to depart during the summer of 1918, Sverdrup spent even more time studying the secrets of oceanography with Helland-Hansen. Sverdrup became leader of the scientific team of the expedition, and the Maud expedition would, in many ways, shape his future career. The Maud was a floating laboratory that collected data on the earth’s magnetism, atmos-

250 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

pheric electricity, weather conditions near the ocean surface and high above it, oceanographic conditions, ice formations, the Northern Lights, and just about everything else that might be of scientific or cultural interest. The crew of nine shared the everyday, practical duties, and most of them tried to take part in the research. When the Maud made her way eastwards along the coast of Siberia, they realised that the mass of ice was more extensive than previous scientists had observed. They froze in near Cape Chelyuskin by September. They spent the winter making improvements on the ship and the scientific instruments. Sverdrup had the opportunity of adapting what he had learned to Arctic conditions. When summer came, the ice barely broke up along the coast. The men used dynamite to push on eastwards, but got no further than Ajon Island. One day Sverdrup made this note in his diary: ‘Just imagine, me as linguist and psychologist among natives!’ Two days earlier, the versatile natural scientist had actually denied any interest in ethnology. ‘There must be a limit to how thinly I spread myself.’ In the two-day interim, the boss, Roald Amundsen, had encouraged him to go ashore to live among the reindeer herding tribe, the Chukchins, for a while during the winter grazing season, in order to study their language, customs, and so forth. Why did Amundsen want to send Sverdrup out on such an expedition? He probably wanted to ensure that the expedition returned from unknown territory with as much information as possible on a broad range of subjects, including data on different cultures. Amundsen, who felt he had ‘torn a primitive people out of the Stone Age’ by introducing modern products to the Inuit during the Gjøa expedition, may have seen it as his duty, as a representative of civilised society, to document what he found of ‘aboriginal’ cultures. Sverdrup was highly preoccupied with the latter topic. He pointed out that modern transport, alcohol and tobacco, and weapons were wiping out special cultural characteristics. ‘Our generation is bound at every opportunity to save what can be saved, gather information about ways of living and of thinking, especially amongst those people who are still to be found on the frontiers of civilisation.’ Sverdrup’s eight-month-long scientific journey differs from the encounter that Nansen, Astrup, and Amundsen had with Arctic cultures. Sverdrup did not go to learn from the Chukchins but to study them, although he was virtually thrown into the role of researcher. His techniques were different, too. He travelled with one family and stayed with it during the seasonal movement of livestock from coast to tundra. He was a ‘culture collector’, a collector of cultural artefacts and traditions, who literally travelled with the aid of his ethnographic artefacts. Sverdrup’s studies of the Chukchins came to be considered quite significant in the field. The Ethnographic Museum in Oslo had very few Chukchin artefacts. Owing to political developments in the Soviet Union,

the explorers


Gathering snow to melt into water. The Maud was never a popular success. But seven years in the ice provided a great deal of new knowledge about the Arctic Ocean.

Sverdrup’s studies were among the very few undertaken by Western scientists in this area. In Norway, ethnographers were particularly interested in discovering where the Sami people had originated, and therefore there was keen interest in the Arctic peoples to the east. Moreover, a key theme in Arctic cultural research was the relationship between the two main types of Arctic culture: reindeer-herding and coastal culture. Sverdrup’s field work could contribute towards solving these problems. His ethnographic collection, photographs, and notes were turned over to the Ethnographic Museum, and language researcher Konrad Nielsen edited the dictionary Sverdrup had compiled. Sverdrup’s descriptions revealed little admiration or fascination for the polar people’s social fabric or mode of living. For him, their society was an exceedingly primitive one, and it was governed by certain moral laws. But Sverdrup, unlike Nansen, Astrup, and Amundsen, did not hold these unwritten laws forth as ideal. To be sure, his work on the Chukchins contained elements of romanticism. He celebrated the tribe’s life on the tundra and the ‘happy, unaffected condition in which they still find themselves’. Sverdrup concluded his description with a wish that they might ‘stay as they are’, and ‘preserve their happy way of living and thinking’. But Sverdrup’s account diverges significantly from, for instance, Nansen’s assertion that aboriginal Arctic society was a well-functioning and morally superior one. The ship broke away from the ice during the summer of 1920. But it did not head north. Amundsen sailed the Maud to Nome, Alaska, to take on provisions. At least the Maud expedition set one record: on July 23rd, Amundsen was the first man to have traversed both the Northwest and Northeast passages. He said himself that now, having completed the Northeast Passage, he had ‘managed to unite it with my Northwest Passage of 1906, and so for the first time there had been a complete circumnavigation of the Arctic Ocean. In these days of record breaking, that might carry some weight’. Those members of the crew who wanted to return home, were given leave to do so. During the two years of the expedition, some had already left. At best, it would take another three years to drift across the Arctic Ocean. Amundsen had already fallen out with Helmer Hanssen, the veteran of the Gjøa and Fram. He and the gout-ridden Rønne left, and to Amundsen’s annoyance, Sundbeck decided to join them on their return trip to Europe. There were now only four men remaining to complete the journey, a rather indefensibly low number of crew members. Sverdrup was in despair, but he decided to continue. He had given his word, and as long as he was in good health, he felt he had no right to leave his position. Back on the Maud, Amundsen tried to reach the pack ice that summer. Once again, when the ship arrived at the coast of Siberia, it was halted by abnormally thick ice. Another winter beckoned. This time Sverdrup stayed with

the explorers


another tribe, the Coastal Chukchins. In one of the very warm, airtight tents, permeated by the smell of boiled reindeer meat and unwashed bodies, Sverdrup removed his underwear in a competition with the skipper, Oscar Wisting, to see which of them had accumulated the most lice. Being the expedition’s official scientist, he was often the butt of friendly banter, but the men allowed him to retaliate to show he was one of the guys, too. ‘Your mother should see you now, Sverdrup!’ roared the good-natured Wisting. They wore themselves out driving dog teams in howling snowstorms to take extensive magnetic measurements. No opportunity must be lost to take observations from the thus far unknown territory. The following summer in 1921, the Maud’s propeller broke and she was forced to sail down the stormy North Pacific to Seattle for repairs. In the U.S.A., Sverdrup learned about the revolutionary progress that Bjerknes and his young assistants had made in meteorology during the last three years. This started Sverdrup thinking. When Bjerknes had left Leipzig for Bergen in 1917, he had made plans to establish an experimental weather-forecasting service, and he had wanted Sverdrup to join him. Now, others had taken his place; Sverdrup deeply regretted this development. In a state of torment, he privately admitted to Bjerknes that if he had had any clue about what was going to happen on the Maud expedition, he would never have signed on. All he could do now was to make the best of a bad situation. While they waited for the repairs to be completed that winter, Sverdrup was able to spend time in Washington, D.C., at the Carnegie Institute’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism. This was where Amundsen had learned about advanced techniques in the measurement and analysis of the earth’s magnetic field. The express goal of the institute was to chart the magnetic fields of the entire planet, and this no doubt led to Sverdrup being offered a position there. Here he analysed his provisional magnetic observations, borrowed infinitely superior instruments, and established a relationship with staff that would have far-reaching consequences for their cooperation in years to come. Amundsen himself had had enough and decided to follow Nansen’s example. He wanted to leave the ship and set off for the North Pole on his own, but not with dogs, skis, and sleds. In Seattle he ordered fish, cheese, and juice, but no huskies. Instead he asked for two ‘aeroplanes’. As the main hero of the ‘classical era’ in polar exploration, he now wanted to make the leap into a completely new era. When the Maud once again headed for Nome, Alaska, she was carrying two planes and two pilots, Odd Dahl and Oskar Omdal. In Nome, Amundsen divided the expedition in two. The large transport plane was loaded on board a cargo ship bound for Point Barrow on the northern tip of Alaska. Amundsen and Omdal accompanied it. Wisting and Dahl remained on board the Maud

254 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

with the smaller reconnaissance plane. They allowed Maud to become icebound about ten nautical miles from Herald Island to start the drift across the North Pole. Amundsen noted that the outcome of both projects was unpredictable, but added: ‘One thing is clear, if we succeed at both, then we will have accomplished the greatest polar journey in history.’ After they had stayed the winter, the crew on the Maud started to build a runway for their little observation flights. Near Herald Island they stamped out the irregularities in the ice. To make sure it was visible amidst all the white, dark strips of cloth were placed along both sides of the runway. On May 28th, 1923, the crated Curtis plane was hoisted down onto the ice and assembled. Then they had to wait for suitable weather, and on June 5th they were ready for takeoff. It went well. Dahl and Wisting circled above the Maud. They noted that all the contours of the flattened landing strip disappeared when seen from above in the cold air; and this made landing more a matter of luck than of skill. This repeated itself the next time, too. On the third attempt, on June 22nd, the skis hit a puddle on the runway during takeoff, and the plane came to rest with its tail in the air. The pilots crawled unscathed out of the wreckage, but what a wreck it was. After fourteen days of repair work, ‘completely without any spare parts’, Dahl was willing to take to the air again, assuming of course that Providence was with him. Unfortunately, this assumption was mistaken; and on July 16th, the plane crashed against the top of a pressure ridge. The undercarriage was forced up into the cockpit where Wisting was sitting; and had it been forced a few more centimetres, that would have been the end of him. The propeller had been splintered to bits. Wisting reported back to the expedition’s administrative headquarters in Christiania; this time ‘the damage is too extensive and unable to be repaired; so the plan to conduct geographical research from the air must be abandoned.’ It was obvious that the plane was unsuited to making short observational trips from a mother ship during polar expeditions. What about the flight across the North Pole? The larger plane, with Omdal and Amundsen, was supposed to fly from Alaska over the North Pole and south to Svalbard. Assuming, of course, that the fuel lasted that long. Aeronautical technology had made huge progress during World War I. Nevertheless, it was asking a lot to plan a flight of several thousand kilometres without the possibility of re-fueling and without being able to make a forced landing if necessary. Amundsen was perfectly aware that aeronautical technology in 1923 was not really up to a flight clean across the Arctic to Svalbard, and that it was a highly doubtful undertaking. So he loaded the plane with sleds and kayaks for what he said would be the final part of the expedition, which would be from

the explorers


the North Pole to Svalbard. Thus the last part of the expedition could be turned into a traditional polar expedition on ice. Amundsen and Omdal unloaded their plane in the tiny village of Wainright, west of Point Barrow, in the autumn of 1922. They fixed the departure date for June 20th,1923. On May 11th Omdal ran a test flight. The plane became airborne, which in itself was no small feat, as it had been under wraps during a long Arctic winter. But it was damaged during landing, although Omdal survived. In his diary, Amundsen bemoaned the situation; ‘I do not have much hope for this flying business; it all looks like a hodgege.’ That seemed to be confirmed when the drive shaft broke during another attempt on June 10th. To top it all off, his financial supporter, Håkon Hammer, had more or less brought him to the brink of ruin. And what was worse, the press turned against him. Aftenposten asked whether Amundsen had lost his nerve. Dagbladet called the large Junkers aeroplane that was to have taken him and Omdal to the North Pole a suicide machine. The media maintained that the flight was a desperate attempt to cover up all the problems that had arisen with the Maud, and that experts had always doubted that flying would work. Poet Arnulf Øverland waxed ironic about the whole venture. Since Amundsen had discovered that it was cold at the South Pole by taking scientific measurements with a thermometer, he now wanted to find out if the North Pole was cold, too. The North Pole had already been discovered, but there was no problem discovering it a second time. Amundsen had, after all, discovered the Treasury, and wanted a couple million kroner from it. ‘Let’s therefore, yet again, for the seventh and last time, give him money,’ wrote Øverland. ‘Let’s allocate a generous grant to him, with enough funds to buy a large refrigerator with a strong and solid lock on it. Put him in it. And then let the old man enjoy the cold as much as he wants.’ But what about the Maud crew, and the ship’s drift across the Arctic Ocean? In September 1923, the men kept their spirits up by hoping they might drift to the north of Nansen’s route; but then the wind started to blow from the north. Day after day, they were helpless witnesses to the northerly winds that blew the ice and the icebound Maud further and further south. They felt despair, great despair. Now, their route would in all likelihood be longer, and the scientific yield would be of less interest. A strong work ethic and a minimum of mutual contact prevented them from sinking into a deep depression or experiencing personal conflicts. No longer did Saturday evenings end with drinking a toddy and singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ along with the gramophone. At last, in February 1924, Amundsen sent his men a wireless message asking them to give up the Arctic crossing and come home. Or, at least, try to come home. They were icebound; and if the ice to the south did not open up sufficiently during the summer to let them out, they might continue drifting for another three or four years. They got out, and finally continued east along the

256 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Sverdrup measuring the tides during the first winter in Maudhavn. The Maud was a test of patience. Even though the ship never reached the central Arctic ocean, the expedition was very important for oceanography and polar geophysics.

coast. Once again, unusual ice conditions prevented them from reaching the Bering Strait. Yet another long winter awaited them. Sverdrup started to analyse the data he had collected, and wrote what was published later as Dynamics of Tides on the North Siberian Shelf. In that work he proves, based in part on analyses of tidal surveys, that there are no large land masses in the central Arctic. At last, on October 5th, 1925, the Maud reached Seattle and the expedition was concluded. Sverdrup remarked many times that the greatest achievement of the journey was the fact that the men parted as friends. He thanked Amundsen, ‘not only because you gave me the opportunity to work on subjects that interest me, but more because you helped me to become a man’. Their return home was not marked with any kind of celebration or honours, and Sverdrup commented tersely: ‘From a popular point of view our trip was obviously a failure. Personally, however, I do not feel at all depressed, as I think our scientific results are so numerous and so valuable, that the expedition will be in the forefront of those polar expeditions which have enriched geophysical science with new data.’

An aeroplane to the North Pole

The Maud fiasco led to a brutal change in public opinion. The newspapers mocked Amundsen. His rival, the pilot Trygve Gran, accused him of trusting too much in luck, rather than in the meticulous preparations for which he was so famous. Proud though he was, the criticism did not paralyse him; on the contrary. By September 1923, he was working on a new plan to conquer the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. With Haakon Hammer once again as his guarantor, he ordered two, and later three, German Dornier-Wal sea planes, built on licence in Italy as a result of the Versailles Treaty. Amundsen’s brother Leon recruited pilots. Agreements were entered into with an American, three Italians, a journalist, a photographer, and the Norwegians Riiser-Larsen, Dietrichson, and Omdal. The latter men travelled to Italy to oversee the construction of the planes. Amundsen too went along with ‘publicity’ in mind. He met Mussolini on April 7th, 1924. The anchor of the party was Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen (1890–1965). He had graduated from the Naval College, in the first class of pilots in 1915. Later in England, he had passed a supplementary exam that qualified him as an airship pilot; and he was responsible for teaching Leif Ragnar Dietrichson (1890–1928) the art of flying. Riiser-Larsen and Dietrichson had both been involved in the 1923 flying venture in the Arctic; Riiser-Larsen as technical advisor and Dietrichson as the pilot for the Svalbard party.

258 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

At this point, Leon warned against continuing their cooperation with Hammer, which led to Amundsen breaking off communications with his own brother. Instead, Amundsen began cooperating with The Norwegian Aeronautical Association. At the same time, he personally went bankrupt. As far as financing was concerned, things looked pretty doubtful; and it was unlikely that Norwegian aeronautic lobbyists were strong enough to put him on his feet and complete the purchase of the German sea planes. Both contracts with the Doriner-Wal company and with personnel obviously were worth nothing. Amundsen was deeply depressed when he left for the U.S.A. on a lecture tour to make some money. There he met Lincoln Ellsworth. That accident changed everything. Lincoln Ellsworth (1880–1951) was 44 when he called on Amundsen in New York. His posthumous reputation has not been good; and he was considered a spoilt upper-class fellow without any particular skills as polar explorer. The first part of his life was certainly carefree. His father was a hugely wealthy mining millionaire, who had his own town (Ellsworth, Pennsylvania), had built Chicago’s first skyscraper, and owned a castle near Florence. The son never refused his father’s money, but he had carved out his own life. He was a qualified surveyor and had worked as an engineer on several railway construction projects in the Canadian and American wilderness. Ellsworth had taken part in a geological expedition to the Andes, and had been a member of a polar expedition which was to find the mysterious Crocker Land between Alaska and Greenland. However, the expedition leader died before they got going, and Crocker Land was later proven never to have existed. He had lived with American Indians, so he knew something about life in the wilderness. In short, Ellsworth was the very prototype of the modern well-to-do man, 20th century man. He was technologically orientated and an engineer. Yet, he also worshipped untouched nature: the romance and danger, the aboriginal life in the wild. He was both an urban sophisticate and a hardy outdoorsman, and he was impressed by and drawn to the masculine ideal. ‘I am a heroworshipper’, he declared with honesty. He would certainly revere Amundsen. On October 8th, 1924, Ellsworth called his Norwegian Polar hero and asked if he could join the North Pole operation at his own expense. He alleged that he had made the same request to Amundsen in Paris during World War I, at which time he had served with the Allied air forces. Amundsen noted enthusiastically about his new sponsor. ‘He is wonderful. His father is very rich, and can easily pay for the whole shooting match.’ Ellsworth offered to pay $2,000 at once, to be allowed to join the polar flight, and hoped to raise more from his father’s resources. ‘Something might come of this,’ Amundsen wrote optimistically. And although Ellsworth senior was not quite as ‘generous’ as his son, he nevertheless allowed himself to be persuaded

the explorers


to let his son and heir take part in what might be considered a suicidal expedition. He set a condition, though; first his son had to promise to stop smoking! With this condition alone, Amundsen was given $90,000 for the planned expedition. Amundsen immediately instructed Riiser-Larsen to ‘expedite the purchase of the two aeroplanes’. Amundsen did not concede when Ellsworth senior tried to wriggle out of the written agreement, or when Ellsworth junior hinted that a North Pole flight might be just a bit on the tough side. Amundsen raised the remainder of the money for the ‘forthcoming trans-polar flight’ from Svalbard to Alaska in Norway. The sources, both public and private, included press contracts arranged with the assistance of the organisation that had taken him under its wing, the Norwegian Aeronautical Association. Norway had implemented the Svalbard Treaty just when the AmundsenEllsworth flight was about to set off. In August 1925, Svalbard became Norwegian territory, which made it timely to arrange domestic financing for the expedition. As Hammer, the businessman, had once said: national sentiment ‘makes the money flow’. Amundsen did not fail to advertise that his intention was to explore what he called ‘the Norwegian segment of the Arctic Ocean’. Riiser-Larsen and Dietrichson were sent to Italy, again. As previously, DornierWal was the preferred plane; it was tailor-made for polar flights. The undercarriage was constructed like a boat. But instead of the floats under the wings, the plane had additional short wings mounted on either side of the fuselage. These would neither fall off nor would they disintegrate if struck or during an accident. In addition, the ‘Wal’ could land on its belly on land, ice, or snow without the wings breaking, should a float be knocked off. The fuselage was made of the light alloy called duraluminium. It was not only strong, but flexible; and a blow against the pack ice would not destroy it. Each plane was equipped with two 350 horsepower Rolls Royce engines that worked in tandem, one pulled and the other pushed. In order to make more room, they dropped the radio, which according to Riiser-Larsen would allow for another 120 kilos of fuel, and which provided ‘a considerably greater amount of security’ than the wireless communications technology of the times. In those days, one could not securely locate an aeroplane from more than 160 kilometres away. The Dornier planes were constructed for a crew of three: an observer, a pilot, and an engineer. Therefore, in addition to Ellsworth, they needed one more mechanic. Riiser-Larsen suggested ‘one of the two Germans from Pisa’, where the Dornier-Wal factory was located. No sooner said than done. As so often in polar history, there were competitors. Riiser-Larsen knew about four of them: a French expedition (Payer), an Icelandic solo pilot (Grotvir Algarsson), and an American airship expedition. They were all planning flight

260 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

In the competition to reach the North Pole, several tried to travel by air. This depiction is from AndrÊe’s tragic 1897 expedition and is based on a photograph found in 1930.

expeditions to the North Pole. ‘How serious our competitors are I do not know, but because we must, and will be, the first, we must assume that they are serious contenders, and we must conduct ourselves accordingly.’ There was another reason to make haste. Prior to September 1927, 23 men and three women had lost their lives trying to fly over the Atlantic and the Pacific. Flying competitions were quite simply so dangerous that some countries were thinking of banning them. In 1925, Amundsen had no time to spare for his North Pole expedition. On April 13th,1925, everything, including the planes, was ready in NyÅlesund on Svalbard, after a stormy passage from Tromsø. The 30-odd men who had arrived in two ships from Tromsø included pilots, mechanics, meteorologists, and journalists. Tromsø pharmacist Fritz Zapffe, Amundsen’s greatest admirer, had been asked to develop the correct diet for the crew. In addition, he supervised the complex logistics of the project. The meteorologists were responsible for picking the best time for takeoff. But it was the pilots’ job to decide where they were going. Toward the end of April, Amundsen confessed to Dietrichson and RiiserLarsen that he and Ellsworth had made a secret pact to fly one of the planes onward from the Pole to Alaska instead of returning to Svalbard. ‘This plan,’ Amundsen noted in his diary, not without some bitterness, ‘met with absolute resistance from RL, and to a certain extent also from D. The result was that I had to give up the idea.’ Apparently, he was not entirely in charge, as he had been during his previous expeditions, but had become second in command after Riiser-Larsen. Though he still wielded psychological power over his men, this incident demonstrates the transformation of a polar expedition; the fact that Amundsen had to give up his intention of moving the goal-posts in the middle of the game – as he had done in 1910 when he set sail for the South Pole instead of the North Pole – from an individual’s struggle to a high-tech enterprise. The reason was quite simple: ‘I cannot fly alone’, Amundsen said. He realised that. On May 18th the two planes, N24 and N25, were fuelled and equipped for 30 days, including equipment needed to get home or reach Greenland: sleds, kayaks, skis, etc., if they proved necessary. On May 21st, the meteorologists gave the green light. The six men took their seats in the planes. They took off at 17:15 hours. The destination was the North Pole, 1.200 kilometres due north. Aboard the N25 were Roald Amundsen as navigator, Riiser-Larsen as pilot, and Karl Feucht as mechanic. The crew of the N24 were: Ellsworth as navigator, Dietrichson as pilot, and Omdal as mechanic. During take-off, the N24 fuselage cracked. As Zapffe noted from the ground, ‘It was not in Dietrichson’s nature to turn round. Daring to the end, he just accepted the crack and entrusted himself to fate.’

262 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Great effort and resources were required to assemble the two Dornier-Wal planes, the N 24 and N 25, in Ny-Ă…lesund.

For eight hours all went well. Half the fuel had been spent. According to all calculations, they should be somewhere near the Pole. The N25, with RiiserLarsen at the controls, prepared for landing in order to make accurate observations. On the way down, one of the engines failed and ‘the whole situation changed’, Amundsen noted. They had to make an emergency landing, and they had to make do with the nearest open channel, which was completely surrounded by sharp pressure ridges. Down they went. Riiser-Larsen was ‘cold as ice, untouched’, Amundsen wrote with a combination of horror and respect. The N24 followed them down. Dietrichsen landed a few kilometres away from Riiser-Larsen, and with a damaged plane after the rough take-off. The men on the N25 calculated their position: 87° 44’ N and 10° 20’ W, which was about 250 kilometres from the Pole. It was not much comfort that only Peary had been closer. It now took several days to contact the N24, and although the physical distance between them was small, a reunion could not be taken for granted. The temperature was –15° C and, unfortunately, rising. That meant slush, which could be fatal, if the men wanted to move. Even without slush, it was immensely tiring to climb over pressure ridges, carry a full load, paddle over open leads, and struggle through half-melted ice. At one point Dietrichson and Omdal nearly drowned. Ellsworth demonstrated his courage by hauling them up out of the icy water. It took five days to reach their colleagues on N25, exhausted and partly snow-blind. A period of gruelling physical work and mental effort now followed, as the men attempted to pull the N25 up out of the water and over the huge pressure ridges. There was a constant danger that the ice would damage the Dornier fuselage, and force them to start walking, which would certainly lead to death. They started to build a runway on the ice, ‘an Arctic road’ as Ellsworth called it; it was made of ice and snow rather than gravel and cement, and wide enough to handle a plane with a 20-metre wingspan. They only had fragile wooden shovels, knives in sheathes, and ski poles. But the ice was constantly moving, and every day they more or less started from scratch, patching over or circumventing new leads. It was Sisyphean labour. It mercilessly drained their energy, which they had insufficient nourishment to replace. Nevertheless, Amundsen cut rations, thinking that their stay in the icy wilderness might be of long duration. Amundsen organised life in the midst of this hopelessness according to normal polar-expedition procedures. The first commandment was to observe a fixed routine. He divided the days and nights into shifts – working shifts, eating breaks, smoking breaks, rest and reveille. But they were on the absolute frontiers of life itself; they never even saw a seal. The regular routines could hardly prevent them from seeing how hopeless the situation was. Silent, stalwart Riiser-Larsen was aware of it: ‘I do not want to die here.’ The men were declining rapidly into depression, dejection, and apathy.

264 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

A hopeless situation at 87°43’N. One plane has been destroyed. The other works, but there is no runway.

It appears as if the German mechanic, Feucht, was the first to succumb to black despair, a melancholy that persevered even after they had reached safety. Feucht had experienced the worst horrors as a pilot during World War I, and certainly did not lack courage; and his breakdown caused a chain reaction of panic-like aggression. Amundsen was furious when Feucht spilt a bit of tobacco on the ice during a smoking break. He told Ellsworth that Feucht had done it to irritate the others. Ellsworth himself said that it ‘got on his nerves’ that Feucht wasted a few biscuit crumbs; and that he rejoiced when he was given more to eat than Feucht because the latter could not or would not follow the prescribed ritual, which was to catch the crumbs in one’s hand and then lick them up, so that not a single life-giving milligram would be wasted. Many years later, when Ellsworth wrote his memoirs, it irritated him exceedingly to think that Feucht, in his depressed condition, had not even noticed his comrades’ demonstrative crumb-licking. Neither could Ellsworth forget that he, too, had brought the others’ wrath down upon himself. Amundsen snapped at him one morning: ‘Why do you sigh so in your sleep, Ellsworth? You keep me awake.’ Ellsworth was speechless with

the explorers


shame. In 1925, the masculine façade of stoic calm and self-control was about to disintegrate at 87° N. At the end of May they set themselves a June 15th deadline. On that day it would be up to each individual to try and make his way out on foot and by kayak, or await a possible rescue mission. Realistically, the expedition was more or less a a lost cause. Then there was a turning point for the better. The men were tired, hungry, and so mentally exhausted that they just stood and stared at their Arctic runway, which the ice would most certainly break up the following night. Then, on June 11th, Omdal got the idea that it would be easier for them to trample a runway flat, rather than to kill themselves trying to move snow and ice around by hand. ‘After lunch we started our huge trampling project. Step by step, the track was stamped so that the soft, wet snow turned into a compact base.’ On June 15th, the day of their deadline, the runway was declared finished. The crewmen from the two planes squeezed into one, the N25. A few metres away from the plane, a crack appeared that might break up the ice at any moment. Two hundred metres further along, there was a fissure two feet wide and filled with ice and slush. The floe they were setting off from ended in a three-meter-wide lead, which could also stop all plans. On the other hand, the runway was 500 metres long, and should work. Riiser-Larsen started the engines at 10:30 a.m. The plane shook and shuddered. Roald Amundsen could not hold back a squeal of excitement and later noted in his diary: ‘It was as though the N25 understood the situation.’ They were airborne; they reached the north coast of Svalbard. A polar sea vessel passed by. The skipper, Nils Nilsen, had withdrawn to his cabin when he heard first harpooner Henrik Nilsa, ‘who invoked this power and that power because there was some sort of devilry afoot’. They spotted something indeterminable. Nilsen thought it must be an aeroplane, but an Italian one; because ‘they were so black’. Then he recognised Amundsen’s hawk nose. The N25 was transported to Horten on the Oslo Fjord; it had become a national treasure. It was included in the enormous national festivities that celebrated the miraculous homecoming of these North Pole explorers. The newspaper Tidens Tegn greeted them with the admission: ‘And if we felt personal anxiety for one of our country’s greatest sons and his young companions, men we care about, then our joy today is mixed with national pride. Once again Norway’s name and honour are being broadcast around the world.’ They had not reached the North Pole, but they had flown further north than anyone else. On the basis of visual and hydrologic observations, they could verify Nansen’s estimates from 1907, presented at the Royal Geographic Society in London, that there was no land between the North Pole and Svalbard. The

266 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

effort required to finally get the N25 airborne proved two things. Aeronautical technology was fit for use in these inhospitable regions; and the era of the classical polar virtues of muscle power and imagination was not yet over. The experts, however, were not at all impressed with Amundsen’s latest triumph. The Geographical Journal described the polar flight to 87° N as the result of courage and good mechanical support. But above all the journey was ‘a story of astonishingly good fortune’. The plane had proven unsuitable for use in ‘polar regions’, because getting the plane airborne again once it had landed was so risky. The main conclusion quarters was that ‘it gives little encouragement to Arctic explorers to repeat the adventure’. In other words, this time British geographic scientists did not consider Roald Amundsen’s expedition to be serious. Because in science, miracles don’t count.

The airship Norge

Soon after the fiasco of 1925, Dornier-Wal offered to provide a huge plane to be used in a new attempt. But two failed flights were enough. Not that Amundsen had shelved his plan to reach the North Pole by air. Even during their forced interval on the ice in 1925, Amundsen’s main sponsor, Ellsworth, and his aeronautical advisor, Riiser-Larsen, had given him the go-ahead for another try, but this time with a dirigible, instead of a plane, starting from Svalbard and landing in Alaska. After their 1925 rescue, the only question was which airship manufacturer they should choose. The choice was between two nations and two men: the talented Italian engineer Colonel Umberto Nobile (1885–1987) and the German Count Zeppelin (1838–1917). Zeppelin was the most prominent European name in the field. He had developed a large airship which became the only commercially viable form of dirigible. On the other hand, Nobile had constructed an airship which had considerable advantages in a polar context. The Zeppelins consisted of balloons lying on their sides and kept in place by a rigid aluminium cover. Nobile’s airships had aluminium shells only at the ends, and they were semi-rigid. Nobile had reached the conclusion that aluminium airships were more vulnerable to damage and accidents under low pressure, and more sensitive to strong gusts of wind, than were semi-rigid airships. The rigid airships would be destroyed in bad weather; while the semi-rigid ones would be thrown about, but would not sustain serious damage. That represented a major advantage, considering the constantly shifting weather in the polar areas. Then there was the price. An Italian airship cost two million kroner. A German Zeppelin was not available for less than ten million kroner. In real

the explorers


terms, the price of the Italian ship was even lower. Like Dornier-Wal, Nobile had both commercial and technological motives for placing his airship at Amundsen’s disposal. His first airship had crashed in the U.S.A. in 1922. His second one, the N1, had not been a success either, when Amundsen came asking to buy it. Mussolini, of course, was also pleased by Amundsen’s interest in flying an Italian airship over the North Pole and across to Alaska. Following negotiations, the price for the N1 was set at $75,000 plus a salary of $10,000 for the pilot, and an option for Italy to buy the airship back at a price of $36,000 if it returned undamaged. To cap it all off, Nobile himself, the designer of the vessel, would take part in the journey. The total cost of the airship journey, with crew, mooring masts, and hangars, would be many times that sum. But then Ellsworth’s father died in 1925, leaving Ellsworth junior as the sole heir of his vast mining fortune. During secret negotiations in Oslo, which the former Christiania was now called, it was decided that Nobile would provide half the crew. The other half would be Norwegian. The journey would take place in May 1926. During intricate negotiations involving the Norwegian Aeronautical Association, Nobile, and Mussolini, it was agreed that the Aeronautical Association would handle the administrative and financial part of the expedition if Ellsworth would supply $90,000, a sum later increased to $100,000. The remaining funds were obtained mainly through press contracts. The airship was to fly under the Norwegian flag and was to be named Norge. The agreement was signed on September 9th. The national posturing on behalf of all the signatories during the negotiations seems to have been very noticeable. During the hand-over ceremony on March 29th, 1926, the Italians demanded that Nobile’s name be part of the official expedition title: ‘for political reasons’, as the Aeronautical Association’s negotiator Rolf Thommessen said. Amundsen does not seem to have taken much interest in this detail. Ellsworth therefore agreed that the official name would be the ‘Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Transpolar Flight’. Amundsen suddenly started to make waves. He accused Ellsworth of being asleep during the final phase of the negotiations, and of giving in to the Italians’ demand. Amundsen flared up, so much so that Ellsworth took refuge in his hotel room. He was so upset with Amundsen’s outburst that he appears to have been on the brink of collapse. It is interesting to note that the personal explosions between Amundsen and Nobile, for which the Norge journey became so notorious, did not cause nearly as many problems as the outbursts of fury to which Ellsworth was subjected during preparations. Nobile limited the number of crew members to 16. In principle, there were two parties, the Norwegians and the Italians, all of whom agreed to a 50–50 national division. Further discussions became difficult because the participa-

268 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

tion of three of the men, Amundsen, Ellsworth, and Nobile, was not up for debate. Moreover, of the remaining 13 spots, one went to a Swedish meteorologist, Finn Malmberg, an expert whose nationality was not taken into account. The 12 other spots were divided between Italian and Norwegian experts, with Italians filling most of the mechanical and operating positions, and Norwegians having the navigation, telegraph, and communications jobs, including public relations. The journalist Fredrik Ramm was hired to send copy to the news syndicates, thereby securing much of the financing. Omdal, Riiser-Larsen, and Wisting were natural Norwegian candidates by virtue of their competence and experience on Amundsen’s previous expeditions. Wisting had not taken part in the 1925 flight, but that was because he had then still been icebound on the Maud. When Amundsen asked him to fill the position of helmsman on the airship Norge, he did not hesitate for a moment, but decided to join Amundsen rather than return to his family in Norway. But one man did not accompany the airship Norge in 1926, despite having been asked, and despite his love of adventure and especially of flying. That was Dietrichson. He declined because of ‘family matters’. The excuse might sound plausible, but is not credible. The real reason why Dietrichson was not part of the expedition was probably due to his professional indignation. As a professional expert, he was shocked to hear that the millionaire tourist Ellsworth had been named as ‘leader of the scientific work and navigator’. Dietrichson, with his professional pride, would not approve of that kind of amateurishness. The situation did not improve when Ellsworth took a lightning course in navigation at the Oslo Nautical Academy in the spring of 1926, getting full press coverage for his studies. Dietrichson, with his consummate aviation skills and extensive aeronautical education and experience, was offended at the thought of being placed alongside an unqualified adventurer, even though, and maybe because, Ellsworth had been called a navigator during the flight the year before. Amundsen’s response to Dietrichson’s ‘no’ was to call him stubborn. ‘It is simply unseemly that he is beginning to criticise decisions that have been taken by the Aeronautical Association. If he does, he is useless. Discipline is the one thing that matters above all else.’ This is how Amundsen summarised the traditional power structure in polar exploration. As in the case of Hjalmar Johansen during the South Pole expedition fifteen years earlier, Amundsen’s exercise of leadership was based on hierarchy, subordination, and superior rank, not primarily on knowledge and qualifications. This old natural order had been challenged by a new concept of command structure during these years, one that was based on an ability to understand technology. Muscle power had been supplanted by motor power. This was why Dietrichson and Riiser-Larsen had squelched Amundsen’s and Ellsworth’s dreams of flying the N24 and N25 to

the explorers


Alaska in 1925. And this was probably why Dietrichson rejected the offer of a new adventure in 1926, because it would require him to bow to an archaic despot with unlimited power to hire and fire at will. Dietrichson’s ‘no’ in 1926 was, deep down, a warning that the kind of manhood symbolised by Amundsen, which was a manhood based on a wielding of total power and not on competence, was on its way out. Expeditions had become technological projects that were impossible for one man to control. Authority no longer relied solely on physical and psychological skills, but more on intellectual and technological ones. The flight across the North Pole in the airship Norge was a large-scale project. It was a technical system, as technology historians would characterize the expedition. It involved technological interfacing between men and various areas of expertise: technicians, pilots, meteorologists, and not least of all the world press, which helped finance the whole thing. No expedition members were indispensable, because they could be replaced by people with similar skills. The scale of the project was so large that no single person could take it all in. The system included Nobile’s factories in Rome. There the luxury airship N1 was rebuilt. It was stripped of cabins and galleys and equipped with modern navigational and communications systems. Amundsen’s confidante RiiserLarsen and the other Norwegian crewmen were in Rome, where they were taught to master the specialised technology which was built into the airship. Oscar Wisting and the pilot Emil Horgen were trained in helmsman techniques; Birger Gottwaldt perfected his radio skills. Oskar Omdal learnt engineering, and was placed under the supervision of chief engineer Natale Cecioni, along with two other Italian engineers, an arrangement which caused no problems at all. Ellsworth and Amundsen boarded the airship when it arrived in Ny-Ålesund. They joined an expedition where everything was already prepared. All of it had been arranged by the experts when the enormous airship sailed into Kongsfjorden on May 7th, following a perfect flight across Europe under Nobile’s command. Norge was 348 feet long; its gas containers carried 672,000 cubic feet of liquid hydrogen, and it was fitted out with three German Maybach propulsion engines, with a capacity of 230 horsepower apiece. The ship required a hangar and mooring masts in Ny-Ålesund, in addition to mooring masts in Oslo and Vadsø, where the ship had made stopovers. It had landed in those cities, according to a route across Europe determined by the availability of such landing facilities. ‘If I should take my hat off to anyone,’ wrote RiiserLarsen, ‘it is the guys who built the hangar in Kings Bay during the winter of 1925–26.’ Riiser-Larsen was not a man to doff his hat to just anyone. The Norwegian Aeronautical Association had hired one of the capital’s master builders, Ferdinand Arild, to build the hangar on Svalbard in August

270 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The Polar expedition had become a technical project. Seamen and skiers were replaced by an army of technicians and ground crew. The Norge just before its departure from Ny-Ă…lesund on May 11th, 1926.

1925. Arild was an experienced contractor with one particular merit in his portfolio; he had Arctic experience. Setting to work, he employed 20 construction workers, ordered eleven tons of fittings and bolts, acquired large quantities of coarse timber from Sweden (still standing when ordered), supporting beams from Hamburg, and containers of magnesium so that pictures could be taken and developed during the dark winter months, and then sold to newspapers, of course. This was just some of the equipment that had to be ordered and transported to Svalbard before the ice set in. Everything was in place on October 22nd, 1925, and the construction work could begin. The manager of the coal company on Svalbard shook his head when he saw Arild’s workmen: ‘One does not build on Spitsbergen in the winter.’ It was a major job just to pull the power lines from the aggregate at the pithead and to the huge searchlights. It was even harder to handle frozen timber at a height of 30 meters on slippery scaffolding in the cold, dark and wind, or to level the hangar area without machinery, and on a 300-meter thick layer of earth. On January 19th, however, the outer walls of the hangar was raised to full height. On February 13th, the hall was completed; it was 110 metres long, 30 metres high, 35 metres broad; and the work had been completed without a single accident. On April 21st, Amundsen arrived with his close colleagues, Ellsworth and Zapffe. As in the previous year, Zapffe was in charge of provisions; he immediately took over as operating manager of the base, with a direct line to the boss himself, as Roald Amundsen was called. A few days later, the naval commando vessel Heimdal arrived. The government had placed the vessel at the disposal of the expedition, to use as a base. Twenty Italian special workers were on board. Then suddenly, if not entirely unexpectedly, on April 29th the old American steamer Chantier turned up in Kongsfjord with the Fokker Josephine Ford, together with pilots Richard E Byrd and Floyd Bennett. Byrd and Bennett came to Ny-Ålesund to complete what Amundsen had attempted in 1925: to fly to the North Pole. This did not come as a shock. Amundsen and Byrd had discussed the plans the previous autumn. Amundsen had put up a brave front. He had said that his goal in 1926 was to fly the airship over the North Pole and all the way to Alaska. He did not regard the Americans as rivals, at least that is what he said when they arrived at his base, and for this reason he told his colleagues to assist Byrd and Bennett if needed. At least, that is the official version of the story. But was it really like that? Amundsen’s reserve technician, Bernt Balchen (1899–1973), wrote clearly and emphatically in his autobiography that the atmosphere between the two Americans, Byrd and Ellsworth, was very cool when they met at Svalbard in 1925. ‘They are polite, of course, but there is no warmth between them.’ And of course

272 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

it irritated the Norwegian-American-Italian expedition members to be visited by people who were, at the very least, a disruptive factor, if not outright rivals. Supply officer Zapffe noted in his diary that Byrd’s arrival was met in the Norwegian camp not only with irritation but with shock. Byrd was actively opposed by the Norwegian camp. The base ship Heimdal did all it could to prevent the American ship from coming alongside the quay. Norwegian expedition members who tried to help Byrd were abused, and to a certain extent ostracised by their fellow countrymen in the little polar community. Zapffe emphasized with indignation in his diary that Balchen had asked the expedition sail-maker to help with repairs to the American plane, referring to Amundsen’s approval and the promised offer of payment as well. Balchen made a claim to Arild that were was an agreement about cooperation between the two expeditions. Amundsen brushed this aside as nonsense when Zapffe confronted him with it. Zapffe then refers to rumours in the Norwegian camp that Balchen had made a deal to go ‘to the other side’. And ‘there are rumblings in the camp about all sorts of things, but I honestly hope that no Norwegian has accepted any Judas’ money …’ to help them get their plane in the air. On May 9th at 6:00 a.m., Byrd and his pilot Bennett took off. Late the same night, they returned from the North Pole. Amundsen kissed them, accompanied by ‘the crowd’s enthusiastic hurrah’s’ and the Heimdal ship orchestra. Within 25 minutes, journalist Arnesen launched the theory that Byrd and Bennett could not have managed to fly round trip to the North Pole in the time that they claimed to have used. Bernt Balchen joined the Americans on their return to the U.S.A., after Amundsen left on Norge without his reserve technician. In the U.S.A., Balchen had a brilliant career as a pilot. During the last half of the 1940s, he contributed to the development of Norwegian aviation before returning to the United States. But he never forgot Amundsen. Thirty-two years after the Norge expedition, in 1958, Balchen wrote, in a private letter, that Byrd’s record attempt in 1926 had been ‘a hoax’. Bennett had told him so, as early as in 1928 when the two were flying together in the U.S.A. In 1971, he went public with calculations which indicated that the Josephine Ford could not have flown to the North Pole, given the time allowed and the cruising speed of a Fokker. In 1960, the Swedish polar expert Gösta Liljequist had already made calculations and reached the same conclusion.

Over the Pole in a storm

On May 11th, 1926, at 8:35 a.m., 16 aeronauts boarded the airship Norge. An hour later it floated elegantly out of the hangar. Fifty men, including the crew

the explorers


on the Heimdal and the journalists and photographers present, helped with the ropes. At 10:00 a.m. the airship headed for Cape Mitra at the approach to the Kongsfjord, escorted by Byrd’s tiny Fokker. It is ‘a wonderful sight’, telegraphed the journalist Arnesen to Aftenposten, ‘accompanied by deafening hurrahs from the over 100 spectators.’ The first part of the trip, to the North Pole, over the Arctic Ocean, and to landfall on the north coast of Alaska, was not dramatic; it bordered on boring, ‘just ice, ice, and more ice’. Horgen and Wisting were working, respectively, the side and height rudders. Riiser-Larsen made observations pertaining to drift and speed and calculated the heading. Malmgren conducted meteorological observations. Journalist Ramm wrote telegrams to the New York Times, the expedition’s most important international sponsor. Radio telegraph operators Gottwaldt and Storm-Johnsen were working at the wireless. News went out, and weather forecasts came in. Umberto Nobile wandered back and forth in the captain’s cabin, correcting the course, keeping a lookout, and giving orders. Further aft, in the airship’s three engine gondolas, Omdal worked with the Italian mechanics and riggers. Their ability to keep their balance while walking between the gondolas and inside or outside the airship, and sometimes even up on the slippery roof, was an example of first-class circus artistry. It was absolutely necessary. The expedition’s most imminent danger was icing; the steel wires and the slight hawsers that held the ship’s cover in place over the gas bags were susceptible to icing. If a piece of ice hit one of the gas containers and pierced a hole in it, they were finished; and they all knew that. ‘The situation was horrible,’ Riiser-Larsen remembered 30 years later. ‘I will never forget the bangs.’ Other dangers lurked, too. They had to wear shoes with rubber soles to avoid sparks. Gas bags stored onboard the ship were filled with hydrogen. When at one point during the flight Nobile had ascended too high, there was danger of sunshine driving the temperature up to a fatal level. Riiser-Larsen was allegedly obliged to snatch the helm out of his hands, and force the ship down. According to his own statements, Amundsen played a minor role. He ‘sits on one of the two aluminium water tanks in the captain’s cabin. He is mostly occupied with quietly staring out of the window and studying the ice conditions, which are constantly changing. His look is far-off and dream-like.’ Amundsen’s official job was to search for new land. Prime Minister Lykke had authorised him to take possession of any new land in the name of King Haakon. The likelihood of finding anything but ice-covered sea was small, and Amundsen certainly knew that as he installed himself at the water tank in Norge. Nevertheless, he declared to the press before the expeditions: ‘We are not expecting to find such a colony.’ But he cunningly added that maybe, just maybe, an isolated colony of humans might appear beyond the ice barrier. That would no doubt have been the most ‘dramatic and extraordinary discovery in the histo-

274 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

ry of mankind’. Amundsen was concerned with the grand, the unexpected, the completely incomprehensible; in short, whatever might increase the expedition’s news value and thus pry open the sponsors’ wallets. On May 12th at 1:25 a.m., in quiet weather and under a midnight sun, the Norge passed over the geographical North Pole. It descended to three hundred metres. The men threw down a Norwegian, an American, and an Italian flag, plus a lot of little Italian town pennants. Amundsen ‘looked me straight in the eye and without a word shook my hand’, Wisting later wrote. Amundsen added: ‘Nothing was said, it was not necessary.’ Only the two of them had been to both Poles. For about an hour they circled the Pole and photographed the frozen landscape. Then, at 4:30 a.m., they set off southward, this time along the 157th westerly meridian, headed directly for Point Barrow, Alaska. Fog arrived in ice-cold blasts. The crewmen were freezing. Riiser-Larsen tried to thaw some frozen sandwiches in his pocket. The wireless antenna had been turned into a 450-foot-long icicle. They lost contact with the outside world. Aftenposten subscribers could read that the airship had been spotted near Point Barrow, but had immediately disappeared. Either the expedition had been lost, or Amundsen had been acting like he did before; and was continuing on a new journey of exploration, for instance to Wrangel Island, ‘having seen how easy it had been to reach the Pole’. The New York Times, however, expressed concern. ‘No Word From Norge, Missing Two Days. May Be Adrift In Polar Storm Off Alaska. Byrd Prepares For A Search By Airplane.’ In other words: Situation normal; Amundsen had disappeared; international alarm; rescue mission being organised. And then he turned up again. The airship crew spotted land on May 13th, at 6:50 a.m. Svalbard time, 47 hours after departing Ny-Ålesund. The ship had flown more than 3,200 kilometres. Now, the nightmare began. The plan was to manoeuvre the airship from Point Barrow, just south over the Endicott Mountains, southeast towards Kotzebue Bay and the Seward Peninsula to Nome. That was not possible. The Brooks Range was enveloped in thick mist, and they were forced to follow the coastline southeast of Point Barrow. Then they lost direction at the very same time that a violent storm blew in from the northeast. The airship was hurled over to the Russian coast. ‘Like a cork, we were thrown up and down by the violent wind and sometimes the Norge drifted down the Bering Strait.’ They struggled eastwards again and sighted the small town of Teller, 88 kilometres from Nome, at 5:30 p.m. on May 14th Svalbard time. That was 72 hours after departure from Ny-Ålesund, and 5,456 kilometres away. They were hauled down by petrified inhabitants, which was a tremendous feat. Landing a motorised airship without the assistance of a well-coordinated ground crew had never before been attempted.

the explorers


This was the first flight ever from Europe to America by way of the North Pole. It was a triumph for the builder of the airship. For the man behind the enterprise, Amundsen, it was a triumph to be able to proclaim with absolute certainty that there were no land masses north of Svalbard and Alaska. Not withstanding strong theories of the absence of land in the polar basin, until then, this matter had been subject to speculation. However, from this moment on, it was a fact that Amundsen had had the honour of discovering the emptiness of the High Arctic. There was another triumph; all the expedition members were unhurt. But their solidarity was blown to pieces as soon as the journey was over. First, Amundsen and Nobile broke into an ugly, public quarrel regarding who was responsible for the good results. Then Amundsen terminated his strong friendship with Riiser-Larsen. Finally, Amundsen broke off contact with the Norwegian Aeronautical Association, which had been his greatest support. In the end, he had alienated himself from the polar pilot and aeronautical community.

Amundsen’s last journey

After the 1926 Norge flight, Amundsen announced that he was too old to make any more polar journeys. He said solemnly that he would leave the arena to the younger generation. He added chivalrously that he would always be ready to help if needed. But he had turned fifty, and it was showing. In March 1928, he had a tumour removed from one of his thighs and in April he underwent radium treatment. That ‘killed all the matter’, he wrote manfully to his sister-in-law. In addition to his physical worries, some observers added that his mental condition was not entirely healthy either. His break with the Norwegian Aeronautical Association was typical. The Association’s sober-minded accountant, the banker Per Skjoldborg, had to travel out to Svartskog, Amundsen’s home outside Oslo, to explain to him his financial obligations. ‘He was angry with God and humanity at one moment, and the next he was all smiles. His mood changed more often than the weather. I do not have him pegged.’ What was worse, he irritated his international supporters. In his angry autobiography, he calls the community of British polar explorers ‘bad losers’. The Norwegian ambassador in London had to ask former ambasssador Nansen for diplomatic assistance. Nansen wrote in a supposedly private letter to the vice president of the Royal Geographical Society that Amundsen ‘has lost his balance and is no longer entirely responsible for his actions’. It is difficult to say whether Nansen was right in his layman’s diagnosis, or whether Amundsen was just bad-tempered and selfishly looking after his own reputation.

276 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

When, however, Amundsen’s fury shifted from Nobile to the Aeronautical Association’s Rolf Thommessen, the latter wrote in a legal document relating to a lawsuit: that Nobile’s failure to join Amundsen as co-author of the official 1926 expedition book ‘shows quite clearly that the clash was a battle of honour, a conflict which no contract could prevent’. Probably that diagnosis cut to the core of the conflicts that characterised Amundsen’s relations to his surroundings during his last years. Possibly his concern with his honour even decided his last leap to fame and – almost – immortality. The last chapter of the Amundsen saga started with the arrival of Australian Hubert Wilkins and American Carl Ben Eielson in Oslo during May of 1928, after their record flight from Alaska to Spitsbergen. As they passed through the Norwegian capital, they were cheered at a grand luncheon hosted by the Norwegian aeronautical community. During this lunch, Minister of Defense Anderssen-Rysst telephoned and asked for a meeting. Nobile had disappeared in his airship, probably somewhere over Norwegian territory. He was back in Svalbard that spring to undertake an Italian airship expedition to the North Pole in an airship that was now called the Italia. On behalf of his government, Italian Minister Count Senni had already requested Norwegian assistance. This is when Amundsen made his famous response: ‘right away’. That evening, May 26th, Amundsen, Otto Sverdrup, Gunnar Isachsen, and Riiser-Larsen met with the Minister of Defence. Riiser-Larsen was ordered to work out a rescue plan. He recommended that the Italians get hold of two Dornier-Wal seaplanes. Amundsen could board and take command of one of them when it made a stopover in Norway. One of the Navy’s Hansa Branderburger reconnaissance planes must be sent up north to pilot rescue boats as far into the ice as possible. As a safety measure, it was determined that a request should be made for the Russian icebreaker the Krassin to be put at the disposal of Otto Sverdrup, who had previous experience with a Russian rescue mission. The government agreed to the plan. The Navy ordered Finn Lützow-Holm and mechanic Svein Myhre to head north on May 27th. Of course, the condition was that the Dornier-Wals’ would follow. If not, there was a major possibility, an ‘ominously big’ possibility, that Lützow-Holm’s rescue mission would end in a tragedy, if he and Myhre or one of them were to suffer a minor or major accident during the solo flight in the deserted polar regions. The Dornier-Wal planes never materialised. The Italian Government rejected the Norwegian rescue plan; they would not agree to Amundsen taking command. Mussolini did not want an Italian polar expedition to be saved by a Norwegian, at least not by Amundsen. Riiser-Larsen was probably correct when he wrote in his memoirs that ‘Mussolini prefers a glorious death to a miserable homecoming’. However, the Daily Telegraph wrote: ‘The entire Norwegian press agrees that it is the duty of Norway to continue to look for

the explorers


the Italians, even if the Italian government refuses to accept Norwegian assistance.’ As usual, the world press followed the story with hawk-eyes. Norway was just as eager to get on with the job as Italy was to avoid it. On all sides, including Amundsen’s, it certainly first and foremost was a question of honour – of masculine honour. On May 30th, the government decided to send Riiser-Larsen up north along with his mechanic, Jarl Bastøe, in order to accompany Lützow-Holm. It was about time. When Riiser-Larsen arrived in his plane in Ny-Ålesund on June 7th, Lützow-Holm was missing. ‘I asked the District Governor not to inform the government, as a telegram would leak out and cause grief to the families of Lützow-Holm and Myhre’, Riiser-Larsen reported rather coolly a few days later. At that point he could afford to be tough. Lützow-Holm had run out of petrol. It was nothing unusual, but nevertheless particularly dangerous at 80° N. In the meantime, Amundsen was twiddling his thumbs and watching his former colleagues taking part in a rescue mission which in time grew into a world spectacle. Peter Wessel Zapffe wrote in 1957: ‘A tide of journalists and photographers surged northwards from the large metropolis where the printing pressed waited like insatiable monsters of steel, hissing with impatience.’ Amundsen felt betrayed by the Norwegian government; by Riiser-Larsen, who had gone to Svalbard to help his colleague Lützow-Holm; and lastly, and what probably hurt most, by Nansen. According to press reports, Nansen was also busying himself with rescue plans right in the middle of the international media storm. The end result was yet another competition, a free-for-all to come to Nobile’s rescue, whether Mussolini wanted it or not. Amundsen contacted Leif Dietrichson. Dietrichson agreed to his plan to put together an aeroplane expedition to find Nobile. Ellsworth had no part in it this time, which might have swayed Dietrichson, although it would mean money problems. That bit took some time, though it was solved in about the same manner as when Ellsworth had turned up, or rather telephoned him in New York in 1925. The manager of the Norwegian-French Chamber of Commerce in Paris, Fredrik Peterson, offered money for a plane. Minister Wedel Jarlsberg established contact with the appropriate French authorities, and a few days later the seaplane the Latham 47 landed in Bergen with a French crew. Amundsen and Dietrichson climbed aboard. At 4 p.m. on June 18th, they took off from Tromsø, set a course south to Malangen, and from there travelled northwest out over the Arctic at Hekking. About 60 nautical miles west of the coast of Troms County, the plane was observed by fishermen, headed north-northwest. At 6:45 p.m., Ingøy Radio intercepted Amundsen’s voice, asking for information about ice conditions on Bjørnøya. At 7:25 p.m., the plane was called by Bjørnøya Radio, but contact was not established. On June 20th, journalist Odd Arnesen dispatched a telegram

278 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The poster for Roald Amundsen’s memorial fund. The purpose of the fund was to support projects that were related to Amundsen’s lifelong work, including Arctic and Antarctic research.

saying that people at the rescue mission headquarters in Ny-Ålesund were getting worried, ‘but we who know Amundsen and his ways, and hope and believe that he has a surprise for us all, and that in one of the next few days there will be a solution to the mystery’. This time, however, there was no solution, no mystery. No one ever heard another word from the Latham.


One July day in 1907, the Norwegian geologist Adolf Hoel (1879–1964) stood on the deck of the French yacht Princesse Alice while it made its way up Kongsfjordrenna (the Kongsfjord shelf trench) on the northwest coast of Spitsbergen. He described his first glimpse of Svalbard in his field diary entry for July 23: ‘Finally spotted land 7.30. It was Vogelhoek and Cape Mitra. Only the top of the latter could be seen jutting out over the foggy sea. We finally anchored at 10 just beyond the tip of the headland. Wonderful evening with midnight sun for the first time. Beautiful drift ice spotted.’ Hoel’s first sighting of land became a reminder that this was not Norwegian territory. Vogelhoek, the northern tip of the island, Prince Karl’s Forland, was named by the Dutchman Barentsz in 1596, and Cape Mitra was christened by the Englishman Scoresby in 1818. This area of Svalbard hardly bore a place name that suggested Norwegians had ever set foot there. However, when the FrenchNorwegian expedition in which Hoel participated completed its map-making, which had been conducted during two short summer months in 1906 and 1907, the area between Forland Sound in the south, Magdalene Fjord in the north and Liefde Fjord in the northeast had acquired 86 new place names. Famous scientists, expeditionists, and members of their families had got places named after them. Of the 86 persons, 49 were Norwegian. Adolf Hoel’s name was given to both a peninsula and a mountain, while the leader of the Norwegians on the expedition, Gunnar Isachsen generously provided his own family name to designate the region generally. The Norwegianization of Spitsbergen had definitely begun.

Playing for big stakes: Spitsbergen

The research and commercial activity in the Scandinavian portion of the Arctic increased appreciably in the last decades of the 19th century and up until the

the conquerors


1920s. Not unexpectedly, the idea arose during this period to bring the largest group of the as yet unclaimed Arctic islands, Spitsbergen, under Norwegian or Swedish control. After the turn of the century, when the extraction of its considerable coal resources got underway, Spitsbergen became the focus of more intense economic interest. The increasing economic activity led to many conflicts of interest, which made it timely to reach a settlement regarding the islands’ legal status and sovereignty. For several decades Norwegians had been involved in much of the commercial activity on the archipelago, from fishing to tourism; but Norway’s scientific achievements had been modest, especially compared with those of Sweden. Then, rather suddenly from 1906 onward, Norwegian scientists became interested in mapping Spitsbergen. At the same time, Norway’s Spitsbergen policies changed direction. Captain Gunnar Isachsen (1868–1939) had been the topographer on the second Fram expedition (1898–1902) and done some impressive map-making. From 1903 to 1905 he served in the French Army. Afterwards he wanted to resume his mapping of uncharted Arctic regions, and chose to focus on Spitsbergen. Believing that his chances of obtaining Norwegian financing were minimal, he turned to Prince Albert I of Monaco, who for years had paid for supplies to research expeditions in the Mediterranean and Atlantic, in the latter case leading the expedition himself. Political events linked to the dispute over the union with Sweden in the spring and summer of 1905 foiled his plans. However, Isachsen was offered the chance to lead a Norwegian unit of the prince’s expedition to Spitsbergen in the summer of 1906. After completing the expedition’s first summer of work and returning to Norway, the team topographer, Arve Staxrud (1881–1933), published a lengthy article in Aftenposten calling for Norwegian occupation of Spitsbergen. This would help protect wildlife and settle the archipelago’s legal status. Staxrud was particularly concerned about the merciless hunting of the island’s distinctive breed of reindeer. Isachsen was preoccupied with Spitsbergen’s historic ties to Norway, and he supported the historians who believed that Norwegians Icelanders had been there first. In 1907, Norway initiated its political strategy by contacting other interested nations, in an attempt to establish an international treaty regarding Spitsbergen. In the summer of 1907, Isachsen concluded his collaboration with Prince Albert involving a new Spitsbergen expedition. In 1908, the geologists Adolf Hoel and Gunnar Holmsen (1880–1976) completed a smaller expedition, focusing on both science and economics which was typical of the times. In addition to performing university-funded geological mapping, Hoel was also to secure, with an eye to commercial exploitation, a coalfield that he had discovered the year before at Heerfjellet in Grønfjorden. Botanist Hanna Marie

282 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Dieset (Resvoll-Holmsen) (1873–1943), who had been on Isachsen’s 1907 expedition, pursued independent fieldwork at Svalbard that summer, but collaborated with Holmsen and Hoel on transportation and provisions. While Hoel and Holmsen explored the wilds of Spitsbergen in the spirit of entrepreneurial geology, Isachsen spent his time arranging funding for a larger expedition during the 1909–10 season. Even though it was not explicitly stated, the latter expedition may justifiably be viewed as an attempt to enter into competition with massive Swedish research efforts. Isachsen did not hide the fact that Norway’s scientific work in the region was exceedingly modest compared with Sweden’s. A more ambitious program of Norwegian research would weaken Swedish arguments that its scientific record of long-term polar research on the archipelago gave the country a unique position on the islands. In Isachsen’s view, the economic situation also called for a significant upgrading of research efforts. Norwegian commercial interests on Spitsbergen included whaling, fishing, hunting, sealing, tourism, and coal mining. Developing adequate charts and topographic and geological maps for land and sea would facilitate more efficient exploitation of natural resources. These factors were also emphasised most by the Ministry and in the budget committee. The ongoing discussion about Spitsbergen’s political status was only mentioned in passing when the allocation of 25,000 kroner was unanimously approved. In addition, the naval vessel Farm was placed at the expedition’s disposal in both 1909 and 1910. This pattern repeated itself again and again afterwards, until Spitsbergen was brought under Norwegian sovereignty in the 1920s. Generally speaking, appropriations for research expeditions to Spitsbergen were approved without extensive discussion. But at the same time, it was important for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to tread carefully. For example, in the spring of 1910, the Ministry was intent on acquiring the fields in Bellsund for Norwegian subjects. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, plans were circulated for ‘secret disbursements’ in support of Norwegian annexation of coalfields, partly to keep them from falling within largely Swedish control. At the same time, the Ministry was careful to emphasise that the Norwegian state could not occupy the fields; nor could state-supported research expeditions. The Foreign Ministry standpoint can be explained. The government did not want to provoke any of the participants in the 1910 Spitsbergen conference in Christiania, which took place a few weeks after the Farm and Isachsen’s expedition set out for Spitsbergen. This anxiety about creating a provocation also led the Prime Minister to disagree openly with the historian Julius Fredrik Macody Lund. During the Spitsbergen conference, Macody Lund had published an article maintaining that Spitsbergen was an old, Norwegian territory, and that the authorities should not abandon this position during negotiations. On behalf

the conquerors


Norwegian cartographers on Forlandssletta, in Northwest Spitsbergen, in 1909. From left to right: J. Laurantzon, Gunnar Isachsen and Hjalmar Johansen.

of the top people in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Fridtjof Nansen tried to explain that Lund’s views did not reflect those of the Norwegian government, but he did not help matters by admitting that he himself agreed with Lund.

Hoel takes charge

The 1910 expedition would mark Isachsen’s last act as a Spitsbergen researcher. His leading role in Norwegian exploration of the archipelago passed to Adolf Hoel. As the son of a railway man who came to Christiania in the 1890s, he graduated from the gymnasium in 1897, and began pursuing an academic career. His career culminated in his wartime term as president of the country’s only university. Though it may sound like a successful career, in the end it was not; as Hoel was ultimately convicted of treason. In 1911, Hoel and Staxrud applied for funds for a two-year expedition to complete work they had begun during Isachsen’s expeditions. The application focused particularly on exploring the volcanic regions which Hoel had previously discovered and cataloguing the rich coalfields in Isfjord. Appended to the application were recommendations from the Norwegian Society of Surveyors, the Norwegian Geographical Society, and professors Nansen, Helland, and Kiær. Hoel and Staxrud requested 20,000 kroner, or 15,000 for 1911 and 1912. Without any debate, the Norwegian Parliament granted 15,000 kroner. The expedition, however, was not particularly successful. The problems began in Tromsø. The master of the ship that was supposed to take them to Spitsbergen was hoisted on board before departure, ‘drunk as a skunk’. Just north of Bear Island, they encountered ice and were forced westward. To top it all off, a fire broke out in the hold. ‘A hole was made in the deck and water poured down.’ The captain stood on the bridge and kept screaming, ‘Pour the water down (to the hold)! Pour the water down!’ The problems continued in Spitsbergen. Ice, lice, fog, and snow plagued the expedition leader all summer, and Hoel sometimes felt both ‘spiritually and physically ill’ as a result of all the waiting on board. ‘What a life! What an existence!’ Fortunately, they could comfort themselves and one another with a little nightcap before bedtime: ‘First we drank a toddy in a miserable mood.’ Owing to ice and weather conditions, the fieldwork did not provide a solid enough foundation for the topographical, hydrographical, and geological maps the government had expected in 1911. Therefore, additional appropriations were requested in 1912. For budgetary reasons, the Ministry advised rejection, but the budget committee recommended approval after Hoel and Staxrud wrote letters directly to the Parliament. In the application, emphasis was placed on the mapping of coalfields and the drawing up of charts for the west coast

the conquerors


and especially Forland Sound. There was also work to be done on exploration of the volcanoes and hot springs at Bockfjorden. During the Parliamentary debate, the expedition was described as focusing on the mapping of an area ‘of great interest to Norway’, both economically and politically. Nor did it harm the explorers’ case that news of Amundsen’s conquest of the South Pole came on March 8th, while their application was being considered by Parliament committees. Parliament representatives rose to their feet in honour of Amundsen’s, when the news of his feat was announced. National enthusiasm about polar exploration had hardly subsided when Parliament voted later that month (with only three members opposed) to provide 10,000 kroner for the 1912 Spitsbergen expedition. However, it was noted that this would be its final contribution to the effort. Interpreting these signals from Parliament as a challenge, Hoel and Staxrud put together a ‘Plan for a Ten-Year Norwegian Expedition to Spitsbergen’, which they sent first to the Foreign Ministry and then attached to the application for state support for 1913. The plan emphasised that even though Norway had ‘without comparison’ the most compelling interests in Spitsbergen, Norway was sadly lacking in having acquired ‘familiarity with the area’. The plan listed several hydrographical, topographical, and geological explorations that remained to be conducted. Throughout the entire ten-year plan, research projects were closely linked with the economic potential which these areas represented, from coal mining to tourism. What was paramount was to secure resources ‘for Norwegian capital’. Hoel received funding for 1913, but the government would not commit itself to a program covering several years. In 1914, he came up with an idea for a three-year project, which was evaluated by professors Brøgger, Mohn, and Kiær prior to its being proposed to Parliament. The professors wrote that the project would be of great importance to Norway, both scientifically and practically. They wrote that the tasks proposed ‘were intimately linked to Norwegian interests and ought to be taken on by Norwegians’. The Parliamentary Budget Committee accepted this argument, affirming that Spitsbergen research deserved the ‘greatest possible interest on the part of the institutions of government’. The committee assumed, nonetheless, that this would be Parliament’s last such appropriation. No scientific expedition to Spitsbergen was conducted in 1915. Hoel did pay a visit there in connection with the Norwegian attempt to gain control of American coalfields. The 1916 expedition was made without state support. During these years, Hoel received state funds solely for the purpose of developing and editing his material and publishing. Not until 1917, in response to a proposed five-year research plan, did he make another funding breakthrough. The aim of this five-year plan was nearly identical to that of the 1913 ten-year

286 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

plan: simply to map resources and secure them for Norway. Hoel drew explicit connections between Norwegian political interests and the expeditions, which would ‘strengthen Norway’s interests on Spitsbergen from an international perspective. [...] We must gradually bring the country under Norwegian administration, and [...] introduce a Norwegian police force and justice system, and so forth. Our expeditions are part of this kind of Norwegianisation of Spitsbergen.’ Justifiably, Hoel did not devote a great deal of time and ink to explaining to politicians the purely scientific benefits that this work could yield. For politicians, Norwegian research activity was more important than volumes of research reports. During this period, government motives for funding Spitsbergen expeditions show a clear correlation between the degree of government focus on the sovereignty issue and the scale of financial support for expeditions (see figure 2). There was significant state involvement in 1909 and 1910; but not until 1918 did the state become the major funding source. Appropriations rose significantly starting in 1920, and remained at high levels until Norway formally assumed administration of Svalbard in August 1925.

Figure 2: Overview of state appropriations, lottery funds, and contributions from private sponsors and foundations. In money of the day. Expeditions to Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, and Eastern

Allocation in kroner

Greenland from 1906 to 1932.

Norwegian state appropriations Lottery funds Contributions from private sponsors and foundations


Source: The National Archive in Tromsø.

the conquerors


The final play for Spitsbergen

From 1910 to 1914, three international conferences were held for the purpose of agreeing to an international administration and judiciary policy for Spitsbergen. As far as sovereignty was concerned, it was treated as a no-man’sland (terra nullius). Norway proposed two law-enforcement alternatives; either Norway would take upon itself this responsibility, or a system of joint control by interested powers would be established. Sweden proposed joint control by Russia, Sweden, and Norway, which the U.S.A. would accept on the condition that other nations were granted strong veto powers. Germany proposed control by all interested parties. However, negotiators failed to reach an agreement before the outbreak of World War I. World War I (1914–18) put the Spitsbergen question in a new light. Activities on the archipelago changed during the war. Since 1910, Norway had superseded Sweden in her leading role in scientific activity on Spitsbergen. During the war, Norwegian companies took over most of the archipelago’s coal production. Norwegian hunters and whalers had also assumed a totally dominant role. In Norway’s case, the archipelago’s economic significance grew, especially for Northern Norway. In the autumn of 1918, newspapers in Northern Norway campaigned for Norwegian sovereignty over Spitsbergen. The peace settlement brought with it a number of territorial changes, in northern Europe as elsewhere. It also offered the possibility of resolving the Spitsbergen question once and for all. Two of the major interested parties, Russia and Germany, were no longer in the running. Furthermore, Norway’s wartime loss of sailors and ships had won it a degree of sympathy that could be exploited in reasoning that Norway should assume sovereignty over Spitsbergen. The day after the guns had been silenced on the western front, Foreign Minister Ihlen met with Norwegian ship-owners to discuss what demands Norway should make at the coming peace conference, especially with regard to compensation for the Norwegian tonnage lost during the war. The Spitsbergen question was a key topic of discussion, which led Norway to speak openly about its intent during the next several months. The Norwegian delegate in Paris, Fredrik Wedel Jarlsberg, had a mandate; Norway wanted to assume responsibility for Spitsbergen. Norway was no longer satisfied with administering and maintaining law and order on behalf of the international community. Norway demanded full control. The unmasking of Norway in 1918–19 was the natural outcome of a process that had been going on ever since the 1890s; but it would take on a more nationalistic quality between the two World Wars. During this period, Norway had strengthened its position and presence in the Arctic, Svalbard included. Nationalistic self-assertion was a key motive for increasing political interest in

288 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

the Arctic. Just as Northern Norway was to be modernised, Norwegianised, and consolidated in Norwegian hands, so too were the territorial waters and new land areas in the Arctic to be secured for the nation, one way or another. The entire territory was to be opened up and utilized by Norwegian citizens. The Norwegian government asked Gunnar Isachsen to travel to Paris, where final negotiations regarding Spitsbergen were in progress. Along with other scientists, he would assist Wedel Jarlsberg in documenting Norwegian business activity and scientific work on Spitsbergen. The result of the Paris negotiations was the Svalbard Treaty, which was signed in Paris on February 9th, 1920. It granted Norway sovereignty over the archipelago, with certain limitations on economic activity, taxation, and military activity. However, five whole years elapsed before Norway could formally assume responsibility for Spitsbergen. First, the treaty had to be approved by Parliament, and then regulations for mining had to be developed. Additionally, the approval of Germany and Russia had to be secured. Norwegian political ambitions in the far north seem to have expanded proportionally with economic and scientific activity. What role did science play in this process? In the contest to win Svalbard, Norwegian authorities deliberately used research results and research activity as justification that Spitsbergen was Norwegian. Also, Spitsbergen researchers worked systematically towards a Norwegian conquest of the archipelago, economic and cultural at first, but ultimately political. They operated both independently and in cooperation with the government. For Adolf Hoel personally, the years from 1919 to 1925 were the ‘seven good years’ for the exploration of Spitsbergen. In 1919, Parliament granted him a personal lectureship in geology with responsibility for the scientific development of material collected from Spitsbergen. During the three seasons from 1923 through 1925, Hoel led the largest and most costly Spitsbergen expeditions to date. Again, the naval vessel Farm, with a crew of 30, was placed at Hoel’s disposal. Additionally, he had between 30 and 60 scientists and their assistants working for him during these three years. It cost the treasury between 260,000 and 360,000 kroner per annum. This was no small sum, and it represented approximately one-tenth of the entire university budget for those years. Then, suddenly, it all stopped. No major state-funded expeditions were equipped in either 1926 or 1927, and only a few individual researchers did a little field work. Hoel had hardly anticipated this development quite the contrary. As did many others, Hoel doubtlessly felt that he and his scientific expeditions had played a significant role in making possible the ceremony at Longyearbyen on August 14th, 1925, at which cabinet minister Paal Berg could declare Svalbard a part of Norway. Besides, Hoel had great plans for Norwegian contributions in the ‘polar regions’.

the conquerors


Expeditions and actions to secure Norwegian interests in the polar regions called for painstaking planning. Adolf Hoel in his office in 1924, where the annexation sign from Spitsbergen adorns the wall.

Norwegian explorations of Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean

Hoel had plans for a permanent institution for the exploration and study of Svalbard and for a Svalbard Council. It would cost the state about 60,000 kroner, plus expenses for field expeditions. With Svalbard subject to Norway, ‘the obligation to do further exploratory work in the area’ could not be shirked. Bjørn Helland-Hansen of the Geophysical Institute in Bergen gave Hoel’s plans his full support. But it would take more time to convince the authorities. Chairman of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Carl Joachim Hambro, was not the only one who wanted to think twice and get an overview of Norwegian contributions as well as its stakes in the Arctic, before making new financial commitments. Hoel did not adjust his ambitions to the government’s hesitancy; on the contrary. Around the end of 1926 and beginning of 1927, he presented a plan for a polar research institute that would be responsible for the Arctic: The Norwegian Institute for the Exploration of Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean (NSIU) and a corresponding council, the Norwegian Council for Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean (NSIR). He later proposed that the areas of responsibility for the two institutions should also include the Antarctic. Hoel had utilized his time summarize the status of the scientific work that had already been done. It had in fact been quite extensive. On the 21 expeditions that took place from 1906 to 1926, most of the participants had been geologists (58), hydrographical engineers (29) and topographers (30); but botanists and zoologists had also participated. Moreover, many others had contributed to science, based on the material gathered. However, after Hoel became the driving force for Spitsbergen expeditions from 1911 and onward, little effort was placed on publication of the results of the scientific work. While the findings of Isachsen’s expeditions were published in beautifully bound volumes, there was no systematic publication of the findings of post-1910 expeditions, until 1922. Scientific efforts had primarily concentrated on investigating Svalbard’s economic potential, not on conducting basic research. For example, in the plan he sent to the authorities in February 1927, Hoel had omitted one of his own special interests, glacier measurements. The focus remained on useful items, like coal and minerals. Hoel had always emphasised the political aspects of Norway’s Arctic research, but not until the establishment of NSIU did he present a carefully prepared polar geopolitical and research policy program. This politicisation was an attempt on Hoel’s part to mobilise all the country’s efforts, including those of scientists, in a struggle for Norway’s Arctic interests. Norway’s position as a polar nation was in fact challenged by many others during the 1920s. In 1921, the Soviet Union had expanded its fishing limits to 120 km and excluded Norwegians from the fishing grounds in the White Sea; and that same

the conquerors


year, Denmark expanded its sovereignty to include all of Greenland. In 1926, the Soviet Union demanded all of the territory in the triangle between the North Pole and the country’s easternmost and westernmost points on the continent, applying the so-called ‘sector principle’. This sector included Franz Josef Land, where Norwegians had long been engaged in polar hunting and fishing. The year before, Canada had applied the sector principle to its own part of the Arctic. This territorial expansion by the other ‘polar nations’ was deliberately exploited in the debate that called for a Norwegian polar institute. The Russians in the east and the Danes in the west were trying to squeeze us out, according to Hoel. Norwegian claims to the ‘polar regions’ were justified historically, but Norwegian commercial and research activity that had begun at the end of the 19th century was viewed as even more important. Hoel seemed to know exactly what role science could play in this context: ‘Almost invariably, science or science-based exploration precede state annexation of new land areas, be it political or economic sovereignty.’ Scientific activity formed the basis for sovereignty claims or for ‘exploitation of the country or the people’. And after new territories were conquered, ‘great effort is always placed in scientific exploration of this land area.’ It was also the case that those countries with the most knowledge of an area always fared the best in any conflicts of interest and subsequent negotiations. To illustrate this close connection between science and politics in the polar areas, Hoel referred to examples of English occupation in Antarctica. The basis for these occupations relied on prior English expeditions and discoveries. He also pointed out how the Danish intentionally used their scientific work in Greenland as support for Danish sovereignty claims. Hoel got what he wanted – almost. In the summer of 1927, Parliament granted 250,000 kroner for Svalbard research. However, the formal decision to establish a new institution and a corresponding Svalbard Council for the period up through 1932 was only made on March 7th, 1928. Yet, the cheers in Parliament were not as unrestrained as they had been prior to 1925, even though the resolution establishing the Norwegian Institute for the Exploration of Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean (NSIU) and the Norwegian Council for Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean (NSIR) were passed unanimously. Both the Norwegian Institute for the Exploration of Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean and the Norwegian Council for Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean would be under the auspices of the Ministry of Commerce, which would make further decisions about their organisation and spheres of activity and would have accounting authority and control functions. The NSIR would be an advisory body reporting on Arctic matters to the Norwegian government. The NSIU would administer funds placed at its disposal, map, and conduct practical and scientific explorations of Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean, with the exception of meteorological observations and exploration of fisheries. Additionally, it

292 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

would publish Skrifter om Svalbard og Ishavet (Records of Svalbard and the Arctic), express opinions about, and suggest, geographical names for the region, and advise foreign expeditions. It can be argued reasonably that founding the new institution only involved a change of names. What was officially known before 1927 as The Norwegian Government-Supported Spitsbergen Expeditions, became The Norwegian Institute for the Exploration of Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean. The institution was popularly called the Svalbard Office both before and after 1927. The number of employees did not change, nor was the office moved. Professional staff remained in place; and of course, Hoel was the obvious director. At the same time, however, it is clear that the NSIU took a new view on the question of which areas of the Arctic now required the attention of Norwegian researchers. This made the institution controversial from the outset.

Franz Josef Land

As early as September 1928, the NSIU presented a plan and budgeted for scientific expeditions to Svalbard, Greenland, and Franz Josef Land in the summer of 1929. At first, the plan was apparently well received in the corridors of power. Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Johan Ludwig Mowinckel wanted to ensure that ‘the plan under consideration (was) put into effect, in so far as funds can be obtained for it,’ and he emphasised the significance and principles involved. But as usual, Hoel’s ambitious plans caused financial headaches in the ministries. Even worse, his lobbying methods eventually proved irritating, and strained his relationship with several key cabinet members. This was especially true of Liberal-Left Party politicians, who held power during three election periods, between 1924 and 1935. NSIU’s expanded field of interest was debated by the Parliament in March of 1929. During the debate, it became clear that issues beyond financial questions were at stake. These were burning issues regarding Norway’s domestic and foreign policy. Mowinckel was extremely annoyed by ‘the polar activists’, within and outside Parliament. He perceived deliberate agitation aimed at discrediting government efforts, in order to further ‘our Arctic interests’. Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, C.J. Hambro, believed that Norway had every reason to protest ‘as energetically as humanly possible’ against the ‘Arctic imperialism’ our neighbouring countries exhibited. At the same time, he could not help welcoming the activists as latecomers. A few years before that, he had wasted his own breath upholding Norwegian interests in the ‘polar regions’. Now he thought it appropriate to warn the newly converted: ‘Let’s not foster a mood that forces us to lose sight of land … .’

the conquerors


It was not without reason that both Hambro and Mowinckel called for a little sobriety. Barely a month after the debate in Parliament, Mowinckel had taken Hoel to task for publicly criticizing the government’s failure to uphold Norway’s polar interests. But this did not put a damper on Hoel’s efforts to realise expedition plans for the summer of 1929. He was still impatient. Even if he had to curb his tongue in public, he still believed that the government’s prudent line damaged Norway’s interests. Something had to be done. Above all, there was an urgent need to do something in the east. The Soviet Union’s proclamation of the sector principle on April 15th, 1926, led to hectic activity in the Foreign Ministry, which then requested that the Ministry of Commerce inquire ‘as soon as possible’ into how Norwegian fishing and whaling interests would be affected by these territorial claims. The Ministry turned this task over to the NSIU when that institute was founded in 1928. Adolf Hoel immersed himself in the work. ‘At once, I took steps to try to protect our interests.’ By September, plans for Franz Josef Land were ready. The reason was obvious. Place obstacles in the path of the Russians, who planned to establish a geophysical station there. A move like that with Russian scientific mapping of the area, would bring the archipelago ‘under Russian sovereignty’, regardless of whether the sector principle was recognised. This had to be prevented at any cost, because Norway would stand to lose extremely important fishing and hunting grounds. This might be avoided by sending a scientific expedition there. Hoel asked one of his employees, Gunnar Horn, to prepare a historical account that would demonstrate that the country was a Norwegian sphere of interest. Horn left no doubt as to what the Norwegian policy had to be. Norway was the only country which had had commercial interests there. If Norway did not assert its rights, the fishing and hunting grounds would be lost forever. Norway had to make ‘an absolute demand that Franz Josef Land continued to be regarded as a no-man’s-land; or should the archipelago be placed under any country’s sovereignty, then it should be Norway’s.’ Norway should assert its rights in Franz Josef Land by sending a scientific expedition ‘over there’. In accordance with the September 1928 plan, the expedition would consist of a topographer, a geologist, a hydrographer, and a botanist. Hoel worked closely with polar scientists in Ålesund and Tromsø. The Ålesund Shippers’ Association’s Sealers’ Group proposed sending a combined scientific expedition and sealing expedition. They were to establish sealing stations and build a radio transmission station. At the time, funding appeared difficult to obtain. The Ministry therefore chose to prioritise Svalbard, followed by Greenland, in its report to Parliament. The expedition to Franz Josef Land was omitted, but Hoel did not take ‘no’

294 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

for an answer. He worked his contacts in Parliament, wrote his memos, and revised his plans. The upshot of Parliamentary deliberations was that permission was granted to spend the appropriation on an expedition to Franz Josef Land, if the NSIU considered it useful. Sealing and science were not enough. Hoel also wanted the planned 1929 expedition to undertake an occupation on behalf of Norway, within the area Russia had proclaimed as its own sector. He believed that Victoria Island was suited to this kind of demonstration of Norway’s Arctic interests. According to Hoel, the island, situated between Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, had been discovered and named by Norwegians. It was within the Russian sector, but Russia had not made a specific demand for the island, as it had with Franz Josef Land. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was opposed to the kind of officially sanctioned occupation that Hoel supported, but had nothing against a private occupation. The task of conducting that operation was given to the master of the Directorate of Fisheries vessel, which was exploring fisheries in those waters that summer. All the planning and efforts, however, were in vain. Unyielding weather conditions were more difficult to surmount than meagre state funding and obstinate working partners. Difficult ice conditions prevented Norwegian expeditions from reaching the coast. The NSIU expedition that was supposed to travel to Franz Josef Land had to be satisfied with a few seals and 29 polar bears, including seven live cubs. Things went better for the Russians. Thanks to a modern icebreaker, they managed to force their way through the ice and reach land. They built a geophysical station and a radio station. As in the case of the Russian achievements during the expeditions to rescue Nobile and his men the previous year, this served as a warning to Norway that the country faced a challenge to its logistics capabilities and its ability to promote its Arctic interests. The situation improved somewhat for the NSIU in 1930. The seal-hunting vessel M/S Bratvaag from Ålesund managed to moor both at Victoria Island and Franz Josef Land. Like the expedition the year before, this one combined sealing with science: geology, botany, and zoology were all represented. Victoria Island was then occupied in the name of the owner and master of the Bratvaag. This expedition was Norway’s last attempt to get a foothold on Franz Josef Land, despite Hoel’s and the NSIU’s efforts to obtain financing for an expedition the following year. Focus had shifted westward, toward the Danes on Greenland, as the temperature rose several degrees, in the debate on Norwegian Arctic policy. Once again, the NSIU and Adolf Hoel were in the middle of the action.

the conquerors



Early on the afternoon of June 26th, 1931, Carl Marstrander, the Norwegian professor and expert in Celtic language and culture, dictated the following telegram from the Gothenburg telegraph office. ‘The gospel is proclaimed across the city of Oslo. Pastor Dahl.’ This rather cryptic message was directed at a small circle of Greenland activists in Oslo who planned a private occupation of eastern Greenland. Marstrander had gone to Gothenburg to send a telegram to Hallvard Devold, head of a Norwegian hunting expedition in Greenland, with orders to occupy. Even though the telegram was in code, he did not take a chance, sending it from Oslo. And to be on the safe side, he travelled under the cover name Pastor Jonas Dahl. The conspiratorial nature of all this suggests that the struggle for Norwegian interests in the Arctic had entered a new phase. Ever since 1921, Norway and Denmark were in open conflict with regard to the sovereignty of Greenland. Denmark had raised the issue with Norway during the 1919 Paris peace negotiations and had received verbal assurances from Foreign Minister Ihlen that Norway would not oppose Denmark’s expansion of sovereignty to include all of Greenland, a move for which Ihlen had won full support both from the government and in the Committee on Foreign Affairs. However, when the Danes requested written confirmation of Norway’s position in January 1921, Norway responded that an extension of Danish sovereignty would be accepted only if Norwegian fishing, whaling, sealing, and hunting rights on Greenland were maintained. Danish authorities did not agree to Norway’s demand, and decided to regard Ihlen’s 1919 verbal declaration as sufficient. In May 1921, they extended their sovereignty to include all of Greenland; and in June, Greenland was closed to all ships, Danish or ‘foreign’. This meant that the monopoly as practiced in Western Greenland would now also apply in Eastern Greenland. Subsequently, Norwegian hunters and fishermen risked being denied access to their fishing and sealing grounds. Norway protested in a note in November of 1921, reiterating its position as of January. As long as Norwegians were excluded from fishing and sealing grounds, Norway could not accept Danish sovereignty. Though the dispute began as a commercial conflict, Danish measures led to a nationwide wave of ill will toward Denmark. Patriotic feelings were easily stirred up because many Norwegians believed that Norway suffered a historic injustice when they broke off from Denmark in 1814, at which time a small clause in the Kiel Treaty had deprived Norway of its former maritime possessions to the west, among them Greenland. Hence, when the negotiations with Denmark began in 1923, Norwegian negotiators had to deal with more than just economic interests. The entire affair was becoming a domestic-policy ‘hot potato’. The Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did actually manage to negoti-

296 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

ate a deal regarding Eastern Greenland in 1924, but this was merely a kind of ceasefire, a practical and commercial arrangement. Who had sovereignty over Eastern Greenland, which was the Gordian knot of the dispute, remained unresolved. Many Norwegians were dissatisfied with the agreement on nationalistic grounds, but those who placed the greatest emphasis on the economic aspects of the case were not satisfied either, including those who had business interests in Western Greenland but who were not included in the agreement. In the summer of 1927, Gustav Smedal, a lawyer who was the head of The Greenland Association of Norway, invited Adolf Hoel to discuss the Greenland issue. The two men met during the New Year, in 1928, and were henceforth bound by their shared interests and a common destiny that would last the rest of their lives. Hoel had kept himself well informed about developments on Greenland, but had not had the time to contribute actively, owing to his involvement in Svalbard research and in the founding of the NSIU. Before long, however, Hoel had also got quite involved in the Greenland issue. Hallvard Devold, who in 1928 had returned home from Greenland after a two-year stay, was convinced that the Danes were working systematically to drive Norwegians out of Eastern Greenland, and that Norway had to resist. As far as Devold was concerned, no one stood a better chance of persuading the Norwegian government to do this than the head of the NSIU. So Devold wrote a report to the NSIU about ‘Norway’s current position in Eastern Greenland’. He felt land areas should be occupied through a systematic development of fishing, whaling, and sealing grounds with primary bases and secondary stations. This was to prevent the loss of key areas for both sealers and winter hunters and fishermen. This effort would not be served if it were dependent on random, private expeditions; somebody had to take charge, and a coordinated program had to be formulated. Last but not least, the effort had to enjoy the solid support of the Norwegian state. Hoel communicated these views and conveyed them to the Ministry of Trade and Commerce. He emphasised that there should be a much greater concentration on the systematic development of the infrastructure for Norwegian winter fishermen and hunters. Therefore, a combined scientific and fishing expedition had to be sent in 1929. Scientific work would be comprised of charting, taking soundings, and conducting oceanographic, meteorological, and geological exploration, as well as carrying out zoological and botanical studies. The expedition would take possession of as ‘much as possible of the coastline, between the Norwegian developed areas at Myggbukta and Scoresby Sound’, and would aide Norwegian fishermen by building cabins and annexing land from ‘Shannon Island and northward to Danmarkhamna [Denmark Harbour].’ The objective was ‘to keep Denmark from securing sovereignty over

the conquerors


Eastern Greenland, and to bring the country under Norwegian sovereignty’, according to Hoel’s plans. Hoel took the opportunity to explain to the authorities just how to go about acquiring sovereignty over an unclaimed territory. Polar imperialism’s basic principles were quite simple. ‘1. The first thing to do is to send out research expeditions, and thereby acquire (among other things) the requisite knowledge of the country’s natural environment and economic potential. 2. Then, establish scientific and social installations, such as meteorological stations, seismographic stations, churches, etc. 3. Then, encourage and support business and economic activity. 4. Create propaganda domestically and internationally to promote one’s objectives. Make much of the work and results already achieved.’ Escalation of Norwegian activity was still not just dependent upon the state. Hoel proposed establishment of a private hunting and fishing company dedicated to operations in Eastern Greenland, and that the firm coordinate and work closely with NSIU scientific expeditions. At the end of June 1929, Arctic Commercial Enterprise (known as A/S Arktisk Næringsdrift) was founded for the purpose of conducting ‘hunting, fishing and mining operations in Arctic areas and anything else associated therewith.’ The company was clearly a parallel entity to Denmark’s Nanok A/S, which had been founded a month earlier. Both firms had the same objective: to strengthen their respective countries’ claims of sovereignty in Eastern Greenland. Thanks to state appropriations and private funding, the D/S Veslekari was able to cast off from the quay at Ålesund in the early hours of July 14th, 1929, bound for Eastern Greenland. Ten trappers, led by Hallvard Devold, and nine researchers from the NSIU, under the supervision of geologist Anders K. Orvin, were on board. The trapping expedition would last until the summer of 1931, but the researchers would return home in the autumn of 1929. The scientific studies in the summer of 1929, according to Adolf Hoel, were a success both from a practical and a scientific perspective. But it was Hallvard Devold and his fellow trappers who would make the history books. Only words of praise were heard about all this in Parliament. The University and Technical College Committee unreservedly commended Hoel’s ‘unstinting and competent work in the northern Arctic regions,’ and Cabinet Minister Oftedal concurred. However, this idyl would not last long.

Erik Raude’s Land

In 1930, Danish Prime Minister Stauning released plans for a three-year-long scientific expedition to Eastern Greenland. In response, Hoel and Smedal switched strategy. Until then, the focus had been on maximizing Norwegian

298 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

activity in Eastern Greenland, both commercial activity and scientific mapping. But the immense Danish research effort would overshadow Norway’s activity and would strengthen Denmark’s position in any international legal dispute. Therefore, Norway would have to react. If the Danish did not heed Norway’s objections, the Norwegian authorities would have to consider an official occupation of Greenland. Scientific efforts in Greenland had until now been of a general exploratory nature; and now it was necessary to progress to a broad range of more detailed work. According to the NSIU’s plan, a new expedition would consist of eight researchers and 12 assistants in fields such as topography, hydrography, geology, botany, zoology, and archeology. NSIU applied for a total of about 250,000 kroner in support, a full 25 % increase over the previous year’s allocation. It was an ambitious budget, compared with the university’s total expense budget that year of slightly less than three million kroner. But then the NSIU reaped the storm. First, the Norwegian government asked Denmark to change its plans for the three-year expedition so that it would not conflict with the interests of Norwegian fishermen, whalers, and sealers and the agreement on Eastern Greenland. When Denmark stood firm, maintaining that its expedition plans were consistent with the agreement, the Norwegian government announced in early March that it would consider taking the conflict to the International Court of Justice in The Hague. The political temperature was rising. This was certainly true of the relationship with Denmark, but no less on the domestic front. Tension first surfaced in another matter: the NSIU appropriations. Things were looking promising as they had the previous year. The government had approved the budget, including an expedition to eastern Svalbard/Franz Josef Land and to Greenland. However, March 5th, the newspaper Tidens Tegn reported: ‘The Conservative and Labour Parties in the Committee on Foreign Affairs are cancelling one third of the institution’s budget.’ This was a demonstration against the NSIU, pure and simple; but the newspaper said nothing about the fact that Hoel had made a considerable upward adjustment in the budget. As was his habit when his opponents in Parliament began to tighten the purse strings, he immediately mobilised his extensive network of supporters. Hoel happily allowed himself to be interviewed, and left little doubt about the consequences of budget cuts: redundancies among professional staff, disruption of projects, and so forth. Tidens Tegn followed this up with an editorial attacking the ‘demonstrative slashing’ of the budget by the Committee on Foreign Affairs. Other newspaper editorials agreed; the NSIU’s budget must not be touched. The same newspapers believed that the budget had been ‘sabotaged’ in Parliament because the discussion process had dragged on too long. Hoel poured

the conquerors


oil on the fire by publicly saying that the reason for this was ‘sheer obstinacy’. The Greenland activists had already proven that they had many allies among the press. They had also demonstrated that they could maximally exploit the political power of public opinion, to the annoyance of many Parliament members. Their argument that Norway, under international law, was justified in occupying Greenland also enjoyed the solid support of professionals in the field. It was even supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ own international legal advisor Frede Castberg, as well as other experts both within the administration and at the university. The problem was that neither pressure from within nor from without seemed capable of budging the Norwegian government from its course of negotiation. To force the government’s hand, the Norwegian Council of Arctic and Antarctic Administration (hereafter called the Arctic Council), of which Smedal and Hoel were leading members, made public on May 26th, 1931, a letter to the government calling for immediate occupation of Eastern Greenland. There were strong reactions to this move. Many Parliamentary representatives believed the letter represented an attempt to alter Norwegian foreign policy, calling it ‘a foreign policy line of its own’. And ‘a shadow political body, indeed one might almost say above that of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government, and Parliament.’ The government was not particularly enthusiastic, either. On the contrary, Prime Minister Kolstad stated that the Arctic Council, ‘through its unwarranted intrusion into our foreign policy’, had hindered government efforts on behalf of Norwegian interests in Eastern Greenland. The publication of the letter did not lead the government to support the occupation line, despite the fact that key members of the administration and experts on international law had unanimously advised an occupation. Something different had to be done. Therefore, in a conversation with Hoel, Smedal proposed that they encourage Norwegian hunters to undertake a private occupation, which in its turn would compel Norwegian authorities to order an official occupation. The idea was discussed with legal academics, like Frede Castberg and Jon Skeie. The head of the Arctic Office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Assistant Secretary Fredrik Marstrander, and Minister of Justice Lindboe were informed of the plans. None of them believed that such action would motive the government into taking action. Nonetheless, Smedal had made up his mind. With Professor Marstrander, editors Jonas Schanche Jonasen and Rolf Thommessen at Tidens Tegn, and Adolf Hoel and Johan Braastad of the NSIU, Smedal composed a telegram to Hallvard Devold. In that message, he asked Devold to occupy all the territory between 71° 3’ N and 75° 4’ N, and call it Erik Raude’s Land (Erik the Red Land). It was important to ensure that this looked like a spontaneous action; not

300 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

In Norway, it was considered important to be involved in mapping Eastern Greenland. Here, Eystein Lundbom is at work during a 1931 NSIU expedition.

one staged by the NSIU and the Arctic Council. The telegram was therefore signed ‘Your friends’. In the early hours of June 26th, the wording of the telegram was polished a final time at Hoel’s office, and Marstrander put it in his inside pocket with these words: ‘There is no man on earth who can take this from me now.’ When a flight to Gothenburg took off from the seaplane airport at Gressholmen the next morning, he was on board. In Gothenburg, he checked into his hotel as Pastor Jonas Dahl. When Norwegians heard about Devold’s occupation, some conservative newspapers put intense pressure on the government to sanction the occupation. Meanwhile the socialist press firmly distanced itself from this position. On July 10th, 1931, the Norwegian government made the occupation official. The next day, the Danish government brought the case before the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

The lawsuit in The Hague

Adolf Hoel celebrated the Norwegian occupation aboard the M/S Polarbjørn, far out in the Norwegian Sea, en route to Eastern Greenland. When word of it was received on Saturday, July 11th, everyone was called up on deck and ‘Professor Hoel read the telegram amid great enthusiasm’. Three weeks after the vessel had forced its way through the pack ice belt, it dropped anchor in Myggbukta (Mosquito Bay), and the celebration continued. Hoel and his men were joined there by Hallvard Devold and his fellow occupiers, who offered everyone a real ‘polar party’: ‘I put a case of whiskey on board,’ Devold later wrote. ‘It was really a tremendous party.’ Despite the whiskey, Hoel and his team of scientists got straight to work on more serious business. During the next two years, Hoel and the NSIU did not have much time to celebrate. From that time onward, the institution would serve as a line of communication, reporting directly to the Norwegian delegation in The Hague. Scientific exploration in Greenland, which since the very first expedition in 1929 had played a key role in Norway’s status in Eastern Greenland, now became a means of winning the case in The Hague, as well. Hoel had barely managed to unpack on his return from the Greenland expedition in 1931, when he was appointed expert member of the Norwegian delegation that was assisting the Norwegian legal team which was in turn preparing its case. In addition to Hoel and Smedal, the delegation consisted of lawyers and a historian. The country’s most competent authorities on international law prepared the case for Norway. Every one of them was unanimous in maintaining that an official occupation of parts of Greenland would strengthen Norway’s position. Objections to Norwegian occupation primarily came from key politicians

302 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

in the Conservative and Liberal-Left parties, such as Hambro and Mowinckel. Not least of all, the Labour Party was opposed to occupation. At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, foreign policy counsellor Esmarch was against state occupation, while the director of the Ministry’s Arctic Office, Fredrik Marstrander, supported occupation. Some sources maintain that King Haakon was very uneasy about the occupation, while others imply that he supported government policy completely. In a discussion with Per Rygh, one of the case lawyers in May of 1932, the King claimed that he had taken the matter up with his father, the King of Denmark, Frederik VIII, back in 1906. ‘In 1905 Norway made a settlement with Sweden. Norway will, no doubt, come to an agreement with Denmark on the territories, especially Greenland.’ King Haakon believed that a Danish initiative would have made a good impression on Norwegians and helped moderate the antagonism between the two countries. More sensational, however, are the notes in Per Rygh’s diary indicating that the King was extremely satisfied with the stance taken by the Norwegian government since the winter of 1931. The government had followed the King’s advice. ‘It was his policy; it was he who had formulated it and pushed it through.’ Rygh’s information is confirmed in Smedal’s diary. As long as the dispute over Greenland continued, criticism of the NSIU quieted down. Even if Hoel’s proposals had to go a few rounds with the Ministry of Trade and Commerce, and he had to tolerate some trimming where Svalbard was concerned, the NSIU’s budget proposals sailed smoothly through Parliament in both 1932 and 1933. Even Hambro kept quiet. In addition to state appropriations, Hoel managed to acquire private financing for his proposals. As a result, the institution was able to send out no fewer than five expeditions in the summer of 1932: three to Greenland, one to Svalbard, and one to the coastal waters around Bear Island. The expeditions to Greenland were directly linked to the ongoing case in The Hague, both by Hoel and by those who financed them. In 1932, 27 scientists and assistants were working actively in southeast and northeast Greenland (Erik Raude’s Land). A total of 64 persons in all took part in activities, including the crews of the expedition vessels, journalists, a couple of telegraphers, and a landscape painter. The next year an expedition to Greenland was staffed with nine scientists and ten assistants. In 1932, the NSIU used airplanes and aerial photography for the first time in its topographic mapmaking program; and about 30,000 square kilometres were photographed from the air. Both Hoel and the Ministry believed that the expeditions were necessary, partly ‘on account of the tasks that had to be conducted in connection with the Greenland case.’ There were probably differences in opinion about the

the conquerors


Eastern Greenland is to be mapped from the air. This is from the expedition to Myggbukta in 1932. Whaling ship-owner Lars Christensen of Sandefjord has lent the plane to the expedition.

amount of money to be spent on scientific mapping of Eastern Greenland, and the impact this would have on the verdict in The Hague. But the government and the Greenland delegation both considered it vital for Norwegian scientists to continue their work in the field. Hoel used the opportunity to emphasise, yet again, how intimately the NSIU was involved in Norway’s foreign policy and economic interests. ‘The work that this institution is doing is of interest, first and foremost, in connection with our foreign policy in the ‘polar regions’ [...] Additionally, our work is relevant in connection with our commercial activity in the same areas.’ Despite all efforts to the contrary, the verdict in The Hague was not in Hoel’s favour. The court handed down its verdict on April 5th 1933, which would remain one of the darkest days of Hoel’s life. Norway lost on all counts. What was worse than Hoel’s personal disappointment was the fact that this defeat also threatened his life’s work, the NSIU. A month before the court decision was announced, Johan Ludwig Mowinckel had formed his third government. As a result, the two most prominent opponents of the occupation policy, Prime Minister Mowinckel and Parliamentary President and Chairman of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, C.J. Hambro, were obliged to take responsibility for the property settlement after the Greenland case. The white paper on the subject was reviewed by both the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Constitutional Affairs, as well as the Protocol Committee. Hambro requested that the highly critical report be approved without debate out of respect for ‘the country’s international position’ and to preserve the ‘dignity of Parliament.’ In the report by the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Constitutional Affairs, Hoel and his colleagues on the Arctic Council and in the Greenland delegation were accused of having conducting activities ‘partly in concert with government officials and partly behind their backs’. These activities were led by a ‘small group of constitutionally irresponsible men who, through an intense propaganda campaign – which was disloyal to the government and Parliament – in the press, had attempted to convey to the general public ideas that were incorrect.’ The criticism was extremely crass, especially considering that those individuals could not be held politically responsible for their actions. The main artillery was trained on the so-called activists, especially Hoel and Smedal. It was also directed at the Arctic Council, the Greenland delegation, the experts in international law who had been involved in this case, and the expert members. The report sought to show how badly things could turn out when activists, academics, and the mass media took a case ‘out of the politicians’ hands’. The recommendation was approved by a vote of 114 to 29. Being a government employee and director of the NSIU, Hoel recognised

the conquerors


that he was sitting in a glass house. This is probably why, in his statement about his role in the Greenland case, he did not take responsibility for the famous telegram to Devold that had been fine-tuned in his office two years before. He understood the prevailing mood in Parliament and knew that he had played for high stakes. Not only was he risking his position as head of the NSIU; the institution itself was being threatened. True to form, Hoel went on the offensive with great conviction when the storm was at its worst. Certainly his enrolment in the National Socialist Party (known as Nasjonal Samling or NS), founded by Vidkun Quisling in 1933, and his running for election for the party was particularly ill-advised, as far as the NSIU’s future was concerned. Hoel’s attraction to a party influenced by National Socialism reflected his frustration with the role Norwegian politicians had played in the entire Hague episode and other matters touching on Norwegian interests in the Arctic. Ignorance and indifference regarding Arctic issues were characteristic of the political environment and those who were ‘in charge of governing us.’ The nation lacked a ‘polar policy’. Quisling asked Hoel to put himself at the disposal of NS in order to work for Norway’s polar interests. Hoel stipulated that the polar question be included in the party’s program; and this was done in January of 1934. ‘Norwegian interests in the ‘polar regions’ will be asserted with strength and vigilance.’ In the meantime Hoel had participated in the election campaign and run as the party’s number two candidate from Oslo. His name appeared on the NS list of candidates right after that of Vidkun Quisling himself. Hoel was also made use of in the party’s efforts to educate its own members; and he participated in party forums around the country, and toured with a lecture on Norwegian foreign policy and polar policy, or, more correctly, the lack of it. He had little praise for the nation’s leaders. ‘We lacked a firm national willpower in our handling of these matters.’ Hoel’s involvement in the NS did not improve his reputation among his critics in Parliament. He knew very well that his opponents would not only attack the NSIU’s budgets, but would also propose reorganizing it or even shutting it down. He therefore placed great emphasis on showing how necessary it was to ‘have all the work in scientific and applied scientific fields relating to our polar interests under the umbrella of one institution.’ In the proposed 1934 budget, Hoel wisely stressed a significant escalation of work on Svalbard and in the waters around the archipelago. He nonetheless had to tolerate that Parliament cut heavily into the budget that year and the next. Hoel managed to ride out the storm. Moreover, in the years just before the war, he enjoyed two personal victories. In 1938 he was made a Knight of the Order of St. Olav for his work on behalf of Norwegian interests in the ‘polar regions’. More importantly, he was awarded a decisive role in the process that resulted in the extension of Norwegian sovereignty to Queen Maud Land in

306 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

Antarctica in 1939. In December 1938, he was in Berlin to prepare for an international polar exhibition and conference that was scheduled to take place in Bergen in 1940. During this stay, he happened to obtain confirmation of something he had suspected for some time; the Germans planned to occupy Antarctica. A few weeks prior to that, Hoel received a visit at the NSIU from a German diplomat who was looking for materials about Antarctica and the sector principle. Hoel thought it appropriate to inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of this, and also to submit a report on how important it was for Norway to have sovereignty over parts of Antarctica. During his stay in Berlin, Hoel visited German Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While in Goebbels’ office, Hoel overhead a telephone conversation that increased his concern. After doing some checking around, he was able to confirm that a large German expedition was on its way to Antarctica. Hoel also learned that it was headed for the same part of Antarctica that Norway planned to annex. He immediately notified the Norwegian Legation in Berlin; and on the way back home, he contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Things happened quickly after that. Hoel was asked to write a report about exploration of the sector that Norway had designs on. On January 5th, Hoel participated in a meeting with Foreign Minister Koth, people from several ministries, representatives of the whaling business, experts in international law, and researchers. The meeting was chaired by Prime Minister Nygaardsvold. As a result of the meeting, the government prepared to announce an annexation that officially took control of the territory on January 14th, 1939, just a few days before the German expedition arrived in that area.

Polar research during the German occupation

Early in June 1940, Hoel and Gustav Smedal had a confidential conversation with the chairman of the Administrative Council, Regional Commissioner I.E. Christensen, to discuss the status of Norway’s polar interests after the arrival of German occupying forces. The Administrative Council, which had been established by the Supreme Court, was in charge of civil administration in the occupied part of Norway from April 15th to September 25th, 1940. Hoel and Smedal were worried about supplies for the Norwegian hunting and meteorological stations in Eastern Greenland. They wanted to prepare for a new expedition to send fresh men and provisions at once. This would also send an important political signal; that even in these dark times, Norway meant to uphold its interests in Greenland. The Administrative Council appropriated the necessary funds. With the permission of the German occupational authorities, the D/S Veslekari and M/K

the conquerors


Ringsel left Tromsø on August 2nd. The head of the expedition aboard the Veslekari was NSIU secretary John Giæver, who was also a journalist, author, and hunter from Tromsø. The Ringsel returned to Norway on September 19th after having performed its duties without incident. However, the Veslekari was seized by Allied forces. Hoel and Smedal were preoccupied with the territorial reorganisation that would be part of the post-war peace settlement. They were concerned about the Arctic and Antarctica, but especially about Greenland. No nation was as dependent on the ‘polar regions’ as Norway was. It was Norway’s only natural area of expansion. ’These regions of the earth are in the truest sense Norwegian living space (i.e. lebensraum).’ They went to Quisling with a request that the NS play a historic role in the struggle for Norwegian polar interests. They began by expressing disappointment that the party had not formed a new Ministry for Polar Affairs. However, if this had taken a long time, it was reasoned that it was because of the incompetence of pre-war ‘party politicians’, the absence of nationalism, and the lack of Norwegian self-assertiveness. In accordance with the ‘responsibility and leadership principle’ on which the NS was founded, Hoel and Smedal suggested that the country’s polar interests be safeguarded by the creation of a cabinet position to be filled by a polar expert. They also believed this could help solve the NS’s greatest political problem, its lack of public support. ‘Great international issues are far more likely to unite a divided people than domestic ones. [...] The establishment of a Ministry of Polar Affairs would be a national achievement that would greatly hasten the unification of the Norwegian people under your (Quisling’s) leadership.’ The Ministry of Polar Affairs never materialised. Smedal and Hoel chose rather to take a step back; and in February 1941, they asked Minister of Education Ragnar Skancke to establish up a Polar Council of the kind they had first requested of the Administrative Council. Eventually they got a response. In March 1941, Ragnar Skancke asked Adolf Hoel and Gustav Smedal to form an Arctic Committee, for which they received a broad mandate. They were to reply to inquiries from the Ministry, and could themselves take up issues and questions. And so they acquired a professional political forum in which they could pursue their efforts to protect Norwegian polar interests. The first subject they turned to was the Greenland expedition in the autumn of 1941. Had Norwegian military and civil authorities in Great Britain and the U.S.A. expressed any surprise when the Veslekari was seized in 1940, they were certainly no less astonished when one more expedition from Norway was detected and arrested in the autumn of 1941. In September, the Norwegian Arctic vessel Buskøy from Ålesund was on its way south along the northeastern coast of Greenland, when it was intercepted just north of Myggbukta by the U.S. Coastguard ship Northland.

308 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

A 1936 campaign poster for Quisling’s ‘Nasjonal Samling’ (The National Socialist Party). The partyprogram called for Norway to expand into the polar areas.

On board, they found an expedition led by Hallvard Devold. The mission was the same as that of the Veslekari the year before: to land hunters, deliver supplies, and replace the crews at the Norwegian stations. Most attention was drawn to the fact that the vessel also had a radio transmitter and a Norwegian crew member who was working for the Germans, and whose job it was to send weather observations to the occupation forces in Norway. Both Devold and Hoel firmly maintained that they were totally unaware that German military authorities had decided to take advantage of this opportunity to establish a station in Eastern Greenland. When Hoel was tried for treason after the war, the public prosecutor investigated this episode thoroughly, and decided not to include it among the charges. There is no doubt that Hoel’s hectic activity during the first year of occupation was an expression of his deep concern with regard to the Norwegian hunting and weather stations in Eastern Greenland. At the same time he saw new political opportunities on the near horizon. It was a matter importance to consolidate and strengthen Norway’s foreign policy position and interests in the ‘polar regions’, especially in Eastern Greenland. The Arctic Committee also attempted to persuade Quisling to raise the subject of Greenland again, and prior to any post-war peace conference. Naturally, this effort required collaboration, or in any case mutual understanding, with the authorities of the occupying power. Hoel or Smedal did not seem to have any objections to a Norwegian offensive in Greenland having to advance under the cover of German bayonets.

Norwegian Lebensraum

In his wartime writings and lectures about Norway’s position in the Arctic, Adolf Hoel began to use the word livsrom, or ‘living space’, known in English by the German term Lebensraum. For many observers, this appeared linked to his ties with the NS and Nazism. The Lebensraum ideology was a way of legitimising Nazi expansionism; but its roots reached further back than that and must be viewed in the light of the history of geographical science. German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904) is considered the founder of modern political geography. His theories about the organically growing state, to which the concept of Lebensraum was central, were characterised by concepts in biology that were typical of the late 19th century. His theories were perpetuated and developed by Swedish political scientist Rudolph Kjellén (1864–1922), who believed, as did Ratzel, that states should be regarded as analogous to biological organisms. They had to grow and expand or they would die. As a geographer, Adolf Hoel was clearly the product of a solid profes-

310 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

sional tradition when he made his pronouncements on history, economics, and politics. The notion of the Arctic as Norwegian Lebensraum can be traced in Hoel’s early ideas regarding polar policy. Like numerous turn-of-the-century geographers, he was influenced by natural determinism. Every nation bore the imprint of the physical conditions under which its people lived, and people developed distinctive means of surviving these conditions. As far as the Arctic was concerned, Norwegians occupied a special position. ‘No other people are as qualified to make something out of the polar regions as the Norwegians are’. Norwegians’ distinctive natural qualities had been shaped by the struggle against the natural forces of the Arctic that surrounded them. Ratzel also developed his own theory of emigration. In brief, it stated that those organisms that managed to subdue nature in a given physical space would have a tendency to emigrate to new surroundings, where a new process of habituation would take place. This inherent inclination to expand into other areas was decisive for a people’s survival skills. According to Ratzel, this natural migratory impulse was also the most important cause of cultural change. Adolf Hoel placed special emphasis on emigration and migration in his descriptions of Norwegian history, too. Emigration and the occupation of new land, in his view, were distinctively ‘Norwegian’ crisis strategies, developed under harsh natural and climatic conditions. Norwegians lived, to a large extent, on the frontiers of what was possible, in terms of existence. A minor worsening of the climate could bring about famine. ‘Throughout history, many of our people have had to look abroad in order to subsist, for example by emigrating to countries overseas.’ The innate drive to migrate, according to Ratzel, was found not only in individuals but also in societies and states. Adolf Hoel’s analyses of Norwegian history are influenced by similar concepts. He saw a clear connection between national and political vitality and the ability to expand to the north. During the period of Norwegian decline in the Late Middle Ages, Norway did not manage to maintain economic activity in the ‘polar regions’ or retain sovereignty there. Instead, other powers exploited the tremendous riches of the Arctic. ‘But as soon as we begin to awaken from our long hibernation, we turn our gaze once more to the North.’ Hoel then pointed out how Norwegians had conquered the Arctic in economic terms during the 19th century. Furthermore, he showed how Norway had scientifically ‘conquered’ the ‘polar regions’, through generations of discoveries made by fishermen, polar expeditions such as Nansen’s, Sverdrup’s and Amundsen’s, as well as the Spitsbergen expeditions. At last, the politicians’ awareness of Norway’s ‘political right’ to Svalbard had been awakened; and in the end Norway acquired sovereignty over Svalbard, ‘the key to the European Arctic’. Moreover, Norway had not only a historic, but a

the conquerors


The Norwegianization of no man’s land. In the early 20th century there were more than enough glaciers and mountain peaks that had not yet been named. This map was drawn after Isachsen’s 1909 and 1910 expeditions.

‘natural’ right to expand northward. It was the only direction in which the country could expand, and ‘also the direction most natural for our people’; because Norwegians, over the centuries, had accommodated themselves to similar landscapes and climates. Since Hoel’s plans for a Norwegian offensive in Eastern Greenland had to be shelved, activity at the NSIU during the remainder of the war was fairly limited. NSIU scientists spent most of their time re-working pre-war material. Besides, Hoel had enough other obligations. When the German occupation authorities removed Didrik Arup Seip from the presidency of the University of Oslo in 1941, Hoel was named vice-president, and then president. Hoel and the NSIU managed nonetheless to complete one of the tasks he and Gunnar Isachsen had initiated in 1906–07; he was able to ensure systematisation of place names on Svalbard. Gunnar Isachsen’s cartographic studies of Spitsbergen through 1910 yielded a small-scale topographical map, which they had planned to publish in the British Geographic Journal in 1914. The map, however, had caused consternation among the editors; and it led to a heated correspondence between the editor J. Scott Keltie, the Scottish polar researcher William Speirs Bruce, the Svalbard expert Martin Conway, and Isachsen. The editor suggested a compromise. He would publish the map, but with a note explaining that many of the names differed from those on British maps. There was little doubt as to what Keltie would have preferred. It would have been best, he sighed in a letter to Conway, for the map never to have been printed. What was it that had so upset the Englishmen and the Scotsmen? Isachsen’s colleague from the 1906–07 Spitsbergen expedition, W. S. Bruce, who had then led the Scottish contingent, was particularly furious. The map violated his agreement with Isachsen, that he and Bruce had, which was that Bruce would be in charge of mapping Prins Karls Forland. It also broke with the naming principles Bruce swore by, and that Scandinavians so often sinned against. Bruce wanted to keep all the old 17th and 18th century names, and wanted any new names to be those of people who had connections to the places in question, preferably the people who had first discovered them. These were generally speaking, the 17th and 18th century British and Dutch whalers. Bruce was also strongly provoked by Isachsen’s use of the term Norwegian Sea for the stretch of water bounded by Norway, Iceland, and Svalbard. The name had first been proposed by Henrik Mohn, a key figure in the first and, so far, largest maritime research expedition by Norwegians, the North Sea Expedition of the 1870s. The name seems to have been accepted internationally as early as the 1880s. The 1884 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica included an article on the ‘Norwegian Sea’ which stated that the name given by Mohn had now been generally accepted. However, even 30 years later, not

the conquerors


everybody was equally familiar with the name. Bruce certainly was not pleased that Scandinavians were following Isachsen’s lead in using it. In 1942, the NSIU published the standard work on the subject, The Place Names of Svalbard. The work was a continuation of the project that Norwegian authorities had begun, systematizing the largely chaotic christening situation that predominated when Norway assumed sovereignty. Some locations had several names; old names had been shifted to new places; names had been translated, corrupted, and often misunderstood; old names had been changed without good reason; and so on. The work, which involved a number of professionals both in Norway and abroad, would determine which source material the naming would be based upon and which methods and principles should be employed in deciding names. All recorded names would be traced, their meanings explained, and reasons given for the ultimate choice of names. As a result of this work, 6,500 unclear and conflicting names were eliminated out of a total of about 10,000. In addition to a substantial reduction in the number of names, all the names were now given a Norwegian linguistic form and conjugation. This represented a Norwegianisation of the naming material, of course; but it also reflected a desire to take the archipelago’s international history seriously. One of the most powerful examples of the cultural conquest of the Arctic was the name change that occurred when Norway formally took over Spitsbergen in 1925. At that time a new name was given to the entire archipelago: Svalbard. Those who changed the name were, in doing so, taking a position on a disputed theory, advanced by such historians as Gustav Storm and Alexander Bugge, arguing that it was Icelandic-Norwegian seafarers who had discovered the islands in the north in 1194, and not Dutchmen in 1596. The name change tied the country more strongly to Norway and to Norwegian history. It was also thought that it might ease the disappointment of Norwegians who were troubled by the limitations that the Svalbard Treaty had placed on Norwegian sovereignty. The research on place names that was conducted under the auspices of the NSIU, and that in 1942 resulted in The Place Names of Svalbard, demonstrated, in a way, Hoel’s main concern. It was important to place a Norwegian imprint on the Arctic, in this case, simply by giving Norwegian names to mountains and seas, plains and glaciers. But, as we have seen, other research contributed to this process of Norwegianisation. The land of cold seacoasts seems today much more Norwegian than when Hoel first glimpsed Svalbard’s mountains from the deck of the Princesse Alice in the summer of 1907. Attempts to Norwegianise the ‘polar regions’ in the north through scientific activity were not at all sensational or particularly Norwegian. On the contra-

314 a p o l a r s u p e r p o w e r

The Place Names of Svalbard is a book that has been in demand ever since it was first published in 1942. This is the 2003 edition.

ry, men like of Hoel, Isachsen, and the other Norwegian scientists preoccupied with the Arctic, were a part of a long tradition with their scientific colleagues throughout the West. In Canada, mapping by natural scientists played a decisive role in the construction of a new nation and the development of a national identity. And in the U.S.A., the ‘West’ was won and incorporated into the nation; it was Americanised through geographical and geological mapmaking. In Scandinavia, polar research and other related research in northern Sweden contributed to the national self-assertiveness and reorientation that could be observed in Sweden during the second half of the 19th century. The sciences, particularly the natural sciences, also contributed in vital ways to the growing understanding of the Arctic. It was ‘through the lenses of science that the portrait of the north emerged.’ In that era, science played an integral and vital role in the consolidation of the Norwegian state and in attempts to bring new land under Norwegian control. It made little sense to speak of the use and misuse of science in the name of nationalism or imperialism. History tells us that scientific exploration was a main pillar of Western cultural conquest, from pole to pole, and in East and West. The incorporation of Svalbard into Norway and the unsuccessful attempt to win Eastern Greenland in the 1930s are Norwegian examples of this process.

the conquerors



World War II revealed the military significance of the ‘polar regions’. Then the Cold War increased the need for a better understanding of these icy territories. Positive economic developments combined with ruthless exploitation of natural resources gave way to a decline in fish stocks and other marine resources, and led to increased pressure from environmentalists. Eventually, the demand that vulnerable natural resources should be managed better led to new limitations on commercial activity. Meanwhile, the struggle for national sovereignty was gradually replaced by international collaboration in research, and by a growing awareness that the polar ecosystems affect us all.


World War II altered the military significance of the Arctic. In terms of security, it became one of the most important areas in the world as far as the EastWest conflict was concerned. Antarctica, which during the war had lacked military significance, also became an increasingly more important factor in international and political tensions. Rapid development of military technology continued, and gathered momentum during the Korean War. Long-range bombers, intercontinental missiles, nuclear-powered submarines, and numerous new kinds of communication technology contributed to escalating tensions in the north. The next war would be fought in, on, and under the Arctic. As time went by, the Americans also feared that the Soviets had plans to use Antarctica and the Antarctic Ocean for secret nuclear-weapon tests and as bases from which to threaten Western interests from the south. Naturally, Norwegian polar interests were not unaffected by these developments. Scientific exploration of the polar areas became a strategically important element in American and Soviet defence policy. To survive under extreme conditions and to plan attacks and defence on and under the ice and in the air, it was necessary to know more about basic physical and environmental conditions in the ‘polar regions’. It became particularly necessary to study in depth such topics as the polar basin sea floor conditions, Arctic Ocean currents and their special characteristics, polar meteorology, the upper layers of the earth’s atmosphere above the poles, and the Northern Lights. Polar geophysics was essential to improve radio communication, to know more about conditions in the airspace through which rockets would fly, and to understand physical properties of the ice and glaciers where air bases, radar installations, and military equipment would be located. The strategic value of basic research on such topics encouraged commitment to massive research projects and the foundation

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


of major academic institutions, especially in the U.S.A and Soviet Union. Advanced research under extreme polar conditions was dependent on expensive instruments and technological logistics; money and new kinds of knowledge competed with polar experience and tradition for primacy in the polar regions. The generally escalating tension created problems for Norwegian polar policy. Polar research, which had always had political significance, became a steadily more important factor in Norwegian politics. However, constantly oscillating relationships between the superpowers made it difficult to maintain a stable line, especially because there were also conflicting views within the government, from time to time. And that had its consequences. One example of this is Norway’s involvement in the Antarctic in the 1950s; another is the establishment of the Norwegian Polar Institute, and the discussions about what kind of institution, and how ambitious an institution, it should be. But the Norwegian polar effort was also a question of resources: economic and human. Perhaps the real mystery is not so much that Norway was no longer in the forefront, but just how Norwegians were still able to make major contributions to huge international research operations.

Jumping the gun after World War II

In May 1945, most Norwegians had far more important things to think about than Norway’s resumption of polar activities. For obvious reasons, the occupation and destruction of Norwegian installations on Svalbard drew less attention than the material and psychological damage on the mainland. Even so, Norway had a foothold in the Arctic under the Svalbard Treaty and in the Antarctic by virtue of its territorial claims to Dronning Maud Land, which was a large claim dating from 1939. Yet the Norwegian Institute for the Exploration of Svalbard and the Arctic Ocean (NSIU), whose purpose was to protect and advance Norwegian polar interests, had virtually fallen apart, because its former leader, Adolf Hoel, had been a member of the National Socialist Party during World War II. In what was obviously an uncertain and difficult situation, Anders Orvin, who had worked as a geologist for many years at the NSIU, took on the directorship. In the summer of 1945, he was anxious to send Norwegians back to Svalbard. No matter what the immediate future might bring, it was necessary to rebuild the infrastructure on Svalbard, like the radio, lighthouses, and other navigational equipment; it was important for business activity to continue, especially at Store Norske’s coal mining operations. Even though Orvin recognised the Arctic’s enhanced international significance and wished to make changes in the institution’s activities, others with a more global perspec-

320 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

tive understood that a new era was dawning. It was an era in which Norwegian polar operations would have to be more extensive and more responsible. Hans Wilhelmson Ahlmann (1889–1974) was the driving force behind this activity. He was a Swedish glaciologist and professor of geography in Stockholm. He had close contacts within political, business, and scientific circles in Norway, and managed to form a coalition of politicians and scientists with the shared goal of strengthening Norway’s polar presence. Early in his career, Ahlmann had spent a lot of time in Norway. In 1919, he married Lillemor Harloff of Bergen and became acquainted with the elite among that city’s scientific community: Bjørn Helland-Hansen, Vilhelm Bjerknes, and Harald Ulrik Sverdrup. On research and field trips in the Norwegian mountain wilds in the early 1920s, he was accompanied by young Halvard Lange, a contact that would figure prominently in later years, when Lange became foreign minister. Ahlmann organised joint Swedish-Norwegian expeditions to Svalbard; first to the Nordaustland in 1931, then with Sverdrup to western Svalbard i 1934. His wartime contact with the resistance movement and with Norwegians abroad strengthened his ties to the country and won him respect and confidence of Norwegians. In 1950 he was appointed Swedish ambassador to Norway. During the war, Ahlmann had discussed the possibility of organising joint post-war expeditions to Greenland and/or Antarctica with British, Danish, Icelandic, and Norwegian polar researchers. He realised that Sweden could not carry out polar research on its own. He also made a virtue of necessity when he joined his efforts to Sweden’s new national ideology: international cooperation among small nations. Ahlmann’s original plan for scientific collaboration was to have great political significance. But after the war the order was reversed; the scientific agenda came to be affected by the political threat. Ahlmann’s glacial studies during the 1920s and 30s in Norway, northern Sweden, and parts of Svalbard, Greenland, and Iceland had yielded fascinating results. The glaciers had become smaller, which suggested that the overall climate had grown warmer. If this was so, scientists should seek to understand the causes and potential effects of such a change. Ahlmann used the expression ‘climate improvement’, reflecting a Scandinavian appreciation of milder winters and longer growing seasons; even though he also indicated that a change like that could be problematic in other parts of the world. Ahlmann originally selected Graham Land as the destination for a joint Antarctic expedition, because he felt it might please the British. Argentina and Chile, which were demanding hegemony on the long, thin peninsula, were opposed to Great Britain’s territorial claims to it. For the Swedes, too, this was an appealing first choice, as Otto Nordenskjöld had been there in 1901–03. But toward the end of the war, when Ahlmann got access to photographs of

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


Two friends and Nordic polar strategists in the field. Harald U. Sverdrup and Hans Wilhelmsson Ahlmann during a 1934 expedition to Svalbard.

unexplored parts of Dronning Maud Land, taken by German reconnaissance missions in 1939, and he saw mountain tops sticking up through massive layers of glacial ice, he realised that it was more important to organise an expedition to this far more inaccessible region. Perhaps the same glaciers could be photographed again, to see if they, too, had shrunk? If that were the case, then it would prove that there was global warming. When peace arrived in Europe, Ahlmann carefully followed events in Norway, especially with regard to the ‘polar regions’. He hoped the speedy establishment of a new institute might help involve Norway in a multinational Antarctic expedition and stimulate more Nordic collaboration in the Arctic. In late June 1945, Ahlmann and four other Swedish scientists were invited to Moscow at short notice to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Russian Academy of Sciences and celebrate the victory over fascism. What he saw disturbed him. At the enormous victory parades, which he watched from reviewing stands in the company of Stalin, Molotov, and Kalinin, he was surprised by the extent of Soviet scientific activity and investment in research; ‘The Russian investment in science is so huge that if Western Europe and even the U.S.A. are not to fall behind, all forces must be mobilised.’ In particular, the huge scale of Soviet polar research aroused fear and concern. The Norwegian embassy in Moscow asked him to investigate all this. Stalin had begun to invest heavily in polar research and exploration during the 1930s, with an eye to exploiting the far north economically and forging a heroic Soviet identity that would overcome polar challenges. At the centre of all this was the Arctic Research Institute in Leningrad, then the world’s largest such institution, with 250 scientific and technical employees. Visiting the institute, Ahlmann was impressed but became unsettled by the scale of Soviet activities. He was also worried about American assertion of power in the Arctic, as evinced by their bases in Greenland and Iceland. Were the Nordic countries being pushed out of the Arctic?

Norwegian polar policy – ‘a damned mess’

Ahlmann came to Norway at the end of July 1945 and contacted his old colleagues to discuss Norwegian participation in multinational polar expeditions and the NSIU’s future. He also met with Prime Minister Einar Gerhardsen, who was ‘disoriented by the whole question and referred him to [Foreign Minister Trygve] Lie’. Ahlmann then visited Lie at home, and while Lie sat in his shirtsleeves eating pea soup, they discussed the necessity of establishing an institution that could help the Norwegian government withstand external challenges. ‘He fully under-

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


stood my conclusion, which was that “the whole thing is a damned mess,” and he promised to look into the issue. We parted on very good terms.’ Lie knew better than many others just what a ‘mess’ Svalbard was. The war had suddenly brought an end to Svalbard’s demilitarised status, which had been established in the Svalbard Treaty. Svalbard’s significance grew after Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, and the Western powers began sending supply convoys to northwestern Russia. Neither Germany nor the Allies respected Svalbard’s demilitarised status. Trygve Lie was shocked when he met Soviet Foreign Minister Vjatsjeslav Molotov at the Kremlin in November 1944. Molotov proposed annulling the SvalbardTreaty. Molotov suggested that Svalbard be shared between the Soviet Union and Norway. Norway was to cede control of Bjørnøya, because it had previously always been Russian. Prime Minister Nygaardsvold had had strong reservations about Lie going to Moscow, because the trip might lead to disconcerting surprises, but the desire to continue a good collaborative relationship compelled Lie to make the trip. The situation was tense. The Soviet Union had just accepted a cease-fire in Finland; Russian troops had already liberated eastern Finnmark; but would they remain there? The government in exile chose neither to ignore the threat nor to call in its Western allies, whose consent was required for the 1920 treaty to be annulled. Norway agreed to negotiate an agreement and then seek international approval. That is how Norway was drawn into negotiations from which it was difficult to withdraw. The situation became no easier after the war. By the summer of 1945, Lie certainly recognized that no matter what strategy Gerhardsen’s government adopted in response to the Soviet demands (and there were big differences of opinion about the matter), the government needed an efficient, respected polar institute. When Ahlmann shared his ideas with colleagues in Oslo, he mentioned Harald Ulrik Sverdrup as a candidate for institute director. Sverdrup had earned an international reputation for being unusually industrious and gifted. Many experts regarded the scientific results of the Maud expedition, at least in the area of geophysics, to be the most valuable material collected on any polar expedition ever undertaken. They set new standards for precision of observations and scientific sophistication of data analysis. In 1936, however, Sverdrup accepted the directorship of the Scripps Institution at the University of California, which conducted research in physical oceanography. The success that Sverdrup eventually enjoyed there can in many ways be interpretted as a victory for the Norwegian school of geophysical research and for the Nansen-Amundsen approach to leadership of polar expeditions. Sverdrup used his knowledge and experience to change Scripps from an inconsistent, uninspired local institution into a first-class, internationally prominent enterprise.

324 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

When war began in Europe, Sverdrup knew he would have to extend his stay in the U.S.A. In collaboration with three younger colleagues, he wrote an oceanography textbook of more than 1000 pages that would serve as the bible of that science for several decades. He organised excellent research teams that contributed to the war effort, taught many new oceanographers, and set in motion research programs to support the Allied military strategy. Sverdrup and his student Walther Munk also arrived at methods for calculating swells and breakers, which would prove important when troops were landed in several decisive military operations. After the war, the U.S.A. Navy awarded Sverdrup the highest distinction a civilian could receive.

Confusing birth

Ahlmann’s attempt to resurrect Norway as a polar power resulted in more than he had bargained for; Norway was willing to participate in the planned Antarctic expedition, but wanted to run it. The Norwegian flag and Norwegian vessels were not just desirable, but necessary. Halvard Lange, the new Foreign Minister, insisted on these conditions, doubtless because he considered it vital to demonstrate Norway’s willingness to explore and invest in its 1939 territorial claims, which were still widely disputed among key nations. Some powerful interests in Norway had long sought to limit British participation, since the U.K. was considered a competitor in the whaling industry. What began as a plan for a Swedish-British and then a Swedish-British-Norwegian expedition seemed now to have become primarily a Norwegian expedition. For Lange, it was clear that a new polar institute was needed to coordinate and administer Norwegian interests in the North and the South. Lange understood that scientific activity could help win acceptance for Norway’s territorial demands. Now, Lange had more than sufficient reason to call Sverdrup home as soon as possible to manage the new institute and to plan and run the expedition. It was clear from the very beginning that there were differing viewpoints on how to organise the new institute. Amongst the old guard at NSIU, there was opposition to any change in its research profile. Anders Orvin shared Adolf Hoel’s view that a polar organisation should concern itself primarily with conducting geological and topological exploration and with providing logistical knowledge and equipment to others who were in Svalbard for economic or scientific reasons. The Ministry of Trade and Commerce was not interested in an institute that placed great emphasis on its research profile, either. Sverdrup, on the other hand, wanted a scientifically advanced polar institute. He proposed an institute comprised of three departments: 1) research, 2) surveys and map-

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


making, and 3) expeditions and practical work. The institute director should preferably be a scientist, who heads up the research department, and should have a permanent staff of scientists and a large number of researchers on contract, with stipends and grants from other institutions. In 1947 and early 1948, it looked as if Norway was ready and willing to make a major investment and to act quickly and decisively. At least on paper, the new institute would amount to an expansion of the NSIU as far as research and geographic coverage was concerned. The organization would be comprised of six departments: administrative, topographical, hydrographical, geological, geophysical, and biological; and would focus activities on both poles. The director would be a scientist with a part-time faculty position as full professor at the university. The Norwegian Polar Institute mission was to retain its leading role in European polar research. Sverdrup returned home on April 2nd, 1948. As he recalled some years later, ‘On April 17th, I was asked to develop a new plan [for the Antarctic expedition]; a month later a new plan was submitted: and before a month had gone by it was considered by Parliament, and the first appropriation was allocated! My impression was that in Norway things were getting done faster than in America; but I learned otherwise soon enough.’ However in 1948, it was first and foremost the planning of a hitherto unprecedented multinational expedition to Antarctica which dominated work.

The Maudheim expedition

The Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition (NBSX) to Dronning Maud Land is usually only given a passing mention in chronicles of Antarctica, but this apparently routine enterprise played a very important role in post-war research. It was a significant precursor to the expensive Norwegian and multinational Antarctic expeditions during the International Geophysical Year in 1957–58. It was also of major political significance. The Antarctic might seem far removed from the northern hemisphere’s political tensions, but this had not kept it from being drawn into World War II. German naval forces seized a Norwegian whale factory ship and other whaling vessels, because the Germans needed the natural resources in the Antarctic Ocean. What was more significant was that German submarines could attack Allied navy ships in the South Pacific and South Atlantic. American strategists and scientists kept their eyes on the continent to the far south. U.S. exploration of the Antarctic had begun with Richard Byrd’s first expedition of 1928–29, aided by Norwegian pilot Bernt Balchen, whose bold ventures, helped yield key scientific and logistical breakthroughs. In the post-

326 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Three flags were to wave side by side for two Antarctic winters. A multinational expedition on the scale of the Norwegian-British-Swedish enterprise in Dronning Maud Land was a ‘first’ in polar research.

war era, the Americans returned in force. To begin with, the more important destination for its armadas was the Arctic. The U.S. military wanted to establish a strategic front all across the Arctic in order to resist ‘the Red Menace to the North’. But if there were to be combat in the north, they needed a better understanding of how people and equipment would hold out in the extreme cold. So in the autumn and winter of 1945–46, the American Navy organised ‘Operation Frostbite’, a convoy of ships to the Davis Strait west of Greenland. However, the operation was not considered a good enough test, because conditions had not proven sufficiently rigorous. Moreover, these kinds of exercises made the Russians apprehensive; continued construction of bases and installations, coupled with large-scale military training operations tended to make the Russians feel threatened. Large military training operations probably not only incited Soviet accusations of hostile American intervention in the Arctic, but also triggered Soviet countermeasures. All this led to ‘Operation Highjump’ (1946–47), in which no fewer than 13 ships converged on Antarctica from the Atlantic and Pacific, taking with them the newest landing craft and Snowcats, several planes, and over a thousand men. The main base was near the Ross Sea, but operations took place across the continent, and in most sectors. Even though its chief objective was to acquire experience in the polar environment, test equipment, and prepare for the use of defensive and offensive tactics in an Arctic confrontation, potentially with the Russians, the operation also made countries with Antarctic sector claims uneasy and apprehensive. The American State Department recommended that the continent become international territory, instead of being split into national sectors. ‘Operation Windmill’ in 1947–48 was the next move; and it utilized helicopters to map coastal areas not previously charted. The American operations moved into territories previously claimed by France, Great Britain, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand, Australia, and Norway. Meanwhile, diplomatic bickering between Great Britain and Argentina reached new heights. The U.S. State Department decided to pursue the recommendation made by the late Franklin D. Roosevelt; end the tension by negotiating an internationalisation of Antarctica. Most of the countries that had claims in Antarctica rejected this proposal immediately. In addition and quite surprisingly, the Soviet Union – seemingly unaffected by sector claims – declared that its own historic rights, based on early 19th century journeys and on current whaling activities, entitled the Soviet Union to participate in all negotiations about the future of Antarctica. In reply to American opposition to pre-existing national claims, France sent an expedition to its small sector, Terre Adélie. This constituted the first such French initiative since Dumont D’Urvilles had discovered the coast in 1840. France claimed the region as French territory.

328 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

To the rest of the world, the Norwegian-British-Swedish expedition seemed to have been undertaken in accordance with the goals of scientific research. Ahlmann’s increasingly frequent comments on indications of global warming drew attention. When the New York Times wrote about his findings in 1947 and about the planned expedition to Antarctica to investigate whether the phenomenon was truly global, U.S. military strategists reacted at once. It seems that the first discussion of global warming in history took place shortly afterwards, in the inner circles of the Pentagon, at a time when the U.S.A. sought to strengthen its position in Greenland and when the Canadian Arctic was in the process of being militarised. If U.S. military strategy required glacier landing capabilities for large transport planes, conducting tank attacks on snow and ice, and building bases, radar stations, and other installations on Arctic islands (whether they be land or drift ice), climate change would raise serious tactical issues. In the future, the superpowers would need to know more about the fundamental nature of the polar regions. But before this enormous research effort got underway, a medium-sized ship carrying a group of Norwegian, British, and Swedish polar researchers helped set the stage for the next act.

Two winters in the Antarctic

Mapmaking figured prominently in the NBS expedition, as it did in the largescale American expeditions. But the NSB expedition was also to involve systematically planned research. Having scientists and technical personnel from three countries working closely alongside one another in cramped, isolated living quarters, in unfamiliar and inhospitable surroundings was a major challenge, especially given Antarctica’s history of international competition for honour and territory. The expedition leader, John Giæver, had long experience in the Arctic. Between the wars, he had worked for the NSIU in Eastern Greenland and Svalbard. When the war ended, he returned home from Canada and became department manager at NSIU/NP, where he was to use his practical expertise when the need arose. He threatened to go back to North America, where his polar experience could be put to better use. Even though Sverdrup needed a right-hand man at home, he understood that there were few others in Norway who could head the expedition. And a Swedish or British leader would have been politically unacceptable. The expedition vessel, a new sealing ship called the Norsel, was just about loaded to the gills, and there was quite simply no room for one of the expedition’s three Swedish prefabricated units. As the amount of equipment for the

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


expedition continued to increase, a decision was made to utilize the whale factory ship Thorshøvdi, in order to ship some of the equipment, together with 60 dogs, three heavy-duty snow vehicles known as Snowcats, one special drilling machine, and five of the team. The Norsel was nonetheless filled to the brim when it left Oslo on November 17th, 1949. When the other participants and provisions from Sweden and Great Britain, including two small British Royal Air Force Auster planes, came aboard, it seemed that the vessel might have trouble staying afloat on the high seas. The dogs took up most of the space on deck, in addition to equipment, a plane, prefabricated buildings and sundry cumbersome objects. As was the case with previous expeditions, the way to Antarctica, of course, lay through the broiling tropics. So, provisions began to rot, dogs got sick, and people started getting used to living in discomfort and with unpleasant odours. Fortunately, a polar expedition does not need to be stylish. As the Norsel finally neared Dronning Maud Land, the parts of the deck that were not crowded with howling dogs were covered in blood and stinking, oily lumps of whale meat; until new food supplies arrived a year later, the dogs’ only diet was comprised of fresh whale meat from the Thorshøvdi. The expedition, which was behind schedule, had to find a place to moor quickly. It soon became obvious that the ice and currents were far more problematic than previously received reports had indicated. Exhibiting first-rate seamanship, Captain Guttorm Jakobsen manoeuvred the Norsel through the outer pack ice, but the sludgy brash-ice was like frozen porridge. Approaching the coast, the expedition encountered a seemingly endless ice barrier 20 to 40 meters high. The small reconnaissance planes were set down on the water and took off to try to find a safe haven. If the expedition did not reach ‘land’ within a very short time, the expedition would have to turn around, head north to South Africa, and wait until the next summer. Under no circumstances could they take the chance that winter might close in before the camp was completely set up; and they had to be sure the Norsel did not run the risk of becoming icebound. One of the planes reported news of a small, relatively well protected bay near Cape Norvegia, where the ice conditions made it possible to unload. Unloading was rapidly begun. Nobody knew exactly what an autumn on the coast of Dronning Maud Land would involve; that daytime temperatures rapidly could drop to –20 C; and that chances of frequent storms and near-zero visibility meant that work might be interrupted and provisions could be buried in snowdrifts before everything was in place. And of course the long polar nights were a factor, even if they were only at 70° S. After hectic, sometimes roundthe-clock work, everything had been unloaded and transported to a point 2.2 kilometres from the coast, hopefully far enough from the water so none of the base camp ice broke loose and drifted out to sea.

330 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Maudheim consisted of two houses, both of them four meters high measured from their pitched roofs and with floor surfaces measuring eight by eight meters. The supplies were packed in identical crates, stacked in such a way as to create a system of corridors and rooms between and around the houses. When everything was covered with tarpaulins, the whole base was one single entity that was soon buried in snow. It was possible to move between the buildings to fetch equipment and supplies or to get to the radio room, laboratories, or diesel generators. A tall mast was installed for making meteorological observations; and regular weather reports began on February 22nd, 1950. As only two of the three originally planned housing units had been taken and erected, the camp was rather cramped for 25 men. Even though each of them had a small space entirely to himself, there were no doors and little privacy. At the end of April, the relatively good weather gave way to a storm. The men soon noticed that the wind whipped the fine snow into dense clouds of ice particles that reduced visibility to a few meters or less. It could be disastrous to go outside to check the daily radiosondes (these are comprised of a large instrument-carrying weather balloon that rose into the atmosphere while transmitting data back to the ground) or the meteorological and magnetic instruments, even though this equipment was only a short distance from the base. After a few months, the roof was covered by a half a meter of snow. The men became cave dwellers. Other surprises lay in wait. When the Antarctic winter was over, and preparations could begin for the summer expeditions to the mountains inland, it became clear that Maudheim’s apparently secure location was, in reality, nothing of the kind. The base had been built on the very edge of a glacier that had begun to float. Even though it was attached to the ice further inland, the expanse of ice moved up and down with the tides. During the winter, the expedition members fine-tuned their research plans, tested equipment, and built up mutual trust. When the winter was over, scientific work began. In September they used the dog teams and found a site for a ‘departure depot’ about 75 kilometres east of Maudheim. Then they brought in their snow caterpillar equipment, ‘weasels’, with transportation sleds in order to place about 12 tons of provisions and equipment. In October and November, they explored with dog sleds to find a more secure route to Advanced Base, located about 300 kilometres south of Maudheim, marking the route with small flags. In early December, three Snowcats transported 15 tons of supplies to Advanced Base, and from there the field parties with dog teams would leave for the mountains to do geological, topographical, and glaciological fieldwork. Swedish mechanic Bertil Ekström maintained the weasels, even though they were apparently used way beyond their limitations. In mid December, when it is midsummer in Antarctica, the scientists and their assistants finally got to work.

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


The men did not miss an opportunity to celebrate, and music always raised their spirits. Lorentzen plays a homemade percussion instrument. Rogstad plays the accordion, and Robin, the flute.

Two four-man teams left Advanced Base with 50 dogs. One of the teams was led by Ahlmann’s student, glaciologist Valter Schytt, the other by Canadian geologist Ernest Frederick Roots. One group found its way to two mountains that were jutting up out of the ice. These two 180-meter-high mountains turned out to have been mapped by the Germans, with their seaplanes, as being 800 meters high. Once again, it became obvious that accurate maps could not be based solely on aerial observations. But a much greater surprise was in store.They noticed that the mountain surface was covered by lichens of various colours. Green moss, almost two centimetres thick, illuminated the scene. As Schytt wrote, ‘For men who had not seen anything other than white wilderness for almost a year, this was like a luxuriant tropical jungle.’ Because the lichen grew all the way down to the snow, it appeared as if there was no sign that the ice had receded in recent years, at least not here. In the Arctic and sub-Arctic, there were vegetation-free belts of rocks where the ice had just receded. Could it be that polar warming was not universal? The geology team also discovered new lichen species, – and more. While they were noting figures from their observation equipment, Dr. Ove Wilson picked up a rock and saw a small mite crawling rapidly across it. Through his magnifying glass, he discerned two spider-like creatures: one of them red and active, the other brown and motionless. How had they got there? The summits of these mountains had been buried under ice for millions of years. Had the mites been frozen hard into a state of hibernation, or had it been carried by the wind from somewhere else when the ice withdrew? The geologists also noted distinctive geological layers in some of the mountains that were reminiscent of mountains on the other side of the continent. Were these two mountain chains connected under the ice and across the great, unexplored interior? After almost five and a half months, the geological party finally returned to base. Winter was approaching, and in Maudheim, Giæver and the others were furious. It had not been possible to make radio contact with the researchers, but Maudheim had communicated with the outside world, especially with the Norwegian Polar Institute, where Sverdrup waited nervously. Giæver finally sent out a search party, but after just a few days, both the search party and the researchers were back safe and sound. They had with them over a ton of rock samples. Thanks to solid logistical preparations, with sufficient food supplies at well spaced depots and carefully checked equipment, everyone had returned without serious injury. In Maudheim, however, the situation was very uncomfortable. The intense solar radiation did not melt the surface snow, but penetrated it and was absorbed by any object beneath it, so that the snow surrounding and covering the houses and tarpaulins began to melt or evaporate. Water dripped from the roofs and walls, froze and created pillars of ice that rose up from the floor. Even worse,

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


the base now became locked inside an ice mass that impeded ventilation. When the walkways had to be covered during the many big snowstorms that summer, those who didn’t go outside to make meteorological observations had to breathe smoke and carbon monoxide all day. However, there were even more serious difficulties. After the fatiguing work of setting up Advanced Base, Swedish mechanic Bertil Ekström spent a great deal of time repairing the Snowcats. On the night of February 23rd–24th, 1951, he and three other men took one of them on a test drive toward the ‘harbour’, which was now being called Norselbukta (Norsel Bay). That night the fog suddenly came rolling in from the sea and reduced visibility to nearly zero. Even though they were following a much-travelled route, they lost their way; drove over a gently sloping, four-meter-high ridge, and they plummeted into the sea. One of the men, Hallgren, managed to clamber up on to an ice floe. The others clung to the icewall, but did not realise that the sea had eroded a grotto beneath the ice. The swells carried them into that grotto, and they drowned. Meanwhile, back at Maudheim, the radio operator, Rogstad, realised that the Snowcat had been gone too long. He followed its tracks on his skis to the place three kilometres away, where the vehicle had fallen into the sea. He heard Hallgren’s cry for help. In the drama that followed, he hurried back to base and put together a rescue team that dug the expedition’s two dories out of the snow, dragged the heavy fishing boats on sleds to the site of the accident, and managed to launch one of them. Hallgren was saved. There was another serious incident, this one a medical emergency. While chiselling rock to take samples during his field trip in the mountains, geologist Alan Reece had got a rock splinter in one eye. He gradually lost his sight in that eye, but later in the winter he discovered that the other eye had become infected; and he faced the prospect of going completely blind. The expedition’s young doctor, Ove Wilson, made radio contact with one of his medical professors in Lund, who insisted that the damaged eye must be removed if the other eye was to be saved. Wilson had not performed, or even observed, this type of surgery before. Reece was kept in the dark about what was going on, while Wilson received instructions from Lund about how to perform the operation. The instruments were homemade, fashioned out of thick steel wire that had been filed and polished; the handles were taken from dental instruments, the oxygen mask made of spare parts from the Snowcats. Secret training of assistants was arranged late in the evening in the radio room. Reece was informed in mid July. He took the news calmly, and the operation began. Roots assisted, Schytt acted as nurse, Hallgren was anesthetist, and Rogstad and Liljequist monitored the patient’s blood pressure and pulse. The eye was removed in a little under three hours. Their efforts were rewarded. Reece retained his sight.

334 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

How could an inexperienced doctor remove an eye in the isolated Antarctic, with homemade instruments and medically unskilled operating assistants?

How thick is the ice?

The next summer, the geologists and glaciologists went out into the field, where they tried out new exploratory techniques. Exactly how thick was the ice, and what was the land like beneath it? Ahlmann had provided the expedition with a two-ton pressure drill from the Rockefeller Foundation, which was interested in supporting Ahlmann’s global warming studies. After much trial and error, they obtained the first ice cores from the Antarctic by boring over 100 meters down into the ice around Maudheim. The study of this ice could provide insight into the processes that convert snow into glaciers, as well as into the climate of earlier epochs. The heavy boring machine could not be transported into the interior, but other techniques were available. The Australian physicist, Gordon Robin, used oil exploration methods with seismic soundings. In principle, one could set off explosions near the surface and record the echoes from the sound waves when they bounced back up from the mountains beneath the ice. The ice thickness could be calculated from the time interval between the explosion and the echo. Attempts made during Byrd’s second expedition showed the ice in Marie Byrd Land to be between 300 and 600 meters thick. But not much more than this was known. Some scientists and explorers claimed, in fact, that Eastern and Western Antarctica were separated by a canal linking the Weddell and Ross seas. Were the mountaintops that poked up out of the ice several hundred or several thousand meters high? It was time to replace guesswork with fact. Yet another party headed inland. Seismic sounding showed that under an apparently shallow valley of ice, there was hidden an enormous inlet surrounded by massive mountains; not unlike a Norwegian fjord. As they moved higher and higher up, it became harder and harder to hear any echoes. One sounding indicated a thickness of 2,000 meters, which they thought was wrong, since the thickest ice that had been discovered on Byrd’s expedition had been only 700 meters thick. Soon they reached a central plateau, at an elevation of more than 2,000 meters above sea level, where they heard no echoes. Robin decided to stay there and experiment instead of pushing on in unknown terrain. After six days of frustration and trying every conceivable means of detonating explosives – over, on, and under the snow – he used a Snowcat to compress the snow, which often collapsed after an explosion and caused vibrations that interfered with the echoes. It worked. Now, after setting off charges more than ten meters beneath the surface, they were able to record echoes. After 48 detonations at the same location, they ascertained that the ice was an unbelievable 2,400 meters thick, and that the land surface was 300 meters above sea level. These were the first reliable and systematic seismic tests of ice thickness in Antarctica. Further tests on the way back to Maudheim revealed a total of five ‘fjords’ under Dronning Maud Land.

336 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Back in Maudheim, the Norsel had come to take them home. But also on board the ship were men from the Swedish Air Force who, under the command of Captain Reinhold von Essen, initiated an extensive program of aerial photography. Their photographs supplemented the surveying work that had been done during two summers by men travelling by dog team and Snowcat. The combination of coordinated surveying on the ground and photography from the air provided the most reliable foundation for dependable maps of the region, and could help support Norway’s claim to Dronning Maud Land. The Norsel left Antartica on January 15th, 1952, carrying the expedition members and a small mountain of geological materials, piles pf notebooks full of meteorological, magnetic, and other scientific observations, plus a sealed box in the ship’s cold-storage room that contained a moss-covered rock swarming with the newly discovered species of mite. The daily meteorological observations showed that the maximum temperature at Maudheim was only +0.1 C, while the lowest registered temperatures were – 46.0 C in July 1950 and – 47.0 C in 1951. A wind velocity of over 30 m/s was recorded a few times, but more striking, or frightening, was that the storms and hurricanes lasted for days and weeks on end. Despite the tragic accident, the expedition was so far counted a success. An expedition, however, is only the first stage in a scientific process. The data and experiences gathered have to be analysed, worked up, written up, published, and made available to other researchers before they can be considered a contribution to science. In that respect, Norway’s record for this expedition was a modest one. Participants in the NBS expedition began to work on their scientific results. Preliminary articles appeared in Polar Record and in scientific journals for geological, biological, and geophysical studies. Reports were issued detailing things that had been learned about logistics, clothing, and what it was like to live in Antarctica for two years. But not much came from Norway. Five years after the expedition returned, two of the British geologists from the expedition implored the Norwegian Polar Institute to publish the long-awaited maps of the region. It was no secret that Norway’s polar science community and the Institute had failed to fulfill its declared objective: to create Europe’s leading polar research establishment.

Modified ambitions

The Polar Research Institute was far too understaffed and under-resourced to follow up on the NBS expedition properly. It was the foreign participants who made most of the scientific contributions, in the form of studies and publications. Norwegian contributions based on the expedition emerged little by little,

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


When the Norsel arrived with new supplies in January 1951 it had also transported two planes for reconnaissance and mapping purposes.

many years later. For quite some time, Sverdrup had realised that Norway’s immediate polar prospects did not look promising. He understood long before the Antarctic expedition that it would not be easy to obtain money for a dynamic new institute, and that an expansion of the scientific staff would not take place in the foreseeable future. Nor was it easy to obtain funding for research, in excess of the Polar Research Institute’s budget. Its limited staff was fully occupied preparing and conducting practical work and field studies for the short, intense summer expeditions to Svalbard. There was far too little time and too few resources to analyse scientific observations. The salaries were not very competitive, and the place was run more like a ministerial bureaucracy than a scientific institution. Sverdrup’s attempts to get the government to make changes came up, time and time again; and met a wall of resistance. The Polar Research Institute provided logistical support for Svalbard expeditions to researchers at other institutions and to foreign enterprises. While scientists from Great Britain, scientific groups from Poland and other nations made high-profile contributions on Svalbard and to polar research generally, Norway trailed behind. Certainly, Norwegians continued to make interesting fossil finds, to map geological discoveries, and to record a number of new biological species, but none of these contributions can be seen as trail-blazing or particularly noteworthy in comparison with the contemporaneous accomplishments of other countries in the field of polar research. The polar institute’s low budget made it unthinkable to gamble on future efforts in the Antarctic. What had gone wrong? Ahlmann’s plans, Sverdrup’s hopes and the government’s enthusiastic initial support were founded on the belief that Norway needed to act largely alone in order to defend its polar territories. The government’s 1946 declaration that the new institute would lead the way in European polar research was based on the expectation that extensive polar activity would be necessary, that related commercial and scientific activity in the region would expand, and that it would provide the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with support in negotiations with other countries. In the course of a few years, however, the entire political landscape had changed; Norway entered NATO. Furthermore, the Soviet Union silently abandoned its demand to renegotiate the Svalbard Treaty, and to establish a joint defence for the territory. The death of Stalin in 1953 raised hopes that tensions between East and West might be further reduced, in the Arctic as elsewhere. The U.S.A. and NATO, however, were not far away; there were already many high-tech military bases on Greenland and Iceland, in Alaska and in northern Canada. In the early and mid 1950s, the Norwegian state did not consider it necessary to spend more than a minimal amount to keep the Polar Institute and Svalbard up and running. In many ways it was Orvin’s point of view that prevailed, not politically,

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


but de facto – through economic necessity. Unlike other countries’ polar institutes, which could rejoice in their close relationships with universities and which enjoyed the prestige that goes with being a scientific institution, the Norwegian Polar Institute was part of the Ministry of Industry, and thus far from the center of the action, as far as Norwegian scientific research was concerned. The Polar Institute was, however, able to boast researchers like Olav Liestøl, the country’s foremost glaciologist, and Torgny Vinje, its leading researcher specializing in oceanic ice. Orvin and his staff continued their work on Svalbard and in the Arctic. With their years of experience, they knew everything about planning and conducting the annual trips to Svalbard and Jan Mayen. They coordinated their activities logistically with those of other organisations, continued seeking out natural resources that might be worth exploiting, and mapped out all the sea and land areas in the vicinity. They furthermore had responsibility for an expanding communication infrastructure (for example, with lighthouses) and, until the late 1950s, for various tasks relating to Norwegian activities in northeastern Greenland. Most of the Polar Institute efforts were expended on mapmaking, on land and at sea.

The International Geophysical Year

A dinner party in Silver Springs Maryland, in 1950, marked the beginning of what would be the largest international scientific project ever, and one that created unprecedented problems for Norwegian polar policy. Sydney Chapman, the veteran British geophysicist, had been invited to the home of the physicist James van Allen. One of the guests, Lloyd Berkner, suggested that the time had come to organise a third international polar year. The first polar year, in 1882–83, had seen an international collaborative effort to set up stations for simultaneous weather observations, geomagnetism, and the Northern Lights, and it inspired a second try. The second international polar year, in 1932–33, had expanded scientific and geophysical horizons, though the worldwide economic depression limited its scope. Berkner, a polar and ionosphere researcher with strong political connections in Washington, D.C., suggested that a third international year should be expanded into a large-scale collaboration, exploring the entire globe, and more: the earth’s crust, sea, air, upper atmosphere, the inner reaches of outer space, and the sun. The rapid development of advanced environmental and transportation technology during and after the war led to the hope of achieving a revolution in human understanding of the planet. Rockets had already begun probing the upper atmosphere; other new logistic devices put great ocean sea depths and previously inaccessible ‘polar regions’

340 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

within reach. Berkner, who expected further such progress, placed particular emphasis on the Antarctic and the electronically charged layer of the upper atmosphere – the ionosphere – as well as conditions in the layers of outer space closest to earth. Earlier in the century, an international council for organising scientific collaboration had been established. It included high-level committees and an intricate system of commissions devoted to various scientific disciplines, within which specialists from member nations could plan joint projects and exchange data. Every country had its own national committee and sent representatives to the international commissions. Berkner and many of his colleagues on national and international research councils worked energetically for the new cause, and within a year the International Council of Scientific Unions issued a proposal for an International Geophysical Year (IGY). This ‘year’ would last 18 months, from July 1957 to December 1958, a major reason for this being, that a maximum number of sunspots were expected during this period. Nations on every continent took part in the planning. When IGY began, 68 countries had established scientific programs that included about 60,000 participants, all told. Many believed the IGY rhetoric that was broadcast around the world; this was pure science, and not politics. Even in the midst of the Cold War, the public was told that science and scientists could rise above political differences and, in the name of knowledge, work together in the interests of humanity. But the situation was really much more complicated than that, both politically and strategically. U.S. President Eisenhower was especially eager to support IGY, partly to encourage the commitment of his nation’s human resources to scientific ends, which, he saw, was vital if America wished to retain world leadership; America’s IGY plans involved massive coordination of schools and media with the goal of nurturing young people’s fascination with science. But Eisenhower and his advisors also understood that Soviet activity in the Arctic and Antarctic required careful monitoring and containment, to which the IGY could contribute in various ways. Norway also began to plan for the IGY. A committee of leading Norwegian specialists was established, but at first neither Sverdrup nor other representatives of the Polar Institute were members. In cooperation with the international commissions, the committee set up a tentative list of projects and proposals for observation stations, which would be discussed at a meeting in Rome in October 1954.

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


New Antarctic expedition?

On October 25th, 1954, Robert N. Magill, an attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, paid a visit to Gustav Heiberg, Assistant Secretary at the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He had something on his mind. At the IGY meeting in Rome, Antarctica had turned out to be a particular problem. During the IGY program, no fewer than 21 scientific stations were envisioned in Antarctica, but even so there would be many gaps between them, areas where it would be especially useful to collect data, but to which no country had yet planned to send an expedition. In Rome, the Soviet Union had unexpectedly stated that it would participate in the IGY. But to what extent and with what level of resources? The U.S.A. felt forced to enlist its allies in counter-efforts. Magill asked Heiberg what plans Norway had for establishing bases in Antarctica during the IGY. Heiberg didn’t know. Shortly afterwards, Heiberg asked Sverdrup whether Norway had any IGY plans for Antarctica. Sverdrup just said ‘no’. Norwegian scientists had attempted to do the impossible on extremely limited funding. Other reasons aside, cost efficiency alone made it necessary to focus on Svalbard. Heiberg grew uneasy. ‘Our sovereignty claims in Antarctica are so weak that we should do what we can to strengthen them. This is especially the case if the Soviet Union is thinking of doing something there, since it will likely only be the precursor to larger-scale activities aimed at establishing a Soviet presence.’ Heiberg contacted the two leaders of Norway’s IGY committee. He and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs soon received another surprise when Professor of Theoretical Meteorology Halvor Solberg, one of the leaders of Norway’s IGY committee, came in for a briefing. Solberg had good contacts with American and Soviet scientists, many of whom had strong ties to their national security agencies. Solberg wrote a memo about Soviet activities in the Arctic, about the American fear that Norway was not tending to its territorial claims assiduously enough, and about the possibility of obtaining American assistance in establishing Arctic weather stations, as well as about other nations’ interests in Antarctica. Despite the obvious importance of these matters to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the memo gathered dust somewhere in the Ministry of Education and Church Affairs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was alarmed. Heiberg circulated Solberg’s memo around the Ministry, and wrote his comment on it. ‘It looks as if the period surrounding the International Geophysical Year of 1957–58 can be extremely critical for our Arctic and Antarctic posesssions.’ Solberg summed up recent developments regarding Norway’s IGY activities. The plan for the IGY was that participating nations should make observations along three degrees of longitude from pole to pole and two degrees of latitude around the entire earth. From stations on or near these lines and other

342 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

spots, various observations of a geophysical nature were to take place at given points in time. The longitudinal sections were to pass through America, Asia, Australia and Europe and Africa along 10° E. Polar stations in the north and south along these sectors were especially prioritised. Norway and other Scandinavian countries were assigned the special task of recording observations along the 10° E longitude line southward from Svalbard. In Antarctica, they were to study the area from 10° E (Dronning Maud Land and Bouvet Island) up to and including Peter I Island on the other side of the continent, at 90° W. At its inception in 1953, Norway’s IGY committee decided that spending enormous sums on expeditions that required basic investments would be a waste of research funds. By definition, then, an expedition to Antarctica was ruled out. No matter what was left of the Maudheim camp after the NBS expedition, it would be unusable by 1957. In the committee’s view, the limited sum that could be spent on the IGY by Norway should go to the enlargement of existing facilities on the mainland and in the Arctic. The committee seems not to have been particularly enthusiastic about Arctic stations, but soon recognized that political considerations had to be incorporated into their plans. As early as in 1953, Lloyd Berkner had urged the Norwegian committee to evaluate the stations at Svalbard, Jan Mayen, and Bjørnøya. When he heard that Norway would probably not manage all three, he began to seek out collaborative partners, such as the Canadian Defence Research Institute, which was interested in Jan Mayen. Bjørnøya was far more problematic. The island was relatively unimportant for Norway where weather forecasts were concerned, since most weather systems come to Norway from the southwest, reaching mainland Norway and Bjørnøya more or less simultaneously. But for Soviet weather forecasts, the island was extremely important. Berkner was still in close contact with U.S. politicians who were preoccupied with national security, and Berkner was of the opinion that Norway had to set up a station. The question on everyone’s mind was: What was the Soviet Union planning to do? A diplomat at the Soviet Embassy, in numerous discussions, had enlightened Solberg about something that Norwegian meteorologists had noticed in Soviet telegrams about weather. Invariably, at the end of these Soviet telegrams, there was undecipherable material that, Solberg now learned, consisted of coded observations from the drifting ice floes ‘North Pole III’ and ‘“North Pole IV’. At IGY meetings, American scientists told Solberg that the Russians had set up stations for sending up radio-transmitting weather balloons (radiosonde) and airbases on ‘North Pole III’ and ‘North Pole IV’ to investigate the prospects for future aviation in the region. The Americans also suspected that the Russians planned to stockpile military equipment, perhaps even atomic weapons, in the Arctic. Why had the Russians recently set up a radiosonde station outside Barentsburg? Were they going to build an airstrip on one of the nearby glaciers?

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


Was there anything in the rumours that Soviet coal transports were heavier on the way north than on the way back? Had they begun to store weapons and military equipment in the mines? After receiving Solberg’s report, the Foreign Ministry called in representatives of the Ministries of Education and Church Affairs, Justice, Finance, and Defence, plus Sverdrup and Solberg, to discuss the problems the IGY posed for Norway’s polar territories.

The IGY and Norwegian interests

On December 17th, 1954, foreign advisor Skylstad met with Sverdrup and Solberg, amongst others, for an initial general discussion of Norway’s IGY policy. All agreed that Norway needed to participate actively in its Arctic territories: Bjørnøya, Jan Mayen, and especially Cape Linné, near Soviet activity in the vicinity of Barentsburg. The Antarctic posed larger problems. In any case, two Norwegians should take part in a proposed South African expedition to Bouvet Island; and perhaps they could set up a station there. An expedition to Dronning Maud Land was absolutely necessary, but to which part of this huge territory? It turned out that Norway could not afford to send more than one expedition to Antarctica, and even that proved extremely expensive for the Norwegian government. But should the station be at 11° W, near Maudheim, or at 10° E? If a place was chosen near Maudheim, far to the west in the territory Norway claimed, the project would be cheaper, the landing probably easier, and the observations more readily comparable to data from the NBS expedition, so that the scientific value of both would be greater. But this seemingly good choice could also be more problematic. If Norway chose a place near Maudheim, the area around the 10° E longitude would be easy prey for a foreign power, such as the Soviet Union. A foreign power, no matter what its long-term intentions, could use the IGY to justify an occupation of Norway’s territory, because the place lay within the prioritised observation area. These and other questions about the Arctic were discussed at a Ministry of Foreign Affairs meeting on January 18th, 1955, attended by representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education and Church Affairs, Industry, Finance, and Defence, plus Professor Solberg. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed the need to establish a Bjørnøya station as soon as possible, even before the IGY began, in order to deny the Russians a pretext for doing so. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also emphasised that, unlike Norway’s official IGY committee, it took a serious view of the international agreement to establish stations along the 10° E longitude, and that included Norway’s Antarctic territories. Heiberg reported on his meeting with U.S. attaché Magill, who had

344 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Planes and snowcats not withstanding dog teams remained important Antarctic map-making expeditions.

pointed out the five ‘gaps’ in Antarctica that had to be filled before the Russians stepped in. Of these, Prinsesse Astrid Coast was one of the most important for Norway. Heiberg made it clear that if the Russians decided to send an expedition to Antarctica, they would likely pick Dronning Maud Land, not only because of its favourable location with regard to IGY objectives, ‘but also because Norway is the weakest of the countries with possessions there.’ Foreign Minister Lange declared that Norway had to take this opportunity of participating. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs understood very well how important it was for Norway to take part in Antarctic research and at international conferences that coordinated such research. Not everyone shared this view. At a staff meeting at the Ministry in May 1955, Foreign Minister Lange once again rejected the pleas of Norwegian scientists to devote all of Norway’s IGY resources to strengthen its Arctic efforts. No less a personage than astrophysicist Svein Rosseland, a leading member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences, with his irrefutable political and research stature, argued that it was also necessary for practical reasons to focus on the Arctic; Scandinavian Airlines was about to open its new routes over the North Pole and needed more reliable weather forecasts. Also, the IGY would study sunspots, which because of their expected intensity would cause major Arctic storms and have geophysical consequences, which in turn would have repercussions for which Norway should be prepared. Lange then made it clear that he considered ‘a Norwegian expedition to Antarctica to be of such great importance to foreign policy that we should try to get it going.’ But it was easier said than done. How would an expedition be transported to Queen Maud Land? Whaling ship-owner Lars Christensen said none of his vessels was available. Christensen was willing to pay some expedition expenses and would transport participants as far as South Georgia. But after the factory ship took it to South Georgia, how would the expedition travel the rest of the way to Dronning Maud Land? Lange declared that Sverdrup should immediately settle this question, and adjust the budget accordingly; and he, himself, would bring up the matter with the government as soon as possible. If Norway could announce its official plans for Dronning Maud Land soon, it would lower political pressure from without, as well as speculation at home. All discussions were still ‘strictly confidential’.

No peace of mind in sight

Sverdrup provided a dizzying estimate for an IGY-related Antarctic expedition: over four million kroner. But this included 340,000 kroner for a topographical project that – if the base was set up on the Prime Meridian – could travel as far as to 15° E and map the region photographed by the German Schwabenland

346 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

expedition in 1939. Such maps might prove very important in any future territorial dispute, and would make it possible to give Norwegian names to land formations in the area. Sverdrup maintained that if Norway could ‘collaborate’ with other countries, receive supplies from other countries’ stations after the first winter, and bring its expedition home in January of 1959, the savings would amount to 700,000 kroner. Might the U.K. or Argentina, both of which planned stations in the Weddell Sea, west of Dronning Maud Land, possibly contribute such assistance? The various considerations regarding where to send an expedition is a reminder of just how sensitive Norway’s Antarctic policy was half a century ago. Great Britain and Argentina had reached deadlock in a territorial dispute that bordered on armed conflict at times. Did Argentina have ambitions in Dronning Maud Land? Even though the Norwegian sector was probably too far to the east of Argentina’s territorial claims to be dragged into a sovereignty dispute, nothing could be certain. What if Great Britain won the conflict over its territorial claims? Would a potential loss like that lead Argentina to demand more territory farther east, including parts of Dronning Maud Land? Could Norway be sure that if it allowed for a collaborative effort where Argentina visited the Norwegian station, that Argentina might not capitalize on this at some future date, as the basis for a territorial claim? Everything would be so much simpler if the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could persuade the British to help Norway. The IGY planning meetings in Paris caused Oslo more headaches. It turned out that only eleven countries (the U.S.A., France, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina, Norway, South Africa, Belgium, and the Soviet Union) planned expeditions to Antarctica. When it became clear that there were still large holes in the Antarctic network, some countries offered to set up stations to fill the holes, and the Soviet Union announced that it would help by sending at least one substantial expedition to Antartica, either to Knox Coast in the Australian sector or to Prinsesse Astrid Coast in the Norwegian sector. This was precisely what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had always feared would happen if Norway did not send an expedition to 10° E longitude. The Soviet announcement caused three other countries to declare, shortly thereafter, their willingness to take responsibility for a station on Knox Coast. Now it seemed that the Soviet Union had only one choice when it came to realizing its historic right to Antarctic territory. The year 1955 looked as if it would turn into a long, hot polar summer for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Then problems suddenly emerged in the Arctic. The Swedes decided to pull out of a cooperative venture with Norway on Cape Linné. Instead, they would join Finnish scientists in setting up a station in Nordaustlandet. Officially, the Swedes claimed that research at Cape Linné was affected by magnetic disturbances from Isfjord Radio. But rumours

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


and private messages from Swedish scientists seemed to suggest that the real reason was that the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs believed that a large station at Cape Linné was much too close to the Russian outpost on Svalbard. Now the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to struggle to secure more funding and get the difficult construction work completed as quickly as possible. An indication of how tense the political situation had become regarding Russian ambitions in the North and the South was news from a Nordic archaeological dig on Svalbard that caused the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to intervene. Scientists from Tromsø Museum took part in the Nordic expedition to Russekeila in Bellsund on Svalbard. Their summer’s work proved very fruitful. Having dug 60 cm down and uncovered three layers of settlements, the expedition sent back a large trove of archaeological finds from Russian activity in the 18th century. But amongst the excavated objects there seemed to be finds from earlier periods, including flint tools that some believed might date back to the Stone Age. The news and rumours led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to write a memo expressing a fear that the Russians might use these finds against Norway. Even though such arguments, based on earlier settlements, would not have strictly legal relevance, the Ministry was preoccupied with the fact that under certain circumstance the find could influence public opinion, especially in the Soviet Union. The archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs contains clippings that include an Aftenposten newspaper article dated August 24th, 1955, entitled ‘Rich archeological finds at Svalbard’ and a memo contributed by Heiberg, in which he writes: ‘I fear there is a danger that these explorations will bring to light too many traces of Russian activity in early times.’ As to the question of whether the archeological dig should be continued, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs believed that the dig should continue on as broad a scale as possible. That way Norway could ‘keep tabs on what is found’ in as much as this was possible and ‘so that the Russians could not beat us to it.’ It was never easy to guess what the Russians were thinking. In late August, the Norwegian embassy in Moscow sent a synopsis of the latest news. Soviet newspapers had suddenly ceased their sharp attacks on U.S. and Western military plans in the Antarctic. The Russians looked forward to collaborating in the name of science with the U.S.A. and other countries that sought to advance knowledge. The news that a purely scientific Soviet expedition would start out a year before the IGY’s formal beginning did not come as a surprise, but the people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs certainly breathed a collective sigh of relief when it became publicly known that the large Soviet expedition, with its many planes, helicopters, Snowcats, and dog sleds, would not go to Dronning Maud Land but to Knox Coast. Even though further logistical and political problems cropped up in the planning and implementation of Norway’s IGY effort, the worst was over. But

348 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

nobody at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could then foresee that the same politicised scientific activity that caused so much tension and cost so much money would later pave the way for a solution to Norway’s problems in Antarctica.

The Norway Station expedition

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs concluded that Norway needed to send yet another expedition to the Antarctic mainland. The government proposed it, the Parliament adopted it, and the Norwegian Polar Institute had to organise it. Sverdrup took on the organisation, hoping that meteorologist Nils Jørgen Schumacher could lead the expedition. Schumacher had been Norway’s top scientist on the NBS expedition in 1949–52. During two winters in Antarctica, he had gained practical knowledge of how to operate, on the micro and macro levels, under difficult conditions. He was also able to achieve the most satisfactory scientific results with very modest resources. But Schumacher was on loan from the Norwegian Meteorological Institute, and it was not possible to get him transferred full-time to the Polar Institute at the same salary. As a sign that the era of heroic polar expeditions was essentially over, Schumacher pointed out that he had already spent two years in polar isolation and was now a family man. Norway’s expedition, like all expeditions to Antarctica, would entail risk, discomfort, and hard work under harsh weather conditions. Furthermore, no fame and renown, or even scientific recognition, would necessarily ensue. Schumacher was willing to take part in and even lead the expedition, but he refused to accept a pay cut. In the end, participants were recruited from the Norwegian Polar Institute and elsewhere. On November 10th, 1956, the two Norwegian sealing vessels Polarsirkel and Polarbjørn left Oslo with an expedition team of 14 led by the geodesist Sigurd Helle of the Norwegian Polar Institute. The team consisted of two meteorologists, a glaciologist, and three scientific assistants, plus mechanics, a military doctor, a radio operator, a chief steward, and a dog-sled driver. They took with them two Snowcats, 44 huskies, and two years’ worth of provisions. The station would be operative from about January of 1957 to January of 1959. The ships reached the ice front at Dronning Maud Land in the vicinity of 10° E on December 26th. One ship turned east, the other west, to find a place to land and set up a station 30– 40 kilometres inland. The Polarbjørn found a landing site at about 70° S 2° W, and on January 7th, the men found a suitable spot for the station. Bad weather delayed work for a week, and whereas many other countries used helicopters, the Norwegians transported tons of equipment, building materials, and supplies by Snowcat forty kilometres inland, where they set up Norway Station.

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


Winter has settled over Norway Station. It was one of the smallest stations in the Antarctic during the 1957–58 International Geophysical Year.

They got to work collecting observations and data on meteorology, ozone, geomagnetism, glaciology, the Northern Lights, tides, and biology. A distinctive device at Norway Station was a specially constructed radiosonde shack with a detachable roof that made it easier to send up the expensive balloons, which was the expedition’s most important task. Experience from the NBS expedition indicated that it had been difficult to release the balloons and ensure that they rose in a storm or hurricane. A lack of funds, equipment, and personnel prevented measurements of the ionosphere or advanced glaciological and geological work. Even though it was not a part of the IGY program, Helle led a small field party with two Snowcats and two dog teams to about 8° E to supplement the geodetic and topographical work that the expedition had begun. This field work was not only of scientific but also of political significance, because it made possible the production of a detailed regional map. The only major mishap on the trip was that one of the Snowcats fell into a glacial crevasse far inland while driving in a heavy snowstorm, and it could not be recovered. The crew set up a base camp and used dogsleds to do the major field work in the nearby mountains. Norway and Great Britain agreed to work together. The Norwegian Polar Institute and the Royal Society jointly hired a Norwegian ship, the Tottan, to pay a relief visit to its stations in November 1957. Three members of the team that stayed for the winter were replaced by a new doctor, mechanic, and chief steward. The Norwegian expedition made a modest but solid contribution. It was as honourable an attempt as one could hope for under such basic conditions. Norway Station was one of the smallest of more than fifty stations in Antarctica. Norway still had polar experience that other nations lacked. Late-comers to IGY planning, both Japan and Belgium decided to ask Norway for permission to send expeditions to the eastern parts of Dronning Maud Land. Both countries needed technical advice and logistical assistance. Japan made it clear that it did not need scientific help of any kind; both countries sent larger and scientifically more advanced expeditions than Norway. But it was the Americans and Soviets that won the media competition and the attention for scientific accomplishments. The U.S.A. used heavy cargo planes to set up a large station in the eastern interior, which had been the most inaccessible part of the continent. America’s many stations, and its huge investment in logistics, scientific equipment, advanced research programs, and veritable armies of scientists and engineers, aided by significant contributions from Great Britain, France, Australia, and others, yielded the first detailed picture of Antarctica’s physical environment. It introduced a new era in polar science. In other countries around the world, equally exciting scientific work and systematic data collection under the IGY program laid the groundwork for

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


Was the heroic image of polar researchers on the wane? Odd Gjeruldsen, Niels S. Nergaard, and Bjørn Grytøyr hard at work at Norway Station.

revolutionary new scientific theories about the earth, sea, air, and space. Three world data centres collected veritable mountains of material from around the world. It served for decades as a repository of knowledge that could be visited by scientists of all nations. Equally open borders were maintained during the IGY itself; scientists from one nation had the right to visit any other nation’s installation. This ability to run a massive collaborative undertaking in the middle of the Cold War in the name of humanity and science was in itself big news. But nothing could match the sensation when the Soviet Union humiliated the U.S. by launching the world’s first satellite, Sputnik, into orbit and sent a dog into space. The U.S.A. had announced its plans to put a satellite into orbit during the IGY, and this was a major priority of President Eisenhower. But even if the start of America’s space program was less than spectacular, it created a sensation, at least in the scientific community. Rockets carrying advanced instruments beyond the outer atmosphere revealed that the earth was surrounded by massive belts of energy-rich electrically charged particles, later called the Van Allen belt. This raised questions in the media about the extreme danger of manned space trips; but even more important, it broadened understanding about how the sun affects the earth. New advanced theories about the Northern Lights and magnetic polar storms followed. Other major IGY developments included the arrival of American submarines at the North Pole, the arrival of cargo planes with provisions for U.S. and Soviet scientists working on the islands of drift ice, and the U.S. experimental studies of artificial Northern Lights during atomic-weapon tests over remote stretches of ocean. Equally overwhelming for every other nation that hoped to remain at the forefront of polar research, geophysical science generally, was that both the Soviet Union and the U.S.A. began to spend large sums of money on laboratories, research centres, and especially on training immense numbers of new scientists.

What would the future be in Antarctica?

Even before the IGY formally began, rumours circulating among participating countries sent a chilling gust of polar wind through the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The U.S.A. wished to extend IGY by a year. Arguing that such an extension would better recoup the enormous investments in the establishment of scientific stations, the U.S.A. sent just such a proposal for an extension to the international commission. The Americans also called for a new international commission that would plan, coordinate, and administer future scientific work in Antarctica. Norway’s first reaction was decidedly negative. The Norwegian Polar Institute and Ministry of Foreign Affairs were in agreement. In their view, a year-long extension of Norway’s activities at Norway

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


Station would not be in the country’s best interests. Sverdrup and Heiberg agreed that if all the other countries involved decided to stay an extra year, Norway would be obliged to acquiesce for political reasons. The proposed commission was reminiscent of America’s first attempt to internationalise the Antarctic continent, back in 1948. Even if Norway preferred not establishing such a commission, it did not want to be viewed as hostile to the idea in case it proved successful. Therefore, Norway neither actively supported the proposal nor openly opposed it. It was no secret that the extension of many of the countries’ scientific programs for a year, and then for an additional unspecified period, might lead to the conversion of their stations into military bases. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomat observed that even if science was the dominant motive for the enormous activity planned for Antarctica, it would be ‘starry-eyed to believe that everything that happens is dictated by purely scientific considerations and needs.’ In all, the conflict between Great Britain and South America, the rivalry between the superpowers, and Japan’s sudden massive investment in Dronning Maud Land made it necessary for Norway to ‘keep an eye on what the various countries are up to, there.’ The International Research Council invited nations with large Antarctic stations to send delegates to a special ad hoc planning meeting in Stockholm in September 1957. Two ‘hot potatoes’ dominated the agenda: America’s proposal to extend the IGY and the founding of a new commission to administer scientific activity in Antarctica once the IGY was over. Sverdrup was to take part, and in consultation with the Ministry he agreed that he would seek to thwart a resolution on the extension of the IGY.115 But Sverdrup died suddenly, and in his place the Ministry sent Halvor Solberg, who shared the Ministry’s deep suspicions about the U.S. initiative. In their view, it was only one more American attempt to internationalise Antarctica. Fortunately for Norway, for the Antarctic continent, for science, and even for world peace, the scale of the Red Menace brought about an entirely different result than the one the Ministry of Foreign Affairs originally had hoped for. Privately, the U.S. representative sought to convince several delegates, including Solberg, that it would be easier to monitor Soviet operations if scientific activity were coordinated by a new international organisation, in which inspection teams and guest researchers were an integral part. Just as with the IGY, all scientific stations would function openly and all data be made public. He believed U.S. intelligence reports indicated that no matter what the international committee decided, the Soviets wished to continue activity at their stations and build new ones. But was this information reliable? Disagreement at the meeting ended when the Soviet representative arrived late and confirmed the American warnings: The Soviet Union did indeed plan to step up research,

354 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

on land and at sea. The U.S. proposals offered the only opportunities of counterbalancing and monitoring the Soviets’ threatening proximity. Norway and other opponents changed their stance. But the vote was only advisory; official resolutions by the entire international IGY committee were several months off. Heiberg, in Oslo, realised what this would mean for Norway. ‘Because of current developments in Antarctic issues, we will have to consider revising our “nationalistic” Antarctic policy and begin to think about an internationalisation in some form or other.’ New international agreements about the administration of Antarctica were about to be formulated; a commission would be established in one form or another to administer the continent. Would some delegates insist on eliminating all earlier territorial claims? Would a new means of redistributing old and new tensions completely alter the political landscape? Would the continent be redivided on the basis of superpower dominance? Nothing was certain, other than that if Norway wanted to have any say in the fate of Dronning Maud Land, it must be solidly represented on the new commission. Was a station during the IGY enough? Heiberg and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could not risk marginalizing Norway from the outset, and called for a year’s extension of the work at Norway Station. A new expedition would have to be sent, and would have to include planes, to complete the mapping of Dronning Maud Land, and get a head start on international manoeuvres. These maps, photographs, and measurements would be the cards Norway had up its sleeve when playing the new Antarctic game of territorial claims, or when participating in working out terms for the continent’s internationalisation. New developments were taking place. On September 17th, 1957, at what later proved to be an historic meeting, the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) formed a new commission to coordinate scientific research in Antarctica after the IGY. Though there would be further discussions about political framework, the new panel was already viewed as essential to the continent’s future management. Each of the twelve active IGY countries in Antarctica was asked to appoint a scientist to represent it on the new Special Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). Because of its IGY activity at Norway Station, Norway was invited to participate. The invitation, however, was sent to the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters in Oslo. Since the Academy had not been briefed by the government, and since many leading Norwegian scientists were not interested in Antarctic research and considered it a waste of money, nothing happened. The Academy failed to appoint a Norwegian delegate. The date of the first meeting was set, but Norway had still not replied to the invitation. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs got wind of this, it was shocked. The Academy, confronted with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ political need for a delegate on SCAR, agreed to name any candidate the Ministry wanted.

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


The Ministry made inquiries. With so little support from scientists, the Ministry realised that despite the supposedly apolitical nature of the committee, it would have to pay its delegate’s expenses and ‘camouflage’ the funding source. Leiv Harang represented Norway at the SCAR meeting in The Hague in February. He reported back to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the major activities planned by other countries. The plans suggested that Antarctic science was changing in character; expeditions were being replaced by semi-permanent bases. Harang’s comments underscored how lamentable Norway’s position had become. Money was only one of the obstacles to success. Norway had no polar researchers to run and use Norway Station. If Norway chose to spend large sums to continue its Antarctic efforts, it would also have to spend large amounts of money nurturing a group of polar researchers. Expeditions from other countries were led by internationally renowned scientists, and were organised through scientific institutions of recognized high quality. Norway was not in the same league. Norway was also the only country that had not said it would maintain its station after the IGY was over.

The Antarctic Treaty

In the midst of deliberations as to how Norway should respond to the new Antarctic initiatives, Foreign Minister Halvard Lange informed Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs in March 1958 of Norway’s need to reassess its priorities. In his remarks, we can glimpse the shape of a new national polar policy and can grasp why it was necessary to make some hard choices. Lange discussed the need to reverse Norway’s previous rejection of the planned internationalisation of Antarctica. In 1948, when the U.S.A. had proposed a demilitarised Antarctic with an eye to international scientific collaboration, Norway had expressed interest in the general principle, but had decisively rejected the idea of international governance. ‘Norway [can] for national and political reasons not [...] surrender its exclusive sovereignty over what is Norwegian territory.’ Now, the new initiative represented pretty much the same concept. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the government called for a change in Norway’s position. In the context of developments in global politics, the proposed Antarctica initiative would be a worthwhile experiment in international cooperation within a geographical region. But did the government have good reasons for ‘such a radical alteration of Norwegian policy’? In reply, Lange explained the basis for the current policy. In the beginning, he said, policies had been directed mainly by national whaling interests, but it had also reflected a desire to cling to Norway’s ‘reputation as one of the leading nations in polar research’. Eventually,

356 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

A view of America’s McMurdo Station in the early 1960s. At the end of the ‘main street’ is the chapel. Norwegian polar expeditions seemed modest by comparison.

however, whaling techniques and vessels changed; Norwegian whaling interests now owned enormous factory ships that operated far off the coast, and thus no longer needed land bases for their operations. Few representatives of the whaling business were ready to sacrifice a great deal just to maintain Norway’s prestige as a polar nation. Lange admitted that the main purpose of Norway’s scientific work ‘in Antarctica recently, had been to strengthen our sovereignty claims’; purely scientific interests had been secondary. Even if Norway decided to continue pursuing an active policy, there would still be a question of whether it had the financial means or personnel to administer it. If Norway resumed its active policy in Antarctica, it must be prepared to work continuously on that continent for many years. But was it worth the financial costs when (1) continued minimal operation of the Norwegian station was of low scientific value; (2) Norway’s territorial claims were of doubtful significance to whalers; and (3) there was hope that an international agreement could be negotiated that did not ensure any nations’ rights to sovereignty? Lange informed the Committee on foreign Affairs that the government had realised that it was time for a thorough re-evaluation of polar policy in the light of ‘what we can manage to do and what we really need to maintain for genuine business or foreign-policy reasons’. In his own opinion, he concluded that a closer examination of these problems ‘must lead to our awarding Svalbard and the operations there highest priority of all our polar activities.’ The Ministry of Foreign Affairs eventually decided that Norway’s most important polar commitment was to Svalbard and that support should be increased for the Norwegian Polar Institute’s work there; but that work should be coordinated with other institutions, so that scientific efforts of importance to national interests could be intensified. Nonetheless, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs also emphasised that it was important to obtain funding as soon as possible to finish mapping Dronning Maud Land, so as to protect Norway’s future rights there. In the end, Norway’s salvation came in the form of negotiations that dragged out over sixty meetings lasting a year, and brought together diplomats, scientists, lawyers, and others. Norway was invited to take part. The countries that were active in Antarctica during the IGY were to agree upon a treaty when the current ‘truce’ ended. The two arch-rivals, the U.S.A. and the USSR, basically agreed that the continent should be internationalised. The major threat came from Argentina, Chile, and France, which opposed freezing all territorial claims for an indefinite period. The treaty that ultimately emerged from these negotiations affirmed the status quo: no pre-existing claims would be rejected, no new claims permitted. Antarctica would be demilitarised, would be free of atomic weapons, and would be run by SCAR for the sake of humanity and science. The last formal

358 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

conference was held from October 15th to December 1st, 1959, when the twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty. The Norwegian representatives had to bite their tongues several times during the long negotiations, but ultimately signed.

‘There’s no use turning up with Nansen’s skis’

On August 21st, 1957, Harald U. Sverdrup’s heart suddenly stopped. The man who many believed would become the world’s leading oceanographer, and whose American students were now at the forefront of exciting and dramatic new developments in the field, was the director of an institute that did not carry out any kind of oceanographic research, and, in reality, hardly conducted any research at all. The dream of renewing the polar tradition of Nansen, Amundsen, and Otto Sverdrup, a tradition to which he himself belonged, proved to be a nightmare of disappointment and frustration. The Polar Institute budget during its first decade could not even be maintained. Instead, it showed a real decline in funding for operations, and, quite clearly, no sign of determination to realise the dream that it would become Europe’s leading polar research institution. Although ready to retire, Anders Orvin quickly took up the reins as the institute’s director. He stuck with the classic NSIU vision of the institute. In the meantime, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to consider what qualities a new director should have, a question that was indissolubly associated with the Ministry’s understanding of the Polar Institute’s role regarding foreign policy. After a long and difficult process in which there were various sharply opposing interests, Tore Gjelsvik was given the position, but not without opposition from some officials in the Ministry of Industry and from Orvin, as well as other members of NPIs ‘old guard’. Gjelsvik turned out to be a leader of rare talent. He took up the Norwegian Polar Institute’s cause, and did not hesitate to make his voice heard to advance Norway’s polar interests when he felt it was necessary. Gjelsvik went to work at the Norwegian Polar Institute with all his energy. Every bit of this was needed to keep Norway from lagging even further behind as a polar nation. In 1960, when Gjelsvik was named director, there were often four times as many foreign expeditions to Svalbard than Norwegian ones. Denmark’s Arctic research overshadowed Norway’s in size and scope; such facts were thought to be best obscured. But it was impossible to keep silent about other activities. Just when Gjelsvik started what would be a continuous struggle to improve working conditions and strengthen the Norwegian Polar Institute, an almost explosive growth in foreign activity on Svalbard began. There had long been

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


rumours of onshore and offshore oil deposits in and around the archipelago. Foreigners embarked on geological surveys and oil exploration, which the Svalbard Treaty could not prevent. The American oil company, Caltex, sent a small army of geologists, petroleum geophysicists, engineers, and technicians. The Soviet Union suddenly jumped on the bandwagon, too, and sent large numbers of scientists and technicians and huge amounts of equipment, and ‘who knows what else’. In 1962, 150 Soviets, of which fifty were scientists, went to Svalbard to look for oil. Private Norwegian interests also began sending expeditions and applied for permission to build an airstrip. This massive U.S. and Soviet activity shocked the guardians of Norwegian polar interests. Now that the government saw how serious the crisis was, Gjelsvik did what he could to increase the number of Norwegian geologists and topographers, secured better pay scales for those working at the Polar Institute so that the institute could retain its expertise, and sounded the alarm more generally about Norway’s need to coordinate and strengthen its polar policy and research. Gjelsvik fought for years to get an icebreaker and a helicopter. Even though Norwegian expeditions frequently had to be satisfied with boots and backpacks while Americans and Russians got around in a more mechanised fashion, the Polar Institute’s people tended to be more familiar with the area and more comfortable in the terrain. This, however, did not eliminate the fear that foreigners, who were greater in numbers and enjoyed a significant logistical advantage, would be able to undertake geological and topographical surveys, map, and then claim the right to exploit Svalbard’s oil and mineral wealth commercially. Norway might risk being in the unenviable position of playing the caretaker’s role on Svalbard, unable to claim mineral resources or even to tax foreign enterprises. Moreover, as a result of other events far from Norway’s borders, such as the shooting down of the American U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, the Berlin question, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, new tensions arose between East and West after the relatively short break in the Cold War. Soviet suspicions that Norway was assisting U.S.A.’s espionage activities did not make Svalbard policy any easier. Suspicions and questions were raised about what all those Russians on Svalbard were really up to, and what the Soviets were doing looking for oil and minerals there. A 1964 incident made Gjelsvik realise what most people thought of the Polar Institute. He took a cab to the old observatory building where the Institute still had its overcrowded, rundown headquarters. The cab driver wondered who worked in that old building. When Gjelsvik told him that the Norwegian Polar Institute was located there, the driver said: ‘Oh, yeah; they’re the ones who let the Russians take all of Svalbard.’ Gjelsvik was soon successful in achieving a major upgrade. Parliamentary appropriations rose from around 1.1 million kroner in 1961 to around 3.9 mil-

360 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

lion kroner in 1970, and to 7.6 million kroner in 1975. The Polar Institute staff grew from 22 permanent scientific and commercial employees in 1960 to 32 in 1970, and to 34 in 1975. This also meant increased activity on Svalbard. The number of participants in the Norwegian Polar Institute expeditions rose from approximately 20 in 1960 to roughly 60 in 1966; but during this period there was also a considerable increase in foreign expeditions, both scientific and commercial. Gjelsvik clearly recognized that the Norwegian government, through its funding decisions, determined what the institute could and could not achieve. Beginning in 1961, he produced a long series of newspaper articles, interviews, and many lecture series, emphasizing why Norway had to invest in logistic support of the Polar Institute, and in better salaries for staff. ‘The rules are the same in polar research as they are in winter sports. It’s not difficult to win all the medals when you’re alone in the arena. Today we’re no longer alone in the polar regions.’ Other countries were investing enormous sums in polar research and were technologically superior; even countries with no geographical or historical relationship to the Arctic or Antarctic now overshadowed Norway. Gjelsvik followed up the sports analogy: ‘There’s no use turning up with Nansen’s equipment at today’s Olympic skiing championships.’ Gjelsvik was most successful at stepping up research with obvious economic significance. Though he managed to secure several new Polar Institute positions in geology, these were all in areas with direct relevance to commercial activity. During this period, international geology underwent its biggest and most exciting theoretical revolution in more than a century, triggered by the definitive proof of continental drift, or plate tectonics. In this time of intellectual fermentation, understanding Svalbard’s and Antarctica’s geology was of great importance. Norway, however, did not play any prominent part in this scientific adventure. Norway managed to keep one foot inside this steadily accelerating and expanding area of international activity. However, where Antarctica was concerned it would be more correct to say ‘a toe inside’. Norway no longer sent winter expeditions to Antarctica. After the IGY, neither Norwegian scientists nor the government were particularly interested in expending resources on Antarctic research. But Norway’s reputation as a polar nation with a heroic past, and its favourable political situation as a NATO ally, probably helped maintain its representation on SCAR. Even though, in the 1960s, Gjelsvik managed to secure funding for some of the personnel that had been promised in 1948, the Polar Institute continued to be largely a practical, service-oriented institution that conducted very little independent research. For other Norwegian institutions, it was also impossible to compete with the massive investments in Arctic research made by the

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


What was the future of Norwegian polar research? Jens Angard of the Norwegian Polar Institute struggling during the spring thaw in Ny-Ă…lesund.

superpowers and by the larger European and Commonwealth nations. Even in fields in which Norwegian research had traditionally enjoyed prestige, such as studies of the Northern Lights, new, well-financed centres, such as the University of Alaska, assumed the lead, facilitating important new insights. In other countries, entire professional societies and academic programs were being created that focused on specialised areas of polar research. For the most part, Norwegians who did auroral research (which is the study of luminous atmospheric phenomenon near the poles, known more commonly as the Northern Lights), polar meteorology, or Antarctic oceanography worked in extremely small academic settings. Norwegian researchers who managed to be active at all on the international front, owed this largely to financial support from American organisations, but also partly to growth in the dynamic network of European and North American scientists who gathered at NATO-funded conferences and seminars. This network enabled Norwegians who did basic polar research to take part in joint projects with colleagues from other NATO countries. Even though money from the Norwegian Research Council helped, this alone could not pay for the already scanty Norwegian activity in what had become high-cost and technology-intensive fields. Gjelsvik repeated his warnings constantly. The government had to invest more money and improve coordination among the ministries and other organisations involved in polar research. He received only belated and sporadic replies, but nonetheless noticed a movement in what he felt was the right direction. Norway’s polar policy was still passive, and was not driven by fresh initiatives or clear visions. ‘Instead events have taken us by surprise, and we’ve tried, in keeping with our traditions in other areas, to keep active by improvising, by spreading ourselves thin, by being penny-wise and pound-foolish.’ Under such circumstances, polar research and other polar activities could not remain unharmed. Even though the prospects for oil on Svalbard looked bleak in the late 1960s, leading to a decline in the size and number of Soviet and private American geological projects, the scale of Soviet activity remained significant. Every single year during the 1970s, the Soviet Union sent at least 10 to 20 scientists on glaciological expeditions, in which representatives of other disciplines also participated. This alone was reason enough to be vigilant, as Gjelsvik noted in 1979. ‘It’s hard for me to see that Norway should respond to this research activity with ordinary goodwill, even if, professionally speaking, it may be of interest.’ At this time, fresh ideas at home and abroad stimulated renewed debate on aspects of Norwegian polar policy. During his entire directorship, Gjelsvik kept reminding the government and the Norwegian public of the need to live up to the 1947 declaration. ‘The institute should be developed in such a way that it attains a leading position in European Arctic research.’ Memos from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs dating back to 1960, argue that high-ranking

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


officials should provide support (moral and otherwise) to the Polar Institute. The institute was Norway’s polar face to the world and the bearer of the proud tradition of Nansen and Amundsen; but the rhetoric led only to small budget increases. In the 1970s, few in all seriousness dared repeat Orvin’s words from1946. ‘We Norwegians are more qualified than other people to do polar research […] we Norwegians can hold our own in international scientific competition and assert that our people, more than any other, are made to meet the scientific challenges posed by the polar regions.’ However, as was the case with so many other aspects of Norwegian polar history, surprises kept coming, and unexpected things kept happening.

World health as seen from the Arctic

The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed a new and growing interest in the health and functioning of ecosystems. After many decades of uninterrupted optimism about development, a fear sprang up that the human race was growing too quickly and was on the point of destroying much of the natural environment that sustained mankind. A demand for greater awareness arose regarding what ecosystems produced and how their complex processes interacted. Who ate whom, and how could species ‘A’ influence the stock size and production of species ‘B’? Though these problems gained widespread attention in the early 1970s as a result of the environmental movement, the story actually began about a decade earlier. In 1959 there was an initiative to launch a large-scale international biological research program modelled on the International Geophysical Year. Now it was biology’s turn. The International Biological Program (IBP) was formally organised in 1963. Two years later, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters formed a main committee chaired by Rolf Vik, Professor of Zoology at the University of Oslo. Vik requested funding from what was then the Norwegian Research Council for General Sciences (known as NAVF in Norwegian), and was allocated a lump sum of two million kroner, which the committee could spend as it saw fit. This was a large amount of money with few constraints. By 1970, the annual appropriation had grown steadily, ultimately reaching five million kroner. This was ‘big money’ in 1970, but the timing was perfect. This was the start of the first environmental movement, inspired largely by concern about population growth. The Ministry of Environmental Protection had just been formed; perhaps one could call it the beginning of ‘the greening of Norway’. Many, including Vik, believed that after two centuries, the population theorist Robert Malthus (1766–1834) was about to be proven correct. Vik wrote to the Research Council saying that the current rate of

364 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Why do birds nest in the Arctic?

population growth was threatening the earth, sea, air, and fresh-water supplies to such an extent and at such a speed that the planet might become uninhabitable if we did not improve our understanding of the potential damage we were inflicting and develop countermeasures. Vik also argued for the study of cold ecosystems, in which all processes occur more slowly, so that developments for better or for worse could be studied in ‘slow motion’. During the late 1970s and early 80s, as interest in the environment grew, the natural sciences blossomed. In many fields, the work of recording and describing was replaced increasingly by process analysis and problem-oriented studies. Biology’s traditional focus on the systematic mapping of individual phenomena was challenged by a determination to understand the interplay between ecosystems. In many ways, modern ecology began in the Arctic in the late 1920s with the Oxford biologist Charles Elton. Elton’s studies on Bjørnøya and other parts of Svalbard on food chains and ecological processes were sophisticated for his time; but it was not until the early 1980s that polar ecosystems became a focus of modern ecological research, with emphasis on understanding systems. How is the production of plankton algae in the sea dependent on meteorological conditions? How does the solar energy captured by algae through photosynthesis find its way into cod, seals, polar bears, and human beings? Ornithologists asked how and why birds found it worth the trouble to head north during the nesting season to lay eggs and reproduce under the harshest conditions in the northern hemisphere. The answer lay in the sea, in a formidable production of fat-rich plankton and small fish that was the foundation of rapid growth in the ecosystem and compensated for the harsh climate. These discoveries emphasised that Arctic ecosystems could not be viewed in isolation. The narrow strip of green land along the sea coast, for example, was fertilised largely by birds that found their nourishment at sea. In the screes under bird colonies, the Arctic fox could breed and live well on a stable supply of chicks and eggs; and geese, grouse, and reindeer could graze the luxuriant vegetation. The potential for major oil and gas finds in the Barents Sea resulted in extensive environmental studies, which contributed to the interdisciplinary funding of such studies. In 1994, heavy metals and fat-soluble organic toxins were studied in a fish, a char taken from Ella Lake on Bjørnøya. Although there is a weather station on that inhospitable spot midway between the coast of Finnmark and Spitsbergen, it is hard to imagine a place more remote from human influence; nonetheless, repeated analyses revealed improbable levels of many environmental toxins that were even higher than one would expect in an industrial city on the Rhine. For several summers starting in1996, a number of fish were caught on Bjørnøya, and these findings were confirmed. Ella Lake was extreme, but the char in other lakes also had higher levels of fat-soluble environmental toxins

366 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

than char from the mainland. The reason was that airborne pesticides and other toxins from the European mainland were falling across the Arctic wilderness. The improbably high concentrations of toxins at Ella Lake were consistent with a long series of observations showing that alarming amounts of toxic substances were being transported up through the Arctic food chain. Since these were largely fat-soluble environmental toxins, and since Arctic food chains tend to be rich in fat, a strong concentration of toxins took place (and is taking place) on the way from plankton to organisms at the top of the chain: polar seagulls, seals, polar bears – and people. By the early 1990s, research reports were available indicating that toxicology paradoxically was becoming a key area of research in the Arctic wilderness. In 1991, an international body called the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) was established to oversee the growing influence of human activity on ecosystems – and human communities – in the Arctic. AMAP, which had a Norwegian secretariat, became important to both national and international work in this field, and many researchers took fat tissue and blood samples home to test them for environmental toxins. In 1997, AMAP issued a report for its first project period, 1991–1996. It was a 850-page ‘brick’ that documented beyond any doubt that the bodies of many Arctic creatures contained disquieting levels of environmental toxins. One contributing factor was the long-distance transportation of toxins by air and sea. Another factor was the fact that Russian rivers such as the Ob and Yenisey flowed into the Arctic Sea, emptying of a wide variety of toxins into the sea, at times in high concentrations. AMAP’s first report focused dramatically on polar pollution, and was followed by studies showing that polar bears in the most toxic areas, such as the Svalbard region, were suffering from immune deficiency, increased mortality, and reproductive failure. Some polar bears were found to be hermaphrodites, which received quite some attention. Polar gulls were exhibiting high mortality and ‘anomalous behaviour’, and these were also symptoms that made scientists suspect serious toxin problems. It was not just a problem that the unsullied Arctic nature was about to disappear under a wave of reported toxins affecting Arctic fauna. In the mid 1980s reports from Antarctica indicated a noticeable thinning of ‘the earth’s sunglasses’, the ozone layer in the stratosphere, 20–30 kilometres above the earth’s surface. The ozone layer is relatively thin, but thick enough to filter away much of the damaging short-wave radiation that would otherwise reach the earth’s surface. Man-made discharges of chloride and bromide compounds weaken the ozone layer, but only when extremely low temperatures are combined with sunlight. This combination occurs mostly near the poles, which explains why the Antarctic became its major victim. There were reports of diminished algae production and its effects on krill, a key organism in Antarctic waters, but there

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


Research scholar Carolin Amdt in the process of taking samples of ice fauna north of Svalbard in May of 2003. Collecting the specimens required divers, who used special suction pumps for the job.

was no report of an ‘ecosystem collapse’. Norwegian researchers played a modest role in studies in the southern hemisphere, but performed many measurements of the ozone layer over the northern hemisphere. The ozone layer varies greatly as a result of natural meteorological conditions, but over time it became clear that the ozone layer was also being weakened in the spring over northern areas, and particularly in the Arctic. There were even greater threats. Global warming emerged rapidly as a major environmental problem, one with a special relevance for polar areas. Long-term, extensive measurements of drift ice and ice thickness, and satellite readings, all suggested that ice at the North Pole was melting at a dramatic rate. The gloomiest prognoses suggested that in fifty years the Arctic Ocean would be completely ice-free in the summer, while the winter ice would hold out into the following century. The Nansen Centre for Remote Sensing in Bergen played a big part in this work, the conclusions of which were published in major professional journals as well as in the mainstream media. This was dramatic news for Arctic ecosystems, and it was a cold comfort that this would increase the potential for shipping and oil exploration in the northernmost seas. The thickness of ice sheets in Arctic waters vary greatly, and extrapolating prognoses from short-term observations has always been a risky business. Still, most of Svalbard’s inland glaciers were in rapid retreat, and something also seemed to be happening to the large ice sheets in the north and south. Reduced ice sheets would affect freshwater layers, deep-water formation, currents, oxygen intake, and ecology. Smaller layers of snow and ice would also result in reduced terrestrial radiation and hence greater heat retention, resulting in a self-reinforcing feedback chain whose consequences no one could predict. If the ice in Greenland and Antarctica were to melt significantly, rising sea levels would threaten coastal communities and island nations worldwide. Naturally, these prognoses involved uncertainties, but the consequences were not to be sneezed at. Paradoxically, the alternative disaster scenario for northern areas was precisely the opposite: a significant cooling down as a result of weakening of the Gulf Stream. By the end of the century, the global environmental situation had become a major concern for the ‘polar regions’ and researchers. It is an irony of fate that the use of agricultural pesticides and the high levels of consumption and use of vehicular transportation in urban areas seem to have had left a particularly devastating ‘footprint’ on the polar regions. In 1979, the Polar Institute was transferred from the Ministry of Industry to the Ministry of the Environment. There were several reasons for this change. The new Ministry of the Environment needed some tangible tasks, while the Ministry of Industry already had a heavy workload. The change, however, reflected a symbolic as well as an actual change from economically to environ-

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


mentally oriented research. Norwegian interests on Svalbard were no longer exclusively focused on coal, but also on research and environmental protection. The move led, moreover, to a change in the Polar Institute’s profile. For the institute, the really major changes followed the 1993 Parliamentary resolution that relocated the institute from Oslo to Tromsø. The white paper on polar research that outlined this move focused on three main scientific areas of concentration: polar climate, environmental toxins, and biodiversity. These fields of research would also become important to the Polar Institute. But though the institute, prior to the 1979 move to the Ministry of the Environment, had concentrated its efforts mainly on earth sciences and glaciology, and prioritised mapping of the Arctic and Antarctic, it eventually made a major shift toward environmental and biological research. The move to Tromsø, during which most of the employees were replaced, helped make this shift possible. At the end of the 20th century, the institute was not alone in carrying out Norwegian polar research. The universities of Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim, and Tromsø, and a number of institutes and research centres, had and have departments with strong traditions in various areas of polar research. Also, the newly established University Studies on Svalbard (UNIS) has in recent years emphasized original research. Founded in 1993, UNIS was a collaborative effort among Norwegian mainland universities that emphasized education in Arctic geology, Arctic geophysics, and Arctic biology. The concept of ‘Svalbard as research platform’ seems to have come into being early in the 1970s. What Norway lacked in heavy logistics was made up for by the Svalbard Treaty, or, as someone at the Ministry of the Environment said, ‘Perhaps Norway has no icebreakers, but we have Svalbard.’ Until the early 1970s, the Norwegian research effort in and around Svalbard was totally dominated by the Norwegian Polar Institute, which was also a key supplier of logistics for many researchers. This changed after the Longyearbyen airport opened in 1975. Researchers could travel to Svalbard themselves, and were less dependent on collaboration with the institute. In recent decades, Svalbard has developed into an international platform for polar research. In 1990, Great Britain’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) rented its own premises in Ny-Ålesund, and Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute opened an allyear research station in the restored mining office. Japan’s polar research institute did the same thing. Both the Germans and the Japanese have been very active in atmospheric research, especially in the development and dynamics of the ozone layer. Polish marine biologists have held annual expeditions to Kongsfjord, and Dutch and French researchers have also been represented in great numbers during the summer season. At the turn of the millennium, both the Chinese and American authorities showed interest in setting up stations. In

370 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

the 1990s, a significant amount of Norwegian investment also took place. Even so, at the turn of the millennium, research in the world’s northernmost settlement was in no way dominated by Norway. The Norwegian government has never given up its official ambition of becoming a leading polar nation. This, despite Norwegian researchers being practically absent from Antarctica for several decades; and even though Norway, according to evil rumours, has gradually come to look more like a custodian of Svalbard than a major research nation. The Polar Institute’s directors, Tore Gjelsvik and later Olav Orheim, referred constantly to the gap between Parliament’s generous expressions of sympathy and its grants, which they considered insufficient to meet the nation’s responsibility for polar research and administration. Only after the polar regions’ vulnerability and environmental significance were documented in the 1990s was there a noticeable increase in research funding. When environmental problems became political issues, greater backing for polar research ensued. At the same time, the cold, remote areas of the globe became more important arenas for high-tech international research in the natural sciences.

Large scientific research projects often require a multinational effort. Ten nations participated in the EPICA expedition to the Kohnen Station in Dronning Maud Land in 2003.

p l ay i n g w i t h t h e b i g b oy s


What has characterised polar research in recent decades is internationalisation and instrumentation. Many of the large research programs operating in polar areas are concerned with global health, and focus on environmental toxins transported over long distances, global warming, or basal studies of biogeochemical cycles; so that the polar aspect is only one element of a broader picture. Typically, research activities located on Svalbard or in Norwegian waters are part of a large regional or global network for monitoring conditions in the sea, on land, or in the air. Many of these activities are so cost-intensive and technically sophisticated that an exclusively Norwegian effort along these lines would be impossible. Collaboration has increased, and it is not only international but also interdisciplinary. Complex questions demand complex approaches. While individual scientists have become increasingly specialised in ever narrower fields, they participate in interdisciplinary research consortiums. The global climate not only influences the Arctic environment, but is itself influenced to an extraordinary degree by processes in the Arctic Ocean and the air masses above it. These intricate forces can be understood only through teamwork involving people working in oceanography, meteorology, glaciology and biology; and by using hugely expensive research vessels, satellites, measuring devices, analytical devices, and computer equipment – all within an international arena.

The Antarctic welcoming party for the Lance.

A G R E E D Y H U N T I N G N AT I O N ?

The Norwegian hunting of marine mammals, seal, whale and walrus, had been a tale of the decline of one stock after another. When animals grew few and far between in one area, hunters would simply move to new grounds. The emerging international cooperation immediately prior to World War II offered hope that action would be taken to limit the hunt in a way that would allow animal stocks to reproduce. Sadly, this hope was shattered. Poor management runs like a leitmotif throughout the history of whaling and sealing, even during the post-war years. To be sure, these were also periods of great profit, technological advances, and improved conditions for crews. But there were also tragic accidents. And over time the hunter-hero would meet opposition from groups and individuals who considered hunting barbaric. Before World War II broke out, the hunting of marine mammals was still a major enterprise in Norway. Ship-owners in Vestfold County brought home enormous wealth from the Antarctic Ocean, and sealskins and blubber from the Arctic Ocean brought financial rewards to Troms and Sunnmøre. But between the 1938–39 season and the first post-war season, the situation for both whaling and sealing changed drastically, mainly because during the war much of the maritime equipment was either out of operation or was lost. When the German invasion of Norway took place on April 9, 1940, Norwegian whalers and factory ships were headed home and Germany lost out on enormous quantities of oil that it needed. Instead, the whale oil from Antarctica was taken to Great Britain, where most of it was bought by the Ministry of Food. Additionally, the 6,000 men who had been engaged in whaling were unable to return to Norway until the war was over. The remainder of the whaling fleet, together with the merchant fleet, joined Norway’s London-based Government’s Nortraship Fleet. Many of the factory ships were used as tankers

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


or for the transportation of war materials. In New York, a Whaling Committee reporting to the fleet administration oversaw the small amount of whaling activity that was still ongoing. Before the war, seal hunting employed more than seventy vessels, with a total crew of approximately 1,150 men per year. By the start of the hunting season in 1945 there were only 14 vessels with 177 men, although even this is a substantial figure when one considers that this was only a month or so after the war ended. During the German occupation, all sealing ceased and boats were put to alternative use. Some of the sealers had been hunting on the other side of the Atlantic in April 1940, and like the whalers, they were taken into service by the Allies. Others ran freight services for the German occupation forces. In 1945 expectations ran high. Since there had been no sealing and little whaling during the war, everybody hoped that stocks would have improved. But they were to be disappointed.

The emptying of the Antarctic Ocean

When war broke out in September 1939, Great Britain wanted to halt all Norwegian oil exports to Germany. Whale oil was perceived as obvious contraband, so Great Britain wanted to allow Norway to import only 50,000 tonnes for its own use. Germany, on the other hand, claimed that neutral Norway should be free to decide for itself what to do with the oil. Whale oil was of such importance to Germany that it favoured allowing both the Norwegian and the British whaling fleets to hunt without interference, so long as the Germans continued to receive the lion’s share of the oil, as in peacetime. In February 1940, Norway entered trade agreements that covered the sale of whale oil, first with Great Britain and later with Germany. Whaling was now being conducted with no concern for any hunting regulations; all that mattered was to get as much oil as one could, as fast as possible. Despite this, wastage was low and in the Antarctic extraction levels measured in oil barrels per BWU (Blue Whale Unit) continued to be relatively high. Following its occupation of Norway, Germany tried to keep Norwegian oil production at a low level. In the spring of 1940 the occupation authorities also bought three whaling boats from the Jahre company, Kosmos. In 1940–41 four Norwegian factory ships, together with their whaleboats, were raided by the Germans. One of them was the factory ship Kosmos, whose crew was imprisoned in France and not released for over seven months. Another factory ship was blown up by a mine, and two men were killed. The hazards of war, however, were not the only reason whaling came to a halt in the Antarctic after 1941. During World War I, whale oil had been of the utmost importance to the

376 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

warring nations: politically, militarily, and economically. Yet, it proved to be less important in this new war, as mineral oil had taken its place. Besides, once the U.S.A. had joined the war, the whaling fleet could be put to better use for trans-Atlantic transportation. Four of the whale factories used for such transport were torpedoed, and in all 123 people lost their lives. It was not until 1944 that another Norwegian whaling expedition would be sent to the Antarctic. Until then, only the shore station in Grytvika, South Georgia, remained in operation. Even before the war was over, the Norwegian government in London was planning the rebuilding the Norwegian whaling fleet after the war. It felt that Norway and Great Britain should work together to prevent other nations from accessing whaling grounds. Norway presumed the Allies would deny both Germany and Japan permission to renew their pursuit of pelagic hunting that delivered to their factory ships, and also that the Crew Embargo (a Norwegian embargo prohibiting Norwegian crews from hiring themselves out to companies not in operation prior to the war) would keep such expeditions from being outfitted. They were mistaken. In 1945–48 the Norwegian state imposed a cooperative agreement on its whaling companies in order to get the whaling fleet up and running as swiftly as possible. Under the agreement, a proportion of the operating profits of companies whose vessels were intact would be spent on the fleet investments of those companies that had lost vessels in the war. This co-operation was a precondition for the release of whaling vessels by the state-run Nortraship. The state paid the companies’ insurance and freight subsidies, and compensated them for the use of vessels during the war, but this was still not enough to cover costs. Additionally, companies were obliged to sell a substantial proportion of their production to the domestic market at a low capped rate, to ensure the availability of cheap margarine. This cooperative agreement resulted in the swift resumption of whaling and ensured control over the numbers of expeditions. From the companies’ viewpoint, however, this agreement delayed modernising equipment. Several companies were reluctant to sail at all, as investment and operating expenses were high. Yet, it turned out that an increase in prices ensured excellent returns on the catches during those first three post-war years. After the war, 42 Norwegian whaling boats had been lost and only 79 were seaworthy, but many of these were in poor condition and did not have particularly powerful engines. Following negotiations, 18 whaling boats were transferred to Norwegian ship-owners, all of which the Germans had built in Norwegian shipyards using money from the Bank of Norway. In 1951, around 12 million pounds was invested in whaling boats. Nonetheless, Norway’s whaling fleet was inferior to Great Britain’s in terms of both numbers and efficiency, and this was reflected in their hunting yields.

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


On board the Thorshøvdi in 1949. The whales are pulled up on deck, and the crewmen are busy cutting up the huge animals, and getting pieces ready for the boiler.

In the years between 1946 and 1948, Norway got four new factory ships, bringing the number up to ten, which was the number it had had before World War II. After that, no further concessions were given for factory ships in Norway, in contradistinction to the situation in many other countries. In addition, the Tønsberg Whalery resumed operation in Husvik Harbour, South Georgia, and many Norwegian men were employed at the foreign shore stations in Grytvika and Leith Harbour, and on foreign pelagic expeditions after the war. The first conference on post-war whaling industry regulations was held in London as early as January 1944. Its purpose was to ensure that regulations set in 1937 and 1938 would be in operation during the first whaling season after the war. It would be important to ensure the production of as much oil as possible for a world hungry for fat, while at the same time taking whale stocks into consideration.

378 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Another conference was held in 1945, and a third, in Washington, in 1946. The aim was to come up with a control system that would ensure adequate protection of whale stocks, discourage nations who wished to begin whaling, and satisfy requirements for fat in Europe. An overall annual quota of 16,000 BWU was agreed upon. This figure was chosen fairly randomly. There was still comparatively little knowledge about the size and development of the stocks. National quotas were not agreed upon, because it was thought that the principles of open seas and free trade should apply. National quotas would also make it impossible for new nations to begin whaling. In 1946 there was a new international treaty, the International Whaling Convention, which also stipulated the establishment of a council, the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The commission was founded on a premise of equality among sovereign states, which meant that throughout its first 20 years, when the pelagic catches in Antarctica were on the agenda, the majority of its members were not themselves involved in pelagic whaling, but were able to vote down those who were. Over time, eight nations became the most active: Great Britain, Norway, Japan, Holland, the Soviet Union, the U.S.A., Australia, and Canada. The last three nations were not themselves engaged in whaling. Amongst those involved in pelagic issues, the old guard, Great Britain and Norway, were in opposition to the new, Japan, Holland and the Soviet Union. In theory, the cooperation that had been established boded well for the future of whale resources. But taking a close look at the legislation, one can see that the founding countries gave the commission little power to pursue sensible resource management; in practice, every nation had a veto. The marrying of economic and ecological aims seemed an impossibility. Each year, the size of the quota was discussed; everybody agreed that whales were threatened, but years were to pass before agreements were made to reduce the quota, and then by very modest amounts. Additionally, it was difficult to raise support for the retirement of whaling equipment. The Convention maintained that any such regulations be based on scientific research, but one cannot help concluding that commercial factors were allowed to prevail. In principle, the formation of the IWC was extremely important in establishing international cooperation to prevent the over-exploitation of whale stocks; in practice, however, this cooperation had limited effect. No international checks were put in place to control companies that hunted illegally; each nation more or less had a veto and could do as it pleased. The overall quota was fixed quite randomly, and it was difficult to secure an agreement to lower it. In the early post-war years, many nations were interested in entering the whaling business, whether by using whaling boats that delivered to factory ships or by using shore stations. Prices were increasing, but there were other obstacles. The Norwegian Crew Embargo was designed to keep experts in Norway;

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


quotas set by the IWC limited potential earnings; and after the war the defeated forces were dependent on the victors’ goodwill. Japan was permitted to restart its programme after the war, but not Germany. Margins were tight, both in terms of profit and the risk of depleting the whale stock. Norway’s arguments based upon its longstanding rights and traditions no longer held sway, and the only way it could keep new players from entering the field was by preventing Norwegian whale hunters from hiring their services out to foreign expeditions that had not been in operation in the 1938–39 hunting season. Admittedly, exceptions were made to this rule; for example, the German whale factories confiscated by the Allies, so that fat production in Europe could be increased. One of these allies was the Soviet Union, which had received permission to proceed with whaling, on the conditions that it ratified international agreements and that its dispensation would only be valid for the 1946– 47 season. The Norwegian gunners were not happy about the Crew Embargo. They experienced it as limiting their ability to accept the many tempting offers they received from foreign companies. They found and used legal loopholes. Their services were among the preconditions in the establishment of Dutch whaling. Also, it became customary for Norwegian gunners to be hired in Cape Town, beyond the reach of Norwegian law. The period from the late 1940s to the late 1950s proved to be a golden age for Norwegian whaling. Prices and production were high; in the bumper year of 1951–52 they were higher than in 1937–38, which had until then been the best year since the crisis of 1932–33. Even though Norway was obliged to compete with Great Britain, Japan, the Soviet Union, and Holland, almost half of world production was Norwegian. The price of fat rose, because poor harvests meant that the vegetable oil yield was low, and because consumption increased. The currency situation, moreover, made it impossible for European countries to buy fat using U.S. dollars if that option was not included in the Marshall Plan; and this benefited Norwegian whalers. Though there was more than enough equipment to catch the overall quota of 16,000 BWU, whale factories were modernised. It proved impossible to keep Japan and other new whaling nations out of the industry. Many whaling managers felt that intense competition in the catching and preparation of whales in the shortest time possible could easily lead to insufficient time being taken to find the animals with the highest yield, or to carry out the processing as thoroughly as possible. After fifteen post-war seasons, equipment was twice as efficient, but generally it remained impossible to haul in the total quota, indicating perhaps that it had been set too high in relation to the overall size of whale stocks. Following a Norwegian initiative, the pelagic companies agreed in 1953 to reduce the number of whaling boats. Higher numbers of whaling boats made

380 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Times were often hard on board the whaling vessels. Bad weather was a particular challenge for the man in the crow’s nest and the gunner on the bow. Here is the Thorørn in 1963.

expeditions expensive to run and catches less profitable. The advent of new, large Russian, Japanese and Dutch expeditions brought new boats, and competition only grew. Whaling was state-controlled in Russia and government-subsidised in Holland, and did not have the same requirements for profitability as in Norway. Japan expanded the most, however, perhaps because it had faster and more powerful whaling boats, and because it produced meat for consumption as much as for oil, and therefore had higher returns. In addition, Japan had a long tradition of coastal fishing and a high level of expertise. All the same, in 1956–59 new agreements were entered into, which cut the numbers of whaling boats per nation in order ‘to improve the profitability of the Arctic expeditions’. Russia, however, did not enter into this agreement. It was soon realised that the quota of 16,000 was set too high, and the IWC commission lowered it to 15,000 in 1955–56, and then to 14,500 a year later. The scientific committee of the IWC presented evidence showing that these quotas were much too high; but recognizing that support for large reductions was unlikely, they bowed to anticipated pressure and proposed more limited reductions. However, biologists were not successful in getting agreements on these recommendations either. Quotas were, in fact, increased slightly in 1958–59. Over the next three years, the overall quota system was ignored, and each country hunted according to its own national quotas, contributing to an increase in the overall total haul. For instance, during the 1960–61 season, figures for the pelagic catch of Baleen whale reached their highest level since the war. Only in 1962–63 did the IWC determine quotas for each country, reducing the overall quota drastically over the next few years. But this regulation had arrived too late. Over the next four seasons, from 1962 to 1966, the world catch in Antarctica measured in BWU fell by about two-thirds, and Norway did not manage to fill its quota. Too few whales were left for whaling to be profitable; and with the rapid decimation of stocks, the industry had dug its own grave. In 1963 the humpback whale in the Southern Hemisphere officially became a protected species, followed by the blue whale in 1965. The depletion of the big whales was accompanied by a decline in prices. With the increase in the use of vegetable oil and synthetic detergents, whale oil represented a steadily decreasing proportion of the ingredients in margarine and soap production, respectively. Profitability dropped, leading to reductions in Norwegian whaling. In 1960–61 Norwegian expeditions hauled in only 32 percent of world production, and by this time less than a third of the world’s whalers were Norwegian. In the 1962–63 season, the Japanese had taken the lead, and only four Norwegian expeditions were active. British companies experienced a downturn similar to that of the Norwegians after the 1961–62 season, while the Russians and Japanese were to continue hunting for a few more years. The Norwegian Whaling Association then suggested that Norway withdraw

382 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

from the IWC, since the feeling was that the Soviet Union and Japan were ignoring the rules of the game, and Norway ought to compete with them on an equal footing. Naturally, the government could not approve such a move. In 1967–68, Kosmos IV was on the hunting grounds for the last time, when the global quota had been set at 3,200 units. A 65-year era of Norwegian hunting of large whales in the Antarctic Ocean was over.

Health and welfare

In the post-war years, improvements were made in conditions on board whaling vessels. The newest boats often had cabins for two, and came with both sinks and showers for the crew. Ship-owners were required to supply linen. On busy days there was not always time for very thorough personal hygiene. The crew members just took off their boots and coats, lay on their bunks for a short nap, and then returned to duty. Showers had to wait until it was dark or foggy, or when there were no whales in sight. Food became more varied than before; and with refrigerators and freezers, it became easier to maintain a good, balanced diet that was similar to the diet available on land. New regulations concerning food and drink on board Norwegian vessels had been introduced in 1938. They included strict instructions on daily and weekly rations and on how foods and beverages should be handled. Stewards, cooks, bakers, and butchers put a great deal of work into giving the whalers good meals to look forward to, during the often tiring and monotonous working days in the factories. Food was supplemented with vitamins, and so-called ‘iron cows’ were introduced, which produced milk from butter, milk powder, and water. In a 1949 article in a Norwegian magazine, the diet is described as follows: After a simple start of coffee and bread before the working day, the men have a breakfast of porridge, coffee, and tea, along with a warm dish or some eggs (never fewer than two per man) and always more than enough of all sorts of the best spreads and cold-cuts. The main meal of the day often consists of three courses; but it is, in any case, as full and well prepared as anyone could wish. After dessert there are usually apples, oranges, or other tropical fruits. In the afternoon there is coffee and bread; and at the end of the working day, the men are served a hearty supper. Thus, every day a hot meal is served, usually with potatoes; and in addition to coffee and tea, the men also receive chocolate. On Sundays and holidays, there is always a little extra. During the final years of factory ships, things had become almost too comfor-

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


Whaling was hard work, and the men needed a lot of food. Dinnertime was an important break from work. At first the meals were not particularly varied. However, they improved gradually, and these men on board the Kosmos III seem to be enjoying themselves.

table. The boys in the mess served three to four hot meals a day. There were also stricter hygiene regulations; starting in 1935 a washing machine or steamer was obligatory on board when there were more than 50 crew members; and the men were no longer required to have their own cutlery. Health care improved, too. The introduction of penicillin and a greater emphasis on hygiene and cleaning ensured that wire cuts and other wounds did not develop so often into serious boils. Otherwise, skeletal ailments, rheumatic pain, and balance problems continued to be common medical afflictions in the whaling industry during the post-war years, as did skin disorders. Occasionally, people would get facial blisters from the dirt and cold. Broken legs and sprains were also commonplace. In addition to a surgery and sickbay, most expeditions now had x-ray equipment and an operating theatre, and several factories and shore stations had set up their own small dental surgeries. Still, onboard working environments can only be described as hazardous, and the number of accidents and injuries in the industry was too high. Thanks to more powerful boats and new radio technology, being aboard whaling boats was also safer. After the war, hunting took place further north than it had before, and the risk of colliding with icebergs was smaller. Only three whaling boats sank in Antarctica after the war, none of them Norwegian. In various contemporary documents we can find records of other terrible accidents, including tank explosions, men falling into boilers, or men being poisoned while

384 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

cleaning tanks. The latter was the cause of George Moncrieff ’s death, a Newcastle man, who met his end on 26th January 1948. He was buried at sea; at the end of a brief ceremony with British and Norwegian flags at half-mast and a speech by the second mate, he was lowered into the waves. What left the greatest impression on one of his Norwegian shipmates was the silence: ‘So strange to us. All the things that you associate with a whaling factory in operation – the work on deck, the ear-piercing noise of the winches, bursts of steam, saws going, shouting and talking – and suddenly emptiness; just the overwhelming silence of several hundred men.’ Early in the 1950s, burials at sea ended: the dead were brought back home. Mental health was increasingly taken into account after the war. In 1947, the Whaler’s Welfare Council was established to prevent ‘whale sickness’, which was a pervasive gloom that the men experienced when the pace slackened in between hauls. There was also more leisure time on board the factory ships. The Council provided small shows, skits, songs, music, bridge tournaments, lecture evenings, on-house magazines, sports competitions, exhibitions of craft hobbies such as carpet-making, doormat-making, whalebone carving, and model-ship building, ‘inductions’ for the first-time boys on the way south, and celebrations of the Norwegian national holiday, Constitution Day (May 17th), on the journey home. For a new boy on board the factory ship Southern Harvester, a night at the movies was a very exotic experience. ‘It was really nice to sit in the middle of a coil of rope with a cup of cocoa and a cigarette and watch a film. It was some experience all right; the film out on deck in a pleasant breeze and the Harvester at full speed through a black tropical night.’ Yet the tempo on board was hardly less frenzied after the war than before. One whaler told of a week when he had hardly been to bed. He just slumped over onto the dining table after having eaten, and slept there for a while. A gunner remembered standing watch in the same place for a full day and night. At times like these, the men were so exhausted that they looked forward to the next storm, just so they could get some sleep. Competition was tough, and the working pace became frenzied when there were whales to be caught. In many ways, a whale factory ship was like a single-faceted, self-sufficient little industrial town. Some things were unalterable: working with whale carcases necessarily involves a working environment filled with blood, innards, and chunks of meat, and working in a polar climate also affects the working day. March and April are autumn months on the whaling grounds; and when the whaleboats sailed in to the factories with the whales, they were almost completely covered in ice from the mast down. The crew members were so heavily dressed that they could not hold their arms at their sides. They had ice in their hair and beards, which they let grow to protect their faces from the wind and cold.

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


Whaling culture

The whaling culture cannot be described as anything other than exclusively male, though some wives stayed the winter with their husbands at the shore stations, and a female nurse might occasionally be found on board one of the factory ships. To be a whaler was seen as being a ‘manly sport’. To go whaling was almost a rite of passage into manhood in many communities in Vestfold in southeastern Norway, and was something young boys looked forward to experiencing. In anticipation, they built toy boats or whaling factories and played ‘whaling stations’ by catching small fish and boiling them in empty tin cans. It was not only the whaling companies that chose to underplay the risky aspects of the work; those who participated in whaling also did so in the tales they told. When the tanned whale hunters returned home, they had money in their pockets and were treated like kings in their local communities. Though ex-whalers emphasise how hard the work was, and though many of them admit that they only took the work for money, they also took pride in what they did. There was much rivalry and competition, mostly with other expeditions, but the day shift would compete with the night shift, too. This led to a team spirit, which, apart from their share of the hunt, must have helped motivate whalers to aim for the highest possible production levels. A strategically placed notice board, on which production levels were logged, kept them all on their toes. Whaling had its own culture, which is manifest in many ways. Whalers had their own slang, not just specialist terminology. This shared language created a sense of belonging. Like fishermen and hunters, whalers had their taboos. For example, no one was allowed to whistle or to speak about horses on board; because that would bring on a storm. The culture of many Vestfold parishes was strongly influenced by the whaling industry. Sandefjord was the world’s biggest whaling town, and was clearly affected by this. The year was divided in two: the whaling season and the home season. The children were born while the men were away; true ‘whaling kids’ were conceived in the summer and born in February, March or April. During the hunting season, whaling districts became women’s communities. In wartime this was brought into sharp relief when whalers’ wives and children found themselves in a difficult position. It had been customary for whaling companies to pay a percentage of a whaler’s wages, known as ‘the deduction’, to his family each month. The communication problems created by the war meant that companies lost contact with ships, and no profit could be made from them. They therefore earned no revenues from which an advance could be subtracted, and families were thus left without income. Nor did companies know whether a particular seaman was still working on board. The situation was resolved when the state stepped in and guaranteed a payment

386 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

amounting to 60 percent of any previous advance to families with less than 3000 kroner in assets. This was better than nothing, of course; but it was not usually enough for the families to cover their expenses. Women had to provide their families with food and clothes as best they could; many of them began to grow vegetables, and keep rabbits and chickens. Following the war, the men were not absent for such long periods as they had been in the past; they went to sea in October or November, whereas before the war the men would have left in September. During the months of their absence, the women had to take care of everything themselves. They raised the children, looked after the house and maybe also a farm, filled out tax returns and handled mortgages, sorted out building permits and organised the workmen when houses needed building. Maintaining contact between the men and their families during the whaling season was no easy matter. Often, before the men set sail, women would go on board and hide little letters for their husbands in their cabins. Otherwise, they had to follow the newspapers to find out when the shipping companies would be carrying mail on their transports or other ships. Generally, only on special occasions, such as the birth of a child, would anyone spend money for a telegram. But come Christmas, both those out at sea and those at home would send telegrams bearing the telephone company’s standard messages, such as: ‘The same Christmas star, my dear, lights both our paths; neither a thousand degrees in latitude nor all the oceans can separate you and me.’ When the Tandberg tape recorder arrived, a whaling dad might be lucky enough to receive a recording of his children preparing for Christmas. A whaler’s daughter from Østfold told of how her family spent 30 Christmas Eves in a row without her father. Back at home, the wives and children would sometimes go to the cinema to watch a filmed report from the whaling grounds. Sometimes some of the men might chip in and send a telegram to their local newspaper by way of Bergen Radio. One such telegram was sent from the Southern Venture on October 3rd, 1958. ‘Greetings to our friends and families, from the Equator.’ The moments of greatest excitement were naturally in the spring, when the men came home; then mother and children would wash and tidy, varnish and paint the house, do the gardening, and spruce themselves up, before going down to the quayside to wait.

Economics, politics, and culture

The whale has to pay for everything. It has to pay the cost of several million kroner for a whale factory ship. It pays for twelve whaleboats and a crew of almost five hundred men. […] The whale must also pay for a hundred oxen, fifty pigs, as many lambs, fifty tonnes of canned food, two

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


tonnes of jam, a mountain of tinned corned beef, two thousand blocks of goat cheese, tens of thousands of eggs – five hundred are needed for breakfast. The whale is supposed to pay for all this and a thousand other things. (Torbjørn Saga) The value of whale oil represented between 0.5 % and 1.5 % of the gross national product of Norway from 1908–1960, with the exception of the periods 1912–14 and 1925–31, when it was higher, peaking at 3.86 % in 1931. The value exceeded two percent in 1947–49, but then started a steady decline. Such percentages might seem small, but the accumulated value of the industry was close to that generated by fishing from 1917 to 1937; and in 1925–28 even exceeded it. In any case, these are impressive income figures. As a point of comparison, if we were to add up the nation’s entire income from whaling in 1905–70, it would be equivalent to the Norwegian Petroleum Fund at the start of the new millennium.

Figure 3: Income from fish and whale oil 1905–1967, given in current prices.

1500 1350

Millions of Norwegian kroner

1200 1050


900 750 600 450 300 150

whale oil

0 1905 1910 1915 1920 1925 1930 1935 1940 1945 1950 1955 1960 1965 Source: SSB.

388 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

The Sandefjord fleet which contributed significantly to economic growth in Vestfold county and to the decimation of whale stocks in Antarctica.

Whaling had significant economic knock-on effects that are less easy to calculate. Many business sectors benefited from whalers returning home with thick wallets. In particular, the shipbuilding industry profited greatly from the whaling industry. There can be no doubt that the major ship-owners earned huge incomes from it, as indicated by the large donations made by ship-owners like Anders Jahre and Lars Christensen, and in particular the capital they reinvested, primarily in the merchant fleet. Jahre became the richest man in Norway. The whaling industry also brought foreign currency into the country, which was important, particularly during the early post-war years. On the whole, the whaling industry was something people were proud of, both in Vestfold and in the country at large; because the perception of the whaler as a Norwegian Viking in dangerous waters was still prevalent, and also because whaling brought large sums of money into Norway. In 1953 for example, Leif Sørsdal, a seasoned polar traveller, went all across the country with a slide show about ‘Antarctica and the Norwegian whale factory ships, with the men who give ‘their all’ to wrench from the ocean its great wealth’. Articles in magazines and newspapers presented the whalers and their work with huge respect; they were ‘the lads who know their craft’. At the same time, emphasis was placed on the thrill and hazards of the hunt.

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


Over time, however, the exploitative aspect of the hunt came under discussion with increasing regularity. Scientists had warned early on against the dangers of dredging the seas of the large whales, but ship-owners turned a deaf ear. Within Norway’s borders, the focus was placed as much on foreign competition as on threatened whale stocks.

The sealing industry – expansion and modernisation

The first sealing season after the war began late. It was not until June 12th, 1945 that the boats set out for the ice sheets. At such a late date in the spring, the best of the season was over, of course, and the females would already have given birth to their cubs. But even if hunting for whitecoats or bluebacks (newly born seal and hooded seal pups) was out of the question, the sealers could hunt for older seals, because after so many years of waiting, nothing was going to stop them from their hunt. The nine vessels from Sunnmøre in Western Norway that participated in the hunt headed northwest to the Denmark Strait, where they would combine sealing with fishing for Greenland shark; while five vessels from Troms in Northern Norway sailed for the Arctic Ocean. The grounds in the White Sea were closed; the Russians explained that they had to deny access to the sealing grounds because of the danger of unexploded mines. The efforts of 1945 were modest. The fleet had shrunk considerably, and that spring there was a shortage of most of the things a fleet needed to set out on an expedition into Arctic waters. Fuel was rationed, and it was hard to find provisions or equipment. Hunting equipment had to be replaced or repaired, after having lain unused during five years of war. Many boats were in severe need of an overhaul after years without proper maintenance. After the modest beginnings of 1945, participation in sealing grew quickly; and by 1948, 61 boats with 900 men were working to full capacity. Between 1950 and 1964, there were around 1,200 seal hunters working each year. In 1952, the year in which five boats vanished without trace in the Western Ice Fields, 81 vessels took part with over 1,400 men. Never before or since have there been so many men involved in sealing. In 1947 the catch was already comparable to pre-war levels. Forty-nine boats participated that year, and 130,736 animals were caught, almost exactly the same number as in 1939. Several seasons of excellent catches followed. In the 1950s, 270,000 animals were caught annually, 38 percent more than in the inter-war years. The increase in catches after 1945 was due in part to the modernisation of the sealing fleet. Older vessels were rebuilt and reinforced, and new boats were constructed. Twenty percent of the vessels that participated in 1961 were

390 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

The Harmoni, from Tromsø, pushing its way through the Western Ice Fields in 1982.

ten years old or less. The newbuilds were often made of steel. Between 1955 and 1961, the average length of the vessels increased from 96 to 105 feet. The increase in catches after 1945 was not solely a consequence of the modernisation of the fleet, but also a result of territorial expansion. The Newfoundland grounds, which Norwegian hunters had started to use just before World War II, was an extremely important area. In 1948 only one vessel participated. Just two years later there were 13 Norwegian vessels there, and it soon became the area where the largest hauls could be made. The Newfoundland hunting grounds became even more important when seal hunting in the White Sea came to an end. Under the Concession Treaty, signed by Norway and the Soviet Union on April 26th, 1926, Norwegian sealers needed a letter of passage in order to catch seals in the rich hunting fields of the White Sea. But beginning in 1940, Soviet authorities refused to issue any such permits, despite numerous Norwegian requests for the reopening of the grounds after the war. The Soviet argument about the danger of mines may have been real during the first few years after 1945, but the main reason for refusal was the tense relationship between East and West during the Cold War. The largest and most modern vessels hunted in Newfoundland. In 1956 the Norbjørn returned to its home port of Tromsø with pelts and blubber from 31,160 animals in its hold. The powerful steel ship, built in Finland during the war, was originally an icebreaker, and was rebuilt after the war as a sealer. In 1956 another Tromsø ship, the Polarsirkel, made a record catch, bringing back 32,026 pelts and 420 tonnes of blubber from the same grounds. No other Norwegian vessel has ever caught so much seal. The catches made by those two ships represented 20 percent of the total catch for 1956. The sealers on the Polarsirkel earned 18,000 kroner each, the equivalent of almost twice the average salary of a Norwegian industrial worker that year. But what was the economic role of seal hunting? Economically, in a national perspective, the catch was not significant. The peak year was 1951; yet that year’s catch value of 28 million kroner represented only 0.147 percent of the Norwegian GNP. In comparison, profits from fishing that year were 492 million kroner, and the value of whale-oil production was 369 million kroner. The economic impact of sealing was primarily significant for the hunting communities along the coast. Sealing proved most important economically for Tromsø and Bergen, where the preparation of skins and the production of oil provided industrial jobs. The hunters were not just after harp seals and hooded seals. Walrus and polar bear skins were much sought after and could provide considerable income for crews. True enough, walrus catches were very limited after the war, with the exception of 1951, when Norwegian hunters caught 1,253 animals. Not since 1898 had so many walruses been shot. The following year, however, the

392 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Trophy hunters in 1963. According to the magazine Aktuell, amateur American hunters with deep pockets had discovered a new pastime: polar bear safaris in the Western Ice Fields.

walrus became an internationally protected species. Hunting polar bears represented a more significant additional income. The majority of the polar bears were hunted in the Northern Ice Fields, the Eastern Ice Fields, and around Svalbard; but bears were also caught in the Newfoundland grounds and near Jan Mayen. Between 1945 and 1973, 8,543 polar bears were killed. About half of these were killed by sealers, the rest by the staff at Svalbard’s weather station, by people who stayed the winter in those places, and by trophy hunters. Excellent returns could be made on the skins, but most profitable of all was the selling of live polar bears, which were in great demand by zoos across Europe. In the period after the war, 1950 was the peak year, when 60 animals were caught and sent abroad. In 1973, it became illegal to catch polar bears.

Dangers and shipwrecks

On the morning of April 9th, 1952, the Department of Fisheries received the following telegram from Reykjavik, Island: Five Norwegian sealers in Western Ice Fields missing for six days in hurricane. The sixth, Arild, arrived North Icelandic harbour severely damaged. Fear that boats are lost and crews dead. Possible the crews might survive on ice. Reply as soon as possible if legation should send search plane from Iceland. The Buskøy and Pels from Sunnmøre, the Vårglimt from Balsfjord, and the Tromsø vessels Brattind and Ringsel were missing. All together, the boats had 78 men aboard. What had happened? Werner Wilhelmsen, the skipper of the Arild from Tromsø, and the rest of his crew were the last to have had contact with the five boats before they sank. The Arild had been in the same grounds when the bad weather struck on April 3rd. Together with the Vårglimt and Brattind they took shelter behind an outcropping of ice. But during the storm their shelter disappeared, leaving the boats to the mercy of the elements. The last of the vessels they saw were the Vårglimt, which lay pressed up against an ice sheet, and the Brattind, which was listing. The engine on the Arild failed to keep her on a straight course, and the boat had to ride out the enormous waves. A breaker caused two men, Werner’s elder brother and father-in-law, to be washed overboard as they were about to cast out the sea anchor. While Werner’s father-in-law was lost in the waves, his brother was miraculously washed back on deck again. One crew member, who had injured his hip falling on the ice before the storm, lay isolated in his cabin

394 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

for 84 hours without any attention, as it was impossible to get down to him. The portholes in his cabin had been smashed by the waves, but he had managed to get up and stuff them with bedclothes and mattresses. Finally, however, the terrifying journey came to an end. Severely damaged, and with a broken main mast, the Arild arrived at Arnafjord in northwest Iceland on the evening of April 8th. After an ambulance had been called for the injured man, Wilhelmsen managed to dispatch the telegram about the missing boats. A rescue operation was immediately launched. The U.S. Air Force, stationed in Iceland, was asked to take part, together with Icelandic planes and a Danish Catalina plane. First, they attempted to find survivors on the ice, and the entire area between 60° and 70° N was scoured. But apart from a few pieces of wreckage, their searches bore no results. After a week the Americans called off the search, as they felt it was very unlikely they would find survivors in such poor weather. But the other plane searches continued until May 2nd, greatly hampered by the weather. On April 10th the seal hunters’ organisations suggested that six of their vessels already in the area should join the search. The boats searched between 70° and 64° N, but stopped after about a week, having seen no sign of any crew or vessels. On April 13th, Norway’s Naval Defence corvette patrol ships Sørøy and Nordkyn, leaving Tromsø for the Western Ice Fields, went to join the search. But these vessels found nothing either, and on May 3rd they were recalled to port. The sealing boats Nordland I and Polarsel were chartered by the authorities and continued searching until May 21st. Apart from the discovery of a piece of wood and a cabin door, the searches, tragically, bore no results. Nobody knows what had happened just when the boats sank. But it is likely they went down quickly in the hurricane. The families of the dead were left behind: 46 women had lost their husbands, and 98 children had lost their fathers. Some families were particularly hard hit, because the crews on several of the boats had been related. The shipwrecks led to a direct decline in sealing; during the 1953 season only 59 boats participated in the hunt. Shortly afterwards, however, numbers went up again. In 1957, just five years after the accident in the Western Ice Fields, 73 boats participated. The fact that the shipwrecks did not lead to a longterm decline in hunting was due to the attitudes within the hunting communities. Fishing and hunting have always been viewed as perilous. The year 1952 was a particularly bad one, with accidents; but there had been many great losses in previous seasons, too. In 1949 three vessels were to succumb to the forces of nature. In the Western Ice fields, the Tromsø vessel Ægir was out hunting. During a powerful gale, it sustained a sizable leak, but luckily the crew were saved by the Polstjerna, which was anchored nearby. On the evening of Easter Sunday that same year, the Polarbjørn from Brandal was ravaged by fire. The boat was hunting in the Newfoundland grounds. The crew

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


were saved by the Canadian sealer Illinois, but were transferred later to the Herøyfjord, which had as many as 20,000 animals on board. On its journey home from Newfoundland to Ålesund, the vessel encountered a raging storm. The cargo shifted, and the boat was shipwrecked. Fortunately, help was at hand. The Sunnmøre vessels Brandal and Flemsøy were also on their return voyage home, and under extremely difficult conditions managed to pick up all the men who had been aboard the Herøyfjord. In 1950 there were three shipwrecks, while in 1951 there was one shipwreck. The Veidemann from Vartdal broke its propeller in the Western Ice Fields. Heavy waves had torn apart the outside stern casing, and the vessel drifted helplessly before sinking. In each of these instances, the crew were saved by other seal hunting ships. But despite the many shipwrecks, sealing had become a safer industry than during the years between the wars. In the 15 years between 1926 and 1940, a total of 101 vessels were shipwrecked; in the period from 1946 to 1976, the figure had dropped to only 29.

An industry in decline

In the latter half of the 1960s, the sealing industry was in decline. In 1965 there were over 1,100 people hunting seal on 57 vessels. The catch was poor that year, and only 140,000 animals were caught. But if quantities were low, prices were high. The best hooded seal pelts sold for 300 kroner apiece, while blueback pelts commanded between 200 and 250 kroner each. The total gross income for sealers came to almost 23 million kroner. The export value was almost 42 million. France and West Germany were the most important markets for Norwegian seal skin products. But prospects looked grim, and the succeeding years showed a steep downturn. Participation in hunts more than halved from 1965 to 1971. The decline continued, and by 1985 only a handful of boats were left. The reason for the decline was a reduction in seal stocks, following many years of exploitation. As early as 1950–51, Canadian biologists had developed estimates that showed that the breeding rates for harp seal in Newfoundland were alarmingly low. Stocks were reduced by between 50 and 75 percent in the period 1955–1971. On the other important grounds, the Western Ice Fields, the estimated reduction was around 75–80 percent in the period from 1945 to 1965. In the Eastern Ice Fields there was also excessive over-hunting of harp seal after the war. But despite this, no effective hunting regulations were in force until 1971, when Norwegian and Canadian authorities reached an agreement on the protection of seal stocks in the northwest Atlantic. Admittedly, there had been some

396 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

A glimpse of the Rieber production plant in Tromsø in 2003, where sealskins are fleshed and otherwise treated. At this machine, the last remains of flesh and blubber are removed from the hide.

informal agreements on the regulation of hunting. As far back as the 1950s, there had been cooperation in the form of a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ on start and finish dates, in order to safeguard the stocks. Another example of an informal agreement was that Norwegian sealers had stopped hunting in the St. Lawrence Bay after 1964. But for Norway it became important to reach an agreement which would secure Norwegian hunting rights on the grounds, because in 1970 Canada extended its territorial waters from three to twelve nautical miles. On other grounds, which were less important in terms of volume, agreements were made a little earlier. Catches in the Denmark Strait, between Iceland and eastern Greenland, were limited by quotas in 1958–60; and as of 1961 seals were protected, despite massive protests from the hunting communities in Sunnmøre in Western Norway. In 1970 Norway and the Soviet Union agreed upon a quota system for hunting in the northeast Atlantic, following some hunting regulation measures that had come into effect in 1965. The introduction of hunting quotas was something completely new. Traditionally, hunting had been regulated by specific start and finish dates on the different grounds. On the Newfoundland grounds, the hunting usually took place from March 12th to April 30th; in the Western and the Eastern Ice Fields, the dates were a week later. The explanation given for this limitation was, of course, that it was for the protection of stocks. But there were other implications for the industry that were of greater importance. It was essential that the boats and crew not disturb the seal mothers before or during birth, because they then risked the early disappearance of the seals from the grounds. The best thing was to start the hunt just after the births, when the pups were on the ice, feeding from their mothers. The nursing period lasts only a couple of weeks; thereafter, the seal pups are left to themselves. The male seal is also easier to catch at this time. He stays close by, because as soon as the mothers abandon their young, the mating season begins. The new quota systems were a necessary yet very dramatic addition to the operating parameters affecting the industry. Hardest hit were the Newfoundland grounds. In the five-year period from 1966 to 1970, the average catch of harp seal in this area had been slightly more than 130,000 per year. In 1971 the annual quota was set at 100,000; and it was steadily reduced thereafter until it reached 20,000 by 1979. On the other grounds, in the Eastern and Western Ice Fields, quotas remained largely unchanged: 15,000 harp seal pups and 30,000 hooded seals in the west and 14,000 harp seals in the east. The last hunting season for Norwegians on Newfoundland grounds was in 1983. This cessation was partly due to the European Economic Community prohibition of imports of products from seal pups, and partly due to the Canadian authorities banning the use of large vessels on the hunting grounds.

398 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

The great adventure was over. These were the grounds where Norwegian sealers had taken record hunting catches in 1956. Tromsø skipper Guttorm Jakobsen claimed in an interview that he had caught half a million seals on the Newfoundland hunts. The cessation meant that the total Norwegian catch was reduced by almost 70 percent.

Protesting against seal hunting

In the first decades after 1945, the official image of sealers was one of sweat and toil amid the perils of icy Northern waters. With great regularity, magazines would carry articles portraying the drama of the hunt and the awe-inspiring natural landscapes in the ice. A 1958 headline, ‘The Tough Men of the Ice’, was fairly typical. Newspapers offered the same image of the sealers. Despite the growth of manufacturing in Norway, many people were still employed in the agriculture and fishing sectors. Seal hunting was viewed as a form of harvesting of nature, in the same way as other primary industries were. Slaughter of animals in farming communities was commonplace, and few concerned themselves with the methods of slaughter. Sealing was seen in the same terms as any other business activity, the only difference being that it was more exotic and adventurous. During the second half of the 1960s, however, this media image was challenged by organised opposition to sealing. The first waves of resistance surfaced in 1965, when the Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals (Dyrebeskyttelsen Norge) showed the film ‘Sealing in Newfoundland’ during a meeting of its members. The film had been obtained from a sister chapter in Hamburg, and showed a series of brutal and heartrending scenes. Among other things, pregnant seals were shown being killed, and their unborn pups being dragged from their bodies. It was claimed that the Newfoundland hunters stuffed the pups, called ‘cats’, and sold them as souvenirs in St. John’s. The film also showed seals with cruel gunshot wounds, and showed them being killed in a very brutal fashion. The film was later exposed as a fake; the filmmakers had paid hunters to portray the industry in as bad a light as possible. But despite these revelations, the film played an important role in international propaganda against sealing. In Norway the film received little attention. It was not until four years later that the seal hunting controversy finally was picked up by the Norwegian media. The trigger was a February 1969 photo essay in Paris Match showing Canadian seal hunting in the St. Lawrence Bay. The Norwegian embassy in Paris found itself bombarded by protests shortly after the magazine was published. The same pictures were later printed in Aktuell, accompanying an article on Norwegian sealing. During this media storm, a Norwegian documentary

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


The cover of Paris Match, which infuriated the French and unsettled the Norwegian authorities.

appeared. Film producer and photographer Thoralf Smith-Jensen from Stavanger had made a film based on a hunt with the boat M/S Furenak of Ålesund. It showed bloody scenes on the ice, and some people maintained that the film showed methods of slaughter that were both inhumane and irresponsible. In its wake, a heated newspaper debate arose in which the industry, scientists, politicians and the general public participated. The film led to the mobilisation of Norwegian animal rights campaigners and furious protests from the hunting industry. Smith-Jensen was also investigated by the Veterinary Authorities. He himself claimed that his aim had not been to lay the seal hunters open to public attack, but simply to film what he saw. Criticism by anti-sealing campaigners has largely centred around three issues. The first issue was the concern over the size of catches, that the exploitation of the seals has been so extensive that stocks have nearly reached extinction. Secondly, the activists objected to the inhumane methods of killing seals and the suffering caused during the hunt. There has been huge focus on the hunters’ use of a special bludgeoning instrument with a sharp hook at the end, and on the shooting, wounding, and killing of nursing pups as their mothers try to protect them. The most serious criticism has been that seals are skinned alive during the hunts. Thirdly, the criticism has focused on the immorality of killing animals when the purpose is wholly commercial, with the pelts used for luxury items like fur coats, whilst dead seal carcasses were left lying on the ice. The first anti-seal hunting campaigns started in Canada in 1967. Several organisations were then established. Greenpeace was founded in Vancouver in 1971. The same year saw the founding of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), also in Canada, by Brian Davies and others. In 1972, Davies published the book Savage Luxury, a powerful criticism of the sealing industry. In Norway the opposition did not gain the same foothold as abroad. The Norwegian Society for the Protection of Animals was critical of aspects of the hunt, but focused on the fight for humane killing methods and for the enforcement of regulations. The organised protests against sealing have to be seen in the light of the protest movement that swept through large sections of the industrialised world at the end of the 1960s. But such opposition is also a consequence of modern mass media. It was now possible for television to bring live pictures of the bloody drama on the ice into people’s living rooms. And the activists knew how to use the media. The criticism of Norwegian seal hunting by French magazines at the end of 1960s was taken seriously by the authorities. The accusations were refuted, and shortly after the article in Paris Match appeared, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited French journalists to Norway so that they could form their own opinion as to how Norwegian hunting was carried out. The accusations of systematic animal abuse during Norwegian sealing were

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


categorically denied by the industry as much as by the scientists. Nonetheless, the question as to whether aspects of Norwegian hunting were worthy of criticism, like in their methods of slaughter, is a legitimate one. In his 1958 book, Mannen og båten (The Man and the Boat), ‘Polar Priest’ Monrad Norderval wrote that the regulations were at times broken. ‘Time and time again I saw animals that were not properly killed, suddenly coming to again; and then trying of course, as is their instinct, to get away and out into the sea. And on occasion they succeeded, too.’ Marine biologist Torgeir Øritsland, who drew up a set of instructions for the sealers at the end of the 1960s, thinks that the campaign against seal hunting resulted in significant changes in slaughtering methods on board the ships. At the same time he categorically rejects claims that seal pups were skinned alive. But despite scientifically based refutations of the anti-sealing campaigners’ arguments, these campaigns appealed to millions of people, particularly the urban youth of France, Germany, and U.S.A. The year 1974 brought a second large wave of protests against Norwegian sealing, this time from the U.S.A. Here campaigns had proved successful, with the Marine Mammal Protection Act having been passed in 1972, which outlawed the import of all products made from marine mammals to the U.S.A. Advertisements were run in the newspapers and on radio and TV. Famous people were used to front the campaigns, including the Dutch speed skater, Ard Schenk. Norwegian politicians grew concerned about the damaging effect this campaign was having on other Norwegian industries, such as travel and tourism. The arguments were countered once again with factual information from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its representatives abroad. But the task was insurmountable, because during the campaign, diplomatic representatives abroad were receiving several thousand (anti-seal hunting) letters every day. During 1974 the Norwegian embassy in Washington, D.C., received more than a million written protests, mostly pre-printed postcards. The anti-seal hunting organisations’ advertisements in American and European newspapers encouraged people to send protests directly to the chairman of G.C. Rieber, the largest, and eventually the only, buyer, producer, and exporter of sealskin and seal oil. Christian Rieber received over 250,000 letters; these were mostly postcards, but also included were many personal letters, for instance from school classes. Some mail contained murder threats, and parcels were checked by a bomb detector before being opened. Rieber even made contingency plans for himself and his family to escape. The protests also created unease at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In June, 1975 the Sealing Council (Selfangstrådet) called an extraordinary meeting. The reason for this was that Brian Davies had recorded a film about Norwegian sealing and had threatened to air it on American TV, unless the Newfoundland

402 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

hunting ceased. Foreign Minister Knut Frydenlund went so far as to meet with Davies, which infuriated the members of the Sealing Council. Modelled on the Whaling Council, the Sealing Council had been formed in 1948, and was intended to function as a link between the industry and the authorities. The most important task for this body was to regulate the catch, not only in relation to Norway, but also internationally. As far as Brian Davies’ film was concerned, the Sealing Council was of the opinion that the industry should not allow itself to be pressured in this way. The council’s advice therefore was that the hunting should continue, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs fell into line. Five years later the case surfaced again. This time the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wanted Norwegian participation in Newfoundland to stop ‘with immediate effect’, because Norwegian hunting presented an ‘unquantifiable strain on foreign policy’. Again the Sealing Council was unaccommodating. Carsten Helgeby of the press office at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was heavily ‘bruised’ by the council members when he laid the Ministry’s proposals before them. The result was the same as before, and hunting continued in Newfoundland. But victory was short lived. For even if the seal researchers, hunters, and Christian Rieber had once again managed to persuade the authorities that they should not give in to the campaign against sealing, the campaigners were gaining ground elsewhere. Their greatest success was when the EEC outlawed all imports of seal skin in 1983. With a single pen stroke the market for the sealing industry and its entire commercial base had been swept away. EEC countries accounted for 90 percent of the market for Norwegian seal skin, and the ban was its ‘death knell’. Then, at the end of the 1980s, the campaign against sealing received support from unexpected quarters.

The Lindberg case

In the spring of 1988, the freelance journalist Odd F. Lindberg was hired as an inspector on the Tromsø seal boat Harmoni, in the Western Ice Fields. When he came back, he was interviewed by the newspaper Bladet Tromsø, and said that he wanted to report to the Ministry of Fisheries the serious breaches of regulations he had witnessed. His report was presented two and a half months later. Due to the seriousness of complaints against named individuals, the Ministry decided to withhold the report from the public. At the same time the newspaper printed the entire report, keeping the names of the hunters anonymous. Reactions to this story were fierce. The seal hunters who had received criticism reacted; the scientific community reacted; and the Ministry of Fisheries released a statement dismissing Lindberg’s report as absurd.

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


Why did Norwegians react so strongly to Odd Lindberg’s claims of serious violations of regulations by the hunting industry?

The Ministry of Fisheries’ handling of the Lindberg case seems quite extraordinary. In the first place, Lindberg was appointed as an inspector without having had sufficiently documented competence in the field. When he then returned with a critical report, it was stamped as classified information for two years. In a press release, the Ministry then concluded that there had been no breach of hunting regulations, and went on to declare the Lindberg report absurd. In an interview in July 1988, a ministerial director claimed the report was unlikely to cause much damage, since Lindberg’s accusations had been refuted on scientific grounds. But the Ministry was seriously mistaken, and the case was in no way over. Odd Lindberg had taken his materials abroad, and in February 1989 Swedish Television aired a programme on Norwegian seal hunting, which included a film Lindberg had made. Channel 4 in Great Britain also showed the film. The Norwegian embassy in London received a torrent of phone calls, from viewers criticising Norwegian sealing and threatening to boycott Norwegian goods. In Sweden the reaction was the same. Greenpeace and the newspaper Expressen had an open phone line after the film was broadcast, and thousands of viewers expressed their anger. Even prominent EEC politicians threatened sanctions against Norway if the hunting was not brought to an end. In Norway, however, Lindberg received little support, and many branded him as a traitor. Seal hunters dismissed the film as a hoax. Exporters of fish were alarmed that there might be a boycott of Norwegian fish, and the Department of Fisheries once again denied there had been any breach of law by Norwegian sealers. Again, one cannot help but feel the government handling of the situation was both extraordinary and extremely slow. In February of 1989, ten months had elapsed since the start of the Lindberg case. But only now, after the case had already caused a storm in the British and Swedish media, did the government appoint a commission of experts to look into the validity of the claims of illegal conduct by Norwegian sealers. The commission concluded that it had the impression that ‘on the whole, seal hunters feel that hunting regulations should be respected, and that the rules have been largely adhered to’. Breaches had, however, occurred, which the commission explained as being due to the conditions in which the hunting had taken place. But Lindberg’s claim that animals were skinned alive, were dismissed; as was the claim that seal pups were kicked to death. All the same, the commission felt there was reason to consider measures for the improvement of animal welfare. The Lindberg case raises many questions. By the time of the case, sealing had been reduced to a state subsidised, ‘symbolic’ industry in Norway, comprised of four or five ships and a reception plant for skins. In 1983 state subsidies were granted for the first time, and a sum of four million kroner allocated that year to keep vessels afloat. Since then, allocations to the sealing industry

a g re e d y h u n t i n g n at i o n ?


have totalled between five and fifteen million kroner, annually. This funding is given partly to support the processing, and partly to support the boats. The strength of the reaction against Lindberg shows that the symbolic value of this traditional industry was still extremely important. Did the accusations of lawbreaking on the seal hunt upset a historic sense of Norway’s ‘polar identity’? Lindberg became an object of hate for people who knew next to nothing about sealing, long before the commission of experts had shown that his allegations were generally faulty. The seal hunters who took out a libel suit against Lindberg were awarded compensation. Whaling and sealing shared many characteristics in the post-war years. Both industries saw huge investments in hunting equipment, followed by record catches in the 1950s. In the long run, however, the investments were disproportionate to the rewards, and the next decade was characterised by decline. And when the future of the hunt became increasingly uncertain, many shipowners chose to withdraw their ships from hunting, refitting them and using them for other purposes. What was the cause of this decline? In this period, the international crusade against seal hunting began, to the detriment of market conditions. To what extent did the campaigns influenced the decline? That is of course arguable, because hunting was already in decline. But as the campaigns against sealing became more powerful and better organised, they certainly seemed to contribute substantially to the pace of downscaling. As far as Antarctic whaling was concerned, however, the whaling boats had already made what were to be their final journeys when the international anti-whaling campaigns began to gather strength. It was the lesser rorqual, known as the minke whale that lived along the coast, which was to become the focus of campaigns against whaling. The overwhelming reason for the decline in the hunting of seal and large whales after the growth years was over-exploitation. But labelling in hindsight, Norway, the hunting nation, as greedy is nonetheless problematic. The unregulated hunting of seals and large whales in those first decades after 1945 was part of the expansionist thinking of its day. But, it is beyond any doubt that business interests had a major influence on hunting policies. Ultimately, it was the lack of any efficient and effective international management structures that decided the fate of hunting.

406 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Will skins, blubber, and meat be unloaded at the Tromsø wharf in the future, as well?


In the years that followed World War II, the hunt for natural resources in the Artic regions became greatly intensified. The harvesting of fish in Norwegian and Russian Arctic waters grew rapidly. As a result, important fish stocks were over-harvested. By the 1970s it was clear that new organizations for sustainable management needed to be established, and that this could only be achieved in close partnership with other countries, not least with Norway’s neighbour to the east. This is one of the main reasons Norway’s policy on the polar and Arctic regions during this period was so driven by its relationship to the Soviet Union, later Russia. In the first decades after World War II, however, other factors were more important. If the relationship with the Soviet Union had such a huge influence on Norway’s approach, it was due to East-West tensions and the Cold War, which resulted in significant militarisation of the Artic, and which also led Norway to join NATO in 1949. The Arctic and northern regions became a military deployment area during the Cold War, but even then there was room for cooperation through the Iron Curtain. In the north, Norway pursued a deliberate, low-tension approach which counterbalanced the high tension of the Arctic. Additionally, since the end of the 1970s, pressure on fish stocks required cooperation to ensure their management. Since the end of the Cold War, opportunities for interaction have grown on both sides of the border, and the cooperative relationship is more complex. At the same time, this has increased the areas of potential conflict, for instance in connection with management of the Arctic’s natural resources. Attempts at solving these conflicts of interest include establishment of the new International Laws of the Sea Regulations, in the 1970s. During the last two decades we have seen the gradual opening of previously closed borders. Since the 1960s, new borders have also been established (economic zones, continental shelf borders). Not insignificantly, unresolved border issues have also arisen.

new frontiers, new borders


Coal mining during the Cold War

Svalbard was one of the most important areas of interaction for the polar nations of Norway and Russia. On June 27th, 1945, the first scheduled passenger boat left the mainland for Svalbard, carrying workers who were to commence postwar repairs on Store Norske’s mines and machinery in Longyearbyen and Sveagruva. Less than two months later, the state-owned company Kings Bay sent its first contingent of workers to Ny-Ålesund. By autumn, 500 to 600 people were involved in the reconstruction work. There was plenty to be done. Few people questioned whether coal mining on Svalbard should be resumed after the war. Norwegian coal mining was an important instrument used to underscore Norwegian sovereignty, and both Norway and Europe needed energy for their post-war reconstruction. Coal was an important source of energy for the steel, shipping, and railroad industries, as well as for many households, especially in Northern Norway. The privately owned Store Norske Spitsbergen Kulkompani (The Great Norwegian Spitsbergen Coal Company) was prepared to meet the demand. Throughout the war, the company’s chairman, Hilmar Reksten, worked tirelessly in London and New York to secure equipment and machinery for the re-opening of the mines in Longyearbyen and Svea, as soon as peace was declared. There would be enormous competition for such equipment after the war, and an early start was essential. Furthermore the local competitor, the state-owned Kings Bay Kull Compani (King’s Bay Coal Company), had plans lined up for the resumption of production in Ny-Ålesund, where the coal mines had fallen into disuse in the 1930s. Optimism and belief in the future reigned. However, there were also powerful political grounds for the resumption of Norwegian mining activity on Svalbard; nothing less than Norwegian sovereignty was at stake. In November 1944, during a late-night meeting in Moscow with his Norwegian colleague Trygve Lie, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov proposed dramatic alterations to the Svalbard Treaty. He asserted that the treaty must be redrawn in order to accommodate the security needs of the Soviet Union, and that Svalbard’s defence should be shared between the two countries. With the presence of Soviet military forces in Finnmark, the Norwegian authorities found themselves, to put it mildly, in a rather tight corner. In London, the Norwegian government in exile gave serious consideration to the idea of going along with the Russians and worked on proposals for compromise. This episode, which came to be known in Norway as the ‘Svalbard Crisis’, cast a shadow over foreign policy immediately after the war, until 1947, when Parliament voted to cut off any future bilateral negotiations about the islands. A prominent feature of Norway’s post-war foreign policy was its wide integration of Norwegian politics and society with international cooperative

410 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

efforts. During the first decades this was particularly the case in areas of national security, through Norway’s membership of NATO. During the early postwar years, there had been great optimism regarding the possibilities of international cooperation. The establishment of the United Nations, and with it the hope for a more peaceful world, was one of many manifestations of this. This optimism found itself replaced by a more sober view as the Cold War progressed. In 1949 NATO was founded, with Norway as a member. In 1955 the Eastern Bloc responded by forming the Warsaw Pact. Along with the formation of bloc alliances, there was a competitive stockpiling of both conventional and nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons systems, in particular, came to dominate strategic thinking in the decades to follow. Norway’s position was affected by its being the only NATO member, apart from Turkey, to share a border with the Soviet Union. Norway’s membership in NATO was a move designed, first and foremost, to deter the Russians from launching any attack and to limit the scope of political pressure. The northern regions grew in strategic importance, and in 1951 the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic (SACLANT) was established in Oslo. The Soviet Union had recognised Norway’s sovereignty over Svalbard in 1924, at the same time that Norway had recognised the Soviet Union as a state. Nine years later, in 1935, the Soviet Union had agreed to the Svalbard Treaty. And the Russians had kept relatively silent on the subject of Svalbard, until Molotov contacted Lie in November 1944. Molotov maintained that the islands were of enormous strategic and economic importance to the Soviet Union, and that the Svalbard Treaty did not provide a satisfactory framework for the preservation of Russian interests. The treaty ought therefore to be revised. Bjørnøya (Bear Island) should be placed under Soviet sovereignty. Svalbard would have to be put under joint Norwegian-Soviet rule and joint defence arrangements should be established. Lie describes their conversation in one of his memoirs. Molotov put ‘his clenched fist down onto the Dardanelles and said: ‘We are blocked in here.’ He moved his hand to Öresund: ‘We are blocked in here. The only opening is in the North. But this war has shown that supply lines to Northern Russia can be cut or made very difficult. This will not be allowed to happen again.’ Even more Soviet proposals on the subject of Svalbard were put forward in the autumn of 1946, without leading to any change in Svalbard’s status. When Norway joined NATO, the Soviet Union became far more sensitive to Norwegian policies in the north and more conscious of its own security interests. In 1951 the Russians lodged two official protests against Norway’s Svalbard policy. The temperature of the relationship between Norway and the Soviet Union during the first couple of decades after World War II mirrors the international security climate at that time. Norway chose the middle road, between deter-

new frontiers, new borders


rence and appeasement. Its NATO membership was designed to ensure that its powerful neighbour to the east understood that the risks involved in any hostility against Norway would be prohibitive. At the same time, self-imposed restrictions on Norwegian defence policy should ensure that its NATO membership was not interpreted as overly threatening. Fundamental to Norwegian thinking in this matter was that cooperation with the Soviet Union needed to take place within a multilateral framework. Repeated Soviet proposals for bilateral agreements were therefore rejected by Norway. The key to Norway’s approach to national security was that there should be no establishment of permanent bases in Norway for use by military forces of other nations, and that no foreign forces should be permanently stationed in the country during peacetime. NATO partners’ interest in the Arctic areas lay in the region’s strategic location, which offered both offensive and defensive opportunities; for instance for the surveillance of Soviet military activities, the chance to intercept Soviet vessels, and the defence of their own supply lines. But in the summer of 1945, other things preoccupied the mining community in the Arctic.


In September 1943, a German fleet led by the battleships Scharnhorst and Tirpitz attacked the mining communities of Isfjorden, causing considerable damage. Much of Longyearbyen lay in ruins, and Mine 2 was still burning when the Norwegians returned in 1945. The settlement of Sveagruva was burnt to the ground by a German submarine crew in August 1944, and important machinery and structures blown apart. Ny-Ålesund had escaped with less damage; three houses were burned and others had sustained damage from submarine shellfire. The coal mines were partially filled with water and ice. Boats practically shuttled back and forth to Svalbard, carrying machinery, building materials, provisions and people right up until the sea froze over just before Christmas. Nearly 500 people spent the winter of 1945– 46 in the Norwegian mining settlements. Thanks to these efforts, production was soon underway. By 1947 the Norwegian export of coal had already reached 280,000 tonnes. In the two years that followed 420,000 tonnes were shipped out. The aggregate workforce totalled around 1,200. The market was strong during those early post-war years; demand was high and prices satisfactory. However, Svalbard’s coal companies were soon to experience the sensitivity and volatility of the market. The price of raw materials, especially the price of a strategic product like coal, fluctu-

412 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

A family community at 79°N. The Ødegårds had lived in Ny-Ålesund for ten years, but after the mining accident in 1962, the future was uncertain.

ated with the world political situation, which was extremely unstable. Small players like Kings Bay and Store Norske were naturally vulnerable. To secure earnings in foreign currency for the country, it was desirable to export as much as possible; but Norwegian companies faced both competition and tariff barriers on European markets. In Norway, demand was falling; railroad and shipping companies, which had been major consumers of Svalbard coal, were in the process of switching to electricity and petroleum. In order to ensure liquidity, both companies were financially dependent on state subsidies. There were other dark clouds looming on the horizon: resource depletion and accidents. In 1949, after only two years in operation, Sveagruva had to be closed down due to low grade coal deposits and water seepage. In Longyearbyen, high levels of production were exhausting Mines 1 and 2; and Store Norske had to speed up work to locate fresh coal seams. In Ny-Ålesund the coal was not so accessible; and technical and operational conditions posed technologically complex production problems. The annual yield at Kings Bay was only 38,500 tonnes in 1950. Despite a doubling of this figure in the follo-

new frontiers, new borders


wing year, the company was dependent on state support to continue production. More serious still was the fact that safety issues were not properly addressed. In December 1948, 15 men were killed in a gas explosion. A young man named Richard Grefstad wrote in his diary: ‘… it was a ghastly sight after the explosion. Timber and rock were flung far into the mine; and the coal cars were blown several meters (100 m) out of the mine. The dead were found with one hand in front of their mouths and the other held above them, as protection against something invisible. There was absolutely no oxygen down there.’ In 1952 and 1953 two other mining accidents occurred in Ny-Ålesund, which between them claimed 28 lives. The accident in 1952 was one of two on the same day, January 7th, and there was also a gas explosion in Mine 2 in Longyearbyen, in which six workers perished. A contributing factor could have been the exceptionally low atmospheric pressure that day. In addition to the human tragedy, these accidents were a political burden on the authorities, especially regarding state-run Kings Bay, for which the Minister of Industry held ultimate responsibility. The government appointed a committee of enquiry, which recommended a series of safety measures. The committee also pointed out that measures imposed after the 1949 accident had not been adequately implemented. When yet another explosion took place in 1953, it was clear that something drastic had to be done. During the years that followed, safer mining practices were developed. Massive investments were made in new equipment and machinery, and in 1961 the Ministry of Industry reported that 21.7 million kroner had been invested. This was in addition to funds set aside for operating expenses, repayment of debt, and increase in share capital. Between 1941 and 1961, Kings Bay received almost 60 million kroner from the state. By the end of the 1950s, Norwegian coal production amounted to around 300–400,000 tonnes per year, and 600 to 700 people were employed in the industry. Companies struggled with poor sales, and the coal itself was being depleted in existing mines. Closing down the mining operations looked like a distinct possibility, at least from a business perspective. Yet, political considerations dictated that Norwegian mining and settlements had to be sustained, at almost any cost. This goes a long way toward explaining the large investments that were made in Ny-Ålesund. Store Norske had opened a mine outside Longyear Valley, Mine 5, in 1959, after borrowing from the state. That mine had cost almost 24 million kroner. The new mine eased the immediate pressure in relation to the coal reserves, but did nothing to solve the underlying problems of low sales. The industry was in a crisis at the start of the 1960s, and in many ways the coal-mining industry on Svalbard was at a crossroads.

414 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Crisis in the coal industry

Huge investments had been made in both Ny-Ålesund and Longyearbyen, to modernize the plants and prepare the new mines. This gave rise to optimism, primarily at a local level. Capacity was high; in 1961, coal production was 400,000 tonnes, a level comparable to that attained during the productive years around 1950. After its modernisation, the Kings Bay coal mines were fully operational. The uncertainty lay in the market: sales and marketing were problematic, which was reflected in low coal prices. The crisis was international, and Svalbard’s mining companies were very small players in a much larger game. It soon became apparent that the markets were not about to solve Store Norske’s or Kings Bay’s problems; solutions were called for on a national level. The state had inadvertently put itself in a bind by contributing to an increase in production. Now it had to resort to drastic measures. On the European coal market, Germany in particular looked as if it might be an important customer for Store Norske, but prices were under severe pressure. Cheap American coal was flooding the European market, where producers reacted with protectionism and compensated by increasing their own production. Economic stagnation also meant that Eastern European producers offered cheap coal in order to increase their own foreign-currency earnings, even as demand was falling. Western European countries that had coal mines themselves responded by increasing import duties and reducing production. Late on the evening of November 5th, 1962, just after the night shift had clocked out, the Ester Mine in Ny-Ålesund exploded. All 21 men who had been underground were killed. Ten bodies were brought out, but fire and smoke prevented rescue teams from reaching the rest of the men. A tenth of the community had been snatched away: husbands, fathers, colleagues, and friends. Besides suffering human losses, hope and faith in the future were also shattered; after all, enormous investments in modernisation and safety improvements had been made, with Kings Bay finally running at full capacity again. Throughout the winter and spring, employees had to live with the uncertainty of the company’s and their own fates, in effect without any possibility of influencing events on the mainland. A preliminary enquiry committee under the leadership of Finn Backer Midbøe, Svalbard’s Governor, had to leave NyÅlesund after only one week for fear of being locked in by ice during the winter. The Ministry of Industry appointed a new committee just after the New Year. Its report, delivered in May of 1963, strongly criticised Kings Bay, the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority, and the Ministry of Industry for insufficient attention and adherence to safety regulations in the mines. This

new frontiers, new borders


was made public in June, but by that time the Kings Bay story had already commanded headlines for months. Feelings were running high, in Parliament as well as elsewhere. As early as December 11th, 1962, Erling Engan of the Centre Party said that he was left with ‘the terrifying but distinct feeling that by allowing the Kings Bay mine to continue operating, the state has been playing with people’s lives. I believe that it would be difficult to find a mine anywhere in the world where such accidents occur time after time, and yet production continues as if nothing had happened.’ The conservative press in particular drew attention to the unfortunate dual role of the Ministry of Industry. The Ministry owned the company, and permanent undersecretary of state, Karl O. Skjerdal, was its chairman of the board. He was also responsible for overseeing the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority, which through the Commissioner of Mines had the responsibility for controlling mine safety. On June 20th, the Tønseth Commission Report was considered so important that Parliament postponed closing the session for the summer, and decided to debate the case in its entirety. On the same day, Minister of Industry Kjell Holler resigned. When the case, in all its complexity, was debated on August 20th to 23rd, in what was the first live television broadcast of a parliamentary debate in Norway, the parties proposed a motion of no confidence. With two votes from the Socialist People’s Party (Sosialistisk Folkeparti), the motion was passed, and the government was forced to resign. At the same time Parliament decided to shut down coal production at Kings Bay Kull Compani A/S. On the anniversary of the accident, November 5th, 1963, the new mine in the Western Center Field (Vestre Senterfelt) closed, and that winter all production in Ny-Ålesund closed down. An additional consequence of the events of 1962–63 was that questions were raised about both Norwegian industrial policies generally and Svalbard policies in particular. This was to have consequences during the 1960s. Another outcome of the process was that plans for a merger of Store Norske, Kings Bay, and the coking plant in Mo i Rana in the county of Nordland, and a state takeover of Store Norske, were all shelved. This was clearly not the time to put forward any proposals that might involve nationalization or expansion of state involvement in industry, and about which Parliament did not have sufficient information. When Store Norske celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1966, it was not without a feeling of anxiety. Closing down all mining activities on Svalbard no longer seemed like an implausible scenario.

Half a year after the tragic May 1949 gas explosion in Ny-Ålesund, the Jacob Kjøde cast anchor at the quay in Harstad, carrying the bodies of the dead miners.

new frontiers, new borders


Coal or black gold?

Up until the 1960s the state had spent a total of around one hundred million kroner on investments, subsidies for operating expenses, loans, and guarantees for the coal companies on Svalbard. These investments illustrate how important Norwegian authorities felt it was to maintain the industry and settlements. In the winter of 1961–62, there were more than twice as many Russians as Norwegians on the islands. When Ny-Ålesund closed down the following year, the balance was tipped even more. The mining activities had cost the state dearly, in more than just economic terms. Yet, what was the alternative for maintaining a credible Norwegian presence on Svalbard? During the years after the war, there was extensive exploration for petroleum in several locations in the Arctic, and a series of promising finds were made, not least of all in Alaska. International oil companies were also looking in Svalbard’s direction, not just because of its promising geology, but also because any finds here would offer huge rewards on account of its extremely favourable tax regime. In 1961 the American exploration company Caltex approached the governor of Svalbard to secure extraction rights. The Ministry of Industry attempted to put a stop to the licensing, but performed a U-turn after heavy pressure from Caltex, which was granted 236 claims in 1961–62. The following year, when an application for 71 licences made by Trust Arktikugol of the Soviet Union was rejected, trouble ensued. The Russians protested intensely at this inequitable treatment. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs became embroiled in the case, and despite severe reservations, Arktikugol was granted the licenses in 1965. In 1965–66, Caltex carried out exploration drilling for petroleum near Blåhuken in the Van Mijen Fjord, to a depth of 3,300 meters, but made no finds. Neither did any of the other eleven boreholes drilled on Svalbard in the 1960s or 1970s reveal any commercial deposits. Caltex was a consortium for this project, comprised of Standard Oil (Esso) and Texaco. Additionally, European companies, including Fina and Total, were also conducting exploration in the area. Trust Arktikugol concluded drilling in Cole Bay in 1974–75. Among the most active companies was a small firm, Norsk Polarnavigasjon (Norwegian Polar Navigation). Alone or in cooperation with other companies, it was responsible for drilling no fewer than six oil wells. It had no more luck than its competitors, but succeeded at least in sometimes being the most traded stock on the Oslo Stock Exchange. Oil exploration seemed to offer a ray of hope. In a situation where the mining activity in Ny-Ålesund had been shut down, and Store Norske was struggling with finances and diminishing coal reserves, oil and gas might offer

418 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

The dream of ‘black gold’ and wealth. Exploration drilling conducted by Norsk Polar Navigasjon A/S at the Brøgger Peninsula in 1963. Svein Ytreland carries an empty barrel, in the hopes that he can soon fill it with oil.

some alternative industry to shore up the local economy. Exploration, however, proved a formidable challenge, with respect to the exercise of Norwegian authority. The international oil companies operated across the entire group of islands, bringing in significant resources: helicopters, ships, manpower and equipment. In reality it became impossible for the governor to maintain any effective control over these activities. Nor had any laws or any regulatory frameworks been put in place; especially with regard to environmental protection, which was gaining increasing attention around 1970, and whose proponents saw oil exploration as an environmental threat, and extraction as an even greater threat. Another aspect is the Norwegian authorities’ handling of this situation. From a foreign diplomacy perspective, the Ministry of Industry was less than skilful in its dealings. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and eventually the government, itself, were forced to intervene to avoid serious conflict with the Soviet Union. The ‘oil boom’ on Svalbard was short-lived, although a handful of additional wells were drilled in the 1980s and 1990s, with the same negative results. If nothing else, this showed that oil and gas production did not represent an alternative to coal mining. Therefore, the Norwegian government had to ensure the continued existence of Store Norske. There was broad parliamentary consensus that coal mining must be maintained, and the coal company was therefore awarded the necessary support. In 1966, 11 million kroner was allocated, and in 1968 parliament approved an investment loan of up to 32 million kroner for the opening of Mine 6, and for new surveys of the state-owned acreage around Mine 7. In 1973, an additional 76 million kroner was allocated for the following three-year period. At the same time, share capital was increased by around five million kroner, which the state underwrote, thus becoming Store Norske’s largest shareholder. The lack of confidence that overshadowed the early 1960s was about to give way to optimism. Coal production was doing well; the markets were on an upturn; and the state held a protective hand over Store Norske.

Cold warriors

It was Norwegian policy not to challenge the Soviet Union unnecessarily. Even tentative inquiries made by Norway’s allies about the possibility of building up a limited military infrastructure on Svalbard or reconnaissance flights in the area were therefore rejected. Norway’s allies wanted to support Norwegian sovereignty on Svalbard, and prevent the Soviet Union from taking over the islands; but in practice Norway received no guarantee of an allied defence in case of war. The Cold War was at its most intense in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The 1961 Berlin Crisis and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 contributed to

420 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

bringing the relationship between the two superpowers to a head. When an American surveillance aircraft on its way to Bodø, north along the Norwegian coast, was shot down over Sverdlovsk on May 1st, 1960, this became the so called ‘U2 incident’, which caused strong reactions from the Russians. American planes had been using Bodø airport on a host of occasions without the knowledge of the Norwegian government. The Norwegian Air Force High Command (Luftforsvarets overkommando) had issued landing permission without consulting any political authority. The case culminated in Foreign Minister Halvard Lange protesting against such use of Norwegian airports. The relationship between the superpowers gradually improved. A Limited Test Ban Treaty on nuclear-weapons testing in the atmosphere was signed in 1963. Nonetheless, the Kola Peninsula gradually became the Soviet Navy’s most important port, and its only ice-free access to the Atlantic. The passage through the Barents Sea, between Svalbard and the mainland, was therefore of enormous geostrategic significance, as Molotov had already indicated in 1944. In 1967 NATO switched from a ‘massive retaliation’ to a ‘flexible response’ doctrine. This partly came about because of the existence of submarines with more advanced and longer-range rockets. The doctrine of massive retaliation had become an irrelevance; it was the ability to ‘answer in kind’ which was important, now. However, this contributed to the renewal of tensions in the northern areas. Now, more than ever, it was important for the allies to be able to operate in Norwegian waters. Simultaneously, access to the Atlantic through the Barents Sea was of increasing importance for the Russians. In order that submarines with long-range rockets could position themselves within reach of targets in the West, the Soviet Navy was dependent on being able to sail freely into the Norwegian Sea. On Svalbard there were two questions in particular that dominated Norwegian national security during the 1960s and 1970s: the establishment of a ground station for space exploration in Ny-Ålesund in the mid 1960s, and the construction of an airport in Longyearbyen. Plans for an airport on Svalbard were a problem in which the relationship with the Soviet Union played a significant part. Various plans had been proposed since the 1950s. The Soviet reaction was that an airport had to be viewed as a part of NATO’s military strategy, and as such incompatible with the Svalbard Treaty. After making several written protests, the Russians conceded the need for an airport, but only as a joint project between the two countries. During Prime Minister Kosygin’s visit to Oslo in 1971, the Russians finally agreed to Norway’s building and running such an airport. In return, a number of Russian technicians could be stationed at the airport to take care of Russian planes. A communiqué after the meeting between the Norwegian and Russian Prime Ministers confirmed that the airport would be for civilian use.

new frontiers, new borders


In 1971, the government approved the construction. In September of the same year, the signatories to the Svalbard Treaty were informed that the airport would be built and run by the Norwegian authorities, and that all signatories would be able to use the airport, in agreement with the Norwegian authorities. At the same time, the signatories to the treaty received a declaration, which specified that the airport should be used for civilian aircraft only. The Soviet strategy now progressed to the assertion of its need for permanent buildings and permanent staff at the airport. In 1975, when the airport was opened, complications arose when Soviet technicians brought their spouses. The ‘battle of the wives’, as it was called, was resolved in 1976, when an agreement was reached between Aeroflot and the Civil Aviation Directorate limiting the number of people allowed to live in the flats made available to the Russians. Two more aviation-related incidents occurred. Early in the 1960s, the Russians established a helicopter base at Cape Heer outside Barentsburg. Its official purpose was to assist geological exploration in the area, but there were various indications that it was really a military base. Beginning in the 1980s, the governor of Svalbard and the Civil Aviation Authority were able to inspect the site, gradually providing a clearer picture of activities at the base. In August 1978, a Russian military plane crashed on Hopen (in the southeast region of the archipelago). The Russians wanted to take possession of the wreckage and the flight recorder, but Norwegian authorities refused. The governor succeeded in gaining possession of the flight recorder under rather tense circumstances in which Soviet naval vessels were in the vicinity. Norwegian authorities insisted on treating the plane crash like any other accident, with an investigation led by the Accidents Investigation Board Norway, under the auspices of the Civil Aviation Authorities. The Norwegian perspective on questions of aviation is generally that ‘civil’ aviation also includes Norwegian military planes and helicopters, when these are used for civilian purposes, for example during rescue operations or the surveillance of fishing grounds. For a long time the Russians had a more restrictive interpretation, vis-à-vis Article 9 of the Svalbard Treaty, and protested about the use of the Longyearbyen airport by the Armed Forces’ Sea King rescue helicopters and C-130 transport planes many times.

Modern Svalbard

Developments in the 1960s and early 1970s had proven coal mining to be the only viable economic foundation for the Norwegian presence on Svalbard. It had been necessary for the state to inject considerable resources into Store Norske to ensure its operation. In the middle of the 1970s, coal markets were

422 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

A Braathens plane en route from Tromsø to Longyearbyen in January 1969. On board the plane were 30 passengers, four tons of mail, and several hundred kilos of other cargo.

improving, but the government had no illusions of running at a profit or recouping the investments and financial aid it had provided. It was explicitly stated that the government could not allow a private company like Store Norske to determine the scale of Norwegian activities on Svalbard; financial and operational considerations needed to be weighed against the greater national good. In 1976 the state took over virtually all the shares in Store Norske. To a large degree, this was a logical consequence of the developments of the preceding years, and of the state having procured a third of the share capital in 1973. The takeover also was a clear indication that the state now had full control over and responsibility for Norwegian activities on Svalbard. This was an important signal both internationally and to the Norwegian nation. By the end of 1980s, Longyearbyen stood at a crossroads once again. Considerable resources had been invested in modernising and developing the community, and in most areas the authorities had achieved the goals set in 1974–75. The challenge was now rather different, and involved both the conso-

new frontiers, new borders


lidation of Norwegian settlements on Svalbard, and the simultaneous, longterm reduction of state subsidies. Central to both was the future of Store Norske. The mining firm remained the cornerstone company and a guarantor of the settlements, but was also the major recipient of state funds. Once again, the problem was that the reserves at Longyearbyen were dwindling fast, and coal prices were low. Was it possible to sustain a community of a thousand people without coal mining? It might have seemed very ambitious to seek to re-deploy the local workforce: to replace jobs lost in mining-based activities with alternative employment, and thus stabilise the community. However, it became clear that results exceeded even the most optimistic estimates of the early 1990s. In 1991 there were the equivalent of around 750 full-time jobs in Longyearbyen and Svea, and 370 of these were in mining. Ten years later, the number of full-time positions had risen to 1,200, of which just less than 270 man-years were in mining. This huge growth had taken place in tourism, transportation, manufactured goods, and service industries. Building and construction work had also expanded considerably. Longyearbyen grew quickly, and the population rose by almost 50 % during this ten year-period. Nobody knows precisely how many people live in Longyearbyen at any given time, but in 2004 the population was estimated at 1,700. So, was the introduction of alternative employment as profitable as predicted? Progress has developed in waves, but in the year 2000 profitability levels were approximately equal to the national average. Jobs seem largely stable, but the workforce itself is more flexible; an average of four years was spent in local workplaces in the year 2000. Around 140 large and small businesses were registered in Longyearbyen that year, most of them privately owned. At the beginning of the 1990s the essential concern had been to prevent the depopulation of Longyearbyen. Ten years later, the town was described as nearing full capacity, and the government had to stress that it would not facilitate further expansion. The reorganisation that has taken place in Longyearbyen since 1990 is without parallel in modern Norwegian history, both in time and scale, and has established a new foundation for Norwegian Svalbard policies. The mining industry acted as the ‘stabilising factor in the process of reorganisation’. In recent years questions have been raised as to whether the continuation of mining is compatible with environmental goals in Svalbard and Norwegian policy on climatic change, in general. It has also been demonstrated that coal mining is no longer critical to Norway’s sovereignty claim. With the blessing of the government, the coal mining industry is also currently experiencing a renewed upsurge, following many years of adversity. Furthermore, production under the management of Store Norske, is greater than ever: three million tonnes in 2003. This illustrates some of the problems in administe-

424 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Saturday shopping in Longyearbyen. A community once entirely focused on mining is starting to develop into a modern village.

ring activities on the islands today. What used to be an instrument of government policy has today become an independent industrial player. It may even seem, then, that Svalbard has steadily become more important to Norway in recent decades, exactly when government control has been lessened, and possibly also in line with the authorities’ lower ambitions for such control. If we look beyond Svalbard itself, and instead view broader international political policies, the changes are not so significant. What has been most crucial to Norwegian conduct with regard Svalbard has been Norway’s relationship to the Soviet Union and, after 1991, to Russia.

From confrontation to cooperation

The build-up of forces on the Kola Peninsula, together with Norway’s traditionally strong and accommodating relationship with its NATO partners, led to a huge increase in Allied presence in the North in the 1970s and 1980s.

new frontiers, new borders


Norwegian bases and defence facilities were expanded, and the storage of military stockpiles increased extensively. Beginning in 1983, the NATO reinforcement plan prioritised the Northern areas, further emphasizing their strategic significance. In the 1970s the Russians had taken a greater interest in the Arctic areas, partly for military reasons, and partly because of its resources. This led to increased activity on Svalbard. In 1982–83 a KGB unit was established in Barentsburg. After the turmoil surrounding such 1970s episodes as the airport saga and the helicopter incident, Norway’s relationship with the Russians on Svalbard eased in the 1980s, even though East-West tensions had generally worsened. For NATO, the strategic importance of Svalbard lay first and foremost in the fact that its waters could provide a base for operations against Soviet strategic weapons. With its Northern Fleet and strategic submarines based at Kola, the Soviet Union was probably primarily concerned that Svalbard should not be used by other powers for military purposes. The role of the Northern Fleet was increasingly related to the strategic threat of attack and retaliation in the global nuclear arms race of the 1980s. The development of more long-distance rockets, with longer ranges, meant that submarines could operate further north and still be within reach of their potential targets. This contributed to an increase in the strategic significance of Svalbard, the Arctic Sea, and the Barents Sea. In 1985 two-thirds of the Soviet Union’s strategic submarines were under the command of its Northern Fleet. The Norwegian government adopted an extremely cautious policy during this period. Article 9 of the Svalbard Treaty, prohibiting the islands’ military use, was strictly adhered to, with the specific aim of reassuring the Russians. The Soviet authorities were generally very suspicious of Western activity in the area. The behaviour of the Soviets, with their constant border transgressions, diplomatic threats, and espionage, ensured that the Norwegian authorities maintained their strategy of not engaging in direct negotiations with the Russians on questions pertaining to the northern areas. The involvement of Western nations was essential with respect to the relationship with the superpower to the East. It was, and remains, the view of the Norwegian authorities that the NATO pact included Svalbard, but that the islands, because of the Svalbard Treaty, should not play a role in NATO’s military plans. In more recent years, environmental legislation has increasingly created problems with the Russians, for example with respect to their plans to restart mining in the Grumant field. Environmental protection plans are perceived by the Russians as an attempt to squeeze them out of Svalbard. In addition, seizing Russian trawlers following illegal fishing in the protected zone around Svalbard has led to protests, and has been seen as a part of a plan to force Russia out of the Arctic. The Russians interpreted the expansion of research installa-

426 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

tions such as EISCAT and SvalSat and a rocket launching ramp (SvalRak) in Ny-Ålesund as part of the same pattern. The main impact on Svalbard, with respect to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War during the second half of the 1980s, was the dramatic reduction in the size of its Russian settlements. The political upheaval in Moscow led to a new attitude of cooperation with its neighbours. Communist Party Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev announced in his famous 1987 Murmansk speech that the Soviet Union wished more than anything to extend cooperation with other countries in the north. Yet the fall of the Soviet Union also created uncertainty. Disarmament in Central Europe led to a considerable build-up of conventional forces in the north. And the uncertainty in national security matters was amplified by the volatile political situation and dramatic changes in the Russian economy. This situation comprised the backdrop to Foreign Minister Thorvald Stoltenberg’s 1992 idea for the establishment of a Barents Region. A cooperative arrangement between Russia, its neighbours in Scandinavia, the U.S.A., and the EU, it would incorporate the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, and Finland as well as northwest Russia. The overall aim of this initiative was to help stabilise the region; an ‘extended security community’ had to be developed, in which Western efforts should contribute to democratisation, cultural exchange, economic development, and the resolution of environmental problems in northwest Russia. The Barents initiative did not include Svalbard, but reflects a wider trend prevalent in the 1990s: the internationalisation of cooperation in the Arctic. Around this time two additional initiatives were launched. The International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) was established in 1990, and was an initiating and coordinating body for scientific research in the north. Then, in 1991 the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS) was established. The AEPS was later expanded in order to deal with questions of sustainable development. In 1996 the AEPS was renamed the Arctic Council, and had developed into an intergovernmental forum involving the eight Arctic states: the U.S.A, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. This internationalisation of the Arctic policy has also had its effects on Svalbard. This is particularly the case with regard to scientific research, in which considerable efforts have been made during the last 15 years to facilitate international participation. A passive Norwegian attitude towards Svalbard characterised the first fifty years of Norwegian sovereignty over the islands. Since the end of the 1960s, however, the Norwegian government became more active in management on and around the islands. Modernisation on the archipelago, beginning in the 1970s, and socio-economic reorganization in the 1990s came about largely as a result of political decision-making and state control, well-oiled by generous

new frontiers, new borders


The sun is back! After a long winter, children and adults celebrate the reappearance of the sun over Longyearbyen on March 8 th.

subsidies. One might thus expect that state and political authorities would try to keep developments on Svalbard on a tight leash. But has this been the case? During the 1990s the opportunities for goal-directed management and control weakened. Efforts to create sustainable resource management in the waters around Svalbard are frequently challenged by an international fishing fleet, which eludes effective controls. On land, the transition from a simple mining community to a complex business infrastructure made community planning more demanding. Meanwhile, decision-making on a wide range of matters has been decentralised and delegated to directorates and local authorities. Also, Store Norske, once the state’s most important management tool, is now independent. In practice, it operates like any other corporation, its primary responsibility being to its shareholders, rather than to society. The majority of businesses on Longyearbyen today are comprised mostly of private players over which the Norwegian government cannot and does not wish to exercise any influence, over and above ordinary laws and regulations. Svalbard is still of great significance to Norway as an instrument of foreign policy, and as a strategic asset for the nation. Svalbard serves as a kind of boundary marker in the North Barents Sea. Svalbard affords Norway control of sea areas amounting to more than 800,000 square kilometres. The Arctic is rich in petroleum. Large oil and gas reserves have been identified in the Russian part of the Arctic, north of Alaska and in areas of northern Canada. It has been estimated that 25 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas reserves are in the Arctic, mostly in Russian territory. Additionally, there are large gas reserves in the Norwegian section of the Barents Sea, but so far very modest oil finds. On the Norwegian side, only the Norwegian Snow White (Snøhvit) Field off the coast off west Finnmark has been approved for development and production. The Norwegian government has opened up more acreage for exploration in recent years. But there remain many unresolved environment and pollution issues, which need to be settled before exploration can begin on a large scale or in areas of the greatest geological interest. Oil and gas primarily represent potential, future Arctic riches. Marine resources, on the other hand, have for years brought substantial income to the country; but even in this regard, the future may involve uncertainty.

An Arctic fishing superpower

Norway is a fishing superpower, the world’s tenth largest when measured in volume of catch. In Europe, only Russia ranks higher. For a small country of only 4.5 million inhabitants to be in such a position requires some explanation. It is partly due to the large marine areas that have come under Norwegian

new frontiers, new borders


jurisdiction as a consequence of developments in maritime law during the past few decades. The northern oceans have a high rate of biological reproduction capable of sustaining large fisheries, both at sea and along the coast. Deepsea fishing in distant Arctic waters with ocean-going vessels has experienced an upturn since World War II; and today this form of fishing is more important in economic terms than coastal fishing. In the first decades after 1945, Arctic fishing was hardly regulated, and Norwegian vessels competed with a large international fleet for resources in these areas. The development of modern, efficient fishing technology increased pressure on fish stocks and brought the question of the management of fish resources increasingly to the fore. And as resources dwindled, the question of who owned the fish in the Arctic north gained importance. When the first new international ocean law regime was introduced in the late 1970s, Norway was one of the big winners. Following the establishment of Norway’s economic zone and the fishery protection zone around Svalbard in 1977 and the fishing zone around Jan Mayen in 1980, over two million square kilometres of sea, more than six times Norway’s land area, came under Norwegian jurisdiction. During the first years after World War II, few people believed that fish stocks could be threatened by the increase in catch capability. Fishermen, governments, and scientists were all optimistic about developments in the industry, and welcomed the new fish-finding equipment in particular. In 1949 the first Norwegian echo sounder was tested. Scientist Finn Devold of the Directorate of Fisheries’ Institute of Marine Research led the expedition that tested the new equipment, which was produced by Simonsen Radio (Simrad). He is an example of how researchers often paved the way. Not only did they find new fishing grounds, but they also made considerable contributions to the development and spread of new technology, which would be useful to fishermen. But even before the echo sounder became commonly used, another and even more efficient instrument appeared on the market: the sonar or ASDIC, which is also capable of emitting sound waves forwards and sideways. The purse seiners were the first to make use of both the echo sounder and sonar, and by 1963 almost all Norwegian purse seiners had sonar onboard. Radar was also introduced on Norwegian fishing boats at about the same time as sonar. This fish-finding equipment raised haul predictability for fishermen to an entirely new level, and the consequent reduction in time spent looking for fish increased efficiency. New navigation systems were developed, for example, the advanced electronic systems invented by the Allies during World War II. The American system was called Loran, the British one, Decca. They were primarily intended to assist Allied naval ships, but fishermen reaped the benefits, too. In 1968, the Decca

430 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

development and construction project was complete, with six chains from Skagerrak in the south to Finnmark in the north. Besides being highly advanced, the Decca navigator was indispensable for the location and recovery of a vessel’s fishing equipment when visibility was poor. A transition from natural fibres to nylon also took place. Fishing equipment became lighter and easier to handle, and a lot of time was saved because the artificial fibre nets were easier to disentangle. A switch from wooden to steel boats increased capacity and reach. The power block made fishing with bigger nets possible. And with the introduction of side propellers beginning in the mid 1960s, vessels also became easier to manoeuvre. Autoline was introduced in the 1960s and made a breakthrough the following decade. New fishing technology did not just make fishing easier; it also contributed to the capitalisation of the fishing industry. The need for investments increased, so that fishermen had to work harder when they were at sea, on a year-round basis, to recover investment costs. The new technology was a contributing factor to fishermen seeking out new and more remote sea areas, such as the grounds around Greenland. The fishing banks outside West Greenland were already known during the years between the wars, but they became more relevant after World War II. There was a general consensus that Norwegian fishing and hunting around Greenland should be maintained. Ship-owners in Sunnmøre, led by the Ålesund Skippers’ Association (Ålesund Skipperforening), which had been active in the struggle for sovereignty and the right to expand their business on Greenland since 1921, now pushed this line of argument further. The association argued that Norway had legitimate sovereignty claims on East Greenland, even though this had been rejected at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in 1933. Denmark had upheld the East Greenland Treaty of 1924, which afforded Norway limited fishing and hunting rights. However, after 1945, the Danes wanted to limit Norwegian activities, purportedly to protect the environment and Inuit rights. Norway and Denmark had difficulties reaching an agreement that secured Norway’s rights and presence on Greenland. But fish exporter Nils Skarbøvig of Ålesund was too impatient to wait for official agreement, and contacted the Danish authorities directly. As a result of this, the Danish company, Asgriko (the Greenland Industry and Trade Company Ltd), was established; and it was given permission to run a fishing station in Færingehavn, on the southwest coast of Greenland. At the same time Western Norwegian fisheries joined forces, contributed capital, and established A/L Utrustning, which was responsible for the construction of the new port. Soon Færingehavn had a fish plant, shop, workshop, oil tanks, freezers and storage for bait, salt and other provisions for the fishing fleet. The new quay was 200 meters long. Some years later a new business was established, Nordafar, which took over the facilities in Færingehavn.

new frontiers, new borders


But essential to Denmark allowing Norwegian industries to establish themselves in Færingehavn was the improved post-war relationship between the countries. Furthermore, the Norwegian presence was built on a clear business footing and on agreements regulated within well-defined time frames. The Danes saw a need for social and economic reforms in this backward colony, and initiated an extensive building programme. Investing Norwegian capital from the fishing industry toward Færingehavn’s development into a modern fishing port did not conflict with these plans in the least. The first time the Norwegian fleet operated directly from this base was in 1949. Thirty-four line-fishing boats took part that season, but participation grew fast. By 1951 the number of Norwegian vessels involved in cod fishing had increased to 62. The peak year was 1955, with a total of 73 line-fishing boats and four trawlers. In the early years, boats left for the fishing grounds in late May and fished until late September. It then became increasingly common to make two trips, allowing the crew to take a midsummer break at home. As the competition for cod gradually became tougher around West Greenland, the Norwegian line fleet expanded its activities to cover the grounds off Newfoundland. Fishing was very international, and apart from Norwegian fishermen there were ships from the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Denmark, Great Britain, Portugal, and Germany. The total 1950 catch of Greenland cod was 200,000 tonnes; and the annual hauls increased during the 1950s. In 1962 the record catch of 464,000 tonnes was set, and was more than twice the total Norwegian cod haul that year. Up to 1968 the catches varied between 350,000 and 430,000 tonnes annually. Cod fishing was important to foreign fishing interests, but hardly benefited Greenland’s natives. Well into the 1960s the Greenlanders fished along the coast and in fjords in small boats, while foreigners dominated the larger fishing banks. The year 1968 saw the build up of a Greenland fishing fleet, which was to compete with the other fishing nations, at home and in the Barents Sea. In 1975, Greenland’s large trawler fleet consisted of six vessels that were over 500 gross registered tons (GRT). Over the next ten years, the number increased to 22 vessels. But the trawlers were built too late for the Greenlanders to reap the benefits from cod fishing, whose glory days had been between 1950 and 1970. Beginning in the late 1960s, catch statistics began to show a sharp decline. The main cause was the lower water temperature in the upper layers of the sea, caused by climate change. This led to insufficient numbers of small fry, and thus a diminishing foundation for core stock replenishment, and for continued large-scale fishing. In 1972, an era came to an end. Eleven trawlers and twenty two line-fishing boats marked the end of a Norwegian Arctic fishing adventure which had lasted half a century. The following year Denmark, and with it Greenland, became members of the European Economic Community (EEC) – later the European

432 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Union (EU) – and Norwegian fishermen lost their free access to the grounds off Western Greenland. Still, Norwegian prawn fishermen have been granted considerable quotas around Greenland, as a result of negotiations with EU. Comprehensive cooperation has also developed between the two countries, for example, through a 1991 bilateral fisheries treaty and within the framework of the North Atlantic Marine Mammals Commission (NAMMCO), established in 1992.

Expanding north

The hunt for Norwegian cod and capelin, as well as prawns, made fishermen look to the Arctic. As early as the 1920s, marine scientists Thor Iversen and Einar Kofoed had discovered deep-water shrimp (pandalus borealis) in Arctic waters. In 1923 they started collecting shrimp samples in Kongsfjorden, in Krossfjorden, and other places off Spitsbergen. These shrimp research trips took place every year up until 1939. Yet, it took a long time before commercial shrimp fishing started in the Arctic. This may have been because the scientists had not presented unambiguous recommendations. Owing to the cold water, shrimp grows slowly. It was therefore felt there was a significant danger of over-exploitation – a view which would later change, though. In the spring and summer of 1970 the Directorate of Fisheries organised two trips to Svalbard and the Barents Sea to conduct trial fishing. The results of the trial concluded that the best grounds stretched from the Finnmark coast and eastwards to the Barents Sea. The waters off Spitsbergen might offer good fishing conditions in a few years, but the yield was expected to be uncertain. Nonetheless, a major expansion in shrimp fishing around Svalbard ensued. Scientists, too, were the ones who discovered the shrimp grounds around Jan Mayen. As early as 1900, some fishing trials were allegedly carried out using trawls. Then in 1950, during a herring trip with the research vessel G.O. Sars, marine scientist Finn Devold also experimented with shrimp trawling; but many years passed before the grounds were utilised. In 1974, four Northern Norwegian vessels decided that they would sail towards Jan Mayen, after making appallingly poor shrimp hauls outside Svalbard. That same year two other north Norwegian boats, the Alvenes from Troms and the Langskjær from Nordland, received a grant from the Fishery Industry Research Fund to fish for shrimp. The crew concluded that the banks offered excellent opportunities, despite the seabed conditions being difficult, making it tough on the trawling equipment. So long as shrimp fishing took place in coastal waters, the yield was relatively small. In 1955, 5,825 tonnes were brought ashore. Until the beginning of the 1970s, annual yields were between 7,000 and 10,000 tonnes. In 1975

new frontiers, new borders


Today’s shrimp trawlers along the quay at Longyearbyen in Svalbard.

the yield was 19,000 tonnes. Since then, growth has been strong, mainly in Arctic waters. The shrimp industry achieved higher economic yields than the rest of the fishing industry in the 1990s, both for the fleet and the processing industry. New technology was introduced, and manpower requirements were significantly reduced. Machine peeling was developed long ago for the shrimp industry. More recent introductions are the electronic separator and de-veining systems that complete the shell and vein peeling process. The most recent addition to the industry is a triple-trawl, whereby three trawls are set and dragged simultaneously, which brings fishing to a totally new level of efficiency. Of course, the new technology is costly. In the spring of 2003, a new Norwegian triple-shrimp trawler, the Vesttind, put out to sea. Belonging to the shipping firm of Havfisk in Melbu, it is owned by fishing and industrial magnate Kjell Inge Røkke. The vessel cost 175 million kroner, which means it needs to haul in 18 tonnes of shrimp per day in order to service its loans and cover operating expenses. At the same time these huge fishing vessels have moved increasingly farther north, and today fishing takes place all around Svalbard and off the coast of Greenland. In the year 2000, 108 Norwegian vessels had shrimp-trawling licences. The most important ground is Hopen on the outskirts of the Svalbard archipelago, where over 60 percent of Norwegian shrimp is caught. While the other stocks in the Arctic have been under threat of over-exploitation, and are fiercely regulated, shrimp fishing has remained much freer. Today, it represents the only large-scale commercial fishing industry in the north to be exempt from quota regulations. Cod fishing also expanded in the Arctic from the 1930s onward. In 1939 there were 145 Norwegian line-fishing vessels and a few steam trawlers on the banks along Bjørnøya and off the coast of Spitsbergen. Their catches were modest compared to those hauled up from the sea by British and German trawlers. Immediately after the war, participation was erratic. In 1947 there were 63 line-fishing vessels in the area. Until the middle of the 1950s, the figure varied from eight to 52. Gradually, trawling took over. In 1946 there were nine trawlers; and ten years later there were 23. All were large and over 300 gross registered tons (GRT). The trawler fleet continued to grow. In 1961 the number of large trawlers in the Barents Sea, outside Bjørnøya and Spitsbergen, was still only 23, but the fleet of small trawlers under 300 GRT had grown to 139 vessels. By this time, trawler fishing made up as much as seven percent of all Norwegian cod fishing. The development of a Norwegian freezer industry meant that Norwegian trawlers could compete seriously with foreign trawlers for the large stocks. The collapse of the herring fishing and fisheries in the 1960s was another reason why Norwegian fishermen found their way into Arctic waters. Fishermen were now after capelin. Both fish are pelagic species with a high fat content,

new frontiers, new borders


well suited to industrial processing. Capelin, however, was less attractive to the industry; so as long as there had been plenty of herring, capelin fishing remained limited. In 1953, only 10,000 tonnes of capelin were caught, compared to 960,000 tonnes of herring. As of the late 1960s more capelin than herring was delivered to Norwegian ports. And in the 1970s capelin represented Norway’s last great industrial fishing adventure. By 1986, however, capelin stocks in the Barents Sea had been so heavily exploited that all fishing was halted the following year. In 1991 the fisheries started up again, but since then yields have varied considerably. An important precondition for this new capelin fishing was new technology. Trygve Olsen from Havøysund could not have predicted what he started in 1957 when he outfitted his boat, Ola Ryggefjord. He was the first Norwegian fishing boat owner to fit a power block onto his purse seiner in order to haul the nets. After some trial and error, the block worked well. Other fishermen soon realised what the new technology could mean for increased catch efficiency. Olsen himself had several new vessels built, and during the 1960s the Havøysund firm had grown to become the largest company in pelagic fishing in all of Finnmark County. Use of the power block became immensely important. Previously purse seine nets had to be set from small boats, or dories. Using the new technology, purse nets could be set out directly from the main ship, and crew requirements could be reduced from around 20 to twelve or thirteen. The block was originally an American invention, but it was soon adapted to Norwegian conditions. Then another revolutionary American invention came along: the herring pump. Previously herring had been hauled onboard with a landing net fixed under a crane; but now the vacuum pump moved the herring directly from the purse nets in the sea, up into the hold. Shortly after the introduction of the power block, the ring net was introduced into use. The Torgersen brothers of Askøy, just outside Bergen, were the pioneers – with their herring purse seiner the Radek. With financial support from the Fishery Industry Research Fund, they developed a new purse net which was much larger than ordinary purse seines. The first ring nets were tested in 1962, with excellent results, and ringnet fishing grew exponentially. In 1963 there were 58 ring-net vessels; and four years later there were 460. Winter capelin fishing began in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as herring declined. Capelin did not just save the ring-net fleet, but the herring-meal and herring-oil industries, as well. The latter had significantly increased their capacity after World War II. In July 1968, capelin grounds were discovered near Hopen, which prompted the start of summer capelin fishing. The yield the first year was 400,000 hectolitres, which was modest when compared to winter catches of five million hectolitres. But in all, the 1968 catches set a new record.

436 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Hauls reached a new peak in 1970: almost ten million hectolitres of winter capelin and 3.5 million hectolitres of summer capelin. The following year even this record was beaten. Both herring and capelin are the main source of food for the most important species in the Barents Sea ecosystem: the Norwegian Arctic cod. In the first years after 1945, most of the cod hauls were salted. During the 1960s, the demand for fresh fish increased, however, because of the many fillet-freezing plants that had been established since the 1950s. Some of them, like the large Findus factory in Hammerfest, were exclusively dependent on delivery of fresh fish from trawlers. Trawl use had been a bone of contention in fishery legislation prior to the Trawler Act of 1939, which had only licensed eleven vessels. After World War II, the trawl use question remained controversial, but in the 1950s regulations were loosened. The authorities wished to accommodate demands for unprocessed fish from the new, fast-growing frozen-fish industry, despite strong protests from coastal fishermen. Up until 1961, all Norwegian trawlers were equipped with a side trawl. But then Hekktind arrived; it was the first stern trawler. Approximately 30 men were required to operate the ship: the captain and his pilot, a chief and a steward, the foreman and the ‘netman’, 14 fishermen, two engineers, the mechanic, two greasers, a cook and two mess boys. Newer fresh-fish trawlers required only half the crew. Trawling expeditions in the Barents Sea usually lasted ten days, until the hold was full. The Hekktind had many successors; but at 630 GRT, she dwarfed them all. The new stern trawlers built in the late 1960s and early 1970s were between 250 and 299 GRT. The ones weighing 299 GRT were known as ‘regulation trawlers’. In 1961, when Norway’s territorial fishing limit was expanded from four to twelve nautical miles, all trawlers under 300 GRT could fish as close as four miles from land. Most companies using stern trawlers for fresh fish trawling were completely or partly affiliated with the filleting industry, either by proximity of location or ownership. Compared to the side trawler, the stern trawler had many advantages. The trawl could be set and hauled quicker. It was easier to manoeuvre because the trawl was dragged behind the ship, so fishing could continue under much harsher weather conditions. In 1962, the year after the Hekktind put to out sea, Norway’s first factory trawler, the Longva, was launched. At around 900 GRT and measuring 202 feet in length, it was also the biggest fishing vessel in the country. John Longva of Ålesund was responsible for its creation. The project met with scepticism and criticism from many quarters. When the ship was launched, the fishing industry had entered a difficult period, and many felt it would be impossible for such a large vessel to be profitable. It had a crew of 52, all of whom needed salaries and shares of the haul. The factory had a freezing capacity of 15 tonnes a day

new frontiers, new borders


which required a continuous supply of fish. The land-based fishery industry voiced concern that the factory trawlers would impoverish local communities. If offshore processing were to become the norm, the industry and local coastal vessels would lose their basis for existence, and the Norwegian coastal fishing business would lose its unique qualities. Nonetheless, the factory trawler went on to become a permanent feature in the fleet, operating in Arctic waters and remoter seas. After the Longva, these vessels grew steadily in number, and by 1972 nine factory trawlers were participating in the fishing industry. Growth in the industrial fishing had its ecological consequences. It highlighted the relevance of the question about how best to regulate fishing, by limiting the extent of its activity and by protecting its natural resources.

Who owns the fish?

Increased catch capacity and the higher demand for fish products led to a shortage of resources. So the state was forced to intervene and regulate access to fishing. This in turn also raised the question of distribution of resources, both among countries and among groups within the countries themselves, and hence the question of ownership. During the early post-war years, the chief objective of regulations was to achieve a fair division among interested parties. Another purpose was to contribute to controlling the product flow into the market, and to keep supply from rising too steeply and causing prices to fall. The state was very active in developing the fishing and fish processing, and the industry received large direct subsidies, especially after the 1964 General Agreement between the state and the fishing industry. Additionally, in another and more indirect way, the authorities supported the development of a seagoing fleet, by heavily subsidizing shipyards and workshops for the construction of equipment and newbuilds. Beginning in the early 1970s, a central concern was to regulate the fisheries to protect fish stocks. The Participation Act of 1972 was an attempt by the state to limit and control the capacity of the haul. Meanwhile, state support of the fishing industry contributed to its over-capacity, both in fleet size and scale of production. The result, in no way unique to Norway, was that over time fishing capacity was developed which was, and still is, out of proportion to available natural resources. Before the introduction of the exclusive economic zones in 1977, it was difficult to manage resources efficiently in the seas around Norway. Government measures applied only within the fishery limit of twelve nautical miles; and meanwhile many of the fish stocks were outside this zone, where fishermen from many nations participated in extensive, unregulated fishing. Foreign trawlers

438 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

The crew of the Coast Guard’s KV Nordkapp boards a Russian trawler for inspection near Bjørnøya in 1998.

were not a new phenomenon in the north, but now activity increased greatly over a short period of time. West Germans had caught 2,000 tonnes of cod in the Barents Sea in 1972, but this rose to 76,000 tonnes in 1974. Spanish trawlers increased their cod catches from 200 tonnes in 1973 to 45,000 tonnes the following year. Portuguese and French vessels also increased their catches by twofold or more. In international waters, regulatory authority rested with the North East Atlantic Fisheries Commission (NEAFC), but it was inefficient and did little to limit fishing activities. A trilateral cooperation among Norway, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain in 1974–75 did not achieve much, either. What took place in the Arctic region was not unique. Coastal areas worldwide experienced increasing pressure from ever-growing and more efficient fishing fleets. In many places, the consequences began to take the form of reduced fish stocks, and conflicts over resources. The concept of free and open oceans (mare liberum) where everyone had the right to harvest had dominated maritime law since the 17th century; but it was coming to an end. The solution to global exploitative fishing was to award coastal states jurisdiction over far greater sea areas than before. In 1974 the UN’s third Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ruled that the coastal states should have sovereign rights over natural resources in an exclusive economic zone extending 200 nautical miles (the equivalent of 360 kilometres) from the coast. Rights within this zone, however, were not as extensive as within territorial waters.The coastal states were simultaneously required to establish systems of sustainable management of their natural resources in partnership with other countries. Many states set up such zones in the second half of the 1970s. But not until 1982 was agreement reached on a Convention of the Law of the Sea, which incorporated the principle of the sovereignty of coastal states over the natural resources within an economic zone. The convention became effective in 1994. On January 1st, 1977, Norway introduced a 200-mile economic zone after painstaking negotiations with a number of countries that had fished heavily off Norway’s coast and within what were now Norwegian waters. Later that year, Norway established a Fishery Protection Zone of 832,000 square kilometres around Svalbard. Sea areas that had previously been accessible to all were now under Norwegian control. The Fishery Protection Zone around Svalbard alone is twice as big as the total land mass of Norway. This has strengthened opportunities to manage the Arctic fishing, but is also of economic importance. The volume of catches for all countries made off Svalbard, in the Barents Sea, in the Northern Norwegian Sea and off the coast of Northern Norway add up to over two million tonnes per year. The total primary value of the catches is estimated at approximately 15 billion kroner. Norway and Russia are the two main players, but the EU, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, and other countries also fish in these areas, in agreement with the two coastal nations, Norway and Russia.

440 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

New maritime laws stipulated that as a point of departure, other nations could not fish in what were now Norwegian waters. However, because the most important fish stocks in the north often span the zones of several countries, international cooperation on resource management was essential. Relationships with Russia and the EU have been of particular importance. From 1975 to 1980, an extensive resource management regime was developed. A NorwegianRussian commission for fisheries was established in 1975, and a bilateral agreement was signed in 1976. Bilateral fisheries agreements have been signed with the Faeroe Islands, Iceland, Sweden, and Poland, respectively. Quota regulations for Norwegian Arctic cod were first introduced in 1976. The introduction of the 200-mile zone implies that most of the fishing resources are under either Norwegian or Russian jurisdiction. The eastern Barents Sea was Russian; the western was Norwegian. But an area of 55,000 square kilometres in the northern and eastern areas of the Barents Sea, outside the 200-mile zones, remained open sea; and it is called ‘the loophole’. Fish stocks in this so-called ‘loophole’ tend to be insignificant, but during the 1990s it was possible to fish here. Fishing in the ‘loophole’ lead to unregulated cod fishing that caused serious conflicts between Norway and Russia on the one hand and Iceland in particular on the other. The Barents Sea constitutes a continuous continental shelf area. With the developments in maritime law of the 1950s and ’60s, particularly the UN’s 1958 Continental Shelf Convention, Norway wished to define its continental shelf borders with its neighbours. In the North Atlantic, these questions were resolved in the 1960s by drawing the border at the midpoint between states. In 1967, Norway invited the Soviet Union to enter negotiations about the shelf borders in the Barents Sea. In 1970 informal discussions took place, and formal negotiations began in 1974. They soon proved extremely difficult. Even today, a solution has still not been reached. The position taken by Russia in negotiations is founded on the ‘sector principle’. Russia claims sovereignty over the entire land mass and all islands within a triangle between the easternmost and westernmost points of its mainland and the North Pole. Canada had proclaimed the sector principle in 1925, and the Soviet Union followed suit in 1926. Neither Canada nor the Soviet Union achieved a breakthrough for this sector principle during the interwar years; but the question resurfaced when discussions got under way on the division of the Continental shelf, and where borders should be drawn between the economic zones of two countries. The ‘median line principle’, upon which Norway bases its argument, involves drawing a borderline at the midpoint between Russia’s and Norway’s possessions in the north. In practice, the conflict between these two principles leads to claims with considerable overlap, and creates an ‘area of contention’ of about

new frontiers, new borders


tr is S v a D



Franz Josef Land

Kangerluarsoruseq (Færingehavn)






Longyearbyen Myggbukta




Bjørnøya Jan Mayen


The ‘Grey Zone’






The ‘Loophole’

The ‘Loophole Sea’


Faroe Islands

Arctic hunting- and fishing-grounds.The map also indicates the claims with respect to maritime law in the Barents Sea. The red line is drawn according to the ‘sector principle’, and the dark blue line is drawn according to the ‘median line principle’.





ts re n


155,000 square kilometres. The Russians emphasized geographical, defence, and economic reasons as to why the border should lie further west than the median line. The Norwegian position has been that the median should be taken as a starting point, and that the parties should be flexible. Norway has also rejected joint arrangements. If the two states disagree over who should have jurisdiction in an area, then who carries responsibility for compliance with fishing regulations? The solution came in the form of the so-called Gray Zone Agreement of 1978, whereby Soviet authorities enforce fishing regulations with respect to Soviet vessels and third-country party vessels that have been licensed in the area by the Soviet Union, while Norwegian authorities enforce regulations with respect to Norwegian and third-country vessels licensed by Norway. The agreement covers the southern part of the contested area, as well as portions of the Norwegian economic zone west of the sector line and a smaller area east of the median line in the Soviet economic zone. The geographical imbalance inherent in the agreement, i.e. the fact that the zone includes far more uncontested Norwegian territory than Russian, caused heated debate in Norway. Nonetheless, the agreement functions, and it has been renewed every year since. The two countries now agree on more than 80 percent of the border between their economic zones and continental shelf. The parties have the greatest problems reaching an agreement regarding the southern Barents Sea, where anticipated petroleum resources are greatest. The reason why this question remains unresolved is probably that neither partner has any pressing need for a solution. Further west in the Norwegian Arctic region, around Jan Mayen, borders also had to be drawn as a result of developments in maritime law during the 1970s. A 200-mile fishing zone around Jan Mayen was established in 1980. Following a deal with Iceland, the border between Jan Mayen and Iceland was drawn in such a way that the Icelandic economic zone was extended its full 200 nautical miles, while the fishing zone around Jan Mayen was pulled back correspondingly. As for Greenland, negotiations on a boundary were ongoing for many years, without any agreement being reached. Denmark brought the case before the International Tribunal at The Hague, and in 1993 the court decreed a border which represented a compromise between the Danish and Norwegian positions. The court did, however, take Norway’s position as a starting point, which was that the median line between the two countries had to be the starting point for the drawing of the border.

Who owns the seas around Svalbard?

Another problem has been jurisdiction over the seas around Svalbard. The fish around Svalbard, in the Barents Sea, and along the northern Norwegian coast

new frontiers, new borders


belong to the same ecosystem. It has therefore been important to establish a management regime for fish resources that allows for a holistic approach to management. On the whole, this has been achieved, but Svalbard’s international status has complicated matters. Norway claims that the Svalbard Treaty is not applicable to the sea areas around Svalbard, i.e. outside its territorial limits, but that these areas are fully subject to Norwegian control. A number of other countries, however, claim that the treaty must be applicable here, too. The question has wide practical and economic implications, not least regarding possible petroleum extraction. To preserve calm and stability in the area, Norway opted to establish a Fishery Protection Zone around Svalbard. The regulations concerning the establishment of the Fishery Protection Zone were issued pursuant to Norwegian law on economic zones. This suggested that these areas were in principle equal to the mainland, yet the rules were formulated so as not to conflict with the Svalbard Treaty. Norwegian and foreign fishing vessels were to be treated on an equal basis with respect to regulation of fishing in the area. The main purpose of this zone is ‘the preservation of the living maritime resources and the regulation of fishing and hunting’. Sceptical of Norway’s action, the U.S.A., Great Britain, Germany, and France supported Norwegian sovereignty, but presupposed that sovereignty was based on the articles of the Svalbard Treaty. The Soviet Union, however, was far less sympathetic, and made a formal protest against the establishment of the zone. Meanwhile, the meanings of such terms as ‘non-discrimination’ and ‘equal treatment’ were, in practice, unclear. Foreign fishing in the Fishery Protection Zone has thus led to repeated international incidents. Since a number of stocks are distributed across large areas of the Barents Sea and the Northern Norwegian coast, in addition to the Fishery Protection Zone, Norwegian and Russian fishing is regulated by quotas fixed for the entire area following recommendations from the Joint Norwegian-Russian Fisheries Commission. Since 1986, however, separate quotas have been set for third-country fishing within the protection zone. The governments had to amend the regulations in 1994 because of the increased level in conflicts over fishing rights based on thirdcountry quotas. Furthermore, it was determined that ‘only vessels from countries that have traditionally caught Norwegian Arctic cod within the Fishery Protection Zone around Svalbard may fish up to the set quantity of 28,000 tonnes. These will include vessels from the EU, the Faeroe Islands, and Poland.’ The principle of equal treatment was used in this situation so as to afford access to countries that could indicate they had a historic presence in the zone. Finland and Canada have openly supported the Norwegian view; and in time a number of other treaty signatories have accepted it in practice, while retaining their rights under the treaty. Soviet resistance was rooted in the fact that Norway established the zone unilaterally and in accordance with

444 a p o l a r c o m m u n i t y

Norwegian law. According to the Soviet authorities, the zone was at odds with the Svalbard Treaty’s regulations on equality. Since then, the Soviet Union, and later Russia, has maintained a fairly consistent policy of refusing to acknowledge Norway’s jurisdiction in the zone. Russian vessels are instructed to follow Russian, not Norwegian, regulations when fishing in the zone. They are not to report their catches to Norway or sign inspection papers. In practice, this is of little consequence, since Russia and Norway have fixed a single overall quota for the northern seas. The greatest difficulties arise when Russian vessels work within areas that contain sizable percentages of small fish. Usually, howev