Not many people in the world know a lot about Spitsbergen. They often ask such questions as: what is that? Where is that? Do people live there?

Spitsbergen is an archipelago located not far from the North Pole, about 1000 km. The land is a part of Norway. However, this place, being unusual and attractive in itself, has a unique international status.

(c) Darya Slyunyaeva

Nowadays, Russian youth more often indulge in discussions about the history and modern times of Spitsbergen. Some of them are even interested in working there since local companies have various opportunities to offer. This place is becoming more and more appealing not only for industrial workers but also for people of tourism, science, culture and other areas. These very spheres are developing rapidly now on Spitsbergen.

That is of crucial importance for youth in Russia since many young people are eager to devote their lives to working in the Arctic and developing fruitful international cooperation there. In this regard, the idea of working on Spitsbergen is quite attractive to them. Youth is able to contribute to the development of this remote island with new ideas, projects and passion.

This article is the first in a series of publications about Spitsbergen. So, we would like to start with the history of the archipelago.

Noone has still agreed on who was the first to discover Spitsbergen. One is to find at least three points of view on this highly controversial issue nowadays:

  • In the 19th century, Icelandic sagas, dating back to 1194, brought attention to an unknown land called Svalbard. It says: “It takes 4 days by sea from Langanes in the north of Iceland to Svalbard on the north edge of the ocean”. Nevertheless, this information is insufficient to conclude that the land of Spitsbergen is meant under it. First of all, the author does not specify the territory. Secondly, the duration of the voyage raises questions as well. What is more, the word “Svalbard” may possibly be just an adjective describing a place since one can translate it as “a cold region”;
  • Other researchers believe that it was Russian Pomors who discovered Spitsbergen in the XV-XVII century. Back then the land was probably called “Grumant”, “Grunland” or “Engroneland”. Russian archeologists have proved that Pomors were the first to visit Spitsbergen since the Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences found crosses, tablets with Russian words on them and other artefacts. However, not everyone in scientific society agrees with this point of view;
  • It seems that the only undisputed theory about the discovery of Spitsbergen one can refer to is that Willem Barents found this land in 1596. He wrote that the mountains in a new region were rather sharp, which is why it got its name “Spits-bergen”.

(c) Darya Slyunyaeva

Despite such a diverse range of opinions, the last theory is officially recognized by the scientific community.

After Barents, a lot of explorers rushed to Spitsbergen to reclaim its land. During voyages, seamen found a huge amount of whales near the archipelago. Back then, the fat of these animals came in handy in the production of industrial lubricants. Moreover, whalebone was useful as well. Wigs and stays were made of it.

In 1611, whalers from many European countries came to Spitsbergen. Moscow Company (England) and North Company (Holland) began with whale fisheries there. However, they failed at the activity due to lack of experience. Thus, they had to hire Basques, who were unrivalled professionals in this enterprise.

Over time, the number of whalers reached the extant when they brought up economic claims. For instance, in 1613, Englishmen decided to establish a cross with the name of the king on it. Later on, the Danes sent military ships to this place, demanding to pay a fee for being in their territorial waters. The demand was not fulfilled.

So, the question of Spitsbergen’s status was raised for the first time. As a result, in 1619, a “Whale war” broke out. In the end, the territory of the archipelago was divided between the parties – Hollanders, Danes and Basques, each got its own piece of Spitsbergen.

In the 19th century, swedes and Norwegians arranged several expeditions to the archipelago. After that, in 1871, their government decided to send notes to Russia and other European countries with the desire to make Norway a sovereign on Spitsbergen being expressed. However, Russia did not approve of such a proposal. Instead, in 1872 the archipelago obtained the status of “no man’s land”.

In 1905 Norway gained independence. Its authorities decided to start over a discussion about Spitsbergen’s status. Thus, several conferences were arranged. However, none of them succeeded. Only after the end of World War I the issue in question was resolved. In 1920, when the Spitsbergen Treaty was signed, Norway became a sovereign on the archipelago. According to the Treaty, all the High Contracting Parties “shall be admitted under the same conditions of equality to the exercise and practice of all maritime, industrial, mining or commercial enterprises both on land and in the territorial waters”. This means that all states that are party to the Treaty are able to conduct activity on the land of Spitsbergen, but at the same time, they have to abide by the laws passed by Norway.

As you may have noticed, the history of the archipelago is full of controversies and blank spots. A little bit puzzling, but it is what it is.

(c) Darya Slyunyaeva

About the Author: Darya Slyunyaeva

Darya Slyunyaeva is a member of the organization Arctic Youth. Currently she lives and works on Spitsbergen. Darya has degree in international relations. Her scientific interest includes cooperation between societies on Spitsbergen. She is very much fascinated by the life near the North Pole and wants to share it with the rest of the world!

Recent Posts