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The History of Svalbard

First contact

Nobody is 100% sure about who should get the credit for being the very first to discover the archipelago (chain of islands) that are known as Svalbard. If you care to dip into legends then you may believe that the Vikings, who were certainly active in the general area, get the nod for being the start of humanity’s history with Svalbard.

Starting in the 1800s Norwegian historians began to insist that Vikings discovered the region as early as 1194. They base this claim on maps and annals that listed a Svalbarði (the basis for the name Svalbard, translates as “Cold Rim”) as being four days sail away from Iceland. The problem is that archaeologists have never found any physical evidence to back up the idea that the Vikings had ever been close enough to see the archipelago, never mind setting foot on one of the islands or establishing any sort of base.

So maybe it was the Pomors, a hearty bunch of fishers and hunters from Russia’s White Coast who get the bragging rights. Russian historians believe the Pomors may have been chasing their dinner in Svalbard back in the 1400s. But just like the Vikings, no physical evidence has turned up to back up the claim.

(There are archaeological remains of Pomor hunting stations dotted along Svalbard’s coast – there just isn’t evidence specifically validating the notion that they were there as far back as the 1400s.)

What we do know is that the earliest recorded contact with the region goes to a Dutchman by the name of Willem Barentsz in 1596. Willem, like so many other explorers, was on his way to find a Northeast Passage to China. What he found instead was Bjørnøya (“Bear Island”, the southernmost island), on June 10th, 1596 and the northwest edge of Spitsbergen (the largest island, the name translating to “Pointed Mountains”) on the 17th of June.

The whaling years

Twenty years later the archipelago would become an important point in the European whaling craze. Starting in 1611, various countries (dominated by Denmark and England) set up whaling stations, but no one country was ever able to assert supreme sovereignty over the region.

Things got quite touchy for a while. The first group to really get organized (much to the chagrin of the whales) was the Muscovy Company (a.k.a. the Russian Company or the Muscovy Trading Company – an English company despite the name). They actually first planted their proverbial flag in 1604 in order to get in some serious walrus hunting.

Unfortunately some whales made the mistake of getting themselves noticed and the race was well and truly on. The first Muscovy Company whaling expedition arrived in 1611, but both ships wrecked and the company was forced to try again.

The Company returned to the area in 1612 but they found that they were no longer alone with the whales – the Dutch and the Spanish had arrived. The Company managed to chase them off the first time, and they wisely called for British back-up. In 1613 seven armed English ships were tasked to chase off those pesky other nations (which now also included the French).

The other nations weren’t particularly thrilled with this arrangement. The Dutch initially declared their (and everybody else’s) rights to go whaling in the area under the mare liberum principle, which states that the seas are free for everyone. When that didn’t quite do the trick King Christian IV declared all of the Northern Sea to be the property of Denmark-Norway (the two countries, as well as a number of smaller principalities, were all considered one state at the time).

The English tried buying the rights from Denmark-Norway but were given a polite “No thank you” at which point they went back to claiming exclusive rights. In return, in 1615 Denmark-Norway set three man-o-wars (warships with some serious firepower) to collect taxes from English and Dutch whalers alike.

It didn’t work. Both England and Denmark-Norway claimed exclusivity, while on the sides the Netherlands, France, and Spain all tried to remind them about that mare liberum thing the Dutch had tried earlier.

All this aggression was getting in the way of the whaling, so in 1614 the Dutch and the English divvied up the area. This relative stability lasted into the 1630s, allowing for more whaling and far less head-butting between all the various parties.

How busy did the whaling get? By the late 1600s there were nearly 300 ships making whale lives miserable, with over 10,000 whalers on the job.

Whales began to get scarce in the area by the mid-1700s. The Dutch finally ceased whaling in the region in 1770. The English whaled on until around 1800, but by then the valuable Bowhead Whales were hunted out and the British sailed off to richer seas.


Whales weren’t the only ones getting the sharp end of the stick. The aforementioned Pomors had some permanent buildings in the area by the mid-1500s. The area was rich with walruses, polar bears, seals, reindeer, and Arctic Foxes.

Seal hunting was an especially big deal. Although it wasn’t as profitable as whaling, it also cost much less for the companies.  The Norwegians eventually became the biggest collection of hunters, and by the end of the 1800s an average of 27 Norwegian ships sailed for Svalbard every year.

Mining and industrialization

The hunters and whalers in the area weren’t strangers to doing a little mining for coal, but the first true industrialized mining effort didn’t start up until 1899.

There was one previous attempt at phosphor mining in 1872, but the 1899 attempt, set up by Søren Zachariassen of Tromsø, did manage to start exporting coal to the mainland. However the company lacked the capital to maintain its efforts, and it folded before it could gain a real foothold.

The first mining company that really made a go of it was the Arctic Coal Company, set up by the American John Munroe Longyear (Longyearbyen is named after him). Coal was the only real mining concern that would flourish on the archipelago.


All the various mining attempts would eventually lead to sovereignty for two main reasons.

First, the various mining concerns wanted a way to register mining claims (and have them enforced).

Second, labour conflicts were starting to slow down the works. Having a ruling body of some sort would speed up resolutions, and help with the fact that the workers came from a hodgepodge of different nations which were often different from the home country of the company that they worked for.

Norway got the ball rolling in 1907. They gathered the concerned countries together in conferences held over the next few years, with some rules finally getting hammered out in the Paris Peace Conference (a.k.a. the Versailles Peace Conference).

This conference, which was the very same one that resulted in the Treaty of Versailles, resulted in Norway (which had been neutral during WWI) being granted full sovereignty over the region. There were two caveats: 1) the archipelago could never be used for “warlike purposes” and 2) all the countries involved in the treaty had equal rights to the local economic resources.

This was the first time that the name “Svalbard” was used in reference to the region as a whole, and in the Svalbard Act the archipelago was considered part of Norway without being considered an official county.

Unfortunately, after all this political back-and-forthing, mining largely dried up and by the 1930s only two mining concerns were left turning a profit.


The Nazis came along and occupied Norway on the 9th of April, 1940. However nobody really seemed to care too much until the Germans started attacking the Soviet Union. At that point the Allies decided that Svalbard would make for a good exchange point for supplies between their various forces and that the Nazis had to be shown the door.

All of the Norwegian and Soviet citizens were evacuated in Operation Gauntlet. The Germans took over the vacated settlements and built themselves a weather station and an airstrip.

In 1943 a Norwegian force managed to land and set up a beachhead. In the same year the Nazis launched a large raid on Spitzbergen on 8th September, 1943. They accomplished their mission, but it was deemed in the end to only be a qualified success since all that effort was spent for no real gains for the Nazi efforts as a whole.

The post-war years

After WWII there was still some tension regarding the archipelago, this time between Norway and the Soviets. Although they jointly built up some infrastructure – roads, radio stations, a postal service – they would contest back and forth about who would have ultimate control of the region. Things became much tenser when Norway signed up with NATO in 1949, with Russia insisting that Svalbard could not be put under NATO’s joint command.

It wasn’t until 1971 that the region made a move toward local democracy with the establishment of the Svalbard Council.

Tourism became a true money-maker in 1995 with the arrival of new hotels as well as Arctic cruises making stops along their routes.

Svalbard has also become the home of quite a few high-tech institutions including the European Incoherent Scatter Scientific Association, the Svalbard Satellite Station, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Svalbard Undersea Cable System, and the University Centre in Svalbard.

As of 2011, Svalbard has a population of about 370 Russians and Ukrainians, and a Norwegian population of 2,000.

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